Modern-day purity culture takes some unexpected forms. Photo courtesy of shutterstock.com.
ELLIOTT ROBINSON | OPINION COLUMNIST | email@example.com
Every day I wake up and wonder: why do so many people care about how other people are having sex?
From foot fetishes to furries, there seems to be an unspoken rule about what is and isn’t allowed in the bedroom. People with less popular preferences are routinely ostracized and not just online; after all, vulgar jokes about so-called “gross” sexual preferences are a classic staple of frat house humor. And it was only five years ago when celebrity rapper DJ Khaled famously revealed his refusal to perform oral sex on his wife, citing a deep-seated disgust for any man who chooses to satisfy their female partner in this way.
The issue here, however, does not lie with individual, personal preferences. DJ Khaled is well within his rights to avoid engaging in a particular sexual activity — though his strong and somewhat sexist opinions on the topic aren’t necessarily exempt from a healthy amount of backlash on social media.
But no one should have the power — cultural, political or otherwise — to dictate the private activities of two — or more — consenting adults. And furthermore, no one should be compliant with a society that pressures people to feel shame or be shamed for these decisions. Sure, it may seem entertaining to crack a joke about the bedroom habits of BDSM enthusiasts, but this only contributes to a much larger problem that, even at this very moment, is attacking the rights of trans individuals and drag performers, who are oftentimes also queer, across our country: the perversity of purity culture.
For most Americans, sex has never been a particularly comfortable topic. Compared to our European neighbors, for example, Americans prefer a much more conservative approach when it comes to confronting touchy subjects like nudity or sexual experimentation between adolescents. Of course, it’s important to note that some of these differences are implicitly cultural. Abrahamic religions, which prioritize modesty and restrictive sexuality among other things, play a major role in most aspects of American society, and we are statistically much more religious than European countries with otherwise similar demographics.
But as a result, we’ve created a culture of restraint among American young adults, in which normal aspects of human sexuality are ignored, repressed or even demonized.
The queer community, for instance, has historically been a favorite target of accusations concerning sexual deviance. Still, while rhetoric of this kind is typical from openly anti-queer organizations or other conservative groups, in recent years, even left-leaning young adults are beginning to spout similar ideas. Purity culture is on the rise again — even among a generation that considers itself to be deeply progressive. But how could this have happened?
Mya Tran, a sophomore English major, pointed to our generation’s early exposure to the Internet as a potential culprit.
“With access to the Internet from such a young age, I feel like you see one of two things,” Tran said. “You either see that sex and porn is bad, or that you should be free and be yourself. And I also feel like a lot of our generation haven’t had parents that sat us down and talked in depth about what’s okay and what’s not.”
As a result, a not-insignificant portion of our peers is receiving extremely mixed messages when it comes to issues of sex and sexuality. And porn culture in particular encourages viewers to fetishize and objectify queerness — numerous studies have revealed that a ranking of the most popular porn categories typically includes “lesbian” somewhere in the top ten, while the “transgender” category exploded in popularity to become the fourth most viewed category in 2022.
“A lot of heterosexual people have this belief that queerness is a kink,” Tran said. “And that’s not what it is. It’s an identity. But if you see a lot of people online saying that when you have sex in a certain way, it’s bad, and they associate [those ways of having sex] with queer people, then queer people are made to feel bad for wanting to do that in the first place.”
This brings us, of course, to the controversial issue of kink-shaming. Although perceived as harmless — and entertaining — by much of the Internet, too many people conflate kink with queerness as a result of the narratives pushed by porn culture and conservative propaganda.
Oftentimes, the behaviors at the butt of the joke are largely, inextricably tied to the queer community. As Tran so aptly pointed out, too many people seem to be under the impression that queer identities are intrinsically sexual — which also makes them intrinsically bad.
Right now, we’re seeing real-world consequences of these beliefs. Much of the legislation against drag performers, for instance, slanders them as purely sexual and therefore inappropriate for the consumption of minors. But because drag and trans identities, which often overlap, both represent invaluable experiences in the queer community, they are also under attack due to the same, widespread misconceptions.
Recently, some queer people — typically young, white and able-bodied adults — have begun to utilize “respectability politics” in order to combat some of the issues caused by the rise of purity culture. But is this really an effective solution?
Although the concept of respectability politics initially dates back to Black activist movements during the 1990s, in more recent years, it has become a well-known term among other minority groups, including the queer community. Respectability politics prioritize assimilation over liberation: it encourages oppressed populations to strategically present themselves according to the hegemonic norm — which is almost always white, cisgender and heterosexual — in order to create change by gaining mainstream social approval.
However, according to Violet Ross, a sophomore English and philosophy double major, relying on respectability politics may create more problems than it solves.
“I’ve seen people say things like, ‘Oh, cisgender people aren’t going to respect us as much if they see a person wearing leather [referring to leather daddies and other members of the leather subculture],’” Ross said. “But if that’s the thing that stops them from respecting us, they were never on our side in the first place.”
The goals of respectability politics may seem honorable, but at the end of the day, it reinforces the same thing as purity culture: the idea that sexual expression is only appropriate for some people, and only appropriate in some ways.
And while the queer community is undoubtedly the most affected when it comes to regulating and restricting sexuality, there are dangerous consequences for all.
Maddi Eary, a senior English and race, gender and sexuality studies double major, shared her perspective on the dangers of maintaining and reproducing these limited views of sex.
“We’re still seeing sexuality, even heteronormative sexuality, as this kind of taboo,” Eary said. “We’re sending the message that sexuality is dirty and that the body is something that needs to be controlled. And that’s a problem because it makes sex seem shameful, instead of something natural that should be celebrated and embraced.”
Eary went on to discuss the state of sex education in America — or, rather, the lack thereof — and how it utilizes purity culture in order to instill this shame early in young adults.
“I think the way our society views bodies that it deems as deviant — whether they be menstruating bodies, queer bodies or gender expansive bodies — and how those bodies interact with the world around them is very much rooted in this idea that there is only one way to experience the human body,” Eary said.
Purity culture seeks to demonize anything from queerness to kinks in order to maintain the illusion of a single, “normal” way in which “normal” people have sex. But the reality is that, as humans, we’re just not going to fit into such a constrictive box. We all have urges and desires that fall outside the limits of purity culture — and that’s not a bad thing. Sex was never supposed to be a bad thing.
“As long as both parties consent,” Tran said, “they can do whatever the f*ck they want.”
And I wholeheartedly agree.