“Stigmatise” promiscuity. This was the call to action a Timaru gynaecologist made at a Forum on the Family in Auckland recently, aimed at shaming the rising number of “promiscuous” women in New Zealand into changing their ways. After witnessing the pain promiscuity causes in his pregnant patients who cannot remember who they had sex with, Dr. Albert Makary’s call was perhaps an overreaction to a Durex Sex Survey that rated New Zealand women as “the most promiscuous in the world.”
Dr. Makary’s outspokenness on this issue has led many to pass opinion or comment about this ‘shameful’ state of affairs. Among them was fourth year psychology student, Emily McKenzie, who is passionately concerned that many modern women see sex as “something to boast about,” and that “young girls that are sleeping around to try and find love and boost their self-esteem.”
Mrs Salisbury, director of Sex Therapy NZ, is quoted in the New Zealand Herald as saying, “Certainly when people talk to me about promiscuous pasts, it’s usually with regret. They are reflecting on a lack of confidence they had, or their belief that they would get love through sex or feel good about themselves.”
Garth George blames sexual promiscuity on the birth control pill. He wrote in his New Zealand Herald opinion column that:
For decades now most people have come to see the act of sexual intercourse as simply a physical function, much like having a meal together or playing a game of tennis, something to be indulged in purely for sensory pleasure.
However the fact that New Zealand soldiers had the highest rates of venereal disease among the British colonies during the First World War, affecting an estimated one in six men, suggests that sex has long been regarded as purely a “sensory pleasure.” Bronwyn Dalley, writing about prostitution during the First World War, noted that “soldiers were more likely to catch the clap than a bullet.” One eyewitness in Cairo saw 30 or 40 soldiers lined up outside brothels waiting their turn in an atmosphere he described as “an orgy of unrestrained licentiousness.”
After years of seeking release from the stresses of war by getting drunk and having sex with numerous prostitutes, how could these young men ever learn to view women in healthy, loving and respectful ways? And how could they ever settle back into civilian life at home without some sense of shame or disconnection from women they married? Instead, did many men brag about their sexual “conquests” to hide the shame they surely must have felt inside?
When a woman ‘sleeps’ around she is “promiscuous.” It is a slur against her, often inviting other labels like “slut”, “whore”, or “tart”. When I was growing up, promiscuous women were known as “the town bike.” Even Paris Hilton admitted last week that the leaked sex video of her with a former boyfriend not only damaged her reputation, but it was “humiliating.” I wonder if we are still living with the same attitude people had a hundred years ago or more that promiscuous women are synonymous with prostitutes who not only pass on numerous venereal diseases, but lead ‘good’ men astray.
But what can we possibly achieve by pointing fingers and labelling? Apart from raising my ire, it solves nothing and keeps us locked into a narrow field of vision where the numerous underlying causes of promiscuity cannot impress themselves upon our conscious awareness. Worse, blaming becomes shaming that buries these hidden causes even deeper from sight. When we consider that there is a strong link between prostitution and childhood sexual abuse (in Britain, an estimated 75-80 percent of female street prostitutes were sexually abused children), it doesn’t take much of a leap to understand that there might be more than meets the eye behind the “promiscuous” behaviour of women (and men, too, for that matter).
Growing up in the fifties I learned that, according to my father, my mother was a “whore”. When I was ten he told me that she had had numerous affairs while they were married. The problem stemmed from her mother, it seemed, who, in the 1920s, had four children to different men. I never did learn what her circumstances were, only that my grandmother later became strictly religious.
My father subsequently discarded my mother as a ‘fallen’ woman, found someone to marry within a month or so of her departure, and we rarely spoke of her again. But I wondered many times what became of her. It wasn’t until I experienced the heartache relationships can bring that I discovered my mother was not the terrible names my father called her. I came to understand that she was in grief over the love her mother, and later my father, couldn’t give her, and instead sought it in the arms of other men. My mother was the youngest child of four, left in the care of her mother’s friends and relatives from birth. Was she even wanted? I can’t imagine she was.
