It’s always kind of fun – and illuminating – to identify a cultural myth. Cultural myths are strong beliefs and assumptions that we have about our societies or countries which are almost totally unsupported by facts. But we still believe them.
I remember that my first experience in cultural, “myth busting,” concerned monogamy. Most Americans hold a very strong faith in the notion that everyone has a Soul Mate, that we will eventually meet that Soul Mate, and that we will live happily ever after when that happens. But, of course, our divorce rate has held steady at 45 to 50% for decades, so it’s pretty obvious that the standard monogamy model isn’t working out very well for at least half of us. Nonetheless, we keep getting married. And divorced. And married. And divorced.
It was such a liberating experience for me to finally get some perspective on that issue and be able to say, “Oh . . . it’s just bullshit. I’m not a failure and all of my friends who’ve been divorced aren’t failures. The model is flawed. Happily Ever After Marriage for everyone is a cultural myth.”
Many cultural myths are relatively harmless exercises in ego. Germans, for instance, have long considered themselves to be an extremely clean and fastidious people. Yet, some polling in the 1970s found that they’re the least likely of all Europeans to change their underwear on a regular basis. Italian men have always been seen as red hot lovers, but Italian women report that they have a dreadfully low rate of orgasm during sex. The British think of themselves as wonderfully sophisticated but . . . you know . . . blood pudding and kidney pies? Really?
Other cultural myths are darker and more disturbing. Almost 50% of the Japanese identify as Buddhists, a religion which teaches the sacredness of all sentient beings. That hasn’t prevented their culture from ruthlessly hunting down and slaughtering whales and dolphins, which are some of the most sentient beings on the earth. A majority of Americans claim to follow the teachings of Jesus, which are all about love and compassion, but we’re one of the most violent societies in the world and half of us voted for Donald Trump. In both cases, our cultural myths have allowed us to deny and rationalize our actual behavior. “We’re not really like that.”
Yes, we are.
One of the most important things about cultural myths is that they carry with them a set of unconscious expectations. We think of them, not just as the way things ARE, but as the way things OUGHT TO BE. And when we feel that we haven’t lived up to those sets of expectations, we beat the hell out of ourselves psychologically. In the example of monogamy, for instance, we have the expectation that our marriages OUGHT to succeed and, when they don’t, we feel like miserable failures. If we can step back from that a little bit and realize that about half of all marriages DON’T last, then it removes the sense of personal failure.
It’s the expectations that are killing us, not the reality.
All of which is offered as an explanation for why my radar started pinging this week when I ran across this article about American sexuality. Or, more specifically, American libido, also known as, “sex drive.” Over 26% of American adults reported that they hadn’t had sex in the previous year. Not even once.
The first thought, of course, is, “Oh, the damned pandemic.” We’ve all been isolated so we couldn’t have as much sex. Not true. In 2018, the percentage of sexless Americans was 24% and in 2016 it was 23%. So right around 1 in 4 of us are NOT getting any sugar and haven’t been for years.
It’s probably a higher number than that, simply because of the nature of the male ego. If you ask a normal male if he’s gotten laid in the last year his immediate response is going to be, “Oh, yeah. Lots of times. Women are crazy about me. Just can’t get enough. I’m worn out from it, I tell ya.”
I’m tagging this as evidence of a cultural myth because Americans think of ourselves as being a HIGHLY sexual culture. In so many ways we become obsessed with our bodies, not just to be healthy, but to make them more attractive sexually. We spend millions of dollars every year on clothing and gym fees so that we can look as tight and sexy as possible. Our pornography industry is booming. Our movies and television shows and books are replete with sexual references and innuendo. Our most popular comedians would be at a loss for words if they couldn’t rap about sex.
Just looking at the surface of our culture, we’d have to conclude that Americans LOVE sex. We think about it and talk about it and joke about it almost constantly. We sell hundreds of books and videos on how to be better lovers and keep our partners so satisfied that they’ll melt into the mattress when we’re through making love.
