This question came to mind recently when discussing the subject with a friend who is trying to reduce her feelings of shame around sex and sexuality. I’d discussed similar topics with other friends recently; it probably says something that they were all females; and I’ve gotten the feeling that it’s not at all abnormal. In fact, there seems to be a consistent discourse of sexual repression running as a thread throughout history. The common theme seems to be that sex is healthy, even good, but only in small doses. A high sex drive is associated with some sort of intemperance or selfishness. There is something offensive or repulsive about a female voluptuary. The problem is that “too much” lust is roughly the normal level for human beings.
As a history geek, I wonder how you would historicize what likely amounts to an oral discourse. There are manuals on sex from the Renaissance that warn about overindulging. Rudolph M. Bell wrote a delightful study of these manuals, where we learn that sexual “overindulgence” can lead to: “headaches, nervousness, chest pains, kidney problems, backaches and sore legs; facial paleness ensues, along with rapid aging and even death”. If that wasn’t bad enough, it “damages the eyes and all of the five senses” and causes, “loss of memory, tremors, aches in the extremities, especially the legs, along with kidney and bladder problems,” “causes loss of appetite, shortens life span, destroys natural virtue, makes bones brittle, and brings on senility”. Unfortunately, the manuals agreed that married people should be having sex regularly and did not actually specify how much was too much. Apparently, you’d know by the facial paleness.
I’ve never met anyone who worried about an early death, but the fear of sexual overindulgence still seems to be common. There’s something irresponsible and self-indulgent about non-procreative sex that rubs against our need to be “productive” at all times. I’ve had female partners ask me if I thought they were “abnormal” in their sexual desires. The answer was always no.
But the official story, if you were to judge by our books, movies, and marriage manuals, is that we’re none of us sexually timid. This is one area in which I agree with the college chastity movement: the mass media gives the impression that every young person is indulging in largely meaningless sexual experiences with whoever comes along (not to say that meaningless sex isn’t its own form of repression). You watch these programs especially and nobody ever seems to suffer from sexual hang-ups or insecurities and you would have the impression that ours is an age of Sex and the City style freedom, as opposed to one of the most fearful, conservative, and repressed cultural eras since the 1950s.
People talk about the “pornification” of society with widespread access to hardcore pornography on computers. And yet, this is not sexual behaviour, which requires the interaction of two people. Logging on and jacking off is a salve for sexual repression that makes it easier to endure. It’s not an indication of sexual freedom; much the opposite. What seems to have happened is that sexual behaviour was once private and scorned in public, leaving a nice, neat historical record behind; now, it’s much the opposite: sexual behaviour of all sorts is publically celebrated and repression is something shameful and private. In other words, the “historical record” should be expected to lie.