In my mid-forties I began an unsuccessful search for my mother. I wanted to understand her circumstances and why she disappeared out of my life when I was 13. At the same time I began doing counselling work, specializing in exploring early childhood to resolve current problems in my clients’ lives. Not only did abandonment and lack of mothering emerge as common issues, but also numerous accounts of problems with the father—including alcoholism, violence, and sexual abuse. Some of the stories shocked me deeply, like the woman who had her father’s baby as a teenager and, after it was born, her father buried it in their back yard.
One very insightful teenager wrote to me…
“I have nightmares about getting raped, having fights with my mum, and boyfriend dying. Feel the need to seek security from men after all of my male role models abandoned me, both of my Dads and Grandfather. Masturbated from as young as 9 (some memories earlier). Didn’t bleed or hurt when I lost my virginity and had promiscuous patterns from ages 13-15. My Dads abandoned me and I seek security and acceptance from males because of it.”
An engaging and likeable woman in her early thirties had been a drug addict and prostitute. Sexually abused as a child, she later became involved with musicians and drugs. To pay for her heroin addiction, she became a prostitute. She described it as being a healing experience to take money for sex because it enabled her to feel power over men, and consequently power over the men who had sexually abused her as child. It was after that she began the long journey to give up her heroin addiction.
Another woman described her experience with her father from the age of about six.
“Father’s there with pyjamas on…early in the morning. That’s when he used to abuse me, when everyone was asleep. His hands are very hard and his whole presence is anxious… like an animal. Has a lot of stuff inside him and he can’t wait to get at me. He’s frightening me. Squeezing me…on my body. Hands and arms are so tight and hard. He’s so intense and ruthless.”
You may well ask, “How could any of these people develop healthy relationships, let alone experience sex in a mature and loving way?”
Many of the people I counselled used sex to find love. Some were romance addicts, sex addicts, relationship addicts, and love addicts. All had come from seriously dysfunctional homes devoid of love and genuine caring. They were victims of victims going back for generations. Experiencing the unveiling of history within each client, their pain, and witnessing a life lost to years of heartache and suffering trapped in destructive patterns that began in early childhood, was a humbling and sobering experience for me. Never again would I be able to look at a person and pass moral judgment on them. I saw my mother in many of them, still searching for love. I saw myself.
My clients taught me that coming from a background where their parents did not love, respect, value and care for them, pushed them to seek love in impossible places and with people who repeated the abuse dealt to them as children. Many would have been dismissed as “promiscuous” according to Dr. Makary’s Christian values, and the cause of their behaviour would remain a mystery to him. How could this attitude of “stigmatization” possibly ‘help’ them in any way?
Jean Liedloff, in her book The Continuum Concept: In search of Happiness Lost, wrote after her two-and-a-half-year’s experience living with the Yequana Indians in the South American jungle:
In people whose [childhood] deprivations have left them to maintain a state of tension among the inharmonious aspects of their personalities, orgasm often releases only a superficial part of the energy tied up in their permanently tensed muscles. This incomplete release of the excess energy creates a fairly chronic state of dissatisfaction, which manifests itself in bad temper, an inordinate interest in sex, inability to concentrate, promiscuity.
To make matters worse for the deprived adult, his or her need for the physical expression of sex is mixed with the need left over from infancy for non-sexual physical contact. In general, this latter need is not recognized in our society, and any wish for contact is construed as sexual.
