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.