I have been thinking about this post for a while. In fact, I’ve been thinking about it since I embarked on my trip to the Americas over a year ago. I am now back in England for a stint – blimey, it sounds like I am in prison – and so will spill my thoughts on sex in the heart of a country that swings from one extreme to the other when it comes to matters of the bedroom.
Let’s start in northern California, where, true to their reputation as liberal pot-smoking hippies, it was also patently obvious that sex was far from taboo. In fact, the candidness, honesty and frequency in which sex was discussed often made me blush. I wasn’t used to people, often complete strangers, enlightening me on their sexual proclivities. Orgies, lesbianism, oral sex workshops, masturbation techniques, sex toys, bondage, you name it, people’s experiences of, thoughts on, tips and advice were spread out before me on a regular basis. Bashfully, I’d either sit back and listen, giggle like a pubescent schoolgirl, ask occasional questions, but rarely if ever offer many thoughts on such matters. I’m not a prude, hell no, but I was busily trying to reconfigure my identity, so was endeavouring to not bare all with the gusto I was used to.
Sex, rather than being something men bantered about amongst themselves, and women confabulated over a bottle of wine or ten (I am aware of these gross simplifications, but this is not an essay, so no footnotes or references are required), entered into daily intercourse with great ease. Thoughts about my own sexuality were challenged, thrown up in the air, and left for further reflection. I admired how what many see as a topic so private and shrouded in guilt, embarrassment, shame or ridicule, was addressed in an honest, compassionate and caring manner. Nudity, sexual liberation and exploration weren’t unsavoury, rather realms of healing, nourishment, development and bloody good fun!
In Mexico, it wasn’t so much the frequency in which sex was discussed, but more the extent of heavy petting that caught my attention. Primarily amongst the teenagers, but not limited to the pesky ones, kissing and socially acceptable levels of fondling in public were ubiquitous. Slurping sounds of lips smacking and saliva squelching could often be heard on buses, in squares and scattered across parks and their benches. Girls would stop in the middle of the street, and snog, couples would canoodle anywhere, at any time, with no concern for how it made people around them feel. I even witnessed amorous affection amongst images of Christ bleeding for our sins on the cross too. This made me smile, as clearly the burden of Catholicism’s emphasis on guilt hadn’t penetrated everyone’s psyche.
I grew up in a hamlet in rural Dorset, and as a sexually curious teenager, I would like to think I didn’t thrust my sexual activities in front of everyone’s faces. This may be far from the truth, but let’s leave self-impressions of my past in tact, for now. Do the English get so raunchy in public during the day, whilst sober? Definitely not to the extent of the Latin Americans, I can assure you. It reminded me of when I was teaching in London one very hot summer of 2003. I’d sometimes teach my class in Kensington Park as the stifling heat in the classroom inspired sleep not syntax. During our lessons under the relief of a big tree, we’d spot couples pretty much dry humping in the grass. The Brazilians would exclaim, “They are definitely from my country” and proceed to tell the class how different cultural attitudes towards sex are in Brazil than England.
Again, I know I am falling into the trap of generalisations, stereotyping and cultural essentialism, so please forgive me. My mind does work in more nuanced ways, I promise. But, when I asked various Brazilians, Mexicans and Colombians what impressions they had of English people’s sexual behaviour whilst in their countries, I got very similar responses. The men I asked, as I am almost certain that’s what most of them were, intimated that English women were considered to be more sexually loose under the influence of alcohol than women from other countries. Now, this statement in and of itself could and should open up a litany of debates. Let’s leave that to the comments section, otherwise this may turn into a thesis rather than a post! However, it does make me wonder where these people got these impressions from, under what circumstances and whether the women were being judged as easy, whilst their own sexual behaviour went unquestioned. Furthermore, there are hundreds of Brits travelling in said countries and just because a few of them felt like having a one-night-stand, that obviously isn’t reflective of the whole country’s sexual behaviour. Plus, what’s wrong with having a one-night-stand?
