Two seemingly innocent words have been nagging me this week. I didn’t think they were worth writing about, but now that their author has written a piece attacking Michelle Griffin a few more pieces have fallen into place. The author of course, is Dr Emma Rush (who I mentioned in Corporate Paedophilia).
The two seemingly innocent words were ‘unique intimacy’. They come from her rather dismal apologia over at the ABC’s Religion and Ethics: Media must do better on porn debate.
Faced with this last, porn apologists point to the DIY porn genre, created and shared among consenting adults, without any commercial transactions involved. What could possibly be wrong with that? One response, open to people across the political spectrum, is that porn per se chronically misses the point of sex: unique intimacy. (my emphasis)
To be anti-porn does not mean being anti-sex. Rather, it promotes sex in the context of loving relationships. It does not mean “protecting” women from sexuality, although it does critique the increasingly violent and misogynist sexuality promoted by the porn industry.
This is just bizarre. Even the most conservative Catholic argues that they are not ‘anti-sex’. They are all for sex – provided it is contained within acceptable parameters, namely heterosexual marriage. In fact Emma’s concept of ‘unique intimacy’ seems awfully close to Catholic doctrine as explicated by John Paul II in Theology of the Body
The lust of the flesh directs these desires, however, to satisfaction of the body, often at the cost of a real and full communion of persons. (Lust Limits the Nuptial Meaning of the Body)
However, I do not think Emma is a Catholic (perhaps she is), rather I think she is an acolyte of Clive Hamilton (who I have critiqued here) and perhaps shares his philosophical idealism.
The problem with Emma’s (and Clive’s position) is precisely that it is ‘idealism’ and as such seems woefully ignorant of the complex reality of human sexuality. When I read that the ‘point’ of sex is ‘unique intimacy’ I can’t help but see someone who is ignorant of the disciplines of sexology, psychology and anthropology, all of which indicate that the purpose of sex is complex and manifold. What Emma is really saying here is that she thinks that sex ‘ought’ to be about ‘unique intimacy’ even if it’s not. Thus I accuse her of sexual idealism.
Her sexual idealism and general ignorance about the realities is further exposed in her article on Melinda Tankard Reist’s blog, Teens have hearts, not just bodies, which is a rather nasty and misguided attack on Michelle Griffin – nasty because it completely misrepresents her position and is both ad hominem and sets up a straw man.
So allow me to pull her argument apart and reveal her shameful ignorance.
All the more so for the adolescent context, where the psychological literature clearly shows that teens are more impulsive and more prone to extreme highs and lows than more mature adults.
Which psychological literature? From the perspective of developmental psychology the older you get, the more self-control you have. Thus an older teen has more self-control than a younger teen and an older adult has more self-control than a younger adult. We gain in maturity and we learn; we are not the same in our teens as we are in our 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and so on. Here I think Emma repeats the modern myth that has arisen around recent research into the delayed development of the pre-frontal cortex and it’s relation to risk-taking behaviour. The problem of course, as any good developmental psychologist knows, is that developmental maturity differs from individual to individual and that some adults never learn self-control. So what is her point? How do individuals learn if not through experience? Whilst adolescence may be tumultuous, it is nonetheless necessary and unavoidable. We learn through experience, by making mistakes.
We get a better understanding of her underlying fear in this quote:
Physical intimacy can all too easily lead to emotional connection and then significant distress when this is not mutual. Who has not seen this happen, even with mature adults? Who does not know how the headspin of even potential sexual attraction can throw everything else out of perspective, even in a mature adult? Who seriously thinks it’s a good idea to encourage in teens the idea that, provided you’ve got ‘consent’, anything goes?
There are two separate errors here. I’ll deal with the last first. No one, especially not Michelle Griffin, has suggested anything like ‘anything goes’. This is another straw-man, but it indicates what Emma may be afraid of; loosing control. This seems borne out with the phrase ‘sexual attraction can throw everything else out of perspective’. At this point an image comes to mind of a young Emma standing at the water’s edge afraid to go into the surf because she might get dumped, thus missing out on the thrill of learning to surf.
Here’s the thing Emma. Many adolescents (and some children) develop intense crushes on people who may not know they even exist. Such emotional highs and lows are a natural part of the development of our emotional intelligence and maturity. Adolescents and children can experience such highs and lows without knowing anything whatsoever about sex (some are more prone to such attractions than others).
But here’s the most important thing. Sex does not make such emotional storms any worse. To understand why this is the case we need to understand how sexual attraction differs from both sexual arousal and sexual consummation. The feeling of attachment and love has much to do with the release of the hormone oxytocin. This is itself a complex issue as a recent article in New Scientist suggests. However sexual arousal, although certainly connected to the release of oxytocin, can be caused by a different set of hormones: orgasm itself floods the system with dopamine. Without going into the complexities of sexual arousal I can suggest that part of the problem adolescents face is that they are unable to complete the cycle of affection, arousal and resolution.
What this means Emma, is that denying adolescents a sexual outlet may in fact cause the very emotional turmoil you seem so concerned about. If anything, adolescence is a period of frustrated emotion and frustrated sexuality. You have reached puberty and your sexual system has been switched to high and you are not allowed to do anything about it. Is it any wonder adolescents have more highs and lows than adults? I suggest you read Dr Robert Epstein on this.
As I said, the problem is that Emma is an idealist who ignores the complex reality of human sexuality. The point of sex is not just unique intimacy. It is manifold; it is ultimately about reproduction; it is also about the body’s reward system (oxytocin, dopamine) and it is an antidote to stress (and the body’s stress hormones). Studies from our ape cousins, the bonobo, suggest that it serves as a means of social cohesion (in which case it is not unique intimacy). Studies from anthropology show that it serves a number of complex and often competing social goals. And psychology shows us that it serves a number of quite complex individual needs.
But perhaps the most important point is that individuals differ quite dramatically. I am glad that in her article on MTR’s blog she expresses concern about homophobia. However, it seems that her tolerance for sexual variation stops at a rather banal acceptance of homosexuality. As I point out in my essay Integral Sexology, human sexuality exists across a number of spectra: hetero to homo; introvert to extrovert; asexual to hypersexual; monogamous to polyamorous; and masculine to feminine. Emma’s notion of ‘unique intimacy’ seems to exclude a number of options. What of the extroverted and hypersexual girl with a higher than average level of testosterone and therefore a somewhat masculine and aggressive sexuality?
This, in the end, is the major problem I have with Emma (and by association Melinda and the Spinifex mob). They are clearly prejudiced against certain types of sexuality, most especially girls and women with extroverted, hypersexual, polyamorous and masculine sexualities (or any variation thereof). These women are conceived of as an ideological and moral problem. They exist in contradiction to Emma’s sexual idealism.
This is why Emma and her mob are into moral control; and into demonising certain types of sexual expression.
Anyway, more later… Part 2 will look at Emma’s concerns about sex education and why I think she would be the last person to advise young girls about their sexuality.