Toxic Mantras

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss

Since returning to the United States after an extended period living abroad, I’ve gone through multiple bouts of reverse culture shock. Never anything I couldn’t handle, but moments that have thrown me into puzzled reflection, if not outright confusion.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling you don’t understand your own culture; that the society which shaped you simply doesn’t make sense. Something about living outside our cultural milieu tends to make this feeling stand out in sharp, sometimes painful, relief.

On some level, I must like being a *gasping* fish out of water because I keep pushing past my cultural comfort zone by traveling and traveling and traveling some more – and then coming home to see what else about Gringolandia (as the U.S. is affectionately called in some places beyond our borders) surprises or unsettles or confounds me.

One of my earlier incidents of reverse culture shock has been coming back to me in recent months. Many years ago, shortly after I had returned to life in Kansas City, my writers group organized their first public reading. In the days leading up to that event, as excitement built and we readied ourselves to showcase our great talent, one of the organizers circulated an email with some last minute advice. From that list of guidelines, I still remember this:

There may be kids in the audience, so no sex scenes — but violence is probably okay.

Ten years later, I’m still troubled by that message.

I could understand prohibiting sexual content and violent content for younger audiences. I could even imagine prohibiting violent content while allowing some sexual content – as long as the sex represented positive, healthy, consensual intimacy and avoided graphic detail. But to expose under-aged audiences only to violence without providing any counter visions of love and affection? That seemed deeply unhealthy to me.

Of course, I was new to this group, not to mention new (once again) to my home town and my own country. I had no personal stake in whether a scene to be read was sexy or violent because the one I’d chosen was neither. So I stifled my reaction, judging this a battle not worth fighting. On some level, I still regret my silence.

No sex, but violence is okay.

If you close your eyes and take a few moments to let your thoughts wander over these six words, I’m sure you’ll start to connect the many ways in which this mantra – which apparently is a sin qua non for raising children, at least among some of my friends in the Midwest – manifests itself in our daily lives in the United States of America; how matters of sex and sexuality are often silenced while violence is talked about, displayed, even flaunted and celebrated before the public eye.

Once you’ve connected those dots, I’m going to add something else to the mix for your consideration: How we’ve constructed our recent public dialogue with respect to “sex” and “sexuality.”

First off, let me say this: I’m thankful we have a public dialogue at all when it comes to these matters. For too long there has been too much silence around the culture of sexual harassment and assault. It’s humbling and inspiring to live in a time where justice is finally being done, where women are rising in anger and people are at last being held accountable for the many wrongs committed over too many years.

Yet as magnificent as the #MeToo leap has been, the momentum of these voices has carried us across only part of the chasm, because harassment and assault are not about sex. They are about violence.

Talking about sexual violence addresses an aspect of the problem of violence, but what we also need is an honest public dialogue about sexual intimacy, about what a rich and fulfilling sex life looks like and how wonderful that can be if we do it right.

Some would argue these are unrelated issues, or that bringing up one undercuts the other. Yet for me, the problem of sexual violence is the ugly shadow generated by the silence surrounding sexual intimacy. They are inseparable pieces of the same difficult and deeply ingrained problem.

If we teach our children that violence is more acceptable than sex, how can we act surprised when they express their sexuality through violence?

More fundamentally, why do we teach our children violence is more acceptable than sex, when violence is about pain, degradation, humiliation, and destruction, while sexual intimacy is about pleasure, affection, communication, and respect? 

At some point to fully resolve the issue of sexual violence, we must find a way to talk openly about sexual intimacy – to make sex at least as acceptable, if not more so, in our art, language, and culture. I’m not entirely sure how to accomplish this, but it’s a star I’ve long seen on the horizon, often with a sense of lonely hope that maybe I’m the only one who imagines how beautiful it might be if only we could get there.

5 thoughts on “Toxic Mantras

  1. Oh oooh Karin! What a wonderful beautiful post. I second your emotions! Thank you for sharing. This is something I could have written and did write something like it on my own blog. The majority of writers don’t agree with us though. They chant the toxic mantra while shouting that sex scenes in books makes them pornographic. Could it be partially because they’re afraid to write sex scenes because publishing a book with sex scenes in it lets readers see a lot of the author. It’s like giving a lecture in the nude to a clothed audience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Jini! It’s always great to hear your thoughts and perspectives on these topics. I used an example from my writer’s life to illustrate my point, but I’m also trying to think more broadly about how we discuss sex, sexuality, and sexual intimacy versus violence and violent behaviors in our daily discourse. This is a huge topic, so I’ll probably come back to it in future blog posts, with the hope of fueling some positive discussions. I hope you’ll come back to participate!


      1. Yes I will participate and thanks for the invitation. I think this is a very important topic. It hits me even at home. My husband doesn’t like the sex in my books. He doesn’t like sex on television either and will turn off the show if there’s any explicit sex. But any amount of violence and gore is fine with him. I think we should take a stand against this kind of thinking. I think graphic violence in books, movies, TV shows, and everyday conversation should be rated XXX. It panders to the menality of psychopaths who shoot up schools and other public places. It’s been happening so often lately and the way we talk about violence when it’s “just a book” or “just a movie” matters because tolerating it encourages it to happen in real life. I might be that tolerating sexual content encourages people to have sex too. Gosh that would be really bad, right?. (winks) As you said so well, sex is about love and violence is about hate. What the world needs now is lots more love and much less hate. Escpecially in the age of Trump.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve said it elsewhere and I’ll say it again here–pull a positive from any negative and you lessen that negative’s weight on the world. One very positive thing coming out of the trainwreck of the last election is that the outcry got louder. It got stronger. And it’s not fading away but getting louder and more prevalent everywhere.

    Part of the conversation has to include why violence is okay for kids to view/read about, but not sex. Absolutely. Could it be that violence, largely, is a man’s thing? That sex without violence puts us on equal footing, partners in mutual respect, love and/or desire rather than conquest? Food for thought.

    And men really have to stop the backlash thing and LISTEN with BOTH their ears, not just the one attached to their egos. There are few out there saying ALL MEN ARE EVIL LET’S DESTROY THEM! AAAAAAH! There’s a whole way of thinking and being in our society that favors men, even when one is not conscious of buying into it. And THAT is the root of things. Gads, I can go on and on, but I won’t. This is already long enough, and why I saved it for this morning rather than trying to respond on my cell phone. Ha!

    I’m going to again suggest reading The Power, by Naomi Alderman (though I know you’re reading a truly magnificent book at the moment. hehee!) It’s not just women turning the tables on men, but the men’s reaction to that shift in power. It’s chilling and thrilling and very, very relevant to things going on right now.

    Thank you for this post. Beautiful.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Terri!

      As I mentioned to Margaret, so many of our conversations in other forums inspired my post here. I hope we can continue those conversations!

      I will say – since you brought it up – that I don’t believe violence is an inherently male quality (any more than I think the capacity for intimacy is inherently female). But violent behavior is a value that is honored in our society in a way that I’ve not seen it honored in other places I’ve lived in – even when those places deal with as much gender inequality as we do. Like I said, it’s a huge topic, and I probably won’t spend much more time on it here.

      What I really want to talk about is sex!! What makes for good sex, what constitutes positive sexual development, and what we can do to feel better about our sexuality and natural the ups and downs of our sex lives. Instinct is telling me there are a lot of people out there who could speak to these topics, and I just think it’d be a good thing to see that shared more on an open forum.

      But who knows? Maybe I’m just becoming that crazy old lady who lives down the block – virtually speaking! 🙂

      Now back to reading that magnificent book…


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