We don’t agree on much in this twisted culture of ours, but we have reached a consensus on a couple issues. One, jealousy is toxic to every relationship, real or potential. Two, rejection is the worst feeling short of injecting molten steel into our veins. Third, there’s nothing that ketchup can’t make taste better.
Other than the last one, we don’t really question the end results of these assumptions, but we don’t question the circumstances either. I’d like to give those circumstances some additional scrutiny because I think it reveals a lot about just how unbalanced our culture is towards sex, love, and intimacy.
Earlier this week, I wrote about how jealousy may or may not be an entirely natural feeling. I pointed out that our feelings of jealousy towards those who reject our sexual or romantic interests create this unhealthy mentality that we own someone or are owed by them. In the 21st century, we really shouldn’t need to remind ourselves why owning someone else in any capacity is a bad thing.
The problem is that certain elements of our culture were built on foundations of owning land, passing it down through bloodlines, and protecting it against those who would steal it. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with protecting your property, we as a society just take it one step too far when we see our lovers and prospective partners as property. We don’t understand that our brains didn’t evolve to be so rational and understanding. Our brains evolved to keep us alive and because of that, the wiring gets a little faulty at times.
Irrational wiring in our brains inevitably leads to irrational understandings of our world. Irrational understandings, in turn, leads to irrational behavior. It’s the same force behind every misguided social movement and stock market crash in history. Some are just harder to sniff out or overcome than others. So how has this undermined our ability to love, make love, and share intimacy with one another?
Well, in order to illustrate that, let me lay out a common scenario. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use a man and a woman, but the same circumstances can apply to same-sex partners as well. So keep that in mind.
Man: Hey there, ma’am. You look really nice today.
Woman: Thanks! You look really nice too.
Man: I appreciate that. Since we both find each other attractive, would you like to have sex?
Woman: What? You pig! You’re disgusting!
I know this scenario is a bit simplistic, but it’s supposed to be for illustrative purposes. Read over this dialog for a moment. How does the man sound? Does he sound polite or generous when he asks the woman for sex? Or does he sound like every crude jock from every 80s teen movie ever made?
I ask because our culture creates in us certain expectations of how certain social interactions play out. This is just one. A man is expected to be interested in only sex. A woman is expected to reject him. Subsequently, the man who dares to ask a woman for sex is shamed. In a follow-up scenario, we may get moments like this among other men and women.
Woman: You see that guy? He asked me for sex! What a pig.
Man: That’s just wrong. What kind of man does that?
Woman: I hate him. I hope every woman rejects him. Those that don’t are horrible!
Take a moment to think about the less obvious implications of this interaction. A man who simply wants sex and asks politely for it is shamed, shunned, and castigated by everyone. He’s seen as a pig, a misogynist, and a creep.
Here’s a crazy question though. Is it possible that he’s just looking for the most basic forms of intimacy and wants to share it with someone? Perish the thought! Our culture doesn’t allow that. If he really wanted that woman, he would have jumped all the elaborate hoops this culture has set up for men to get sex. If, after all that, she still rejects him, then that’s too bad.
Is this overly simplified breakdown of these events fair? No, it isn’t. Our culture doesn’t let men simply walk up to a woman and ask for sex. We make him go through all these elaborate rituals and even if he succeeds, there’s still no guarantee that he’ll get what he wants. For men, it often means that those who aren’t adept at those rituals (and most men aren’t) will end up isolated, distant, and sexually frustrated. As history and current affairs have shown, this tends to be unhealthy for society.
Now, in the interest of gender fairness, let me paint another scenario that shows what our culture does to women who are interested in sex. In our culture, we have all these irrational expectations about female sexuality. The diverse varieties of lesbian porn alone are a testament to just how irrational these expectations are. As a result of these expectations, we create situations like this.
Woman: Hello. You’re really handsome.
Man: Why thank you. You look really nice yourself.
Woman: Thanks! Would you like to have sex?
Man: Wow! Already? Um…is there something wrong with you?
See the difference? Well, there are gender differences. There are double standards. No, they’re not fair or rational. That’s just the nature of gender dynamics in our culture. Despite these differences, the same irrational expectations manifest in this interaction.
When you read the woman’s words, what do you imagine? Does she sound sweet, caring, and affectionate? Or does she sound sloppy, ugly, or disheveled? Our culture demands that something be wrong with this woman. How can any normal woman simply ask someone for sex? She can’t just be looking for that toe-curling joy we feel when we have sex and the intimacy it inspires. That would just be wrong. That last sentence was sarcasm by the way.
Just as we had with the first scenario, there’s often a follow-up scenario surrounding these interactions. They play out among those who see this interaction and interpret it in the context of our cultural expectations. This is how it manifests.
Woman: Did you see that? That girl just walked up to that man and politely asked for sex!
Man: Wow. She must be a real slut. We need to shame her for offering more sex than she’s allowed to give.
Read over that overly simplistic logic again. Is that fair? Is that moral? Is that even natural in the context of a species that’s so social and passionate? No, it isn’t. That’s why the wiring of our brains needs to be warped a certain way. Culture, often with help from religion and government, does this fairly effectively.
As a result, our society creates this horrible imbalance among those seeking intimacy with one another. Men want sex from women, but shame them when they offer it too eagerly. Women want sex from men, but shame them when they ask for it too eagerly. It creates all these mixed messages that our brains struggle to process. Remember, our brains aren’t wired for rationality. They’re wired for survival.
At birth, our brains are already wired for sex and intimacy. Our brains drive us to seek sexual and intimate gratification the same way it drives us to seek food and water. Denying it these needs creates distress. Excessive distress in any system, be it a brain or cell phone, causes problems. We may bemoan these problems, but on some levels, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.