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From sexual liberation to liberation from sex

by

Special To The Japan Times

Young people are forever shocking their elders, and elders, however shocking they themselves may have been to their own elders once upon a time, never fail to play their generation’s perennial role of shocked onlookers to shocking youthful behavior of one sort or another.

Not very long ago, well within living memory, parents found their children’s sexual behavior shocking. Sex was so open, so free, so ubiquitous, so uninhibitedly taken for granted. No hiding, no guilt, no confining it against nature within institutional straitjackets like marriage. This was the sexual revolution, brought about by the youth explosion of the 1960s and ’70s, aided and abetted by scientific advances like the birth control pill, which decoupled sex from reproduction and turned it into recreation pure and simple. High school kids got their vocabularies stretched as elders accused them of being “promiscuous.” They looked it up and smiled. “Sure,” they said, “why not?”

Half a century later, kids are still shocking and elders still shocked, but for shockingly different reasons. Lately it is youthful indifference to sex that has parents scratching their heads. Promiscuity? Pockets of it remain, but the dominant response to the subject among Japanese teens, it seems, is the verbal yawn, “Mendokusai,” roughly translatable as “What a nuisance.”

The Asahi Shimbun has lately been running a series of reports on what it’s like to be 18 in a country no longer young. Among the themes emerging as the series proceeds are: an increasing reliance on pictorial as opposed to verbal communication; a deepening intimacy with (or growth-retarding dependence on) parents; and the sexual counter-revolution referred to above.

The first two may go some way toward explaining the third. The disembodiment of relationships brought about by online social networking may be doing to face-to-face conversation and bodily contact something like what electric appliances did to the household drudgery our great-grandmothers knew — good riddance to it. Eighteen-year-olds, says the Asahi, may falter over words and sentence construction as their verbal skills atrophy, but they are becoming maestro editors of moving images, which they exchange tirelessly via Line and other social networking services.

Parents. What a fraught subject that used to be. “Generation gap,” “generation wars” — youth and age knew no common ground; they lived in the same house but in different universes, the rock ‘n’ roll blaring triumphantly from the kids’ bedrooms symbolizing the end of the world to parents blocking their ears as best they could in the kitchen. Never the twain shall meet, one might have said at the time.

But they have met. Actually, peace was declared long ago; by the 1980s the generation gap was passe, and so much the better, for it had grown stale and boring — but here we are 30 years later wondering, has reconciliation gone too far?

Take bathing. Bathing? The Asahi is surprised to notice how frequently teenagers bathe with their parents. No embarrassment, no (in most cases) sinister sexual over- or undertones, just ordinary family closeness.

What’s wrong with it? Isn’t it beautiful? Yes and no — no, says psychiatrist Shizuo Machizawa, in the sense that it potentially retards normal sexual development. “You see too much too soon, and of the wrong people,” is the gist of his objection.

A separate article in the Asahi series looks at another aspect of parent-child intimacy. Kids in earlier generations, wincing and grimacing, would have snapped, in any of various shades of sullenness, “Get off my back!” Universities in increasing numbers, the article shows, are offering parents a cyber-eye view of student life on campus. On-screen, you can follow your son or daughter through his or her day — through electronic roll-call, into the lecture halls, even to the student cafeteria for lunch. (Is she eating enough vegetables?)

Not all students interviewed are in love with the idea. “I’m in college,” grumbles a 20-year-old third-year economics major — “I want my parents to leave me alone!” But an 18-year-old freshman majoring in sociology while living at home finds herself quite at peace with the idea. “I attend classes anyway, so my parents can see that I’m being serious. I don’t mind at all.” Hers seems the more typical attitude.

Peace, concord, love — objections seem curmudgeonly, if not perverse, and yet, a great spur to sexual awakening is dissatisfaction with childhood — dissatisfaction with being a child: You’ve been one long enough, it’s like wearing clothes that have grown too tight for you — you want to fling them off. But here’s a survey by the Rakuten O-net marriage brokerage asking unattached men and women whether they desire a partner. Yes, say 63.8 percent of men and 64.2 percent of women — down from 90-odd percent in 2000. That’s a steep slide.

And yet, how revealing is it? And of what? A tepid attitude towards sex? That, certainly — but is it new? Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century accustomed us to view sex as the motive force behind art, civilization, war, barbarism and pretty much everything human and animal. Then came the 1960s and the final liberation of sex from the prim marriage bed. Sex — that’s what would cure the world’s ills. Loosen the reins on our natural desire, turn life into an endless delirious orgasm — why not? The means were at hand, hidebound prejudices were falling away — there, they’ve fallen, we’re free, the revolution’s won.

But victory brought — maybe always does bring — disillusion. Novelties wear off, easy pleasure soon palls. Does the Asahi think sexual lassitude is new? An ancient, yellowing article in Spa! magazine — from 1998, just around the time when today’s 18-year-olds were born — suggests otherwise. It highlights the very same predicament, the same deflated libido that bewilders the Asahi 18 years later. The title of Spa!’s article is “Sex, Who Needs It?” It features, among others, a 33-year-old trading company employee who in one phrase captures the spirit of the sexless backlash: “If we love each other, what do we need sex for?”

What indeed. “It keeps the species going,” is one obvious answer, but few people embark on sexual relations for that reason alone, and if online friendships and relationships with parents leave no void to be filled, perhaps there’s simply nothing more to be said.

Michael Hoffman’s new book, “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” is now out.

  • PacE

    Wow, my thought s are, why bring a child into a world this effed up?

  • PacE

    Wow, my thought s are, why bring a child into a world this effed up?

  • PacE

    Wow, my thought s are, why bring a child into a world this effed up?

  • PacE

    Wow, my thought s are, why bring a child into a world this effed up?

  • gph

    It seems to me that sexual desire is normal and inevitable. Religions and cultures have for centuries sought to suppress and control it (Catholicism’s opposition to birth control and Islam’s requirement for women to hide their appearance being just too obvious, and continuing, manifestations of this). Sexual desire cannot have just disappeared unless there is something in the water, or widespread genetic modification of embryos has secretly occurred in Japan, to remove the urge (both of which are implausible). And it is just in Japan. Sexual desire in young people appears alive and well in most of the rest of the world, both developed and developing countries. The increasingly sexually confident behaviour of young women in western countries is probably the most notable recent trend.
    So if sexual desire has fallen off a cliff in Japan there has to be something particularly local going on to explain why. Or perhaps it is more a case of a polarising of behaviour: the love hotels and prostitution business appear still to be thriving in Japan, I have not heard reports that there is no demand for them any more. The widespread reading of sex mags and sexually explicit manga (check out any convenience store), and even the popularity of boy and girl bands amongst members of the opposite sex, are all evidence that sexual desire is still at work, and that Dr Freud had a point.
    So the questions are “Why are so many young Japanese not interested in sexual relations? What societal or familial forces have served to suppress sexual desire, or make it seem not worth the hassle, or just too difficult to practically obtain?”

    Whatever the answer is, it must be a powerful one; I think it takes more than the ability to exchange text messages in comfort and style, and good relations with your parents, to overrule the power of human desire – which has been a major driver of human behaviour (both by its manifestation and its enforced suppression) for all of recorded history.
    Such an investigation should also concern itself with enquiring into whether this is potentially a severely damaging development for Japanese society or relatively benign (beyond the simple effect on both rate). There appears to be one foregone conclusion: something that can greatly stymie sexual desire is not an insignificant force.