Monday, December 8, 2008



Have you ever thought about how ridiculous sexual contact is? Do not mistake me for a moralist; I am anything but a moralist. I am not advocating celibacy, abstinence or any other tisk-tisk doctrine that assumes “sex is bad.” I do not think sex is “bad;” I just think it is stupid. I use the word “stupid” here to abstractly refer to the whole physical and mental enterprise surrounding sex. And I do not limit my comments to heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals or asexuals. All sex is stupid, no matter how you slice it.

Why do I say this? Just look at the act itself. When you are in a calm, rational mental state, the idea of two naked people locked in a steamy embrace stimulating one another’s bodies seems patently absurd. Millennia of ingrained societal shame will likely even make the thought uncomfortable to you, but today I do not discuss the crushing moral weight associated with human sexual behavior. Today I merely venture that—viewed in the abstract—sexual contact is utterly stupid. I say this because sexual contact stands in fundamental opposition to humankind’s rational propensities.

For better or worse, human beings are generally rational. Throughout our lives, we learn to be polite, to interact cordially with other people and to calmly reflect on issues with cool reason. Education reinforces reason. We learn to discipline our minds to complete discrete intellectual tasks in a relatively dispassionate manner. We learn that successfully applying our reason will lead to success in life. “Great men,” we learned, accomplished their feats because they had unique ideas and applied them wisely. Their minds and their reason made them great, not their crude instincts.

Yet this whole culture of reason conveniently ignores humanity’s less ornate qualities. No matter how much we may learn that dispassionate mental effort may solve any practical problem, human beings are not ethereal creatures. They are mammals. They are in the same biological category as bulls, sheep, baboons and horses. They have warm blood, body hair and—most significantly here—reproduce sexually. Human beings do not propagate themselves by erudition and logic. They propagate themselves by sex. Metaphysical speculations aside, this is “just the way it is.” Sex is necessary for human existence. Without it, the species would vanish.

Sex is undoubtedly important. But that does not save it from being stupid. Many stupid things are important. Sex grips us as strongly as hunger; we cannot completely ignore it. Sex is insistent, despite what any social convention or stern moral teaching says about it. It conflicts violently with our cool reason, upending the stately rationality we were taught to treasure. In a sense, sex reminds us that we are not as splendid as we like to think. We may have developed calculus, traveled to the moon and created the internet, but we have never escaped our itching desire to get naked with people we find attractive. This may sound crass, but it accurately illustrates the endless conflict between reason and sex. In the Nineteenth Century, modest English writers called the sex drive “the passions.” I aim to be slightly more direct.

When we genuinely engage our reason, sex is the last thing on our minds. Reason wants to understand truths and realities in the world, and we cannot understand subtle truths when base mammalian impulses cloud our minds. In this sense, I think sex is stupid because it makes us drop worthier goals in order to frivolously lock bodies with other people. When the sex drive activates, all worthier goals fade into obscurity. When sex insists, it does not tolerate second billing. It must be placated before it allows a person to resume a more creative enterprise. Thus, while reason may have given humanity its greatest achievements, sex overcomes reason every day. A rational mind moves deliberately from one thought to the next, using sense and memory to formulate reasonable conclusions. But sex can derail that deliberate movement. It bludgeons the mind with forceful physical demands. It triggers emotional engagement, making clear thought impossible. Unlike reason, sexual instinct can trigger genuine physiological reactions in the human body, from higher blood pressure to a faster heartbeat to flushing and perspiration. Reason draws its strength from bodily detachment. Sex, by contrast, draws its strength from bodily engagement. Bodily engagement is coarse and unspectacular. There is nothing novel or memorable about it. That is just another reason why sex is stupid.

In many ways, human beings are slaves to their own bodies. Bodily demands trigger physical pain and pleasure; that is why everyone must attend to them. No one wants to feel pain and everyone wants to experience pleasure. By contrast, reason implicates no real bodily demands. It does not “hurt” when we use reason to answer an intellectual problem, nor do we experience genuine “pleasure” when our reason gives us insight. Pure reason may make us feel mildly “pleased,” but that is not the same as activating the bodily machinery that literally creates pleasurable sensations in the brain. Sex directly engages the bodily machinery that releases the most pleasurable sensations available to human beings without external chemical interference. From a biological perspective, this is only natural, because it behooves the species to link reproduction with the most pleasurable activity available. In that light, sex provides a direct biological incentive to reproduce.

But this brings us to a dangerous intersection between sex and reason, namely: Human beings are the only creatures on earth that can combine their reason with the pursuit of pleasure. Because humans have more detailed memories than any other organism, they remember how good sex feels. Using their reason upon their memories, they transform sex into something much more than a mere reproductive reflex; they pursue it as a freestanding activity. They fantasize about it and long for it. They want to isolate the pleasurable sensations it brings. This is a dangerous combination, because once the sex drive activates, it triggers a whole range of irrational fantasies, memories and hopes, which in turn can lead a person into a frenzy. This not only overcomes reason; it leads to purely irrational behavior that wastes time. Humans, therefore, have a uniquely problematic relationship to sex because they do not view sex as a purely reproductive reflex. Rather, sex is a “pleasure talisman” that offers escape from a pleasureless world. In that sense, sex is stupid because it costs human beings countless unrequited hours seeking an ideal that they will never find.

