Q & A with author John Ince

1) Interview with Digital Journal Jan 13, 2005 here.

2) Interview with Pivotal Press editors (immediately below.)

What led you to write about sex and politics?
Since my teens I’ve had a strong personal interest in sexual experience and sexual relationships. University in the 1970s exposed me to the classic sexual thinkers such as Freud, Reich, and Kinsey, and to the new sexual perspectives of feminists and gays. After called to the Bar in 1980 I devoted an area of my practice to civil rights cases involving sex. I discovered that Canada’s sexual laws are largely incoherent, unlike any other body of law. Prosecutors, judges, and politicians, who are normally articulate, often stammer ineloquently when sex is in issue. I soon realized that the law’s sexual funk was a microcosm of a much larger social problem. Understanding our culture’s sexual malaise took twenty years of research, and the result is The Politics of Lust.


You say our culture fears sex? Give examples.
Consider the inability of most people to talk openly about sex. I call it “the sexual hush.” Surveys indicate that even lovers cannot communicate honestly about what they like and dislike in bed. Around their children, most parents are sexually tongue-tied. Even media personalities like Oprah and Jane Fonda have trouble saying a word like “vagina.” Our inability to discuss sex reveals our insecurity about it.

Sexual inhibition is also a sign of sexual squeamishness. Surveys show that most people are sexual minimalists. A sexuality expert describes the life of the average couple as “not a picture of much sexual action.”

Our institutions also intolerant towards genitals and sex. Recreational nudity in any public place is a crime in Canada. Genitals are banished from the mainstream media. Most religions regard masturbation and pre-marital sex as sins. The law forbids a broad range of consensual and private sexual conduct, including group sex and sex work. All of this points to fear about human sexuality.

Why the myth that our society is sexually hedonistic?
Sexual entertainment is a vast industry that reaches into millions of homes. The industry misrepresents sexual reality by depicting only the sexuality of professional exhibitionists. Most people have much more inhibited sexual attitudes, but their sexuality is never seen. The result is the popular myth that we are all sexual libertines, like the sex stars.

The mainstream media does little to correct this distortion. Coverage of sexual issues in the mainstream media is dismal. While most large Canadian newspapers have a reporter covering niche subjects like wine, food, cars and gardening, not one has a reporter specializing in sex. The reality of sexuality in our culture is not exposed.

But people who work in the field of sex, such as sex educators, sex therapists, sex toy merchants, and sexual entertainers, all know the prevalence of sexual fear.

How do we acquire sexual fear?
We get it from a fascinating and complex system that operates largely unconsciously. There are three different forces breeding sexual fear: a) social negativity aimed at sex, b) nasty sexual experiences like rape, c) rigid personality traits.

The first is the most important. We internalize sex fear mainly by observing negativity aimed specifically at genitals and sex by parents, siblings, peers, and social authorities. For example, most parents disapprove of children romping in the nude, touching their own genitals, or playing sexually with friends. Children quickly notice that any type of sexual expression causes alarm. Pediatricians report that most children conclude that “sex is dirty and genitals are shameful” by the time they are five! Teen experience reinforces that attitude, as does much adult experience.

Nasty sexual experience such as sexual assault is also a potent cause of sexual fear. Many victims report serious sexual problems even years after their ordeal. Unwanted pregnancies, sexual disease, unhappy early sexual relationships, and even violent pornography breed sexual fear too.

People with “rigid” personality traits are also prone to sexual fear. Rigidity is characterized by high levels of anxiety, attraction to rigid social roles, and excessive self control. People popularly known as “tight asses” or “control freaks” have such traits. For reasons I discuss in the book, the spontaneous impulses of their own sexuality threatens them.

Does the degree of sexual fear vary from person to person? Why?
Yes there is a large variation in the distribution of sexual fear, because everyone is exposed to different levels of the three forces that breed it. For example, some families are very sexually censorious, while others are much more relaxed. Sexual assault and other nasty sexual experience afflict some people more than others. Some people have rigid personality traits while others do not.

Everyone in our culture is exposed to some of these forces, so nobody escapes some primitive fears about sex. But the intensity of those fears can vary widely. Most sexual entertainers habour few such fears, while most fundamentalist preachers are full of them.

Is there a root cause of sexual fear?
One ultimate cause lies behind all of the forces that breed sexual fear: social stratification. Amazingly, the more inequality in the relationships of any family, religion, or community at large, the greater the sexual fear. Negative sexual attitudes are ultimately the product of top-down social relationships! In contrast, sex-positive attitudes are closely linked with social equality. Sex and politics are intimately connected, and the title of The Politics of Lust draws attention to that curious and largely unexamined issue.

How do pecking orders cause sexual fears?
The greater the top-down political structure of any group, the more common are the three causes of sexual fear: sexual punishments, nasty sex, and rigid personalities. For example, a patriarchal family is intensely sexual restrictive. Kids are taught that pre-marital sex and even masturbation are serious sins. Less traditional families have much fewer sexual rules. Similarly, in the top-down structure of the Catholic Church, priests are expected to remain virgins their entire lives! More egalitarian religions, such as the Unitarian Church, impose no such burdens on their leaders. The more sex is punished, the greater the fear.

Sexual assault is also more common the greater the inequality. For example, children are easy prey for sexual predators in schools that teach that authorities must be obeyed without question. In communities where men dominate women, females suffer high levels of sexual abuse. The greater that abuse, the greater the fear about sex. Negative sexual attitudes and top-down power structures go hand in hand.

What is the future of sexual fear?
Though our culture suffers from an unhealthy excess of sexual fear, the trend is clear, we are gradually becoming more sexually relaxed. Every generation is less sexually uptight than its parents.

The ultimate reason for that trend lies in the growing equality in human relationships. Gender roles are loosening up. Women now can enjoy high powered careers and men can opt to stay home and raise the kids. Child-rearing is becoming more humane; corporal punishment is declining. Ethnic prejudice is waning as multiculturalism expands. The greater the social equality the less powerful the forces that breed sexual fear.

Radical change is on the horizon in the way we deal with sex. Gay marriage is just the start. Watch for the legalization of sex work, the loosening of controls over sexual media, far greater sex education in schools, and more attention to sexual issues in the mainstream press. Watch too for greater sexual experimentation in our private lives, including more role play, more sex toys, even more people!