The Point of Sex is Not Just to Come, But to Come Undone
Why would anyone hate sex? Yes, sex is pleasurable, but it’s also dangerous. It’s often most pleasurable when it’s the most dangerous. It lures you in with the promise of satisfaction and leaves you with a disease. It’s a tool of abuse and exploitation. It forms, then ruins relationships. Let’s face it, sex is messy. It’s messy to do, it’s messy to clean up, and it’s messy to talk about.
It’s not just prudes, the repressed, and squares who hate sex. Everyone hates sex says Oliver Davis and Tim Dean in their book, The Hatred of Sex. This hatred permeates our culture, our laws, and begets conflicts within our minds. The book is so provocative that the publisher, The University of Nebraska Press, included it in its Provocations series. It’s so provocative it provoked me to write this in response. Maybe it’ll provoke you, too.
Davis and Dean are talking about the act of sex itself, not gender; sex in the sense of coitus, copulation, fornication, lovemaking, getting it on, making out, making the beast with two backs, popularly known as fucking. They’re not saying anything about gender. It’s confusing when a single word is used for different things. “Precisely because every human has a conflicted regard of their own sexuality means that misreading, misconstruing, and misunderstanding is the norm,” they say, “Debates about sex can have more heat than sex itself.”
They say the hatred of sex is a lot like our hatred of democracy. Yes, we hate democracy, too. We hate the way the unwashed masses, the deplorables, or the out-of-touch elites have a say. Sex does the same thing. It brings in an element of disorder to our lives.
There are a million ways sex can be disorderly, but let’s look at one examined by Davis and Dean. Back in the 1980s, in the middle of the AIDS Crisis, some gay men were still going to clubs to pick up guys to have unprotected sex, even when they knew it was risky. Why do people have dangerous sex? It’s not just gay men in the 80s that do. It’s in all of us to do. The ability that sex has to make us forget our self-interest is why we hate sex.
Why would we have dangerous sex? Because it’s dangerous. You might say we’re masochistic, all of us, gay and straight, alike. We court danger and invite pain. “The point of sex is not just to come, but to come undone,” says Davis and Dean.
Let me explain what they mean by coming undone. You come undone when you’re so aroused that you forget yourself to pursue an inappropriate sexual interest. Your better judgement and sometimes your morals come undone. Then you come undone when orgasm is so close you’re powerless to stop it. Your self-control comes undone. In some cases, sex rearranges everything you thought you knew about yourself and the world. The organization of your psyche comes undone. Limits are breached on a number of different levels, and the fetters of identity come undone.
It all has to do with binding and unbinding. Binding and unbinding are psychoanalytic terms. According to Freud, your libido, which began as a vague life force, has no target until it’s bound to an object. When you were an infant, your whole body was an erogenous zone. You could get as much pleasure out of someone touching your elbow as touching your genitals. It wouldn’t matter who touched you, male, female, your mother, your father, or the dog. This couldn’t go on. Pleasure like that is too dangerous and too distracting to be found all over your body and by everyone. People taught you to hate it. They set limits on it, and you learned them. Your erogenous zone diminished to a couple of places on your body, covered by clothing, and was never spoken of or seen in public again. The acceptable targets of your libido were reduced, as well, in most cases to a single gender, a single person, close to your age, and in a prescribed circumstance. Sometimes your libido is so restricted that you can’t get aroused at all and is routed into other things like nurturing, athletics, creativity, or picking fights. You can think of libido as the static electricity that builds up in a storm cloud. When lightning strikes, it’s found its target, whether it be a tree, a lightning rod, or some fool on a golf course. In the case of libido, this energy builds up until something gets your juices flowing. When your libido finds a target, it binds to it. This attraction is a powerful force.
Binding also happens with energies that are not libidinal. Hunger is a relatively vague desire until it binds to the thought of a hot fudge sundae, then it’s bound to the sundae in a state called a craving. Binding is also involved when we construct a self-concept. I don’t know who I am until I bind myself to the idea of being male, American, a husband, a writer, a tennis player, a dog person, and a shrink. There are a million other things I could bind myself to. I’ve had patients bind to the identity of being crazy, depressed, or an addict. Binding makes the amorphous concrete, but also limits you and inhibits change.
