MODERATOR: Good evening, viewers, and welcome to a spicy edition of Clash of Worldviews, the financially unlikely show in which philosophical disputes take center stage. This week, we turn to questions of sex and romantic love. Is sex shameful? Is love the meaning of life? To discuss these and related matters, we’re fortunate to have with us the ebullient sexologist, Sexy Nerd Cassandra, whose podcasts and workshops promote sex positivity. Joining her is Heather Fogerty, renowned postmodern cynic who considers herself antisexual. Ladies, welcome! Heather, why don’t you get us started by explaining what on earth could be wrong with sex.
HEATHER: Thanks, Mr. Nameless Moderator. I’m amused to serve again as gadfly of the modern social order. Your question sounds rhetorical, which means you’re assuming that antisexuality, that is, the opposition to sex, is obviously wrongheaded. But if that’s so, if sex is obviously right, why don’t you share your sex life with the world by presenting our viewers with recordings of what goes on under your covers? I’m talking photographs, movies, descriptions—the works. Why keep something so wonderful a secret?
MODERATOR: I must say if I understand it correctly, your request isn’t entirely professional.
HEATHER: That’s exactly my point—which comes across despite your dithering. Sex is animalistic. It proves we’re animals. So it falsifies our delusions of grandeur, including our prejudice that by donning a power suit we become a “professional.” You and virtually everyone else find public dissection of their own sex life distasteful, because you’re embarrassed by your sex acts. You think disgust with sex is ludicrous, whereas the sex act itself is plainly asinine. Most people’s worst fear is to be caught in the act of having sex. And yet they condescend to virginal loners and to those who abhor sexuality and the body, calling them losers or omegas or mentally ill. But how can antisexuality be disordered when we’re ashamed of the norm in question? If the behavioural standard itself is dubious and must be kept private, for fear of being blackmailed by evidence of the nonsense we get up to when we’re naked and otherwise savage with our partners, how can dissent from that standard be wrong, let alone pitiful? Indeed, how can the presumption be against outsiders like me who choose not to do what most people implicitly agree is foolish, namely hump each other like the animals we think so poorly of that we routinely dine on them or hunt them for sport? Sure, many species evolve an instinct to seek shelter in the wild while copulating, because animals are vulnerable to predation when they’re in the middle of the sex act. But we can have sex behind locked doors and still be embarrassed about what sex reveals about us even long after the farcical act is accomplished.
MODERATOR: Uh, Cassandra, why don’t you jump in here?
CASSANDRA: Gladly! I’m delighted to be here. Heather, I’m fascinated by your audacious case against sex, but I must say that if you’re missing out on sex and love, your life is passing you by. These are such important parts of being human that I fear your over-analyses are only making you miserable. While it’s often our choice whether to be happy or depressed, I question your attempt to cast aspersions on something so central to our wellbeing. Even if your pessimism were to become widespread, what would you have accomplished other than to prove the aphorism that misery loves company?
HEATHER: Ugh, where to start! Sex is hardly central to human nature. Again, sex is animalistic. That means it’s a defining behaviour for most animal species. And how are they defined by their preoccupation with sex? I’ll tell you how: as vessels for their genes, as slaves to replicators that evolve for no humane reason whatsoever. As for human nature, we’re anomalous in that we strive to transcend our base instincts. If most animal species are fish caught in the flowing waters of evolution, we’re the daring creatures that sprout legs, wings, and the neural capacity for rational self-control to pursue our path on hitherto unknown, dry lands. So if anything, our capacity for antisexuality defines us as the peculiar species we aim to be. We’re relatively free to define ourselves by our actions. That’s our gift and our curse, and it’s why you concede that I’m free to do what I like—as long as I don’t subvert your cherished conventions about love and sex. As for whether I’m happy or miserable, it’s neither here nor there since the facts of nature are indifferent to our preferences. If I’m miserable surrounded by happy-talking, hypocritical primates day in and day out, what of it? Why would you expect anything else from an outsider who’s appalled by her society’s norms? If you think the cure for that unhappiness is to become normal, you’re just begging the question. Sometimes, sadness is the honourable state of mind and it’s the happy, rutting masses that disgrace themselves.
