We’re most embarrassed about that which almost all of us most want to do: we’re most secretive about our sex lives. If you could force the bureaucrats in control of state secrets—those in charge of the contents of the lower levels of Area 51, the Top Secret vaults of CIA headquarters, the volumes of the Vatican Secret Archive—to expose to the world either those earth-shaking revelations or videos of their squalid private sex acts, they would be torn, at the least, and may well prefer to topple governments by releasing the state secrets. This fear of being caught in the naughty act may have evolved from animals’ preference to find a secluded spot to swap genes, to protect themselves from predators when they’re vulnerable. Of course, animals are much more open about having sex than are people, as farmers and zookeepers and birdwatchers can attest. Animals have little capacity for shame and those that can feel embarrassment have no special fear of being observed in flagrante delicto—unless their coupling upsets their dominance hierarchy and the pair is afraid of the alpha’s wrath. Those billions of us who live in private residences need no longer fear being mauled while sexually occupied; home invaders would be more interested in robbing us, and even when we’re naked and engrossed, we can easily arm ourselves by making use of our many technological extensions (a bat, an alarm clock, a shoe, etc). And the exposure of a sex tape poses no direct physical threat to the couple.
So the terror of releasing the details of our sex lives to the public is peculiarly human. With the exceptions of exhibitionists and porn stars, we prefer to keep private that which we most prize or long for, and we have no compelling practical reason for doing so. When a celebrity sex tape is stolen and the thief threatens to publish it on the internet, the agonized celebrity can spend millions in court to prevent the undermining of his or her public image. But why, in the first place, would that image be ruined by the leaking of a sex tape? Once again, if it’s a question of the participants’ identity, as in the case of adultery, the fear would be practical: the hypocrite, for example, may have cultivated an image of righteousness or of heterosexuality, and so wouldn’t want evidence to the contrary to become widely available. But there’s also a more general, underlying ambivalence about the sex act itself. We all cultivate a public image, an ideal version of ourselves: we prefer to be thought of as people with human rights, whereas sex would have us be animals. We prefer to think of ourselves as dignified moral agents, destined for immortality, whereas our sexual lust indicates we’re cosmically insignificant and headed towards extinction like any other phase of natural concatenations. That’s the existential dread of sex which only self-proclaimed people can suffer.
Compare that dread to the surprisingly-rational fear of choking on our vomit in response to our eating the flesh of dead animals. That ignominious fate we avoid by keeping ourselves in the dark about the gruesome treatment of livestock. The very word “livestock” is Orwellian in its smoothing over of the holocaust of objectification that occurs in all pens and cages torturing pigs, chickens, and the like. “Stock” is a supply of goods, meaning things owned, and “live” indicates something that isn’t just a thing or an object. The contradiction is palpable. Were we to tour a slaughterhouse and then be offered a free meal of steak or back ribs, I expect most of us would be overcome with nausea and would have to decline the cooked remains. Our ignorance is by design so that we can enjoy eating meat. Although the pleasures of sex far exceed gustatory ones, except perhaps for gluttons, that’s also by biological design, to distract all sexual creatures from the implications of sex’s physicality: our dignity is naturally a sham and is belied by our loving sex more than our purported gods. Moreover, asexual critics needn’t be lined up to spread this unpopular word. The hiddenness of our sex acts, which even the law typically makes mandatory, demonstrates that we already know that we’re wronged by our sex instinct, that by lusting after bodies, by yearning to fondle breasts, balls, or buttocks, to taste each other’s juices and to be penetrated or stroked in ways that would constitute the severest breaches of decency in public life, we are made into objects of ridicule, reduced to clowns by natural forces so that we exacerbate the absurdity that belongs to the physical aspect of all things.
Is there, however, a way to be sexual without forfeiting our intellectual integrity, let alone our existential authenticity? After all, the aesthetic burden of sex is that it’s utterly commonplace. Sexual reproduction is biologically creative, of course, but artistically unoriginal since we’re passive in our role as baby-makers; the hormones do all the work as our puppeteers. But we are exorbitantly creative in our adapting of the sex instinct to myriad purposes that supersede the reproductive function. We’ve even invented birth control mechanisms seemingly to usurp nature’s power over us. Haven’t we, then, made sex dignified by making it non-animalistic, by incorporating it into our more elevated pursuits? Let’s explore the possibilities of existentially viable forms of sexuality.
