Our sexual culture and The New York Times.

The latest public figure to make journalistic hay from the flibanserin controversy is Camille Paglia, whose editorial in The New York Times, ”No Sex Please, We’re Middle Class, “ seems to be getting some play on my twitter feed. It’s a fun read, but she throws a lot of things together that I’m not sure really stick.

According to Paglia, over-education is an important source of diminished sexual desire among the ” anxious, overachieving, white upper middle class, ” as she calls it. This is an old myth about sex, going back as far as D. H. Lawrence and probably farther — that too much education separates a person from the raw physical sources of his or her sexuality.

There’s not much to support this myth about sexuality and education, and every reason to be suspicious of it. We don’t really know what goes on in most people’s bedrooms. A quality US study on sexuality that asked, the National Health and Social Life Survey, found that frequency of sex didn’t change much with educational level. The study did find that highly educated people were having more oral sex, though. Seems like higher education might give one a taste for more sexual variety — hardly a bad thing.

Paglia also contends that if you were unlucky enough to be born after the industrial revolution, then you’ve really missed the boat on great sex. As she writes, “The real culprit, originating in the 19th century, is bourgeois propriety. As respectability became the central middle-class value, censorship and repression became the norm. Victorian prudery ended the humorous sexual candor of both men and women during the agrarian era, a ribaldry chronicled from Shakespeare’s plays to the 18th-century novel.”

OK, I get that it would have been a blast making dirty jokes with my fellow groundlings at the Globe Theater. But I’m not convinced that the late 16th century had much of an edge on us when it came to sexual enjoyment. No indoor plumbing, not much bathing, no antibiotics to treat venereal disease — I’ll take the modern era, no matter how many hours I’m stuck answering email.

I agree with Paglia that a serious amount of organic sexual grit has been scrubbed off by the media and by the culture at large. But I question whether there’s much of a connection between the kind of sex talk we hear, and the kind of actual sex we’re having. Fact is, we don’t really know what kind of sex even our closest friends are having, much less people in other cultures and from other centuries.

I’m not convinced that we’re having worse sex, or less of it, than people in other times and cultures. It may just be that our sexual problems get more attention. I suspect previous generations would envy us our greater sexual freedoms. Our freedom to educate ourselves about sex if we choose to. Greater freedom from sexual ignorance and shame. And that most precious freedom of all — the freedom to kvetch about sex in print.

© Stephen Snyder, MD 2010




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