Culture Wars
American Sex and the Middle East

We Americans talk about sex publicly all the time these days, but it rarely dawns on America’s cultural warriors that foreigners overhear these conversations. The consequences are not always trivial.

Published on: October 4, 2014
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  • DiogenesDespairs

    It’s not just the Middle East that is misled. For a while a lady relative of mine volunteered as a teacher’s assistant in a local school system. One day she found the nine-year-olds in her reading group concerned about gays and gay marriage since the subject kept cropping up on television. She was understandably surprised, since one would not expect this to be uppermost in the mind of your typical middle-class nine-year-old. When she asked them how many adults they thought were gay, she was downright astonished: They guessed about half. The kids, if anything, were even more astonished to learn that no, it was only a very small percentage.

    If you don’t have enough context to put the stuff in the general media into perspective, you get a very weird idea of what contemporary America is like.

    • Curious Mayhem

      A very weird idea.

      We disconnected our cable TV a few months before the munchkins arrived. We have a Wii and Internet, so we can get Netflix, etc. But it’s under our control and at our discretion. A former girlfriend and her husband banished all TV from their house for 12 years after their first child was born.

      • Andrew Allison

        TV was banished from our, munchin-free, household many years ago. Almost all the content is insulting to the intelligence of the viewer and, as for the endlessly-repeated commercials . . . . Watching this garbage has to be numbing, if not corrosive.

  • ShadrachSmith

    We owe no apologies to Islam about morals of any sort. To pick fault with American conduct toward women is one thing. To suggest that Islam’s modesty makes up for Islam’s misogyny is absurd. If confronted on the issue just respond, “At least we don’t sell ’em at nine.”

    Islam criticizing American morals is absurd. Islamic silence on the subject of sex protects the abusers, not the women (See Rotherham).

    • MoReport

      Their culture is worse than ours, but ours has become bad enough to destroy us, and them, if it spreads.

      • ShadrachSmith

        American culture, genital warts and all, is still far better than the 7th century barbarism of Islam.
        When using perfection as the standard, all systems fail. Islam fails far worse than ours. American culture is the highest and best culture in the history of civilization. That may be a depressing fact, but it is no reason to hate on American culture.

        • Donald Campbell

          Google”twerking miley cyrus” and come back and tell us what you think.

          • tdperk

            Shadrach is still correct.

          • Curious Mayhem

            It’s not even that sexy.

          • ShadrachSmith

            How sexy is it…?

          • Curious Mayhem

            … I’m struggling to hold on to the keyboard as I wretch [;-)

        • M. Report

          The Swiss may have the best (mono) culture, although it too is eroding.
          Not hatred but sadness
          For a society doomed by
          too much success to a
          hard lesson, a 2nd Great
          Depression, which will be
          worse than the 1st due to
          said society’s total lack of fault tolerance. Wait and see; You won’t have to wait long.

    • elHombre

      “Yeah. We’re not as bad as Islamic culture!”


      • Curious Mayhem

        We take pride in small accomplishments — it’s all we can manage.

  • Anthony

    The difference between your description of the “multi-stage written sexual content code” and the reality of the college encounter brings to mind learned descriptions of armour and armour itself (the difference is far greater than that between description in general and phenomena in general). But on to related matter, “without hypocrisy we are sunk, for the alternative to high standards is not low standards; it’s eventually no standards at all.”

    Question for me centers on do we have a conscience and why is conscience important (ethics – not only does oughtness consists in the power that a greater good has over a lesser good in compelling our choices, but conscience is the feeling of obligation which occurs as we experience such compulsion). Essay contends that implied obligation (socially) has been attenuated through scoundrel cascades. Indeed, essay’s lament about contemporary cultural sex focus is in many ways a critique of societal conscience in this domain and its potential effects abroad (Middle East). That is, conscience is our feeling of oughtness; oughtness consists in the power that a greater good has over a lesser good in compelling our choices (the conscience of a nation is not separate from the consciences of its members, for it is a part of the conscience of each member who functions as a member of the group {wittingly or unwittingly} and concerns themselves with the interests and obligations of the group – in this instances U.S. sexual preoccupation and Middle Easterners perspectives). So, is it American sex and the Middle East or social conscience and its external affects?

