Why do we so often refer to sex as dirty?


My next post was supposed to be about morality and that will be the subject of a number of future posts, but I was listening to the CBC this morning and the guest host of the morning program was interviewing a comedian and talking about his upcoming show. That tweaked my interest as I sipped my coffee. The host asked the comedian if his show was going to be clean. The comedian responded that for the most part it would be but that it would also be dirty at times. Well, I just had to weigh in. Morality will just have to wait a bit.

By dirty I know, and you know, that the host and the comedian were referring to the use of  swear words like fuck and shit and piss in his routine. He was not, however, going to make specific reference to the sex act and have some fun with that. That would be too raunchy. After all, you’ve got to keep it safe for a regular audience or they won’t come back to see you again. Swearing, it seems, is fair game. It’s okay to make fun of your wife or yourself in a comedy routine, but it’s not okay to talk explicitly about what went wrong or right the last time you had sex. That will be okay in the not-too-distant future, I expect.

It’s quite telling that in English swearing is almost exclusively sex based or has to do with genitalia or bodily functions of one sort or the other. In French Canada, swearing is entirely different, or at least it was when I was a kid. In French swearing relates to religious things although it can stray into combining sex or bodily functions with objects or persons of religions significance. For instance, a great swearing line in French refers to the ‘holy cream of an old nun.’ It’s probably changing now to a more ‘cleanly’ sex-based expression. Tell me if you know. I’m not up on Québecois swearing behaviour these days. In English, of course, fuck is the word or choice in a number of expressions not at all related to sex, but the word clearly relates to coitus or the sex act. For instance we might exclaim upon seeing a cute cat video: “Wasn’t that just the cutest fucking thing you’ve ever seen?” Or, listen to George Carlin classify people into three categories. He says that there are stupid people, people who don’t give a shit and people who are just fucking nuts!

So, what about this sex is dirty thing? Well, Ernest Becker (in his many books, but especially The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil, concludes that it all goes back to our fear or terror of death,* which also has a lot to say about how women are so often poorly treated in our world and in times past.  So what does considering sex as dirty have to do with our fear of death and the way women are so often (mis)treated?

It’s a bit of a truism to say that we all live and die. Yes, we do, but we don’t necessarily like the dying part so we concoct all sorts of cultural mechanisms to help us deny  that fact. One way we do that is to separate ourselves linguistically from other animal species by referring to ourselves as ‘human’ and to those other things as ‘animals.’ Of course, we are animals and it’s hard to deny that because we’re obviously not plants or rocks, but that doesn’t matter. We deny anyway. That kind of attitude allows us to treat animals in all kinds of nasty ways, because, well, they aren’t human and God did say that he put them here on earth for us to have dominion over. We are spiritual beings, animals aren’t. Enough said.

More significantly however we also take great care to separate ourselves into male and female classes. Yes, I say classes because that’s what’s happening. Just as we consider ourselves spiritual beings and animals as spiritless, we have also contrived historically to consider men as spiritual beings and women as physical beings. In many parts of the world in every time in history women have been considered a lesser species than men.

There’s a simple, yet devastating reason for this. Women remind men at every turn that they are mortal. Women exude blood on a regular basis. Babies are born between shit and piss in an orgy of blood. You lose blood, you die. Men have gone to extraordinary lengths to deny their physicality, their animality, and emphasize their spirituality to the detriment of women. Men in some cultures wear anal plugs to show that they don’t need to shit. They are above that. Menstruating women are often shunned for fear that they might contaminate something or other. Men denigrate women at every turn. Not all men, of course, but our culture and many in the past have built massive institutions that denigrate women. The pornography ‘industry’ is a good example of that. It’s popularity attests to how important sex is to us, but how important it also is to objectify women and treat them as sexual objects and as not quite human. Generally speaking, women are way more important to men for their genitals than for their brains. Hillary Clinton is facing this fact right now in the U.S. Many men just can’t see the president of the United States being fucked. Tell me it ain’t so.

Sin, in Christian, Muslim and Judaic mythology often refers to succumbing to the temptations of the flesh, female flesh that is. The flesh is the territory of the devil. If you want to live forever  in the light of God then stay clear of unauthorized sexual pleasure. “Unauthorized’ here is a critical element in the preceding sentence. Although constantly being revised and rethought, when and how sex gets authorized and becomes okay is strictly defined in cultural precepts. That’s fodder for another blog post.

Oh, we take sex very seriously in our culture, in our time, but we have very contradictory ideas about it. Yes, the sex act is fun and all that, but it also brings us clearly into the physical world and that’s a dangerous place to be if you want to be immortal.