Humans doubtlessly mix reason with sex. Through fantasy, they inadvertently make their sex drive stronger and more overwhelming. Animals in the field apparently do not fantasize. They come into sexual contact, get it over with and go back to grazing. Not so with humans. Humans attempt to tailor their sexual behavior to suit the fantasies they have created in their own minds. In so doing, they transform a simple biological activity into a nightmarish lifelong affliction. They almost never truly satisfy it. Additionally, humans combine their reason with sex in even more pernicious ways, including the desire to prove power through sexual encounters. For one reason or another, human beings view sex as an opportunity to assert dominance over other individuals. They feel good about themselves when they manage to have sex with a person because they have “conquered” the person. That has nothing to do with reproduction or reflex; rather, it implicates much more profound psychological issues. In its worst form, this “power principle” in human sexuality leads to outright violence: Rape. In my estimation, this is just another reason why sex is stupid.

Rape is an extreme example of the mental tortures spawned by human sexuality. But there are other, more subtle tortures that accompany sex. Human reason thrives on notions of ownership. Reason struggles to devise logical systems that delineate individual dominion over things. This human preoccupation with ownership influences sexual thought. After all, reason links sex with ownership. That is why there is so much jealously associated with human sexual relationships: If one person has sex with another, he has “claimed” his partner; and he will not tolerate “encroachments” on his “property.” This jealousy, in turn, can lead to violence. Until recent decades, the law even condoned violence in these circumstances. In England, courts actually permitted aggrieved husbands to kill their wives if they found their wives in bed with another man. This deplorable “legalized murder” reflects the basic psychological premise that sex creates an extremely sensitive “property interest” that can lead to brutal violence whenever an intruder trespasses upon it. This is exceedingly stupid.

Sex also leads to extremely negative emotions. Because so few people ever reach their sexual ideals, they become embittered and frustrated. Many people measure their self-esteem according to their ability to have sex with partners they find desirable. If they do not reach their goals, they experience disappointment. Repeated disappointment leads to disillusion and despair, as well as a feeling of worthlessness.

In short, human beings put themselves through countless emotional difficulties for something as stupid as sex. Why endure jealously, bitterness, violence, unrequited craving, despair and frenzy for something as silly as a naked embrace? Are these base biological impulses that overwhelming? Unfortunately, I believe they are. I have no real answers here. I can only say that human beings are cursed with strong irrational impulses and the capacity to reason. Although reason and sex normally exclude one another, in many instances reason heightens sexual desire. And when sexual desire seizes the mind, it can lead to absurd decisions, jealousy, wasted time and even violence. Human beings may perform their best while applying reason, but reason loses to sex almost every day.

Many people understand that sex can wield a damaging influence on human behavior. Over the centuries, religious thinkers attempted to use reason and faith to overcome the sex drive. In extreme cases, ascetics physically punished themselves for their own bodily desires. They attempted to master their own bodies by sheer will power. They refused to allow their bodies to make their decisions for them. They wanted to show that their faith and their minds could overcome any bodily impulse. Ascetics wanted to maintain their focus on more refined human capacities, not the base ones. That may have been a noble goal, but in the end they spent most of their time punishing themselves rather than using reason to create great works. No ascetic ever defeats desire with reason or discipline; desire will always assert itself.

For my part, I would be happy if reason were all I needed to survive in life. But I do not punish myself simply because my body makes demands on me. I think sex is stupid because it takes me away from much more meaningful pursuits. Nonetheless, I do not turn away from it. I do not try to put it down or ignore it. That only worsens the insistence. Instead, I simply recognize that sex is stupid but important. I attend to it when I must, just as I eat a meal when I must. I do not allow it to make my decisions for me, but at the same time I do not deny its influence. Christian theologians called this influence “sin.” Yet the same theologians taught that Jesus Christ will absorb all your inherent “sinfulness” as long as you believe that he died for that purpose. In that sense, they understood that sex will inevitably influence people.

Sin or no sin, sex is unavoidable because it is the means by which our species reproduces. It is central to human existence. Yet it has assumed a bizarre influence in our lives beyond reproduction because—unlike other mammals—we have the unique power to reason. Reason leads to a parallel mental world filled with fantasy and expectation. In short, I find it amazing that such pervasive psychological structures have evolved around an activity as ridiculous as two naked people caressing each other. Ridiculous or not, we must contend with it in life. By understanding sex in those terms, it is possible to maintain our reason without descending into mental chaos.

There are many stupid and banal things in life. But we have to deal with them nonetheless. I find it most effective to calmly analyze problems and apply my analysis to them as faithfully as possible. On the sex question, I find it sufficient to honestly examine my own thoughts without external moral baggage. After all, sex is pedestrian. It is not difficult to decipher what goes on when the sex drive activates, just as it is not difficult to decipher what goes on when your stomach growls. For many, the task would be easier if deeply-ingrained moral teachings had not corrupted all honest inquiries into sexual questions. Without addressing those teachings in detail, suffice it to say that “morality” prohibits many people from honestly discussing sex. I am not among them. Perhaps in a later essay I will take up those moral inhibitors. But for today it is enough to say that, in the abstract, sex is stupid. And we can easily understand it as long as we are honest with our own emotions and thoughts.

This leads to another difficulty, however: Very few people are honest with their own emotions and thoughts. This is just another reason why sex is stupid: It obscures itself by preventing people from frankly discussing it.

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