I’m in love with the modern world. I’m having a seriously passionate sexy affair with it. The modern world is smokin’ hot.
And I am powerfully of the opinion that the modern world is a smokin’ hot lover, to a huge extent, because the modern world is an increasingly secular world.
I was in Seattle last weekend, giving a talk, visiting fellow Freethought Blogger Jen McCreight… and seeing the renowned HUMP! festival, the amateur- and- locally- produced porn festival founded by Dan Savage. And HUMP! was wildly super-awesome, with quality ranging from “pretty darned good” to “that was one of the most imaginative, insightful, jaw-droppingly gorgeous pieces of porn — heck, any kind of art — I’ve seen in a good long time.” I loved the polymorphously perverse variety of it: the mix of straight and gay and lesbian and bi and “who the fuck knows what that was”; the mix of kink and vanilla and many flavors in between; the mix of fucked-up and hilarious and touchingly sweet. I loved that some of the most kinky and fucked-up stuff was also some of the sweetest. And even though it makes me a little sad that most of these films are shown only for the HUMP festival and will never be seen again (all copies of the films are returned to the filmmakers or destroyed after the festival — one of their mottos is “porn star for a weekend — not for life”), there’s also something about this that I liked. It made me feel more present, more in the moment, made me pay closer attention and really be here now. (Be there then. Whatever.)
But I think the thing I liked best about the HUMP! festival was… well, the very fact that it was happening. The fact that several hundred people were willing — not just willing but happy, not just happy but excited and delighted and eager — to sit in a public space with several hundred strangers, and watch explicit, often wildly freaky sex videos. (At multiple shows per night. Most of which sold out almost immediately.)
There was a shameless quality to the event. And I don’t mean “shameless” as in “brazen” or “audacious” or “in-your-face.” I mean, quite literally, without shame. The audience was excited, delighted, surprised, shocked, turned on, grossed out, touched, laughing uproariously, on the edge of their seats, and more. But I was in that theater for an hour and a half — longer, if you count hanging out in the lobby waiting to get in — and I didn’t get a single whiff of shame. A little giggly nervous excitement was the closest I saw to anything even resembling shame. And it was a privilege and a delight to see, and to be part of. Like Lily Tomlin said in Jane Wagner’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe: “The play was soup — the audience was art.”
And this shamelessness over sex? This eagerness to celebrate it? This open curiosity about its wildly varied possibilities? This willingness to acknowledge — in public, in a room full of hundreds of strangers — that you have it yourself, and that you enjoy it?
This is not something we have ever seen in a world controlled by religion.
This is something we’ve only started seeing in a secular world: a world where laws and rules and social expectations about sex are liberated from religion.
The degree to which the world is secular appears to be the degree to which sex is freed from shame.
I’m not saying that everyone in the audience at HUMP was an atheist. It would surprise me tremendously to learn that. I’m sure there were progressive Christians in that audience, reform Jews, Wiccans, “spiritual but not religious” folks, “I’m finding God in my own way” folks, what have you. But… well, actually, that’s sort of my point. I think this is something a lot of religious believers have a hard time remembering: A secular world actually works in their favor. A world that isn’t controlled by religion is a world in which they’re free to practice whatever freaky, dumbass religion they want to. A secular world is a world where you can be Baptist, or Muslim, or Mormon, or Jewish, or Hindu, or Seventh-Day Adventist, or Wiccan, or “spiritual but not religious”… and it’s okay, because your world isn’t being controlled by the Pope or the Church of England or whoever. (As Ingrid said when we were talking about this: Try living in Italy in 1600 and saying that you’re “finding God in your own way,” and see how fast you get burned at the stake.)
And — to bring it back to sex — a secular world is a world where you can watch porn or not, masturbate or not, have gay sex or not, spank each other or not… according to your own conscience, within reasonable laws (about things like rape, age of consent, sexual harassment, etc.) that prevent people from seriously hurting each other.
Many of you probably read about the Sex and Secularism study that came out a few months ago. In case you haven’t: Researchers recently did a study of thousands of religious non-believers — mostly former believers — asking about their sex lives before and after leaving religion. And for the overwhelming majority of respondents, the effect on their sex lives of leaving religion was overwhelmingly positive.
Importantly, the physical details of their sex lives mostly didn’t change very much. Believers and atheists have about the same kinds of sex at about the same rate: they’re just about as likely to have gay sex, have extra-marital sex, have kinky sex, watch porn, masturbate, etc. Atheists just feel less guilty about it. Atheists have sexual ethics, of course. It’s just that we base our sexual ethics on… well, on ethics. Our sexual morality isn’t based on what someone else wrote down thousands of years ago about what God supposedly told them about how he does and does not want people to do the nasty. Our sexual morality is based on issues like consent. Honesty. Fairness. What hurts people. What brings people joy.
Atheists have sexual ethics. And of course we feel shame and guilt when we violate those ethics. But we aren’t, for the most part, ashamed about the very fact that we have sex, and the fact that we want to have it. I was at an atheist conference in Cincinnati a few weeks ago — not in Seattle, mind you, not in San Francisco, not in New York or Berlin or Amsterdam, but in Cincinnati, Ohio — and researcher Darrell Ray, creator of the abovementioned “Sex and Secularism” study, asked the audience when he spoke, “How many of you masturbate? How many of you have had extra-marital sex? How many of you have watched porn?” And the overwhelming majority of the audience raised their hands without hesitation. Something that — as Ray pointed out — would absolutely not have happened if this question had been asked at just about any church or synagogue or mosque. Again — the answers would have been the same. The members of churches and synagogues and mosques are masturbating, having extra-marital sex, watching porn, etc. at pretty much the same rate atheists are. They’re just not copping to it. They’re ashamed of it.
Persuading the world out of religion — or, at the very least, persuading the world to base its lives on something other than religion — frees the world of pointless sexual shame.
And that is an unbelievably beautiful thing. It is imaginative and insightful, hilarious and touching, exciting and delightful. It is a privilege to be part of it.
The world is changing. It hasn’t changed enough yet, make no mistake. Hipster Seattle is not the entire world: there are still huge reaches of the world where people are filled with shame and fear and guilt over the inarguable biological fact that they have sexualities. There are still women being taught that their sexuality belongs to their husbands; there are still gay teenagers being shamed and bullied and driven to suicide; there are still little girls getting their clitorises cut off. And yes, of course, there are things about the modern world that suck, sexually as well as otherwise: too-early sexualization of little kids, intense pressure towards impossible standards of physical beauty, etc.
But the degree to which the world is secular appears to be the degree to which sex is freed from shame.
And that is an awesome thing.
That is worth fighting for.
Let’s keep it up.