My observations overseas have enabled me to appreciate that sex, sexuality and attitudes towards can be embraced on a much deeper level than I am used to in England. Although I may not want the youth up in my face displaying their affection audibly to the extent of the Mexicans, I appreciate that some people’s behaviour in public may very well be guided by heart and groin rather than sense and sensibility. I doubt I am anywhere near the lusty liberalism of the Californians, but their loquaciousness and sexual inquisitiveness and experimentation impressed me. It may be time to loosen up a little.
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I was excited to read this post about your thoughts on sex in the countries you visited, how it may have alltered some of your conceptions, or misconceptions. However I was a bit dissapointed, as you didnt touch on your thoughts or feelings towards what you saw. This is your blog, and I wanted to read about what you experienced. Good or bad. Maybe there will be a follow up article when you go back and “Dive in”.
Poland is quite a frigid country when it comes to talking about sex. But even this morning , I was surprised (and irritated) by a lip smacking couple, taking huge steps towards each other and kissing loudly, repeatedly. What it did, was make me miss my fella.
How did your experiences make you feel?
I have just realised, a year later, that I didn’t reply to your comment. I apologise Sylvia, and will attend to my error now.
I think the reason I didn’t reveal my thoughts or feelings on what I saw as I already felt brave enough to write so publicly on a subject which is still so taboo in England. I am still getting to grips with how much I want to disclose, how much I want to expose my inner thoughts and what I can get away with. I had thought about starting an anonymous blog actually, to overcome these issues, and to be able to write much more freely and honestly. But then I realised that an aspect of the benefits of writing this blog is that I can share it around openly with the hope that friends, family and followers will discuss it with me.
Regarding your feelings on the vocal kissing you saw in Poland, and how it made you miss your man, that struck a chord with me. I think sometimes seeing people’s public displays of lust and affection make me feel uncomfortable and a little jealous. As you know, I’ve been single for a while and being reminded that tons of people aren’t, and are experiencing the tingles from kissing, reminds me of the choice I have made to steer clear of such encounters. However, a year later, after a great deal of healing and self-exploration, I am coming much closer to changing those choices and I too may find myself kissing loudly and repeatedly on the street.
Well, you’ll be surprised to see me replying to this thread.. but it moved me to write.
So, I think what you’ve done is made a series of observations on the same object but spun in different circumstances. In marketing parlance you’ve got customisation from a common proposition. What I like about the post and the subject – intellectually – is the multiple points of entry (no pun intended). So, you rightly say that the core is two people finding each other attractive, and wanting to act upon it in a consenting way. Fine. And that we can observe this happening differently in different geographical locations and across borders when people of common heritage meet to create a corner of Brazil in London, for example. Fine. Nothing contentious yet.
But what I was interested in was the why. So, we could just sit back and say ‘isn’t it interesting/cool’ that people take these different views and approaches. But really – and this where my subject and this subject overlap – the manifestation on the ground might say more about the structural conditioning (eg society, politics, economics) than it does about the individual.
The individual is conditioned by their personal wants and desires (but these in turn are conditioned by exogenous factors too – urgh) and the society and social relations they operate in. So, at the school you and I attended, it was not ok for people to be going at it Latin American style in the communal grassed areas, but there was a small minority that did (not necessarily in full glare) and those people (I’d suggest) did so partly as an expression of their wants/needs/etc, but also to position themselves within the social hierarchy of the school (‘we’re cool, because we do this) and also in opposition to the prevailing societal norm that said ‘do it somewhere more private’. Their unmet social need was for dominance and recognition – a longitudinal study would be fascinating even only for the small possibility that it might allow me to convince myself I was right all along (cough).
But if we were to overlay this on your other examples, we might want to talk about California as a location steeped in innovating, risk-taking and transience (more pioneer than settler), so this might provide a societal backdrop that helps makes more sense of what you describe, similarly in Latin America the recourse to Catholicism might be a red-herring, the emphasis on aesthetics (as a first point) and of the country-wide need for external validation in the wake of US hegemony might part-hint at why people want to publicly express (and flaunt). The observation on ‘British women abroad’ is, of course, a cliché but one with an evidential base. A wild theory might conclude that it is the expression of activities that cannot be done in the UK (be it societal pressure, or that it’s bleedin cold), or that in a neo-imperial way it is the domination of locals – analogously who is the ‘meat’ in the ‘meat-market’ here? Or it is an expression of the relative value of sterling against local currencies – even those on modest UK salaries look affluent in many parts of the world (I remember – as a student – buying the best meal I’ve ever had in the best restaurant in the land in part of the Balkans for 17quid… suddenly and dramatic social mobility could be intoxicating). It might also be that this is norm with its own momentum, and there is a qua-obligation to conform. Difficult to know without evidence.