CASSANDRA: It’s so strange that you’re appalled by your own body. You’ve been reading too much philosophy, I think, with your head in the clouds, overthinking the point of your being alive. Do you really want to be such an outsider that you scoff at your bodily impulses and sneer at the whole culture built up around our desires for intimacy, affection, and for finding a partner to share our life and to grow old with? That gains you nothing, so at the very least your pessimism is counterproductive. But worse than that, your criticisms ring hollow because I’ve experienced the awesome potency of love that’s inspired so much art for thousands of years. I have a rich and healthy sex life that inflames my imagination and rewards me with moments of ecstasy. I have partners who care for me and I’ve grown emotionally as I’ve strived to master the art of caring for them in return. Spiritually, love is the key to morality, since we step outside ourselves best when we’re motivated to help others, not when we just observe the masses, as you call them, and subvert conventions from the sidelines—and nothing motivates like the emotional bond of love. Love is real and unless you’ve experienced it, you don’t know what you’re talking about.
HEATHER: Of course love is real! But what exactly is it? Will you indulge in decadent Hollywood obfuscations and spiritualize the phenomenon or will you settle for the natural facts? Love is a hormonal bond that serves the obvious evolutionary function of forcing parents to stay together to care for their helpless offspring. In other species, the newborn can fend for itself, but because our advantage is our oversized brain we’re defenseless until we can think for ourselves, and that happens only after puberty, more than a decade after our birth. Without some mechanism that literally forces parents to live together, our hyper-intelligent species would be doomed to extinction. So when we’re sexually attracted to someone, our brain floods our system with hormones such as oxytocin, and we experience love as a drug. That’s what romantic love is: a drug that distracts us with overwhelming pleasure so we don’t think of parenting as a hardship—even though women often die in childbirth, at least until the advent of modern medical techniques, and we have to sacrifice our careers and our liberal lifestyles to raise our children, which is why fewer and fewer people in advanced industrial countries like Japan, France, and the US are having children. Love causes us to act insanely, and that insanity is redefined as the model so we can tolerate our natural plight.
You ask why I’m disgusted by my body. Are you sure it’s just the minority of cynics and losers like me to whom that question should be asked? Aren’t you forgetting the hundreds of billions of people who have hoped that their immaterial spirit will outlast their wretched body? This antimaterialism is central to the perennial, universal faith of humankind and we’ve devised it to account for our miraculous autonomy. Again, as primitive as we are in some ways, we also have the strange capacity for self-determination, which means we can live in our minds and express our visions in artificial worlds such as languages, cultures and cityscapes. We think the body is secondary to ourselves, because all animals have bodies whereas we have more: consciousness, freedom, reason. Sex and love are only physical and emotional forms of interaction, whereas the human animal is primarily a thinker and a creator not merely of other human animals, but of ideas and of the worlds that apply them.
CASSANDRA: But if you don’t mind my asking, is your antisexuality based on ignorance or on negative personal experiences? Are you a virgin? A closeted lesbian?
HEATHER: I’ll answer that only if you show me and our audience images of you having sex.
CASSANDRA: Those two things aren’t at all equal.
HEATHER: Sure they are. You’re asking me to describe either my lack of sex or else some negative sexual encounter you suspect I might have had, either of which would be part of my personal life. If I were a virgin, I’d be happy to show you footage of me not having sex, such as videos of me sitting on the couch watching TV. That would be my nonsexual private life. It’s not my fault the relevant hidden moments in the lives of sexually active folks are so much more revolting and literally unspeakable. So in fairness, you’d be obligated at least to describe the details of your private life—which I take it would include torrid, humiliating depictions of your rampant reversion to beastliness. It’s up to you, then, whether you want to get personal or not. You think you’re putting me on the spot, but I can easily do the same to you.
CASSANDRA: Not everyone is ashamed of their sex life, you know. We keep it private because others aren’t as interested in those details as are the immediate participants, and because much of the pleasure of sex is derived from its being furtive. When a lady wants to surprise her man by wearing sexy underwear, she may text him at work with a picture that he alone can savour with anticipation. You take the sexiness out of sex if you make it public, which is why porn actors think of their public sex as a business of posing. There’s seldom any love in porn. Love requires intimacy which develops as a pair overcomes challenges together, rather like how soldiers form bonds of camaraderie as they’re forced to rely on each other in a warzone.
HEATHER: So are you ashamed of your sex life?
CASSANDRA: No, I’m not, but that doesn’t mean I’ll diminish it by revealing the intimate details to you.
HEATHER: Such a fragile thing, this love that can wane as soon as its tale is told. You’re as superstitious as the legendary premodern fellow who thinks his spirit will die when he’s photographed.
CASSANDRA: Let the record show that you’ve avoided my question about the personal basis of your hostility towards sex. I mean, what did sex ever do to you to deserve your hostility to it?
