Sexual Values: Sustainability
In the last blog entry I described the elements of the consent as a sexual value. In this entry I am describing the value of sustainability. However, I realized that I have not explicitly stated the importance I place on whether or not these values are sensitive to diversity. I believe strongly in the importance of diversity not just as a politically correct value but as something that makes for just, healthy, and vibrant communities. So in developing these sexual values over the years (they have changed and I expect them to change more) I have always sought to review whether they allow for a maximum amount of cultural diversity, ethnic diversity, sexual orientation diversity, sexual expression diversity, and sexual desire diversity. So, if you have any concerns about how these values welcome a diversity that is important to you, I invite you to comment or challenge me. That is how my values will continue to evolve. If you want to leave a comment, the process does not require that you leave your name. I will respond to anonymous comments.
Sustainability is a word with a certain cache in business parlance today. It has almost as much innate meaning as “green” yet many companies like to use it. While we might have an idea of what it means that a particular product is sustainably harvested, when I apply this vague term to sexual values it may not explain itself. I see sexual sustainability as a two part value. First, in sustainable sexuality today’s sexual expression is practiced in such a way that it does not foreclose on options for future physical health or sexual expression without conscious choice. Second, in sustainable sexuality, today’s sexual expression is not foreclosed upon for the sake of past or future sexual expression. This may sound circular but should make more sense with a couple of examples.
Sexual expression does not foreclose future expression.
I will give some examples. Sustainable masturbation is done with a frequency and in a way that allows physical recovery. This includes masturbation methods that do not injure the person’s genitalia or risk that the practice would prevent or impair future masturbation. It also includes masturbating in locations that are appropriately private and will not violate social norms. Another example would be making sure that if a person is practicing BDSM, that the frequency of the practice, the acts engaged in, and the safe, sane, and consensual practice allow incidental injuries to heal, and maintains community relationships. That is, the BDSM practice allows both communal and individual expression of sexuality in the future.
People do sometimes choose to limit our future sexual expression. For example, a man who feels that he does not want any children or who feels that he has enough children might elect to have a vasectomy. This choice does eliminate the future sexual expression of procreation (he hopes) but he engages in this process consciously, after careful consideration, and likely in dialogue with any current long-term sexual or romantic partners. So what does this mean about the past?
Past sexual expression does not foreclose upon present expression
Let us imagine Janisha and Marco who have been married for 5 years. One year ago, Marco had an affair. Since that time, Janisha has said that she is not ready to have sex again. Marco, trying to be respectful of the pain that he caused his wife has not pressed the issue but continues to feel that it is important for the two of them to return to a shared sexual life. The two of them have talked through the emotions of the affair but not the sexual ones. In many ways other than sex, their relationship is positive.
This could be an example of unsustainable sexuality between the couple and both are contributing to that lack of sustainability. Janisha is contributing to it by not working openly to reincorporate sexuality back into their life together which might require resolving more of her emotional pain about the affair. Though Marco is trying to be respectful and to accept responsibility for his actions, he is contributing to an on-going tension by accepting the absence of sexuality in their lives which is painful for him. He is in essence agreeing with Janisha that his actions are not worthy of forgiveness and accepting punishment.
Janisha and Marco might find this situation manageable but since there is unresolved tension about their sexual life together, an undercurrent of bitterness, resentment, and anger may begin to pervade their interactions. In this case, the past has foreclosed upon sexual expression of both people in the present including the way their sexual passion might express frustration at infidelity. A barren patch of soil devoid of nutrients that is packed down and compressed cannot grow anything. It might be easy to maintain but it doesn’t qualify as sustainable agriculture. So it is with this couple.
Future sexual expression does not foreclose upon present sexual expression
Sometimes, as adults we make compromises when two or more of our values come into conflict with one another. There are some examples of this that I will provide in the future Sexual Values: Adaptability blog entry that could easily look like the future foreclosing on the present. One example would a couple not having sex but staying monogamous for months after the birth of a new child. Exactly which behaviors count as the future foreclosing upon the present and which would count as good expressions of adaptation is not something that I have a magic formula for or a list to describe. Rather, this is exactly the kind of fodder for critical thinking that I think helps my clients come to their own understanding about their values. I will provide one example of a situation that I think does qualify as the future foreclosing upon present sexual expression.
Imagine a young man, Phuoc, in his early 20s who has grown up in a religiously conservative background but who has since left that background. He grew up in a context where right and wrong were clearly defined and this cultivated in him a strong sense of morality and ethics. Now, though he has left the faith of his childhood behind, he continues to pursue right-action in the world through his current values. This moral sense is a strength for him. And a vestige of his conservative upbringing is that he is concerned that masturbation will impair his ability to have the “right” sex with a partner when he gets one and so he attempts to abstain from masturbation in the present in favor of an anticipated future. But Phuoc does not succeed in abstaining from masturbation all the time and when he does masturbate he feels that he has behaved in an immoral way.
From the perspective of the sustainability value, the costs that Phuoc pays in the present in terms of shame, tension, and low self-esteem now are high and the dividends for the future are doubtful. It is even possible that his uncertainty about his sexual response cycle and the goodness of his sexuality will make it hard for him to share his sexuality with a partner generously and without inhibition. In a case like this, the future promise of the right way to be sexual has eliminated a clear path to sexual expression in the present.
In this example, I would be cautious about simply telling Phuoc to masturbate. In general, I am very cautious about telling people what to do or not to do with their bodies. However, I might explore with Phuoc what he thinks about masturbation. What his experience is about what happens when he masturbates despite his best efforts not to, and would inquire about his idea of how this is or is not sustainable. With these questions I would look to foster in Phuoc a continuing dialogue between his values and his experience of his sexuality.
The importance of present sexual expression
The history of sexual oppression and repression is long and painful. It is an oversimplification of these crimes against our own humanity to say that they have been barbaric. And it would be a mistake to think that this oppression is in the distant past. We remain afraid of our sexuality because of its power and many people and groups continue to try to oppress sexual expression because of that power. But what we see in the history of sexual oppression is that sexuality is impossible to stop.
Whether it is parents trying to stop teenagers from having sex by not talking about it, or police trying to stop people from being homosexual, or Facebook trying to stop people from expressing their inner divas, sexuality is a force that cannot simply be rejected.
This entry has focused on three ways of viewing the value of sexual sustainability: (1) The present does not foreclose upon future sexual expression, (2) the past does not foreclose upon the present, and (3) the future does not foreclose upon the present. As I conclude this entry though, I realize that these values could also have been phrased more in the affirmative: (1) current sexual expression supports future sexual expression, and (2) present sexual expression is free and authentic. Or, even more to the point: Sexuality requires an expression in the present. Like all aspects of nature, we ignore or repress it at our peril. In the next entry, I will write about a value I have referred to already, generativity.
Other posts in this series:
- Sexual Values: One Therapist’s Provisional Set
- Values that didn’t make the cut
Editor’s Note 05/24/2017: Since writing this series I have updated the principles that I use to guide therapy for sexual issues. For an updated view, see this post on Sexual Health Principles.