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Our Sexual Script Concocted By Society

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Our Sexual Script Concocted By Society

Sex is a private matter. Or is it?

It may be disconcerting–or exciting, depending on your preferences–for you to realize that when you and your partner are in bed having sex, you are not really alone. Now relax, the proverbial Peeping Tom is not at your window. And no, it’s not your partner’s unhinged ex hiding, knife at hand, behind the curtains. In fact, there may be no one around at all. And yet you love birds are not alone. Your mother and father are there with you; your friends, your TV; your school and your home town. In other words, the whole culture is in bed with you.

The great psychologist Lev Vygotsky said, “A mind cannot be independent of culture.” And since sex is largely in the mind, the culture shapes sex. Your whole development, according to Vygotsky, is an apprenticeship in culture. As you grow up, the culture around you–in your case American culture–conspires to make you an expert member of the tribe. To that end, culture teaches you how to use its unique tools. Your language is a tool given to you by the culture; your car, too; and your vote. Your knowledge of the scientific method, to the extent that you actually paid attention in class, is also a cultural tool.Many of the things you take for granted–access to a computer, running water, toilet paper, Jesus, birth control, dating–are cultural tools, unheard of in other cultures, or at other historical times. These tools buy you many good things, like security, identity, community, but they come at the price of obedience. Society builds you, and then it owns you.

If you don’t think your culture controls you, try to break its unwritten rules: At the crowded restaurant, eat a banana horizontally, as if it were corn on the cob; or join the nice couple in the booth at Wendy’s–it’s not illegal. The booth is a public place and there’s room for four. But you won’t do it. Why? Because society says so.

This is why, in a sociological/psychological sense, society is God. Society, as the great American sociologist Randall Collins observed, contains all the basic qualities we ascribe to God: it elevates adherents and punishes transgressors. It’s both within us and outside of us. Society, like God, is an emergent group property. People don’t develop their own personal Gods. Societies, like religious systems, contain sacred rituals, symbols, and places of worship-think college football, shopping at the mall, New Year’s Eve in Times Square.

God, in this analysis, is therefore a symbol of society. Celebrating God, any God, is in fact a symbolic celebration of our ability to get along, to organize socially. Society, then, like God, manifests itself everywhere, including the bedroom.

Take for example your sexual script. For humans to become aroused, a certain story has to be enacted. It’s not enough that someone touch your genitals. A visit to the OBGYN does not usually involve getting aroused, because the ‘doctor visit’ script, for most of us, precludes arousal. But when your boyfriend touches you in the same places, the magic happens, because that touch occurs in the context of the activated ‘boyfriend’ script, which does include arousal.

Society has its prints all over your sexual script. The idea of a boyfriend, for starters, is a cultural invention. What you find attractive is culturally taught. Americans like deodorant. But the French may prefer body odor. Napoleon famously wrote to Josephine: ‘Coming home soon. Don’t bathe.’

How, where, when, and with whom you have sex are culturally shaped decisions. Culture made them for you while you thought you made them yourself. Around the world today there are cultures that frown on kissing, and cultures that kiss constantly. There are cultures where you get married at 12; cultures where marriage is almost an afterthought; cultures where young people select their own mates through the ritual of dating and cultures where parents arrange proper mates for their children; cultures where nobody is allowed to see a naked female, ever; and cultures where females walk about half naked as a matter of course.

Your expectations are also set by the culture, and they change as culture does. Early Christians considered romantic love a hindrance, not a precondition, to successful marriage. Things have since shifted. Years ago, women did not expect an orgasm, and men did not expect women to demand it. The odds that a college-educated woman today will be content with anorgasmic sex are not high.

The things you take to be natural are in fact mostly cultural. The things you take as your own tastes are to a large measure cultural tastes. Your ears are trained to enjoy the music of your culture over that of others (pentatonic scale, anyone?), just as your pallet is trained to enjoy culturally sanctioned foods (rat stew, anyone?).

So, next time you’re in bed, and some nice Motown is playing in the background, and your date walks into the bedroom wearing only her scented body-wash, and she tells you to turn off that TV, and she kisses you on the mouth, and assures you she’s on the pill, and insists that you go down on her to get her off before you doze off–don’t fool yourself that you’re making love to just her; because in a very real sense, you are making love to America.

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Noam Shpancer was born and raised on an Israeli kibbutz. Currently he is a professor of psychology at Otterbein University and a practicing clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders. He is also a blogger at psychologytoday.com/blog/insight-therapy and an op-ed columnist for the Jewish bimonthly The New Standard. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.

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