Pleasure and Closet Nihilism
Most conspicuously, we have sex for pleasure, not just for the bioengineering of babies. The pleasures are as diverse as our tastes and perversions, as is evident in the lists of sexual fixations aggregated in many places on the web. Virtually all things in the world, including food, uniforms, and even urine and dead bodies have been integrated into our sexual fantasies. The imagination alone is the limit of what we might find sexually attractive, which means that sexual pleasure morphs into other kinds such as the delights in deviating from conventions, in sublimating painful memories, or even just in keeping a humiliating secret in the first place. The “naughtiness of being horny” is a euphemism for when we participate in the antihuman, nihilistic undermining of civilization on behalf of the unconquerable natural kingdom. We relinquish our right to be called presidents, doctors, lawyers, teachers, carpenters, or bus drivers when we derive our deepest pleasure from forbidden sexual attachments, when our fantasies would subvert civilized norms were they consistently and fully realized instead of enacted in our sacred taboo spaces.
Is sex-for-pleasure, then, creative in an existentially viable way? Does this form of humanized sex sustain the existence of non-animalistic creatures? Are we people in so far as we pursue our sexual perversions, that is, when we carry out our non-reproductive sex acts? Although some other species, particularly pigs, dolphins, and some primates have sex for pleasure and thus deviate from the reproductive norm, humans are anomalous in the boundlessness of our sexual creativity. We do thereby become something other than animals when we mix sex with every facet of life. That doesn’t mean this sort of sex is ennobling; the question remains whether sexual pleasure is constructive or destructive. In so far as we unconsciously yearn for civilization to end so that we might satisfy our basest, most demented cravings in a chaotic free-for-all, that is, in so far as we secretly long to be in hell, sexual pleasure turns us into avatars of nature, into representatives of mechanisms and cycles that are indifferent to our survival.
Were we to universalize our sexual fantasies, we would subvert the social order in which, for example, nuns, hogtied slaves, spanked students, family relations, feces, and dogs aren’t objects of human sexual pleasure. We would become heralds of carefree natural Evolution, flowing with the tide of change unto oblivion at time’s end, making impossible the rational resistance to nature’s indifference to the life it happens to generate. Any systematic transcendence of natural processes in the form of artistic and existentially heroic artificiality would be swamped by pansexuality, by all-encompassing lusts. For example, the firemen who would show up at the doorstep of a building set ablaze would be detained by passersby who would be free to vent their longing for grimy workers in uniform, leaving the building to collapse. In Kantian terms, the contradiction between the reality of human transcendence and the fantasy of deviating by way of being solipsistically sovereignty over all is hidden by the gratuitous division between our public and private lives. Similarly, the hypocrite preserves a false sense of dignity by some such rationalization, but her hypocrisy is nevertheless apparent from an external vantage point. Whenever our sexual pleasure depends on the tantalizing prospect of civilization’s end, when the fun of sex derives from the fantasy that anything whatsoever can serve our short-sighted sexual agenda, we prepare for that apocalypse and are thereby agents of destruction.
What, then, is non-biologically created by sexual pleasure? Certainly, we spawn the thriving world of porn, but that world may be just a record of our deviance that testifies to the contradiction in question, which should only increase our cognitive dissonance. By consulting the pornographic library on the internet, we can now verify the extent of our private acknowledgment of what Freud called the discontents of civilization; we can each of us prove that we have implicitly nihilistic, antisocial cravings, that the coupling of sex with the imagination must be kept taboo or the contradiction will be expressed as the collapse of the cultured, humane social order. The problem is that our existential mission is fundamentally bleak, not gratifying. Pleasure can be a respite from war, as in the case of schadenfreude or glee from satirical humour at the enemy’s expense, but the confinement of sexual pleasure to any such utilitarian role would be far from sexy. The holy mission of sustaining transcendent, autonomous human life for the sake of preserving a respite from nature’s monstrosity is endangered by sex’s capture of the imagination, which converts X into its sexual counterpart, bringing sexual lusts to the fore in any conceivable circumstance.
