Desire 3: Love, sex and the body

I was thinking a little about the axiom: women use sex to get love, and men use love to get sex. I don’t agree with this, so immutable and tied, for it confines us to our bodies, and is inaccurate, yet it is one of those pieces of folk wisdom which many people can find evidence for, if they observe men they know and women they know in their own lives. One can always find evidence for such blanket statements if one looks for it, especially statements such as this one which depends for its truthfulness on information about the inner lives of others; such inner lives cannot be fully known, only guessed at through the observation of actions, and such observation is narrowed by one’s own preconceptions of the meaning of any action. In short, we tend to judge others most fully by the way we might act in such and such a situation: nevermind that the conception we have of our own intentions is less than fully understood, we remain under the impression that we understand ourselves, and without thinking, by extension we become convinced that we understand others. When gender is involved, so many people become convinced that an absolute binary of difference exists that they assume the other to be simply a reversal of themselves. Indeed, most myths about love celebrate and exaggerate that distance, the mirror. Lovers self-consciously play the part, for it is thrilling to interact with one’s shadow; it teaches us things about ourselves that we didn’t know.

And what of the body, sex and the emotions? Here’s what I think. Love and sex are separate. They may be experienced separately, or together. Sex, or the desire for sex, is a desire for a basic physiological fact: orgasm. The body seeks pleasure for its own sake. If desire is thought of as a basic drive, an intimate aspect of one’s presence, then there is no imperative to fulfil this ‘need’ with another person – physically, the body can be satisfied by itself. One might believe that physically the experience is better with another person – sex better than masturbation, in qualitative terms – but in purely physical terms, it is the same. If a person is starving, any food will suffice to stop the hunger pangs.

The desire to have sex with another person is sometimes assumed to be simply the urge to reproduce. I disagree. Correlation is not causation: the reproductive aspect of sex is more accurately described as a byproduct. Certainly this knowledge is not a secret and is, I believe, a strong factor in the many laws, cultural and religious taboos surrounding sex. If the reproductive urge was all there was to sex, then it would not be so feared, or so regulated.

However, the very fact that the human race has not died out or that most people would disagree with the statement that masturbation is sufficient reveals something. Sex is not just purely physical. Actually, it is both physical and something else. The experience of orgasm is not simply felt through the body. It involves the mind. If you conceptualise the body and mind as separate, then this means both must be involved in orgasm. If you conceptualise the body and mind as two aspects of one source (or perhaps, something which is felt as two distinct aspects by us but which is essentially the same) then this fact will be evident anyway. But I am talking about how such things (mind/body) are described in our language, and they are described distinctly, separately, most of the time.

Most people describe sex as better than masturbation because there is something unusual – to the subjective experience of our conscious minds – about the way we experience orgasm. The dissolution of the conscious self has a profound effect on us, we who are not used to experiencing that. It is not the default of consciousness. Mysticism, and certain esoteric practices seek this same dissolution, which is also the experience of the dissolution of time; still, it seems that the average human is not born to this mode of thought, but must go towards it. One may speculate about those people who cannot communicate to us their experience; the mad, the senile, the comatose, the dumb; persons who we describe, perhaps erroneously, as locked into their bodies, their bodies a kind of prison.

One effect this dissolution of the self has on some is the radical opening of a more whole consciousness. I don’t mean that this effect is necessarily lasting, though it might be for individuals. I mean that if you consider one of the effects of civilisation as the repression of emotions – the socialisation of children teaches them to control their emotions – then such emotions are not always ‘experienced’ in the way that we are capable of experiencing them. Love is one such emotion. By repressing our feelings towards fellow humans, the diffuse love one might feel for all humankind becomes focused, and the more repressed it is, the more powerful it becomes in terms of intensity. I think this is why the love we might feel for one other person may be experienced as the most powerful emotion of our lives. The traditional themes of love have tended to recognise how close it is to destruction, how fearful it can be in terms of its uncontrollability, and yet, how enduring it might be if some semblance of control can be exercised on it’s force. Those who have not experienced the love they sense they contain are often suspicious, and careful, and guarded; trusting no-one, lest another person loose the potential within them. This sense of love paints it as finite, when in fact it is not; one need not guard it, one cannot lose it. In fact, if allowed free rein, love can only widen and deepen, encompassing more – more time, more people. Love is not actions, love is not an intention, love is an emotion only, though its effects on people’s behaviour may be seen daily.

As I said, sex may be experienced without love. To love another person, one must become vulnerable; the dissolution of the self can make one vulnerable; in this state two people may become intimate, and then they may experience love. It is not, however, a given, whether one longs for it with all one’s heart or despises the thought of it and disparages it openly. It might happen though; just as you cannot guard love, neither can you totally guard against it, although many try. In the case of sex, people can try and use hate to guard against love, if they are really afraid of it. Hate and love act in similar ways; both require an object, and both focus the consciousness. There isn’t so much a ‘fine line’ between them, I think the reason this is a common saying is because they are used is place of one another sometimes – hate is used for love, when the love becomes too painful.

