Saturday, May 28, 2005

Human Sexuality Part I

This series of posts is going to win me few friends. I intend to talk about the inherent nature of sexual acts. I know in advance that many of you will disagree with me at some point, and some of you may even be offended. Please understand that I don't despise you for disagreeing, nor for acting contrary to what I believe is right. I ask for your continued respect as you comment and respond.

Now, I'd like to focus on the sexual drive itself. Not just the state of arousal and physical desire, but the very real drive within us. Plato calls it Eros in his dialogue Symposium, where he uses it to refer to all sexual passions and the whole set of actions tangential to that. I'm talking about the reason that Ophelia committed suicide, the reason that Dante wrote some girl he barely knew into a divine guide through Paradise, the reason behind the arcane unwritten rules of dating, the reason that some people will stay in relationships that hurt them even if they'd be happier elsewhere, the reason that a boy and girl in junior high get nervous and sweaty just holding hands. None of these are simply about satisfying a desire for sex, but all are intimately linked to that force Eros.

The first thing I really want to confront is the idea that this Eros is really just a seeking after sexual pleasure. Of course this seems reasonable because the sexual drive often does manifest itself as a desire for that pleasure. But if that were the most important object of Eros, well, free love of the 1967 sort would have caught on more universally, would have continued everywhere. Perhaps I'd better explain. The way that we go about our pursuit of Eros is remarkably inefficient, if it were just a search for that pleasure. We spend a lot of time pining and wooing. We still remain monogamous in remarkable numbers, both inside and prior to marriage. If Eros were really just about seeking sexual pleasure, the arrangement of 1967 (with safe sex added in) would be an ideal free market for that, and people would find themselves instantly sated rather than dependent on the whims of one particular other. But the Summer of Love didn't catch on; ultimately, the majority of people found themselves more fulfilled in monogamy (or serial monogamy). [Hook-ups and one-night stands are a special case today, and it seems to me they aren't simply a pleasure transaction either; more on them in a later post.] It seems that in Eros, we want the relational aspect of sex (a particular Beloved, who is the direct object of our passion) so much that we are willing to give up a good deal of physical pleasure for it. We want to have our hopeless crushes, our long-distance relationships, our gradual romancing- all of which impose strict limits on our sexual pleasure. Furthermore, the completely non-relational sexual activity- autoeroticism- bears a special shame within Eros. I'd be surprised if even those who have convinced themselves of its morality would admit to that habit before their lover without embarrassment. [An exception is made here in the case of those who are rebelliously proud of the action; more on this later, as well. But those who see it as of no consequence, as opposed to those who see it as a positive sign of liberation, would still be ashamed to admit to the practice.]

Anyway, two points I'm making now:

The first is the claim that Eros isn't simply, isn't principally, a desire for pleasure. Of course that drive for pleasure plays a big part in the way people under the influence of Eros act, but the drive itself is much larger than that.

The second is just that a relational Eros is the norm here, that the two sorts of non-relational sexual activity outlined above are not the same as the Eros in question, and that this is not simply social conditioning. The vast majority of people, those with traditional sexual mores and those with modern sexual mores, still seek out relationship with a specific Beloved (or a sequence of specific Beloveds). This in itself is not an ethical point: the kind of "norm" here stated is a claim about human nature, but I haven't at this point asserted anything really normative about it.

This post isn't some "sneaky" setup, either. I mean this part to be just common sense and to correspond to our own experience; the controversy will arrive in due time.

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