In my next post, I’ll consider how sex and our animality fit into our broader moral world.

*After reading about this for decades, Becker’s conclusions still ring true for me although it’s important to note that he synthesized Norman O. Brown’s and Otto Rank’s works more than he came up with his own original ideas. Reading Rank and Brown is clearly important for understanding Becker, but Becker has such a compelling writing style and intensity that I prefer to read him than the others.

7 thoughts on “Why do we so often refer to sex as dirty?

  1. I just read this blog post today, Roger. I don’t want to get into a lengthy deep discussion, but I would like to say to you that I have never felt that sex was dirty, nor did my parents model it as dirty. It was something I was taught was to be “waited for” until I was married, but other than that, it was treated as a natural and positive expression of love. I witnessed my dad put his hands on my mother’s breasts while he kissed her in front of us, and mom never flinched an inch. I believe he did this to demonstrate to us that sexual touching between a couple that loved one another was natural and not shameful. (He didn’t do this often, but I clearly remember seeing him do it). You also realize that my father was a Bible-believing man. He was also a man with this feet firmly set on the “earth” as he did his job as a first aider and a policeman prior to that. I think the Roman Catholic church is more inclined to teach youth that sex is to be feared (as Michael told me).

    1. Hi Marilyn.
      I appreciate that your father may have been an exception, but exceptions don’t disprove the rule. But I’m not talking about individual attitudes about sex. I’m talking about cultural and deep-seated social institutions that colour our relationships and define our expectations towards one another. You said yourself that marriage was a prerequisite for a sexual relationship. What would you consider a woman who has sex before marriage?
      More importantly, however, is the way men and women are judged in relationship to broad moral categories and the place of the physical world in contrast to the so-called spiritual world.

      1. Personally, I used to consider a young lady who had sex before marriage (back in the late 1960s or early 1970s to taking a risk in becoming pregnant and I believed the old beliefs of that time that suggested that most young men preferred virgins (when it came to marriage committment) and most young men would likely “use” a young woman for sex and dump her later after he had used her and would look for a virgin to marry. The old ideas that the Royal family espoused with Charles and Diana. I felt very sorry for Charles and Diana being trapped in that old system. I believe it was those “old” values that damaged both of them pychologically. I tended to side more with Diana, who was naive and had gone into marriage with Charles believing he was also a virgin and truly loved her and would be faithful to her. It was very soon after marriage that she realized that she had become part of a threesome – Charles, Diana, and Camilla. You know how that story ended. I have rather different views on marriage and sex now than I did when I was 19 years old.

  2. Hillary’s loss may have more to do with the perceptions of her opponent as the heroic antidote to the death, destruction, corruption, physical weakness and royal indifference that she represents. Never mind reality and current events, he better sold immortality to the nation during the campaign. Not withstanding your previous assertion that women are more important to men for their genitals, this is most likely anthropologicaly correct, attributing her loss only to her womanhood, it ain’t so. There are plenty of electable women in positions of leadership.

    1. If women led the world it would be a better place. Men in tribal societies millenia ago used to wear butt plugs in an attempt to convince other that they were not subject to the same bodily decay as women. Women have been so often scapegoated because they represent animality. Men can foolishly pretend that they represent spirituality. It may be that women will come to the fore in politics much more clearly when we can finally dump the false spirituality of male death denial.

      1. I took my butt plug out years ago so don’t count me in that bucket! One visit to the middle school PTA meeting might upset the whole women running the world utopia theory. Balance yes, a healthy tension between chaos and order. Ascribing broad traits to women and men then using the example of Hillary and Donald to represent each sex and the problems with men is troubling and like an emotional outbreak in the middle of a serious argument. You might as well use contrast a couple of cartoon characters. The archetypical flaws and cultural biases embedded in the reference characters seriously detracts from the overall argument.

      2. True enough. After all there is the wicked witch of the north and other examples of less than savory female characters like Margaret Thatcher and Marine Le Pen. I had a sociology text years ago when I was still teaching that had a section of aggression. It had a graph that showed a lot of overlap between male and female capacity for aggression. It argued that 2 year olds have probably the most capacity for aggression of all of us. It may be that male and female aggression manifests itself differently in given circumstances, but I haven’t seen any evidence to that effect. The capacity for violence and aggression by women is clear although in both sexes there is a continuum of capacity and aggressive energy. I don’t know. I just know that we as a species will eventually go extinct and bring many other species along for the ride. We don’t seem to have the capacity to regulate human behaviour in large groups.

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