    • MoReport

      It is sixty years, three generations, of unearned, uninterrupted, ever-increasing prosperity.
      As the iconic cartoon character in ‘Dinosaurs’ put it: “What do you mean there is no more ?
      There is always more; That is what ‘more’ means.”

  • mdmusterstone

    Very nice essay as usual Adam but, Ah, I’d like to hear more
    details about your woman chasing days.

    • Curious Mayhem

      The old satyr tips his hand.

  • Bob

    Good commentary. The new campus consent code naturally assumes that sex between students will take place. How could it be any other way? The assumption is disturbing to me. Useful hypocrisy is a good phrase. Standards, and thus rules, may be made to be broken, but standards and rules provide a civilizing background nonetheless. They mean that you should think twice, that there really just might be consequences to what you’re doing, and someone, somewhere already knows that.

    Our casual hedonism is certainly something the Middle Easterners find disgusting.

    • MoReport

      Read more. In the Middle East, in Arab/muslim countries, if an unrelated man and woman
      are left alone together, it is assumed that the man will attempt sexual relations with the woman.

      • Alaric Khan

        but it is likely only the woman who will be punished …

        • Curious Mayhem

          A twisted notion of honor and shame at work there. It’s a major cultural problem in the Middle East. Superficially, it’s about Islam. More fundamentally, it’s a tribal code and predates Islam.

      • Bob

        Many years ago, I worked for a very conservative Mormon. He told me unrelated as well as unattached (or attached to others) males and females were not encouraged to be alone together because of the possible, or even likely consequences. This restriction was not limited to libidinous young people, by the way. So, I’m familiar with the line of thinking you’ve expressed here. It’s not limited to Middle Easterners.

        But, I think there was a time when there was at least some expectation that Americans would conduct themselves with discretion if not honor and restraint, even if it was understood that some simply wouldn’t. But, the implication was there were consequences if the some who wouldn’t were “caught,” which usually meant pregnancy rather than a rape accusation.

        What I was commenting on was that now there is simply a casual expectation that young people will be young people and there is no point in pretending otherwise and now we, the University, must protect itself and its Federal funding by implementing codes requiring “affirmative consent every step of the way.” In this world, pregnancy, the real “cost” of sexual behavior becomes simply a side show to be dispatched with abortion, if necessary. The “affirmative consent” approach might actually limit some such sexual activity by making it onerous, but it seems like a standardless and stupid way to go about it.

  • FriendlyGoat

    I wish we westerners could make some cultural deals with Islamic men:

    You guys can drink “a little more”, and we’ll try drinking “a lot less”.

    You guys blame your women less for whatever is going wrong with sexual mores, and we’ll blame our men more for whatever is going wrong here..

    You guys send us more of the secular entertainments produced in and for your countries, and we’ll send you less of ours.

    You guys stop recruiting suicide bombers from impressionable young people, and we’ll stop teaching our children (and yours) to apply the f-word to everything on the planet.

    You guys give all your girls a decent education and we’ll see what we can do to narrow the worldwide wealth divide for the benefit of your people.

    Islam, of course, is a profound falsehood at its root. But, we have to admit that some of our neo-norms and cultural behaviors are way out in the weeds, too.

    • steve baker

      As my Grandma used to say, (except in Serbian), “Who’s ‘we’. You got a mouse in your pocket?”

      • DiogenesDespairs

        What a great line! I’m going to use it, along with another great line by someone else’s grandma: “If it doesn’t make sense, I don’t believe it.” Applies to almost everything you see or hear about any political or ideological issue.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Are you saying that all American men are more obstinate, selfish, stubborn, and problematic than Islamic men? Is it really only me and your Grandma’s imaginary mouse who would want both a reversal in America’s cultural decline AND an injection of sense into Islam?

  • doc feelgood

    what is this PC mentality you are talking about and your constantly whining over these putrid leftits?
    Even if there are so tiny elements of veracity you are quickly turning into a lamentable bigot.