Luckily, we have unbinding, or coming undone, which unleashes possibilities. It can reclaim the potential for pleasure your whole body once had. It can even redefine pleasure itself to include pain. It can give you more choice of acceptable targets for your libido. Unbinding allows you to change your personality and be open to new information. When I read a book that has rocked my world, I mean the book has caused me to question everything I thought I knew on the subject and am ready for a fresh understanding; the book unbound me. I can say that about Davis and Dean’s book. It has unbound me from how I used to think about sex. I will bind again, to a new understanding, but that can’t happen unless I unbind from the old one.
Unbinding and binding go hand in hand. They are growth and consolidation. Don’t try to have one without the other. If you don’t unbind, you get stuck. You continue to do the same thing, expecting different results. Your world gets small and downright boring. When you have unbinding without binding, then you never get grounded. You’re confused, flighty, and are heading towards mania.
Just so, with sex. Once you concentrate your libido in your genitals and then on to a single partner, things can get stale if there’s nothing unbinding you. That’s where fucking your brains out comes in. Intense sex unbinds. It makes you forget yourself. You come undone.
We hate sex because unbinding is dangerous. All our traditions and institutions depend on binding. They wouldn’t exist without it. Marriage, for instance, as an institution, is all about being bound to a single individual for life, traditionally someone of the opposite gender for the purpose of raising children. A great deal about marriage has been unbound in the past sixty years or so, but it’s been hard. Culture wars are fought over it.
Let’s get back to the men having unprotected sex with strangers during an epidemic. Their libidos were strongly bound that that kind of sex. They had liberated their libido, so it was not bound in the traditionally approved ways to a single person of the opposite sex in the context of marriage. They had reclaimed the anus as an erogenous zone, so they were not bound to genital sex. But they freed themselves only to become slaves to barebacking. Their libido was so strongly bound to that one target, that they couldn’t stop.
What’s so great about being fucked in the ass by a stranger without a condom that you can’t stop, even at the risk of your life? Being a straight man, I can’t tell you; but I think I understand. I have an analogy. Being a straight man, I relate it to football.
I used to play football. I was a linebacker. I thought it was fun to collide with big, strong men and knock them down. I was not that different from gay men barebacking during the AIDS epidemic. The fun I had was strange, uninhibited, and risky. You might even say queer. What was the point? The point was that it was reckless and risky. The point was to do something pointless.
Any shrink worth his salt can go on and on about how I bound my drives for sex and aggression to football. It’s an example of displacement, a rerouting of energy to an acceptable target. Since straight men are prohibited from touching other men’s bodies, they need football to give them an excuse. They can’t even have close bonds like friendship without their virility being questioned, so they have teams. Competition is less forbidden, but it’s still awkward, so they have sport. Violence needs an outlet, so instead of becoming an axe murderer, they become a linebacker and lay out running backs. It’s clear that football players have sadistic tendencies, but there’s masochism, too. Every time I put a hurt on a running back, I put an equal hurt on myself. The game is not only a matter of eleven people contending with eleven others over space, it’s twenty-two people confronting their own fears and overcoming pain.
How would football players respond if an epidemic in brain injury emerged? We already know. Many keep on playing. They could play flag football, but it’s not the same thing. It’s not as reckless. Of course, any sport, when played seriously, pushes the limits, but some harder than others. Ask anyone who has just had a good workout whether they feel good or bad. They’ll admit to feeling exhausted and sore, but it feels great. Is it any wonder that, when you tell people to wear a condom or confine sex to long-term committed relationships, some scoff and continue to take risks?
There are lots of ways people flout discretion. Are you more attracted to sex with people other than your spouse? Do you get blitzed on a Saturday night? Do you binge on bad food? Do you drive too fast or too close? Gamble too much? Shoplift? Blow off your medication? Chew out the wrong person? Get in fights? You’ve probably had people tell you not to do those things, they’re dangerous; but that gives you more reason to do them. There’s just something in us that doesn’t like a wall.