Power and Performance Art
What about sex-for-power, as in rape or domination games? Rape isn’t original, let alone ethical, since rape is rampant in the animal world. Mind you, the rapist isn’t robotic in ignoring the reproductive function and in prioritizing his pleasure at the victim’s expense, but neither is rape constructive or conducive to our existential enterprise. Once again, were the urge to rape universalized, civilization would collapse. Moreover, rape is bound up with misogynistic, social Darwinian culture, according to which women crave brutish but exciting men and wish to repent for their support for feminism that’s emasculated men, making them less heroic or attractive in so far as men must pretend to be equal to women in all respects. Women are supposed to yearn to be manhandled and dominated as long as the alpha males know when to allow women their illusion of equality. The woman can be compelled to submit as long as the dominator doesn’t err in forcing her to “go full retard,” as it were. Thus, simulated rape is acceptable to this Men’s Rights movement, as is sex that looks just like rape but that supposedly includes the woman’s subconscious approval. This movement is at odds with liberalism, but it’s also as effectively destructive as conservatism itself. The hallowing of economic or social inequalities only rehashes the pecking order, the latter being impersonal nature’s mechanism for establishing stable arenas for perpetuating genetic codes.
Still, there are consensual forms of sexual power play, as in sadomasochism, hatefucking, swinging, and so on. These are forms of theater that caricature elements of social life to facilitate the players’ cathartic release. The grimy business of managing our positions in our dominance hierarchies is converted into a sexual game that reduces these relationships to their bitter essence, to the master-slave, friend-enemy, or family-stranger relation. The master dominates the slave just as the aristocrat, theocrat or capitalist rules over his or her underlings, and the slave obeys the master just as the masses bow to the whims of the upper class. Our appalling, often arbitrary and unwarranted social arrangements are thus showcased in sexual performance art pieces. The office manager can complete his inferior’s submission, without fear of violating public codes of conduct, or else can fulfill his fantasy of being abused by his underling (because the grass is always greener…), by taking up the whip or the blindfold in the sacred taboo space of a BDSM dungeon. The black colour of the leather typically worn in such performances signifies the blindness and nihilism of natural forces, which flow through the participants when they’re immersed in power relations, while the leather itself reinforces that association by bestializing the wearers. The more PC culture imposes an unnatural overlay onto the postmodern masses who aren’t entranced by the supportive liberal secular humanistic myths, the more sexual games of dominance and submission can be expected to flourish underground. When human rights must be respected in a hypersensitive workplace, whereas science itself has superseded the modern glorifications of our freedom and rationality that were meant to be the bedrocks of those rights, savvy individuals will retreat to their sacred private spaces to perform sex rituals that vent their frustrations. Naturalistic BDSM would replace more theistic or anthropocentric sex rites such as those of tantric sex.
If such games are creative, are they ennobling or degrading? Who has the last laugh, as it were, our potential for miraculous transcendence (for anomalous, anti-natural artifacts) or the impersonal flow of nature? This depends on whether the sexual performances satirize or glorify the underlying power dynamics. For example, if sex is mocked in the swinger’s party in which the swingers hook up blindfolded to exacerbate the dumbness of sex hormones and mating calculations, this sort of ritual could be compatible with our existential obligation. In short, sex is redeemed when it takes on a viable aesthetic or comedic value. But if the participants wallow in nature’s intrusions into our artificial worlds, by degrading themselves as they play out purified versions of their roles in the pecking order, they once again serve as double agents, betraying their better half for their grounding in the world that will one day annihilate everything we’ve ever stood for.
