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“Sexually active people take fewer sick days.” This statement, made by one Yvonne K. Fulbright, PhD, is specifically of the type I take care to avoid when visiting the website WebMD, which I do usually at 2AM on a weekday morning and always to moor my anxiety in some sort of serious disease. I’m there for pictures of tumours. I’m not looking for upbeat hints from sexperts. Not then. Not ever.

We can be sure that Fulbright is a well-meaning and scholarly champion of the human condition. We can also be sure that I am a very elaborate hypochondriac. We cannot be so sure that all this talk of congress and its health benefits is not an unsound habit.

A lot of sex is good for the “immune system”. A lack of sex is bad for ladies’ muscle tone. Morning sex is good for gentlemen’s productivity. Afternoon sex is good for ladies. Masturbation is good for the health of feminism itself. It can stop the patriarchy and heart disease!

Honestly. These claims for sex as a saviour of the self are irritating enough. That sex is now also seen as a servant to profit, per Yvonne the sexpert and many others. Well. It’s enough to make me wish to take a sexless sick day.

And, it’s almost enough to make me publicly rail against human sexual pleasure in an effort to preserve it. If sex continues to be good for self-esteem, physical health and the effective exploitation of the worker, then it will not continue to be actually good to have.

In the 1980s, the advice of mothers, church leaders and school counsellors to Australian girls was that sex would lead to our moral and physical ruin. Books left over from the 1970s countered this view and described sex to persons of my gender as a type of Personal Development tool or vitamin supplement. This seemed sensible to me at the time.

It did not seem so sensible during these years to Michel Foucault, the sometimes terrible but frequently insightful historian of Western “knowledge”. Just as I was reading second-wave feminist leftovers about sexual activity and its purported magic, Foucault was finishing his last work, the History of Sexuality volumes.

You don’t need to read all four of the things to understand Foucault’s doubt that an open celebration or perceived liberation of human sexuality was precisely a form of the “repression” it sought to negate. Just this fragment from one of his interviews will do it: “producing sexuality in this or that fashion, results in misery”.

Dead guy’s got a point. The 19th century medical and legal codification of homosexual practice, for example, didn’t end very well in the West. The late 20th century Western faith that sex acts, homosexual or otherwise, were an expression of one’s individual “truth” didn’t end well, either.

Not only do I have a perfectly decent evening of hypochondria ruined by some peppy sexpert and not only do some of us in a particular age-range risk being deadened by the repression of the anti-repression era in which we were raised, but younger people see a new cycle of sexual norms arise in the West. This is what Foucault was saying, more or less: the propagation, whether by state apparatus or ladies’ advice columns, of sexual norms is just not a top idea.

With publication of the (very dreadful) short story Cat Person last year in the New Yorker, a new cycle of normativity was marked. Young Western women from good homes now write and speak in an effort to prescribe healthy sexual practice that differs from my own generation’s disasters. Now abandoned is the You Go Girl™ interrogation of every orifice for its pleasure-giving potential and, in its place, very earnest talk of consent.

The sex in Cat Person is, above all, unhealthy. It is understood by its narrator less as sex and more as the expression of one man’s loathing for women and one woman’s incapacity to identify sexual consent. Being of the You Go Girl™ era, I truly don’t understand why the protagonist didn’t just trade this dud bash in for something better, or at least tell him to bugger off as I was always instructed to by every authoritative woman in my own life.

And then I remember how one prohibition replaces another in Western life, just like Foucault said.

My prohibition was to fail to have sex or to masturbate enthusiastically, etc. My mother’s prohibitions were to never speak of enjoying sex — nice girls in her day kept that a secret. My daughters face a different set of still-emerging prohibitions about unwholesome sex, and popular literature will change soon, too, from championing the health benefits of all sex to selecting the health benefits only of the right kind of sex.

And I wonder how anybody retains any sort of libido in the West at all.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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