Monday, December 10, 2012

The Perversity of the Sexual Norm

Two curious facts surrounding sex are that those who are virgins even after their teens and twenties are deemed pathetic by virtually everyone else, while those who make a living in the sex industry, whether as prostitutes or as porn stars are likewise despised by most people. But not all is what it seems…

Virgins and Sex Workers

There are a number of pretty obvious reasons for each of those attitudes. Most people assume that older involuntary virgins can’t find a sex partner because there’s something wrong with them: they’re physically unattractive, impoverished, and/or mentally ill. Thus, virginity would only be a symptom of the underlying cause of people’s disdain for these dregs of society. Those who want sex but are unsuccessful in their efforts to attract a mate seem to have lost out in life so badly that their loss becomes offensive. This is because sex seems such an obvious good while also being relatively easy to have. After all, animals--including humans--are compelled to want sex, so all people have to do is go with the genetic flow. If someone finds a perverse way to paddle upstream, against this force of nature, that failure seems almost miraculous and so certainly worthy of ridicule. Moreover, for the same reason, those who claim they prefer not to have sex, whether for religious reasons or because they’re opposed to sex in general, are suspected of hiding some personal defect that’s the true cause of their virginity. The genetic floodwaters flow so freely, as it were, that virginity in an older person, say one in his or her twenties or thirties, is more likely caused by a monumental personal failure or character defect, as opposed to being a choice.

Thus, screwball comedy movies, featuring young people possessed by their sex hormones, typically ridicule the pathetic loser who emerges from puberty with no sexual accomplishments. The movie The 40 Year Old Virgin is exceptional in being more sympathetic to the older virgin, criticizing the characters who mock the virgin, Andy, for the deficiency of their sexual relationships. The movie explains Andy’s plight as being the result partly of his decision to wait for the right partner to come along, meaning one to whom he feels an emotional connection. But Andy develops into someone who’s unlikely to find a partner without help; he’s depicted as being frozen in his teenage years, collecting comic books and action figures, and of course he’s unskilled in the art of wooing women.

These movies typify Western society’s attitude towards those who should but don't have sex. Whether on a street corner, in a restaurant, an office, or anywhere else, were an older virgin to admit his or her sexual status, the virgin would be either immediately ridiculed, shunned, or pitied, depending on the situation. Even those who have some sympathy for the weaknesses that cause the virgin’s failure will condescend to the virgin, treating that person as inferior and perhaps even as literally beneath contempt. The feeling is that someone who’s lost out so tremendously can no longer be taken seriously as a competitor in any walk of life.

As for reasons for hostility towards sex workers, there are the assumptions that they desecrate that which is sacred, that they spread diseases, break up families (in the case of prostitutes) or, like their virgin counterparts, have personal deficiencies forcing them to enter this despised industry. For example, porn stars may be addicted to sex, while a prostitute may be forced to earn a lot of money quickly to pay for drugs or to feed her child whom she had at too young an age. Just as a known older virgin’s embarrassment makes any social situation a hundred times more awkward, a sex worker’s shame or presumed filthiness sullies nearly any occasion on which the porn star or prostitute turns up. Prostitutes, for example, typically reveal themselves only at night and in taboo areas such as a red light district, and were they to wear their sexy clothing outside of those contexts, they could expect to be glared at with palpable loathing, if not more aggressively ostracized. The movie Pretty Woman depicts this hostility, when the prostitute character is refused service at a boutique.

Of course, there are exceptions, but these are exceptions that prove the rule. For example, there are sex conventions in which thousands of people emerge to worship porn stars as celebrities. After all, the porn industry thrives because a great many people avail themselves of the sex worker’s services. But the expectation is that this celebration of pornography be kept relatively secret, because sex workers are so revolting that you shouldn’t be proud even to be in their vicinity. Thus, the people who frequent sex conventions, strip clubs, or a prostitute’s street corner must conceal their identity as they tread upon these profane grounds and live with the burden of knowing that were their dealings with sex workers made public knowledge, the sex worker’s loathsomeness would transfer to them like cooties.

