Sex-Positives: The New Puritans

It struck me the second time I was called a conservative in a matter of a few months. Well, after I stopped hysterically laughing, that is. There was something familiar, well trodden about the accusations. Yet, me, a conservative? About anything? Twice? Seriously?

Before I identified that nebulous familiarity, memories of my late father-in-law Wally Laird, came to mind. Yes, he was the person with whom I would most enjoy discussing this, were he still alive to do so. In the nearly 25 years since Wally has been gone, I have never been compelled to actually speak aloud to him. Being called a conservative was impossible enough to attempt to speak to Wally, why not after all? Things had suddenly become surreal enough to have a conversation with dead people.

“Wally, I was called a conservative!” I laughed aloud, hoping to invoke my first contact with a spirit world if there is indeed such a thing. “Hey, Wally, you there?”

No spirit came, but long-ago memories of ongoing verbal jousting with Wally came back with fondness. Wally, a lifelong Republican, called me “a pinko, commie, heart-on my-sleeve bohemian. There might have been more descriptors in the string that he used for me, but that was the essence of his nickname for me. We adored each other although we were as politically different as any two people could have been.

Me, a conservative? Barry Goldwater, Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh would be horrified at the thought of incorporating any my political ideas into their ideologies. Maybe worse than horrified. Likewise, no religious conservative would welcome one iota of my theology. Wally, were he alive, would rail at anyone calling me a conservative of any stripe and then we would laugh over such a preposterous event over an after-dinner scotch. Damn, I miss him.

The memories of Wally faded into the current circumstances that brought me to be called a conservative, although I was still chuckling about these peculiar accusations. That I had been called conservative twice in such a short time gave me pause, what on earth was going one, what was that unidentified, and distantly familiar sense about this?

For failing to embrace the exact sexual mores of the two accusers, I was practically spat upon as an anachronistic conservative. Yep, that was it. For failing to embrace free love and porn-saturated imagery for myself, I was dismissed as a conservative, by two persons who claimed to be sex-positives.

Sex-positives? So if I somewhat disagree, I am, by inference, a sex-not-so-positive? And if I really disagree, I am a what? A sex-negative? Tricky devils. That was it—the familiarity—just like the danged Puritans. The sex-positives were behaving just as the Puritans did. Right down to accusing me of being conservative.

The Puritans—Radical Reformers

First a brief history refresher: Who were the Puritans? What were the characteristics of Puritanism? Let us look at the Puritans within the historical context from which they emerged as Protestant reformers. After failing to bring England to their way of practicing Christianity, this group later largely emigrated en masse to the English colonies, now the United States.

Continental Europe experienced a wrenching political, social and religious separation from Roman Catholic power upon the advent of Martin Luther’s defection from the Vatican. From 1560 to 1715, a period of 145 years, there only thirty years of peace. During the remainder of that time, there was a minimum of one and up to five religious wars occurring concurrently all over the continent. 1500 years of Roman Catholic religious and political domination required 150 years of religious strife and open warfare to release its grip upon the Western world.

France, for instance, was ravaged by 35 years of religious war bracketed by fifty years of strife both before and after the actual war itself. The region currently known as Germany fared worse, being pretty much in open warfare from 1562 to 1700. Known then as the Holy Roman Empire, the area lost 25 percent of its inhabitants to repeated generations of religious wars. Ultimately, the Holy Roman Empire (which was neither Roman nor an empire) fractured into hundreds of petty fiefdoms, primarily because of nearly 150 years of religious warfare.

Brutal religious wars occurred in every other country in Europe as well, not one country was spared violent reform. Wars, burnings, sieges, beheadings, executions, murder, theft, famine, forced emigrations, forced conversions, decrees of banishment and kidnapping are a mere fraction of the legacy of Europe’s attempted religious reform and the resisting of such reforms.

England’s Reformation occurred at the level of the monarchy long before there was a sizable Protestant populace. Henry VIII defected from the Vatican in 1534 in order to divorce his aging Catholic wife, Katherine of Aragon, and to marry Anne Boleyn in the hopes of having a male heir. This set England apart from continental Europe that primarily had Catholic rulers and a burgeoning Protestant populace. England had a suddenly Protestant monarchy and a largely Catholic populace when Henry broke from Rome. The English Reformation was from the top down; the Church of England was created by Henry VIII and became England’s official religion.

Although England did revert to Catholicism briefly under the rule of Henry’s eldest—and Catholic—daughter Mary; her early death brought the Protestant Elizabeth I to the throne. Pragmatic and determined to hold the middle ground in religious matters, Elizabeth reveled in resplendent pomp for both court and religious ceremonies at the same time she reinstated the Church of England as the state religion. Although not as openly violent as the rest of Europe, the change from Catholic England to Protestant England resulted in reformers killing other reformers nearly as often as the Protestant/Catholic violence erupted.

