Our obsession with sex is a real problem
Nearly two weeks after the publication of stories in The New York Times and the The New Yorker on Harvey Weinstein's use of his vast fortune to silence numerous women who had accused him of sexual assault, we are still consumed with the millionaire film producer and other cases involving alleged abusers in Hollywood and the music industry. An exhaustive list of all the women and men in the world of entertainment who have come forward to report everything from unwanted advances to groping and forced kissing to drugging and rape would require a lengthy column in itself.
These revelations are unsettling, but the conversations they inspire — about how and why all of this was possible — are a good thing. It would be better to have no films or television programs or albums or singles — no entertainment at all — than to sit back and enjoy knowing that all of this is only possible thanks to the systematic exploitation of vulnerable people by lawyered-up sexual predators.
What no one seems willing to admit, however, is that part of the problem is also our all-consuming cultural obsession with "sex."
I employ quotation marks because there is, in fact, no such thing. Sex as a catch-all noun that refers not only to what used to be thought of as "the marital act" but to any feelings or actions motivated by lust is an invention of late 19th-century psychologists. As that brilliant historian and renowned pervert Michel Foucault shows us in his monumental History of Sexuality, it is as dated and redolent of its era — when prostitutes were treated as subhuman and same-sex attraction was considered a disease indicative of criminality — as phrenology. Why are we still trying to make sense of the world with the help of this dated cultural framework?
Who knows. For good or ill, "sex" has established itself firmly enough in our social ontology that we might as well take it seriously. And here I think it is becoming obvious that the progressive dream of a world of casual sex free from both guilt and consequences is in practice a nightmare.
It is simply not possible to produce, much less promulgate and insist upon uniform adherence to, a code of sexual ethics that applies to interactions with persons one barely knows, to whom one has no binding obligations, guided only by the barometer that measures the chance of getting your rocks off. Even the standard of consent, according to which sexual behavior becomes a kind of economic activity governed according to contract law, is not exhaustive enough to account for the infinite variety of situations in which people acting outside ancient constraints might find themselves. Sex becomes a question of interpreting signals, of arithmancy or rune-casting. Inevitably signs are going to be misinterpreted, often willfully because other people are, frankly speaking, vile.
I am not under the illusion that millions of Americans are only one more #MeToo revelation from professing belief that fornication and adultery are immoral and the sexual act is only licit in the context of lifelong marriage (and even there subject to numerous well-established constraints). But I do think that we are approaching a point at which people are getting increasingly fed up with sex, wishing for a broader, more inclusive understanding of what it means to be human than "someone who, with permission or having given it, wants to interact in a variety of ways with other people's private parts."
As they should be. Who could not be struck by the staggering tedium of sex, the fleshy monotony of an infinite array of consumer goods being foisted upon everyone else who has ever used a computer, happened upon a television, walked past an airport magazine rack, or entered a clothing store? An entire technology exists very largely for the purpose of delivering images of poorly compensated women in varying states of undress and a sordid sliding scale of humiliating conditions to young men who perform a disgusting act in front of their computer screens. When the only thing separating any given relationship between two persons from being one grounded in mutual satisfaction of disordered urges is lack of desire or implied consent, friendship becomes meaningless as a category of human interaction. When the only moral currency is not being guilty of rape, good and evil become less meaningful designations. What a low moral bar to clear to say that one has gone one's entire life without ever pressuring anyone into having sex!
At the end of our lives, how many of us are going to look back and wish that we had devoted additional hours of our limited time to convulsing in front of our keyboards with spittle-faced enthusiasm or walking down the street surreptitiously satisfying base urges? Are we going to cherish those fleeting sweaty occasions when meat rubbed against meat for a few minutes before life went on? Or are we going to think about the little quiet moments of conversation, irruptions of charity and decency into a vicious world, the weather, family, the sea, memories of youth, special pieces of music, the vast range of human experiences that have nothing whatever to do with sex even according to the most exhaustive definition?
Sex is not just a tired concept. It is also very dangerous and, increasingly, boring.