HEATHER: But these personal inquiries are so tedious! You’re on the wrong show if you want to get personal, because ideas rule here in the pursuit of knowledge. There’s no philosophy found in the saccharine revelations of tell-all, self-help, daytime talk shows, and there should be none of the latter in Clash of Worldviews. And here’s why they’re irrelevant to the matters at hand. Suppose I were a virgin, a resentful lesbian, or a victim of rape. What exactly would that prove? Only that that experience or lack thereof would likely be a contributing cause of my antisexual viewpoint. How would that be enlightening? Would you have expected, on the contrary, that a worldview could fall miraculously from the sky, uncaused and unmotivated?
I could just as easily commit the genetic fallacy and point out that your defense of sex and love is caused by your genes and intoxication from hormones. But that would get us nowhere, because a cause isn’t the same as a lack of justification. I say we’re compelled to crave sex, because our instincts carry such weight in forcing those cravings on us, but the mere fact that we’re inclined to be slaves in that way doesn’t make our slavery hateful and grotesque. No, I’m repulsed by love and sex not because of their origin but because of what they prevent us from becoming. They make us subhuman, whereas we could be gods. So go ahead and assume I’m either a virgin or a jilted lover or whatever. Let that assumption help explain why I think as I do. Just don’t confuse that explanation with a reason to reject my arguments.
CASSANDRA: I was only trying to point out that beliefs should be supported by evidence. If you’re ignorant about sex because you’re a virgin, for example, I would have reason to doubt the merit of your pessimism, because you’d be talking out of your ass.
HEATHER: Nope, since there’s indirect as well as direct acquaintance with evidence. Most of what we know we know by deferring to evidence gathered by others. Indeed, a virgin might be expected to see sex as it truly is, since she could be more objective about it, whereas sexually active folks would be liable to engage in motivated reasoning.
CASSANDRA: No, the antisex crowd is just as likely to be bitter and resentful as it is to be objective.
HEATHER: Sure, but unless someone is physically repulsive or otherwise loathsome and thus involuntarily deprived of sex, she’d have to exercise some control over her fate. In that case she’d learn to approve of it, bitterness wouldn’t be an overriding factor, and her lack of attachment to the sex industry would enable her to contemplate unsettling truths.
CASSANDRA: It just strikes me that you’re overthinking all of this. The case for the healthiness of love and sex is clear. We know why we do fall in love: it’s for the biological reasons you outlined. But we also know why we should do so. If the natural facts are as grotesque as your cynical philosophy would have it, we could use a partner to fall back on, someone to help us through hard times such as the trials of raising children and doing our fair part for our species. What are the alternatives to affection, intimacy, and emotional connection? Loneliness, anxiety, and other debilitating mental conditions. We’re social creatures and we flower emotionally when we engage with each other. But our capacity to love is limited, so we have to select those we let into our private lives. We form hybrid minds when we bond with our life partner, and the physical coupling of sex epitomizes that union. Moreover, we celebrate the fact that we’re alive by adding such fun and play to our busy schedules! Or are you so prude and uptight that you’d go to work on formulating an airtight case against fun?
HEATHER: Careful, now! I’m not opposed to all forms of companionship and fellow-feeling. I’m just disgusted by those relationships that flourish only when they're supported by deceptions. Romantic love is the strongest emotional bond and it’s for just that reason we’re forced to lie constantly about it. Love is revelatory, not because it shows that a benevolent creator is at the bottom of nature, but because it reminds us that we’re far from being what we need to think we are to live with our excessive knowledge of what we actually are. We’re animals and we know what happens to animals: they struggle pointlessly and then die. We concoct myths to distract us and to assuage our dire knowledge. Most of us are forced to crave sex because our bodies are driven by biological functions which are utterly unlike moral imperatives. During puberty, when our sex organs grow, our brain is overwhelmed with hormones which possess us like the fictional zombie virus. Succumbing to those natural forces honourably, without self-deception, would be one thing, but where would be the romance in that? Romance is indeed a form of play, but it’s not what you’re assuming it is. It’s an act in the sense of a performance, a pretense, a lie, and that’s its social role. The social function of love is to serve as an apology for love’s biological function, for its dehumanizing part in how we propagate our species. We have no duty to procreate; we feel compelled to do so because we’re caught in the currents of organic evolution. And we have no decisive reason to pretend a mere friendship or business partnership is something mystical or magical. Not all emotional bonds make us flagrant hypocrites.
