May 10, 2014

The Paradox of Sex and Its Disruptive Power

Religions fear it, businesses exploit it, and individuals constantly struggle to suppress its hedonist forces while indulging in its consumption.

Is there a more disruptive force than sex in human history? Is there a force more threatening to the man psyche that some conservative religious societies (see Taliban) are willing to force their women to fully cover themselves, fearing even a glimpse of flesh would trigger internal forces beyond their control? Has there been a subject more controversial, yet popular, in literature and entertainment than sex? Has there been a business more robust and profitable in history than the business of sex, from prostitution to online porn?  Perhaps, this is why almost all major religions, societies and cultures have sets of rules to regulate sexual activity. The power of sex can be both disruptive and emancipatory. Its strong lobbying influence in the brain can undermine any rational or irrational thought, idea or belief. Its emancipatory power can trump the separating forces of religious, class, status, race, ethnicity or nationality differences and prejudices. At the same time, its addictive nature can threaten our relationships and careers.

As such, sex has disrupted the lives of some of the most powerful people (mostly men) in the world, from politicians and presidents to corporate CEOs and celebrities. If a U.S. president, a CIA Director, and Catholic priests could not resist the temptation of forbidden sex and were willing to risk everything (even god), then what can we expect of the general population? No wonder sex has to be strongly regulated and suppressed by our moral institutions. Is the emphasis on having a family and getting married a covert societal force to suppress our disruptive sexual desires? Having sex outside of marriage is either punished by law or religion in conservative societies or stigmatized in liberal ones (As Zizek would say, in today’s liberal societies, “everything is permitted, you can enjoy everything, BUT deprived of its substance which makes it dangerous. Today’s hedonism combines pleasure with constraint — it is no longer the old notion of the “right measure” between pleasure and constraint, but a kind of pseudo-Hegelian immediate coincidence of the opposites: action and reaction should coincide, the very thing which causes damage should already be the medicine: decaf coffee, fat free butter, diet coke, smokeless cigarettes, virtual sex, etc).

Certainly adultery grabs the headlines, but there are lesser, though no less powerful, ways to betray a partner, including not talking to him or her enough, seeming distracted, being ill-tempered or simply failing to evolve and enchant. What distinguishes modern marriage from its historical precedents is its fundamental tenet that all our desires for love, sex and family ought to reside in the selfsame person. No other society has been so stringent or so hopeful about the institution of marriage, nor ultimately, as a consequence, so disappointed in it.  — Alain de Botton
Paradoxically, this societal stigmatic attempt to suppress sexual desires and activity has often been in direct conflict with the onslaught of sexual overstimulation by advertising, media and marketing companies and departments. Now more than ever, corporations are profiting immensely from objectified and commoditized sex in forms of fashion, porn, gyms, beauty products, etc. that can be consumed by the paying consumers. This conflict however, creates a paradoxical dichotomy of an individual. Everyone still wants to have sex but instead of engaging in the activity itself, we consume things to feel “sexy”. There is no negative social stigma or guilt associated with shopping, working out or tanning of course, only a negative credit card balance. We have suppressed sexual desires that have to be covertly expressed and channeled through consumption of products or stimulating digital content (porn). Porn is of course the ultimate hopeless consumerist remedy for sexual frustration because it allows us the instant gratification with no guilt, emotional vulnerability/involvement or negative stigma.
A mind originally designed to cope with little more sexually tempting than the occasional sight of a tribeswoman across the savannah is rendered helpless when bombarded by continual invitations to participate in erotic scenarios far exceeding any dreamt up by the diseased mind of the Marquis de Sade.— Alain de Botton
But what is the ideal alternative to this modern day, sex-crazed, instant-gratification obsessed and yet self-judgmental and self-restricting society? What would a sexually liberated utopia look like? My friend Stefanos told me about a book that he recently read about Bonobos. They apparently live in groups and share everything from food to sexual partners to parenting responsibilities. Could the Bonobos model be applicable to status hungry and competitive humans? Why and how has monogamy become the default in most societies? Why do we have to “own” another person as if they were a commodity and be upset when they spend time with someone else? Where does jealousy come from if not from the narcissistic insecurity that we are not relevant, important and always wanted? The Bonobos way of life seems like a nice theory for an egalitarian, equal and sexually utopic human society. However, in practice, it would be too disruptive, chaotic and unsettling to the current structure of societies, and the social construct. A future generation may strive closer to this utopia if sex itself has not by then been “hacked” by technology’s magic wand, turning intercourse into a consumable product we can experience virtually: Bitsex in exchange for Bitcoins?

What if sex is not even about having orgasms but rather connecting with another person at the most intimate, naked, vulnerable and human level? Maybe in this sense, being horny is a symptom of being lonely? Maybe a society full of lonely and hypercompetitive consumers is what hypercapitalist societies feed on. After all, deep personal connections and communities allow very little need, desire or time for irrational consumption or capital chasing. Perhaps, before the lonely and overcompetitive financial and tech engineers further hack us into most efficient and zombie-like “consumers”, we should recognize and foster our strong desires for deep personal connections in the most vulnerable, democratic and naked state, stripped of meaningless status symbols, money, degrees and titles. Isn't this what sex is about, connecting with someone beyond their societal forced simulacrum?

It’s not our deep sexual desires that confuse and pollute our “normal” selves. It is this very belief that our normal self is real that hides its fallacy. Our desires are real.

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