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.)
I actually think the link between sex and religion, at its most primitive level, must have had something to do with respecting the fact that we have the awesome power to reproduce. And also with the fact that it feels so darned good. I consider both of those to be good things.
However, as religion inevitably got mixed up with politics, many cultures used sexual taboo as a means of controlling people. Nothing makes people’s wills more maleable than guilt. We would go a long way towards, pardon the expression, un-fucking ourselves as a society if we developed healthier attitudes about sex.
Re: Religions’ attitudes about sex —
There’s no easier way to control people than to control their instinctual urges, is there? That’s why most religions also have rules about food, too.
I struggle to wonder why there is such a compulsion and then Ex snaps me back to reality and I’m immediately reminded of last night’s episode of the Dog Whisperer. That’s precisely what it’s about. You establish dominance by claiming everything as yours and ALLOWING the pack to indulge in things how, when and where you want and only on your terms. With dog training, the simple act of eating is a reward, dolled out by you. In last night’s episode they got a puppy to understand that even food on the floor was not his to take. ALL food could ONLY be had in very specific situations. When there are particularly bad dogs, he brings them to his compound where he uses the pack to assist in training the dog, emphasizing the effect of taking cues form the other dogs for how it should behave. Sound familiar?
I considered writing about Brookmyre’s representations of sexuality but decided not to do so, as I was sure someone else would pick up on that theme. You proved me right and you did a much better job at it than I would have done. Thanks for taking me off the hook.
Whew, at least you liked it.
And this was a good look at the exploration of sexuality, which I mention briefly.
Well, congratulations SI. Yours is the only post I’ve read so far that actually accomplished the original goal of an NL post. You wrote about an aspect of the book that got you thinking.
The idea of not writing a straight review is worthy (and I’m glad that at least one of us stuck with it). I was so un-enamoured by the book that I ended up reviewing it. But really if you think about it every book, good or bad, gives you SOMETHING to think about. Good for you.
Another aspect of it could be that if a group of people legitimately believe that sexual conduct outside of a divinely ordained parameter threatens the society at large. If there really is a God that will rain down vengeance on a society for flouting that God’s laws, then sexual freedom must be repressed for the good of all.
As for the hypocrites like Eliot Spitzer, I have read in several places that sometimes people struggle with their own impulses. Spitzer liked to patronize prostitutes, so busting prostitution rings was his way of salving his conscience. It is not uncommon for people to publicly rail against the things they crave in private. Think former congressional representative Mark Foley, or Senator Larry Craig.
I think somewhere in the past there may have been a rational reason for being overly concerned about sex, especially when the survival of the species was not a forgone conclusion (not that it is now, either). But somewhere along the way we developed a shorthand marker to determine if something was bad for us, and that was “If it feels good, it must be bad”. It’s a perversion of the process, but there nonetheless. I use the same shorthand when eating, and on most occasions it’s true. Think Brussels sprouts vs. ice cream. Or French cut green beans vs. Chocolate cake.
See above. Can I interest you in a meat cleaver? Used.
As much as I hate to think of the human herd in terms of pack mentality, there’s a lot of truth in that. Look at how Madison Ave is able to stimulate and single out a common response and effectively apply it across the board.
Ex, I think she’s one of us. Be very careful if she asks to meet you some day.
Chappie, when it comes to sex, you can count on me. Wait, let me rephrase that…
I already thanked you for picking the book. I’ve been meaning to read Brookmyre for a long time, and this was a good one to start with, given the relevant themes to my blogging. So thanks again.
I can’t speak for you, but I know that in my reading, if I can say that 5% of the books I read are “great”, I’m happy. Most are just “eh” types of books, but rarely do I regret reading any of them. There’s always something that can be gleaned from even a bad book (and this wasn’t a bad book, just a relatively average thriller. I read a James Rollins thriller recently, and I wish now I hadn’t.). I loved that a mainstream author would write so positively about atheism. The fact that the Christians were cutout cardboard characters means simply that we’ve taken a very small step in reclaiming the mis-characterization of atheists that occurs on a daily basis everywhere else. Serves them right!
I hated writing book reviews in school, and I still hate writing them. Notice that there are only three over there in my sidebar. I much prefer trying to riff off of a thought that the book produces, if I can. Sex is a good topic, so this one was a natural. Your review, however, was the first I read, and set the tone for the rest, and actually confirmed all that I thought about the book but subconsciously suppressed because I didn’t want to write a review.
Spot on, as usual. Sometimes we have to get our heads inside of those of theists in order to understand and validly criticize them. I think you’re right that they do have some positive intentions, even though the means AND the ends are somewhat despicable, or at the least misguided. If we don’t understand the psychology behind the intentions, we’ll never be able to correct it.
Woo. Rollins. Was it the one about evolution? I’ve read a couple of them, found them meh-to-okay, but I read the back of that one and left it in the store.
It was the Judas Strain. Feel free to skip it.
That was a nice, thoughtful take on the book, SI. It was a pleasure to read it.
I’m not a Christian (or religious). And I don’t think sex is bad or evil. But I *do*, however, think that it’s not such a bad thing to learn to control our physical urges.
Case in point: we have a national obesity crisis going on. Sure, it’s in our genes to crave fatty foods – that’s what helped us to survive in centuries (even decades) past. But it’s not applicable now. People who give in to their food cravings and can’t control them cause themselves great harm, illness, even death.
Our sexual urges may’ve been a big part of what allowed us to reproduce and survive in the past. But the world isn’t undrepopulated currently. And not having mastery over our sexual urges can cause illness, the spread of disease, even death. Not to mention serious undesireable consequences (more so for females than for males).
Also, there *is* a natural emotional component to sex for women more than for men. Maybe this isn’t “spiritual” in the same way that you mention the organized religion stuff. But sex will never be for women what it is for men. It’s different for women, physically and emotionally. Even if it’s sometimes pleasurable for us, it’s also freaky, because so much can happen to us as a result of sex. Even with protection, we’re always, deep down really worried about getting pregnant (it’s kind of a big deal) or all kinds of other things that can happen *inside* our bodies. It’s different for us because something is being put *inside* our bodies, versus with guys it’s all on their outsides. This is a really big difference! It’s never *just* pleasure for us. There’s always so much more risk for us, even if we use birth control, even if we’re in monogamous relationships. And now there’s so much more information that we have about HPV and cervical cancer. And jeez, we can get HPV just from sexual *contact* in the genital area. A condom doesn’t prevent it, and actual intercourse isn’t necessary for us to get it from a guy.
Oh and I’m not a prude, either! I don’t think sex is “bad” or shameful. And I’ve been around the block (with no shame or remorse – just a lot of worry and doctors bills over the years). So just – jeez – there’s a lot that women worry about that men don’t have to even think of. I know men worry about some STDs and HIV – but women have that plus a ton more that happens to us. And the cleanup and remedies can be heartbreaking, can damage our future fertility, and can be painful and invasive. And I think that’s really important to remember when we’re talking about “controls” on sexual behavior. Sometimes I think some controls would be nice in our current culture, and would make thinge easier on women.
Sorry this is so long!!! Whew, I didn’t know I had this much to say on this subject!