Sex in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Before Michael Novak turned political and began to plump in
earnest for democratic capitalism, his work focused upon more properly
philosophical themes.  Hence, early
on in his career, he wrote a book called The
Experience of Nothingness
, which I was glancing through the other day.  The book is rather breezy and
conversational and not especially dense, but sprinkled throughout it are some
excellent passages.  One in
particular struck me: 

“The enormous weight, meanwhile,
put upon sexual fulfillment [in modern society] is insupportable; intercourse
is an organic expression of entire psyches, not a mechanical plugging in.  Among young people, the weakening of
cultural forms supporting sexual rituals and restraints deprives sexual
intercourse of sustenance for the imagination and the spirit.  It comes too cheaply: its intimacy is
mainly fake; its symbolic power is reduced to the huddling warmth of kittens in
the darkness – not to be despised, but open as a raw wound to the experience of
nothingness.  Close your eyes and
plummet through the empty space where a lover ought to be.”

Modern culture, for Novak, is marked deeply by the “experience
of nothingness,” the absence of any ground of meaning, be it divine or
not.  The infelicitous alliance (though
this not for Novak) of individualism,
liberalism, and capitalism has conspired to wrench the human person from his
naturally “thick” social milieu, like a limb from its body – and with all the
attendant pain and anguish and self-mutilation.  Through the rampant mechanization and atomization of modern
life, the individual is now cut off from the vital source from which his
identity once flowed and must navigate a desiccated, commodified, disenchanted
world.  It is no surprise, then,
that ours is a culture of wounded psyches.  Modern life, especially in its more extreme modes, is an
abattoir from which few escape unscathed. 

In the midst of all this, the question arises: How is one to
find meaning?  In a world whose
metaphysical horizons have been swept clear and in which “all that is solid
melts into air” (to use Marx’s phrase), one cannot but search for something
that can provide meaning and stability in one’s life.  As Novak suggests above, one such putative source of meaning
is, for many people, sex.  It
claims to offer euphoria, release, ecstasy, liberation, and an escape from the
dull and harsh conditions of modern society.  By means of the body, it claims to supply a flight from the
body, proposing as its glorious goal a spiritual unity with one’s partner.  In order to cope with the realities of
life, then, sex has become mechanical in its means and spiritual in its ends, a
split of subject and object.  To
put a twist on Walter Benjamin, we are now living in the age of mechanical
reproduction.

We are trying to find ghosts of meaning in the machines of
our bodies.  But this meaning
cannot be found.  Divorced from the
(mechanized) body, such meaning becomes only formal, lacking in substance or
content that could give it real depth. 
And so, to that extent, this kind of sought-after unity cannot be
realized.  With the body viewed as
just a simplistic mechanism – not as the lived
body – no true inter-subjective integration is possible; a person is just a
monad, an atom isolated from all other atoms.  Fulfilled only for a fleeting moment by one’s sexual
partner, desire cannot rest, but moves on searching for fulfillment elsewhere,
in other sexual encounters and in other expressions of sexuality – if only to
satisfy the heart’s longing for unity. 
But the dialectic repeats itself: at once mechanized and spiritualized,
sex of this sort cannot adequately attain its end.  Neither ghosts nor machines can provide us with
meaning.  But if not in casual
sexual encounters, then how else is one to find meaning in a meaningless
world?  In marriage. 

It is in marriage, in the actual, organic, psychosomatic
unity of man and woman committing and sacrificing their lives and their very
selves to each other, naturally ordered towards the incomprehensibly wonderful
ends of procreation and spousal companionship that connect the couple to all of
society and to generations past and future – it is in all of this that true
meaning lies.  The antidote to the
rationalization and technologization of society is to be found not in so-called
“liberated” sex, but, paradoxically, in marriage.  For marriage, though one of the most ancient and venerable
institutions, is at the same time the most subversive and radical, standing
obliquely to the currents of the age and to all the passing orthodoxies.

This is why, today, it is necessary more than ever to hold up
marriage as an ideal.  But this is,
of course, not easy to do: the ideology, the false consciousness forced upon
us by the debacle that was the “sexual revolution” still holds powerful
sway.  The rapid explosion of “freedom”
in the sexual sphere has drowned out the firm but soft voice of marriage in our
culture.  But the whole revolution
was based upon an illusion, a massive one, holding out a promise of ghostly
meaning in our mechanical bodies. 
Yet these are promises that have gone – and must go – wholly
unfulfilled.  It is time we stopped
believing in ghosts.

