Sex today

The topic is “grinding.” I thought that I read this article in last week’s T-U (paper version) but I can’t find it on-line, so here’s a link to another version of the AP story, and here’s the quotation that troubled me:

Junior Rebecca Watson said the dance style replaces slow dancing, which is no longer popular.

“Your clothes are on, so I don’t see the problem,” she said.

That was the end of the article I read — but it’s really the beginning of the conversation. (The article I read was obviously shortened to fit the space, as you can see in this article from the Syracuse Post-Standard.)

There are (at least) two “problems” that this young woman doesn’t see. One is that sex has been redefined to mean intercourse only. Everything else sexual isn’t, as a teen might say, “technically” sex: computer sex (writing sexual messages to each other) isn’t sex, phone sex (sexual talk) isn’t sex, oral sex isn’t sex, sexual touching isn’t sex, masturbation isn’t sex. Rubbing genitals against genitals or against buttocks isn’t sex, at least not with clothes on. It’s just dancing. That’s ok.

No it’s not. It’s all sex, because they are all sexual experiences. They can all give you powerful physical and emotional feelings and those feelings affect your thought processes and your future behavior. Especially for teenagers who really don’t have either the experience or the emotional ability to have much perspective on their feelings. But trying to explain this to some teens (especially the ones who have gotten used to it) is like trying to explain about chalk squeaking on a chalkboard to a person who’s been deaf from birth. I don’t know if it can be done.

The other problem to which the quoted young woman seems oblivious is that sexual behavior has gotten disassociated from privacy. Never mind intimacy or commitment: Privacy is a bottom-line benchmark. Sex is not a spectator sport. One of the first things we teach our toddlers about sex (or at least I do) is that there are parts of your body that if you want to touch them, you need privacy. You don’t do it in the living room. It’s a simple way to begin teaching them what they’ll need to know as they grow.

And you know why? Because sex is full of vulnerability, and it is that letting down of our guard that permits and promotes the possibility of commitment and intimacy. Ihf you’re doing sexual behavior in front of the world, you don’t have the safe space that helps you actually connect with another person.

The way that I think about things, kedushah, holiness, lives in the interstices between our separate selves, in the nodes where our separateness links together. Magic things happen there. When we let our guard down in another person’s presence, we have the opportunity to develop and flower in amazing ways, as individuals and as partners in a relationship. Sx is a very powerful connector.

But when the power of that in-between connection place is not respected, horrible things can happen too. In fairy tales and fantasy stories, magic requires safeguards so people don’t get hurt accidentally by mucking around in magical power that they don’t know how to use safely.

My friend Rabbi Dan Ornstein teaches that our bodies are kley kodesh, holy vessels. The name originated in biblical times; it referred to the utensils that were used for holy purposes in the Temple in Jerusalem. (Later the Rabbis applied it to themselves: they understood that their responsibility, as human beings who were rabbis, was to nurture holiness in human relationships and lives. It still is our responsibility.)

Our bodies are also vessels which are used in creating and developing relationships. If our bodies are kley kodesh, then the ways that we link them together should be filled with kedushah. Using and being used is not the goal of relationships — relating is.

Caution: I’m using religious language because this is about one of life’s ultimate meanings, and that’s what religion is about. I’m not using religious language to imply “God said it so it’s true.”

Nevertheless, I do believe that this is an ultimate human truth, or an ultimate truth about human beings. Our bodies are kley kodesh, so the ways that we link them together should be filled with kedushah to the best of our ability. And that’s not what you’re practicing learning how to do by grinding pelvises together in public.
“Respect” is a good word here.

A lot of kids apparently don’t see anything wrong with sexual acting out in public. They argue that these moves and the general sexualization of movement (and of dress, and language, and makeup) are openly promoted by the culture that they live in. See this blog for example — ignore the spelling. And they’re right, you know. This part of it is our problem and responsibility as grownups more than it is theirs. People are making money off of the power of that magic, the power of kedushah, twisting it for their own profit, and we’re the ones permitting it.

They’re teenagers. They’re thinking about sex all the time anyway. That part is normal. But they live in a sex-saturated culture which encourages them to think about sexual gratification all the time (thank you Mary Pipher for those words). Teenagers just don’t get it that this isn’t healthy for their sexual development — why should they, how could they, unless someone else is out there teaching them differently? By “out there” I mean at home, you know…

And apparently they don’t get it that while for many of them this may just be a phase, fairly easily outgrown (we hope), there are definitely kids who get hurt by this stuff. “Some students also have complained about ‘inappropriate grabbing or touching’ on the dance floor.” Which is, as the high school principle worried, indeed a form of sexual harassment. And while many high school students may be able to deal with this with some level of perspective, the fact that they’re doing it and they think it’s ok means that 13-year-olds are also being taught that it’s ok, and at 13 you are NOT equipped to handle thislevel of sexualization. Nor at 11. Nor at 9.

Honestly, I am shocked (all the moreso now that I have both toddlers and a teenager in the house) at the level of sexual content on TV, and at the explicitness of language even in NPR and mainstream newspaper reporting at times. I am VERY sure that I never saw anything like this as a kid myself. I don’t want to have to explain this stuff to my 5-year-old, but believe me, I am going to be very soon, because he’s listening and watching and he’s going to start asking. And I’ll do it immediately, because for whatever reason I’m not particularly embarrassed by talking about sex. But I’ll bet that as kids hit 5 or 6 and start noticing what’s around them in a new way, a lot of parents prefer to ignore it. So by the time they’re 8 or 9, sexualized modes of dress and dancing have become an accepted, expected part of their view of the world, and nobody’s told them that there’s a problem with it. And shortly thereafter they hit puberty and want to do something with it all.

I remember Mary Pipher saying in Reviving Ophelia that parents used to be the agents of culture, socializing their children to fit into the dominant culture. Nowadays, she says, parents need to be — at least in part — agents of anti-culture, mediating their childrens’ experiences, giving them different perspectives and strong roots in different values. Read this review of the book, and this nice summary of her suggestions for girls to help them stay strong as they enter the scary culture of puberty. Take a look at this description of Rosh Chodesh: It’s a Girl Thing, a Jewish program for middle and high school girls which promotes the same strengths. The program is up and running in the Capital Region and has fantastic leaders. Write me if you want to know how to find it.

It’s sad and it’s scary. “Your clothes are on, so I don’t see the problem.”

And that’s the problem.