Many years have now passed since the Western world proclaimed “sexual liberation”, when the dawn of pleasure would break. I am however afraid that today, this philosophical notion is profoundly poverty-stricken, and lack some of the substance matters when it comes to the phenomenology of sexuality.
I would like to propose the idea that sexuality in the West, is not really a topic of sexuality but rather of sexual ideology. The politically correct approach to any sexual encounter in our contemporary time is in effect “pornographic”. This may sound like nuts, so the argument is in need of some deeper elaboration.
First of all, it must be clear that sexuality has a deeply cultural side to it. Regarding the cultural aspect of sexuality, there is an apparent example of the contextuality of sexuality that I believe every Swede can relate to. That of the American fantasy of Sweden as the paradise of sexual promiscuity par excellence. This fantasy dates back to Bergman movies where families attend the sauna together, go to the beach, and so on; all completely naked. And has ever since been fueled by Hollywood stereotypes of Swedish women. What the American audience failed to see in this regard was the cultural context. At the time when these Bergman films were recorded, the Swedish “body”, in a sense, was completely de-eroticized. As such, from a Swedish perspective there was nothing erotic about nude bathing. And therefore, not in the sphere of sexual promiscuity. This cultural misunderstanding may also explain why people such as Julian Assange has described Sweden as a culture of sexual regression. Having made a journey from the most sexually liberated countries in the world, to become, in his peculiar words “the Saudi Arabia of feminism”. This is what cultural imperialism feels like. I on the other hand, would not blame feminism for this so called “regression”, but rather blame the sexual liberation itself.
From a psychoanalytic perspective, we may have to turn things around a little bit. Sexual desire always seem to operate in the same manner as an elastic rubber band. If you stretch it long enough it snatches back at full rigour. Not to mention the Victorian era in England, which might have been the most perverted bedrock of eroticized literature we have seen in modern history. For example, if the leg of a chair has to be covered in fabric in order to safeguard from sexual desires, it might be the case that those very desires are not prevented but rather fueled by that very procedure. Sexual restraint becomes self-annihilating. The less erotica, the more the spectrum of the erotic will expand. Everything could in principle be erotic. This had the peculiar effect that the British could not translate a single page of foreign literature without adding some perversion to it, such as the “slight” misinterpretation of the word “Haram” (“forbidden”, among other things referring to the part of a Muslim home exclusively for family members, where women unleashed their hair) with “Harem”, in the sense of the word we most usually attribute it. Thereby believing that every Muslim home had a “Harem”.
Further, “protestant sexual ethics” has always been deeply inmeshed with the phenomenon of guilt, and for a more contemporary viable notion; “hangover guilt”. It is my absolute conviction that this phenomenon does not exist in, for example, catholic sexual ethics. A protestant subject is always subject to the individual relationship between “God” (in this case some kind of big socio-collective Other) and has to mortify his flesh every Sunday to throw off all the outrageous sins committed during a late night Saturday. In other words, you are allowed to enjoy, but only in so far as you at least regret it.
Within catholic ethics, contrary to the sexual restraint ordered by the Catholic Church, it works in the same rubber-band-logics. Since your guilt is ultimately at the hand of others, il padre to be specific, you can engage in bodily sins with the sound conviction that you will be unconditionally forgiven at the Sunday confession. Ave Maria! No need to torture your soul with a day of mortification. Therefore, sexual liberation, in the protestant sense, is a sexual liberation founded on the very condition of you not being able to enjoy it. Social control reasserts itself at the level of individual guilt and re-establishes the harmony of Victorianism.
This interpretation finds some compelling support in the Durex Global Sex Survey about “percentage of people having sex weekly by country”. It points in the direction of “often-thought-of-as-sexually-restrained” cultures are actually making the best efforts. The percentage in Russia and Greece (both within the orthodox Christian sphere) are 80 and 87 %, closely followed by catholic Italy and Poland (76 %), while the same number in United States and United Kingdom is 53 and 55 %. And for Japan, only 37 %. Adding to this, only a miserable 15 % in Japan states that they are satisfied by sex, which is the lowest number in the entire world. Further, when it comes to the highest number of sexual partners, “surprisingly”, Turkey is on top of the list with an average of 14,5 sexual partners per person.
