Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sex and Love as Sacred Ritual

“Keep order in space,
And order in time,
For disorder is chaos,
And chaos is crime.”
* Anonymous

Some time ago I read Jean Auel’s novel, The Valley of the Horses, and at first was puzzled by it. In it there were some very graphic sex scenes, not exactly pornography, but more than erotica. I wondered what she was doing, since this novel appears to have been written for young teens.

I realized Auel was writing instruction manuals not for just sex, but also for love. She was portraying both as a sacred ritual – and ritual means order, meaning, importance, community. Auel was not writing pornography, and not even erotica.
She called these rituals “the First Rites of Pleasure” and in them she pointed out the differences between men and women, the same differences I’ve seen in comedy, such as device that had one on/off dial for men, and 17 different-sized dials for women.

Auel also wrote about courtship. Unfortunately, there is no longer any sort of ritual these days involved in courtship, not really. I’ve read there were in the past, long before my time, ones such as sitting on the front porch until parents turned the porch light off, meaning it was time to go home. It may sound silly, but I understand it – it was a ritual, and ritual is very important to humans, even if they don’t know it.

In the U.S. for a long time it was supposed to be “dinner and a movie.” When I was in high school it wasn’t even that. We went cruising and to parties. It was a weekend ritual, and very fun one at that. But courtship rituals? We didn’t have them, not really. And rites and rituals, I’ll repeat, are what give us order, meaning, importance and community.

In the late 1970s, Lawrence Stone, an Oxford historian of family life, saw signs that the existing marriage and family order were giving way to a “new, more loosely structured, less emotionally and sexually cohesive, far more temporary” set of arrangements. Note what he wrote: “less emotionally and sexually cohesive.”
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead writes: “Every society has an institutionalized mating system to guide men and women as they pair off. Mating regimes vary across eras and cultures—ranging from stately diplomatic negotiations between families to mock or real bride capture—but each tends to be fairly stable over time. In Western societies, the dominant mating regime has long rested on romantic courtship leading to long-lasting marriage. But all that is now changing. Courtship is dying…”

These days? Hmm. Tom Wolfe, in his book, Hooking Up, writes of teenagers having sexual contact without even kissing each other. I actually had that experience more than once in college. It never meant a thing to me.

People will always evolve rites and rituals. Some are better than others. Some advance civilization; others send it backward, sometimes into chaos.

American society has evolved, bizarrely, in a way in which many parents, or anyone else for that matter, don’t instruct their children in the relationships between men and women. You’re supposed to learn it on your own.

I am reminded of the movie, Shenandoah, in which James Stewart is instructing Doug McClure about the ways of women before McClure marries Stewart’s daughter. And in the next room, a woman is instructing McClure’s wife-to-be about the ways of men. It was all very funny.

Do these things happen anymore? Not that I’ve ever seen. Again, you’re supposed to learn everything on your own – sex, love, relationships, the differences between men and women. All of it, on your own. That’s not the way it should be.

I remember being almost completely mystified when I became interested in girls in the seventh grade. I understood the sex part, because I found a medical book at home, and taught myself from it. But everything else? I was clueless and had to learn it on my own. A lot of it wasn’t much fun.

I do remember in the sixth grade we were shown a film, apparently about puberty. The boys were shown one film; the girls another. It was one film only, and I don’t remember a thing about it.

I also remember that when I was 16, in one class I sat next to a bookshelf on which were books from the Fifties. I glanced through one and remember there were instructions about how a teenage boy should avoid an erection at all costs (“Run? I can’t even walk!”).

I suppose almost everyone wants the First Time to mean something. Almost always, it doesn’t, unless that person is very lucky. Usually, it’s as Billy Joel sang: sooner or later it comes down to fate, so I might as well be the one.

That’s not the way it should be. Personally, I’d prefer Auel’s society. I think most everyone else would, too.

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