Upon Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, a previously exiled group of English Protestants returned to England. This group was determined to enforce very strictly the Calvinist code they believed to be correct. They also believed that the English Reformation had not gone far enough. Elizabeth’s retention of lavish trappings for herself and her court were considered “popish” by these extremist reformers. In reaction, this particular group of reformers dictated black and white only garb for their members, because ornamentation was conservative, a remnant of the Roman Church that they strove diligently to eliminate from all of England.

For their efforts to purify English doctrine along Calvinism dogmatic lines, they were named Puritans by their detractors. They never gained political power in England and became increasing shrill and separatist. By the mid-1700s, the Puritans were no longer a political consideration in English politics at all—doctrinal infighting and several generations of emigration reduced their effectiveness, their numbers and their ardor.

In the New World, however, they had quite an influence. In the colonies, they practiced their doctrines that were considered radically extreme in England, and as a result, the Puritans’ beliefs shaped the emerging United States’ culture.

Remember, if you will, that the Puritans believed that the English Protestant Reformation had not gone far enough. They were fighting against the established doctrines of the Roman Church, convinced that their interpretation of Christian scripture the only possible correct one. All others were in error from their viewpoint. An interesting aside: the Puritan declaration of doctrinal infallibility foreshadows the Vatican’s 1870 papal infallibility declaration.

So, in the Puritans we see a group of reformers who insisted that their doctrines must become the social norm with no latitude or questioning/discussion from either practitioners or others.

The Sex-Positive Movement

Fast-forward to 1999 and the founding of the Seattle Sex Positive Community Center, frequented by a group of reformers who believed that the sexual reformations of the 20th century had not gone far enough. Is this starting to sound familiar? By calling themselves sex-positives, the implication is that if one does not agree 100% with their every doctrine, one is sex-negative.

Conversely, the Puritans referred to themselves as “the godly.” Adopting this moniker certainly was a sly means of condemning those who disagree with their reformations as the presumably ungodly.

Now turning the same techniques (rigid fundamentalism, all-or-nothing insistence upon doctrinal agreement and judgments delivered to dissenters with rabid contempt), onto Protestant sexual mores, the sex-positive movement is taking a Puritan-like tack in its approach to sexual matters. Could anything be more ironic, really?

If one chooses monogamy and no porn in one’s relationship, the new “godly” call this conservative with great vehemence. Again, judgment delivered with a Puritanical intolerance with the intention to to dismiss them entirely or to shame the recipient into agreement/acceptance of their doctrines.

Shame? From a movement that calls itself sex-positive? How perfectly Puritanical!

Ah, it is still possible to be unbearably self-righteous and quite sly all in the same breath. The sex-positives invite no discussion with the likes of people like me and have no interest in exploring why someone would chose anything but a sexual free-for-all for himself or herself. The message is clear from this camp: “Agree to everything we endorse or we will attack and dismiss you as a sex-negative conservative.”

Somehow, I find this as quaint as the very Puritans against whom the sex-positives claim that they are rebelling. Will the sex-positives soon become marginalized by internal disagreements after they discover that the “yes” to everything sexual is just as ridiculous as the “just say no” approach is to drug use—oversimplified non-discernment? Surely, someday they will recognize that discernment is necessary, both personally and socially? That both individuals and the culture at large have to make ongoing determinations for sexual behavior? That to naively insist that any and all sexual behavior is good for everyone is as fundamentally puritanical as to insist that only highly proscribed sexuality is utterly necessary?

I would like to hear members of this movement explain their personal and collective discernment process in dealing with sexual matters. At this venture, I cannot see discernment of any sort from the sex-positive movement other than the extollation of safe-sex practices.

My call for monogamy and no porn is met with scorn and labels that really do not fit. If I want to have a life free of porn and mutually exclusive relationship, how is this threatening to sex-positives? Surely, the sex positives are not in favor of sex slavery that is the result of the flourishing porn industry? Surely, the sex-positives do not want children sexualized and women objectified and dehumanized? Surely there are some grounds for agreement and many more for discussion? Maybe my assumptions are incorrect. At present, I cannot know, as the only contacts I have with sex-positives are the times they call me conservative for my choices. I would really like a discussion with members of the sex-positive movement about a number of issues and hope that one day that is possible.

Are we doomed to 150 years of strife over this essential refusal to discuss our differences without absolutes being thrust upon us all one way or the other? To understand that choices are not always free and simple? My sense of history and the familiar gives me a sobering shudder.

In the meantime, two sex-positives have labeled me a conservative, which provided me hours of entertainment and brought back fond memories of Wally. My only regret is that Wally is no longer alive to guffaw about all this. We would have had a great discussion, probably never agreeing on much of anything other than that the sex-positive movement is as narrowly pinched as the Puritans were. After a belly laugh, we would have moved onto politics and other social issues, disagreeing and questioning each other, and then finally joining the rest of the family in great spirits afterwards.

