Sex(ism) in Society: Taking Sex Back from the “Man in the Bathrobe”

A grown man, equipped with all the trappings of power, wealth, and achievement, invites a young woman he knows only professionally to a “business meeting” and shows up wearing nothing but a bathrobe. He proceeds to expose himself to the woman, masturbate, ask her for sexual favors and/or force himself on her.

We’re reminded by the recent arraignment of ex-movie mogul Harvey Weinstein for rape and other felony sex acts that some variation of this scenario has played out in the media multiple times over the past year—so often that a kind of disbelief sets in. What possessed these men? What’s wrong with our culture that it produces them?

We know that male privilege, the subordination of women, and other stubborn cultural holdovers are central to the problem. But it’s worth looking, too, at something broader: the entire context in which we think about sex.

“There is no defining-line between erotic and non-erotic personal relationships. Defects in one produce defects in the other,” the British biologist, poet, and anarchist-pacifist Alex Comfort wrote, dryly.

Comfort became famous in the 1970s for writing the bestselling bedroom guide for heterosexual couples, The Joy of Sex. But he had already been writing and lecturing on sex for a quarter-century when that book came out, and much of his previous work concerned the ways our sex lives bleed over into our “public” lives, and vice versa.

Traditionally, Comfort observed, sex is thought to have only two purposes, procreation and pleasure (with pleasure often coming in a distinct second). But there’s a third and critically important role sex plays, he argued: constructing sociality.

If socialization is the way we internalize society’s norms of conduct and belief, sociality is how we learn to associate and cooperate with each other. Comfort held that sex is one of the most basic and profoundly formative ways that we achieve sociality. It’s the way individuals, generally in their adolescent years, accustom themselves to understand and respond to each other’s needs and desires and, importantly, where they learn to share power within relationships rather than wield it.

Here’s how Comfort summed up the elements: “mutual respect, mutual communication, and a strong desire to protect one another without any corresponding wish to manipulate or mold.” Unlike other forms of socialization, sex helps us achieve this not through discipline or punishment but through play. “It is quite clear that the exorcising of social and role anxieties is a perfectly proper function for sexual playfulness,” he wrote.

While this hasn’t stopped men from subjecting women to sexual violence and abuse for millennia, the problem of sexual inequality has been greatly aggravated by the disruptions of the industrial and post-industrial ages, Comfort argued. Economic instability, militarism, the uprooting of millions through genocide and ethnic cleansing, the increasing limitation of human activity even in privileged societies to skills and techniques designed to earn a living, and the inflation of state and corporate authority combine to abolish coherent patterns of individual responsibility, devalue sociality, and degrade individuals’ incentive to achieve it.

“Normal sexuality and satisfaction, being an early victim of social instability, is probably our most sensitive indicator of the biological soundness of a social order,” Comfort wrote, “and if it is absent today we must blame the pattern of society rather than the morals of its single members.”

In a society such as this, men are conditioned to experience sex as a kind of gladiatorial contest (they don’t call it “scoring” for nothing) rather than a human encounter or even as play. Sexual imagery is increasingly tinged with violence; violent images in art and entertainment are eroticized. Cultural expressions of sex and sexuality, Comfort wrote, increasingly fall into three narrow categories: “an intensive preoccupation with romantic love, sexual success, and virility.” The result, in boys, is “aggression, egocentricity and general lack of any concern for the girl as a person” that handicaps them as they enter adulthood as well: the “toxic masculinity” that produces the Man in the Bathrobe.

So much for the mutual communication that Comfort felt was needed for healthy, satisfying sex, especially when the culture itself seems intent on burying the conversation about the place of sex in society. Instead, we treat sex as an entirely private or family matter and suppress outside discussion of it, especially in adolescence, when the young should be learning about it; or else we treat it as a quasi-mystical experience that has little or no connection with social development.

Either way, the social aspect of sex—its effect on sociality, and sociality’s effect on sex—is ignored or dismissed. Meanwhile, much of the sex education that students receive in school is slanted to reinforce traditional roles and mythologies rather than to challenge them. The Trump administration’s embrace of the discredited “abstinence-only” approach to teen pregnancy prevention is a sad example.