My corrupted intellectual view is that sex is politics. It’s also structure, economics and individual oddities too.
(one thing that was never resolved in our French class, and perhaps you could shed light on, was where Sean was…? Ou est Sean?) 🙂
Thanks for your astute and thorough response. I almost feel like we should have perhaps written this piece together. I provided some ruminations, and you some more theoretical and deeper insights. It’s an interesting process moving from academic essays to a blog, as the audience, aims and levels of freedom in terms of your choice of style varies massively.It’s an ongoing experience, and one I am really enjoying.
I absolutely agree that we are enmeshed within certain structures, which affect our sexual behaviour, attitudes towards sex, thus restraining, permitting and enabling such cultural nuances and differences. There is also a physiological aspect at play too, as some people, no matter where they are from, are much more sexually active than others. I guess there are exogenous elements too that will inhibit or enable such proclivities. However, these are mere assumptions on my part,and cannot comment with any authority as I was regularly kicked out of science classes at school, as well as numerous other classes actually.
I think your views on Brits abroad and their supposed heightened sexual activity are interesting. Your analysis is again, rigorous and has given me fuel for thought.
As for our French classes, I can’t remember them! Which school, which teacher and which Sean? Lovely to hear from you, and hope you are well.
Mme Aspinall and Sean would both be gutted I’m sure! But the classes were forgettable to the extent that I’ve mostly forgotten them.. but by the by.
Blog posting is infinitely preferable to writing academic papers for the very reason you state, and because the potential audience is much wider and often more interesting too!
You’re right, I missed physiological. And it was a big miss. I could sneakily try and crush it back into the loose set of thoughts I had by saying that the responses to those people who sit on an outlier of how active they want to be (relative to a cultural norm) would be geographically specific or some such. And I’m not sure any school science classes help here – the ruminations are more enlightening for sure. An anthropology of coupling – it’s a book for you to write on your travels. I could probably find you a publisher for that too…!
Ah ha, I had my suspicions it was Apsinall and a Mr Anthony. I thought she was quite a good teacher to be honest, but the content has clearly slipped both our minds.
Researching an anthropology of coupling, now that would be a fascinating way of exploring the world! What is your line of work then Rob? I am intrigued.
She was quite good, certainly better than others. Mr Anthony was very bright indeed, but a little mis-directed.
I am a senior lecturer in international relations… not that this will surprise anyone.. two seconds googling me reveals mostly all. me and a gay olympic horserider (he flags this as relevant, not me) vie for top rob dover google spot…
Was he mis-directed? It depends on what your view of direction means.
Your career path looks very interesting. Well done you. Your research and profession must keep you constantly on your toes. Did you know from a young age what you wanted to do? Was it fairly linear, or was there something in your life that prompted you to choose your field?
After I wrote that, I wondered if that should have been better expressed. I think he was one of the brightest in any class I appeared in school. From the position of geek, my default has been to maximise achievement in that one narrow area of life. So, mis- or un-directed on my terms, but not necessarily on his. You were right to challenge me on that, my sloppy thinking and writing.
On the ‘well done you’. My colleagues often leave a big pause between each word when a friend gets something notable published or what not, as a tongue in cheek jealousy. But I’ll take the well done you in a nicer way, thanks.
