Thoughts on intimacy from one who appreciates it a great deal.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why Sex?

It’s what sells everything marketable, spices up films and TV, floods the internet, and reportedly crosses a young man’s mind every three seconds. Downright disgusting. We have a love/hate relationship with sex: we are sick of it appearing everywhere and yet we can never seem to get enough. What is it with sex that everybody knows what it is and yet it is indefinable, transitory and it entirely escapes any attempt to civilize it? Why can’t we just grow up and move on?

I agree with Thomas Moore, who says in his wise and delightful book "The Soul of Sex", that it is precisely because we cannot truly absorb its nourishment that we become so obsessed with sex. Sex is a wildness loose inside our humanity that will forever remain outside of our attempts to control or even understand it.

As a sculptor who has worked with the subject of the nude for 30 years I have to wrestle with the volatile dynamics of a subject that no longer refers primarily to the fertile human as it did the prehistoric peoples, the beautiful human as it did to the ancient Greeks, or the glorious human as it did the Renaissance Italians. I can’t seem to make an image of a nude without its referring first of all to the human whose sexuality is uncovered. I remain perpetually astonished at both how much power the sexual aspect of the image of the human body wields and at how blind we sometimes seem to be about it. It strikes me as highly curious that with so much focus in American culture on sex and its effects on our lives there is yet so little dialogue about its symbolic meaning.

For instance, the issue of sex in advertising is a constant controversy in the media, which, not to be left out of the action, is well aware of how to attract readers and viewers. That conversation regularly rehearses the moral, esthetic, psychological and constitutional issues, but we rarely hear about the symbolic implications of sex.

In fact we’ve only recently begun to hear a flurry of voices questioning some of the basic assumptions of cultural mind that sets the stage for how we all think, even if we consciously disagree with that mind. The collective belief holds that sex as simultaneously necessary, good, even holy, but naughty and inappropriate; a fuzzy combination of the roots of our Puritan-spiked religious heritage with the goofy effects of the sexual revolution. Our cultural wisdom tells us we are merely animals, right fine ones mind you, but still biological organisms who will never be separated from certain barnyard behaviors. Boys will be boys and let’s just try to concentrate and move on...

Yet we can’t seem to make any sense of human sexual programming using biological math. We find ourselves puzzling over the human being’s notorious dissatisfaction with the sexual schedule happily embraced by the rest of our furry family. If the beasts can raise a perfectly respectable household by making whoopee once a year, it stands to reason that even that might be extravagant for the naked apes, for whom a mere few dates during the under grad years would keep the species clipping along at a fine rate of return. But every three seconds? And what the heck, then, is the female orgasm for? No, biology is little help in addressing our fixation with sex.

Our Christian forefathers were a testy lot who only just barely managed to not utterly ruin the faith they espoused, like a wad of boys charged with safely delivering the Christmas pudding. Among many other things that made them lethally (murderously?) nervous was the practice of alchemy, the early stirrings of science, which threatened the Catholic church’s monopoly on the truth. One reason for their wrath may be the illustrations that accompanied some of the secret alchemical texts, showing the kind of material that could secure for a filmmaker today a coveted “R” rating: pages and pages of drawings of a king and queen cavorting naked (often in a fountain!) and finally coming together in, well, bliss. Yet the alchemists weren’t a ring of underground purveyors of pornographic woodcuts, they were serious scholars and scientists from whose studies sprung modern disciplines we could not do without today, like medicine, chemistry and secret Masonic rituals. Why were important scholars so interested in a bunch of drawings that are not only nasty but really not all that well done? I think answer can tell us a lot about our own view of sex.

Can you imagine a technical treatise today using drawings of couples engaged in foreplay wearing nothing but their tiaras to illustrate scientific principles? Hey, don’t laugh-- if we could get our minds beyond the immediate embarrassment of contemplating images of what we today can only see as porn, we could begin to see their symbolic appropriateness. In the alchemical texts, sex between the partners represents the powerful transformation that occurs with joining of opposites, referred to variously as male and female, sun and moon, metal and sulfur, etc., but depicted as a couple getting it on. Symbols for the union of celestial or chemical bodies carry no transcendent meaning for us, but the union of opposites in the man and woman-- now there is a metaphor we can really sink our teeth into!

The pioneer psychologist Carl Jung was the one who really shed light on the richness of this metaphor when he dredged these moldy woodcuts out of medieval alchemy texts to use as illustrations of the psychic processes that describe the nature of transformation, not only as it appears in the physical world, but in the way that is more immediately crucial to each of us- within our own psyches. The mysterious internal process of “integration” that Jung identified as being the psychic homework of every human being is best symbolized by the energetic and ineffable activity of- sex!

Suddenly it makes perfect sense that while our close cousins the animals are quite happy with scoring once a year, we feel deprived if we have to wait till Saturday night! An animal’s imperative is merely a biological one which requires nothing more than the continuation of its species. But humans are given the Godlike gift of consciousness that endows us with power unimaginable by the rest of life. We therefore have the even more grave responsibility to transcend the human that can invent such things as the A-bomb with a humanity that can overcome its own threat to the very existence of that life.

Frederick Turner in his book, "Beauty: The Value of Values", suggests that human sexuality actually borrows much of its power from an underlying human drive toward beauty, a universal attractor that indicates the direction of evolution in the universe, to which the human is extremely sensitive. I heartily agree, and would add that there is also an imperative woven into the fabric of the universe that everything be creative to the fullest of its ability. For the animal kingdom that means hooking up every time the bell rings. But for humans the assignment is much more complex, demanding all our astounding creative capacities.

Humans are the only life forms we know that have the ability not only to reproduce our own form, but to create totally new forms, and in fact to continually upgrade humanity itself. I think we are obsessed with sex because it is the perfect symbol for a psychic programming that constantly urges us through the difficult process of transformation through uniting the opposites within us. If I can look at sex and the powerful attraction it carries– both in my own self and in the culture I live in– as a symbol of the crucial process of transformation, I can redeem my obsession with it. Perhaps the real reason we are so captivated with sex is not because we are otherwise in danger of depopulating, or because we are bad children who are using the gonads God gave us against God’s own wishes. Perhaps the reason is that we are charged with the most important work in all of evolution-- sex is a metaphor for our own transformation, a serious duty we mustn’t be allowed to forget.

The big question of history is whether the human species can use its imagination to create the morality necessary to handle responsibly the power of its own creations that now threaten life on earth. Will the king of technology be able to unite with the queen of wisdom, the king of globalization with the queen of fairness, the king of power with the queen of love? It’s clear that the very survival of the entire story of life on earth comes down to successful human sex!! Metaphorically speaking. So indeed spending one second out of three thinking about sex IS disgusting. It’s a waste of two seconds! 

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