  • Boritz

    Why make this an article about sex and the Middle East rather than just about sex? I would suppose this approach was chosen because this is the only way to bring in any kind of serious criticism of whatever-floats-your-boat. Using strictly domestic constructs there is no longer a way to do this without being a prude. Only by drawing on a culture halfway around the world can you find serious (to the Left) criticism of what the Left has wrought. Garfinkle invites the hand wringing to begin within a group that want’s to respect both multiculturalism and any consenting sex.

    • MoReport

      Because, hard as it is to believe, and to demonstrate to those unwilling to face facts,
      our PC college campus sex codes are just as mad as those of the muslims.

    • Curious Mayhem

      Garfinkle is writing about foreign policy, so that’s his angle of attack.

  • jetty

    “But rather a lot of tradition-minded Middle Easterners are disgusted by America.”

    Or disgusted by the progressive/liberal bent of the American media.

    • Mark Luhman

      I share their disgust, unfortunately I understand is only a small but vocal part of America, unfortunately they don’t. I also understand a society that allows a man to marry many wives will leave a lot of young men unsatisfied and willing to follow any cause stupid as it may be, such a society cannot thrive, unfortunately they don’t. That were we are today is we have on society that dwells on the minority and their perversion and the other that has a prevision (one man having many wives and many men not having wives) and does not understand it, but produces a lot of young men will to die to spread the prevision when they do not understand it is their society prevision is what has frustrated them and left them at a biological dead end, much as the same as the gay culture here, if you cannot biological reproduce you do get frustrated and become irrational no mater what the cause.

  • MoReport

    Dr. Pournelle explained this: The muslims are justifiably afraid of US weapons of cultural mass destruction;
    ‘ How are you going to keep them down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree ?’

    As one muslim cleric put it: We are not afraid of your video player (technology), we are afraid of what is on the tapes.

  • Hard truths

    “…because a hedonistic salon Left’s influence on American culture disgusted them to the point that they could no longer bear it…”

    They’re not alone in that. A lot of folks here in the good ol US of A feel much the same way. American culture is rotting from within – golden on the outside, excrement on the inside. Hardly surprising that a bunch of Bronze age savages spotted it long before we did…

    • Curious Mayhem

      Hence the joke about the Marine shaking hands with the jihadist in Iraq, until the truck comes by and runs them over.

  • theBuckWheat

    The author makes a valid point. Many people have come to a judgement about the collective morality of the West in general and the US in particular. We have abandoned the moral high ground in most important ways. We now speak on the world stage based on raw power alone stripped of moral authority.

    More important that world opinion, God says many times in Scripture that at some point He judges a nation and where He used to bless us with protection, He says that protection will no longer be forthcoming. The people of the US used to have pride in holding God’s values. Now when they march under the banner of pride, it is open pride in values that God declares are anathema to Him. (see for example: 2 Corinthians 6:9)

    • Curious Mayhem

      His patience seems generous, but presumably is not infinite —

      “The Eternal descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the Eternal . Then the Eternal passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Eternal , the Eternal G-d, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”

      Seems unfair, that last part, but it’s so often true regardless.

  • Bobcat

    It finally hit me. Feminists are trying to introduce sharia law through the back door (no pun intended). Won’t be long before we see college chicks walking around in burkas.

    • M. Report

      Men in chastity belts, more likely.

      • Bobcat

        Good point, M. But it reminds me of the punchline: “Three bystanders injured by flying metal.”

      • Mark Luhman

        One could hope it not worst, all thought it seams Feminist prefer their men with out gonads.

      • Curious Mayhem

        And only the girls will have the keys!

  • George Orwell has this piece on shooting an elephant in Burma. Orwell was once a colonial officer. One day he was called upon by the poplulace because an elephant was going berserk. He took his rifle and went after the elephant. When he actually sighted the animal, he concluded that the elephant was past his rage, that he was not dangerous anymore, and that the rational thing would be to get the valuable beast of burden back to his owner. However, so as not to appear weak or indecisive to the Burmese who were watching him, he shot the animal anyhow. Orwell’s point: you know you’re doing something wrong when it goes against your best judgment, and when the only reason for doing it is what others think.

