Jaycob Izso is a post-graduate researcher with degrees in Political Science, Philosophy, and Economics at Portland State University. The bulk of his research focuses on sexuality and the works of figures like Michel Foucault, Karl Marx, Carl Jung, G.W.F Hegel, and Jean Paul Sartre.
1.) When did you begin researching sexuality?
I grew up in a pretty academic household. My mother was a professor who taught botany, plant physiology, biology, etc. and my father went to graduate school for behavioral psychology. Needless to say, I grew up in a household filled with books on the human body or bodies in general (you’re exposed to the concept of hermaphroditism early on in the botanical world), books about the psychology of sex, and lot of lectures from the standpoint of ‘the sciences’. At the same time, both of my parents practice an interesting variation of Christianity; which they attempt to balance with their understanding of bodies, science, and the mind. I think it was in this sort of hodge-podge of philosophies and methodologies that sex really became an interesting research topic for me. I grew up with the initial sense that sex is a divided subject: on the one hand you have this sort of open data-oriented talk of sex and bodies from a scientific angle and on the other hand a very repressed and mitigated version of sex in Christianity. I think, from a historical perspective, that one can’t exist without the other, but that’s another topic.
I really found my passion for sex (both as an act and as a field of study) in my readings of Michel Foucault and Jean Paul Sartre. I’m almost convinced there is something in the water in France.
2.) What do you believe are some common or popular misconceptions regarding sexuality in America?
I think some of the most common misconceptions exist around the concept of “love” and how it connects to sexuality. I’d argue that in most cases the former is a species of the latter. Yet it seems to me that there is a big misunderstanding as to what “love” actually represents, both as a part of our language and also as a sort of short-hand for the standards we hold our relationships to. There is a tendency in child development and adult cognition to put “love” and “sex” into very rigid categories. The fascinating part is that this partition is erected from the very moment a parent puts in a Disney movie or plays “All You Need is Love” by the Beatles. Where is the sex? Where is any investigation into pleasure? Are we really to suppose that Bell didn’t fetishize some form of beastility? Or that the Prince didn’t consider fingering Briar Rose while she was asleep? It would seem like a statistical impossibility to consider that one-in-seven dwarves wouldn’t masturbate to Snow White at some point while she’s staying in their house or that at least one of them wasn’t gay. And the Beatles – the sex symbols for over a decade – need only Love, not pleasure, not a hard cock or a wet pussy? Come on.
Of course to a degree that separation is entirely normal right? We want to teach our kids ethical sexuality rather than the madness of lust or pleasure, but we also don’t want to explain or introduce complex forms of sexual interest to our children. The immediate question is “why” and I think that’s where the common thinking tends to get a little messy. More often than not, the bulk of our moral apprehension is rooted in the reasoning of Christian theology. Instead of exploring our pleasures, we use a concept of “love” – a sort of mystical, divine, powerful feeling that goes beyond lust and all the things we consider part of our “base” humanity; the burdens of sin and the distractions of temptation. We do this as a way of trying to master our mortal lives and the sorts of primal sensations we encounter every day. If that sounds familiar – and to a degree it should – it’s because that is usually how we describe monks or the chivalry of medieval knights.
While I think it’s difficult to stomach the idea that “love” is the offspring of sex – what’s even more unsettling for most, is the claim that sex and love, are about power.
3.) Do you see any sexual double standards?
The “double-standard” is a little problematic for me. I think it’s more valuable to talk about how we practice “standards” or how we construct them socially. Of equal concern, is that the “double-standard” usually only works in terms of two different things (hence “double” right?). So it’s a little short-sighted and a little outdated. Think about it from a gender and sexual identity standpoint – when we say: “men can do X, but its socially unacceptable for women to do X”, we’ve failed to account to a bunch of people who don’t fall within those sorts of categories.
Of course I know what you’re getting at here. It’s that old adage of: guys sleep with Y amounts of women, but if a girl has the same amount of sex she’s labelled a “slut”. Sadly, I don’t find this incredibly useful or nuanced. Whether women are paying back some moral debt for seducing Adam to eat the Apple or the ancient Greeks labelling pretty young maidens as evil sirens who divert the attentions of men from more “noble” pursuits; there is always some historical form of vilifying women socially. Ultimately it’s always the same old story – it’s an attempt to separate out sexual temptation from non-sexual acts. So what does it mean when we vilify women sexually? Well it just means we’re animals who love pleasure and love being sexual but we’re trying to constantly push against that – reason our way out of it; master our urges and the temptation of pleasure.
