Psychology Yesterday

Stories from the behavioral past

America's “Sexidemic”

Our love affair with sex has been a rocky one.

For a people who supposedly love sex, Americans have had no shortage of problems with it. Since the end of World War II, in fact, we’ve had a contentious relationship with sexuality, the subject a source of considerable tension and controversy on both an individual and societal level. Rather than being a simple pleasure of life, something to be enjoyed, sex has served as a challenging and disruptive force in many Americans’ everyday lives for the last three-quarters of a century. Our love affair with sex has thus been a rocky one, filled with bumps in the road that have caused major instability across our cultural landscape. A very wide range of social, economic, and political factors- the domestic conformity of the postwar years, the excesses of the counterculture, the overexposure and fragmentation of sexuality, the self-help movement, the AIDS crisis, the rise of celebrity culture, an obsession with money and materialism, the emergence of “political correctness” and an increasingly litigious society, the mid-lifing of the baby boomers, an explosion of entertainment options and alternative sensory pleasures, and the flourishing of Internet-related sex, to name just some- were instrumental in creating what can be considered a crisis in sexuality of epidemic proportions. Our individualistic, competitive, consumerist, and anxious national character is both reflected in and reinforced by this “sexidemic,” something few have recognized or perhaps want to admit.

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By charting the cultural trajectory of sex since the end of World War II, we learn how the country’s continual woes with sexuality helped make us an anxious, insecure people. The sex lives of many, perhaps most Americans have been in a perpetual state of crisis, a constant source of concern. We’ve fretted over every dimension of it, with problems in both quality and quantity. We were either having too little of it or too much of it, never just right. Others were doing it more frequently or better. Our body parts were seen as somehow deficient, and our technique was wrong. With this unhealthy view of sexuality, it was not surprising that we felt we needed a variety of potions and gadgets to make it happen or be pleasurable. It was also not surprising that our bipolar approach to sexuality oozed out in a steady stream of “dysfunctional” behavior. Low libido and sex addiction emerged as common disorders, and sex scandal after sex scandal has made headlines, especially over the last couple of years. (American history is, of course, marked by sex scandals involving prominent men, e.g., Henry Ward Beecher, Fatty Arbuckle, and Charlie Chaplin.) Only money has surpassed sex as a source of stress for Americans, I believe, something that few of us likely realize.

America’s “sexidemic” is hardly a new phenomenon or radical idea. (There have been concerns about our “over-sexed” society since the early twentieth century; in 1913, for example, a popular magazine declared it was “Sex O’ Clock” in America.) More than half a century ago, the notable American psychologist Albert Ellis wrote a book about what he viewed as an “anti-sexual culture” in the United States, claming that most Americans were living in a state of “sex-love-marriage poverty.” It was our upbringing that was at fault for leaving Americans “emotionally maimed” when it came to sex, he maintained, with psychotherapy the only possible cure for our sexual repressions and “antagonisms.” Importantly, the “American sexual tragedy,” as he titled his book, was culturally rather than personally constructed. “The sabotaging of human sex-love relations is a problem which is socially rather than individually created, and which therefore cannot be solved on a broad scale without widespread societal changes in sex attitudes,” Ellis wrote, meaning sexual impairment was endemic to Americans. Ellis was not optimistic about America’s sexual future. “The American sexual tragedy can be expected to continue its three century long run, and in some respects even to become more tragic, until a pronounced social effort (along with sporadic individual rebellions) is made to end it,” he concluded, a prophecy that I believe has so far been realized.

Lawrence R. Samuel, Ph.D., is an American cultural historian who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies and was a Smithsonian Institution Fellow.

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