The Puritan and the Prurient

There is an article at New Republic by Ira Wells: Forgetting Lolita: How Nabokov’s Victim Became an American Fantasy. It’s a reasonably thoughtful piece. And it’s an important topic. But something about this kind of writing seems strange. Let me try to briefly explain.

We live in a Puritan society. Oddly or not, prurient is the shadow of Puritanism. We are obsessed with sexuality. Even our obsession with innocence is sexualized. The article has a tinge of the prurient about it. Something about it comes off as the author fantasizing about other people’s fantasies. That is how it seems to me, for some reason.

There is a connection between Protestantism and the idealization of childhood. In traditional cultures of the past, the moment a boy or girl was capable of having sex, they had sex. And the moment they had sex, they likely not too long later had children. There wasn’t this notion that young people should wait to have careers or even get married.

You still see more of this attitude in Catholic countries. Southern Europe was more influenced by the Catholic Church and the Mediterranean culture it embodied. Unsurprisingly, Catholic countries have lower sexual ages of consent. It’s expected that people have sex, get pregnant, and then hopefully are married. There is no Protestant concept of most people resisting the sin of sexuality.

Protestant societies seem much more repressed about sexuality. And repression leads to sexual deviancy. That is even a problem for Catholic priests, the only Catholics expected to fully repress their sexuality. This relates to the weird genre of virginity porn, the fantasizing about young people not having sex. A popular example is the Twilight series. It was written by a Mormon and it should be noted that Mormons originally came from Puritan country, i.e., New England.

This was the culture that Vladimir Nabokov was writing about in Lolita. The novel is an anthropological study. It’s not just about sexuality of dirty old men. The entire society is implicated.

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America America’s Lollipop Licking Tease:
The Eroticization of the Female Child in 1930s Film
by Susan Jennings Lantz

James Kincaid, in Child Loving, would agree. His argument states that myths about childhood innocence and concurrent vulnerability arose historically as we created a separate identity for children. This stoked a “quasi-erotic” love of children as innocents, and a hatred of those who act out of eroticism. In both Child Loving and Erotic Innocence, he discusses, at great length, the ways in which production of the monster known as the pedophile in many ways allows not only the Victorians, but members of our contemporary culture, to define ourselves. We reject pedophiliac monstrous activity with such automatic indignation that, as a group, the indignation begins to feel like pleasure. We open up a space for societal glee when we hear a convicted child molester has committed suicide, and we pretty much allow an approved ideological space for murderers in prison to torture, rape, and murder convicted child molesters. Kincaid asserts that by insisting that children are innocent, pure, and asexual, we have created a “subversive echo” that presents the child as experienced, corrupt, and erotic. We have set the trope of the innocent child to be fetishized, and the object of forbidden desire in popular culture. “What we think of as “the child” has been assembled in reference to desire, built up in erotic manufactories, and . . . we have been laboring ever since, for at least two centuries, both to deny that horrible and lovely product to maintain it” (Child
Loving 4).

Rose, Wullschlager, and Kincaid all agree that during a time when Victorian and Edwardian England was celebrating the innocence and purity of children in fiction and art, avgreat disparity was occurring at the same time. While children from the upper classes were glorified for their innocence, children from the lower classes were exploited for theirs. On one end of the spectrum were upper middle class Victorian children depicted spinning hoops and sailing toy boats in Kensington Gardens, attending Eton, and frolicking in Hundred Acre Wood with Pooh, Kanga, and Piglet. In the middle of the spectrum were the children working in factories, as apprentice domestic servants, chimney sweeps, or selling matches and flowers. At the other end of the spectrum of the era were the children sold into sexual slavery.

In 1885, English editor and rights activist W.T. Stead purchased a thirteen-year-old girl from her mother with the understanding that his intentions were to procure her “Maiden Tribute.” Instead of raping the child, he wrote a series of articles for his paper The Pall Mall showing how easy it was to purchase a child sex slave which brought the issue to the public eye. His series was wildly popular and has been credited for changing legislation in regards to the legal age of consensual sex for children (Polhemus).

Across the sea in America things were similar. Poor children worked in factories and in coal mines, and really poor children were ripe for sexual exploitation, while the children of wealthier families were more protected and glorified. This glorification, on both sides of the Atlantic, began to lead to sentimentalized views of childhood in media and the popular press. The era after the American Civil War produced much art that evoked nostalgia of childhood. Artists such as Winslow Homer and Mark Twain glorified the world of the average child in their works to great aplomb. Children were no longer considered to be inherently evil, as the Puritans had suggested, and were no longer expendable in bloody wars. They were a treasure.

