There's a paradox of human sexuality. On the one hand, wealthy, modern, secular countries are obsessed with sexuality in public places, meaning that references to sex are found in most messages carried in all forms of media, including books, magazines, movies, news reports, and advertisements. The obvious explanation is that sexuality is central to human nature, and so naturally sex is much discussed in open societies. But on the other hand, even in these liberal places, people are averse to divulging the concrete, personal details of their sex lives. Again, on the one hand, romantic love and sexual intimacy are ideals praised literally in most songs, poems, and paintings ever produced, and the marriage industry celebrates monogamous unions which are considered legally void without sexual “consummation.” On the other hand, while the value of romantic love in general is publicly affirmed, only arid signs of affection between partners are tolerated in public places. Even public kissing is scorned. You can hold hands or dance with your partner, but actual sex in public is, of course, typically illegal. You can carry a picture of your spouse in your wallet and wear a wedding ring to symbolize the exclusivity of your romantic love for your partner, but were a stranger to approach you and inquire about your spouse’s favourite sexual position, you would probably punch that stranger in the nose. So we praise sexuality and romantic love in the abstract, but we hide the actual sex. Why the discrepancy?
Before I come to my explanation, I’ll note some complications. First, some societies have arranged rather than romantic unions, and to the extent that these are less intimate or sexual, they fall outside the purview of this rant. Second, some cultures are less prudish than others. Ancient Egypt, Rome, and India were more open to public nudity and representations of sex, featuring statues of phalluses and pornographic paintings. Even in ancient Rome and India, however, people’s sex lives were usually kept private. Third, although Judeo-Christian and Islamic societies are currently the most prudish, superficially because of the influence of the Eden myth, pornography is rampant in secularized Christian societies, largely because of those people’s relative wealth which enables them to access the internet. The stigma on porn, though, shows that the openness towards sex in porn is the exception that proves the rule that we fear there might be something amiss with sexuality, which is why we keep sex itself hidden and private. Also, porn is a substitute for actual sex, and so the widespread use of porn provides additional evidence of qualms about sexuality.
The Paradox of Human Sexuality
At first glance, the conflict between the two attitudes towards sexuality shows only that sex and romantic love are highly valued and thus not to be trivialized by public boasting or other outward displays. This sets up a false dichotomy, though, since there’s a third possibility, between trivializing a highly valued sex life by making it public, and reinforcing a taboo on revealing intimate details by publicly honouring your romantic love only with euphemisms and politically correct signs. Indeed, just as the public rituals of secularized, civic religion mock the presumed depth of modern people’s commitment to traditional religions, so too the expression of romantic love through relatively stale conventional channels, like the wedding ceremony or the rituals of dancing or hand-holding, indicates, if anything, a willingness to sell-out that love. In the archetypal romantic story of Romeo and Juliet, the strength of the characters’ bond is demonstrated by their defiance of cultural convention. Their tragedy is that their romantic love has no home in public and must be kept secret. But that’s true with regard to virtually every sexual relationship.
The deeper reason for the conflict, I think, is that although romantic love is highly valued, this love is also dangerous because it entails secrets which can be entrusted only to the partners in the relationship who form an emotional bond of trust between them. This raises the question of what sort of secret is at issue. In many cases, spouses alone become aware of business and financial secrets which must be kept private, and so the prospect of publicly displaying the inner workings of the relationship becomes a touchy subject. That is, the intimate relationship becomes tainted by an awareness of wrongdoing, and so while sexual intimacy in general may be praised, in practice these close relationships can become corrupted and shameful. Divulging what transpires behind closed doors would require the breaking of confidence and the revealing of personally-damaging information.
