Madeleine Witherson, the Whore of Babylon, as she’s referred to in Christopher Brookmyre’s Not The End Of The World, has the most realistic, reasonable attitude towards sex that I’ve come across in a long time. She asked herself, early in the book, what “exposing [her pubic hair and breasts] to a video camera had to do with a Jewish philosopher preaching tolerance in Roman occupied Palestine”. As a result, she becomes the most sympathetic character of the book.
Thousands of years into the development of human civilization and America, supposedly the most advanced country on Earth, was still putting fertility rites at the centre of its social morality…The superstitious ascribing of inflated spiritual significance to the sexual act. Mystifying it, cloaking it in ritual, and, most importantly, attempting to control it…So doing it yourself is selfish and arrogant. Doing it with someone of the same sex is a grotesque and bestial insult to His honour. And doing it in front of a camera for other people’s voyeuristic pleasure will, apparently, bring about the end of the world.
These thoughts are Madeleine’s as she is musing about her place in the world, after being exposed as an adult film actress, using the screen name of Katy Koxx, who also happens to be the daughter of a United States Senator, a Christian right wing fundamentalist bible thumping politician, who is made particularly despicable the more so for the hypocrisy of personally initiating his daughter into the rites of sexuality at the age of eleven. This abuse, which her father tends to deny to the world, forces Madeleine to examine her sexuality and discover that she has more control over it, and more enjoyment, by expressing her sexuality with other actors on screen. Ironically, this has the effect of releasing her from the demons caused by her childhood abuse.
It [porn] excited her. It made her feel the way she imagined sex was supposed to but her unfortunate experience never had. She watched tapes and tapes of the stuff with a compelled mixture of fascination and arousal. However, it wasn’t the men that turned her on, it was the women; what they were doing, how they were doing it. They weren’t ‘passive’ as she had heard one Dwork opine; and by God they weren’t ‘compliant’. They were freely, energetically, uninhibitedly indulging their desires, in a fantasy world where they appeared they had every right to do so; a world without shame and guilt, a world where sex wasn’t dirty and dark, but natural, healthy and joyful.
Sex is just a natural physical act, like breathing, walking, urinating, eating. It is something the human body evolved to do for a reason; it is the means of ensuring the perpetuation of the species via reproduction. There is nothing spiritual, or mystical, or for that matter, religious about the sexual act. It can make one feel mystical, or spiritual, or even for some, religious, but it is not inherent in the nature of the act.
So what is it about sex that religion seems to be both attracted to and repulsed by? Why is it that religion finds the pleasure of sex as “an unfortunate side effect that we’d eradicate if we could (and with female circumcision we’re halfway there).” And it’s not just Christianity, but almost all religions (though the Hindus seem to be on the right track with the Kama Sutra). Why does the mob care who we have sex with, when we have sex, what position we have sex in, where we have sex, and whether we’re married at the time? Why are we so afraid of a frank and open discourse on the subject? Why do our children have so little real information about it, while being constantly bombarded with images of it, and why are they the ones who suffer the most from the repercussions of ignorance? And why does our society sit back and allow it all to happen? It seems that all of those concerns are almost always posed in the context of a religious discussion.
Why is the Catholic church more concerned with whether its flock is having sex, than whether the flock is dying of a disease that can be readily prevented? Why do many fundamentalist protestant sects spend so much time concerned about same sex marriage, when opposite sex marriage is in such turmoil? Why are Muslim women punished severely for simply being in the presence of an unmarried male? For that matter, why the prevalence of female genital mutilation in the Muslim world? And why does religion glorify violence while denigrating most sex as the worst of sins?
I really have few answers to those questions. I do know, however, that if the blue nosed Christians would stop worrying about what their neighbors are doing in the privacy of their bedrooms, and worry more about how they are treating their fellow man, or whether they are running their lives based on a mass delusion, the world would be a better place.
Humans, as evolved mammals, populate this planet so widely because the sexual urge made sure that we copulate with frequency. As developed primates, however, we have the ability to minimize the impact that indiscriminate sex has on individuals (unwanted pregnancy and disease, primarily), and as a result we can enjoy the sexual act without too much guilt, consequence or recrimination. Admit it. Sex is fun. Orgasms are a blast. Intimacy with someone you really care about, are moderately attracted to, or at a minimum has a pulse, is a wonderful way to pass the time. Religion, however, and particularly the Christian version, is a killjoy. As an ex-Catholic, the guilt that my upbringing brought to the sex act, whether with myself or with someone else, has lasted well into my adulthood; indeed, until that day I realized that there was no god watching over my shoulder.
This doesn’t mean that since there isn’t, I’m free to go out and rape women, or cheat on my wife. As humans we still have a responsibility to treat others as we wish to be treated, so those two options are still off the table. And I’m not sure I’m ready to star in a porn movie either. But on the other hand, I have no right to tell someone else that they shouldn’t, or that my friend Joe can’t have sex with his boyfriend, or that two teenagers shouldn’t have sex, as long as they are prepared for the consequences.
As Madeleine makes very clear, it is usually hypocritical people who want to tell you what you can do with your genitals, without imposing the same standards on themselves. Think Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart, Eliot Spitzer, or Luther St. John, all hypocrites in the sexual arena. The use of our bodies should not be dictated by sanctimonious (usually) men. That decision should be made by ourselves, based on principles of fair dealing, humility and aesthetics, not on some delusional belief that a supernatural entity cares.
Anyway, I liked, but didn’t love, the book. (That last sentence was my review. The rest of it was my reaction.)