In our sex-saturated world, it's hard to imagine that the collective gaze of society toward the erotic is anything but perverse. But exactly the opposite might be true. In fact, it might be sterility and precision that inform us most; and it might also be these that act as the causes of our cultural sexual servitude.
Once again, I turn to the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who raises interesting questions on this mundane yet all-too-elusive topic. Taking a linguistic cue from Volkmar Sigusch, Bauman elaborates on the juxtaposition of ars erotica and scientia sexualis—the latter being the unacknowledged zeitgeist of modern sex, including its well-known but easily glossed tensions and frustrations.
It looks as if Anteros, [writes Bauman,] Eros’s brother and the ‘vengeful genius of rejected love,’ has taken over from his dethroned brother the rule over the kingdom of sex. ‘Today, sexuality no longer epitomizes the potential for pleasure and happiness. It is no longer mystified, positively, as ecstasy and transgression, but negatively instead, as the source of oppression, inequality, violence, abuse, and deadly infection.’
Anteros was reputedly a highly passionate, prurient, excitable and hot-tempered fellow, but once he became the undisputed lord of the realm he must have forbidden passions among his subjects and proclaimed sex to be a rational, soberly calculated, all-risks-counted, rule-following, and above all totally demystified and disenchanted action. ‘The gaze of scientists,’ says Sigusch, ‘was always cool and detached: there were to be no secrets.’ Result? ‘Today everyone is in the know, and no one has the faintest idea.’ (Liquid Love, p. 39)
The result of this arrangement, as we well know, is an increase—not a decrease—in the misery that scientia sexualis was poised to alleviate.
Demand for services (for new and improved services, yet ‘more of the same’ nevertheless) tends to grow, not diminish, as the services repeatedly fail to deliver on their promise. ‘Sexual science continues to exist nevertheless, because sexual misery has refused to disappear.’ (39)
[O]nce cut off from all other human modalities and left solely to their own devices, homini sexuali have become ‘natural objects’ for scientific scrutiny—at home only in the laboratory and the therapist’s surgery, and visible to themselves and others solely in the light of scientist-operated projectors. Besides, the orphaned and bereaved homo sexualis has nowhere else to turn for advice, succour and help. (39–40)
A recent essay in The Guardian on the demise of sex amongst Japanese youth shows the effect of Bauman's scientia sexualis in full color. We're not talking about a demise in traditional sexual mores; we're talking about a demise in sex in general. And this in the midst of one of the world's most sexually permissive cultures. (It stands to note that the protagonist of the story is a former dominatrix, whose newfound angle is convincing clients that in-the-flesh encounters are worth more than private, techno-driven indulgence.) The Japanese trend away from sex and toward computer-aided virtual intimacy is not explicit in Bauman's analysis, but it is an almost certain corollary.
For those who fear the perversion of traditional ideas on the meaning of sexual intimacy, criticism might best be directed not toward the lustful and immodest, but toward the cold and calculated. At the end of the day, it may just be the latter that claims the greatest victory over personal community.
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One fine body…