The Self-Loathing of Sexual Normals

So much for what I assume would be the standard defenses of these attitudes towards virgins and sex workers. In either case, the sexually normal folks would claim to be disgusted merely by evident personal weakness, failure, or depravity. But none of these defenses will do, as they stand, because of a third curious fact about sex which is that all of these normal folks would be humiliated were their sex life exposed to the light of day. If sex is so great that not having sex when you should be able to is pathetic and worthy of open ridicule, why also be so ashamed of having sex that you’d sooner jump off of a bridge than show a stranger a recording of your sex act? And if sex is so sacred that sex workers are disgusting defilers who must be shunned by all decent, upstanding citizens, why are these same citizens so obviously ashamed of that allegedly sacred act that they must hide their sex life at all costs? As I argue elsewhere, Christianity doesn’t fully account for this shame. Indeed, Christianity’s opposition to sex falls out of pre-Christian ascetic traditions which respond to the disturbing existential issues that sexuality makes plain.

I submit, then, the following hypothesis for your consideration: hostility towards virgins and sex workers is the sexually normal person’s projection of his or her self-loathing. Even a normal, sexually active man, for example, must keep his sex life secret, just like a virgin or a sex worker, because the sex act itself is contemptible, disgusting, and profane rather than sacred. The sex act attests to our finitude, contingency, and animal heritage; to our spiritless, mechanistic nature and the self-deception behind all politically correct, feel-good myths. The sex act realizes our worst fears about ourselves and our position in nature, about the lack of God and perfect justice or morality, and so those creatures that are sufficiently intelligent to understand sex’s implications naturally preserve their sanity and peace of mind--despite the Darwinian necessity of sex--by making sex itself taboo. So a sexually normal person has self-respect in public only when no one else is thinking of that person’s sex life. To reveal, say, that you’re picturing a waitress naked or to present to a taxi driver a photograph of him in the sex act is to humiliate and to dehumanize either person. Nevertheless, with their drapes drawn tightly closed, normal people do have sex and so the average person’s self-respect must conceal a deeper layer of self-loathing. If sex is embarrassing and awkward, because of what it reveals about our existential predicament, we must forget about our sex lives to preserve our dignity.

But now older virgins and sex workers come along and disturb this fragile compromise. Virgins, after all, aren’t tainted by sex; that is, they haven’t earned their stripes by confronting the horror of natural life under such traumatic circumstances. Thus, despite their alienation from sexually normal society, older virgins are unburdened by direct experience of the horrors of sex. Sexually normal people seem to envy what’s sometimes tellingly called the “innocence” of virgins, even while the trauma of facing our existential plight of being self-deluded animals, by engaging in sex, is obfuscated by talk of the “maturity” of sexual normals. The notion that having sex is a prerequisite of human maturity presupposes a normative construal of our biological function, as though the wandering of genes from one generation to the next--not to speak of the genes’ purpose since they have none--ought to automatically govern how we live. Just because we’re genetically pressured to have sex, and sex is--on one level at least--highly pleasurable, doesn’t mean that the normals fulfill the Form or Ideal of humanity, so that they can be called more mature than older virgins. There may be some such ideal, but this will derive from philosophy, not from biology or psychology. Meanwhile, sex workers are secretly envied for the opposite reason: they have altogether too much sex without mentally breaking down, despite their familiarity with such abundant evidence that our politically correct self-assurances are comically amiss. Sex workers demonstrate fortitude and great mental agility when they can live most of their waking hours as animals in the pejorative sense, and then turn around and pretend to be members of a socially advanced species in their off-hours.

This envy mustn’t see the light of day, however, since this admiration complements sexually normal people’s contempt for themselves, for wallowing in such animalistic endeavours while typically ignoring the existential ramifications in their public life as “responsible,” “mature,” “adult” citizens of an “advanced civilization.” Thus, the normals use virgins and sex workers as scapegoats, taking out the contempt they have for themselves onto these others. All sex is a degrading business for those who think of themselves as more elevated than the animals we keep as pets or as spectacles in zoos, or that we exterminate in the wild. The standard reasons for hostility towards older virgins and sex workers are untenable because of normal people’s embarrassment regarding the very practice that’s supposed to endow us with more respect than that enjoyed by the losers and deviants. So the normals must despise themselves for having sex, sometimes even disgusting themselves while they’re in the throes of passion and possessed by hormones and lusts. But because they tend to have no philosophical inclinations, especially in a postmodern society, they can’t address this response to their animal nature with much existential authenticity, and so they direct their contempt that they themselves deserve to those who, in their own ways, deserve less of it. To be sure, virgins and sex workers likely have their personal flaws and these may even be related to their dealings with sex; moreover, these outsiders may even be contemptible for those reasons. But this doesn’t change the fact that the sexual normals hardly cover themselves in glory with respect either to their attitudes towards the abnormals or to their own sexual behaviour in the first place.

