Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Unrequited Sexual Desire

In 1942 the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, published a long (and very beautiful) poem entitled "The Great Hunger". Despite sounding as if it refers to famine in Ireland, it is about sexual hunger. It was written in a social context where the eldest male member of the family would stay at home to inherit the land. He would not be able to marry until his mother died. Because his father would have gone through the same process, a woman would often be a lot younger than her husband. So the one who stayed at home would sometimes have to wait in vain because, by the time his mother had died, he would be too old to marry.

Kavanagh himself didn't go through exactly the same process as the protagonist of The Great Hunger, Patrick Maguire. But because of various circumstances, he didn't have the opportunity to get married until late in life. Very shortly after, he died. However, there is little doubt that he went through the same sort of anguish brought about by unrequited sexual frustration that Maguire goes through. Catholic taboos surrounding expressions of sexuality that existed at the time would leave someone like Patrick Maguire with few options that were not both illegal and highly immoral.

Things have changed in Ireland, though it took some time. Perhaps taboos are like that. The Catholic faith as practiced in Ireland is milder than it used to be, but the sort of Christianity propounded by a recent American president and many of his associates is anything but mild. Thus, distribution of money intended to prevent HIV and to support those infected with and affected by HIV is closely influenced by a rather narrow, fundamentalist interpretation of what it is to be a Christian.

In developing countries, an estimated 75% of HIV transmission is through heterosexual sex. This results in some donors assuming that all they have to do is make sure that fewer people have sex and that they have sex less often. Well, they may not put it like that, but that's the sort of assumption that underpins their prevention programmes. Sex that is not intended to result in conception is effectively ignored, because it just shouldn't happen. There is certainly no room for sex that is pleasurable. That, as far as such programmes are concerned, doesn't happen.

Even in academic literature on HIV transmission, you will rarely come across even brief mention of sexual desire as something that results in people having sex that may be unprotected or somehow involving risks. These risks could include transmission of HIV, some other sexually transmitted infection (STI), unwanted pregnancy or some other physical or emotional injury. Drivers of HIV transmission that are mentioned often include things like alcohol and illegal drugs, commercial sex work, ignorance about sex and sexuality, etc. Only occasionally is the lack of alternative pleasurable pursuits cited as a factor in HIV transmission. But at least that implies that sex is pleasurable.

So huge amounts of money are spent on the ABC (Abstain, Be faithful, use a Condom) 'strategy' of HIV prevention. The emphasis, especially for younger people, is on abstinence. This is despite confusion in native and second language speakers of English about why this particular term is used (aside from the fact that you end up with an acronym like ABC). In the unlikely event that a person has a (potentially sexual) partner to whom they are not married, the advice is to be faithful to that one partner. Again, confusion arises because people in Kenya, for example, associate 'faith' with religion.

Finally, if things have reached such a level of moral depravity that sexual intercourse is to take place and procreation is not on the menu, condoms can be used. Much of the money that goes to HIV prevention is earmarked for abstinence, some to being faithful but not very much to condoms. Condoms are distributed but they are not destined for younger people or even unmarried people, those who have most to gain from using them. They are mainly recommended for people who work in commercial sex, their clients and people whose regular partner is already HIV positive.

So you are faced with a group of people who want to know how to protect themselves from HIV and you rattle off ABC and the nitty gritty about each element. Sooner or later, the recipients of these nuggets of wisdom begin to ask questions, if there is still time and opportunity for that. You can field some questions without shocking the sensibilities of the affirmed Christians but sooner or later you have to face the big one: what about sexual desire?

Most people feel sexual desire at some time in their life, some do so very often, perhaps even most people. Which lofty precept is recommended first? I'm not suggesting that the imperative to abstain always falls on deaf ears. I am just suggesting that it may be trumped by the imperative to find some way of resolving sexual desire, because that won't just go away. It may be enough for some people to read their bible or think lofty thoughts but I suspect others will find this unsatisfactory. I've never found those to be helpful strategies, anyhow.