But back to the dissolution of the self. Since sex makes one feel vulnerable, and so does love, many people feel that one thing should follow the other, so it often does. In fact, the experience of both the mind and the body being vulnerable together is an extremely powerful one, and there are long traditions tying sex or love to mystic states as a result. Does it ‘bond’ people? I don’t know. It is a rather extraordinary experience to have with another human being, in fact it seems to speak of a sense that humans are not so distinct from each other as we imagine. If one follows this thought (indeed, many religions such as Buddhism, and many philosophies or works of art are embued with a deep sense of the human race as collective, or the same consciousness) then it makes me wonder if the differences between humans did not become so emphatically marked in our culture in order that we might experience love as this radical return to another part of ourselves. The other transformed into self, and self into other.

One could argue alternatively that since sex is assumed to make a body vulnerable, and vulnerability is believed to be a state in which love might gain a foothold in one’s consciousness, that in fact it is the very FEAR of love that causes it to become so associated with sex, or rather one’s sexual partner. Let me explain. If you are commonly a person that does not ‘love’ many people that you meet, as are most people, since we do not tend to love strangers, you are actually used to defending your consciousness against that possibility. By love I mean the vulnerable, open heart towards another that causes you to empathise with them, to feel as you imagine they feel, and thus to want to protect them from pain etc. Obviously, the way our society and culture functions kind of depends on this very guardedness towards others, this mistrust, if you like, this wariness of strangers. We learn that each must first of all protect the bodily self from harm, and in a world which regulates itself with violence (directly or ultimately) this is a lesson every human being learns in early childhood, and rarely or never forgets. So one cannot go around loving strangers, indeed the survival of our own body, we are told, depends on it; and in a world where everyone believes this, it becomes true. To open oneself, bodily, mentally or spiritually, may result in harm, and pain, and in a world which also teaches us to cause harm and pain to the vulnerable as a method of protection then it is the foolish child who does not learn that it is very dangerous to be open, even a little.

So most people are guarded against love, to a greater or lesser extent. But I think part of us desires to experience it. I don’t know why, maybe because we all want to feel fully alive, maybe there is no other reason than that a person with limbs may desire to stretch them and use them. We have a sort of calling to feel all that it is we suspect ourselves to be capable of feeling; the calling within us is so strong that we may experience a disassociation with any strong emotion, as if the emotion came from without, and we were ‘taken over’ by it.

The two lessons – vulnerability as danger, love as a powerful outside force – coalesce in the human mind to produce the effect of falling in love with the person you have sex with. For some people, the very experience of being vulnerable might be enough to convince them they are in love…they say they’ve ‘never felt’ this way before etc etc yet love is undefinable, and there is a lot of confusion over what one is supposed to feel. For many, the very fact they are questioning their own experience is enough to convince them that they are ‘in love’ – and in fact, this allowance on their behalf may well result in them opening their heart to love. They have been vulnerable in the presence of another, and they have not been harmed; what does it mean? Of course, there are also many people who will not allow themselves to be vulnerable in the presence of another…depending on the degree of recognition of the way orgasm acts upon the mind, they react differently to sex. If they recognise its power, but are very resistant to the idea of being vulnerable, then they must use another emotion to block the possibility etc. So we see, with some, the conflagration of sex with violence (because strength must be used to counter vulnerability) or of love with hate (because one cannot love what one finds contemptible. To find someone contemptible, you must first close your heart to them, and block off all possiblilty of empathy.)

It might sound like I am saying that it is either love and sex together, or some sort of faulty sex. I am not. I am saying there are many variations and possibilities between people who have sex, but it is never purely physical, unless one absolutely blocks off the idea of the other as human. This is NOT in itself a necessarily damaging act – to either party. In a benign sense, it is like a more sensual form of masturbation. I believe two lovers might agree on this act beforehand – it goes on all the time, and if both people wish to simply focus on their own physical pleasure, it can be mutually satisfying and enjoyable. One can objectify another person in this way, it does not have to be inherently degrading, though admittedly it is difficult to be temporary about it, i.e. have sex with someone you have imagined as a body only, and afterwards regard them once again as equally sentient.

It does seem though, that this sort of sex is the sort which makes many people angry, or has the potential to cause harm. If both people are not cognisant of the type of experience, then it may be said to be exploitative. There are all sorts of things which people do which they may claim is simply objectification of the other, but in fact is more akin to the methods discussed above for protecting the self from harm. A person may wish to simply experience sex as physical, but in fact be secretly terrified of vulnerability, and so experience confusion, feelings of violence etc. Humans are multifarious.

(This is part 3 of a series of thoughts on desire: part 1 here, and part 2 here.

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