The Scarlet Sash: Nonsexuality, Aversion, and Mythical Oppression

When I wrote this post, I claimed that my orientation does not invalidate my right to a voice in the particular context discussed.  Obviously, in other contexts, such as those involving a discussion of same-gender attraction, it would be fair to say that my input has less weight and relevance due to the particulars of my identity.  However, the discussions under review in that post did not frame crux of exclusion as as a matter of LGB vs. not-LGB.  The logic used by the silencing allos in those two examples is a logic that would only make sense in a world which asexual people are oppressors or have a particular kind of asexual privilege.

That’s the idea I intend to unpack some of in this post — the idea of the oppressive prude.

CW: sex and oppression talk, so the subject of rape does come up in this post

Without a doubt, there are oppressive ways of shaming sexual attraction and restricting the expression of sexuality.  I have no intention of claiming otherwise.  The thing is: being allosexual, liking sex, and being sexual are not themselves stigmatized.

They’re not.

They’re stigmatized along other axes of oppression, as part of an overarcing denial of agency and legitimacy of demographics who are pushed to the margin — i.e. they’re stigmatized in conjunction with being of color, with being lgbt, with being a woman, etc.  “Sexuality” (as a scale from more-to-less “sexual”) is not an axis of oppression in its own right — or, if it is, then being more sexual than not isn’t the oppressed pole.  Yet attacking sex is a hallmark of the classic literary dystopia.

A long time back, I was talking to Sciatrix and recommended she read Isaac Asimov’s scathing review of 1984 as a way to help cheer her up, since his particular brand of snark never fails to brighten my day.  But as I got to thinking more about Orwell’s famous novel, I belatedly remembered the Junior Anti-Sex League and their red sashes, and then the Party’s disdain for sex being written in as one of its methods of control, and then Winston’s laments that the Party’s brainwashing made his wife impossible to enjoy sex with.

It’s such a straight white man’s view of oppression.

You want to talk about sexuality and oppression?  Sure.  There’s a lot that goes on in the intersection of the two, and our past and present have demonstrated numerous means of controlling and weaponizing sexuality to oppress.  And yet, in Orwell’s nightmare world, we hear so little of rape and sexual assault that you’d think draining the appeal out of consensual sex is the more heinous crime in his eyes.

[<more serious rape tw>After writing most of this post, I just did a quick search to make sure I wasn’t forgetting something, and as it turns out, I had forgotten about Winston fantasizing about raping and murdering the woman he was attracted to.  Winston is the book’s protagonist.  I am without words.  My hypothesis looks more correct than I ever wanted it to be.</tw>]

There’s a part where the narration explains that Mrs. Smith has been so taken in by anti-sex propaganda, Winston is reluctant to have sex with her anymore because she’s so passionless and mechanical about it.  The only reason they haven’t stopped altogether is because she believes it’s their duty to the Party to conceive a child, but neither of them is able to really enjoy it anymore.

When I first read this book, what I remember feeling during the segment was not indignant dismay that the Party could damage people’s lives to that extent, or indignant dismay that Orwell showed pathetic little imagination or knowledge of the world in the way he wrote oppressive forces in the realm of sexuality, or even indignant dismay that once again someone was villainizing the sex-haters.  I read about the protagonist dreading and abhorring sex with his wife, and I felt a strange kind of… relief.  That’s the only word I can find for it.  I empathized, though clearly not in the way Orwell intended.  It felt like a burden had temporarily been lifted.  I was so starved for acknowledgement that sex can be awful and unwanted, I was relieved to find it even in a dystopia novel where sex aversion is explicitly stated to be a product of evil propaganda.

So given my experiences like that, it was particularly jarring for me when I saw a commercial for PBS’ Poirot that included a clip of a character asking, “Why is everyone so afraid of sex?”

Setting aside the question of whether or not “everyone” actually is “so afraid of sex”, we might as well ask the question: why would anyone be afraid of sex?  Could it be that, for some, sex itself is akin to body horror?  Could it be past traumatic experiences?  Could it be anticipation of sensory overload?  Could it be well-founded anxiety about the possibility of mishap or embarrassment?

“Why”, indeed.  A total mystery.

But back to the original quote, who is this “everyone” she speaks of?  And what behaviors does she have in mind when she deems them “so afraid of sex”?  I’ve investigated the context, and it appears she was reacting to her daughter’s disapproval of her for saying lewd things in public.  In other words, she’s like one of those sex-positive feminists that thinks it’s rude for you to want out of a sexual discussion you didn’t ask to be part of.  So with this particular character, it seemed like she was just whining about someone not consenting to be put in sexual situations according to her whims.  I haven’t watched the episode, so I may be off in my conjecture.  But that’s beside the point.  The point is, people like this exist.  I know some of them in person.  They speak and act with a genuine belief in ideas like this — that any aversion to sex is a character flaw, a thing to be pitied and laughed at, and that anyone who doesn’t join in to sex talk at the drop of a hat is a bigot who must be shamed into compliance.

And the fact that they treat fear of sex like a ruling ideology — where does that come from?

Sometimes, the conversations around this subject look to me like a conga line.  Sex-positive nonreligious folk say, “We actually like sex, unlike those religious people,” to which Pagans say, “We actually like sex, unlike those Christians,” to which Christians say, “We actually like sex, unlike those Puritans,” and Puritans say, “We actually like sex, unlike those Catholics,” to which Catholics say, “Wait, no, we’re not like that anymore.”

Perhaps a better question than “Why is everyone so afraid of sex?” would be: Why is everyone so afraid of seeming afraid of sex?

