Saturday, July 12, 2008

Let's Talk About Sex

"There are a lot of female sex writers these days. Honestly, I don’t know why. All I know is that for me, sex shows us who we really are." From The Reverse Cowgirl

Although expressing a common perception, it’s interesting that of all the avenues granting us insight into the human condition, sex is often considered the most important.

“Understand sex, my good man, and you have grasped the very root of the matter.”

I have a friend who believes it’s very important to talk about sex. He believes sexual energies emerge from the very heart and center of who we are as persons. On his reckoning, if we don’t talk about ourselves in sexual terms, we’ re not really talking about ourselves at all.


What do I think of all this, then?

Firstly, I’m confused. I’m not sure if Reverse Cowgirl wants to imply that nothing but sex can show us who we are; or if she feels that sex must be included as an important, but not the only, ingredient in any method of understanding we might employ to illuminate humanitas. Maybe these distinctions are not relevant to her. Maybe I’m ‘splitting hairs’.

But anyway, what is sex? I’m not asking as an essentialistic, natural theologian might, eager to move you through circuitous pathways of rhetoric and suggestion to an already established, waiting conclusion that sex is what I, what Nature or what God deem it to be, not what you feel it to be.

I mean, what is sex, existentially, in the experience and architecture of the self? Leaving aside every gloomy, moral consideration of the age old question: "What is to be done with our genitals", what place, what role, what potency, what importance: sex and the self?

Even though I’ve narrowed the question down a bit, I’m still not sure we know what we’re talking about. What do I mean by this ‘sex’ that is relevant, existentially, to our lives? Am I talking only about acts of genital interaction with others or oneself, and our fantasies, the sex we’d like to have with others but can’t (too unattractive, too shy, too incompetent, the other’s unavailable) or won’t (our own moral compass). Or, on the other hand, am I talking about a certain order of energy in the body, something that is always there, which combines with other energies in the body and self at all times, or, as some might suppose, is the only real energy of the self, which only pretends sometimes to exist under other names?

If sex is more than our genital deeds, after all, we can no longer maintain that there can be some people who do not ‘have sex’. Even if your celibacy achieves the high, exacting standards set for it by the Magisterium of The Roman Catholic Church, and you don’t even masturbate (something progressives confidently tell us is impossible), on this reckoning, one is still having sex because sexual energy, and the relevance it possesses in the self, is still having you, moulding you, shaping you. Hurrah! You need no longer feel exiled and banished by the morays of the modern! Even you –involuntarily sexual celibate that you are or adventurous climber of the mountain heights of ascetic equanimity that you have become – even you are having sex, deny it as you may.

I am no sexpert. My thoughts on sex are highly subjective. Oddly enough, this seems somehow appropriate. The heart of sexuality, after all, what Gurdjieff called the ‘sex centre’ and other Asian physiologists call the 'sex chakra', is tangled in amidst our digestive tract and lavatorial infrastructure. Like our stomach aches and customs of egestion, it is an intimate, private affair; of little importance to the public weal – despite the contrary impression its status in the public imagination and public discourse seems to give it in these post-Freudian, oh so liberated, funky, dunky days.

Sex used to be done in private while prayer used to be done in public. Now sex is done in public. Even in the privacy of ones boudoir it is done in public, given the extent to which an obsessiveness to conform to media decreed templates of sexual convention has invaded our psyches. While prayer, if it is done at all, is increasingly done in private, according to a shattered randomness reinforcing the egotistical isolation that spirituality had originally sought to correct. The “anarchy of individual belief”, my lecturer at Durham Colin Crowder used to call it, quoting somebody else I believe.

Things sure do change. Perhaps in the future eating will be the new taboo. People will take their spaghetti bolognaise into the water closet with them so as not to be seen. They will gather to gossip and exchange pleasantries as they relieve themselves.