CASSANDRA: Well, I wonder whether you’re on a slippery slope in that case. You agree that some kinds of social relationships are worthwhile, and you find love distasteful only because you’ve a fetish for intellectual integrity. But I do suspect there’s deception in all our relationships. We misrepresent the facts in a thousand ways all the time, just by interpreting them. Our memories even provide us with false reports. Our brain creates our experience and then we embellish it when relating it to others. We allow our desires to affect our estimates. For example, we may overestimate a friend’s or family member’s social standing, because we identify with that person and we’re driven by a selfish urge to promote ourselves. Unless you’re going to live alone in a cave, then, where you’ll punish yourself for being a human animal, I don’t see how you can draw the line at the relationships that revolve around sex.
HEATHER: Even if it is a difference in degree, at some point if you add molehill on top of molehill, you end up with a mountain. Maybe I happen to be unable to tolerate the sentimental balderdash needed to sustain the spell of romantic love, whereas the less existentially significant forms of hypocrisy aren’t so off-putting to me. It could be just a matter of taste. I’m not saying everyone ought to feel as I do. I’m explaining why I believe sex is much worse than most people say they think and why the rigmarole of romantic love is a ghastly farce. Whether I change anyone’s mind is neither here nor there. I stand by my judgments.
But I note that once again, turn around is fair play. You say I’m in danger of standing on a slippery slope which should lead me to accept your conclusion. But as a liberal, feminist, politically correct, American young woman who will tolerate anything but the attempt to overpower someone else, I don’t see how you can give sex and love a pass. After all, those two institutions are almost universally patriarchal. You speak of affection and intimacy, but what about the power games, the battle between the sexes, the subtle coercions we inflict on our supposed partners? This is at the heart of the average civilized person’s hypocrisy: she holds most relationships to lofty standards, demanding justice for the poor and the marginalized, but in her private life she betrays those principles, proving that morality is indeed buried with God. She longs for inequality in the bedroom, contenting herself with barbarous romance novels and soap operas when her male partner is too domesticated for her hardwired taste. She wants to be the boss in the workplace, but she yearns to submit in the bedroom—or else she wants her partner to submit to her. There is no such thing as perfect equality in sex, since the physicality of copulation requires that one member dominate the other. At best, each member of a couple can take turns playing the dominant, active role, in which case the other is objectified as he or she is manhandled.
Of course, all of this is coming to a head as technology allows for more and more convincing substitutes in the forms of sex toys, the virtual reality of porn, online communications such as in dating, and even artificial insemination and genetic engineering. The myths of love are already as quaint as those of mainstream religions, but they’ll also compete with the corporate sales pitches for the incoming godlike powers over our bodies.
CASSANDRA: If you’re suggesting we’re going to stop falling in love and having sex, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Even if love were like religion, you don’t see religion fading away anytime soon. And I deny there need be such hypocrisy. Public standards do apply to our private lives, which is why rape, for example, is illegal.
HEATHER: But be honest and answer whether anything is less sexy than a couple that doesn’t divide into dominant and submissive members, than one in which the partners treat themselves as equal in all respects? Liberalism has been reduced to a call for equality and tolerance, to manage competition between societies due to globalization. Meanwhile, we’re hosts to premodern instincts that take for granted, as it were, that dominance hierarchies or pecking orders will prevail, that the species must go on to spread the genes so that the female or the male must, in the end, be directed in the sex act regardless of any fairy tales or social institutions that may crop up to rationalize the process. The harsh truth here is antithetical to the meaning we assign to the experiences of sexual attraction and pair bonding. That’s why self-deception is crucial to this civilized norm and it’s why I’m disgusted by it.
CASSANDRA: So you’re saying you’re more interested in rigorous honesty than in having sex and finding a life partner to love? That you’d sacrifice your happiness as long as you can retain your precious intellectual integrity, even though you think most people here and now won’t respect your decision at all and you certainly don’t believe there’s any god to reward you for your martyrdom after you die. That’s just so much bullshit, Heather. You sound like an idealistic adolescent who’s got a lot of growing up to do. Is there anything more absurd than an ascetic atheist?
HEATHER: In my case the disgust isn’t a choice. Some people are revolted by snakes or tomatoes or Adam Sandler movies. My taste in this matter is doubtlessly motivated by my character, my experience, and perhaps even my genetic makeup. Thus, my antisexuality isn’t a ploy for people’s attention or a ludicrous scheme to win favour with a nonexistent god. I don’t choose what I find repugnant. Perhaps if I were rich, beautiful, and famous, and thousands of elite persons were desperate to seduce me, my negative reaction might be overcome by a budding taste for sex and romance. Naturally, our character can be altered if we’re subjected to the right stimuli. For example, if you’re horrified by spiders but are forced to confront hundreds of them for long hours, you might eventually find that you’ve grown more tolerant of them.
