It isn’t just the French la petite mort — the “little death” — that binds the mysteriously opposed forces of sex and death together. Death has long been associated with sex in strange and often spiritual ways, from the ancient Egyptian myths of Osiris and Isis to the strange attraction many women have to serial killers (1, 2, 3), and even to simple images that remind them of death. From the perspective of sex as pure pleasure, this association seems counter-intuitive, if not outright absurd.
There is another perspective, however: a view from which this emergent association — which clearly does exist — can be understood, and even appreciated.
First, sex as pure pleasure is a fairly modern association. This is not because sex wasn’t enjoyable before recent times (it undoubtedly was), but because sex was intimately tied in with something else: creation. Before the days of condoms and birth-control pills, making a child was always a possible outcome of sex. After millions of generations of this association, it’s hard to imagine a few decades of a work-around erasing this connection. It’s older than our species, after all.
Secondly, another association that modernity has tried to hide is between creation and destruction. All life comes from death. Even vegetarian animals destroy plant-life to survive and reproduce, and nothing needs to be explained about carnivores like ourselves. If someone were to become a Jain and only eat plant-matter which had already died, death would still be required in order to sustain their life. By circumnavigating killing, the Jain still does not avoid the inevitable necessity of death. For one to live, another must die.
Sex is creates life; life requires death.
This seemingly abstract and esoteric construction becomes a lot more literal when you consider what is involved in parenting. For women, children place an enormous strain on the body, altering it forever, and sometimes even killing the mother in childbirth. Assuming all goes well, children still take extraordinary amounts of time and attention… in short, of life. They rob you of sleep, money, and may require you to put your own life at risk in order to protect them.
Having a child is a decision to sacrifice a significant portion of your life. Orgasm isn’t just “the little death” as an experiential description; sex is suicide. It is a game of Russian roulette with diseases and complications with birth, and a certain loss of two decades — minimum — of your life.
This is not to say that the life you may create isn’t extraordinary, meaningful, and wonderful to experience. It is all of these things, and it is still suicide by degrees.
But this association doesn’t make sex something fearful… at least, not so fearful as to dissuade people from participation. To the contrary, it makes sex more intimate, more exciting, more important and meaningful. The connection with death is what makes sex powerful.
Sex between a man and a woman is the point at which thanatos and eros merge, where self-destruction and self-creation intertwine, and the continuation of one’s identity is achieved through another person. Biologically and spiritually speaking, it is one of the most powerful things people can do.
This gives us more reason to reconsider the benefits of the sexual revolution, which — besides not delivering the promised goods — may not have been worth the rewards even if everyone was getting the “free love” envisioned in the 60’s. The dream of the sexual revolution was a dream of sex divorced from death, from consequences, and the belief that this divorce would lead to more sex for everyone. To life, without death.
But there is no life without death. The divorce from death took the life out of sex, and turned it into a kind of masturbation with another’s body. Still physically gratifying, still fun, but fruitless. You’re still dying; you’re just dying slower, and with nothing to show. It turns sex from an act of self-sacrificial creation with another person into a mundane escape from boredom. And this, it only does partially. The power and meaning of sex are too old in our species to simply reason away. In keeping ourselves carnally entertained, we still feel the spiritual death that was always associated with death, but without the discrimination that is possible for those who remember the association between sex and death. These people lose bits of their heart with every partner, like a layer of paper left behind with the glue when two bound sheets are ripped apart.
Sex without death isn’t so much bad as it is impossible. But the illusion of sex apart from death leads to a slow, lingering death — spiritually, and eventually, physically — without ever feeling the intense connection that is possible when two people choose to die together. Perhaps without leaving a living legacy behind.
By contrast, sex enjoyed in the knowledge of the death it entails is a cosmically significant act, of creation, destruction, and transformation, achieved through a unification of opposites. Understanding this allows for sex that — for most people — is the closest to divinity they may ever reach in their mortal lives.