When I reacted to Reverse Cowgirl’s line, it was because of what I imagined she implied about the range of human identity; namely that it doesn’t extend that far beyond the sexual, if at all, except perhaps through pretentious flourishings of sublimated dishonesty and repression (her thinking perhaps allied to the old “everything must be dumbed down and demystified in the name of sex” imperative). Maybe she didn’t mean this. No matter. I’m sure a lot of people do. You don’t have to be unintelligent to think like this. Why, you can even be a highly accomplished figure in science and academe and maintain that all we are is sexual, and nothing but. That our sole meaning and purpose in life is to fuck and keep going something the purpose of which is to fuck and keep going, so that it can fuck.

Do I mind being thought of as a sexual being? Why, not at all, my good lady. While it is true that sexual happiness can hardly be said to have been particularly visible in my life so far, I don’t think my portion of sexual dissatisfaction has been that remarkable or outstanding. As I believe it has been said, far more people are bored by, far less people satisfied with, the sex they get than one might suppose. While the existence of involuntary celibacy and the prevalence of misery and heartache occasioned by the often maleficent effects of sexual relationships gone awry, can together speak of a lack of access to sexual experience, and a darkness and deceitfulness wrapped up in sex, moreover, that our society’s concerted efforts to trumpet sex as the ultimate pinnacle of human meaning and fulfillment tends rather too often to obscure.

I am not, I feel obliged to protest, anti-sex. I don’t feel I have had sufficient reason to be. A lot of people suffer from sex more than I do. Either they lack it more than I have (I speak here of interactive sex, not just masturbation, that solitary consolation). Or they are hurt by it more than I have been. While I do not believe that attitudes in support of celibacy will necessarily reveal an underlying hostility to sex in general, I think they sometimes can. Speaking personally, I don’t have that requisite degree of bitterness about sex, of ressentiment as Nietzsche would put it, to have become, as I believe some others have become, someone who wants to put sex into cold storage and banish it from human experience.

I am, so I suddenly hallucinate, being perceived right now as someone who is being defensive about sex. Let us call him my hypothetical reader.

You protest too much. Why say you are not anti-sex unless subconsciously you know that you are anti-sex?

I don’t really understand how I can wriggle out of that one; how I can escape from that pin fixing me, wriggling to that wall, other than to say that I’m not defensive about not being anti-sex.

I happen to suspect that the reason my hypothetical reader supposes I’m being defensive is that he and I actually have a disagreement, not about whether or not sex is good, but about whether or not sex is all that we are. He thinks it is, or at least that sex is what we are ‘most essentially’. I do not. He sniffs out and senses that this is the root of the matter. That ultimately we are disagreeing not about physics but metaphysics. He doesn’t want to accuse me of having metaphysical beliefs, however. That would be too easy. He knows I have them already. And he knows that I’d only plead guilty if he did. He wants to go to the next step. To his understanding, it’s not possible to have such metaphysical beliefs and at the same time be positive about sex. Therefore, discerning my spiritual anchoring, he takes the metaphysical commitment for granted and leaps to his inference, and conclusion, that I am anti-sex, and asks me knowingly if I am. He is so certain, so confident that I am anti-sex, moreover (whatever anti-sex means – hang on, that’s another quagmire), that he won’t take no for an answer. Assisted in his own mind by the suspicion that I am uptight and nervous and fidgeting, distractedly, as I write this, he concludes that I must be in denial. He doesn’t believe me when I say that I’m not anti-sex. So he plays his unanswerable masterstroke, and tells me that I don’t know my own mind because I am governed by my subconscious, a subconscious that is unknown to me and that pulls my strings from within. Oddly enough, even though he is not me, and so for that reason even more at a remove from my subconscious than I am, he knows the contents of this occult, esoteric me better than I do. Remarkable! He is the master of my dreams. Should I give him my money?

Let’s talk about sex.

Ok, why not. But to me sex is just a part of who I am. For this reason, alas, I am not going to be able to talk about it as if nothing else mattered, as if it and its permutations and possibilities are not always linked in to and informed by aspects of my self, considerations about myself, that are not sexual. That are, for example, emotional, intellectual or spiritual. While I accept that, yes, one might want to maintain that these words merely refer to qualities that are but dishonest sublimations of the same sexual sex that we see vividly displayed in empirical matter and expressed in our erotic deeds, this is not what I maintain. Yes, everything about us is inter-connected. But that doesn’t mean that everything about us is identical with what the Neo-Platonists amongst us might want, rather derisorily, to refer to as our lowest common denominator.