Again, though, this sort of cognitive behavioural hypothesis gets you exactly nowhere, because I can turn around and remind you that so-called healthy interest in love and sex can also be undone by sufficiently subversive experience. When we talk about motivations, we’re talking only about causes and effects, whereas the subject at hand is about whether love and sex are good or bad. You don’t show that something deserves respect or condemnation just by showing how it came to be. If you don’t believe anyone can honestly come by an antisexual attitude, especially someone who doesn’t believe there’s any divine praise in it for her in the afterlife, I submit that’s due to a limit of your experience or to a failure of your imagination, neither of which interests me. In any case, the origin of my antisexuality can be no more embarrassing than that of your attitude of sex positivity. The fact that your attitude is much more prevalent isn’t surprising or relevant, given its biological origin.
CASSANDRA: You’re admitting, then, that your philosophical case against sex and romantic love might be just a rationalization to cope with the fact that people aren’t lining up to be romantically attached to you.
HEATHER: No more so than you’re admitting that your myths of how love is the meaning of life and sex is the greatest experience in the world are noble lies to distract you from appreciating what a duped animal you are.
CASSANDRA: But let’s examine your case for a moment. You say you abhor sex because it makes us hypocritical, since we lie to ourselves so we don’t have to face our animalistic fate. You want to say also that even when we’re pretending that romantic love ennobles us, we know our true capacity for greatness lies elsewhere, which is why we keep our sex acts secret. But there’s no such existential struggle, nor any vindicating mark of personal authenticity or transcendence. We are animals so we have sex; we’re animals with big brains so we experience complex emotions like romantic love. That’s the essence of human life. Get over it and get over yourself! You’re human like the rest of us—only you’re the one pretending you’re something you’re not: a god or a posthuman or whatever other congratulatory fantasy you’ve cooked up to make yourself feel better about being an outsider.
Many people are ashamed of their sex life because they’re victims of a dualistic, platonic-Christian culture. Other cultures have no such baggage. Nomadic hunter-gatherers, for example, wear hardly any clothing. Even peasants in relatively modern societies had fewer hang-ups about sex, because space and time were more limited in a slum and so they often resorted to having sex out in the open.
HEATHER: Well, the taboos regarding sex may change from culture to culture, but they’re present in some form unless circumstances force the group to be as utilitarian as all species in the wild. Indeed, a slum is like a lawless jungle, so if you’re poor and you can’t afford any clothing or you haven’t time to worry about cultural extravagances, because you’re struggling just to survive the vicissitudes of life without the protection of a government that has a monopoly on the use of force, you’re reduced to more primitive behaviour. This is the source of the upper-class’s frequent demonization of the poor. Aristocrats implicitly or explicitly think of the masses as herds of cattle that need to be led, because the peasants lack the means for a cultured lifestyle. The wilderness trains us to be animals, whereas it takes an artificial environment, including a sophisticated culture, to train us to be domesticated persons. In any case, this upper class elitism is just a prejudice, after all, because even non-Christian lower classes confine their sexual activity to private spaces. There are red light areas even in the slums of Mumbai, for example. And even if the existential predicament of worrying that we might be just common animals affects Neolithic rather than Paleolithic humans, that’s universal enough for me.
Yes, we’re animals with big brains, so most of us have sex and long for romance. But our brains also give us objectivity and self-control, and that’s the dawn of our fundamental crisis of being victimized by our excessive knowledge of the natural facts. Although love and sex make us happier than loneliness and pessimism, because that’s their evolutionary purpose, we know there’s something shameful about a human behaving too much like an animal. So we cherry-pick our animal tendencies, outlawing rape and murder, which often flow just as much from our genetically-determined instincts as do consensual sex and the sanctioned rituals of mating. We’re horrified by murder but we're smug about dating, marriage, and having sex and children. We mock and shun the nonsexual outsider, as though a virgin ought to be locked up with someone who murders out of passion, even though such a murderer has more in common with a law-abiding, sexually-active parent. Both submit to their base impulses, whereas the least regressive human, the ascetic overcomes some of those impulses and is preoccupied with the intellectual offspring of her introversion.
CASSANDRA: You’ve got an answer for everything, don’t you? Well, I’ve got a hot date tonight. I just hope you’re not jealous and secretly fantasizing about all the fun you might have while you’re still relatively young, if only you could change your warped ways of thinking.
HEATHER: And I hope that while you’re swapping spit with the horny egotist, you won’t let your mood be spoiled by a little thought about how millions of people would just then be suffering elsewhere because of the fundamental unfairness of a world that spawns animals rather than angels.