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When society gets in the way of sexuality

Nobody doubts that our culture influences our sexuality and sexual expression. But our cultural influences are not always good for us.
Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
/ Source: contributor

Nobody doubts that our culture influences our sexuality and sexual expression. Germany seems to be a hotbed of pantyhose fetish Web sites, Japan has raised the schoolgirl uniform to high art, and male parliamentarians getting spanked can sometimes seem as British as high tea at Harrods.

But our cultural influences are not always good for us. That’s part of the “moral values” debate we’ve been having in this country for 20 years or so. The question is, what can we do to keep the culture from harming us? How can we resist the worst bits of it, and embrace the best?

While reading through some research on sex recently, one of the studies I encountered popped out at me. It raised the question “What is the problem with sex?”


Sex is one of the most basic and fulfilling things we do. At least it should be. Assuming we’re not suffering from biological or health trouble, sex is a problem only when it clashes with the culture we’re in.

Sometimes these clashes can be personally dramatic. Last fall, in a psychiatric journal, British researcher and clinician Nilamadhab Kar described the cases of two men suffering from a condition known in the countries of South Asia as koro.

One, Kar wrote, “presented with the complaints of gradual retraction of penis and scrotum into the abdomen. He had frequent panic attacks feeling that the end had come. ... During exacerbations he spent most of his time measuring the penis by a scale and pulling it in order to bring it out of abdomen. He tied a string around it and attached it to a hook above to prevent its shrinkage during night.”

Koro, the anxious feeling that your penis is retracting back into your body, is often described as a “culture-bound” psychiatric disorder. Sometimes, episodes of koro come in waves, almost epidemics. Some victims believe that if the penis shrinks far enough into their bodies, they’ll die.

Dhat syndrome is another so-called culture-bound disorder. Victims of dhat syndrome come to believe that semen lost during sleep, through masturbation, or by having sex, is literally draining them of life force. They can feel lethargic or weak. Some have great sexual performance anxiety.

Dhat is thought to be culturally bound to the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka (you can find a variety of curatives sold there), but the idea of a loss of vigor developing from a loss of semen is very old and not confined to South Asia. Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, believed that losing semen through masturbation made boys weak, sickly, pale. It “quickly destroys both health and spirits; he becomes feeble in body and mind and often ends in a lunatic asylum.”

From Sri Lanka to the locker room
Whether or not dhat and koro are truly “culture-bound” is open to debate. There have been reports of European men suffering from koro after smoking too much dope, for example, and if my junior high track coach is any indication, the idea behind dhat is just about universal. I can still hear his barked orders telling us that if we masturbated within a couple weeks of a meet, we’d barely be able to lift the shot put.

Still, both phenomena, especially in their pathological form, do seem to be more prevalent in Asian culture. The culture somehow makes men susceptible to them.

But you needn’t seek out far away lands to find just how important culture is to sex. Dionne P. Stephens, a psychologist at Florida International University, has examined the subculture of American hip-hop and how it influences the “sexual scripts,” or expectations and behavior, of African-American girls. She argues that girls too often wind up being labeled “freak, gold digger, diva and dyke.”

“Clearly, the fact that sexuality is so central in African-American women’s scripts within their youth culture is particularly problematic,” she writes. “Sexuality remains a commodity within this paradigm, where it is projected as the most powerful instrument that adolescent African American women have for negotiating interpersonal relationships and daily discourses in American society. This continuing physical, emotional, and verbal assault from their potential partners, Hip Hop culture, and broader society reinforces the importance of dismantling the frameworks upon which these sexual scripts are supported.”

Dismantling a framework is tough, though. Even modern, mature, middle-aged American women (and no doubt men, too) behave to some degree according to culture.

Back in 1994, a giant research project called Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) began collecting all sorts of health data on American women. When the researchers crunched the numbers from SWAN, they found that the sex middle-aged women had, and how often they had it, depended, in part, on their ethnic heritage.

“It suggests something about cultural patterns in groups leading to differences,” in behaviors and attitudes, Virginia Cain, lead author of the study, says.

For example, Caucasian women were much more likely to masturbate than were African-American, Hispanic, Chinese or Japanese women. Almost half of Hispanic women engaged in oral sex once per week or more, but only 10.5 percent of Chinese women did. Just over 70 percent of African-American women had intercourse once per week or more; 41.5 percent of Japanese women did.

Cracking the mold
It wasn’t just differences in the menu of sex acts, but the deeper importance of sex that distinguished ethnic groups. Women also varied in the amount of emotional satisfaction they received from sex, how often they became aroused, even how often they desired it.

Cain doesn’t say what any of this means, whether it’s good or bad, only that it has meaning. How cultural norms and expectations come about and how they change, she says, needs more research.

But people can and do crack the mold, Cain says. “It is clear that changes can occur; norms in health practices change over the years and they are learned. One way or the other it is entirely possible to break out of them. The challenge is to figure out the best ways to do that.”

The question for each of us is to decide for ourselves how much guidance we wish to take from our culture and our backgrounds in the way we live our sexual lives. Making a conscious choice, not simply reciting from a canned “script,” can be key to a fulfilling sex life.

Brian Alexander is a California-based writer who covers sex, relationships and health. He is a contributing editor at Glamour and the author of "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion" (Basic Books).

Sexploration appears every other Thursday.