By any definition, Brandon Teena/Teena Brandon’s life was radically different to most, giving the impression of belonging to a tiny minority of sexual misfits while the bulk of the population lives at ease with its sexuality. However, a glance at newspaper or Internet news sites reveals, almost on a daily basis, others whose lives have been shaped and frequently shattered by sex. The media reports—often in morally outraged tones—the most extreme cases: sexually motivated killings, sexual abuse, sex trafficking, rape and paedophilia. Some high-profile examples from the last decade include:

  • Josef Fritzl: convicted in March 2009 for imprisoning his daughter in the basement of his house in Austria for 24 years and repeatedly raping her.
  • Ariel Castro: convicted in May 2013 on 937 counts of kidnapping and rape after imprisoning three young women in his house in Cleveland, Ohio, for 12 years.
  • Jerry Sandusky, American high school football coach: convicted in June 2012 on 45 counts of sexually abusing young boys.
  • Vanessa George, British nursery worker: convicted in December 2009 for explicitly photographing and sexually assaulting young children in her care.
  • Rolf Harris, Australian entertainer: convicted in May 2014 on 12 counts of indecent assault dating back to the 1980s.
  • Tiger Woods, megastar golfer: revelations of extramarital affairs in November 2009 destroyed both his reputation and his marriage.

While we might admire the talents of Woods, Sandusky or Harris, we have no desire for our sex lives to be subjected to such microscopic examination. As for the others, we shudder with disgust and thank our lucky stars we are not impelled by the same distorted urges. Whether due to some genetic mischance or the whim of a savage god, they live in a duplicitous world defined by their inability to conform to accepted sexual mores, leading outwardly respectable lives until their wayward sexuality catapults them into the public eye. Along with Teena Brandon, they and the growing numbers who make the news on account of their sexual misdeeds are all inmates of Sexcatraz.

Whether due to some genetic mischance or the whim of a savage god, they live in a duplicitous world defined by their inability to conform to accepted sexual mores, leading outwardly respectable lives until their wayward sexuality catapults them into the public eye

This is just the tip of the iceberg. All over the world, people struggle with sex-related issues on a daily basis. Public opinion is deeply and sometimes violently divided over the acceptability of same-sex marriages, sex education, prostitution and abortion. For others, the difficulties are more overt. Divorce rates remain at historic highs, with infidelity consistently cited as a major cause. To put it more dramatically, marriages are failing “under an unstoppable tide of swirling sexual frustration, libido-killing boredom, impulsive betrayal, dysfunction, confusion, and shame[1].” Sexual abuse—physical, verbal and emotional—is endemic. The World Health Organisation estimates that 35% of women are subjected to physical or sexual violence. But even when actual sexual violence isn’t involved, the problem is one of degree rather than scale. The Everyday Sexism Project documents the misery of women subjected to an array of sexual slights that are often, to quote its website, so “normalised that you don’t even feel able to protest.” This self-imposing silence, this omertá around abusive and dysfunctional sexuality, is a recurring element in Sexcatraz.

High schools are a particular hotspot in the shifting front line of sexual permissibility. A 2010 survey reveals that 80% of UK teachers are uncomfortable delivering sex education to a generation of teenagers who, though much younger than their teachers, are often more sexually savvy. Schoolgirls dress like the latest pop-cum-porn stars, prompting some UK schools to ban miniskirts as too distracting. But technology provides a work-around: students use mobile phones to trade nude pictures of each other. In some countries, including America, these teenagers are technically manufacturers and distributors of child pornography; they face a lifelong criminal record for simply wanting to explore their burgeoning sexuality using the technology in their pockets.

But the push for greater sexualisation is not universal: Japan’s increasingly asexual young males have been derisively labelled ‘herbivore men’ for their flagging appetite for red-blooded bedroom activities. It’s not just the men, either: a survey found that 45% of Japanese women aged 16-24 “were not interested in or despised” sexual contact. The knock-on effect of a sexually abstinent generation is a rapidly falling birth rate and a long-term population decline with potentially massive repercussions.

Even these are simply the outward signs. The vast majority of our struggles with sex we keep to ourselves. The sharp rise of male performance enhancers attests to the prevalence of erectile dysfunction. Our inboxes are swamped with offers of sex-enhancing pills from dodgy websites hosted in former Soviet satellites. Thousands of frustrated users throng to adult dating sites; it’s not only Tiger Woods who finds it easier to stay within the bounds of a golf course fairway than those of a monogamous marriage. Yet few will openly admit to such practices. As Brooke Magnanti observes in The Sex Myth, “Our disinclination to be perfectly honest when discussing sex is high.” Unlike issues with drugs or alcohol, which are readily admitted these days—and even a badge of honour among the celebrity set—we tend to fight our sexual demons alone and in the dark.

Or we surf for porn. Accurate statistics are hard to come by. According to the web-monitoring site Top Ten Reviews, in 2006 there were 72 million unique visitors to adult websites per month, with 68 million daily pornographic search engine requests. Other estimates assert that pornography accounts for between 14% and 30% of total web traffic, though much depends on how this is measured. According to Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, porn generates more income than “all professional football, baseball, and basketball franchises.” Magnanti, a qualified statistician, disagrees: “The money in adult entertainment is dwarfed by the turnover of all other entertainment.” Which of them is right? For the purposes of Sexcatraz, it doesn’t matter. The point is that everywhere we turn when trying to scope out human sexual dysfunction we encounter this kind of fog.

The lack of clarity around the extent of porn use is mirrored in the unwillingness to acknowledge its existence. While younger adults may be more open about it, the sacking of three British judges in March 2015 for viewing legal porn on their work accounts shows that it retains a significant stigma. Simply trying to unearth porn statistics gives a glimpse of our society’s inability to face the issue. Typing ‘por’ into Google’s UK search engine yields a list of suggested topics, from Porsche to Portsmouth; but even with the safe search filter (and the accompanying argument about child protection) disabled, typing ‘porn’ yields nothing at all, as if those 72 million cyber-surfers had vanished into some ethereal Recycle Bin.

Why are we willing to indulge our fascination with, say, food in minute and highly public detail, but not our equal—if not greater—fascination with sex? Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker writes that, “In all societies, sex is at least somewhat ‘dirty’.” This confirms that our sexual reticence is universal but doesn’t address the underlying issue of why sex carries such a taint.

Beyond all these visible and (somewhat) measurable issues lies a deeper layer of sexual malaise that is both invisible and immeasurable. How many people have sex with their partners not for love or desire but from a sense of obligation? There are no statistics on those who, consciously or more often unconsciously, have turned their backs on sex: couples whose sexual relationships have stagnated or singles who have abandoned dating—not from an inability to find love, but from a hidden fear that finding love would entail dealing with all that sticky sexual stuff. As Ryan and Jethá observe, “contemporary human sexuality throbs with obvious, painful truths that must not be spoken aloud.” For countless people, sex has been dumped in the ‘too hard’ bin. They, too, are trapped in Sexcatraz.

The massive popularity of erotic novels such as Fifty Shades of Grey and sex-drenched TV series such as Game of Thrones, the constant parade of quasi-porn pop singers, the plethora of personal services and high street lap-dancing clubs suggest a world of increasing sexual gratification. The reality, for many people, is diametrically opposite. The myriad ways in which sex can—overtly or covertly—exert a negative influence is quite simply staggering. The roll call for Sexcatraz runs to many, many millions. As archaeologist Timothy Taylor observes with masterful understatement, “the problem of sexual morality remains in many respects unresolved.”

Next: Deep impact


[1] Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, Sex at Dawn.

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