Challenging limits is often a good thing. It’s how we took down bison, learned to cook with fire, ran faster, replaced superstition with science and the power of horses with horsepower, went to the moon, threw off oppressive regimes, and invented vaccines. It’s also how we overcome our fears, sadness, and pain. If we were to focus our zeal to only challenging the wrong limits, who is to say what are the wrong ones? Aren’t the most prohibited limits the ones most in need of a challenge?
Still, there are limits you’d never cross. You’ll have sex with people other than your spouse, but you would never have sex with children. You’ll get blitzed on a Saturday night, but you would never use a needle to do your drugs. You’ll gorge on pizza but would never have it with pineapple. You drive aggressively but would never deliberately crash your car. You shoplift but would never rob a bank. You stop taking pills you need but would never take all your pills at once. You would never bet the farm, chew out a cop, or start a fight with a boxer. If you have ever done those things, you’ll find it hard to stop. We especially bind to our transgressions.
This is where our hatred of sex comes in. Society takes over to tell us what limits not to challenge. It has subtle means of doing this, and not so subtle, brutal means. The brutal means are burning at the stake, imprisonment, and ostracization of all those who transgress. The subtle ways, says Davis and Dean, are sexual identity politics, attachment theory, and victimology. They devote the second half of their book to a series of polemics against these three powerful forces in our culture. I cannot here do justice to Davis and Dean’s criticism of attachment theory and victimology. For now, let me tell you what they say about identity politics.
Since Davis and Dean are a gay couple, I expected them to complain about how conservatives write restricted laws out of their hatred of sex. Instead, the authors criticize a cause that should be dear to them. They say the gay rights movement is a manifestation of our hatred of sex. The problem is identities. Identities are as binding as sex is unbinding. Identities bind up sex, and sex unbinds identity.
Consider this, if you’re a gay man who barebacks with strangers because it feels good, you would be more open to finding a steady partner than if you were a gay man who barebacks because he is politically committed to an ethos of sexual freedom. Once it becomes about your identity, it’s no longer about the sex.
I can see their point because I eventually quit football. After a teammate sustained a serious brain injury on the field, football wasn’t so much fun anymore. I had been playing for kicks, the pleasure I got from pushing the limits. There are plenty of other ways to push limits. I would not have been able to quit if my identity had been bound up in being a football player. If all my friends were on the team, if my girlfriend liked me because I was a football hero, if I was seeking a scholarship, if I campaigned to fund uniforms, if it was the only way to make my father proud, then my being a football player would have had little to with actually playing football. If football became my identity, it would no longer be about the sport.
The second thing sexual identity politics does, is it sanitizes the sex that’s involved by creating a norm of appropriate sex. The sick, dangerous aspect of sex is glossed over in order to appeal to the public. Proponents of gay rights are more likely to portray a gay lifestyle as two loving, committed people making their lives together, not as people gleefully transgressing traditional boundaries of horror and disgust. They take the sex out of sexual politics. In the same way, defenders of high school football are apt to portray it as character building, rather than twenty-two teenagers engaging in a sadomasochistic orgy. They take the violence out of football.
Davis and Dean have done an interesting thing in their book. They’ve redefined the purpose of sex. Traditionally, sex has supposed to have been about reproduction. It’s the thing you do so you can have children who share some of your genes with your mate and carry on without you. Sex renews and rejuvenates humanity. It never made much sense to tie sex so exclusively to reproduction, since many people have sex who have no ability to reproduce. There’s another reason for sex, say Davis and Dean. It’s to facilitate the binding and unbinding of emotional energy. Sex reshuffles the deck of your mind and gives you a fresh start. While the traditional view promotes the proliferation of the species, Davis and Dean promote the proliferation of targets for the libido.
It would be good if we could overcome our hatred of sex, as well as other hatreds while we’re at it. It’s about time we realized that not everything must make conform to our notions of sense, purity, and order. We may hate to get dirty, but it’s lots of fun to play in the mud.