I’m sitting in Barnes and Noble because I’m dogsitting for my sister and needed to get out of her house so that I would stop watching A&E’s series “Obsessed” on Netflix. It’s a show about people in ERP therapy for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
This last episode featured this woman who was a germophobe. In explaining her experience of the disorder, she compared it to “losing your virginity.” She said something like, “Once you’ve done that, you’re not pure anymore, and you never will be again.”
Well, of course all my sex educator alarm bells went off.
I’ve been thinking about virginity and purity a lot lately, in part due to the hymen discussions. I’ve been thinking about this notion of “purity,” which applies differently and more oppressively to women than to men, and how destructive it is, the idea that sex is “dirty” or, in the phraseology of OCD, “contaminating.”
And incidentally, her OCD absolutely shifted into her sex life. She wouldn’t allow her partner to kiss her without scraping his tongue first. Just feeling touched by someone else made her feel contaminated. How totally unerotic is that? Sure there’s a sexily whispered, “Baby, you’re so dirty,” but then there’s a flinch and a step back and a grimaced, “You’re contaminated.”
Where does the whole “purity” thing in sexuality comes from? Most likely some combination of Medieval religious leaders noticing that people who didn’t have sex didn’t get syphilis and gonorrhea and thus decided that “God” considered sexual “purity” a “virtue,” since “He” was punishing those who had sex and the notion that women are property whose reproductive capacities quite literally BELONG to the men who legally own them, and having sex reduces the “value” of that “property.”
In other words, it’s cultural, and it’s pretty old. Not evolutionary old, just cultural old. Unlike germophobia, which can only be as old as medical knowledge of germs and thus is brand fucking new.
What makes the difference between a sexy, naughty experience of “dirty” and a psychological freeze in response to perceived “contamination?”
I think it might be Haidt’s moral foundations again. I’ve never been troubled by sexual disgust. At my first gynecological appointment, my NP said, “Really? Your first time? You seem pretty relaxed.” And I shrugged and said, “Parts is parts.”
But lots and lots and lots of people ARE. Lots of people – and increasingly these days – are. Of course there are those who are aroused by dirtiness – some by the notional moral dirtiness of sex and some by actual physical dirt (see Napoleon and the mythical letter to his wife telling her, “Don’t wash. I’m coming home.”) It’s certainly possible for that to cause problems, but I’m generally not worried about them. I’m worried about the folks who fear fluids, smells, dirt, and, broadly, what I call “the sticky.”
Fear of the sticky interferes with sexual functioning. In dual control model terms, anxiety about the sticky activates SIS, keeping the sexual brakes on. Anxiety is the opposite of arousal.
The sticky is a LEARNED stimulus for SIS, and it can be UNLEARNED with exposure and practice relaxing. Because the sticky can’t actually hurt you, you can expose yourself to the sticky, experience your anxiety, sit with it until it begins to go down on its own, and learn that you don’t have to manage the sticky in order to feel calm and in control.
I suppose it’s asking too much to ask people to embrace the sticky. But if you could avoid fearing it…. you’d make the world a better place.