From an evolutionary perspective sex is a relatively new phenomenon, which may be why we haven’t quite yet mastered it. But the so loudly applauded advent of free sex appears to be undermining Western society. It is possible to bring together spirituality and love. Ode went in search of the love behind the lust.
During the 10th and 11th centuries in the Indian town of Khajuraho a remarkable series of ‘sex temples’ was built. Temples with the most explicit images of erotic encounters. Men and women in all kinds of positions, even people with animals. All that in structures reaching up to God. Sex, it was thought, was the path to spirituality. The Khajuraho built their temples to exhibit the secret potential of sex to all.
During that same era, Western societies were doing everything they could to suppress sexuality and keep it behind closed doors. They lived for centuries without having a clue about the positive nature of sex. Taboos were used to restrain this tremendous, startling power. Sex was the night, sex was mysterious and dirty; something to be played out secretly in the dark.
Europe hit a turning point in the 1960s. Subjects that had been off limits for ages were suddenly opened up for discussion. For many this was a liberating breakthrough. Oppressed women found freedom. Homosexuals who had stayed ‘in the closet’ for fear of public disapproval, no longer had to suppress their feelings. Then things started to move fast. Once the dams had burst, sex rushed from the darkness past the light and into the floodlights. Or rather, into the television lights. According to the new adage, everything had to be public and television producers were only to happy to go with the flow.
Now sex is everywhere. Increasingly explicit, in more and more programmes on more and more channels. Nearly every television commercial, advertisement, billboard and music video makes an implicit reference to sex. The financial and moral barriers that kept prostitution and porn films out of the public eye have been eliminated by the arrival of so many commercial television channels and websites.
But the freedom we have gained is not – as was the case in Khajuraho – directed towards higher goals. Free sex appears to be linked to advancing individualism and materialism. Sex has become mechanical, a purely physical act. The concept of the ‘darkroom’, where you can’t even see your sex partner, is clear proof that intimacy has transformed into anonymity. Humans appear to have become (sex) machines, just an instrument for someone else’s pleasure. The language has adjusted accordingly: ‘machines’ don’t feel, they achieve. Accessories, lubricants and replaceable parts – such as silicone implants – are meant to increase ‘performance’ and ‘potency’. It’s like listening to an accountant. The word ‘partner’, that previously emerged as an alternative for ‘spouse’ or ‘girlfriend’, was probably the precursor to this about face. Love, it appears, is no longer shared but consumed.
We might ask ourselves whether the so widely applauded advent of free sex is in fact undermining society. In this new age of freedom, people are increasingly alone and afraid. People are increasingly emotionally and spiritually unable to make commitments and look to sex as a last resort to give their life meaning. For them, sex has become a matter of life and death. They have become obsessed like needy little children that want, want, want…
But if you can’t stop eating you never have time to digest properly. To paraphrase Freud: we display in violent and obsessive ways that which we do not fully possess or have access to at a deeper level. That is to say, if you exhibit your sexuality in a highly preoccupied and exaggerated fashion you probably haven’t discovered the heart of sex nor made sex a fully integrated part of your individual and social life.
The overwhelming torrent of sexual images in the media has created confusion. In a desperate attempt to fathom sex, we have thrown caution to the wind. But is this really the way to understand the essence of sex – i.e. intimacy? Can intimacy actually be exhibited?
A quote: ‘Ultimately, a million people enjoy my programme on Monday evenings. They like to watch, they think it’s hot to call sex lines and love to masturbate on the internet. Go for it. And by all means, keep calling me a lewd porn prince. No problem. At the end of the day I drive home and close the door behind me. And I don’t hear a thing. Nothing at all.’
These are the words of Menno Buch, the creator of a television sex programme that prompted a up-swelling of disgust and outrage in the Netherlands, despite its fairly liberal culture. When Buch talks, he sounds like an arms dealer who doesn’t care who is buying his products as long as he makes enough money. Clearly there is a market for weapons, as there is a market for virtual sex. But does that mean it is a good thing – morally speaking – to make and sell weapons? Or to make porn films?