The Need for our Hourly Ridicule

All in all, sex makes for a degenerate, awkward topic of discussion, but that’s also why sex is so revealing and thus eminently worthy of rants. Sex is so obviously compromising to our conventional self-image, to what Freud called our persona, that of all the inspirations for our comforting myths, sex is the most in need of such mental gymnastics. Generally speaking, the way we deal with sex is so ludicrous that we ought to be mocked hourly for the lies we tell to endure as such misguided animals, let alone for the compromises we make when we betray our principles and actually indulge in instincts we’d be fired or arrested for expressing at work or elsewhere in public. Sex must be kept secret because sex makes us all pathetic, and that fact is intolerable to such proud beasts as us who believe we’ve tamed most of the planet. Sex is our Achilles Heel, the tragic fault that humiliates us all, casting doubt on every optimistic myth, on every politically correct delusion we entertain to avoid our existential, philosophical responsibility as creatures cursed with excess reason and awareness. 

7 comments:

  1. I'm a 25 year old virgin and I highly doubt that I'll ever get laid. It's not that I have physical defects, more like mental defects. Something like extreme avoidant personality. Girls have given me openings a million times but my biggest weakness is that I can't take the initiative and I also think I'm not capable of having personal and close relations with anyone.
    Anyway, in my part of the world (Pakistan) sexuality is a big taboo (although most people do it, without getting married), so I don't have the problem of being ostracized and looked down upon when people find out that I'm a virgin. The way I look at it is that I'm missing out on a part of the human experience, but it's not necessary to live a happy and fulfilling life.... who am I kidding. I do want to get laid to feel fulfilled and to connect with someone emotionally and physically, but I just don't see it happening. I'll be able to get through life without having any romantic/sexual partners and it might even be a happy and meaningful life by the time I die. At least I've had numerous psychedelic experiences, most people will die without having them. I'll die without having sex. oh man, this sucks. But I'm cool with being a virgin.
    Sometimes I think that reincarnation is real. Although I'm an ignostic, I like thinking about reincarnation. It's a much better concept than heaven or hell. If I die without having sex in this life, I might reincarnate in a life where I make up for all the things I missed out on.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you very much for your earnest comment. I'm not a therapist, but it seems you're conflicted about sex and celibacy, which is quite understandable. Unless we're missing a part of normal human biology, we're instinctively driven to reproduce, and we also have more sophisticated emotional needs for intimacy and to escape from loneliness. And yet those of us who are less well-positioned to have deep emotional and sexual relationships will also be driven to come to terms with that sad fact, to keep our spirits up.

    This particular article of mine is actually about the conflict that sexually normal people feel too. We're all conflicted about sex! This includes the involuntary virgins and the alpha males who ridicule those virgins. Sex is shameful because we all aspire to transcend our animal nature. So even were you to find a life partner and come to feel more self-confident and at one with your community, I don't think your ambivalence about sex would end. There's a new book about our conflicting feelings about sex, called How to Think more about Sex. I haven't read it yet, but I'll give a link to an interview with its author, below.

