Friday, May 23, 2008

Bronze monkey

For a semester in college, I assisted one of my department's professors for an hour a week. He specialized in powdered metals, and one week he demonstrated for me how a part is made from powders. Bronze powder and a monkey mold were what was laying around the lab, so we filled up the mold. Before it went into the compression machine, the filled mold needed to be sealed to protect it from liquid. Looking extremely embarrassed, the professor pulled a condom from a drawer, opened the package, and wrapped up the mold.

Demonstrating isostatic compression does not seem like something a person should be embarrassed about. But our society's attitude toward sex seems to be that it's "bad", and that "good" people avoid anything even associated with sex. I think it's actually a negative attitude about intimate relations, not simply a matter of keeping private matters separate from public ones: bowel movements are private issues, but toilet paper doesn't have the stigma associated with it that condoms do.

I encountered this attitude again recently: I'm working on the "condom" article on Wikipedia, and requested a history book through interlibrary loan. When the book came in, a librarian called and left a message on my answering machine. She was very careful to not mention the name of the book.

I have wondered if this idea that all things related to sex are "bad" has come about because of some unconscious realization that much of the intimacy in our society really is unhealthy. Unable to articulate the negative effects of certain behaviors, everything related to them gets caught up in the sense that these things wouldn't happen in a healthy society.

The broad brush does seem to be getting more specific, though. More than one of the stories in The Girls Who Went Away (a book I read recently) recounted how "pregnant" was a dirty word. One woman said her parents' avoidance of the word was so extreme she never even knew her mother was pregnant until her baby brother was brought home from the hospital. I believe it's good that the stigma associated with pregnancy has faded; perhaps someday using a condom to help make a bronze monkey won't seem so dirty, either.

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