Our sexual selves

By Madeleine Somerville

With the rising frequency of allegations of sexual assault and/or abuse being leveled at individuals in positions of power, one begins to wonder why. Priests and religious figures, teachers, even the RCMP, have all been accused of sex crimes against co-workers or the very people they are supposed to lead, teach and protect. This troubling fact is even more alarming considering statistics from Canada and the United States indicating an annual reported sexual assault rate of 24,049 and 90,178 respectively.

However, countries with similar social structures and comparable cultures report annual sexual assault rates of only 6,787 (Brazil) and 8,409 (the United Kingdom). When you break it down to incidents per 100,000 people, the United States has eight times the assault rate of Brazil.

All kinds of numbers and data-sets aside, North America is home to Pamela Anderson’s breasts, Britney Spears’ stomach, Beyonce’s booty and Jennifer Aniston’s legs. We are bombarded daily with images of sexuality and it seems impossible at times to escape the innuendo, even the fun, of being sexual. Going to the bar is an elaborate mating ritual. We spend hours putting on our finest feathers in the hopes of being noticed, then taking offense once we are.

We are a continent which seems deceivingly at ease with our sexuality, while retaining an incredible amount of sexual stigmas and taboos. For a society presenting such blatant sexuality, why is it such a touchy subject? Why does the slightest deviation from the norm create such havoc?

We all remember the incident in Toronto when a woman created quite a stir by sporting bare breasts, arguing there was no difference between displaying her nipples and a man doing the same. Her argument touches on the problem we have and is an explanation for the disparity between North American and European sexual crimes.

The sexual images we are exposed to daily in Canada and the States are not a measure of our openness with the human body, nor our acceptance of its form. It is actually entirely the opposite. It shows how much sexual meaning we attach to a specific body part.

Seeing a woman breast-feed in a public place, an ultimately¬†biological action, is made sexual in popular culture. For example, Jim Carrey suckling at a well-endowed young mother’s breast in Me, Myself and Irene.

In short, the common idea in North America seems to be that wherever an unusual amount of skin is being bared, there is sexual connotation.

We have no nude public bath houses like Finland, we have very few nude beaches compared to most of Europe. If we did, most would realize what those who have been to nude beaches already know: they are the least sexual places you will ever be.

I have often wondered if there is a correlation between how we sexualize the body and the rate of sexual crime, and my conclusion is there is. If the body ceases to be a sexual thing, it stops being a fetish, an object of shameful desire.

Consider this analogy. To some a shoe is simply a shoe. Its function is to protect the foot and allow us to walk on surfaces we might not otherwise be able to. To foot fetishists, however, the shoe is an immensely sexual object, even a source of sexual gratification.

As North Americans, we have a fetish with the human body which takes us too far from its form and function, making it drip sex from every pore. This practice attaches a value to the naked body, it makes it a commodity. Where there are items of value there is also disparity, and those who wish to possess what they can’t have will obtain it–often by any means necessary.

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