Television stations gamble with the ‘moral dignity’ of their viewers. In this respect, the degree of lewdness in their programmes’ portends little that is positive. After all, how does a mother who has lived out her fantasy of having sex on camera with a uniformed police officer expect people will react when she goes to pick up her daughters at school the next day? And what sort of reactions might we expect from another officer who saw the programme and runs into this woman a day later?
Weapons – we can safely say – destroy societies. How often do Europeans point to America’s gun culture as an explanation for the country’s high crime statistics and relatively large number of shooting deaths? Apparently, if you allow weapons to be freely exchanged you breach a moral boundary, thus releasing dangerous forces. Sex is just as dangerous. Slip-ups can destroy marriages. Sex is ultimately a power we have not mastered.
‘Safe sex’ is therefore a hollow term. Isn’t it a little like ‘peaceful nuclear weapons’ or ‘preventative warfare’? When it comes to sex, safety is about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, but not about the essence of sexual contact – not about feelings. Emotionally sex is extremely unsafe. People don’t get involved in relationships on your television screen. They use each other. Sooner or later someone always ends up getting hurt.
So, is this an appeal for a return to chastity, to the taboos of days gone by? No, absolutely not. The answer does not lie in the past. Nor does it involve moralising and rule making, although it is legitimate to ask why commerce is allowed to flood society with sex while in Europe legislators are considering banning smoking in films. Luckily, life is an individual responsibility. Ethics are a personal issue. It makes no sense to point the finger expectantly at what we see on our television screen if we aren’t prepared to turn the television off. Who was it that once said: ‘What if they gave a war and nobody came?’
Fast, free sex stands in the way of sustainable bonds, which are essential to society. If we degrade love to individual pleasure, we also degrade the values associated with it. Society becomes ‘worthless’. A society without the values of care, solidarity and responsibility will fall apart, will disintegrate. The result is nothing less than decadence – which is precisely one of the characteristics of a culture in decline, as determined by ‘civilisation watchers’ Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee in their historic studies of civilisations. When – due to boredom – people no longer have a reason to live, a culture dies. This is what happened to the Chinese, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans.
Sex is not an isolated phenomenon. Sex cannot be separated from love, marriage, family and society. It is the energy that brings men and women together. And the future is born out of that togetherness. If lovers only had a cursory connection, they wouldn’t have to get married. They apparently marry to form a communion. Marriage seals the intention that love and faithfulness take priority over desire and profit. And sex feeds the fires of love. In his book ‘The Soul of Sex’, Thomas Moore writes: ‘Marital sex is actually a type of ecology, a way to take responsibility for ourselves in the world, to contribute to the creation and development of the community and to plant the seed of love in a world that yearns for harmony.’
It is an art to keep the flame of love burning. To keep marital sex from getting boring. Practising that art form is more than just striving for sensual pleasure. It is more than trying out the latest tips from Cosmopolitan. It is giving your own life meaning by flowing together with another being. Sex in particular points to a new life purpose. Eros is a tyrant that ensnares people in his grip, Plato wrote. But Eros is also the creative life energy from which everything emanates.
It appears that the Hindus in Khajuraho were not far off the mark with their belief that sex was related to spirituality and higher values. The challenge is to truly fathom sexuality and sexual energy. To make room for Eros so that his overwhelming energy doesn’t swallow us in its passion. And therein lies the secret of sex. The serial lover ends up like a consumer who ultimately discovers that buying more doesn’t lead to more happiness. It’s about quality, not quantity. It’s about bringing sex and love together. To do this, we have to be more accepting of sex, open ourselves up more; truly give yourself to another instead of ‘using’ the other as an instrument for your own pleasure. Allow your soul to meet another soul on an intangible level. To know and honour the other, to dedicate yourself to him or her. The human essence lies hidden in that joining. Therein lies the fulfilment, the ultimate ‘pleasure’ that every human seeks. Sex is what can lead us to that goal – not in a dark room, but in a temple.