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Virginity Added to List of Sexual Disorders in DSM-5

5586-VH.billboard-thumb-200x150-5585.jpg

No, I’m kidding. Don’t believe everything you read online. The 5th edition of the APA’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” due out in 2013, will include no such entry. But riding back from NY on the train recently, I had a glimpse of what such a future might look like: on the walls of many of the train platforms, there were ads in plain black and red print blaring, “Still a Virgin? For Help Call 888-743-4335.” Some Googling revealed that it was a promo for an upcoming movie called “The Virginity Hit,” co-produced by Will Ferrell. According to the movie’s site, the R-rated movie is “a comedy about three pals documenting the progress of their socially-awkward friend, who tries desperately to lose his virginity.”

It may be true that the “Virginity Hotline” (see here for details about what happens when you call it) and the movie are just for laughs. But they are laughs that require the audience to buy into the idea that there is something pitiable and almost shameful about being a virgin, especially a male virgin. When I first saw the ads, I was relatively sure they were a joke, but what made me pause was the chord of familiarity they struck in me – I had heard this message many times before, especially on campus. The message generally takes the following form: “The only reasons you could have for being a virgin are 1) outdated religious hangups or 2) your incompetence – you tried but no one would take you.” It’s by no means a universal sentiment at Princeton, but I’ve encountered it often enough, especially through my involvement with the Anscombe Society, to be thoroughly tired of it and amazed at how stubbornly people hew to this belief. To see this message reinforced by these movie ads brought the alternate reality of this entry’s title another disturbing step closer.

It’s too soon to come to a final verdict about the intentions behind “Virginity Hit” and the effects it will have on social perceptions of sexuality, since the movie hasn’t been released yet. Perhaps the movie’s directors and actors will have found something different or even insightful to say about virginity by the end of the movie. However, you’ll forgive me for not being terribly optimistic.

Stress, Sex, and Neurogenesis

5384-neurons-thumb-200x150-5382.jpgOver at wired.com, Jonah Lehrer discusses some surprising aspects of sex: 1) even as a pleasurable experience, it often causes a large stress response in the body, including the release of chemicals that help the body deal with stress, and 2) as discovered in recent research in rats, it can promote neurogenesis, or the growth of new neurons, in the adult rat brain. One research team in particular, which included Princeton professor Elizabeth Gould, also found that when male rats were allowed to mate with female rats multiple times over the course of the experiment (“chronic” sexual experience) as opposed to just once (“acute” sexual experience), the level of stress-response chemicals went down, but neurogenesis continued. In other words, repeated sexual experience in rats led to beneficial neurogenesis without the harmful chemical stress response. 

You can read Lehrer’s full article here.

I should provide the ever-needed caveat in animal research: we can’t jump to the conclusion that the same holds true in humans, because of the striking differences in anatomy, brain organization, development, etc. And even if it could be proved that the same were true for humans (which might take a while – you can’t kill humans at the end of an experiment and dissect their brains the same way that you can with rats and mice), it would certainly not mean that we students should start having sex all the time in order to boost our GPAs. This is only one isolated aspect of sex, detached from all other ethical, behavioral, and interpersonal considerations. But this type of focused, specialized research is still important: by uncovering these smaller bits of knowledge about sex, piece by piece, we can begin to better understand this complex and fascinating facet of human life.  

Brave New World and the Commodification of Sex

by Shivani Radhakrishnan


5333-brave-new-world-thumb-100x152-5331-thumb-150x228-5332.jpgIn an effort to catch up on some summer reading (and to fill gaps in my own reading), I started Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World a few days ago. I was surprised to find just how pro-family the book is, particularly as the commodification of sex is presented as an especially dystopian aspect of the “brave new world” that Huxley describes. 


Huxley’s state eagerly rewards pursuing sex without commitment–characters like Lenina find it unthinkable that someone would require exclusivity or permanence before sex. But the heroes of the work are Bernard Marx and the Savage, two characters who find Lenina’s view of sexuality disturbing. Marx, for instance, wishes she wouldn’t consider herself just “another piece of meat.” The Savage, too, finds Lenina’s view inhumane–he consistently constrasts her lack of sexual restraint with the love of Shakespearean characters.