There’s nothing wrong with being afraid of something scary.  There’s nothing wrong with being afraid of something that involves a lot of nerve-endings, or that hurts you, or that puts you at risk, or that could have consequences that you don’t want.  There’s nothing wrong with being afraid of something where you know your behavior will be scrutinized.  Just like it’s okay to be afraid of roller coasters and spiders and public speaking, it’s okay to be afraid of sex.

And seriously, nobody’s oppressing anyone by personally not wanting to have it or talk about it.

22 responses to “The Scarlet Sash: Nonsexuality, Aversion, and Mythical Oppression

  • ginnawings

    “Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” – Oscar Wilde
    Great post m- it makes me wonder whether we might learn something from our bonobo relatives. – check my today’s post.
    Blog on!

  • luvtheheaven

    That Bonobo comment’s… um…. just wow. Yeah, I’m staring in awe at how off they are too.

    I think you’ve made me want to read 1984 now. I’ve been wanting sort of to check it out, but I had never heard about how they handle sex and just… wow. Now I just REALLY want to read it and see what exactly goes on in the old, classic book.

    • Spade

      It’s pretty nasty — there’s neglect/gore toward the end that had me cringing from how gross it was. And the bulk of the book is pretty tedious. Can’t say I recommend it. But if you’re really curious, it definitely plays up the Evil Anti-Sex people theme.

  • Lisa

    It’s a useful idea from poststructuralism that “everyone is trying to repress you from having sex!!” is a legend that’s told in this society to make everyone fall over themselves trying to hard to resist that repression they’re told about, that they fall right into the ways in which dominant constructions of sex and sexuality oppress us. like, “hey, The Man doesn’t want you to fall into that hole! he’s gonna try and stop you!” “damn he can’t stop me, i’m gonna fall right into it, I’m a resistance fightAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaa*splat*”

  • Sara K.

    I think an obvious reason to be scared of (certain kinds of) sex is pregnancy and STDs, particularly for people who do not have reliable access to contraceptives or STD prevention/treatment. For many people, sex means they might get a disease which they can’t get properly treated so the disease will kill them. I think lots of relatively priveleged people forget this. Heck, I once encountered a comment that said that people shouldn’t focus on STDs because making people scared of STDs or making an effort to prevent them is SEX-NEGATIVE.

    I do think East Asian cultures don’t have so much of this ‘mythical oppression’, or at least that the ‘mythical oppression’ works differently there. There are cultures/societies which claim they are superior because they aren’t as shockingly sexual as some other culture/society – South Korea claims they are better than the sexually shameless Japanese (there is history behind this – for example, when Japan controlled Korea, they forced Korean Buddhist monks to marry, and after Korean independence there were sometimes violent conflicts between monks who wanted to stay married and monks who insisted that true Buddhist monks must be celibate and that married monks were submitting to Japanese colonialism), and likewise North Korea claims that they are superior because they are not as shamelessly sexual as the South Koreans.

    Then again, even though North Korea is the closest thing to a real-life example of 1984, even they do not consider sex in the context of lawful marriage to be bad (on the contrary, marriage is nearly compulsory in North Korean society – adults who do not marry are considered ‘other’, and North Korea is not nice to ‘others’). And yes, rape is one of the torture methods used by the North Korean regime (also, I’ve read that the regime sometimes ‘rewards’ people by ‘giving them wives’ – not the kind of sexual oppression Orwell envisioned).

  • Rebecca

    I was fourteen when I read 1984 so I didn’t pick up on those serious themes (I was just a pretentious teenager who wanted to say ‘oh look, I’ve read 1984, isn’t it a classic can’t we learn a lot?’). I’ve not read it since, but I think I shall have to.

  • Calum P Cameron

    Hmm. I actually kinda really liked 1984, although I guess I partially just didn’t think much about the sex thing beyond it being another way in which the Party screws up everyone’s minds until literally everybody except themselves loses (after all, a world where everyone feels obligated to have sex but nobody feels able to enjoy it is one where pretty-much by definition everyone is miserable). I guess when you look at it while bearing in mind that more-or-less every other aspect of the dystopia is a criticism of real-world attitudes that Orwell genuinely thought were threatening it does start to look, uh, a little suspect.

    Dangit. Everything I love is always so problematic.

    I would argue, on the note of Winston fantasising about rape, that there’s nothing inherently wrong with making your book’s protagonist guilty of objectively evil motives or actions. I wouldn’t say the book portrays him as heroic in those moments. I always read it as just further evidence of how PROFOUNDLY damaged their society is at every level – ie even something as basic human morality has been twisted into something horrible by the effects of the Party. There’s another point in the book where Winston admits he would be willing to throw acid in the face of a child if O’Brien told him to. Winston Smith is not a hero, and I think that’s part of the point.

    • Spade

      “Dangit. Everything I love is always so problematic.”

      Welcome to the club.

      “there’s nothing inherently wrong with making your book’s protagonist guilty of objectively evil motives or actions”

      Right, it’s just dubious in the context of antisex badguys.

  • Aqua

    I read 1984 in high school, and I understood a lot of the themes, but I at first didn’t properly understand the intended role of the Junior Anti-Sex League. Part of me thought they were doing the population a favor by abolishing people’s ability to enjoy sex, and push them towards artificial insemination.

    But then again, I soon realized that even if the push towards artificial insemination were complete, they still hadn’t abolished sexual desire, and that’s deliberate that they didn’t abolish it. I don’t remember the exact details, but I recall that The Party wanted people to be sexually frustrated. They wanted it to be that people experience sexual desire, but aren’t allowed to act on it, so they channel their pent-up frustration and anger towards The Party’s goals.

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