Adam took the Apple because he loved Eve’s vagina more than immortality. If you read Plato’s Symposium the Greeks fucked young boys – not because of some contemporary notion of homosexuality – but because their wives represented a weakness of character, a sexual respite from reason – the temptation of their wives offered a version of pleasure that had no boundaries or limitations.
4.) Do you notice your attitudes about sex having changed since you began formally studying it?
Absolutely, studying sexuality – or maybe just ‘pleasure’ – changes your life. Maybe because our entire lives are just giant pleasure centers – who knows? But you begin to consider everything from sex and how it relates to death, to how you interact with your friends and family, how you interact with strangers, and obviously where you situate yourself in social sexuality. The list goes on of course.
I think the major alteration, personality wise, comes into play in relationships. If I map my relationships onto my studies on sexuality I think I would find that the more I learn about pleasure the more fun relationships are – regardless of gender or sexual identity mind you. And I don’t just mean in terms of intercourse; my friendships are a lot more fun too. I think a big part of it is figuring out the social and bodily awareness of the other person and how they understand themselves sexually. I’m sure most of my friends would note that I’m a pretty awkward dude, and I have a tendency ask a lot of really probing questions and put them in very bizarre social situations. It’s a total fetish. I think a better understanding of sexuality and pleasure leads to better conversations, better friendships, and a better understanding of the other person’s body and mind as a complementary pair – ultimately a better self. The idea of growth, understanding, and betterment is by far my biggest turn on, and studying sexuality just enhances that.
5.) Do you think that a healthy sexuality can exist in people who are conventionally religious? There is indeed a lot of instruction for repression in the Bible and Qu’ran. Even the Kama Sutra gives a lot of instruction as to how women should be submissive to their husbands.
This might sound like a bullshit cop-out, but “healthy” is a tricky word to begin with. Healthy in regards to what standard? That person X is tolerant of person Y? That person X is open with their sexuality? I guess what I’m getting at is that “repression” and “health” are not necessarily incongruities. In fact repressive views of sexuality gone hand in hand with the rise of medical sexual health and psychology of sexuality as well. So it’s a little difficult to say that what we now think of as “healthy” is that far divorced from what is, in fact, an act of repression. To take that one step further: what we label as sexual repression is, in essence, still sexual.
But to answer your question directly: yes. Submission can be sexy, dominance can be sexy, instruction can be sexy, and so too then can religious repression be sexy. Now in terms of “openness”, “tolerance”, or “comfort” with sex – I think that’s where some of the more traditional European and Indo-European religious practices have an issue. Mainly because sexuality itself is something to be categorized and managed (which is ultimately what repression has come to mean); one could surmise that it then makes complete anthropological sense that women would find themselves sexually submissive in religious literature. Namely because the religious form of sexuality itself is most commonly portrayed as a goddess, a feminine figure – the primary embodiment of sexuality (and accordingly fertility and lust) was born from a concept of women. There are a few exceptions of course: Pan in Greek myth is usually portrayed as a frisky goat-male, Cupid in the Roman tradition is typically a male youth, and Kama in Hindu faith is usually a powerful young male as well – but correspondingly there is always a feminine sexual figure that is associated with these male figures at some point or another. So as these Indo-European religious customs begin to dictate the terms of sex; it fits that we would see the primary embodiment of sexuality – the feminine – be dictated as well.
I mean let’s face it: weapons may be phallic shaped but vaginas have the real power. In a crass sense that’s what the Illiad is all about, that’s what starts the Trojan War (well that and a golden apple for who is the hottest goddess), and that’s how Hera manipulates Zeus. Needless to say great power – be it in the self or in others – is, at the end of the day, a concern. One that history has always tried to conquer, master, and manage.
6.) But how can we discuss complex sex to our children? Throw them a book? Google their questions?
I can’t help but laugh at the idea of a parent constantly putting their child on pause to run to a computer to Google a sex question. Have faith in your children’s curiosity – have some faith that your child will eventually figure out how to Google up some porn on their own in the near future!
