Why Does Sex Always End Up Being Political?

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A new book by Eric Berkowitz discusses how the laws surrounding sexuality over the past century have served a system of oppression that placed a lid on people's sex lives. Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

This article first appeared in The Wilson Quarterly.

Sex "burns at the intersection of existence, identity and power," says Eric Berkowitz, author of The Boundaries of Desire, a book about the legal boundaries of sexuality over the past century. According to Berkowitz, these laws were mostly absurd and served a system of oppression that placed a lid on people's sex lives.

There's a reason why such an instinctual, animal act should find itself in five thousand years of legislation. It is perhaps the highest form of human intimacy, both physically and emotionally, but sex and sexuality are inherently political—a tool that shifts balances of power, and also one that reflects (and sometimes challenges) cultural norms.

Among myriad other studies, Dr. Judith Mackay's findings on the topic reveal the vast cultural variations in the conjugal act. Over the course of a year, the average French citizen has nearly three times as much sex as the average resident of Hong Kong. (Vive la France!) Some populations seem to stop having sex completely after a certain age—like in India, where many couples stop being intimate when they have a married daughter or become grandparents.

In Japan, a national sex drought has dire implications for an already shrinking and aging population: an unsustainable workforce amidst negative population growth has led international markets to abstain from Japanese investments. A 2013 Washington Post piece revealed that a strong percentage of the nation's young people were embracing sekkusu shinai shokogun, or "celibacy syndrome," as the norm.

For Japanese men, the dread of sex is so strong that many prefer "relationship-simulating video games and even holiday retreats" to actual relationships, according to The Washington Post. For women, the strict norms of Japanese culture force many to choose between family and career; married women who work often find themselves labeled "devil wives."

A short flight across the Sea of Japan and you find a completely different story. In China, custom dictates that all powerful men keep a mistress. The practice has become so deeply entrenched that there are now different gradations of mistressdom; one type of mistress (called an ernai) merely serves as a girlfriend, while another (xiaosan) forces herself between a man and his wife.

"If you're an official, you have to have a mistress, or at least a girlfriend," one mistress, named Xiaxue, told Aeon magazine. "Otherwise you're not a real man." (Even China's wealthiest gay men keep mistresses while keeping their boyfriends secret.) However ubiquitous the mistress culture may be, it's still dangerous. The Internet has become a superhighway for shaming these kept women, often at the hands of ex-boyfriends or their lovers' wives.

South to India, the Indian Telecommunications Ministry effectively blocked more than 850 pornographic websites this summer, and immediately came under fire for mass censorship and allegations of corruption. The majority of the previously banned sites went back online, save for those involving child pornography.

Now the unblocking faces a backlash of its own, not just from religious conservatives, but also from women's rights activists who are concerned about violent pornography in the face of a national rape epidemic.

Whether or not pornography encourages abuse and violence against women, a less ambiguous threat to women thrives in Africa and the Middle East—female genital mutilation. An ancient cultural tradition, female genital mutilation is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as any action that injures or modifies female genitalia for non-medical reasons. The WHO categorizes genital mutilation as a violation of rights against females and, often, children.

In the 29 countries where the practice is widespread—largely throughout the Middle East and Africa—more than 125 million girls have undergone FGM. In cultures where FGM is culturally accepted, it is believed that, by cutting or removing the clitoris, a woman will live without libido and preserve her virginity, keeping her "pure" for marriage.

The countries that practice FGM are predictably conservative in other sexual matters. Across the entire continent of Africa, for instance, only South Africa recognizes same-sex marriage . In most African countries, being gay or having sex with someone of the same gender can mean trial and jail time—including an incredible 14-year prison sentence in Kenya.

When President Obama took his historic trip to Africa this summer, he addressed the country's persecution of LGBT people in a press conference, declaring, "The state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation." Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta responded that other issues took priority over gay rights, among them health, infrastructure and the social representation of women. "For Kenyans today," said Kenyatta, "the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue."

Berkowitz's Boundaries of Desire insists that all of these laws and practices revolve around control, around dominance and the "thrill to forbidding others what they desire," as Slate puts it. By placing limits around sexual acts and interests, cultures and governments can define sex on its own terms, rather than allowing people to explore their own sexuality, to be vulnerable and to want physical closeness.

And in an age of the multi-billion dollar boom in tech sex—dating apps, virtual reality pornography, sex robots, etc.—that human element of self-exploration, maturation and intimacy, has more allure than ever.

Further reading: Judith Mackay, " Global sex: sexuality and sexual practices around the world," Sexual and Relationship Therapy, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2001; Jacob Brogan, "The Illogic of All Sex Laws," Slate, August 6, 2015.

Maya Wesby is a writer at The Wilson Quarterly.