What is unnatural sex and why

Sex (go)
The taboo on sex

From life-prolonging practice to dangerous taboo - Sabine Breakfast sheds light on the influence of European scientists and state-controlled education on sexual understanding in Japan.

Early Japanese writings on sex education report that at the beginning of the Edo period (1603–1867) it was considered wrong, even unnatural, for men and women not to have sex. The sexual union of a couple represents the connection between heaven and earth. The lack of sexual union would be as unnatural as experiencing spring and summer (yin) but neither autumn nor winter (yang) in a year. In addition, attempts by men and women to suppress their sexual desire inevitably led to neurasthenia, a diffuse type of nervous disease believed to be a consequence of autoerotic practices. Sex is by no means only used for reproduction and pleasure, but rather helps to prolong life. These and similar ideas about the all-encompassing meaning of (heterosexual) intercourse went back to Chinese medicine and dominated the Japanese literature on sexual matters well into the nineteenth century.

With the dawn of modernity in the late 19th century, ideas about healthy sex were to change dramatically. When, for example, the gynecologist Habuto Eiji returned from a long stay in Germany in 1913, he said the following about how sexual issues are dealt with there: In Germany, the sex drive is being dealt with in a highly scientific manner. As a result, there is hardly anyone over the age of twenty who masturbates. Habuto and many other self-proclaimed sexologists now wrote about masturbation, fetishism, all kinds of "perversions," issues of reproduction, and many other questions related to sexual pleasure. They tried to translate sexological texts from the West - from Sigmund Freud and Magnus Hirschfeld to Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis - into Japanese and began doing empirical research as doctors, biologists, psychologists and representatives of other fields of knowledge.
 
In the time between the two scenarios described, the understanding of sex and sexuality has changed radically. Sexology, predominantly of European origin, played an essential role here because it was able to position itself at the intersection of several axes of discourse: the modern, the civilized, the western, the scientific and the progressive.
 
Sex as a political issue

Sex was no longer primarily a sign of longevity and health, but increasingly disease and crime. When a housemaid named Abe Sada strangled her lover in May 1936, cut off his genitals and disappeared for a while in the streets of Tokyo, her case, along with the sensational press, also sparked a number of scientific experts who were aware of her claim she had Acted in sexual ecstasy and love, were fascinated and shocked. The talk of sex was everywhere now. Young intellectuals who advocated gender equality, proponents of sex education and social reformers, and writers who wrote of their personal sexual experiences came into conflict with an increasingly nationalist and militarized society. Public controversies developed on issues such as prostitution, venereal diseases and birth control. The educated public addressed their sexual fears in letters to the editors of specialized magazines, sent their “confessions” to daily newspapers or as research material to medical journals. Sex established itself in the public space as an object of science and education.

[Insert image 2 with the following caption: Title page of the sexological magazine Sei (Sex / Sexualität; Volume 1, Number 5, January 7, 1920) on the topic of “female sex drive.” Friedrich von Schillers and Johann Wolfgang von's motto of the magazine Goethe's poetry for pleasure and sacrifice. The title page shows an adapted representation of Mephisto from Goethe's Faust. Private collection, Sabine Breakfast].

The purity metaphor played an essential rhetorical role in every circle of this public that was confronted with sexological issues. The “scientific public” saw the “purity of science” in danger. The sexologists turned against the "dirt of the street" and called for a "purely scientific" sex education. The “political public” in the form of government policy feared for morale and assumed that the sex educators had “dirty goals”. All producers of the discourses on sexual issues, however, had one concern in common: the threat to “public health” from venereal diseases. While sexologists focused on enlightening the masses and assumed that the "right knowledge" would also lead to "correct action", those groups in the bureaucracy that pushed for a state-controlled and limited enlightenment that pursued the goals of the Population policies - increasing the birthrate in the face of Japan's imperialist ambitions in Asia and ultimately World War II - served. It is this war that became the scene of incredible acts of violence, including sexual acts.
 
Is Sex Really Going Away?
 
No sexual topic dominates the Japanese media today as much as the phenomenon of “sexlessness” of the young generation. The sex is almost exclusively imagined as straight. Its alleged disappearance has created a demographic problem with far-reaching consequences: the Japanese birthrate is among the lowest in the world and if it continues to develop in this way, the Japanese population is certain to become extinct. But is there really a reason to panic? Relative (heterosexual) lack of sex is an international phenomenon: in most countries of the world, young and old people have sex less often than their predecessors of the same age only twenty years ago, but Japan's rate is among the lowest. The pleasure that smartphones and other digital temptations promise or even bring about seems to have taken the place of sex. Nowhere else does this assumption seem to be as true as in high-tech Japan.


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Sabine breakfast

© Sabine Breakfast

... is the author of "Colonizing Sex: Sexology and Social Control in Modern Japan" (2003) and teaches at the University of California in Santa Barbara