Humanist Sexploration

ON FATHER’S DAY I like to remember my dad by watching a nature survival movie, his genre of choice. This year it was The Revenant, and I cried thinking he never got to see this masterpiece by Alejandro Iñárritu. I also try to listen to a few Frank Sinatra songs—my father loved to croon and sounded remarkably like Ol’ Blue Eyes (his were blue, too).

Out of the tree of life
I just picked me a plum
You came along and
everything started to hum
Still, it’s a real good bet
the best is yet to come.

As I listened to these words a feeling hit me that I suspect many of us grapple with. The best isn’t yet to come. The best is behind us. The planet is warming, the seas are rising, the equality gap’s growing, and violence keeps rearing its ugly head.

Writing in the New York Times on June 21, the day of the summer solstice no less, Thomas Friedman struck a similarly melancholy tone. “I fear we’re becoming Sunnis and Shiites—we call them ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans,’” he wrote, recalling how “it used to be that people didn’t want their kids to marry one of ‘them,’ referring to someone of a different religion or race…. Now the ‘them’ is someone of a different party.”

Friedman is worried that there’s no longer a we in “We the People” because partisanship has shredded basic shared truths. And while Americans have experienced breakdowns in truth and trust before, the present feels especially dangerous because, in Friedman’s estimation, it’s being “exacerbated by technology”—think the spread of fake news—“and by President Trump”—he of the infamous Twitter finger. In such chaotic political times it can be hard to entertain “the best is yet to come” and not shudder.

So let’s say we turn our attention to something I think we can all get behind: SEX. It’s fascinating, it’s basic, it’s complicated, it’s fun, it’s healthy, and it can even be dangerous. But what does the future hold for sex? Is the best indeed yet to come?

Technology seems to affect everything these days and sex and intimacy are no exceptions, as Clay Farris Naff explores in this issue’s cover story. Is technology simplifying sex or complicating it? Are we looking at a forecast that is—as Naff brilliantly titled his first draft—cloudy with a chance of dildos?

Further explorations herein question what could possibly be unnatural about sex. Zoologist Abby Hafer offers some dazzling examples from the animal kingdom’s wide spectrum of sexual practices, and Deborah June Goemans tackles gender fluidity as it affects trans youth. A number of this issue’s columns also explore authoritarian attacks on sexual and reproductive freedom and humanism’s commitment to values of privacy and liberty consonant with social responsibility.

“If people do not know who they are, they are no longer sure what sex they are,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in a 1958 Esquire piece titled, “The Crisis of American Masculinity.” Today that notion is hardly true (and perhaps never was); if you know who you are, you may not always be entirely sure what sex you are.

Schlesinger was writing to my father’s era of young men, and I have no doubt my father would be somewhat uncomfortable being mentioned in this column introducing the topics in this issue. (Sorry, Pop!) And yet, grappling with the fact that what’s natural for some isn’t for others would seem to fall under the purview of the naturalist. For the humanist, recognizing the humanity running through our differences is tantamount.

The best sex issue of the Humanist isn’t yet to come. It’s right here.