The Meaning of Sex

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. It means we have no authority to tell a partner, “you’re obviously wrong for what you like or do sexually; you should want what I want–sex the ‘right way.'” Sex having no meaning requires that we trust ourselves when being sexual. First, it means making choices from a vast array of options. Will we make good choices? Choices that reveal things about us which we’re defended against? This is far worse than simply being exposed as having lust in your heart. Will we be attracted to activities that “good people” are not? Will our choices hurt our partner, our family, our country?

Second, you have to trust sex. Will it take you so far out you can’t come back? Will you have your eyes put out by its brightness or darkness? It’s like reaching into the back of a cave without knowing what’s back there. It takes courage.

Third, you have to trust your partner. Can s/he handle whatever you create sexually? Can s/he go to new sexual vistas with you as you invent them, or will you find yourself alone? Will s/he go further or faster than you, also leaving you feeling alone? In reality, sex is almost always an experience of oscillation: of partners being alone and then finding each other, again and again. Can you tolerate being parallel and then coming together, then separating again moments later, trusting that you’ll find your way back toward each other?

Finally, you have to trust that you’re adequate–that is, that your body will respond to whatever challenge sex presents. In reality, that’s redundant, because sex only exists in the body, and so sex can’t present challenges your body can’t handle. In this sense, losing an erection, for example, is a perfect response to whatever is going on at the moment. Only if we have a particular, arbitrary standard for our body’s behavior is a lost erection problematic.

Many troubling behaviors reflect how badly people wish sex to have meaning. To sustain the illusion that it does, for example, American society is willing to persecute some members through laws regulating consensual sexual behavior or preventing sex education. This is why people are invested in others’ sexuality–because it feels dangerous to have alternative models of sexuality floating around. In this sense, the desire for sex to have meaning makes society a theocracy, with the government, organized religion, and media its priesthood.

This wish for sexual meaning is also behind the common desire for special rules to govern sexual behavior and decision-making. This is an example of the wish, as Fromm called it, to escape from freedom: to avoid taking responsibility for the complex and (it feels) dangerous richness of our sexuality. Ecstatic sexuality–that is, body-centered instead of mind-controlled–is possible only if we let go of socially-constructed, alleged ontological boundaries of sex. People fear this is the same thing as letting go of ethical boundaries, which is not true. Ethical boundaries regarding sexuality do not require some arbitrary, objective ontological boundaries being imposed on the sexual body and mind. This insight (in addition to an actual code of ethics) is part of the treasure that Secular Humanism can offer.

Humanism should be vigorously developing a dialogue that addresses sexuality’s ecstatic nature through a non-moralistic, non-dogmatic exploration. Humanism should be helping people understand sexuality in its mysterious yet non-mystical, meaningful (emergent) yet not Meaningful (objective), sacred yet non-religious grandeur.

Ironically, the sanctified meaning that people want sex to have blocks access to the very transcendent qualities they claim they desire. By confronting this personal and social reification, Humanism could give people a chance to have the profound sexual experiences whose possibilities are wired into both the human body and the mind’s capacity to bond with others.

So is sex meaningless? Yes and no. It is meaningless in the objective or philosophic sense. But, for better or worse, it is meaningful on the personal, experiential level. One reason that people have sex is to be periodically renewed, nourished in their experience of whatever kind of meaning they expect–whether that meaning involves intimacy, closeness, pleasure, creativity, bodily perfection, or the promise that life is OK.

The desire to pretend that sex has meaning is understandable. It indicates a desire to be grounded, to depend on something. But developmentally, we all have to get off the floor and walk, even though it seems so terribly high up there, and the floor seems so terribly hard, and falling is so terribly scary.

As with all fears, how we respond to this one is a clear statement of where we are. Pretending we don’t have this fear is immature, and it prevents us from moving forward. Acknowledging this fear is a prerequisite for constructing a mature universe.

So we need to deal with this fear by confronting it: by looking sex straight in the eye of its deep, black maw, and walking straight in–whistling a happy tune, if necessary–trusting sex and ourselves, knowing that the worst thing that can happen is merely that we’ll have an experience we don’t want to repeat.

Because we can’t learn to walk without falling a few times. The question is, what’s more important–learning how to walk, or preventing a few bumps and sprains?

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