Sexual Scripts Within and Across Cultures
Other such analyses have explored whether, when, and why people decide to have sex, and so on. This book instead focuses on how the sexual interaction itself is culturally scripted to occur – what sequence of events takes place after a couple have decided to have sex. While the first half of the book catalogues sexual scripts in a general way, based on geography and sexual orientation, the second half is framed around sexual discourses associated with some degree of shame and social stigmatization. The book ends by addressing the hegemonic perpetuation of mediated sexual scripts across cultures and the role of sexuality in fourth-wave feminism.
Mediated Eros is suitable as the primary or secondary text in seminars on media, culture, and sexuality, and would also be of interest to journalists and freelance writers whose work explores the sociocultural construction of sex and the sexual self.
Table Of Contents
- About the author(s)/editor(s)
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Introduction: What’s “Okay” in Bed? Identifying and Comparing Sexual Scripts in Media Content
- Chapter 1. Constructivist Theoretical Underpinnings: Sexual Scripts and Media Frames
- Chapter 2. Look-Sees, Lysol, and Baseball: Heterosexual Scripts in American Popular Culture
- Chapter 3. Sex as an Existential Journey: Heterosexual Scripts in European Popular Culture
- Chapter 4. What’s Same-Sex Sex Like? Popular Imagination of Gay and Lesbian Sexuality
- Chapter 5. Not Loud Enough, Too Loud: Gender and Heterosexuality Construction in Sex Advice
- Chapter 6. Kinksters, Swingers, and Other Weirdos: Media Depictions of Alternative Sexualities
- Chapter 7. Just What the Doctor Ordered: The Scientification of Sex and Sexual Dysfunction
- Chapter 8. Too Young, Too Old: The Procreative-Age Confinement of Socially Tolerable Sexuality
- Conclusion: The Implicit Perpetuation of Sexual Scripts
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What’s “Okay” in Bed? Identifying and Comparing Sexual Scripts in Media Content
A ghost is haunting the world—the ghost of sexual (un)fulfillment. It always has, but it is now more omnipresent than ever. It manifests itself through desirable images on portable screens, television, magazine pages, and billboards. It whispers, suggests, and titillates between story lines. And it reveals itself in ubiquitous guilt-free narratives from media outlets that are so much more reputable than online porn, pay-per-view channels, or the old-fashioned “smut” surreptitiously sold at gas stations. The erotic pagan tales once told within the confines of a village have found a worldwide equivalent in music videos, sitcoms, news stories, and movies. Thanks to contemporary communication technology, they not only cross borders in milliseconds, but also encourage mass conformity in the once deeply private sphere of sexuality.
The mainstream availability of sexual narratives creates expectations and pressures that can be difficult to meet in real life. “I can’t get no satisfaction,” sang the Rolling Stones in 1965. “And that man comes on the radio, and he’s tellin’ me more and more about some useless information supposed to fire my imagination” (Jagger & Richards, 1965). A song banned by many radio stations for its suggestive lyrics (Kalis & Neuendorf, 1989), “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” makes a rarely discussed association between media content and sexual frustration. Is the band’s lead Mick Jagger singing about a radio-mediated sexual script ← 1 | 2 → that failed to excite his imagination? What about “When I’m watchin’ my TV and that man comes on to tell me how white my shirts can be, but he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me”? (Jagger & Richards). Perhaps the bisexual Jagger, whose own sexual experiences afford him a richer and more critical perspective, is expressing sarcasm over the restrictive social construction of masculinity, which in turn limits the subjectivities of sexual desire and pleasure. In any case, kudos to the Rolling Stones for recognizing, half a century ago, the power of media to transform one’s subjective experiences of life and also sexually frustrate (a subject that will be discussed at length throughout this analysis).