This point, however, doesn’t distinguish between sexually-intimate bonds and other relationships that require the keeping of such secrets. Lawyers, coworkers, and Catholic priests are also entrusted with dangerous information and so interactions with them are often kept private. The distinguishing feature of romantic love, of course, is its sexual dimension, and so the relevant secrets between lovers must be secrets about their sex life. A person can be blackmailed just with photographic evidence of that person’s sexual infidelity or of his or her preference for some embarrassing, kinky sex act. A politician can be shamed out of office or his legacy can be tarnished by a public sex scandal. These are secrets that people kill or die for. Those who are given access to these pieces of life-threatening information are, ideally, just the romantic partners who are complicit in the risky acts. How can lovers live without tearing their hair out in panic, knowing that someone else walks around with private information which would ruin the other person if revealed, breaking up friendships, making the person a public disgrace or a pariah? I’ve already suggested a two-part answer. First, the select persons who are privy to that information tend to be those who have as much to lose by revealing it, since they themselves are partners in the sex life which is the source of the threat. Second, those select persons tend also to be just those who develop an emotional, romantic bond, and the feelings of love for the sex partner counteract any fear of vulnerability as a result of the potential for public disclosure of what they do in private.
This still leaves the question of what exactly is so dangerous about sex so that only impersonal, insipid or saccharine references to sex are tolerated in what are superficially highly-sexualized public places. Clearly, Western cultures are influenced by biblical myths, including the myth of the Fall, according to which disobedience to God distances the creature from God, which leads the creature into shameful sin. Members of most animal species know nothing of God and they sexually reproduce. In so far as we perpetuate our species in the same biological manner, we’re animals and thus distanced from God. Thus, our sexual nature reflects our original sin. But this theological explanation deals with a mere symptom of the perceived problem with sex, not with that problem’s cause. Just as Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma shows that at best religions express our deeper, nonreligious concerns with morality, so too the biblical myths merely report on and exacerbate some deeper cause of our guilt about our sexuality.
The question is what that deeper cause might be. Why does the myth of the Fall resonate and thus why has it been so influential? The reason seems clear: sexuality is the largest thorn in our side, the starkest and most unwelcome reminder that despite our pretensions to our unique value and to our transcendent stature as godlike beings, owing to our consciousness, rationality, and freedom, we are instead embodied animals whose behaviour is largely genetically determined, who live for some decades and inevitably die, to be forgotten in time in an inhumane, pointless, alienating universe. In short, our conflicting attitudes toward sex speak to what I call the horror of Our Existential Situation (see Happiness). We delude ourselves, pretending not just that we can be happy in this world, nor even that we ought to be, but that happiness is our highest ideal. On the contrary, rational, conscious, free beings ought to be the most miserable, renouncing pleasures that are spoiled by knowledge of their natural source.
Sexuality is clearly the greatest such pleasure and thus it’s the cause of our greatest confusion. We can feel happy to some extent, because we’re only imperfectly conscious, rational, and free: we have the capacities for self-delusion, for sloppy thinking, and for being socially pressured or otherwise coerced, capacities that keep us sane and productive despite the angst that lies always under the surface of our life experience. And so we can give free rein to our delusions about the magnificence of romantic love and our innocence in sexual play--but only so far before the facts of the matter overwhelm us, our lies catch up to us and we’re confronted with the horrible truth about ourselves. We can tolerate superficial images of, or whitewashed references to, sexuality in public affairs, but come too close to publicly revealing the secret of what actually happens in our own sex acts and we feel threatened by guilt and shame which are preludes to existential horror and awe at the bleakness of our tragedy.
Sexuality’s Awful Secret
What is that awful secret of sexuality? The secret is actually not so secret. Philosophers and scientists routinely speak about it, since the secret is implied by the secularist’s naturalistic worldview. This secret has at least three aspects which I’ll touch on, but generally the dark truth of sexuality is that we’re not as noble, unique, moral, elevated, rational, free, or as godlike as we prefer and need to think we are to live with what are nevertheless our evolutionary, booby-trapped gifts of sentience and intelligence. We are sentient and highly intelligent, but we like to think we’re thereby removed from the natural world, that we belong in heaven thanks to our true, immaterial nature, or that we’re not held hostage by natural forces since we can exploit them as masters of our own destiny. The secret is that we’re special only in the way that any distinguished animal species is special; indeed, the attributes that distinguish us merely adapt us to one niche rather than another, namely the niche of life in environments we create for ourselves from the raw material of ideas we instinctively generate. Likewise, spiders spin webs and excel in their way of life, and every species under the sun is special in the sense that it’s adapted to its form of survival.