    Same for American sex: do what’s right, whatever that it. If other people get the wrong notions of it, let them wallow in them. Sexual ethics and practices should be debated within your own culture and parameters, regardless of the supposed global context. You are the leaders. Lead. Good luck with it.

  • lhfry

    The scoundrel/virtue cascades are the impact of personal decisions on society at large – something the left and their libertarian friends deny occurs.

  • johngardner

    Tracks very nicely with what we were told repeatedly by Arab friends when we lived in an Arab country 30 years ago: we want your technology and standard of living but not your culture which we find disgusting.

  • I’m not sure that disgust is the driving force here. But fear of incomprehensible behavior is incredibly upsetting.

    I attended high school in Brazil during the height of the Watergate scandal. To Brazilians, the idea that the (to them, tiny) level of corruption and abuse of power being described could bring down the government of the most powerful nation on earth was deeply, deeply frightening. If they could do that to themselves what might they do to some other nation that met with their disapproval? Most South Americans had gotten used to what the US would do in the name of anti-communism, but what if this new political insanity seeped into its foreign policy?

    The points made in this piece about how American culture is perceived abroad are dead-on. Ultimately, the changes in our moral norms–however well-intentioned–are incredibly parochial and insular. And, just as nobody wants to deal with the neighbor with the junk and weeds on his front lawn–even if he keeps to himself–at some point the result of straying too far from global norms is some form of international shunning.

  • tdperk

    “In a way, “green” or organic food producers, by basking in the secular godhead of environmental correctness, are doing something similar today—they are creating a virtue cascade within our food supply chain. That is good, whether their reasons and science are impure or imperfect or not.”

    If you are able to think there are benefits to the organic food hucksterism which outweigh the costs, I’m not too sure about your judgement in any other area.

    • Mark Luhman

      The green and organic food culture kills, we have lost many people over tainted melons since the wash water did not contain chlorine to kill the pathogens and they spread through minor cut in said melons, same for alfalfa sprouts there is now way to make sure they do not carry pathogens, lastly raising organic food is very ineffective and it it was used wide spread we would starve millions!

  • TennLion

    I, too, have wondered how we can initiate a “virtue cascade.” To that end, I have been trying (so far without success) to find histories (particularly social histories) tracing the transition from the Regency to Victorian England. Recommendations welcome.

  • Alaric Khan

    Assault is assault, aggravated or not … The real lesson might be that you shouldn’t provoke raving lunatics.

  • Curious Mayhem

    But to live outside the law, you must be honest. (Bob Dylan, Absolutely Sweet Marie)

    Thank you for this article. I often feel the same way, having been raised by parents who grew up in the 1930s, when Victorian respect for rules — and discretion when you broke them — was still strong.

    No, the 1950s were not the height of segregation. The 1950s was when segregation started coming apart, because it was completely out of place in the postwar America the war generation wanted to (re)build. This is a pernicious Boomer myth, a piece of a large myth that the Boomers are Center of History and, because they are the first mass miseducated generation, morally superior to everyone else. Their political accomplishments really amount to little. The heart of the Boomer experience was the counterculture — politics was always a sideshow.

    Actually, the Boomers are not morally superior to anyone. In fact, they’re rubes, including the staff of the Times. Proof: they voted for Obama, twice — and these aging once-satyrs and nymphs spend much of their energy these days trying to prevent their kids from doing they did when they were in a similarly juvenile hormonal state. Hence the completely unconstitutional attempt for universities to set themselves up as police, judge, jury, etc., soemthing that has no legitimacy in a rule-of-law society at all. It only sets up the universities for civil and criminal challenges for attempting to be what they aren’t, The Law. Yes, it won’t be stopped until some university administrators and bureaucrats face, not just fines, just some jail time.

    That will teach those Middle Easterners a far more valuable lesson, one about the rule of law and separation of powers — and why self-delusional academics or any other group (like the Catholic hierarchy) can set themselves up as both a phoney law and beyond the real law.

    Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, and others have made the same point about the general trashiness of exported American pop culture. And some of them were even making this point before 9/11, which made them truly prescient. Since America no longer has a widely accepted high culture, this junk is all we can export, in the cultural channel.

