Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sexual Bliss and the Anguish of Enlightenment

Why in the first half of the twentieth century were women’s ankles considered sexy in the United States? Why are breasts considered intimate parts in industrialized places but not in poorer ones where breasts are thought of in more utilitarian terms? Why in conservative societies, such as those in the Middle East, are women’s whole bodies, including their wrists and hair, considered indecent if publicly exposed? Why is public nudity taboo in Canada and the US, but less so in Europe?

The answer must begin with the fact that whereas biology determines the sexual practices of animals, psychology and culture are factors in human sexuality. Specifically, no human body part is inherently sexy, not even the genitals which have primarily sexual functions as far as biologists are concerned; for example, nudity in the locker room or in a life drawing class or on the operating table isn’t so sexually arousing. Social context matters: the historical evidence indicates that under certain conditions, the tantalizing concealment of any body part can cause sexual arousal in a brain in which the imagination rather than just the sex hormone dictates sex appeal. In a prudish culture, visually-oriented men must make do with limited offerings, and so American men in the 1930s imagined ways in which the ankles of long-dress-wearing women could be thought of as sexy. Likewise, bored Middle Eastern men might rhapsodize about women’s hair curls and eyelashes, which are the sole body parts that some Islamist dictatorships permit to be publicly exposed. Most male body parts have the tedious evolutionary function of being muscular to make the man an effective protector, and so women starved for some novelty in their sexual diet imagine that beards can be sexy. Just as the long dress which covers the legs and ankles allows the woman to choose how high to raise the garment, creating an air of mystery and of being so near and yet so far from the promised land, as it were, the beard can obscure lantern jaws which are symbols of strength and stability, and the facial hair tantalizes as the man chooses to shave and to allow the hairs to grow to varying lengths.

Evolutionary psychologists are certainly right to point out that the underlying mechanisms of arousal have biological, reproductive functions, but culture isn’t an impotent byproduct of genes and hormones. We rewire our brains by modifying the environments to which we must adapt to survive, and our artificial environments are energized by ideologies, including those that determine the purpose of the tools, machines, and other artifacts we rely on throughout civilized life. Thus, whereas the mechanism of female arousal may originate from the woman’s desire to have her clitoris stimulated by a penis, for the evolutionary reason that sexual pleasure facilitates the transmitting of genes by sexual reproduction, that desire has evidently been exapted after what Yuval Harari calls the cognitive, agricultural, and scientific revolutions. Thus, women can be turned on by the way a beard makes the man seem withdrawn or wayward and in need of mothering and instruction. The biological mechanisms are repurposed to achieve cultural, often idealistic or fantastic goals. Sex acquires meanings that have little to do with that which is paramount from the gene’s eye view. In particular, sexual ecstasy is comparable to the religious kind, which in turn is akin to the experience of existential horror, to the revelation of that which transcends and so humiliates not just our comprehension but our standing as entities.

The Revelation of Sex

The degree of lust and of the giddiness of being on the threshold of sexual contact may be inversely proportional to the degree of familiarity with the partner’s body or with sex in general. The more sex you have, the less earth-shattering it becomes over the years, unless your sex drive is low or your expectations are curbed by cultural conventions. This is one reason that adultery is commonplace among able-bodied individuals who have options: to renew the height of ecstasy enjoyed when sex in general or with a particular partner was novel. Sex for virgins is typically overwhelming because they haven’t yet solved the mysteries of sex. Unfamiliarity with the other’s body parts or with the sex acts that are generally kept secret accounts for why even ankles, wrists, calves, beards, or hair can be deemed sexy even though those parts are irrelevant from the genetic standpoint. In hunter-gatherer tribes, for example, breasts have no sex appeal because they’re constantly exposed and so their men’s imagination isn’t fired by the fantasy of what they would look or feel like were they revealed. They’re exposed because the tribes are consumed with the purpose of surviving in harsh, perhaps exceptionally humid natural lands and have no time for luxuries such as fashion. By contrast in the individualistic West, fashion is an art form and we individuate ourselves by showing off our possessions, thereby forgetting about the fleshy bodies toiling to maintain so many artificialities. Indeed, as Morris Berman argues in Coming to Our Senses, we in the West are virtually disembodied; we live in our heads and in a noosphere of abstractions—until, that is, in all infantile innocence we find ourselves drawn back to that which is hidden by the products of our labour, to the shapes, sounds, and tastes of each other’s flesh. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sex and the Authentic Self

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.