The secret, then, is that we’re part of nature after all, not outsiders as the Gnostics, Hindus, and other theists say, with fragments of transcendent god-stuff in our innermost being, longing to be returned to our true home beyond the cosmos. We’re part of nature in that we’re animals: our bodies are naturally selected and our behaviour is largely genetically determined. Our traits of reason and consciousness give us knowledge and control over some natural forces, but the fact that we’re nonetheless, first and foremost, animals, living and dying alongside the insects, fishes, birds, and beasts in the wild, means that that control must ultimately be futile and otherwise absurd. We struggle to transcend our natural limitations, to push the envelope of human achievement, to pursue our goals and to judge by our standards, but the traits that enable us to appear to be so supernaturally heroic are those that prove we’re mere animals after all since those traits, we now know, are fruits of natural selection or are illusory.
Sexuality is a startling reminder that our self-delusions are there to be deflated by natural facts. The pleasure from sex throws us into our own private world, literally shutting off our perception of anything outside itself. In that solipsistic world, we’re free to entertain one fantasy after another, taking our life partner into our confidence so that our emotional and intellectual backdrop, to which we prefer to return in our private moments, is empathically expanded to include the thoughts and feelings shared by that partner. Sexual ecstasy, then, reinforces the illusion that we’re supernaturally divorced from the cycles of nature, that like gods we create our worlds of culture to inhabit. While we do create those worlds, that creativity is just what makes us animals in the greater wilderness. Spiders spin webs and humans have ideas.
Far from separating us from the animals, sexual ecstasy reduces us to their status since they have sex too! Sexual intercourse is the strategy that birds, reptiles, insects, and even one-celled organisms have evolved to survive and to spread their genes, despite the threat from coevolving parasites. For example, by mixing the gene pool, we put our eggs in multiple baskets, so that an expert at destroying one particular basket can’t wipe us out all at once. Sex is what we cherish the most, what we can’t live without, what we kill or die for. But sex reminds us of what we least want to dwell on, which is the fact that we’re animals, that we’re driven to spread our genes, to use our reason and our social skills to succeed in the way of life to which those traits adapt us. We’re created not by God but by proteins that build our bodies, cell by cell, using the self-replicating code in a sequence of DNA molecules. Even the orgasmic pleasure that seems to shut off the outside world and present us to ourselves as disembodied Cartesian egos is actually, of course, a step in the algorithm of natural selection. The pleasure is caused by the flooding of the brain with endorphin and other love hormones that bond us to our partner and encourage us to reproduce, to help shuffle the gene pool, immunizing us against parasitic attack and allowing for the future genetic assembly of our descendant species in altered environments.
Our real objective on Earth isn’t to be happy, to write a great novel, to travel here or there, or even to fall in love. We may prefer to pursue those goals, but they’re objectively meaningless and in so far as they blind us to our actual, primary mission, they’re delusions. That real mission is just the one we share with the other animals, which is to participate in the cycle of natural selection, by surviving long enough to help mix the gene pool, sexually reproducing with a mate and raising the child so that it too can one day do the same. Of course, to call this a “mission” is still to anthropomorphize the cycle and thus to flee from the dread of contemplating the Lovecraftian reality. Animals have no objective mission, since in so far as they’re considered as complex physical objects, they have no minds nor anything as commonsensical as values, goals, or even delusions. In physics, nothing has a mission, a purpose, or a value, and the same is true in biology and in psychology in so far as they’re objective, reductive, “hard” sciences.
Granted, most people have sex not just to satisfy their primitive evolutionary impulse, but to explore the possibilities of pleasure for its own sake. Thus, we bend our hardware to our will, creatively adapting our instrumental reason to invent all manner of sexual games. We sexualize absolutely anything, so that there are potentially infinite kinks, fetishes, and other perversions of biologically normal, “vanilla” sexuality. But sex reminds us that our dream of freedom from nature is a delusion. Just as we’re misled by the orgasm to deem ourselves free-floating lords of Creation, we take our sexual creativity as evidence of that freedom and of our elevated, unique status. Actually, the genes hold other species on what cognitive scientists call a similarly “long leash,” which is to say that they too toy with their bodies with no regard for their genes, playing sexual games including masturbation.