Yes, I know, I must be a boring person to talk to about sex. Sigh.

The belief that it is in this way identical, that everything that is crucially important about ourselves is sex, and a sex, besides, that is resolutely materialistic and stubbornly unsubtle or untranscendental, seems to be pretty widespread these days. As I might put it to my dear friend Lee, possibly laughing in a way only he would understand, with respect to the belief that sex is God and Lord of all: ‘There’s a lot of it about’.

I’m not sure after all that, that I'm any closer to answering the question of what sex is. But I feel at least pretty sure that I know what it is not. And that what it is not is everything.

Something of a cliché, you might retort. But if that is the case, and we all know this to be true, why do we talk about sex in the ways that we do?


Z said...

It's not everything. We should not be confined by it (or the lack of it), or (in the case of anything other than heterosexual sex) defined by it. I think one of the reasons there is so much writing about sex - and I mean more contemplative writing, rather than the 'Wahey!I got laid last night and now you can read all about it' type, is that it is, still, a part of our lives that we keep hidden, and it can be one of the most powerful ways we express and reveal ourselves.

The other point is that while there are billions of people having sex every day without any need to share the details with anyone else, the internet has given a public voice to millions of compulsive diarists with enough self-obsession to imagine that others will want to hear what they have to say. People who write about sex are possibly more highly sexed than many others, and more likely to spend large amounts of time thinking about it/analysing it to death: they/we have always been there, it's just that there was less opportunity to virtually shout about it.

Jonathan said...

Not sure what you mean when you say that we should not be defined by sex in non-heterosexual terms. If you mean that homosexuals shouldn't take their own labellings as of this, that or the other orientation as seriously, earnestly and publically as they do, I'd agree.

So we write to let off steam? A very Freudian way of looking at it, I guess. It is a cliche of the 20th century to say that it is a necessarily bad thing that we keep our sexual thoughts and feelings hidden. Maybe to an extent this is true, but not in an unqualified way as I see it. After all, we may lack the required linguisitc precision to express our sexual thoughts accurately. And yet by expressing them anyway we will then grant them, in the then bludgeoned and distorted form that our flawed words impart to them, a solidity and reality in their distortedness, that they lacked before. So by expressing them in this way we can actually falsify them - which can actually then be rather self-alienating concerning something as intimate as sex.

Also, another problem can be the basic surrendering of privacy that talking about sex can involve. I think there is a subtlety and refinement at the heart of sexuality, as it relates to our emotions and mind, that to be frank often escapes the public domain that surrounds us. And the oftentimes boorish and reductive, unsubtle treatments we make of sex through langauge can be a bit, well, overfamiliar and disrespectful of the uniqueness of our private inscapes. We cope by putting up defensive walls and facades which then makes us wonder why we wanted to talk about it sex in the first place.

As I say im not against talking about sex, I'm just aware of the existential dangers of doing so. This has nothing to do with puritanical reserve or 'moralism' you understand. It is linked to my concern to protect the human self from the overly materialistic consequences of a fixation on sex, shorn from considerations of a 'higher nature', as it were.

Are u British Z? Cool name by the way. Crisp and to the point. Ultimate too, in an end of the alphabet kind of way.

Z said...

I think that what I meant was that there is still too much judging of people on the basis of the sex of the people they sleep with – but having said that, labels are sometimes a valid and useful way of allowing people to feel they belong.
We write to explain ourselves. I could as easily do that by detailing my day as anything else, but there is very little hidden self there, and it’s what is below the surface that I, and many others, are interested in writing about. I agree that there is a risk of falsifying – however truthful, it is always a truth told from only one side – but surely that’s the challenge. “We cope by putting up defensive walls and facades which then makes us wonder why we wanted to talk about it sex in the first place.” Oh yes. But breaking down those walls, if only to ourselves, can be addictive. There is such an abundance of talk and writing about sex that is superficial and ultimately meaningless (How to spice up your sex life, how to have the perfect orgasm, how to tell if your sexual urges are normal etc., etc), which are partly dictated by an over-excited, school-boyish, sense of risqué freedom and daring (which has lasted for over 40 years and shows no sign of abating), that there is still room for a more thoughtful debate. You could argue that anything (sex, politics, trainspotting… religion, philosophy) is cheapened by endlessly discussing it, but for some reason we are less discerning about sex, and that is a kind of prudery in a way.