What ‘promiscuous’ people need—both men and women—is our compassion and understanding. It was what my mother desperately needed. She did the best she could to love and care for her three children coming from the background she had. During the time I knew her, my felt sense was that my mother’s search for love was fruitless. And it enabled me to finally stop looking for love in the arms of other men as she had done, and learn not only to love and care for myself, but to re-parent myself. As Gershen Kaufman wrote in his book, Shame: The Power of Caring,
Once a person accepts as unalterable fact that he can never go back and make up for past needs, he is freed to live his life from the present onward. And a new, more equal and adult relationship with his parents is able to come about. By making peace with the past and accepting that some of our core conflicts remain with us, that some holes are permanent, we can go about the task of becoming the best possible person we can be.
Working through my own childhood pain, I learned that people who love and respect and care for themselves, act in self-affirming ways that allow them to work towards achieving their potential. Such people do not become alcoholics. They don’t do drugs. And they don’t sleep with every person who shows them a crumb of attention as if it was food and they are starving.
Ironically, my mother’s abandonment and crazy-making mood swings was not what caused me the greatest harm. When I was fifteen, my father gave me a verbal dressing down for kissing the boy next door, effectively transferring to me the shame he perhaps wanted my mother to feel. The following year he beat that shame further into my soul after I arrived home from a date, five minutes late. He conveniently ‘forgot’ that he had used me as a teddy bear to masturbate against and offload his unhappiness over my mother’s affairs before I even started school. And that he raped me in his anger after my mother left when I was ten. I realize now that within his long, silent brooding he also transferred to me his own unacknowledged shame over what he had done. I also now wonder if there was shame for any sexual ‘indiscretions’ while he was stationed in New Guinea during the Second World War, from where he wrote love letters to my mother.
My efforts to ‘fix’ my father and make him happy were fruitless. I reasoned that if I could make him happy, it would restore peace and harmony and put an end to the terrifying arguments between my parents that sometimes went on all night. It began a destructive pattern of trying to ‘fix’ the numerous men I attracted into my life searching for their mother’s love. It took years before I discovered that I didn’t have the power to ‘fix’ anyone, and that in fact, it is an inside job of changing perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, early programming and learning to love oneself.
In time I came to understand that I had to have many different relationships to finally resolve the issues with my father, to learn from them that my father was an abused, neglected and abandoned child himself whose mother had used him as a surrogate spouse when her husband cut himself off emotionally. Without finding the gift of healing and insight each relationship offered, I would never have developed the capacity for understanding, empathy, and compassion that began to free me from the destructive patterns of my past.
Finally, I understand that the promiscuous behaviour, the drinking and the drugging we see around us everywhere says more about the lack of love in our lives and the brokenness caused through abuse, violence, neglect, abandonment and rejection than it does about ‘loose’ morals. It also says a lot about the culture we live in, the values we have, and how we have been sexualized (because sex sells) in a market-driven economy that objectifies and dehumanizes us all.
People use each other to fill needs that can never be satiated because, without self-love and self-respect, their emptiness is like a bath without a plug. Rather than learning to ‘fix’ the gaping hole within them, many people seek a sexual ‘fix’ or an alcohol ‘fix’ or a drug ‘fix’ or numerous other ‘fixes’ that, ironically, are trying to tell them they have been led far from the humanity with which they were born.
Why punish and stigmatize those who act out the numerous ways they were abused, split inside, or broken when instead we could extend love and compassion and understanding that would be like salve to their wounds…and perhaps help them learn to love and respect themselves enough to choose a different path.
New Zealand’s Great War: New Zealand, the Allies and the First World War, Edited by John Crawford and Ian McGibbon (2007), Exisle Publishing Ltd., Titirangu, Chapter 21 by Bronwyn Dalley, ‘Come Back With Honour’: Prostitution and the New Zealand Soldier, at Home and Abroad.
Jean Liedloff, The Continuum Concept: In search of Happiness Lost (2009—originally published in 1975), Penguin Group, Australia
Gershen Kaufman, Shame: The Power of Caring, Third Edition (1991) Schenkman Books, Inc., Rochester, Vermont
New Zealand Herald Articles:
You might also like to read:
Love Junkie Rachel Resnick’s memoir about love and sex addiction.
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