Press Release for tomorrow’s Erotic Literary Salon. Come early for a good seat, doors open at 6:30. Ask to be introduced to Frances, the Salon’s nonagenarian. She loves to speak with people and assure them sexuality never ends.
“The Meaning of Sex” according to Dr. Marty Klein, renowned sexologist.
Sex has no intrinsic Meaning.
Almost everyone wishes it did.
The desire to give sex meaning is an understandable, important enterprise. Honestly approached, it can be a valuable exercise; disguised as the righteous desire to simply appreciate the meaning sex has, or as the pursuit of restoring sex’s “true” meaning, it is a common source of conflict for both individuals and society.
Sex only has meaning insofar as we experience it. Its meaning is emergent, not objective. We discover the meaning of sex each time we have it, meaning that only resides in our experience. The meaning of sex changes–is reinvented–each time we participate in it.
Most people need sex to have meaning because the alternative is too frightening: having sex in an existential vacuum. Sex without meaning would require participants to float freely in sexual experience, rather than being snugly anchored in a cognitive framework, an explanation.
This is scary because of our indoctrination that sex is bad. We learn that we need protection from our sexuality: its non-linear, open-ended nature, its cacophony of impulses and feelings, its transcendent possibility of taking us away from ourselves. We might not, after all, make it back.
Because sex is ultimately grounded in the body, it is a right-brain, non-linear experience, not a left-brain, cognitive one. Of course, sex can be analyzed, evaluated, and so on, but not as part of the experience. Having sex and understanding sex are two separate activities, much like eating and understanding nutrition are two separate activities. Trying to understand nutrition or digestion while eating undermines the sensuality and enjoyment offered by the experience of dining.
“Sex” is not limited to intercourse; not even limited, in fact, to genital activities. In reality, “sex” describes a huge range of activities. This is half of a dialectic: many things can be sex because sex has whatever meaning we experience moment by moment; and sex has an infinite range of meanings because the scope of activities that can properly be called sexual is so vast.
People who believe they know the objective meaning of sex can easily say what sex is and what it isn’t. Their dichotomy is clear, the sexual side predictably narrow. That’s one reason such people can be so self-righteous about what humans should and should not do sexually.
“Intimacy,” for example, is a common rallying point for people who need sex to have Meaning. “Intimacy” (which, it should be noted, means radically different things to different people) is fine. But setting it up as a standard for “good” sexuality creates a hierarchy of sexual experiences, downplaying or even excluding many of its most important aspects.
This must be true regardless of the particular meaning people decide sex “really” has. In this sense, traditional Christianity and other sex-negative institutions are not the only source of sexual repression in our culture. Rigidity about sexual experience, meaning, and decision-making is the true culprit.
Organized Humanism, for example, stands opposed to religious concepts of sex being inherently evil. But to the extent that Humanism is attempting to discover some secular “true meaning” of sex, it colludes with society’s conceptual rigidity. Ultimately, it is different from other sexual dogmas only in content.
With the perspective that sex has only emergent meaning, we can experience a huge range of sexual feelings and meanings. Without this perspective, much of this range is either invisible, or worse, repugnant and, by definition, excluded.
Sexuality, for example, has a dark side. One can deal with this in many ways, but an experience-based model of sexuality does not judge this fact. Instead it accepts it, makes room for it, plays with it or not, but always respects it.
If, however, one believes sex has a revealed meaning–say, it must always “nurture a relationship”–then there’s no room in the model for sex to have a dark side. One has to deny that it’s there, say it reflects a perverse mind, weed it out, destroy it–because its existence threatens the model of what sex can be. This is a primary source of censorship and other repressive movements.
The fact that sex has no intrinsic meaning is, actually, its ultimate positive quality. It gives us the opportunity to discover an infinite number of meanings in sex, and to use sex as a vehicle for self-exploration. And it gives us the chance to play, in the purest sense of the word.
But the fact that sex has no meaning is scary. It means that every time you have sex you’re adrift. It means you have to take responsibility for your choices and experiences. If you believe that sex is dangerous, of course, or if you believe that sex is so powerful that it can destroy you, this is a terrifying prospect.
Sex’s lack of meaning is also scary because it means our partners are not accountable to objective criteria, and therefore not subject to our control.