Further, just to once and for all punctuate the American fantasy of the sexually promiscuous Sweden. When it comes to the numbers of “that thing” per year, Greece (the world number one) has an average of 138 times, the U.S. does it about 113 times, while Sweden barely make it 92 times. In other words, not too much sexual promiscuity in the sexually liberated Sweden then.
This necessarily evokes a Žižekian point that can be repeated relentlessly; that the ideological turf is always an invertion of the interior sublime. And this takes us to my main point, that our sexual ideology within a culture of “sexual freedom” is strictly speaking pornographic.
For example, it is often said that pornography promotes a skewed perspective on sex. I would like to flip things around, and this is definitely not a defence of pornography. Anyway, if you think deeply about it, is it not rather the standard Hollywood-style sex scene that promotes a skewed perspective on sex?
Bring to mind love scenes from films such as Titanic or Pearl Harbour. In which the loving couple almost soar over one another in a humid slow-motion environment. Going on for hours in an astonishingly creative repertoar of movements. Still, not a single “dirty detail” is displayed for you, and it is almost as if you are about to witness something magical.
Then bring to mind films by the Danish film director Lars von Trier, such as Antichrist or The Idiots. His films try to combine a romantic approach to love scenes with plain physical details, often depicting penetrations directly, and so on. It’s simply stupid penetrative repetitive movements over and over again, but nonetheless, just probably closer to the reality of sexual intercourse than the godlike romanticism of Hollywood.
My point however, besides the skewedness of the former, is that the Hollywood-style sex scene is, phenomenologically, the one we keep in mind when we engage in sexual intercourse. We act extracorporeal, as if our bodies are recorded. In this manner, the intercourse itself turns fictional, and the bodily pleasures themselves have to fit the manuscript and are not at the center of attention. In this sense, sex is effectively pornographic. A generation of Sex and the City viewers has brought us to a point where there is no sexual tension but the need to create a pleasant scene, for collectors of episodes (in Zygmunt Baumans words). Sex then increasingly turns into what Lacanian psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek calls “masturbation with a real partner”, or de-subjectivized sex. The partner is turned into a masturbatory prop.
But the argument has even more depth to it than this. The postmodern death of the self, as described by the philosopher Jean Baudrillard, has also brought about a spectacle-and-image-logic that makes everything superficial to the degree that it could be replaced and copied infinitely. Our “wear and tear” habits thus operate in the realm of love as well. Just measure the distance between Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights with any recent Western narrative of love. It is obvious that every subject, being fatally and melancholically in love in the spirit of Wuthering Heights; would undoubtedly classify as serious stalkers today. Whenever love becomes too overwhelming according to contemporary discourse, it is at best sickening, at worst plainly dangerous. Who knows what kind of outrageous choices a person might realize in a state of love.
Therefore, according to popular wisdom, it is better to obviate as many question marks as possible before attending a date. Dating sites can manage this need very firmly, making sure you are not mismanaging your economic choices, as a kind of postmodern neo-medieval “matrimonial service”, where, in the words of Žižek: “people can fall in love without the fall”. And this is meant to be romantic.
What is puzzling about this is of course that there is a general tendency to try to eliminate tension. And is it not the case, that the sexual tension (total uncertainty) is all excitement there is to romantic love and sex?
Once again, the phenomenology of sexual ideology as a kind of inward mirror might serve as an example. It is for example often thought that sexually conservative people are not worth the effort if you are really looking for sexual activities. But, as said before, what is expressed at face value is more than often the complete opposite to what lures underneath. Or absurdly plainly speaking, people are liars. Think for example of a flirtatious situation in which the other person states “I am a bit prude”, just to ruin your expectations. Do not be fooled, to my interpretation, this always means serious action ahead. What need is there to express prudeness if you are really prude. Just as the old Freudian joke goes: “Why do you tell me that you are going to Krakow when you are really going to Krakow?”