(Yes, I’m British, although I’d class myself as European, and a Scot by birth. I like my name too )

Jonathan said...


'I think that what I meant was that there is still too much judging of people on the basis of the sex of the people they sleep with'

I still maintain that I'm not sure to what extent most people actually care. Ive never heard anyone say for example that they hate gays because of what they do to each other in private, for example. People do get upset, it's true, by having alternative sex lives shoved in their faces, offered up with the pleas "thou must approve, or else"..but can you blame them? Of course, with respect to things like homosexual marriage and adoption, lines can get more clearly marked in the sand but this is because here it is not merely private sex deeds that are being spoken of, but their impact on a traditionally understood and established social structure that one should perhaps not be surprised to find people wanting to defend.

'allowing people to feel they belong.'

Im all for people not living lives in the desert but I've never felt I or anyone else had a right to be accepted by or embraced by others. People are free to welcome or not welcome me into their embrace, surely? I question the sense of entitlement people of unorthodox lifestyles too often feel to be embraced by those more traditionally, conservatively minded. There's something going wrong here logically, isn't there? Matters of law and legal protection are something else entirely. But you spoke of the emotional sense of 'belonging'. How much sense of belonging would traditional types feel if they were to come up against the need to mix with innovative lifestyle communities? It cuts both ways.

'it’s what is below the surface that I, and many others, are interested in writing about.'

Oh God I love this. Yes, let's shrug off the carapace of the superficial and be honest. But direct, unreflected upon sexual desire is not all that we are under the surface. This is a Freudian myth we would do well to abandon. It is the soul that must be liberated from the dungeaon that is the world. While matters of the soul can be touched upon by sex, its center of gravity is not there.

'but surely that’s the challenge.'

Indeeed yes for our culture in general but narcissistic outpourings of wild expression may not necessarily grant us illmuination, but perhaps the opposite. The sex center is very powerful, and very totalitarian. It is fire, it stands not readily on subtlety. And yet our innermost beings are subtle, and highly refined. As Obi-wan would would say "We must be cautious". Abandoning ourselves recklessly to sex is a false liberation for that in us which is more than the flesh. In my opinion.

Sorry, but that something is 'addictive' is not really a defense. Isn't it better to be in control of our lives? It increases our freedom after all.

'There is such an abundance of talk and writing about sex that is superficial and ultimately meaningless'

You speak for me entirely. Exactly my point.

'there is still room for a more thoughtful debate.'

I hope. That would be interesting too. But are people really willing to have the bases and nature of their desires investigated and subject to a casting of the light? I think people will often just say "mind your own business, i like it because i like it. Stop oppressing me!"

'but for some reason we are less discerning about sex, and that is a kind of prudery in a way.'

Wow. Very insightful. You are right. A prudishness does wrap itelf around our sex obsessions. This is why we are awkward about being disinterestedly intellectual and dispassionate about sex. we want to keep it 'private' even though we also want to feel that it must be flaunted. I think this is because for many people sex has taken the place of religion, so it has asssumed the notions of sacredness and untouchability hitherto associated with God. And yet the same drive for evangelism and protestations of devotion is equally marked. Bizarre!

May I ask what you mean by calling yourself European. Were u sad that Ireland said No to Lisbon, for example?

I love Fife!

Z said...

Ah, see, this is where the European thing comes in. I live in a place where I have often heard gays reviled for their sexuality, and where to be openly gay takes no small amount of courage (so it’s interesting to see the anti-pro-gay backlash. How soon we forget). As for gay rights regarding adoption or marriage, the antis have no case except precedent: all that should be required is love and commitment, not sexual choices. But don’t get
me started on that.