    At any rate, I sympathize with your situation, but I'm inclined to be optimistic about it. You're only 25, and if your interest in having a sexual relationship is strong enough, you'll find a way around your mental issues. You're right that we can look on the bright side of any situation, but that sometimes, when we stretch too far, we can't fool ourselves. We shouldn't try to do so; instead, we should figure out what we most want and let that desire guide us. But I trust you won't make the mistake of taking platitudinous advice from a stranger on the internet too seriously. ;) I very much appreciate your comment, though, and thanks for checking out my blog--all the way from Pakistan!

    http://www.salon.com/2012/12/22/think_more_about_sex/

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anon, it's possibly a bit of the wacked out male culture around sex that this doesn't get said - but you don't have to take the initiative. You do not have to pick up on any woman who makes an advance toward you. You might not respond, perhaps not because of mental issue, but because they just don't click with you! Female culture is fine with not going with someone you don't click with. Male culture seems to think you have to take any woman who gives the least opportunity. No - you may just be going through a process of looking for someone you find a special connection with. Currently you haven't found that - that's okay. But what might help is to stop thinking of it as a mental issue and to sound yourself out, to try and figure what's important to you. Don't expect to figure it out instantly - possibly the sensitive side of you is burned by male culture. It takes awhile to nurture.

    One way to think about it, is how would you like the woman you'd like, to see you? Putting yourself in her shoes helps begin the mutual understanding.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Been reading your blog incessantly since yesterday. It's really sad that such a smart, smart guy with so many great ideas sees sex as inherently 'shameful' and as evidence of our apparently disgusting mechanistic troublesome 'animal nature'.....dude.....not everyone wants to transcend this aspect of being human....especially people having lots of great sex and enjoying it and feeling physically and emotionally connected to another human during it.....sex makes us pathetic, really?.....sounds like a personal problem pretending to be an intellectual argument......and the only reason some are ashamed (sex/body shame is not some overriding existential crisis 'we' all share, speak for yourself)... is because we were taught to be ashamed by the cultures we live in. (There are cultures where the sex act is a group thing, other cultures in which sex is just an everyday part of life that does NOT go hidden and demonized like in modern America.) Some in America get past this....some of us are into voyeurism and like being seen having sex, some people are swingers, some people are proud sex workers, some people are into nudist colonies, some people dont belong to any group at all yet have been pulled into the throes of passion, where others can see them, and did not stop and hide in shame......have you ever fucked in public? It happens. There is NOTHING shameful about sex and you are displaying a very skewed and unhealthy pathological fixation on the nastiness of it.....

    ReplyDelete
  5. All I'm saying is...one cannot think this negatively about sex and also have a fulfilling sex life...but you seem to be one of those geniuses who is sooo over it and has all these higher aspirations and need to be satisfied in a 'higher' way than the rest of these animals and their profane violent embarrassing genital organs....no one else visiting this blog was going to be real with you and suggest that in spite of all your very impressive intelligence you miiiiiiight just be projecting a little bit? Just a little? I'm just saying you seem like a nice guy with a lot to offer but sometimes....it's ok to be an animal.....nothing wrong with that. your big brain lives within your body. love your body! love your 'embarassing' dick, love the sweat and the fluids and the grunting and the way language breaks down during orgasm.....sexual ecstasy is amazing, its fun! being this 'enlightened omega' guy is awesome too and fulfilling your higher needs is crucial....but you can embrace the animalistic pleasure of sex without having to think yourself a slave to your genes and a slave to the rule of an impersonal universe that forces us to keep meaninglessly reproducing.....what a terrible way to view something so universally fun and beautiful.....I know LOTS of lonely nerdy extremely intelligent guys....I see the patterns in them. They often have pretty fucked up views on sex and women if they are straight. it's not just your massive intelligence that leads you to the conclusions you come to, because lots of other really really smart people would find your condemnation of sex quite revolting and revealing of a lot about you and your success with finding sexual satisfaction....these guys need to not think so much all the time, I see many of them missing out on some basic, basic things in life that we are all entitled to.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks very much for these heartfelt comments. I do appreciate this sort of response that doesn’t beat around the bush.

      I agree that Christian modesty has had an enormous impact on attitudes towards sex, so that pre-Christian cultures might generally have been less prudish than those that were influenced by the Church. But I doubt that the attitudes are as various as you suggest. Many of the pro-sex subcultures you list are exceptions that prove the rule. And the ancients weren’t entirely unashamed of sex. There’s a straightforward evolutionary reason why sex is generally kept private, which is that we’re physically vulnerable during the sex act. Indeed, in the orgasmic state we literally succumb to the pleasure so that if a stranger came up behind at that moment to steal our wallet, we’d be physically unable to stop him.