What’s to be done? Comfort was a lifelong scientific humanist, and as such, he had great faith in the power of scientific observation and learning to bring rationality and understanding to any area of human activity, including sex. As an anarchist, he also believed that only a radical revolution in the social order could bring about a fundamental change in the moral and personal sexuality of the individual. “A general outbreak of public resistance to militarism would contribute more to the removal of sexual imbalance than any action through the channels we have come to regard as political,” he once suggested.

But he also urged reforms that could bring us much closer to a revival of sociality and a lessening of the alienation and aggression that plague sexual relations today, even without a revolution.

Reform sex education. Not only must it be more readily available, but it must be modernized so as not to merely confirm existing prejudices.

Adopt a less repressive attitude toward adolescent sexuality. The teen years are the bridge between childhood and adulthood, yet adults all too often insist that teens must not experiment sexually. This deprives them of any real guidance during the years when attitudes about sex are formed and confirmed, or forces them to rely on hearsay and pornography for instruction.

Science needs to step in, establishing an observational, sociological approach to studying and discussing sex and giving us objective information to build on, rather than prejudice and unfounded cultural norms. This includes studying the role of sex in other cultures that operate according to different and perhaps healthier customs.

Social observation, in turn, needs to inform social work. Social workers need to be trained to work with adolescents and sexually anxious people, aiming to instill an attitude of personal responsibility. This could include experiments in social living aimed at encouraging a more open, accepting attitude about sex.

An additional change would have to occur in private: the rediscovery of playfulness and the mutual indulgence of fantasies, so long as they aren’t harmful or repugnant to one of the partners, as a path to sociality. “If we were able to transmit the sense of play which is essential to a full, enterprising and healthily immature view of sex between committed people, we would be performing a mitzvah,” Comfort wrote in The Joy of Sex, which was intended to help achieve just that.

Is all this enough? The decline of sociality and other disruptions of modern life can’t fully explain sexual violence against women; the inequalities of a patriarchal society that’s lasted for centuries have deeper origins. (Even Comfort’s own writings, including his bestseller, are colored by traditional assumptions about what’s “normal”: namely, phallocentrism and heterosexuality.) We have a great deal more “objective” information about sex today, thanks in part to the revolution in sex research that was going on while Comfort was writing, yet abuse, harassment, and violence persist.

But it’s not enough to blame male privilege on age-old traditional assumptions, a conclusion that anti-feminists would pounce on as proof that female subjection is just the natural way of things. Our society is far more accepting of women who lead public and professional lives than it was 200 years ago, but we still have an enormous distance to travel before sexism (along with homo- and transphobia) is eradicated. It would be far-fetched to think that economic precarity, mechanized (and now digitized) warfare, and the other disruptions of our complex, unstable modern world aren’t at least partially responsible for holding us back.

Talking about sex alone won’t resolve the problem. But talking about it—to explore our respective desires, ask what we can do for each other, set reasonable boundaries, and nurture sociality—is central to what women at colleges and universities around the country, and now #MeToo, have been advocating and demanding to counter a persistent culture of harassment, violence, and male entitlement. It says a great deal, and nothing positive, about the direction we’ve gone since the years of second-wave feminism that women who raise this point are so often derided as spoilsports, feminazis, and man-haters when they’re not being physically threatened.

In reality, they are warning us that we have a choice: to accept the reign of the Man in the Bathrobe as just the way it is, or to start asking, seriously, what the other person wants (and doesn’t want). Taking the second path needn’t take the excitement, passion, and mystery out of sex. “Finding out someone else’s needs and your own, and how to express them in bed, is not only interesting and educative but rewarding, and what sexual love is about,” Comfort wrote in The Joy of Sex. It’s also a great way to get back to learning sociality—or, as he once called it, “the forgotten art of being human.”

Eric Laursen is a writer and activist based in western Massachusetts. He is the author of The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort (June, AK Press).