03 July 2014

Sex, Religion, and How the Internet Has Made The Private Public

It feels like a cultural arms race. Gay rights activists push for the legalization of same-sex marriage. The religious right pushes to close abortion clinics.The LBGT community strikes back with a transgender person on the cover of Time. The religious right counters with a Supreme Court decision that lets business owners refuse to pay for contraceptives they object to because of their religious beliefs.

As America gets to be more openly sexual, it becomes more openly religious, almost like confirmation of a social equivalent to Newton's law about every action having an opposite and equal reaction. Sex and religion, once practiced in private, have become public performances. And because of that, a lot of people are feeling threatened. Religious folks feel like they are are having to avert their eyes as they walk past open bedroom doors and secular folks - and even folks of a "different" religious faith - feel like they're having to block out the call for prayer in the public square.

Each side is more horrified at the other, convinced the others are deranged. What one declares to be a great victory the other declares to be proof that we're living in the last days. With a sincerity that only privileged Americans can muster, each side is convinced that it is losing out to a terrible enemy, brushing aside their own gains as inconsequential in comparison to their enemies' apparent derailment of modern civilization.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are treated to a carnival show that makes public what we'd imagined was once private. Facebook in particular -and the Internet more generally - has helped to blur the lines between private and public. Our reports on world news are mixed in with reports on friends' private lives. We scroll through a post of a friend staying up late with a sick parrot then a recipe for ice and then a report on the legalization of gay marriage in one gated community in Nebraska. Is a friend's post of a local weatherman reporting on their hail public news (it is from their local channel) or private news (no one in your town gets that channel from six states over). Who knows? Your friend posts a video of Ann Coulter and cites a statistic that proves her wrong. Is that public information (anyone can find both the video or the statistic) or private (no one but you and her friends can see the two in contradictory juxtaposition)?

The Internet offers us about 3 million channels of porn. Even teenagers can learn techniques for mind-blowing oral sex. Television advertisers offer you unlimited texting, new cars and dependable erections. Tweens who would be grossed out at the thought of getting naked with anyone are expected to have a sexual orientation. Music videos can teach you all the moves you'd need for working in a strip club.

Like pornographers, preachers don't need traditional publishers or broadcasters to reach huge markets. James Dobson's Focus on the Family, for instance, has a radio audience of about 220 million a day and generates revenues of close to $200 million a year with books, broadcasting, and other products. All without the help of traditional New York publishers. Televangelists preach to what has essentially become a studio audience there in their church, but their real audience is at home wearing sweat pants and eating Eggos.

Sex and religion - once considered private affairs - have become public performances. We all have access to everything all the time and don't even have to get dressed up (or undressed, as it may depend) to experience them.

And maybe because these things have been made so publicly private (or privately public - it is all a jumble), we ought not to be surprised that these are topics so regularly discussed when it comes to public policy.

I guess I should celebrate the fact that there is no longer any shame associated with sex or religion. It's the rare person who doesn't have some sort of faith or isn't sexual. We should be glad that the shame of homosexuality and Mormonism is a thing of the past. It is a good thing that such choices now have no more stigma than being a heterosexual scientist.

But still, for all my fascination with - even admiration of - sex and religion, I feel a little squeamish about having them in the public square at all. I'm sexual. I'm religious. But simply to state that probably suggests a host of things about me that simply aren't true. Those are terms so laden with meaning that I'm sure we all assume very different things about them. And you know what? What those terms mean to me are private. I don't consider my religious beliefs or sexual practices to be a part of my public persona. (Politics and economic beliefs by contrast? Now that is the very definition of public.)

But perhaps one good thing that will come from this matter of making the private public is that as we learn more about what's different - even remarkable - about each other we will become more tolerant. Private secrets have become public knowledge and we learn that people make a living in hundreds of different ways. They express their politics in dozens of different ways. It only makes sense that the way they would choose to be religious or sexual would vary as well - and that just as it is in these other sectors, the options are becoming more - not less - varied and hard to understand.

And this simple fact may be why the only real sin for the younger generation is - increasingly - not based on your religion or sexual orientation but instead on your lack of tolerance. They know that the world is becoming more diverse, not less, offering more choices, not less, from food to music to ways to be intimate or explore the divine.

It is no wonder that the religious right is feeling more anxious about their social agenda. Nearly every time another child turns 18 and another octogenarian dies, they lose a vote. They have seen the future and it is not in the direction of increasing solidarity or sameness. Attempts to legislate one approach to sex are as doomed to failure as attempts to legislate one religion. And that's a good thing even if some of us old codgers are a little squeamish about having these previously private things become so public.


1 comment:

Thomas said...

It's hard to believe that just a few years ago Ellen DeGeneres coming out of the closet was such a shock that it made the cover of Time magazine. Now a celebrity comes out and, meh, who cares.

So it does feel like we're moving in the right direction- but it also feels like there's always an undertow ready to suck us back, too.