      Plus, our precious sex organs are vulnerable when we’re naked and preoccupied with sexual pleasure, so we’ve evolved biological and social mechanisms to protect the transmission of genes. One mechanism is the love bond itself, which is fuelled by the sex hormones. Thus, most people would be appalled by the idea of having sex in public, if only because they’d be jealous of anyone else who enjoys the sight of their partner. Also, they’d worry for their partner’s safety. These causes of sexual modesty are evolutionary and thus universal. There are exceptions, but those are abnormalities (in the quantitative, not the normative sense). In addition, there’s the reason I give in “Embarrassment by Sexual Ecstasy,” which is that sex is often humiliating and opens up the possibility of blackmail, so we tend to want to be viewed during the act only by those who share in the embarrassment, namely by our sexual partners.

      I also don’t think I’m “fixated” on sex. Maybe one out of twenty of my writings are on that subject. Sex is a goldmine for connoisseurs of hypocrisy and so as an aspiring connoisseur, I can’t avoid writing about it. Now, I’m aware that most people would agree with you in saying that sex is fun, it’s foolish to think we should give up our animal side entirely (since we must breathe and eat, at least), and so sex is fine. Indeed, I’d have to be quite obnoxious to tell the majority that they should give up sex for some speculative moral or aesthetic reasons. Who am I to slight so many people’s emotional bonds and experiences of intimacy?—as though philosophy would have a chance against the biochemistry in the first place.

      No, my point about sex is primarily defensive, not offensive. I’m defending the outsider’s view of the matter, not demanding that everyone become outsiders and ascetics. On the contrary, I agree with Leo Strauss that those with esoteric lifestyles need those with exoteric ones, to maintain social order, given that people are naturally unequal in various capacities; thus, some delusions or distractions are socially useful.

      Delete
    2. Intelligence is a red herring here. I’m not especially intelligent. I’ve simply read a lot of philosophy and practiced writing. I do talk about the curse of reason, but everyone possesses the relevant kind of reason. I’m not talking about the curse of a high IQ. No, the issue isn’t intelligence; it’s alienation. For various reasons (introversion, mental illness, artistic sensitivity, personal failure, physical deformity, bad luck, etc.), a minority tend to be socially marginalized, giving them an outsider’s perspective on social norms, including sex. That minority will likely find themselves disgusted by much of what the majority take for granted. The disgust isn’t really a choice, just as the majority doesn’t choose to love sex and romance. So what I’m doing is showing the philosophical and religious importance of the outsider’s viewpoint.

      There are two responses to what the horrified outsider says about sex. One is that the outsider’s projecting and rationalizing her deficiencies, sneering at what she can’t have and making herself feel better in the process. That’s the majority’s response, which is in danger of committing the genetic fallacy of lazily reducing an epistemic question to a psychological one, just because the former originates from the latter. The outsider then defends herself by saying that her alienation makes her more objective so she can see what the majority miss, precisely because of their immersion in the natural world that’s in question.

      The fact is that both responses are likely correct, to some degree or other. In some cases, the outsiders really are just covering up their weaknesses and failures. Some outsiders are so mentally deranged that their harangues are of little philosophical merit. Other social outsiders are celebrated as visionary geniuses who change the world. Most outsiders fall somewhere between those extremes.

      Now, I realize my defense of the outsiders has unpleasant implications for the majority worldview. For example, I regard many mainstream beliefs as clichés and delusions. These negative implications of the defense are unavoidable. But this is only a philosophical/religious judgment. I’m not arguing that people who enjoy sex should give up that practice. That’s obviously none of my business. I’m just exploring the role of the outsider’s perspective. Specifically, it’s the outsider who is likely most authentic in the existential sense, because her greater alienation and objectivity force her to face the world’s horror without distractions. The person who wrestles with that conflict will develop certain virtues that make for a creative life. As Plato said, most people create through sexual reproduction, but the cognitive elite are more interested in creating brainchildren. The former is a cliché, while the latter is anomalous and more useful in the tragically heroic struggle against monstrous nature.

      Delete