Sexuality—diverse, multifaceted, and regulated throughout the world—can be viewed as a protean collection of social scripts that vary across time and space. It has long been attributed a great importance. In the words of French philosopher Michel Foucault (1984/1986), sexuality was a central element of the “arts of existence” (p. 10) and “practices of the self” (p. 13) in antiquity, and in later times came to be seen as the very core of existential evil. The mostly discursive construction of sexuality (Foucault, 1976/1990) means that it can never be a constant; it also makes silencing it difficult or even impossible. Sexuality’s amorphous body fluctuates from century to century and from continent to continent despite any social attempts at control.
Media and Popular Sex Pedagogy
A time-tested way to contain the transgressive power of sexuality is to surround it with silence. Shereen El Feki, a Cambridge-educated biologist-turned-writer who studies sexual culture in the Middle East, says a doctor in Cairo told her: “Here, sex is the opposite of sport. Football, everybody talks about it, but hardly anyone plays. But sex, everybody is doing it, but nobody wants to talk about it” (El Feki, 2013, np). This insightful statement, sadly, applies not only to the Middle East. In the U.S., in this day and age, it is much more acceptable to talk about hemorrhoids than about sex—not counting locker-room male braggadocio, of course. As Jerry Seinfeld puts it in The Mango, an episode of the show Seinfeld (David, Levy, & Cherones, 1993, np), nobody knows what to do “below the equator … you just close your eyes and hope for the best.” The silence about sexual activities often produces “a severe sense of discontinuity between experiencing the self in nonsexual circumstances and in sexual circumstances” (Gagnon & Simon, 1973, p. 105). Sexuality still ← 2 | 3 → remains a sphere of “pluralistic ignorance” (Gagnon & Simon, p. 81), even at a time when the ubiquity of sex in the Western world has demystified and, for many, turned it into an unexciting, rational—and frankly—boring choice. “[A]t the moment,” writes Eder (1999), “we can hardly be affected by erotic and sexual stimulation” (p. 168).
Despite the hushed nature of sexual discourse, sexual activities are some of the most expectation-laden in all of contemporary social life. “Think of it as a performance,” a pimp advises a gigolo in the comedy Fading Gigolo (Block, Hanson, Kusama-Hinte, & Turturro, 2013). But sex is a performance not only in the context of prostitution. Even when blinded by passion, having transcended the here and now (which—let’s admit—does not happen often), most people tend to engage in sexual behaviors they believe to be appropriate by their culture’s or subculture’s standards and for which they already have the kinesthetic memory of performing before in a similar fashion.
The notion that culture shapes intimate acts that occur in the privacy of one’s bedroom represents a significant departure from earlier beliefs (perhaps still shared by many outside the social sciences) that making love is just something that naturally happens—always the same way, everywhere around the world. When sexuality began to be understood as “patterned narratives” of desire and pleasure divorced from reproduction, “sexual identity appeared as a script on which individuals modeled their life histories” (Oosterhuis, 1999b, pp. 238–239). But how does one learn sexual scripts to model and identify with? Before the onset of mass mediated communication and widespread literacy, it was perhaps through veiled sexual advice dispensed by elders and peers. Throughout the early to mid-20th century, marriage manuals (such as a particularly popular one by the famous Dutch gynecologist Theodore van de Velde) were translated in multiple languages, and influenced the sexual scripts of much of the Western world. The same influence could be ascribed to the later manifestos of the sexual revolution, such as The Joy of Sex (Comfort, 1972), which reflected the more libertine and diverse scripts of the then-young postwar generation.