But more importantly, these games are empty and ridiculous, which is surely why they’re kept secret and why their exposure threatens their participants’ social status. The former American senator Anthony Weiner sent lewd pictures of himself to his groupies, a game facilitated by recent technological developments, and when his game was exposed he was mocked and he lost his job. President Clinton was caught playing sexual games with cigars, overweight women, and blue dresses in the Oval Office, and conservatives impeached him, holding him up for national derision. The hypocrisy on the part of Clinton’s political enemies was, of course, stupendous, since those who most loudly proclaim the imperative of godliness protest too much: the deviant antics of conservative politicians who thrive on theological fantasies of angels and demons are likely quite beyond the pale. The point, though, is that everyone is tempted to creatively sexualize their lives, just as we’re tempted to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, over-extending the use of our talents. But we’re also ashamed to do so, not because of any biblical myth, but because we can easily perceive the idleness of those games.
Sexual perversions are meaningless because they’re accidental: perverts sexualize everything from feet to black leather to the smearing of food on skin, using flimsy analogies between the primary sex act and anything else. Sure, these perversions can be aesthetically or morally evaluated, but because they’re purely for fun they’re also objectively pointless, which is why they really are games, with artificial, arbitrary rules. A sexual perversion is like a roller coaster ride: at some level, the thrill is embarrassing because of its uselessness. Just as we feel proudest when seen at work, we’re loath for anyone of substance to catch us at our leisure. Riders of roller coasters are sometimes automatically photographed so that when the ride is over they can mock each other’s grimaces, but I surmise that the true reason for the mockery is that the grimace substitutes for the rider’s orgasmic face. And what’s ridiculous is the rider’s suspected choice of indulging in some sexual version of the roller coaster, some perversion or other that serves no useful purpose and that’s creatively divorced from evolutionary reality. Perverts are “turned on” by this or that sexual analogy or overextension, but the attractions are arbitrary, whimsical, and thus empty. This is why perverts, which is to say all who succumb to the temptation to creatively adapt the sexual instinct for the sake of personal pleasure rather than sexual reproduction--that is, just about all people who ever lived--often veer from one game to the next in a downward spiral of boredom until they’re thankful that their sexual lusts subside when Mother Nature is through with them and lowers her puppet strings. (For a dramatization of this futility of sexual creativity, see the film Bitter Moon.)
I said there are at least three aspects of sexuality’s awful secret. The first, then, is the existential emptiness of sex. Reproductive sex perpetuates genetic information and as far as anyone can tell, that reproduction serves no purpose, just as there’s no purpose of the sun’s shining or the wind’s blowing. Those phenomena are naturally caused and causes are forced with no meaning or value of their own. We’re desperate to find meaning in what we can rationally comprehend, and so we latch onto theistic and other myths that glorify sexual reproduction and the continuation of our species, but scientists have amassed mountains of evidence that were a comet to lower the final curtain on the sex lives of our planet’s animals, the cosmos would be forced to proceed along its tracks as laid out by natural laws. We are all insignificant except to ourselves and to each other. And reproductive sex is a link in the chain that binds us to the natural world of meaningless causes and effects in which our ideals and dreams are alien.
As for playful, perverted sex, this is meaningless and frivolous as a deviation from the evolutionary force we serve as animals on genetic leashes. Indeed, most of what we civilized people do in our cultures is deviational in that regard, and so we’re the most alienated of animals in our state as emancipated slaves; we're free to pass the time playing fruitless games to distract us from our existential discomfort. We’re secretly ashamed of nonreproductive sex, though, and not just of any frivolous cultural expression, because this sex is a much more daring attempt to break free from natural forces. Perverted sex flouts the genes right on their doorstep, as it were, whereas painting, baseball, opera, or any other nonsexual cultural expression doesn’t tease the forces that run our natural cycle, by approaching an act of sexual reproduction.
The secret’s second aspect is the way sex makes us all hypocrites: in public we play the role of serious, rational, civil adults, while in private we routinely shrug off that role to wallow in our juices like the most mindless of animals. Etiquette evidently consists of rules for a mere charade we play to pretend that we’re not slaves to natural forces. But because we maintain the delusion of our godhood, or to use the euphemism, the delusion of being creatures made in the “image” of God, we’re nonetheless ashamed of ourselves when we run afoul of those rules. Thus, the guilt we feel for our inevitable private betrayal of public norms is another reason we keep the details of our sex life secret.