Well, you may be in the lucky position of having one faithful partner and to be with them at the time that desire strikes. Great, I hope you take all the precautions necessary, that you know about condoms and other matters and that anything you need is available to you. May it be a pleasurable experience for both of you. There may even be Christians who will not condemn what you do, or they may suspend their condemnation, somehow.

As for using condoms, there are many circumstances where this will not be an option. You may not have them, you may not know where to get them, your partner may refuse to use them. Worse, you may not have heard of them, you may not know how to use them or you may have bought the myth propagated by some religious leaders that there are holes in condoms or that they often don't work.

In countries where so called 'abstinence only' policies have been implemented, STI rates and unwanted pregnancy rates are among the highest in the world. An example of such a country is America, yet such policies are still supported by large amounts of public money. Evidence shows that these policies have little or no influence on the age at which people start having sex, the number of partners they have, or anything like that. Worse, recipients of such 'education' are far less likely to use condoms and therefore are at far higher risk of contracting an STI or getting pregnant.

Lack of evidence notwithstanding, similar approaches to sex 'education' were implemented in countries where people are unlikely to have any access to alternative sources of information about sex or sexuality. The result has been predictable, people continue to behave much as people have behaved since the beginning of time. At least to the extent that they have had sex. Well, they were still subject to sexual desire, weren't they? Which part of ABC has any influence on sexual desire?

After I started writing today, a friend sent me an article that found that some sex education programmes had limited influence on people's behaviour. But one found that participants reported increased sexual enjoyment. Later, I received a list of articles on sex and sexuality from the Institute of Development Studies in the UK. It's time for sexual desire and sexual enjoyment to be addressed in sex education programmes. Telling people about what could happen to them if they have unprotected sex doesn't give them any way of resolving their desire to do something pleasurable. It never worked for smoking, obesity, driving too fast, taking drugs, alcoholism or anything else seen as dangerous.

It's not sex that is dangerous; without it, the human race would have a bleak future. Disease is dangerous but there are ways of avoiding disease. Unwanted pregnancy is not desirable but there are ways of avoiding that, too. Pretending that sexual desire doesn't exist is not the way to make sure that people take precautions against contracting diseases and the costs of getting it wrong are too high. People have always had sexual desires and I assume they always will. They certainly don't deserve to be punished for this. In order to influence people's behaviour to the extent that they are not exposed to danger, it needs to be accepted that there are some things that can't be changed and some that can.

Kavanagh's conclusion, reached by bitter experience rather than analysis, was that there is nothing to be gained from self-denial but suffering and death. HIV and sex education policy cannot be allowed to conclude that what amounts to irrational self-denial is the only way to prevent HIV when there are many other, more feasible approaches to avoiding risky sex. Why try to plug up a sieve to hold water when you've got plenty of pots?



Claire said...

Dear Simon, Many thanks for blogging on this topic, it seems both very important and under-addressed. I expect any sex or HIV education happening before the onset of sexual desire which does not mention it, is going to leave young people confused and afraid. Personally I experienced sexual desire later in life than my contemporaries seemed to, and before that time did not know why people would want to have sex, and had wrong and confused ideas. I'm sure there are so many people, mainly girls, feeling the same, for whom safe sex messages would be bewildering!

Simon said...

Thanks Claire, yes, people discover sexual desire at different ages and to different degrees. But even teaching about abstinence without saying anything about what people are supposed to abstain from is pretty useless and potentially confusing. People may have sexual desires that they don't recognise as sexual and if they don't understand the term 'abstinence', the sex education they receive may not have much benefit.

The matter can be further confused for girls and women because in some places the mere existence of sexual desire is denied or ignored.

I think it would be a mistake to assume also that children do not feel sexual desire. Not talking about it will not help them deal with it. There is no evidence that sex education gives rise to young people initiating sex earlier, despite many claims about this. On the contrary, early sex education has been shown to have many benefits.

Unfortunately, sex, desire and sex education are often hijacked by moralists, especially religious moralists, who know very little about such matters and seem to care less.

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