Sex Is Not a Natural Act and Other Essays

By Leonore Tiefer | Go to book overview

University of California at Berkeley with a dissertation on hormones and mating behavior in golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus), my ideas about sexuality underwent a complete transformation over the subsequent decade and I now renounce that dissertation and other early biological work as largely useless in the understanding of human sexuality. In the 1970s, writings from the women's movement convinced me that the primary influences on women's sexuality are the norms of the culture, those internalized by women themselves and those enforced by institutions and enacted by significant others in women's lives. Hamsters had taught me nothing about social norms!

I returned to graduate school and respecialized as a clinical psychologist so I would be able to work with human beings, and I soon began learning about sexuality straight from the humans' mouths. During the 1980s, I was persuaded by the deluge of new historical, feminist, and lesbian and gay writings that sexual behavior and values must be seen in the context of competing ideological and economic interests. Individuals' hormones and individuals' life histories are not enough. No one can resist the influence of the endless debates over sexual identities, the media deluge of sexual images, changes in marriage, work, and parenting, technology and travel, and so on.

As I began to read the new research on sexual history and gender expressions, I could see how the social culture affected the sexual experiences of the thousands of students, individuals, and couples I had talked to as a sexologist. Working within medical center urology departments for more than ten years, I learned firsthand what people do when their familiar sexual routines aren't working and what values and beliefs about sexuality they use as they choose among the options offered to them by contemporary bio- medicine.

I have often felt great sadness and frustration as a sexologist to see that for many--perhaps most--people, sexual experience falls far short of what they hoped for and what they believe others may be experiencing. There is so little honest conversation about sex that most people really have no idea what's going on in the lives of others. Even avid readers of self-help books or popular magazines are misguided by the unrepresentative stories presented there. What has irritated me the most about the mystification surrounding sexuality has been the persistent but peculiar idea that "sex is natural"--that is, that sex is a simple and universal biological function that, without any training, all humans should experience, enjoy, and perform in roughly the same way.

This book is a collection of my attacks on this peculiar idea. The concept that "sex is natural" seems to me so illusory and so pernicious that I can work myself into a froth on a moment's notice. It seems such a cruel trick. Notions of "naturalism" position sexuality as important and glorious and yet at the same time help to make it a source of immense anxiety and

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