The third aspect is the way sex reveals that we’re soulless biological machines. After all, sex requires a focus on the body, the very body we now know is built from the ground-up by natural processes. One of our main evolutionary gifts or curses is our ability to imagine what’s in each other minds, and we’re so fond of this ability that we overuse it, seeing minds where there are none such as in the clouds, the stars, or the artifacts we create. The fact that the fate of our minds depends on the state of our bodies is most unwelcome to us, especially in economically-advanced societies in which people have to compete against computers whose minds, in the form of their programming, can be laid bare as separate from their hardware. For hyper-intellectual creatures with platonic aspirations of leaving our bodies altogether in an ethereal paradise after physical death, sexuality is an awkward reminder of our embodiment and of its ramifications. In an orgasm, for example, biomechanical stimulation causes pleasure that temporarily shuts down all other mental functions. Even lovers who are romantically bonded are forced to objectify their partner in the act of having sex, to manipulate the body for lack of any more direct access to that person’s mind, besides communicating with it. Indeed, there are only so many sexual positions, so many ways in which bodies can pleasurably interact, often leading couples to fall into anticlimactic sexual routines, and that also reminds us that while our imagination seems boundless, in dreams or in philosophical speculation, for example, our bodies obviously limit us. To take just the most depressing consequence of our embodiment, physical death amounts to the mind’s death as well. This in turn means that justice is imperfect and that morality is for the weak. In short, sexuality supports atheistic naturalism rather than monotheistic religions, which is a politically incorrect fact and itself a reason to pretend in public, on some level at least, that sexuality doesn’t exist.
The Existential Horror of Sex
In summary, the paradox of sexuality is explained by the fact that sex is existentially perilous. We’re biologically compelled to uphold sexuality and the attendant conventions of romantic love, and to enjoy the love hormones, which is why sex and romantic love are publicly praised in general. But we’re also potentially horrified by what sex reminds us of, which is that our self-image as civilized, godlike, supernatural masters of the natural order is deluded. When we engage in the primary sex act, for reproduction, we behave as puppets on strings of DNA. When we go our own way, freely sexualizing this or that for our personal pleasure regardless of the genetic consequences, we waste time playing meaningless games that distract us with arbitrary and thus ridiculous perversions. Either way, we’re secretly ashamed of our sexuality, because we’re embarrassed and terrified to learn that we’re animals, not the fantastic heroes in our delusions of grandeur.
Now, I’m not so naïve as to assume that most people are actually horrified by sex. Were there so much horror, there would be a lot less sex. My point about the disquieting secret of sex is that while having it, we’re obviously preoccupied by pleasure to think about what’s happening, but that were we to speak of the details of our sex life in public, in the cold light of reason, those details would threaten us with horror. We therefore keep those details private to avoid that confrontation with our tragic existential situation.
Moreover, we’re so addicted to sexual pleasure that we dare not bite the hand that feeds us. If you asked a person in the street whether he or she thinks sex is a source of horror as well as of pleasure or reproduction, that person would probably be mystified as to the question’s meaning. But in so far as sex is just a means of pleasuring each other, this is a most peculiar pleasure, one that must be hidden from view and kept secret at all costs. Perhaps pleasure can be so intense that it becomes embarrassing; in particular, our orgasmic faces might best be kept private. But what gives facial or bodily gestures some emotional impact is their meaning, so an orgasmic face would have to be embarrassing because of what it represents, namely ecstasy that reduces the mighty human to a quivering, mindless receptacle for love hormones. Then again, perhaps we’re ashamed of our naked bodies because we’re not as beautiful as celebrities. But even celebrities keep their sex lives secret. The rich and powerful too would sooner be caught dead than in the middle of a sex act. Again, there’s a small, ostracized minority of exhibitionists or porn stars, but the greater mass of deluded primates denies the obvious, that we’re potentially horrified by what we love the most. And that’s the irony of human sexuality.