I have heard that even the CIA uses these psychoanalytical techniques when interrogating their tortured subjects. Also, I think Coco Chanel intended something similar when she wrote: “A woman is closest to being naked when she is well-dressed.” Following this logic, by contrast, a person that openly states being sexually promiscuous is always, in the aftermath, proven to be as ravingly boring. The tension is then towed away and the act becomes completely predictable. Therefore, the so called free dialogue on sex, sexual freedom of the West, and all the other banal subjects of sexuality that we are constantly exposed to through the spectacle and image of mass culture only serves the function of banalization and control by exclusion of every tension. Furthermore, the dialogue on sexuality in popular culture, that at first glance seem very liberated from taboos, is in effect also restrained by the manuscript of the (pornographic) Hollywood-style sex act. The only difference that the discourse is obliged to address are those of orientation. So, you would be greatly surprised if you ever visit a dating site solely intended for sexual encounters (which I have only done for scientific reasons, of course); that the kind of desires expressed in individually posted ads on these kind of sites can be breathtakingly outrageous, perverse, dirty and crazy. The tensions arising from this mosaic of sexual desires are certainly threatening to any enlightened dialogue on sexuality – and that is why they are so popular, I think.
Have you noticed that despite all the sexual education we receive in the West, in contrast to the “developing world”, we are still on top of the list when it comes to desist protection. Norway are in fact taking the lead. Let me propose that what we really seek is sin, and unprotected sex might just be one of the last bastions of sexual sins we can enjoy.
Concludingly, tension in this sexually enlightened context (the gardeners regime of popular culture) is the equivalent of “horrible” uncertainty. And it goes exactly the same way with love. If you can clearly state a rational explanation to why you love a person, it is certainly the fact that you do not love at all. Nonetheless, popular wisdom has it that we need to know the exact reason for our pursuit of love.
Owing to these factors, the revolution of sexual freedom in the West, might just be a snake eating its own tail over a larger perspective of time.
Think for example about the almost total taboo on “the body” in sexual discourse. It is as if sexuality is no longer simply about sexual identity and orientation, and preferential “turn-ons”, but rather a kind of discursive attitude of bodily integrity trying to escape every reference to forbidden fruits.
In this regard, let me make some examples of the limits of this approach. Think for instance about the phenomenon of sex chat through writing alone. I have of course not done it myself, but a friend of mine told me everything about it. Anyways, is it not almost a fact that sex chat would be regarded as the most suitable way of sexual intercourse for any postmodern subject. Bodies is retracted from the scene, no smells, sweats, and hideous groans, all you got is a kind of discursive sex. Now, the interesting part with sex chat is that if you engage in sexual activities in this way, through words and imagination alone, you will notice that it is absolutely impossible to avoid words that signify certain eroticized body parts, which are also gender specific. How for instance would you linguistically portray a vaginal penetration without mention of words specific to a distinct sex? A paradox is revealed in which imagined sex is more “bodily” than physical sex.
This is where we eat our tail. Because, is it rather not in the physical reality of sexual activities the place where you can actually avoid mention of these severely politicized concepts, such as “that thing” and “that thing”. Bingo! No need to talk about it when your bodies speak for themselves. Then you simply execute the act of sex in its vulgar bodily sense while maintaining a politically correct and proper distance towards the discourse of differences between the sexes and so on, simply by not talking or linguistically narrativize it at all. But while doing it through the mediation of text, which should be the proper postmodern way of doing it, then it is simply impossible. Notwithstanding your intentions, you are forced into deployment of some kind of “feminist blasphemy”.
Concludingly, sex itself, in our Western society, is effectively pornographic and has but a fictional depth. My bottom line is that once you indulge in so much public exposure of skin and body as we do today, everything becomes effectively de-erotized. It has to be forbidden in order for it to be authentically erotic. So, welcome to the new Victorian era of de-erotized sex. Completely liberated from everything, and especially our precious tensions…
But! There is a hidden stray of light on the subject of Love after all. At least, our fatal fear of love, clearly proves that we actually believe in it.
Text: Dennis Halvordsson