Survey On Love, Sex, Kids – Gender Roles Reversing

Here is interesting data about changing opinions about sex and gender roles. It goes against what many might think. For example: Younger people are more interested in marriage than older generations. And for men their interest in committed longterm relationships has increased while for women it’s decreased.

Here are some articles about the data:

I wonder if the change shown in this data is at all related to the issues discussed by Dr. Leonard Sax:

Abstinence = Happiness?

Here is a video I watched recently:

Here is the comment I posted on YouTube:

I love how the abstinence guy brings up ‘statistics’. If he really cared about statistics, he’d look at the scientific research showing the failure rate of abstinence. Despite Christian theology, humans are still animals who have natural sexual urges. Research shows abstinence-only programs fail in actually stopping young adults from having sex until they’re married.  A tiny fraction of a percent might manage to abstain, but they are rare exceptions.

Here is the first response to my comment made by girloffaith16:

“Where is your evidence?”

I’ve already posted the evidence in my blog:

Here is the second response to my comment made by noclip14:

“I don’t think you understood the argument. He was saying that people who abstain from sex until marriage tend to be happier. He used statistics from surveys that showed this. Christianity isn’t the only religion that preaches abstinence until marriage. Also, there are many non-religious people that abstain from sex until marriage.”

I haven’t responded to this specific point in the past and so let me take that opportunity now.

I did understand the argument. I just didn’t think it mattered that people who claim to be abstinent also claim to be happy.

First, I’ve seen enough data to know that teens define abstinence in ways that fundamentalists wouldn’t necessarily accept. When asked in studies, some teens consider handjobs or blowjobs as being included within the label of ‘abstinence’.

Second, being happy doesn’t prove one is correct or moral. Research does show that religious people claim to be happier (whether or not they objectively are happier). But I’m suspicious of anything religious people say, especially fundamentalists. Bob Altemeyer’s research shows social conservatives and fundamentalists have a stronger tendency toward Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA). The relevant facts about RWAs is that they are more likely than the average person to lie and be hypocritical.

Even so, I wanted to look at the data for myself. Are abstinent people more happy? Here is what I found:

What it found is that teen girls aren’t always driven to have sex out of depression or rebellion. In fact, of the girls who resumed sexual activity after a period of abstinence, one of the main factors was being happy and having a secure relationship.

As the authors say,

“A number of studies demonstrate associations between depressed mood and sexual risk behaviors. However, studies using daily diaries and momentary sampling have demonstrated close temporal associations between improved mood and sexual thoughts and behaviors…Adolescent sexual intercourse is frequently presented as an entirely opportunity-driven risk behavior. Our data present a more nuanced picture, in which sexual intercourse is associated with important relationship attributes, such as partner support and perceptions of relationship quality.”

I don’t know how much research there is on the issue of the correlation (or lack thereof) between happiness and abstinence. And, if this correlation does exist, I don’t know that any simple causal relationship exists. The above research seems to show the situation is complex.

My thoughts are that anyone who is considered normal and accepted by others will be happier. The US is a fairly religious country and so the average person will probably be happier if they conform with the social norms. In our society, if a teen girl has sex and her peers find out, she might be called a slut, might be entirely ostracized or might get unwanted attention. And if a teen boy has sex and adults find out, his parents might punish him or a pastor/preacher might tell him that he is going to hell. Any teen who is willing to be independent of social norms (whether having sex, doing drugs, or simply acting atypical: a boy taking ballerina classes or a nerd who reads all the time) will have a more difficult life and will probably be less happy, but that isn’t to blame the teen for being treated negatively by peers and adults.

There are many possible counfounding factors and I don’t claim to know what they all might be. However, I can speak to human nature. Humans evolved as social animals and we are happiest when we are accepted as part of a group. This is why I think religious people profess happiness. It’s simply feels good to be accepted. Even being accepted by a gang feels better than being excluded, but in our society being accepted by a church is even better because being religious gives you automatic respect in our religious society. However, in a secular society such as China, religious people are probably less happy than the non-religious. So, it all depends on the social context. In terms of abstinence, research would show very different results in countries that have cultures of more openness towards sexuality. If you had sex and everyone around accepted that as normal, then you probably wouldn’t be unhappy.

Still, even in the US religious culture, there is no simple or consistent correlation between abstinence and happiness.

Alexander McKay on Teen Sexuality

I was listening to As It Happens on public radio this evening at work. I heard an interview with Alexander McKay.

He was talking about research done on sexual behavior and society. He mentioned various data and how they compare between countries.

One particular fact was quite interesting and confirmed similar data I’ve seen. In countries with more relaxed attitudes about sexuality, there are lower rates of teen pregnancies. A possible explanation he gave is that kids in those societies feel more open to ask questions and seek out help.

