Psychologist Leonore Tiefer wrote a fascinating book of essays entitled Sex is Not a Natural Act. She points out that, for humans, sex is learned behavior. That is, humans do not have instinctual knowledge of how to “do sex.” We have to learn it.
How Do Humans Learn to Be Sexual?
For young people growing up in American culture, this can be a bewildering challenge. Children are taught, shown, and made to practice everything they need to learn in order to be successful adults. How to read, add and subtract, be a friend, be on time, drive on the right side of the road, be a good worker, parent, husband, wife.
Everything, that is, except how to be a competent, compassionate, relaxed, and present sexual partner. There aren’t many good ways for young people to learn about sex. Sex ed in school or religious institution can help with the mechanics. The Conversation that many parents attempt to have with their children may provide some information, as well as unwittingly communicate how anxiety-producing the whole topic is. Movies show adolescents a particular narrative about sex: eyes lock across a room, the couple furtively makes their way to someplace private, rip clothes off, and begin to have intercourse immediately. Porn and romance novels offer other fictional narratives.
There’s a scene in the 1990 movie Dances With Wolves where Kevin Costner is sleeping in the teepee with the Native American family that has taken him in. He awakes in the middle of the night as the parents are making love next to their sleeping children and just feet away from him. I was struck as I saw this movie 25 years ago how different this is from modern American culture. The children in that tribe would know about sex because it was an ordinary part of life. They saw or heard their parents making love, and perhaps other adults in the village.
Communicating About Sex
We need to find ways to include healthy sexuality in normal conversations, with children, with our spouses. What if it were possible to discuss sex in a way that was not anxiety-laden, fraught with tension and subtext? What if we could discuss the complexities of sexuality with the respectful seriousness we give to other profound discussions? And how about communicating with young people that sex can be a profoundly spiritual aspect of a long-term intimate relationship?
Hiding our heads in the sand does not help the next generation build healthy sexual relationships!