Insight Therapy

Psychologically informed reflections on how we interact.

You are deficient, you must upgrade: Sex and social consciou

Can private sex escape social pressure?

In China, until not long ago, loving grandmothers used to break the toes of their granddaughters and bind their feet in tight cloth, so that the feet remain tiny into adulthood. The practice probably began among the wealthy as a way to demonstrate their wealth (my daughters will not have to work and therefore need not have functioning feet). Over time, the non-wealthy began to imitate the practice, until it became a social norm. Tiny feet became a great source of pride for Chinese families; they were admired and adorned with special, colorful lotus-shaped shoes. Small feet became a sexual prize, and girls with unbound feet were less likely to marry.

In my classes I invariably find myself standing before a sea of perfect student smiles, all white straight teeth. This was not always so, and is not so around the world. But once a bright straight smile became a social signifier, a calling card of middle class life, it has become inevitable. Families aspiring to belong to the American middle class, whether they can afford it or not, are compelled to spend thousands of dollars on cosmetic orthodontic treatment, often without any medical justification, in order to give their kids a chance to belong.

Notions of appearance and conduct, of what’s desirable and undesirable, what’s kind or cruel, what’s healthy or sick, are by and large social constructs. These notions take root among us (and then, invariably, shift) by processes of social contagion and ‘infection’—just like new technologies and new words.

Such contagion-based transitions are, for better or worse, essential mechanisms of culture. These are natural processes, but that doesn’t mean that they happen on their own, or randomly. Every society--and particularly a market-based society such as ours--contains multiple competing forces (traditions, institutions) fighting to shape and control social behavior and increase their own power and influence. Social contagion is a social natural resource, and those who control natural resources gain power and wealth (think: airwaves, waterways, oil).  For example, if I can make many people believe that something is wrong with them, I can sell them a fix, and enrich myself. Moreover, if my service/brand/idea/commodity becomes popular enough, it becomes indispensable. Demand grows and I, the supplier, gain power as well as wealth.

In our culture, those who seek to use social contagion to their advantage often do so by manipulating our deep social anxieties (‘I’ll miss out!’ ‘All the ‘It’ celebrities already have it!’ ‘Everyone would laugh at me!’), even as the actual sale is promoted by using the friendly guise of opportunity, improvement, optimism, and personal growth (‘this is your chance!’ ‘You deserve it!’ ‘Fulfill a dream!’ ‘You have unlimited potential.’ ‘You can have it all!’).

Contagion processes are constantly in play all around us. Today, for example, we may tend to ridicule the Botox masks of aging Hollywood stars. But if enough of these stars do Botox for enough time, and if the Botox manufacturers manage to convince us that forehead wrinkles are a terrible blight, the elimination of which is worth the sacrifice of facial expressiveness, and if they lower the cost of treatment just enough, then your friends will begin to do Botox. And if enough people around you do Botox, you will too. And so will I. And all of us will then ridicule or feel pity for those sorry un-Botoxed faces, with their absurdly exaggerated range of expression. Botox manufacturers will rake it in.

Such processes of social contagion and infection are evolutionary. But while much of genetic evolution involves competition at the level of biochemistry, the evolutionary processes of social contagion operate at the level of consciousness.

On the surface, the contagion push often focuses on technological developments, gadgets, or pieces of information that will, if adopted, improve our lives. But underneath is a struggle over social consciousness, an attempt to shape how we experience ourselves in our lives. (On the surface voters express their opinions by choosing between candidates. Underneath, voters are reaffirming their alliance to the concept, rituals and processes of democracy).

On closer inspection it turns out that all the experts, pitchmen, and scholars eagerly beseeching and cajoling us daily to buy their wares peddle not only products, patents and preparations, but also--in fact primarily--a social narrative. What we buy at the end of the day is not only a deodorant, vibrator, or iPhone. We buy the story, the underlying conceptual matrix, the consciousness:

You are deficient. You must upgrade.

Human sexuality, being a complex and important matter, is a natural arena for manipulations based on this pervasive consciousness. Those who convince women that their breasts are not large enough will make money on silicone implants. Those who manage to convince enough women that their natural vaginal odor is repellent will sell a lot of douches and deodorants. And those who can convince enough women to see their vulvas as ungainly would make money on labial rejuvenation plastic surgery and hair removal.

Men’s bodies are less overtly the target of marketing and social contagion, but suggestions of what drink, car, gadget or phone to buy in order to maximize sex appeal are ubiquitous. If you convince enough men that drinking a certain beer will increase their appeal to women, you will sell a lot of lousy beer (I’m talking about you, Bud). Those who can convince men or women that their sex is old and lame will sell lots of books and magazine articles with titles like: 'Fifty new tricks for new sex. All the ‘It’ celebrities are already doing it. Don’t dare miss out.’

