Sex and the Soul

This signpost says “Cliff Ahead.”

I posted this picture from Bellevue College on facebook a while back as a sarcastic example of “tax-dollars well-spent.” But there are many ways that tax-dollars are misused, particularly in education. The important point that I implied, but neglected to explain in full length, was why this constituted a poor use of tax dollars, and was a bad idea in general: not because of what it did, but because of what it signaled–a broad, cultural acceptance of just-for-pleasure sex. It’s a complex, mostly intuitive–rather than logical–line of thought, unsuited for concise explanations in the comments section of social media. And so I will try to outline my thoughts here.

Part of the problem is our language, which sometimes lacks the proper words to express our ideas. In this particular case, however, there is a foreign phrase that will do the job nicely, and lay the groundwork for my criticism of institutional cultural support for no-strings-attached, recreational sex.

In Japanese, “ikigai” translates roughly as one’s “reason for being.” When my martial arts instructor first taught it to me when I was a young kid in Middle School, it was a person’s “reason to wake up in the morning.” It is this concept, which we have no real equivalent for in English beyond a particular use of “purpose,” that hangs in the balance on the subject. One could say it is a kind of “soul.” We will return to this.

Humans are sexual creatures. It takes no PhD in physiology or psychology to understand this. We are designed to have sex, possibly with multiple people, and, if one is teleologically inclined, this makes sex “good” by definition. I tend to be so-inclined myself, and enjoy sex as much as the next person (and more than many). But we are designed to enjoy sex for a particular purpose–to reproduce–and the challenges of achieving that goal in the past made having an excessively powerful sex-drive necessary to motivate us to this purpose. Now, just as we want more sugar than we ought to, we want more sex than we strictly need. This, in itself, is not a bad thing, just as enjoying sugar is not a bad thing. It is pleasurable, after all.

But with sugar, there is a cost. It can rot our teeth fairly quickly. It can make us feel lethargic and unenergetic. It gives certain people acne; for others, it may lower their immune system. In large quantities over a long period of time, it can give us diabetes. And so a short-term spike in hedonistic pleasure is off-put by a long-term decline in general well-being.

Is this an argument against ever eating sugar? Absolutely not (though others make compelling cases to do exactly that). We can enjoy sugar in moderation; hell, good luck trying to stop people from enjoying sugar. And good on them. It’s tasty, it’s quick energy, and it isn’t so bad if you brush your teeth, exercise, and eat your veggies too. That said, there is no need for the government to step in and encourage sugar-eating. It’s unnecessary in the extreme, given our innate desire to consume the stuff. If anything, an official, half-hearted warning about the stuff, as we more or less have it now, is the healthier option.

“I see the analogy you are trying to make,” the reader may be wondering, “but what, pray tell, are the downsides of sex, metaphorically equivalent to sugar?”

Remarkably similar to those of pot, as it happens. There is very good reason to believe that increased sexual activity reduces testosterone in men, but we don’t particularly need to refer to studies to observe the effects. We can observe them for ourselves. Just as frequent use of THC has a habit of putting many people in a state of happiness that no longer requires self-improvement and achievement to maintain, sex is often the goal-post pushing people (men in particular) to do great things, so as to become sex-worthy. Nikola Tesla is a prominent example of someone who completely abstained from sex in order to maintain his drive to create and accomplish, but he is far from the only one. As feminist Camille Paglia argued, all of civilization is more or less built on the shoulders of male sexuality.

Is this true of all people? No, of course not. There are plenty of functional pot-heads. But when a lifestyle is endorsed and advocated officially, the exceptional individuals often lose sight of the broader effects of their own functional lifestyle’s dysfunctional effects on society writ large. The functional social drinker easily forgets there are alcoholics in the world, and where sex, drugs, video-games, and the like are concerned, the average man is the alcoholic.

Following the philosophical rabbit hole down a bit further, one could be justified in saying “screw civilization,” and instead just screw attractive others all their life. This seems to be the direction we’re taking now; if we build great things in order to achieve sex, then why build great things if we can just have sex, without all that hard work? This seems to be the Brave New World that our present cultural elite believe in academia believe we ought to aspire to, and is the destination the mile-marker above (the Sex Toy Safety workshop poster) counts down the distance to. Free love, a perfect human world where none suffer, where everyone would be “happy.” Not unlike the first matrix described by Agent Smith in The Matrix:

No, a reference to a work of fiction does not in itself a bulletproof argument make (and, of course, Smith is somewhat off in his diagnosis–“suffering” is not the missing ingredient, but that elusive ikigai). But there is a substantial body of observation, research, and personal experience validating the emptiness and lifelessness–the purposelessness–of pure hedonism. From the Roman stoics to zen priests, from Victor Frankl to Aldous Huxley, and from observation that anyone can verify, we know that we derive our sense of purpose–our ikigai–from challenges that take time, effort, and risk. Having this driving reason for waking up in the morning is not only the grounds of our own sense of contentment and pride in our own life, but is also the source for admiration and love from others too. We know how things like drugs, video games, sex, and other pleasurable distractions erode the motivation and will to accomplish these things, even in small quantities. In those small quantities, of course, we find what is colloquially called a “balanced life.” At the upper extremes of achievement, happiness seems elusive. But we are, collectively, seemingly on a mission to justify living at the other end, seeking first to achieve “happiness,” and then pay verbal homage to the merits of work, accomplishment, etc, without understanding the intimate relationship between these two aspects of life.

So what is wrong with the institutional acceptance of recreational sex? The poor health of officially-endorsed sugary diets. The same thing that would be wrong with governmental programs advocating daily drugging (and not even just those who might have ADD), or tacitly endorsing children playing more video games, or watching more TV. Official support for sexual promiscuity pulls the weight from the scale balancing out our excessive sex-drive–a balance that brings us long-term happiness and fulfillment in addition to a pleasurable sex-life–and adds that weight to the other side of the scale, grabbing people by the older, reptilian scruff of the brain and tossing their helpless bodies towards a progressive-hedonistic lifestyle that is empty, purposelessness, and depressing, even in its physical pleasure.

Put more bluntly, cultural affirmation of casual sex eats away at the soul–the ikigai–just as affirmation of video games, drugs, and other distractions are beginning to.

True, the poster is about safety, but so too would be a “gaming-positive” seminar on good exercise habits for children who wish to play more video games. Acceptance of the premise sneaks in under the protection of a universally agreed-upon value.

The Millenial generation has grown up with these distractions more than any previous generation, and our collective mental health reflects this. We are more depressed, more anxious, more neurotic, more easily distracted, and feel more adrift than previous generations; in search of an identity and a mission, but finding only empty pleasure instead. The poster is not a cause of this, at least not a very direct one; it is not even a particularly vibrant highlight of this human cascade into oblivion. But it is one more reminder that it is happening, a small sign on the road, saying “John’s Lighthouse: 80 miles.” It’s certainly where we’re going, and it seems to be the intended destination.

The best way to put it is that, like Ayn Rand’s virtue of selfishness, the modern support for sex and society commits the crime of supererogation–it’s too strenuous. As Lillian Hellman said, “the forms of fucking do not require my endorsement,” with toys or without.

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