But then we look at those statistics again. One quarter of Americans aren’t having sex at all. This isn’t some sexual blip that’s caused by the baby boomers getting older, either. The people who aren’t having sex are young, middle aged, old, Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, the full spectrum.
Does it matter?
It’s an interesting question because, as one sex researcher put it, “Low libido is only a problem if you think it’s a problem.” The traditional approach has been to view it as a problem from the beginning and then look for the source of the problem, which is the real problem. What’s CAUSING your lack of libido? Is it high blood pressure, low blood pressure, anxiety, depression, lack of exercise, obesity, sexual dysfunction, constant fatigue?
But suppose it’s none of the above and a lot of Americans just don’t much like sex. Is that a problem?
Not in and of itself. If we can become dispassionate enough to look at having sex as merely a human activity, much like jogging or playing golf, then it’s no problem at all. Some people like to get out and smack their balls around the old course and others don’t. No problem.
It’s when we get into the expectations that go along with the cultural myth that we begin to encounter the, “problems.” Historically, most of these libido studies have been aimed squarely at women. There is a sort of an underlying assumption that all healthy, normal males like to fuck like bunnies under a full moon all the time and – if their wives and girlfriends aren’t willing to accommodate them – that’s a problem. The woman’s problem.
Realistically, yes, it is a problem when one romantic partner has a high sex drive and the other partner has a very low sex drive, but it has nothing to do with gender. And it’s a problem that could be avoided by some honest discussion going into the relationship. “Okay, I like sex a LOT and you don’t like it much at all. What are we going to do about that? Do we have an open marriage? Is it okay for us to get our needs met outside of the relationship? Is this a big enough problem that we just shouldn’t be together at all?”
The basic expectation here is that all sex drives are created equal and that most of them are set on, “high.” Therefore, if I like sex more than you like sex, then there’s obviously something wrong with you, like maybe you’re frigid. Or, flipping that, maybe there’s something wrong with me, because I like sex too much and I must be some kind of a pervert.
There’s also a built in expectation that, somehow, everyone else must be having sex – really good sex – pretty much constantly and, since we’re not, there must be something dreadfully wrong with us. We must be . . . uh, oh . . . sexually unattractive. Or too fat. Or too skinny. Or too shy. Or too outgoing. Or too young. Or too old. Or our breasts aren’t perky enough or our dicks aren’t big enough. Or maybe we’re just ugly and we dress funny.
Again, if we can step back from that and realize that 1 out of every 4 people we meet apparently don’t have any sexual desire at all – or so little desire that it’s not even worth pursuing – then we can jettison all of those negative self images. Perhaps, just perhaps, that person who doesn’t find us attractive doesn’t find ANYONE attractive.
Hmmm . . .
The Two of Cups shows a couple staring deeply into each other’s eyes and the man’s hand reaching out to touch the woman. A lion, the symbol of power and sensuality, hovers between them in the air and we can almost feel the sexual attraction smoldering like an ember that’s about to burst into flames.
Woof. Smolder, smolder.
But suppose she’s looking at him and thinking, “What kind of a guy wears a skirt?” Or he’s looking at her and thinking, “If she’s not going to drink her wine, maybe I could have it.”
Maybe they haven’t had sex in over a year and they don’t want to have it now.
As a society, we’ve made great strides in realizing that there’s nothing wrong with sex. We pretty much accept it, in all of its amazing varieties, as perfectly normal and healthy, magical and fun.
We have a ways to go, though, in accepting that, while there’s nothing wrong with sex, there isn’t necessarily anything right with sex, either. There’s no, “norm,” that we all have to meet, no perfect amount of sex that we’re supposed to have, no particular number of notches we’re supposed to cut into our bedposts to show that we’re, “healthy, well adjusted human beings.” And judging our personal worth by the number of bed partners we have is insane.
If we have an extremely high sex drive, that’s okay. If we have an extremely low sex drive, that’s okay, too. It’s only a problem if we think it’s a problem.
Everything else is just a myth.