No one has a “right to be accepted by or embraced by others”, but why cut them off from the embrace if it there to be given? Look at how many people have been isolated and tormented by their sexuality, and by the teachings of a sanctified, heteronormative church. Think back to the confusing sexual fug of adolescence. At least young adults today wrestling with their sexuality have information at their disposal, and less likelihood to feel that they are weird, or alone, or dangerously perverted and deviant. True, there is a huge amount of dross, and no small amount of horribleness, but there’s intelligent, informative stuff too, and no reason why that should be thrown out with the bathwater too.

‘ How much sense of belonging would traditional types feel if they were to come up against the need to mix with innovative lifestyle communities? It cuts both ways. ‘
How is this a bad thing? Acceptance does not come with laws of tolerance, it comes with understanding.

‘But direct, unreflected upon sexual desire is not all that we are under the surface. ..Abandoning ourselves recklessly to sex is a false liberation for that in us which is more than the flesh.’
But it’s one of the things we are. Why not explore it? Abandoning ourselves to sex – in what way? In endlessly discussing it? In allowing it to be the excuse for things that we more readily excuse with emotion? True, addiction is not a defense, but I’m a hedonist: I think there’s a case for just giving into pleasure, sometimes 

‘But are people really willing to have the bases and nature of their desires investigated and subject to a casting of the light?’

Yes. There are people investigating and casting light all over their own sexuality all over the internet. Their motives are not wholly prurient or exhibitionistic, either.

‘I think this is because for many people sex has taken the place of religion, so it has asssumed the notions of sacredness and untouchability hitherto associated with God.’

Yes! I agree. I’m not aware of evangelicalism in that respect, but this could be because I ignore it or because it is less apparent due to circumstance. Religion is one tool we use to interpret ourselves, sex is another. Perhaps, in sex, the soul is less apparent, but it touches something very primal and, in a way, unformed, however much we analyse. It’s an instrument we can choose to use to explain ourselves, to reconcile us to ourselves.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for all the attention Z. Im not really used to it.

I dont know about the studies into adopting parents but I was under the impression it was widely believed that a heterosexual couple provide the best template? Marriage is a misunderstood one since by definition it cannot embrace homosexuality, only because it is a Christian sacrament intended to shore up and facilitate human reproduction, and to symbolise the reconciliation of man and woman under God. Secular civil unions are something else, and i have no issue with them, as I can see that the questioning of homosexuality can make little sense if one is an atheist, and believe life has no absolute transcendednt meaning.

Im against sex shame and sex guilt, but im not against sex wisdom and sex enlightenment. At the heart of this wisdom is that sex is just a part of who we are, and not the most important either. So why do people define themselves by it? Sex, alas, often tends to concretise in materialistic mindsets if given the chance..and it also attracts self- obsession and narcissims i find...?

It is one thing to justifiably critisice christians for hating gays, when by doing this they negate the gospel. But another to say to them: you do not have the right to believe that homosexuality is not what God wants for his creatures. Surely people can believe what they want? Christians put up with having their beliefs trashed everyday so where the reciprocity?

I also am a hedonist, but to me the spiritul domains give me pleasure, just as sex does (though i dont get much -except alone), and booze and music and the life of the mind, and the heart. 'Hedonists' abuse the meaning of the word somewhat I feel, and forget Epicurus' own example.

I agree that sex is important and that the sex shame of the past was regrettable. Judaism seems to have a healtheir attitude to it, i find.

Jonathan said...

I feel worried that I may be misunderstood, with respect to the context in which id like to put what i have written. Above all i just want people to love and be at peace with each other. This is what God wants to.

I have gay friends and i envy them, to frank, some of the ways in which they have been able to detach themselves from the inanely macho male bantering herd, and express more sensitive qualities. If anyone felt i supported the hatred or persecution or whatever of gays id be horrified.

My main interest though is in healing the wounds of alienation between man and woman. And im not just talking romance here.

I do not consider androgyny incompatible with either God or heterosexuality, as Jung is right that each gendr has the image of the other inside him/herself. I do wonder to what extent homosexuality may for some be a taking of refuge on ones own side in the light of this fundamental abyss. Did u read my post about my time in san fran?

