The Paradox of Sex

It could be argued that sex is the only addiction that is unavoidable. Addiction to alcohol, tobacco and hard and soft drugs can be avoided by merely not starting to take them. Similarly, nobody need become addicted to gambling if they decline the first invitation to put a nickel in the one-armed bandit or to fill a football-pools coupon. All these potential addictions depend upon an outside agency, a substance and a system, but the sexual instinct is inside us and we have no easy escape from its clutches. It is perhaps for this reason that sex seems to occupy a bigger place in our lives than objective reason would allow.

Different communities have sought to control sex in different ways, and control has been exercised mainly through the agency of religion. Long ago, strict regulation was the norm. Within Christianity, chastity was held to be the highest estate and marriage was seen as a refuge for those who couldn’t be priests, monks or nuns. There were some individuals for whom chastity was an attainable goal, but for the majority it was never achieved, and in recent times, the failure has resulted in many distressing cases of suppressed sexuality leading to quasi-institutional paedophilia.

Islam wrestled with the problem of sex and introduced some practical solutions. These included allowing polygamy up to the number of four wives with no age restrictions. Women were compelled to completely cover their bodies to avoid rousing male passions. Chastity was achieved where it was needed by castration and the employment of eunuchs, and in some Islamic and non-Islamic societies the female sex drive was reduced by genital manipulation. Harsh punishments were applied if the rules were broken. The system appears to have been effective in improving the control of the passions in turbulent and lawless times, but it is clearly at variance with modern concepts of human rights, gender equality and the care of juveniles.

In the wider communities in western countries, monogamy had long been the norm, and sex before or outside of marriage was condemned, as were all deviations from the heterosexual relationship. Gradually, with time, these bonds have been loosened to the point today when every conceivable form of association between consenting adults is sanctioned. Of consensual relationships, only association with juveniles is illegal and extensively regarded as sinful. Although still widely practised, its frequent exposure is greeted with universal expressions of horror from the general public and popular media. Less easy to understand is the eager exposure and enthusiastic condemnation of every minor sexual deviation by a person in the public eye.

So, after centuries of wrestling with the problem of sexuality, the paradox remains. The generosity of the human spirit moves quietly towards universal freedom to follow the inner compulsions, while a sense of guilt condemns weakness and howls loudly against those who transgress. The self-inflicted addictions are avoidable, but sex remains an innate challenge for both the individual and for society.

John Powell

John Powell weaves a tale of romance, tension and intrigue into the lives and loves of Kwame Mainu and his family and friends, against the rich social, cultural, economic and political background of the first four decades of Ghana’s independence, in his two novels: The Colonial Gentleman’s Son and Return to the Garden City.

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