Wally, did you get that? I’ve been called a conservative! Wally, I miss you way too much to enjoy this last laugh alone. In addition, I am not going to let these rigid fundamentalists, these new Puritans, shut down the questioning discussions that we so enjoyed. Nope, I am pointing out the narrowness and self-righteous inferences of any (no matter how attractively they might name themselves) who refuse to engage in discussions. Because when discussions are halted, a horrid extremism sets in. Wally, what I want is what we had. Affectionate, mostly respectful disagreement. Yes, we volleyed names back and forth and at the same time, the mutual admiration we held for each other was clear to all.

Is Civil Discussion About Sexual Mores Possible?

Although I am not seeing any indications that there is even a hint of an invitation to have sane public discussions with either the religious right and/or the sex-positives about sexual mores, I still hope against all reason that culturally and individually we can craft a mostly respectful means to have this conversation because so much depends upon us being able to do so.

Call me conservative; call me a pinko, although neither is accurate. So although I prefer to call myself discerning rather than conservative (or liberal, for that matter), I am not going to be deterred by labels lobbed at me from any camp, nor will I surreptitiously eradicate their use of porn. Conversely, others assume that I share their religious injunctions against porn. Neither is correct. Ditto with monogamy, which is neither a moral nor a political statement for me. It is what works for my psyche.

I have worked out what works for me, I am looking at human behavior and the humans behind the behavior. That is the place from which I would like to have the discussions. Is that at all possible?

Zeno’s Paradox and Addiction

It’s Hard to Get Enough of What Almost Works

I just finished Dr. Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, the most humane, scientific and, dare I say, Jungian-without-Jungian-terminology foray into addiction I’ve read. This is high praise from someone who has read more than 200 books on addiction, listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts and audiobooks, read maybe another one hundred research papers on the topic. Several times since the 2008 publication, I’ve heard the author interviewed, and made a mental note to read the book.

Yet, Dr. Maté’s earlier interviews had never addressed the damage that addicts do to those around them, which I felt deeply ambivalent about. He seemed so okay with active addicts being, well, active addicts. Yet, I remembered that I’d left an utterly unrepentant addict and was in no frame of mind to issue get-out-of-jail-free cards to addicts. Nope, I was holding addicts accountable as I was struggling to identify and process what I had been dealt. Wondering Why didn’t he just bloody stop? haunted me.

Early this summer I heard a podcast interview with Dr. Maté, coincidentally, while in a bookstore, and left the store with the book. Hungry ghosts is a Buddhist notion for intensely unconscious and instinctually driven beings, no longer fully alive due to their compulsive behavior. Ghosts may crave intensely and seek incessantly, but their ability to be nourished is long absent.

The Jungian therapist David Schoen depicted addiction as an archetype in The War of the Gods in Addiction. Anyone who has observed an addict over time probably sees the addict’s behavior very much like an archetypal possession. Attempted communion with the archetypical destroys mere humans, overwhelming the ego with too-potent energies. But we humans persist. Sometimes we so desperately want to transcend distress that no risk—psychic, spiritual or physical—seems too great. Maté calls all addiction “a flight from distress.”

While reading Maté’s patients’ evocative stories, one senses their addictions as an archetypical presence. This well-written volume weaves the reality of addiction with the vanguard of science. Peppered with the neuroscience of our brains’ dual cravings—both the opiate attachment-reward and the dopamine incentive-reward systems that dictate some of our behavior with nary a frontal cortex neuron’s involvement—Hungry Ghosts goes onto explain that our earliest experiences “set” these two systems.

An imbalance created early in life in one or both reward systems foreshadows our future cravings/compulsions and, perhaps, addictions. Early trauma, abuse, neglect and injury can affect how our brains function for the whole of our lives. Although brains can recover to surprising degrees upon cessation of active addictions (both substance and process addictions), the addicted brain is ever-susceptible to its pre-established imbalances.

Without knowing the powerful dictates of maladapted brain chemistry and its resultant cravings, Jung posited that it would take either a spiritual transformation or a strong human community to overcome addiction. Writing of one his former patients, Roland H., who had shared Jung’s adumbrations about addiction with Bill Wilson (co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous), just before Wilson became sober and started AA in this now-famous letter, Jung stated:

“…his (Roland W.’s) craving for alcohol was the low-level equivalent of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.

…you might be led to that goal (of sobriety) by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends…

…the evil principle prevailing in this world, leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by a real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society cannot resist the power of evil…you see, alcohol in Latin is spiritus and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”

Jung also realized that both substances and processes were addictive:

“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol, morphine or idealism.”