But in this day and age, sex manuals are not a very cool way to learn beginner-level sexuality. Specialized titles exist, of course, for the enthusiasts who want to learn better techniques of oral sex or the secrets of female ejaculation. And there is the online world, which offers a wealth of information, advice, and a treasure chest of free pornography. But these niche how-to resources—no matter how profound and detailed—cannot reflect the incredible complexity of sexual emotions, fantasies, and behaviors. Considering the lack of ← 3 | 4 → an official public discourse on sexuality as a performance—such as a widely accepted reference like the Kama Sutra (which, as a sacred text, addressed more than sexual positions)—and the limited, reproductive focus of sexuality education (especially in the U.S.), peers and media content seem to be the most obvious sources of sexual scripts. What is desirable? What is pleasurable? What is sexual? What is consensual? Look no further than the mediated public space for implicit and explicit answers to such questions, which trickle into our vision of sexuality both directly, from media content, and indirectly, through interactions with lovers, friends, and schoolmates. The significance of media as a source of sexual scripting is the case especially for the youngest generation, dubbed Millennials or Generation Y, notes a Guardian article titled “Sex in Real Life Isn’t Like Sex on Screen—and That’s a Good Thing”:
When you’ve been brought up with pop culture as your unofficial guardian, it’s easy to assume that you’ve been lumbered with the world’s dullest sex life. You’re forever comparing your experiences with those you see on screen, and you beat yourself up when you inevitably fall short … Sleeping with someone for the first time can be nerve-racking, but you’d never know that from watching films, where everyone seems to automatically know exactly what the other person wants without having to embark upon a long and unfulfilling period of trial and error, usually with the aid of a corresponding checklist on a clipboard. Hair on screen always remains perfectly in place, and never gets trapped under anyone’s arm. And bras remain firmly on. On the rare occasion that they do get removed, it happens in silence. To my knowledge, no movie character has ever shouted “Jesus, that’s better, that wire has been cutting into my tit for hours” as they undress, for example, which seems like a preposterous oversight. (Heritage, 2014)
This cloak of invisibility surrounding real-life sexuality may be lifting slightly due to social media sites, such as FetLife, the kink community’s version of Facebook, where members post sexually explicit pictures and discuss their sex lives on their walls and in forums—in details to which the “vanilla” population may be unaccustomed. Indirect information about individual sexual prowess can also be gathered from certain apps, such as the women-only man-rating system Lulu, onlulu.com, which allows for hashtags such as the negative #Porn- Educated and #WanderingEye, as well as #KinkyInTheRightWay—positive, assuming everyone agrees on the “right” way to be kinky (Schoeneman, 2013).
Regardless, knowledge of others’ sexual scripts remains relatively difficult to acquire. This means that mass-mediated content depicting or implying sexual scripts must be a primary source of information in such an investigation. And this applies not only to the sexuality of others from our own communities ← 4 | 5 → and cultures, but also to the sexuality of the Other—a concept that, for the purposes of this book, encompasses the imagined identities of people who have been born or reside in societies different from one’s own.
The Perception of the Overly Sexual Foreigner
Consider this paradox: In 1969, Robert Welch, founder of the conservative John Birch Society, warned his fellow Americans that sex education in U.S. schools was a “filthy Communist plot,” intended to corrupt the morals of the otherwise apparently chaste U.S. youth (Associated Press, 1969). Ironically, at the same time, communist governments in Eastern Europe were framing political dissidents with fake charges of perversion and pornography distribution. Having “systematically and ruthlessly eradicated everything related to sexuality,” the USSR condemned the Western sexual revolution—leading a Russian woman to declare during one of the first televised American-Soviet debates in 1986 that, “we have no sex here” (Kon, 1995, p. 1). Even in the ’90s, attempts to introduce sex education in Russian schools were seen as a “western ideological subversion” (Kon, 1999, p. 215). Sex education still has “foreign” connotations in the U.S. as well, as illustrated by a Saturday Night Live skit portraying a provocatively dressed, sultry teacher with a Spanish accent (Sofia Vergara), who draws a picture of her vagina on the board and explains the changes of puberty to a mix of bored and horny students (Pell & Wiig, 2012).