My instinct is to want to revert to some form of private comms to answer your question.. but given that what you do, and what I do almost certainly means our communications wouldn’t be private between us (and not because either of us would do anything with it), I might as well reply here! Did I know? Hmm. Perhaps. At school I wanted to be a defence lawyer, a mix of public speaking and ‘clever’ thinking to achieve things. Part of this was intellectual, and part of it was about a subversion of how I saw myself in the social hierarchy at school – I could throw off school in the more conducive atmosphere (for me) of university. So, I read law, but my interests were always in social and political relations rather than ‘black-letter law’. I’m more interested in how politics occurs and the impacts it has – so, I’m interested in the impact intelligence has (for example) on social relations (and part of the most recent revelations is summed up in the first line of this overly long paragraph). Once I moved past undergrad stuff then everything that followed was a mix of happy happenstance and taking opportunities that looked interesting.
In terms of intellectual development, I was attracted to the Foucauldian line that the role of the scholar is to challenge those institutions that are taken as natural by society (I can’t remember the exact quote) and whilst I don’t subscribe to the Foucault-acolytes who I think have massacred some of the historical wisdom the man had, I think the academic has a privileged position to think about ‘power’ and ‘politics’ in a way that others don’t. In terms of my specific subject, I was interested in the EU as a ‘utopian project’, and I’m still an instinctive europhile. But I refracted this through the thing that was big at the time I started my PhD, which was security and defence. And there were things I wanted to write on those and so that side snowballed from there. With intelligence, my interest came from a piece on the arms trade written by a girlfriend that missed the intelligence dimension (or what I assumed should be there) so I filled the gap in the literature and then I just find intelligence and espionage endlessly fascinating (in both positive and negative ways), and I love the interaction my finalists and I have over intelligence and national security: It’s the most fun thing I do at work.
So, when I re-found you online I saw you say that you were politically aware from early on (re Thatcher, and I share that early experience). And I think it’s relatively straight-forward to understand why you would be energised about Israel-Palestine, but your Latin and North American experiences: what led you there? I’m sure you’ve read much of it, but there’s a fascinating literature on Mexican radicals that came to dominate the left of IR scholars in circa 2007 til now. I wondered if that was your spur whether you’re an instinctive internationalist? In which case.. your country residence must indeed feel a bit like a prison!
Wow! It all sounds great. So happy for you that you know what you are interested in, and are enjoying your field of work. That must make you pretty happy then.
As for what led me to the Americas, I just wondered whether their cultures and histories may suit my character more than, for example, some of the countries that I lived in and loved greatly in Asia. I wrote a few different essays at university (I studied from 26 onwards, rather than going at 18 and being thrown out) on Cuba, Venezuela, and Colombia, and was intrigued by their different ideas on their relationship with the planet, their revolutionary zeal, and their varying political systems. I was also really keen to go somewhere that I had very little understanding of the political situation, rather than say to the Middle East, where I know a bit more about, and may get drawn in. I was trying to de-politicize for a bit, and reconnect with humanity. My Masters in human rights left me feeling very despondent about the world, and so it was important to see life more positively, and humanity!
My immediate hunch was and is to say ‘that just sounds cool’. And I think I’ll stick with that. Bit of reconnection with humanity? Man, that sounds fine today.
Studying from 26 on. That’s brave (in a good way), I think, and clearly worked. I won’t indulge my professional interest in this to ask whether you did the whole UG experience etc, or how it was. I’m happy to stick with my ‘that sounds cool’, and to mean it.
What do you mean’do the whole UG experience’? As for the hunch, that is a sufficient observation yes!
I should learn to write more clearly.. you’d have rightly thought it came with my territory(!). The whole undergrad experience of halls of residence, RAG (the fund raising bit) and all of that. I’m probably not tolerant enough to have done it at 26.
I’m so happy to read this! The absence from sex talk in my casual conversations is one of the things I feel stifling me here and makes me feel stranger still when I bring it up, offer thoughts and am normally treated with silence or discomfort in return. It makes me miss my American friends and very much long for those conversations again. You learn so much about yourself in deep, intimate relationships. We convey so much of that to our friends and it’s a shame that this is left out.
Ah, glad it was a refreshing change for you. I don’t know much about the history of sex and sexuality in England, but from experience, it isn’t something we discuss a lot. Like I said, the Americas were very refreshing for me in the sense that sex was embraced on a whole different level. We can definitely talk more about it when I see you!