Huxley’s cautioning of a sexuality removed from permanent and exclusive commitments in marriage is articulate and insightful. 
Brave New World is certainly worth a read (or a re-read) when you get a chance.

Lady Gaga and the Hook-up Culture

by Shivani Radhakrishnan


Despite being somewhat skeptical about the relevance of this post to “philosophy”, I found this observation from the NY Times philosophy blog, The Stone, pretty interesting:

“If there’s anything that feminism has bequeathed to young women of means, it’s that power is their birthright.  Visit an American college campus on a Monday morning and you’ll find any number of amazingly ambitious and talented young women wielding their brain power, determined not to let anything — including a relationship with some needy, dependent man — get in their way.  Come back on a party night, and you’ll find many of these same girls (they stopped calling themselves “women” years ago) wielding their sexual power, dressed as provocatively as they dare, matching the guys drink for drink — and then hook-up for hook-up.”

Read the full article here.

A Response: Anscombe, Sex, and Reason

From Anscombe president Shivani Radhakrishnan, in today’s Daily Princetonian:      
 
Eric Kang’s column "Anscombe, Sex, and Reason" (Monday, Feb. 15, 2010) called for members of the Anscombe Society to defend disputed points in its ethical system on neutral grounds. As his piece raised several important criticisms, I will attempt to respond.
First, Kang is correct to point out that there is nothing bad about sex as such. The Anscombe Society does not regard sex as categorically good or categorically bad. Whether sex is inherently good – as it often is – depends on a number of factors: whether the persons involved are permanently and exclusively committed to each other, whether the act is a free expression of their commitment, etc. In this respect, it’s true, sex between unrelated adults is decidedly unlike incest or adult-youth relations, which McGinley and the Anscombe Society consider inherently wrong. Our moral intuitions, in this case “repugnance”, may not be an argument per se about what we should believe in the case of incest and adult-youth relations. But, our moral theory (in this case, our theory of sexual ethics) should accommodate most of our intuitions about what is right and wrong, just as a plausible theory about the world should accommodate our observation of it.
Secondly, Kang takes issue with the claim that instrumentalization of the body always occurs outside of a marital context. And if it always occurs outside of marriage, why isn’t sex within marriage instrumentalizing the body as well? Kang suggests that Anscombe’s position requires an understanding of sex within marriage as permissible, no matter what. But that is not our view. One could imagine spouses who are deceitful or unfaithful to their commitment but nevertheless continue to have sex – they, too, would be instrumentalizing each other. Rather, we think that sex is good when and only when it is the consummation of a full union of persons on many levels: the bodily bond that completes a couple’s total commitment to each other at the level of their wills.  So for sex to constitute full marital commitment, it is necessary but insufficient that it take place within marriage. Full marital commitment requires the unity of persons not just bodily, but also emotionally, mentally, etc.
Kang also suggests that the idea that there are moral constraints on what people should use sex to express – or, relatedly, on the proper purpose of sex – is a distinctively theological view. It is not. It is, rather, an ordinary moral belief that almost everyone reading this already accepts, even if we disagree about what those constraints are. For instance, most of us believe that sex must be a free expression – and not just in the same way that we think most activities should be free: nonconsensual sex strikes us as a far greater violation than, say, being forced to eat vegetables or play an instrument. People also generally agree that sex should not be used as an expression of filial love (even with an adult son or daughter capable of consenting) or fraternal love (even where children with complications will not arise, as for example between two brothers or sterile siblings). And many agree that sex should not be used to express passing acquaintanceship or only for one’s own gratification – unlike, say, tennis. Given this framework, the claim that sex should express a permanent and exclusive commitment is not radically different in kind. Almost everyone recognizes such limits.
What gives rise to our notion of these limits? We argue that sex calls for a commitment that is both permanent and exclusive as it is oriented towards bearing and rearing children— a commitment indefinitely into the future to both any kids that may arise and to both parties involved. Now, it falls to Kang to defend the above limits that we intuitively accept on the proper use of sex that stops short of the limits that the Anscombe Society accepts. 