What this reminded me of is the data that shows countries where abortion is legal have the lowest rates of abortion. It’s similar reasoning. A society that is more liberal about sexuality is more likely to provide more high quality sex education and high quality health care. Kids in those societies will have better acces to both info and contraception. Informing kids is important because how can we expect kids to act responsibly if we force them to act out of ignorance.

Since sex education has increased in developed countries, the rates of teen pregnancies and STDs has decreased. However, studies have shown abstinence only sex education to be a complete failure.

Here is an article Mr. McKay wrote:

“Trends in teen pregnancy in Canada with comparisons to U.S.A. and England/Wales”

Society and Dysfunction

on anxiety & modernity by isthmus nekoi

I still think about trauma these days, although I tend to think more about the anxiety spectrum. There is afterall, something very fetishized or at least, detached about anxiety. Anxiety is not an emotion oriented towards something present, but rather, is future oriented. Anxiety is our fear of the future. It is a ghost fear, a fetish fear, it is at once less present yet more pervasive than fear itself. It is fear intellectualized, no, grotesquely magnified beyond reason by a reason derailed.

Modern society has no roots, no history, no grounding. We drift in a perpetual freefall, this strange sensation of exhilaration, panic, and numbed boredom, that tight feeling in our chests, the wind in our faces. The dream and the nightmare of the modern man, his most deepest desire and most fervent fear, that which lies below our perverse fusion of lust, anxiety and reason, is the belief that he might actually be falling into something…

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Nice article!

It makes me think of certain people: Arnold Mindell, Paul Shepard, Derrick Jensen, etc.  I’m also reminded of someone like Carl Jung.

Both Jung and Reich were students of Freud and also both were interested in the significance of UFOs in terms of society.  Jung saw UFOs as a symbol of change, of potential.  UFOs became popular during a very traumatic era of world history.

I mention all of those people because they either have an alternative view on trauma or they see the problems of modern life as being part of a larger context.  Paul Shepard would trace the problems of society back to the beginning of civilization.  Along with Derrick Jensen, Shepard would say our traumatized state isn’t merely personal nor merely an issue of our human condition but instead about our relationship to the larger world.

That is where I see the ideas of Jung and Mindell fitting in as they present humans as being essentially interconnected.  The problems of society can be seen in the individual, and vice versa.

I would add that, similar to Shepard’s view, the Axial Age was a particularly traumatic shift in society.  That was the historical period when cultures were clashing and urbanization was developing.

The foundation of the modern self was being set at that time.  For example, religious practitioners of the time were attracted to a rootless lifestyle with ascetic monks and preachers who would travel from town to town.  Also, this is when people started idealizing a perfect world that was located elsewhere.  This world and human nature was flawed.

It seems to me that the industrial age and the 20th century international conflicts are the delayed effects of the Axial Age.  The ideals of that time (equality, freedom, etc.) took a couple of millennia to fully take hold.  But humans have never really adapted to this social change in a healthy way and maybe it isn’t even possible.  The human animal simply isn’t designed for modern civilization.

Of course, people are traumatized.  All of human society is traumatized.

Related to the above article, here are some additional thoughts from another blog and from a forum thread:

The Mad Liberation Front from the Red Star Cafe blog

R.D. LaingWith the exception of Freud’s eccentric disciple Wilhelm Reich, it was not until after WW II that a school of  psychology appeared that was willing to take Freud’s hypothesis of collective insanity seriously and to launch out along a different route. R.D. Laing, whose background was as much Existentialist-Marxist as it was Freudian, was among the first to assume an adversarial position on the issue of insanity.

Convinced that the mad, or at least some portion of those designated schizophrenic, may be a rare and endangered species desperately in need of protection, Laing argued that psychological breakdown could be the first step toward enlightened breakthrough. It might be an incipient assertion of true sanity by those who were still at least resilient enough to feel the pain of society’s oppression. It is therefore the psychiatrist’s responsibility to take the side of the mad against wrong-headed social authority.

“We live”, said Laing, in the midst of  “socially shared hallucinations…our collusive madness is what we call sanity”.

orwell’s 1984 and the early theories of wilhelm reich (starting post by peebo in a thread on the Wrong Planet forum)

it appears to me that one of the main premises of george orwell’s 1984 is the idea of sexual repression rendering the population open to oppression by the party. the repression of freely expressed sexuality by the party is clearly an overt theme in the novel. junior anti-sex league, winston and julia’s “subversive” affair, etc. this idea is very similar to the ideas put forward by wilhelm reich in his “the mass psychology of fascism”.

reich’s main point in this book is that oppressive fascist regimes are manifest only in situations where sexual repression is endemic in a society. he covers more than this, but this is the main thrust. i wonder whether orwell had been exposed to reich’s ideas, or whether they just came to a similar conclusion independently?