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An exchange on sex

A sexual leftist who calls himself a cultural conservative asked someone on an email list

Why don’t we ponder what you consider “perfection” when it comes to sex? What are these “standards” to which you aspire? A sublime feeling of oneness with your beloved? A knockout orgasm? Or does “perfection” lie in knowing what you’re NOT doing?

My response:

An excellent question. Because it’s such a good question the answer depends on very basic features of human life. If one’s view is that the moral reality of human life is generated out of individual sensations and longings then the first two answers might seem appealing. Unfortunately, those answers don’t really satisfy anyone. That’s why romantic love is so closely associated with death, and why in practice it doesn’t lead to the eternal faithfulness one would expect from “sublime oneness.”

The reason the first two answers can’t be satisfying is that human experience is not self-sufficient. It requires something beyond it to give it sense and unity. The “knockout orgasm” and the sublime unity one hopes to find in the arms of the beloved are attempts to get beyond experience while staying within the limits of experience. They can’t work. Intense experience is still just experience, and when it passes the illusion of “something more” that it generates passes too.

So what to do? Since the road of excess leads to disillusionment rather than directly to the palace of wisdom, one possibility is the road of limitation. So a good beginning is Mr. [X]’s third possibility, avoiding the things that the voice of cultural tradition says you should avoid. As the tone of his question suggests, though, in the long run that’s not enough either.

What’s needed is a grasp of what motivates the prohibitions. One motivation is that sex points to something permanent and fundamental to human life that is beyond immediate experience. The incompleteness of the sexual experience by itself and the sort of thing required to fulfill it are already understood in the longing for a “sublime feeling of oneness” of which Mr. X speaks. Man is body and soul, practical and spiritual, individual and social, time-bound and capable of participating in enduring things. So what’s needed to do justice to sex is an arrangement that makes it integral to the joining of two persons in a permanent union that is practical as well as spiritual and provides the physical and spiritual link between those two persons and the extension of the human race in space and time.

In short, sex best achieves its internal goals within a permanent marriage of a man and woman ordered toward procreation and the rearing of children. Perfection in sex is then the complex of habits and attitudes that best contributes to that order of things. Which, fortunately, is the answer cultural conservatism gives us. Because if cultural conservatism were radically wrong on something as basic to human life as sex, why bother with it?

Mr. X also asked:

Has anyone on this listserv had to cope with a gay child or other close relative? How have you dealt with it…or would you deal with it? Disownment? Banishment from the bourgeois hearth? Or just a lot of name-calling?

I responded in part:

The alternatives Mr. [X] offers suggest a thoroughly manipulative attitude toward life and human relations … The suggestion that those are the possibilities available to someone with a traditional attitude toward homosexuality reflects the view that sex is just a matter of taste. If it’s just a matter of taste then if what Junior does is not to Mom and Dad’s taste their choices are to accept it or try to get him to stop through means that reflect no concern for his well-being or human dignity and are thus manipulative.

In addition, if something as central to human life as sex is just a matter of taste then there can be very little in human life that isn’t just a matter of taste. If that’s so then all our dealings with others become pervaded with manipulation because we are constantly trying to influence people in some way.

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Comments

Perfection vis a vis the sex act consists in achieving what nature intends: the planting of a seed. Period. This is why the sexual organs are shaped the way they are and why ejaculation results from every male orgasm. Nature intends for the farmer (man) with his stick to plant a seed in the earth (woman).

All other arguments are extraneous. Either nature intends something by the sexual act or it doesn’t. (I don’t, in saying this, mean in any way to belittle Mr. Kalb’s answer to Mr. X. I’m simply declaring my own preferred approach, which is to force the opposition to deal with the root question; something they do not want to do.)