Last month a blog entry titled “My husband Doesn’t need to see your Boobs” kept appearing in my news feed accompanied by conservative praise, and liberal mocking. The writer was a conservative Christian woman who wanted other women to stop posting pictures of themselves in bikinis because it was ruining her marriage.
Some gems from the post include:
- “I am not faulting you. And by no means am I faulting him. This man of mine diverts his eyes from whatever questionable images flash on the screen before him. But sometimes the temptation is too much.”
- “Protecting his eyes, protecting his heart”
- “as quickly as I can forget your picture, it is filed away in his mind, ready to be pulled back out whenever he so chooses.” (she sees this as a flaw, rather than a super power)
- “But would you, could you, keep your boobs out of my marriage? You can have your memories, and we can have our sacred hearts”
- “I don’t blame you for being confident enough to let the world see how good you look in front of the waves with your coozie and ballcap and barely anything else.”
Many writers (justifiably) ripped this post apart. Some of my favorite responses included a campaign encouraging women to embrace and love their breasts, the Militant Baker taking apart each point, one seeing breasts as a metaphor for temptation, and a parody from a faith based blog.
I noticed that many responses (though not those listed above) had the same underlying assumption as the original blog: the issue of self-control. The original writer worried that her husband lacked the self control to handle images on Facebook, many of her detractors suggested that she needed to trust her husband to have self-control.
To me, it seemed like placing so much weight on “self-control” shames people who are aroused by an image of someone other than their partner, and that this attitude is an unhealthy one.
I think about how we will approach the topics of gender, fantasy, and sex with our sons when the time comes. I understand that there is no single big “sex talk,” and that it’s important to discuss more than the biology of sex, but I’m not completely sure how to tackle some of that.
I don’t want them to feel ashamed or limited by desires (wherever those may lie), but I also want them to understand that fantasizing about something or someone gives them no ownership of that person in the same way that this writer has no right to own the bodies of her facebook friends. Nor, for that matter of her husband’s thoughts and fantasies. Is this where self-control comes into play?
At the end of the day, how do parents handle the issues of self-control (or not) with their kids as they start to think about sex? How do kids handle the fact that people are often attracted to images of people they know in real life without objectifying that person?
I asked her how we can help our children grow up sexually fulfilled without objectifying those to whom they’re attracted. How could I help them see the the line between objectifying people and healthy fantasy?
Her reply was reassuring.
“I think it comes down to the ability to separate fantasy from reality. Any person in your fantasy is an object to you, sort of by definition. . .I don’t think it’s the content of the fantasy that matters; it’s how good you are at keeping your fantasies from bleeding over into your perceptions of and interactions with real people. And that’s easily shown by the way you treat others and think about them when you’re not getting off. Especially for a developing teenage brain, I think it’s important to do some counter-programming to whatever messages your fantasies are wearing into your brain. A hetero teenage boy can fantasize vividly, jerk off furiously, and also read a lot of feminist writing, and just women’s writing in general, so that the place of women in his life is complex and multi-dimensional.”
As a parent, I was in love with the idea that having good writers on our bookshelves and being respectful of others in non-sexual areas of life are healthy starts towards having sons who can balance their growing understanding of sex and fantasy with their growing understanding of being decent human beings.
But there remained the issue of self-control. Why do people find it so important that it is assumed? Are there problems associated with a person masturbating or fantasizing about photographs of a real person?
Of course, she had a great answer.
“It depends on the person, and also on what you mean by “problems.” It will probably shift the way they view that person somewhat, especially if that person has a recurring role in their fantasies. Think about times when you’ve had an emotionally (or sexually) charged dream about someone you know, and the next time you see him there’s this weird sense that you have this whole emotional history with them that they weren’t part actually of. . .The simple act of fantasizing about someone doesn’t do that person any harm, but if it changes the way we think about and treat the person, then that may become a problem. If we were all perfectly capable of separating “fantasy version of you that lives in my head” from “real you that I interact with in reality,” there wouldn’t be any problems, but we’re not, and the younger and less emotionally mature we are, the harder it usually is to make that separation. We can end up imposing all kinds of attributes, desires, and even a sense of entitlement on somebody because of who they’ve been in our fantasy life — which is not a role they participated in or consented to.”
“At the same time, creating walls of guilt around sexuality has never worked very well. I think it’s a good idea not to let an actual person in our lives take up a prominent role in our fantasy life (possibly with the exception of an actual romantic partner!) but it’s not super-helpful to create a dynamic where we have a strong impulse to do that, and then go around beating ourselves up for the impulse or for indulging it. Better to put that energy into developing the emotional maturity to separate the person in our heads from the real person.”
And there it was. The issue of self-control, but it wasn’t the control to avoid sexual fantasy about a real live person, it was about using self-control to ensure that they have a bit part in those fantasies so that it doesn’t skew reality. The goal isn’t to go to an extreme, but to put it in perspective with your sexual imaginings as a whole.
I still have misgivings about the underlying assumption of the importance of using self-control to avoid sexual thoughts or actions. To me saying “have some self-control” shames people who are aroused by an image. How can I counter the shame factor that articles like the original post have on people who masturbate or look at an image and are sexually aroused?
“The best way is to model it yourself. They’ve already figured out that different people have different opinions, and that some people think things are shameful while others vehemently disagree. Your opinion has more weight than most, even if they don’t acknowledge it, so by making it clear in word and deed that you think there’s nothing shameful about having sexual desires and sexual fantasies, you’re doing a great job countering it. (And remember that the offhand things you say and do when you’re not aware they’re watching are far more telling than the things you say when having a sit-down, serious conversation. If you yourself are struggling with feelings that sexual desires are shameful, even if you intellectually believe they’re perfectly healthy, it’s better to level with your kids — “Hey, our culture has some really toxic messages about this stuff and I’ve absorbed them too, even though I don’t believe them” — rather than project insincerity.)”
“They will probably not escape our world without some feelings of shame around sexuality, as well as some of the more icky gendered messages our culture puts out. We can none of us completely escape our culture. But by providing context and wisdom, and encouraging critical thought, you can put them in a good position to sort out their cultural baggage.”
And there it is: not so much an issue of self control, of boobs in bikinis, or even of an insecure woman’s ranting. Just context, moderation, and critical thought: all things that skeptics try to encourage in children anyway, and that branch into areas of our children’s lives that extend much further than I’d realized.