22 February 2010

 

An orgasm a day

Last night’s talk at Secular Hall was an unusual one – all about sexual pleasure. Well, not exactly, but about how one city’s health authority, Sheffield’s, pioneered work on promoting health education about the benefits of sexual pleasure for young people, amongst all the other dire warnings about the dangers of sex.
Steve Slack talked about the pamphlet that led to a furore last summer (I must have been out of the country), with headlines in the papers like ‘an orgasm a day on the NHS’, or similar.
He was right about one thing, that outside of explicitly pornographic material very few people are comfortable talking about sexual pleasure – despite it being the main reason most of us take part in sex and without which one has to wonder whether there would be a human race at all.
Even in the world of humour, where comedians make frequent references to issues around sex, to much laughter, the humour always seems to rely on either straightforward smut or daring allusions to what we all know goes on in the bedroom, or back of a car, or public toilets.
It is perfectly understandable why secularists are more open to this kind of discussion than other folk for it is our bête noir, religion, and the conservation of ancient ideas and values that it always carries, that creates many of the problems around free and open debate about sex. And not just debate around sex but also the practice of sex and the celebration of sexual pleasure. Religions like Catholicism and Islam, in particular, have a very great deal to answer for in their never-ending efforts to suppress the free expression of sexuality. This suppression of natural human instincts, with strict rules about who can do what to whom, and how, backed by the threat of eternal punishment for breaking them, leads to the sickening, and widespread, hypocrisy of ‘celibate’ Catholic priests engaging in the sexual abuse of young children and the legitimation of paeodophilia offered by the 55-year-old prophet Mohammed’s marriage, and sexual relations, with the 9-year-old girl, Ayesha, who became his second wife. In a number of Muslim countries it is still considered normal for old men to marry children in just the same way, while religious strictures on sex only being permissible within marriage is circumvented by men (only) being allowed to have several wives and the practice of 24-hour ‘marriages’ to allow prostitution to flourish.
The guilt experienced by many people brought up in strictly religious families with their enjoyment of sex is a staple of both comedy and tragedy on the stage. The cult classic film ‘The Wicker Man’ exemplifies this as well as any doctoral thesis, with a Scottish Presbyterian policeman going to a remote Scottish island to investigate the ‘disappearance’ of a child. Soon after his arrival he discovers that the islanders are devotees of the ancient Pagan affirmation of the joy of sex and its fundamental role (for them) in promoting the well-being of their community. Too late he discovers that he has been lured to the island to form the centrepiece of a sacrificial rite intended to restore fertility to the island’s crops.
One aspect of the debate missing from the talk was the question of promiscuity. Sex education, its opponents assert, promotes promiscuity and should therefore be limited or conducted under religious control – this is a concession the religious schools lobby has just won from the government in an amendment to the legislation on personal health education going through Parliament at the moment. Steve Slack, said he was unsure what the word ‘promiscuity’ meant. In fact there is a perfectly adequate definition in any dictionary, along the lines of ‘having frequent and diverse sexual relationships, especially transient ones’. For many people, and not just those of religious persuasions, such behaviour does raise questions. I leave out here all mention of ‘morality’ as this is one of the most overworked and abused words in the language, especially by the religious. So what issues might atheists have with promiscuity? We tend to look at consequences of behaviour before passing judgement and while promiscuity may deliver on the important health benefits of regular orgasms it also tends to create problems that cause a lot of harm in its wake. The spread of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, the devaluation of intimate human relationships, the sexual objectification of others, and, not least, the trail of broken hearts, must all be brought into the equation. While sex education may attempt to deal with some of them its attempts are not universally successful, especially on the ‘soft’ side of human emotions and when dealing with young people whose behaviour is more often driven by riotous hormones, or social pressure, than coolly rational thought.
On balance, then, my conclusion is that sex education must deal with all aspects of sexual activity and that the consequences of promiscuity need to be discussed thoroughly, perhaps getting young people to reflect for themselves on the potentially negative consequences of unrestricted sexual activity, as well as on the positive benefits of regular orgasms.

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