    • mdmusterstone

      An American army officer in Iraq some years ago said that an Iraqi officer said to him one day, “You are a much better people than your movies make you out to be.”

      Thank goodness but what movies would any of you suggest that would best portrait America. I mean withing the last ten years.

      • Bob

        That’s really a wonderful compliment from the Iraqi officer. And it raises the question, Do our movies reflect how we see ourselves, or do they reflect us as we wish we were? Maybe we are no more licentious a people than anyone else, but we wish we could be and be so without a care.

        • mdmusterstone

          Bob, I’m put off by the “ain’t it awful” focus on sexuality here. Have we really changed so much from the stats in the Kinsey Report of 1948? And if we have or haven’t so what? I lived in Denmark
          a number of years and things were pretty free sexually but their institutions were rock solid. Our institutions (NSA, IRS, CDC, MSM, militarized police, asset confiscation, PC, immigration, etc.,)
          have decayed to the point where an American from 30 years ago much less 50 would find it incomprehensible. I don’t trust anything coming from the government bureaucracies and am dishearten by their militancy. It seems to have been long
          forgotten that we are citizens not subjects.
          Think about what we are “subject to” and what powers we have on retained as citizens.

          When a majority of a populace stops trusting in the
          integrity of their institutions it’s a death spiral and what is really scary to me is that it was all done so easily.

          • Bob

            “Have we really changed so much from the stats in the Kinsey Report of 1948?”

            Probably not, except that the public portrayal of sexuality is far more open and explicit than it was in Kinsey’s day. Just consider that Lucy and Ricky were shown as sleeping in separate beds. Not that there was any doubt what was going on, but now it’s just frankly right in your face, from movies to television to books to advertising. I think it’s this explicitness and the message that “everyone does it and it’s soooo cool” that offends the Middle Easterners (as well as a hell of a lot of other people, including many Americans), and I think this was a major theme of Garfinkle’s column.

            “I don’t trust anything coming from the government bureaucracies and am dishearten by their militancy. It seems to have been long
            forgotten that we are citizens not subjects.”

            I think we are culturally an entrepeneurial people, and that culture extends to people in government inventing new ways to make our lives miserable. There is nothing new about this. I seem to recall nuclear weapons testing near enough to populated areas so that government could observe the effects of radiation….on Americans! I seem to recall something about withholding treatment from black people who had syphilis so that the course of the disease could be observed unobstructed by medications that might reduce suffering. I’m not sure our institutions are any less solid today than they ever were.

            Certainly the perception of government after Roosevelt and WWII was that government could be trusted to do the right thing. Many hard years of experience and the willingness of journalism to dig into important issues have altered that trust considerably. But, it was probably not deserved in the first place.

          • mdmusterstone

            Ah, Bob, fine points all.
            I’ve tried to approach this from two or three angles now but failed. At first I wanted to argue better
            institutions in the past but a knowledge of history will deny that. Then I thought to bring up the lack of civil
            argument but again the Civil War, the Red Scare in 1919 and several others
            doesn’t give it much listen. By the way
            here is a link to a great essay on civil argument, great in that you will see
            the lack thereof on TV every day.


            To return to the essay here for a moment you know something
            of a societies activities by the types of laws they find necessary. Even a cursory look at Islam’s sexual laws
            and behavior tells you that any criticism coming from that direction is high
            ranking hypocrisy indeed.

            But I don’t live in that dying culture I live here and it is
            true that explicitness is the boogieman and I marvel at the vulgarity, worse I
            have a strong feeling that our youngsters are getting their sex education from degenerate
            individuals. Parents
            have to have open communication channels with their kids about sex and about
            integrity and character. The best essay
            on the latter is “The Insufficiency of Honesty” by Stephen L. Carter
            in the Atlantic magazine, February 1996.

            But what I fear more than sexuality is the violence in
            “entertainment”. The “best”
            of our creative minds are teaching those so inclined to become more and more
            ruthless and barbaric with the internet providing a forum for

            What can be done? I
            would refer you to Carter’s essay and advise not to buy tickets. More, I’ve never owned a TV. Ask yourself at the end of the week, take
            notes if need be, what did I gain from watching TV this week that was important,
            worth the time I invested?

