21 October 2012

Of cheeky Chinese, randy Russians, bawdy Brazilians and hedonic Hellenes

Sadly, along with the common canard that Christians are inherently misogynistic comes the equally common and equally misguided canard that Christians fear and hate sex - that Christian morality sees sex as unclean or sinful, and that we are taught to be ridden with feelings of sexual guilt, envy and repression. The facts, however, show this to be more than a rather silly charge. Though I may have several deep disagreements with the overall editorial slant of the New York Times, they do indeed have a significant amount of quality reporting, some of which even manages to be fairly interesting: a recent op-ed they ran linked to a blog called Ranking America, which is devoted (just like it says in the title) to all manner of statistics which determine America’s ranking along various metrics and indicators. One of these worth note was the frequency of sex indicator. Without looking at the indicator, which countries would you think were the most sexually active? The Netherlands, with its liberal outlook on prostitution and drugs? Or perhaps the pornography capital of the world, Japan? Or the good old U S of A, which consumes so much of said material?

In fact, the most sexually active country in the world, according to this survey, is Greece, with a whopping 87% of adults unleashing the beast with two backs on a weekly basis, followed by Brazil (82%), Russia (80%) and China (78%), then Italy (76%), Poland (76%) and Malaysia (74%). Greece, of course, is overwhelmingly Orthodox (being the third most pious country in Europe behind Malta and Cyprus), as is Russia. Brazil, for all it may encompass Rio de Janeiro, still retains a Lusitanian-flavoured Catholic piety unmatched anywhere else in the Southern Cone, with over 85% of adults reporting some form of Christian belief (Italy and Poland are also solidly Catholic, and Malaysia devoutly Muslim). China is rather the exception to the rule given that most people are still officially atheist, but it is currently experiencing an under-the-table boom in religious fervour, after it had been banned for decades under Communist rule.

So the question stands: if traditional (Catholic, Anglo-Catholic and Orthodox) Christians are as neurotic about sex as our reputation might suggest, how come we are having so much of it? Conversely, if agnostics, atheists and other such free-thinking folk are more liberated, what gives with these figures? In the Netherlands, where only 34% of people profess to believe in a God, only 63% of adults are getting in their weekly hokey-pokey. In the UK (38% theistic), that figure is an anemic 55%. In the US (which looks pious at first glance, but where less than 40% of people attend regular services and which has never been particularly friendly to Catholicism or Orthodoxy), that figure falls to a pathetic 53%. And we’re not at the bottom of the barrel yet: Hentai Central itself is sporting a completely dysfunctional 34% rate of regular raunch.

It is true that the study itself has some rather glaring design flaws, one of which being that it is an online survey (which, like telephone surveys, reaches only a highly specific and specialised audience in some countries). It would be nice to know, also, the actual questions that were asked. Even so, the data are quite tantalising (so to speak). Even more so when one accounts for divorce rates. If one leaves out Russia (the third-highest divorce rate of any country in the world), an inverse pattern holds true. Greece and Italy, along with Spain, Ireland and the former Yugoslavia, sport the lowest divorce rates in Europe. China ranks just slightly below Poland. The Netherlands falls just below the EU average, and Japan falls just above that line, but the UK and the US have sky-high divorce rates.

But why is this? Why is it that Christians in devout countries, with our archaic norms concerning sexual conduct, are generally going at it like crazed rabbits? It could be argued along Nietzschean lines, as many are wont to do, that it is merely a case of sexual repression that has snapped: the degree to which we censor and suppress and regulate sex reflects the degree to which we have inverted (but not quashed) our carnal desires, which are then redirected in unhealthy ways. This is a possibility, certainly more than likely in some cases. But it is not a particularly fair representation of Christian doctrine or practice (and at any rate, it is hard to imagine the Mediterranean cultures as being to any excessive degree censored, suppressed and inverted in their desires or indeed in anything else). It bears repeating that Christian doctrine holds that sex is an intrinsically good thing, following from the Old Testament imperative to ‘go forth and multiply’. But it follows from that that Christianity treats sex with something approaching a sacramental reverence: an act of both great creative and destructive potential. By linking it with love, with marriage and with childrearing, Christianity is not trying so much to limit sex or to discourage it, but acknowledging its power and attempting to ensure that its ability to cause hurt, whether physical or spiritual, to people (whether the partners or the potential offspring), is reduced.

There is also a distinctly Chestertonian (or arguably Kierkegaardian) dimension to this seeming-paradox. Where sex is treated as a holy and transcendent act, people tend to have healthier and more robust appetites for it, and indeed seem to enjoy it more. But where it is treated merely as appetite, it has a tendency to gorge itself, and then bore itself, sickening and withering away.

An interesting tidbit of information, anyway. I would like to get a second opinion on these tendencies, though.


  1. I think you are right about treating sex as something sacred as opposed to just a biological imperative. I believe that media depictions of romance can help shed light on this issue, since I believe that, to a certain extent, such depictions can serve as an accurate reflection of the culture when dealing with intensely private matters such as sexual activity.

    So, for example, there is a new TV show on HBO called “Girls” that depicts the sex lives of 20-somethings in New York City, and the sex scenes are depressing and intensely unsexy. People seem to just have sex out of boredom.

    Now, compare “Girls” to Italian films from the 1950s and 1960s, which were tame but sexy at the same time, despite being filmed under the relatively more puritanical censorship guidelines of post-war Italy (Catholicism and old-school Marxism, the two dominant worldviews in Italy at the time, were both more or less conservative on sexual matters) and I think we can see the cultural and religious differences in action.

    Even now, with less censorship in place in southern Europe, people I know from those countries tell me that their raunchy programming is milder than what one might find in secular northern Europe. Sex just isn’t sexy when it is no longer sacred.

  2. Good point, John - particularly about the sexual conservatism of certain forms of Marxism. Maoism in China was practically puritanical - pornography was banned, polygamy was banned, both marriage and divorce were restricted by the danwei. I completely neglected to mention this in my post!

    But yes, I certainly agree that when it comes to depictions of sex, less can be (and usually is) more. Space-breaks can leave more to the imagination than fumbling poseurish imitations of Fanny Hill. I remember seeing a Japanese movie (I forget the name now - it was something Latin, I think, and began with a 'P') which merely showed a couple of suggestive glances and the beginnings of foreplay, but managed to suggest a more total, more absolute surrender to carnality than anything more explicit might have done (and, it being Japan, they absolutely could have gone the more explicit track). But yes, I think you may be right about southern Europe being more 'softcore' in its preferences than the north.

    Oh yes, and I wholeheartedly approve of the Claudia Cardinale pic currently heading your blog!

    All the best,

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  4. Hello Matthew,

    Thanks, that is one of my favorite pictures of Ms. Cardinale! I always preferred Claudia Cardinale to Sophia Loren. My understanding is that in post-war Italy, commercials for pet food were banned because both Catholics and communists objected to advertising for dog food and cat food when human beings were still starving. American-style consumerism changed the culture, though, and Silvio Berlusconi was the man who really championed sex on TV through his private media companies.

    Regarding Marxists, I think many conservatives today: a) forget that Marxism has had socially conservative branches and b) socially liberal cultural Marxism probably had less to do with the Sexual Revolution in America than Hugh Hefner and other capitalists who used sex to sell commodities.

    Today, I think whether Marxists are socially liberal or socially conservative probably depends on where they come from. I imagine African and Asian Marxists have different attitudes regarding sex and family life than European or North American ones.