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Sex (American Style)

If we spiced our lives with more sensuality, we might make public life more sensuous and the gutters classier.

As I've been writing a book about sex in recent months, I've had the Kama Sutra, the Indian guide to personal sexual culture, on my desk, and occasionally I've consulted the Internet to track down relevant books and articles. On the Internet, I've noticed, as soon as you venture in the direction of sex you quickly come upon crude, unadorned images of stark sexual union. Apparently we have finally found a public place where we can show our private parts and secret fantasies, free of the repressive eyes of the government agencies that serve our culture's dominant Puritan philosophies. But here there is no love, little sentimentality, and almost nothing that could be called foreplay in any innocent sense of the word.

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In contrast, the Kama Sutra discusses a wide range of sexual matters, from the general comportment of one's life (dharma) to the establishment of personal economic security (artha) and the cultivation of the arts of love (kama). The Kama Sutra, graphic and open-minded in its own way, places sex within the context of a refined, humane life, while the Internet focuses on organs and acts. I'm reminded of the beautiful erotic figures carved into the Indian temples of Kharujaho and Konarak more than 1,000 years ago, images that depict every imaginable sex act within a context of worship and prayer, and I wonder why the Indians put their sexual fantasies on temples while we give ours over to pornography. This is one of those questions that I believe, if we could answer it, would pinpoint exactly what's wrong with our culture.

Although I'm convinced we're all moralists at heart, I'm not interested in making any judgments here about the ethics or appropriateness of the Kama Sutra, the temple sex couples, or the Internet, but I am interested in the sexual life of the community in which I live. We seem to be obsessed with sex and embarrassed by it. Sex sells, I'm told by almost everyone who hears I'm writing about the theme. Some insinuate that I must be writing about sex for the royalties alone, cashing in on our mass compulsion, but I wonder if I'll lose readers, because you aren't supposed to be interested in both spirituality and sex -- unless you're writing about sacred sex (whatever that is), or offering suitably cantankerous health or moral cautions.

Medieval monks spent hours copying the Bible, while in the margins, called gutters, they would occasionally doodle obscene images and phrases. We do something similar when we create an efficient, clean world of speedy highways and no-nonsense office buildings, while our extravagant sexual images -- our dirty thoughts -- are funneled into red-light districts, a 42nd Street or a Hollywood and Vine, or into an unregulated highway called the Internet. We divide sex from ordinary life and then wonder why it enjoys emotional autonomy in our lives.

History shows that sex has always had its selected areas of tolerance -- usually far from the center of daily commerce, except perhaps in ancient Pompeii, Greece, Rome, or Sodom and Gomorrah. I'm not arguing for a democratization of sexual images; it is appropriate to be as careful about sex in public as a parent might be about it at home. But I do question the sharpness of the line drawn between public life and the gutter. I wonder why we demand that our political leaders be without sexual fault -- I discovered while practicing psychotherapy that everyone, including our most upright fellow citizens, has skeletons in the closet or lurid dreams and fantasies.

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