Seduction, Romance, and Ennui
Sex can also be the payoff of the art of seduction, in which case sex is eventually interpreted in an egoistic, economic context. The troubadours of the twelfth century sang songs that spread the Islamic and feminist, proto-humanistic culture surrounding the upper class fiction of courtly love, which encouraged nobles to prove their chivalry by their character and deeds, not by their bloodline and wealth. The tragically-doomed, modern individual with his or her rich inner life of often unfulfilled longings was constructed as a Shakespearian ideal that attracted a wide following. In reaction to the Catholic Church’s prudishness and patriarchy, the feminine yearning for romance, for heroic men worthy of their affections and for an emotional outlet that was often unavailable in arranged marriages fuelled the culture of courtly love that swept across Europe and fed into the wider early modern rebirth of classical humanism, of Ovid, neoplatonism, and so forth. Courtly love subverts monotheistic justice by immanentizing the eschaton, to borrow Eric Voegelin’s phrase. The emphasis was on morality, as it was in Christianity and Islam, but noble women replaced the patriarchal deity and sex here and now stood in for heaven in the afterlife. The ideal of unrequited love thus parodies the monotheistic con of delaying the reward for moral behaviour beyond the point at which the theological predictions could be confirmed with evidence sufficient to compel rational consent. The promise of heaven or hell is vindicated only after death, and so the believer must wrestle now with profound uncertainties, fearful and trembling in the shadow of the great unknown. Likewise, feelings of romantic love are futile when the man is attracted to an aloof maiden or when the call to crusade in a distant land lures away the knight. The tactics of seduction thus substitute for the requisite steps of the religious creed that are supposed to guarantee eternal happiness, since the hope that our tragedy isn’t absolute, that life isn’t fully absurd is buttressed by the availability of a lesser heaven in the form of orgasm as an award for success in the romantic quest for the beloved’s affection.
Of course, late modern seduction does away entirely with the theistic metaphor, and the art of seduction becomes an economic pseudoscience. In the Darwinian culture that predominates in the US, women are only demiurges who like to think they’re the ultimate judges of men’s worth, whereas the true God is the marketplace itself, the chain of cause and effect that results in an ordering of winners and losers who ruthlessly compete to increase their earthly utility. Men seduce women by peacocking or by otherwise exploiting evolutionary weaknesses in women’s mating strategies. Women who capitalize on their physical beauty by allowing themselves to be seduced by egotistical or sociopathic alpha males are often condemned to loneliness in middle age when their beauty fades. Meanwhile, the shunned beta males attempt to learn the techniques of “game” so that they can pretend to be the clowns that confused Western women seem to want. These are some of the fruits of individualism, of the culture that lauds the individual to the point of hypermodern solipsism, in which myths that bind collectives are anathema. Women are abandoned in a forest of male predators, while men must shame themselves in a dehumanizing mating contest that’s marked by a continual lowering of humanistic standards, as occurs in every unregulated market. And men and women are set at odds in the battle between the sexes, so that the pleasures of seduction mingle with those of the hunt. Women muse that in a progressive future, men may not be needed anymore, while men form grudges in condescension to women who select the double standards they wish to preserve. The pornographic spectacle popularizes rough sex and the “cum shot” in the woman’s face that symbolizes the victory at the hunt’s end, the execution of the prey.
In internet dating websites, technology accelerates the downward spiral, by forcing the male competitors and female demiurges to adapt to an environment comprised of machines which are already inhuman. The Tinder app perhaps occupies the nadir of this regression, since it offers only a binary choice of swiping Yes or NO, based purely on an image that displays the users’ superficial appearance. Indeed, “hookups,” a name denoting the culture that encourages casual, unemotional sexual encounters is apt for its invocation of technology—presumably the pair are imagined to latch onto each other with hooks instead of hands—since the participants are dehumanized the more they compete not just with each other in the individualistic monoculture, but with the coldhearted machines. The sex that follows from hypermodern seduction is consequently empty and meaningless and so it adds to the prevailing ennui.