No, I don’t think Google or books are the be-all-end-all of answers when it comes to discussions of sex or sex education. I mean what are the two poles? Either the concept of sexuality is anathema to children under the age of eighteen or we should expose them porn right out of the womb. I should think both look silly to most people. But of course the actual silliness is the fact that there really isn’t any way to get away from “teaching” a kid about sex– the romance in a Disney movie is a form of sexuality – just of the socially managed variety we’ve been talking about (Jasmine and Aladdin kiss, say they love each other, yet neither of them are wearing much throughout most of the movie).
The only sort of non-sexual education a child could possibly receive is of the type that wouldn’t make sense. Non-interaction, no human contact (perhaps living contact of any sort), etc. By the time that child reaches adulthood – assuming they even would – whatever sort of biological sexuality they experience would probably be very confusing since there hasn’t been any context to understand what those urges or feelings mean. So what can you do other than seek to create something humanizing – that is to say, provide a child with a home base; a context for them to interpret sexuality in some way.
The last little note is to ask ourselves what we should mean by “discussion” or “sex education” – are we speaking of sexual uniformity? If we discuss sex with our children are we doing so out of guilt? Or out of a need for a scientific unmasking of sorts? Is the objective to teach children about pleasure or instill them with family values? The cool thing about child development is that kids usually figure out how to masturbate long before dealing with any of these questions.
7.) The Oscar Wilde quote is indeed one of my favorites, “Everything in the world is about sex, except sex, sex is about power.” Do you see some instances in which this is accurate?
I’m not familiar with the quote or its context, but yeah absolutely. Sexuality is a manifestation of power – or at least it’s synonymous with power. Talking to sex workers, dancers, etc. has been particularly enlightening because there are clear demonstrations of communicative power by the higher earners as compared to the lower earners. One particular dancer I interviewed told me that she realized she was less attractive than most of the girls out there, but she could out-earn any of them because she knew how to exude power over her clients. And she was right! Throughout our interview she always made sure I looked her in the eyes, she would posture over me, and even tap her finger on my notepad to get my attention. Then once she had it, she would stare at me in silence. I’ll completely admit that had I not been paying attention to her behavior I would have felt intimidated.
I think one the most fascinating theories I’ve seen for power and sexuality is Jean Paul Sartre’s which basically suggests that the all of our sexual interactions are a constant interplay of “subjectification” and “objectification”. That’s just a fancy way of saying that we are constantly manipulating, seeking to control, and making other people sexual objects while wanting to be understood by the other person in the same way we see ourselves. It’s a pretty bleak picture to most viewers to say that our love life is just a tireless system of constantly objectifying people and being objectified back, but I don’t think Sartre sees it that way. I think it actually ends up being a good bit of fun. Rather than putting all this window dressing on sexuality to make it seem as though you’re doing something more monastic, pure, or innocent, why not just embrace sex as a power game? Why not acknowledge that sometimes pleasure can be painful, manipulative, scary, or even dehumanizing?
8.) In what ways can Americans begin to positively affect change in their lives, sexually or otherwise?
This guy Lucretius once wrote: “It is sweet, when the winds disturb the waters of the vast deep, to behold from the land the struggles of another – not because it is a joyous pleasure that one should be made to suffer, but because it is agreeable to see from what evils thyself art free.”
Coming up with moral prescriptions as to what people should do, or what would lead to the most ethical outcome seems a little boring to me. It also can be a bit of a trap, as we end up providing simple solutions to complex problems. Sexuality itself is a complex problem, and not one easily escaped by a single moral outlook or theory.
So my answer is pretty simple: I’d like to see more sexual discourse. I wish people (including academics) talked about sex and pleasure way more than we do. It gets sensationalized; you know with the party scenes, media hype, and so forth. But what’s really being talked about there? Does some gal on MTV in a thong twerking up on some pop-icon really open up the discussion on pleasure? We see all sorts of public outcries and celebrations for/against “sexual liberation” but is common to ask what that means, why it matters, and how it comes about, or if it is actually liberating anything? I’d like to see sex and pleasure get more in touch publicly with its unreasonable roots.
For the sheer sake of entertainment I think it’d be great if more people went to strip clubs for family dinners, people swapped masturbation techniques on the street, and the sort of tribal nudity that we see in National Geographic was a common public practice. Those aren’t moral prescriptions necessarily, but for Christ’s sake have some non-reasonable fun out there!