“You can be a businesswoman, a mother, an artist, and a feminist — whatever you want to be — and still be a sexual being. It’s not mutually exclusive.”
An article about motherhood and sexuality in literature and film questions whether sexuality and family life are compatible in Western societies. The author’s analyzation of literature and films would suggest that they aren’t. She asks, and attempts to answer the question: “How far can we go, as a filmmaker and a novelist, in representing the mother as a sexual being?”. The answer seems to be changing, albeit very slowly.
Sexuality and Family Life in Film
Mothers in literature and film are often portrayed as either “good” or “bad”, and it is frequently something connected to their sexuality that makes them “bad”. From the first days of film, women in the role of ideal mothers have been portrayed as sexually pure, forgiving and self-sacrificing. In the 1913 film The Mothering Heart, the heroine deviated from that ideal by leaving her cheating husband. Her baby dies shortly thereafter, and believing it to be a divine punishment for her non-forgiveness of her husband’s sexual transgressions, she returns to him
In the 1930’s films portrayed mothers who had no desires of their own, but were often weak enough to be seduced by men with desires. In the 1950’s, the film Mildred Pierce contained a message about the consequences of women who prioritized their children’s happiness over that of their husbands. Her husband divorces her, leaving her to support herself and her demanding children, although she is ill-equipped to do so. Her daughter resents their new poverty and decline in social status. This left the mother vulnerable to being seduced by a scoundrel who promised economic assistance, but then seduced her daughter. Overall, films have presented very few positive portrayals of sexuality and motherhood.
Sexuality and Family Life in Popular Magazines
The societal view that good mothers repress their sexuality is also reflected in magazines geared towards mothers. One study examined articles in eight of those magazines from 1991 through 2010 for content related to sexuality. The study found that out of 14,746 articles in eight popular magazines over 20 years, only 2.3%. contained any content regarding sexuality and family life. Despite the popularity of the controversial 1991 cover of Vanity Fair, the content of magazines geared towards mothers would indicate that mothers simply cease to be sexual beings after the birth of their first child.
Only one parenting guide in the 1990s, Vicki Iovine’s The Girlfriend’s Guide to Surviving the First Year of Motherhood contained a chapter on sexuality and family life. Psychologist, couples counselor and author Ester Perel’s book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence addresses some of the issues surrounding sexuality and motherhood that popular magazines geared towards mothers don’t. Ms. Perel points out in her book that sexual invisibility is deeply ingrained in Western culture. There are also at least a few online articles on the subject of sexuality and family life.
Sexuality and Family Life in Education
This example of a current U.S. public school course in human sexuality and family life demonstrates that the educational objective is to teach abstinence from sexuality by emphasizing the consequences of unplanned pregnancy. A report on public school sex education in Australia states that “The pleasure of sexual behaviour/activity was taught by less than 50% of respondents.” According to an article in the Guardian, the unwillingness of adults to speak openly and honestly about sexuality has resulted in leaving children more vulnerable to the influence of sexualized advertising and pornography on the internet.
The Role of Religion in Sexuality and Family Life
Many of the negative attitudes towards sexuality have their origins in religion. Most religions teach that sex outside marriage is wrong. Even people who are not religious believe that sex within the context of a caring relationship is both healthier and more enjoyable than casual sex. An interesting experiment revealed that the brain performs differently when thinking about sex than when thinking about love. Subjects were divided into three groups. One group was “primed” with the mention of sex, while another was primed with the mention of love. The third acted as the control group.
The results of the experiment were that those who had been primed with mentions of sex performed better on analytical tasks, and those primed with mentions of love performed better on creativity tasks. Conversely, thoughts about sex may be detrimental to creativity, while thoughts about love may be detrimental to analytic reasoning. Religious beliefs rely on long-term love, utilizing words like “eternal”. One reason that religion may discourage sex, and even masturbation, is because it increases analytic ability, which may undermine religious belief.
The role of sexuality in family life cannot be ignored. Reducing discussions about sexuality to clinical explanations of the biological purpose of body parts or lists of negative social consequences may be doing children a disservice. The pleasure of sexuality, which include both the physical sensations and the emotional closeness it engenders, is one of the reasons family life exists at all.