Pity and Camaraderie
Finally, there’s the notion of friends-with-benefits, of a sexual relationship between friends with no monogamous commitment to each other. In this case, the “benefit” of sex is compared to a luxury in the workplace such as health insurance, vacation time, or sick leave, which employers use to attract or retain certain workers. As the government withdraws from its democratic role in sustaining a social safety net, employers are forced to take up the slack. As you might feed your pet a treat for obediently staying put while you untangle her fur, the oligarchic capitalist takes pity on the worker as she’s groomed to ascend the corporate ladder. Similarly, the sexual benefit of friendship may be pity-based. The friends would recognize that they have sexual needs and they may choose to help each other out in that respect just as they might go out of their way on occasion to pick the other up from work or to loan the other some money. The friends in question assume that the sex instinct is a handicap that can be accommodated, as opposed to nourishing the metanarrative of romance or traditional marriage. This sexual realism is potentially in line with our existential mission that persists despite the postmodern incredulity towards all grand stories.
To see how, compare friendship-with-benefits to the hippies’ free love movement. Both reject marriage, although the reasons differ: the young men who befriend women reject marriage because they’ve been coddled by politically correct parents as they were growing up and so they’re ill-equipped to meet the responsibilities of fatherhood, or else they’re cynical about that social expectation or they prefer to game the system, exploiting the feminist principle, that women shouldn’t be owned by men, as an excuse to be able to date multiple partners; the young women reject marriage on the basis of that feminist rationale, because they want to be autonomous or predatorial like men even though they’re not biologically equal to men and so often must choose between their career and having children. By contrast, hippies were libertarians who wanted to extend the free market to sexual relationships, to free sex from government regulation. This opened the door to drug-fuelled promiscuity in the 1960s; again, the lack of central planning lowers standards from a humanist’s perspective.
In any case, while the libertarian principles behind free love express confidence in the individual’s powers, the marijuana that was part of this movement’s backdrop must have had a contrary effect. Far from inflating the ego in the manner of cocaine, cannabis has such common psychoactive effects as
a general alteration of conscious perception, euphoria, feelings of well-being, relaxation or stress reduction, increased appreciation of the arts, including humor and music (especially discerning its various components/instruments), joviality, metacognition and introspection, enhanced recollection (episodic memory), increased sensuality, increased awareness of sensation, increased libido, and creativity. Abstract or philosophical thinking, disruption of linear memory and paranoia or anxiety are also typical.
The hallucinations, euphoria, relaxation, joviality, and shared creativity reduce antagonism and foster a humbling, egalitarian vision of everyone’s equality, while the philosophical fear likewise counteracts the aggressive ambition that capitalism promotes, by humbling the users, burying them beneath the weight of platonic ideals.
However, the main difference between friends-with-benefits and free love is that intimacy is central only to the former. Sex is supposed to be an afterthought to the warm, cozy personal connection between the friends, whereas the sexual relationships of heavy cannabis-users are likely to be as impersonal as mystical experiences, since the drug diminishes the sense of self. Intimacy is like the Vulcan mind meld, a sharing of personal peculiarities until the pair proceed as though they were united in a collective, third mind. Without those unique habits that accrue in a person’s ego, there can be no such bond. Like pity-based sex, intimacy is compatible with a realistic philosophy of our tragic and absurd place in nature. Asymmetric pity would rather be associated with the capitalistic ideology: we would pity others but not ourselves, because we’d be competing with them and so might employ our sexual charms as part of some strategy for economic advancement. But universal pity brought on by a dark, mystical appreciation of our cosmic insignificance, that is, by misanthropy that includes self-loathing, could arouse the humbled soul to seek comrades and to help them out in recognition of their shared burden, their animal sex drive. In combat, soldiers consider each other brothers in arms; they sacrifice in honour of their shared burden of being put in mortal danger for some presumed greater good. Likewise, in so-called peacetime, the philosophically-informed and so more existentially-authentic individuals find themselves at war against the world’s absurd godlessness. Their mission? To create meaning that’s worthwhile in spite of being doomed in the long run. Sex between enlightened friends or existential soldiers could be motivated by the sad indulgence of their shared weakness. And sexual intimacy could contribute to the existential mission by enhancing morale by way of camaraderie: the introverts could bounce their ideas and their bodies off each other, stepping out of seclusion to maintain their sanity as social creatures, welcoming the bond between compatriots in the ultimate war between all living things and their undying maker.