Cultural Views on Sex & Their Implications for Desire

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Mating in Captivity" by Esther Perel. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is sex such a contentious topic? How do the mixed views on sex influence sexual desire?

American culture has mixed feelings about sex, and when this culture pervades our relationships, it can impair our desire. American culture tends to look at sex from two extreme points of view, hedonism and Puritanism⁠—sometimes even at the same time.

In this article, we’ll consider the clash between the two and its implications for the way we approach our own sex lives.


Sex has never been more public. It’s used in advertising, it’s a regular subject on TV, and porn’s all over the internet. Sexual freedom fits nicely with the American values of individualism and personal freedom. However, the media focuses on single sex, not domesticated sex. With all this potential for single, freely available, idiosyncratic sex, can a monogamous modern relationship compete?


This hedonism or “openness” toward sex isn’t indicative of liberal views on sex itself. It’s more about economics than enlightenment. Even though we see sexy images used for marketing all the time, the foundational beliefs about sex⁠—that it’s dirty⁠—hasn’t changed.

The idea of sex as something dirty stems from Puritanism. The Puritan approach to sex is conservative⁠—if sex isn’t for reproductive purposes within a monogamous marriage, it’s immoral. There’s no place for pleasure. Puritanism prioritizes the family and prescribes that marriage be reasonable and mature and moderated. 

Puritanism is also big on policing sexuality. Abstinence, gay marriage, and abortion laws are still points of contention today. Sex education in schools is hotly debated. For example, many Americans view teenage sex as deviant behavior and a large group of people thinks that limiting sex education and birth control will stop teens from having sex. They think abstinence will solve teen pregnancy and STIs. 

Europeans view teenage sex differently⁠—as a normal developmental stage. Actual sex isn’t a problem; there’s only a problem when its unsafe. Interestingly, in Europe, teenagers begin sexual activity two years later than American teenagers, on average, but American teenagers get pregnant eight times more than European teenagers.

Sex Extremes

Either extreme⁠—sex as taboo, or excessive sex⁠—makes us want to mentally dissociate from the physicality of sex. When sex becomes guilty, or shameful, it’s more comfortable to separate the act from emotions. And this doesn’t just refer to long-term relationships; the loss shows up in any relationship that involves caring for another person.

For example, Ratu is a college student at a prestigious university. She and the other students don’t have the spare time to date, so instead they hook up (defined as anything from fooling around to sex) on weekends. Their ideal “relationships” are booty calls and friends-with-benefits arrangements—relationships that purposefully exclude emotions. The students don’t want commitment; it’s scary and restrictive and results in a loss of independence. They’re uncomfortable enough with even the sex, because they have to get drunk first and don’t want to remember it the next day. Hook-up sex fits in with hedonistic culture, but wanting to pretend sex never happened is somewhat Puritan.

You might think that having sex with multiple people is good training for maintaining an erotic relationship with a single person, but it doesn’t tend to be. Many people approach single sex and committed sex as totally different acts, and if you view single sex as a last hurrah, it’s going to be a very different experience from committed sex.

How to Dispense with Shame

Lots of people feel shame and anxiety about their sexuality. They don’t want to be judged or rejected by their lovers, so they pull away, or settle for passable or unemotional sex. However, this kind of sex isn’t nearly as rewarding as intimate sex. To make steps towards intimate sex, consider these possibilities:

  • Possibility #1: Be vulnerable and open up. When we open ourselves up completely, we’re showing another person the parts of ourselves that are associated with shame—scary, but potentially rewarding.
  • Possibility #2: Ask for what you want. Sometimes your partner might be doing or not doing things because that’s what they want, but sometimes, they’re simply doing a default action because they don’t know what you’d prefer.
  • Possibility #3: Validate. When someone takes the risk to share and is validated by their partner, shame goes away.
  • Possibility #4: Remember that committed sex doesn’t have to be mature and serious. (If sex always had to be an expression of love, then quick, angry, playful, and naughty sex⁠—most kinds of sex⁠—would be out.)

Extended Example

Maria had just broken up with a man she thought she would marry. Her friends set her up with Nico. Maria loves Nico and feels safe and trusting, but their sex life isn’t great. Maria wonders if that even matters because everyone’s sex life fades in long-term relationships, right? 

In therapy, Maria talks about her upbringing. She was heavily influenced by Puritanism. She was taught that sex outside of marriage is sinful, that you have to earn everything, that you have to sacrifice for the good of others, and that fantasies are disgusting. All this created shame and as Maria grew up, she had trouble letting go of the idea that lust could be anything but sinful. It was easier to get around these feelings when she was with someone she didn’t care about.

For Nico, sex is about love, and when Maria rejects him, he feels unloved. He doesn’t push, because that way he doesn’t get rejected.

Part of Nico and Maria’s trouble is that while Nico likes sex, he’s not so big on seduction. Maria needs time to warm up, but because she’s trying to be selfless, she has trouble asking Nico to slow down or give her more time. Their sex becomes purely about mutual orgasm.

Maria develops her sense of entitlement in her quest for eroticism. She tries to cast off what she learned in childhood by acknowledging what she wants and accepting that it’s fine to be selfish sometimes.

Cultural Views on Sex & Their Implications for Desire

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  • Why it's difficult to have a good, erotic life within a long-term relationship
  • What makes up our individual sense of desire and our desire for our partners
  • Tips on how to retain desire in a committed relationship

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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