You are deficient. You must upgrade.

There are of course advantages to this kind of consciousness which strives ever forward. The fruits of progress can be sweet. Really, what's wrong with the wheel? What's wrong with a vibrator with three speeds? But over time, the consciousness of ‘more’ turns from a possibility (I could choose to have more) to a preference (I like having more), to necessity, an addiction (I must have more, now!). Addiction has its price. For one, it saps resources from many other realms of our experience. It keeps us in a situation where our self-understanding and self-acceptance -- two foundations of mental health and sexual satisfaction – are, by design, under constant attack. Powerful forces in society stand to gain if they continue to convince us we are small, ugly, inadequate, and perverse.

The more people consider themselves ill, the greater profits for the drug makers and dispensers. If we define every incident of sexual failure as ‘sexual dysfunction’ or disorder, then all of us are disordered and dysfunctional, which means we feel deficient. As we continue to seek desperately to upgrade, those who convince us that we’re not OK can laugh all the way to the bank.

You are _______. You must ________.

Maybe we should stop and think about it--in those quiet moments between showing off our new and improved products and parts, like Chinese women of yore showing off their tiny deformed feet for all to adore (or Victorian-era western women proud of their organ-shifting corsets).

The realm of sexual experience, being intimate and private, constitutes a great and open expanse, where people can define for themselves their individual needs and desires, as well as the nature of their satisfaction. The range of human sexual expression is very wide. The psychologist Alfred Adler once said that the only normal person is the one we don’t know well enough. When it comes to sex, we are all, normally, abnormal. Each person possesses his or her own sexual fingerprint. If we let aggressive mechanisms of social contagion invade the intimate realm of sexual expression, we risk curtailing our own full humanity and interfering with its unique, private expression.

Therefore, it may be wise for us to approach carefully and with a critical eye any reports of new sexual dysfunctions, as well as all those sexual upgrades for which we are routinely told to pant and languish.

After all, events of failure and disappointment in life, and in sexual life, are not a software error but a hardware feature. Not all pain is a symptom of disease. Sometimes pain is a symptom of life. Not every day without working constitutes unemployment. Sometimes a week without sex is only a week without sex and not 'hypomanic sexual desire disorder'. Sometimes a week without an orgasm is not a symptom of ‘female sexual dysfunction’ but just a blah week. These things are a part of life, every life, even the lives of ‘It’ celebrities.

In addition, not every ‘news’ item about some noisy refugee of Reality TV who went on a soul searching trek through Tibet and met a mountain tribe of mystic nuns who know how to get themselves off seven times a day with no hands, just by humming ancient mantras while immersed in hand-carved stone baths of chilled organic Yak milk, must necessarily compel us to run to the nearest store to buy the new Orgasmya-K intimate lotion she’s selling at Macy’s, or buy the book she’s just published about the shattering journey ("Ascent. Dip. Come"), or put the kids at Mom’s and pack for the Himalayas.

The tyranny of the 'more' and 'new' is still, and first, a tyranny. It may be worth our while to defy it. It may be worthwhile to declare victory and go home, rather than remain mired in endless combat. It may be worthwhile sometimes to insist on our sexual freedom from contagion. If you happen to feel like having sex once a week, or once a month, then why not just forego the sex potions and injections of testosterone and potency capsules and Tantric lectures. Maybe you should relax, let go of the feelings of failure and guilt, and enjoy your weekly engagement to the full. And that's it. It is possible, and sometimes even wise. After all, those who define their lives in terms of ‘needing more,’ find themselves living in a world of ‘never enough.' Those who are satisfied with what they have, always have enough.

Our advantage regarding sex is that sexual conduct remains a private and personal matter. Therefore, we can better regulate the permeation of environmental influences and mitigate the ravages of social contagion. By day's end, everyone can see our teeth and our wrinkles. But no one sees what is really happening in our bedroom. And sometimes this is a good thing. We can manage our private sex lives as we please, and fend off social pressure elegantly, as goes the old joke about a frightened old man, who comes to the doctor complaining, "I can have sex with my wife just once a week."

The doctor said, "Once a week, at your age, is not considered a problem."

"But my friend is ten years older than me, and he says he has sex five times a week," said the old man.

"Okay," said the doctor, "go ahead and say that too."

Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein College and a practicing clinical psychologist in Columbus, Ohio.

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