Maté writes of his own work addiction. And his compulsion to own classical music CDs, most of which he admits are never played once purchased. He writes plainly that he has lied to his wife about compulsive  CD purchases. On many occasions. That he has hid purchases, or parts of purchases, to manage his wife’s reactions to his latest music acquisitions. Just like an addict. He describes dulling the painful, empty place inside of him by planning and obsessing about owning various recordings and the ultimate high and release of his inner anxieties when he succumbs to the purchases. Followed by shame and deception. Oh, addiction, you are predictable.

The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and addiction are interrelated. These bilateral structures of the brain are rich in opiate and dopamine receptors and have an a plenitude of connections to the limbic (emotional) system. Additionally, the OFCs receive sensory inputs from all five senses while maintaining vast connections with both the implicit and explicit memory systems. Both substance and process addicts’ OFCs do not function normally.

Why does that matter? The OFC’s purpose is to evaluate diverse stimuli and make a story for the frontal cortex. To tell a story to the frontal cortex for final decision-making. According to PET scans, the OFC has made decisions up to ten seconds before subjects report that a thought has occurred, with muscles already taking action well before the moment that the decision had been made. Although sometimes overridden by the frontal cortex, the OFC determines much of our behavior, emotional lives and decisions by acting as a hub for many portions of the brain to cohere into a story.

I am awed that Jung seemed to know that senses, feelings, imagery and story-making were connected decades before there was a shard of evidence. The OFC findings point to a wiring and chemical connection.

Addicts of all stripes report a nearly identical addictive process: a fantasy/preoccupation, intense craving, using, anxiety reduction followed by shame and increasing anxieties, which loops back to preoccupation. The short biochemical description of addiction is that all addicts are addicted to their own brain’s chemical surges. The variety of ways that addicts jolt their brains into overproducing shows a remarkable and telling creativity on the part of the addicts. So that begs the question of why one person is drawn to a work addiction and another to alcohol? Why heroin? Or sex? Or methamphetamine? Or collecting classical CDs? Or information avarice?

To address that, Maté quotes Dr. Vincent Felitti: “It is hard to get enough of something that almost works.”

It was music that soothed Maté during a traumatic infancy in a Nazi-controlled Budapest ghetto. His father had been taken to a concentration camp, leaving his mother with the baby Gabor. Sometimes she spent 18 hours a day outside the home getting subsistence-level food for herself and her baby. When Gabor cried, no one came to soothe him. Both parents were utterly non-responsive to his crying. His mother left music playing while she was away obtaining food. Music was not the closeness to his mother that he really wanted, but it almost soothed him. Now, Dr. Maté finds that he will employ identical behaviors that he sees in his substance abuse patients to own yet another recording of Don Giovanni.

And his wife inquires: “Gabor, don’t you already have eight of that one already?”

Reading of Maté’s curious compulsion, it occurs to me: information almost works for me. Copious information almost makes the the world make sense. It almost bolsters me to face life courageously. Almost. My history offered knowledge-gathering as a substitute for parental bonding. Doesn’t the word almost conjure the image of hungry ghosts? Always grasping, yet ever empty?

Any particular addiction (or combination of addictions) almost works for that addict. Whatever combination each particular addict crafts is indicative of whatever it is that s/he is trying to resolve/staunch/sooth and what is available to relieve that. Again, Jung’s reach into patients’ histories for personal narrative in cultural context seems like current neuroscience.

Would a PET scan of my brain taken after a research binge reveal similarities to an alcoholic after a drinking binge? I do not know. I only know that I crave information. There I said it. If I could, I would inject sentences, thoughts and concepts into my veins to keep the information coming in. Information almost works for me.

Yes, clearly an addiction to information lives within me. Books are my first choice, followed by podcasts, audiobooks, lectures, workshops, classes, documentaries, research papers…and ad infinitum. Even though I have read piles of wonderful books, an identical anxiety looms in the last paragraphs of every one of them. An understood world is not a safe world, just a less anxious one for me. Hungry ghosts, indeed.

Like many addicts, I have been rather self-justified about my addiction, smug rather than ashamed of my imbalances. Because isn’t being uninformed just the worst of all possible fates? Isn’t not knowing like being an slack-jawed imbecile? I’ve certainly thought so. Years ago, I remember my son watching the DVD, Gladiator, and perhaps, in passing, I muttered something about conflating Roman emperors and movies with poor historical foundations. Perhaps.

“Oh stop, Mom, go argue with the History Channel.” my son protested, annoyed that I was questioning the veracity of the movie he found enthralling.

I am sure I shot something right back at him, which I am equally certain he ignored.

Now my son’s words sound uncannily like“Gabor, don’t you already have eight of that one already?” and Why didn’t he just bloody stop?

Why didn’t he just bloody stop? Because it almost works, that’s why. Was that the gem I have long been reading and listening for? Maybe, just maybe. Addiction is the repetition of what almost works, including my own.

And where does this take me, this new realization? I simply do not know and that is finally and incredibly satisfying.