Pornography at Princeton

The undergraduate organization Let’s Talk Sex (LeTS) has presented itself as a group devoted to promoting “sex-positive” dialogue on campus. Through its discussion groups and various events, it attempts to provide a forum for free conversation regarding sexuality. But, as today’s article in the Daily Princetonian shows clearly, an upcoming event sponsored by LeTS goes well beyond the relatively harmless domain of mere dialogue: LeTS will be screening pornography on campus.

 
The pornography in question comes from the work of porn director, actress, and self-described “anal sexpert” Tristan Taormino, whom LeTS is bringing to Princeton to discuss her work at the screening. Far from being mere pieces of erotic art, her films depict highly explicit and hardcore sexual activities, designed for the visual gratification of the viewer. In other words, it is not as though a respected scholar will be coming to campus to discuss pornography in a reasonable way. Rather, a self-identified pornographer will be coming to show her pornographic works. And it is this that is deeply offensive and disturbing.
 
Now, that LeTS is holding such an event on campus is reason enough for an outcry – not only from Anscombe students and feminists, but from all of those concerned with the dignity of the human person. For pornography is not a matter of a woman using her sexual agency freely, in a liberating way. On the contrary, as the well-known feminist and anti-porn advocate Andrea Dworkin puts it, in pornography, the so-called “[f]ree sexuality for the woman [consists] in being massively consumed, denied an individual nature, denied any sexual sensibility other than that which serves the male.” Pornography, in other words, reduces women to the status of mere objects – bare pieces of flesh upon which predatory pleasure may prey.
 
The simple fact, then, that pornography is inherently degrading to women surely warrants unified student condemnation of LeTS’s decision to screen porn at Princeton. But what is even worse is that university funds will be used to support the event. This means that, inter alia, the student fees that all undergraduates must pay are being employed to fund the showing of pornography. So, not only is the university offending students by showing the porn; it is also using student resources to do so. This, too, deserves an outcry from the student body at Princeton. 

 

The Complementarity of Love and Sex in the Brain

A historical side effect of falling in love has been increased production of love poetry. Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” shows us “the lover/ Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad/ Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.” The reason behind this may simply be that we humans feel the need to express strong emotions, especially positive ones like love. But could it be that being in love actually makes us more creative?

The answer is ‘yes,’ according to a recent study at the University of Amsterdam. The researchers were interested in seeing how thinking about love vs. thinking about sex could affect the way the brain processes information.  The participants, all college students, were primed either to think about love (separate from sex) or about sex (separate from love). This was done for the former group by having them think about taking a walk with their partner or by showing them words like “love” and “loving.”  The latter group was told to think about someone they were physically attracted to, or shown words like “sex” and “eroticism.” Both groups were then given a series of questions from the GRE to answer.

The results were that those in the “love condition” scored much better on the creative questions, while those in the “sex condition” scored better on the analytical questions, leading the authors to conclude that love and sex do indeed affect the way we think. Their explanation for these results draws on a distinction often made between two different ways that we can process information: local and global.

With local processing, you are very much in the present moment, focused and processing the details of your environment or whatever problem you’re contemplating. This state of mind lends itself to analytical thinking, where details and logical structure are important. With global processing, it’s as if your brain has hit the “zoom out” button and is seeing the larger picture. This enables you to think more holistically, make connections that you couldn’t before, and represent concrete objects as abstract concepts. Renowned neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran spoke at Princeton recently, and he emphasized how making these less obvious connections is a key part of human creativity: it gives us the ability to relate higher-level concepts to one another, to generate and understand metaphors, and so on.

According to one theory, thinking about the long term is a way to trigger global processing. In this case, being in love often brings on thoughts about the long term: how you want to stay with your partner not just for months but for years to come, or what your plans are for your future together. These kinds of thoughts cause global processing to kick in. Sex, or relatedly, lust, triggers local processing and a concentration on the “here and now.” You have a more goal-oriented mindset and focus more on strategies and details.

Lest this be misinterpreted, one type of thinking is not “better” than the other. We need both creative and analytical thinking on an everyday basis, whether we’re deciding what classes to take, telling jokes, doing problem sets, or watching a movie with friends.
So the next time you catch yourself daydreaming about your beloved, you might as well take advantage of your state of mind. Crack open your laptop, and get started on that writing assignment due tomorrow – the creative energy won’t stay around forever.

To read more or to find the original article, click here.