            I’d be interested in anything you have to say further in
            this area Bob.

          • Bob

            I should note I haven’t had a TV for about 15 years. I only watch it at friends’ homes when they have it on. I get my “zone out” fix reading blogs (LOL!)

            By the way, I completely agree with you on the violence aspect of entertainment. I took your Iraqi officer’s comment to be about both sex and violence in American movies.

          • Curious Mayhem

            And the Kinsey Report wasn’t that representative, in spite of the media hype that surrounded it. Kinsey made use of WWII 4Fs (draft rejectees) and prisoners, among other non-representative groups. His methodology would certainly not past muster by any scientific standard.

      • Curious Mayhem

        Oy, the Iraqi officer should watch American television instead — there’s an accurate portrayal 😉

  • Andrew Allison

    Of course the threat of a woman (or, even worse, child) actually having to consent to sex would be anathema to these savages. These supposed Islamic attitudes are disgracefully hypocritical within a so-called “religion” which appears to think that seeing more of a woman than her eyes results in uncontrollable sexual desire which will be reciprocated and that a man needs four women to satisfy him. Isn’t it time to call a spade a spade, and Islam a perversion.

  • Cindy

    The same universities that have enthusiastically sponsored sex weeks for at least the past decade are now just as enthusiastically crafting sex codes? Is there no appreciation of irony in academia?

  • Sibir_RUS

    The U.S. Senate allowed the American military sex with animals.

    You can go for different tricks, but it will not make U.S. army stronger.

  • Jew from Russia

    If you call a moral cesspool that our country has been turned into that century “culture” – then you have no idea what “culture” means.

  • wigwag

    The prevailing ethos in much of the Islamic world is fatalism. And it’s not a benign, Doris Day, “Que Sera Sera” kind of fatalism, it’s a malignant fatalism that cripples entrepreneurialism, progressivism and risk taking. The prevailing ethos in the West is moderately less destructive but is still decidedly depressing; the ethos I’m talking about is irony. Our popular culture is superficial, banal and stultifying; what else could a culture that reveres irony be?

    As long as irony is our subject, it is amazing to me that it hasn’t been mentioned how ironic it is that many feminists are now fierce advocates for a legalistic scheme which regulates sexual relations between adults and that feminists are happy to have the courts or even corporations (e.g. the National Football League) act as arbiters not only of whether intercourse is consensual but whether sexual touching of any sort is consensual.

    It was not always thus. Back in the 1960s when feminism was at its apogee, feminist heroes like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan became heroes by insisting that government, private enterprise and most importantly popular culture, stay away (far away) from a woman’s free exercise of her sexuality. As anyone who has read Germaine Greer’s “Female Eunich,” Kate Millet’s “Sexual Politics” or Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying” knows, the last thing these women were looking for was for the California legislature to start codifying what was acceptable and unacceptable when it came to sexual relations. Go back a little further to the period in the 1920s when feminism was being incubated, and its hard to believe that Virginia Woolf or any of the other women in the famously risqué “Bloomsbury Group” would have looked to the British Parliament to more forcibly regulate the sexual lives of women.

    That feminism has come full circle and is now a movement that endorses reintroducing government intervention back into “the bedroom” (or in the case of California, the dorm room) is an irony almost beyond belief. The feminist movement that started out by burning brassieres and moved to chanting “keep your laws off my vagina” is now begging the California legislature to make sexual relations subject to contract law. Who would have thunk it?

    Traditional Muslim societies may look at sexual mores in the United States as disgusting. At the very least, the rapidity with which those mores swing back and forth as if on a see saw is truly mystifying.

  • Thirdsyphon

    Is it really America’s job to satisfy the moral demands of Vladimir Putin and Sayyid Qutb? Did I miss the memo? Are fascist dictators and religious fanatics now people whose opinion we’re supposed to respect and take seriously? With apologies in advance to those of you who are offended by profanity, I think Lilly Allen has the perfect response to Putin, ISIS, and Al Qaida.

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