Grumbles about foreign influences on sex typically rely on targeted scapegoating of communists, Jews, Americans, or any other marginalized groups, including outsiders in generals. This is wittily depicted in the film Preaching to the Perverted (Unger & Urban, 1997), in which, ironically, it is an American woman who opens a sadomasochistic club in London and is accused of corrupting public morals—in a country stereotyped for its alleged kinky obsession with corporal punishment. In further support of the worldwide notion of foreigners’ loose morals, Hall (1999) notes that “all nations seem to ascribe venereal diseases to foreigners” (p. 29) and that human traffickers are often “demonised as sinister alien figures” (p. 31). Russian nationalists claim that “ancient, ‘primordial’ Russia was a realm of utter spirituality in which ‘dirty sex’ did not exist until, like drunkenness, it was imported by wicked foreigners, especially the Jews” (Kon, 1995, p. 11). In 19th-century Germany, well before the Nazi regime, “Jews and blacks … were deemed figures of pathological and deviant sexuality” (Szobar, 2002, p. 131). In Italy, “the so-called ← 5 | 6 → modern girl was accused of following the American example of birth control and sexual freedom” during the interwar period (Wanrooij, 1999, p. 125). And in America, in the 21st century, “revealing men’s swim garments [such as Speedos] are, for the U.S. consumer, irrevocably associated with ‘foreigners’ and … the persistent fear of being mistaken for a bisexual Serbian cruise-ship croupier” (Doonan, 2014).
This interest in the foreign person as a sexual object is illustrated, for example, by drug company Pfizer’s hiring of a British actress, Linette Beaumont, for its 2014 Viagra commercials because of her sexy accent (Nathan, 2014), as well as by the gratuitous use (and abuse) of the body and accent of Italian-born actress Isabella Rossellini in the thriller Blue Velvet (Caruso, Roth, & Lynch, 1986). The higher trophy value placed on foreign (especially European) women is also evident in a Cosmopolitan magazine confession by a woman who faked a French accent to date a “foxy” man, perpetuating the stereotype of the foreign woman as a more valuable catch (“The Naughtiest Thing I’ve Ever Done,” 2012, p. 56), and in Maxim’s regular rubric “Women of the World.” Foreign accents even lend more credibility to sex advice. For example, The New York Times reports that sex educator Esther Perel, a Belgian, “has a French-sounding accent that implicitly seems to bolster her authority” (Dominus, 2014).
Let’s also recall the many songs that have been sung partly in French by English-speaking artists, just for added sexiness—for example, “Michelle” (1965) by the Beatles and “Denis” (1977) by Blondie. Perhaps the most prominent example is the 1975 hit “Voulez-Vouz Coucher Avec Moi Ce Soir?” (Do You Want to Go to Bed with Me Tonight?), sung by an American woman, Patti Labelle, from New Orleans. Needless to say, the French lines in the song have been associated not with Louisiana culture but with Euro romance. Such is the erotic obsession with France that Paris has become one of the most popular honeymoon locations for well-to-do couples from around the world. Its iconic status is celebrated throughout popular culture, such as in the post-Depression movie Paris Honeymoon (Thompson & Tuttle, 1939) featuring a speedy cross-cultural (and highly unlikely) romance involving a Texas millionaire torn between two gorgeous European women, a countess and a peasant girl.
The trophyist sexual “attraction” toward foreigners is but one manifestation of what English writer and feminist Julie Bindel (2014) calls “the eroticization of otherness” (np). She illustrates it with the attraction that hundreds of women throughout the world have been known to develop for death-row inmates. The erotic interest in the foreign is a form of objectification that is ← 6 | 7 → also illustrated by the many culturally inaccurate adaptations of foreign novels, such as Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, with its existential sexuality and passion for life, into a more vapid film version for Western audiences. Cumberland (1999) argues, for example, that all three American versions of the film Blood and Sand based on the Spanish novel Sangre y arena exemplify “the erotic possibilities of the North American fascination with Spanish stereotypes,” and displace the original “theme of class conflict onto a safely diffused locus of erotic desire” (p. 43). Who needs dull and complex class relations from the Old World when the foreigners can instead be imagined as sex objects?
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- Publication date
- 2015 (July)
- meaning of sex in tv exposing sex concepts
- New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. VIII, 279 pp.