I just wish people would love each other liberally and expansively with more than just their bodies. I find a world of fear and competition and struggle and hatred, not just evil but profoundly boring.

I ramble perhaps x

Anonymous said...

My understanding of the sex act between a virile man and a fertile woman is that it is the ultimate form of self-delusion; for, whilst the perceived reality is one of shared experience – of unity – and even transcendental harmony – the actual reality is an intricate illusion within which the sexes are operating in such profoundly solipsistic isolation that there is not, in fact, even the remotest possibility of shared experience between the two.
This is because the motivation on the part of the sexes could not be any more widely polarised: whilst the man, on the one hand, derives pleasure from self-interest, from the aesthetic, the carnal and the conceptual (blinkered by the gargantuan misconception that the woman craves his penis) the woman, on the other hand – if she derives any true pleasure from the act at all – and this is debatable – derives it from the selfless interest of providing pleasure, from the sensation of gentle intimacy and the prospect, no matter how remote, of in vivo fertilisation; thus, beneath the salacious embrace and the writhing of bodies, there lies the ultimate self-deception: the notion of unity between the sexes in mind and spirit; for, nothing could be further from the truth; and yet, curiously, the illusion is essential in order to sustain procreation and the smooth running of the universe.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and you talk about achieving a unity between the sexes. Well, I think if both sexes are aware of this impossible division and enter into relationships on the basis of this understanding, then we are coming a lot closer to "out-living the demi-urge" (if you get my gist). For, we must accept the spiritual limitations of our current modes of being before we can ascend to the next level - which is to say, that we musn't credit ourselves prematurely with superhuman capabilities.

Jonathan said...

Why is the sex act self-deluding only between 'a virile man and a fertile woman'? Are you implying its more authentic if the union is necessarily barren for infertility reasons...or if the participants in the act are gay? Why so?

Not that my direct experience of these matters be extensive, but I'd have to question your assertion that women don't enjoy having sex for the pleasure in itself, and do not have feelings of genuine fascination, moreover, and desire for the male protuberance. It may be, of course, that women will hide these feelings because they won't want to flatter the man's ego too much in the context of the resigned suspicion, often valid, that the man only sees her as a 'nice piece of ass.' It has long been the case, I think, that witholding sex and refusing confessions of delight found therein are devices employed and needed by the female in the everyday power dynamics that are sex.

Obviously there will always, alas, be genuinely prudish, or even frigid, women but these are surely a small minority, deep down. And presumably it wouldn't be her fault? Remember women in many cultures have been, and in many still are, told that they shouldn't enjoy sex, so getting pissed off with them if they don't is how valid, exactly?

As for men's motivations in sex, the lies here are endless i think:

'the man, on the one hand, derives pleasure from self-interest, from the aesthetic, the carnal and the conceptual.'

Again my shagging CV is limited, but what I can tell you is that I have never felt in the act of sex with a woman that my interest in her was NOT also more than merely physical and rooted, moreover, in the desire for the genuinely inter-relational. Though I'd shun Paul's fearful implications as he writes, I think one does form invisible etheric bonds of a certain nuance with people when you sleep with them, regardless of how one feels that you get on? I think women are more aware of the intrinsically emotional nature of the sex act, while men will often deceive themselves about this in order to beef up the macho persona, so important in impressing and bonding with their males peers, and, moreover, so as to protect themselves from being emotionally dominated by the woman.

Sadly, however, what we can see today, I think, is many women now revenging themselves against men who had seemed, in an hour of trust and hope, to have been so impenetrably insensitve and unsubtle in sexual matters, by themselves now aping that very role of the 'boorish conqueror' in laddette posturings of their own in the markets of promiscuity.

All very grubby and leaden, alas. The Alchemists do not approve.

Well, so i suspect. Anyway, sex is certainly not merely the 'physical' thing you suggest it is.

Anyway, is this talk of the 'physical' a bit retro, a bit too cartesian my Lord?

Has Wittgenstein meant nothing to us?