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)
As Bauman seems to agree, failure to understand is a central feature of “modern love” in general—not, albeit, in an absolute way: We venerate all sorts of certainties, just not many that are aimed at real knowledge (let alone wisdom). The type of surety we value is predominantly pragmatic, maybe even exclusively pragmatic. And this exists alongside, although quite separately from, the more Dionysian indulgence that marks the content of our certain acts. After all, what defines loosely committed relationships more than the requirement of knowing, with great clarity, the exact limits and breaking points of “loose commitments” (i.e., the most paradigmatically practical question one, in such a situation, could ask)? Any amount of self-indulgence and ecstasy seeking cannot replace this as the essential quality of, for example, shacking up.
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)
This occurs, Bauman suggests, since the very means of scientia sexualis require a perpetuation of their object. (Where science tends toward more perfect knowledge of its subject, a honed science of the carnal—an inseparable principle of personal being—must result de facto in further alienation of sexual activity from other aspects of human well-being.) The result informs a new approach to the meaning of man at his core:
[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)
To call such an outlook pessimistic would be to deny the stark reality: among the fruits of modern (liquid) love, as described by Bauman, are a rampant preoccupation with “safe sex,” the usurping of life-giving authority from the sexual act (both through birth control and artificial reproduction), and a fearsome vacuity that accompanies sexual ‘output’ in forming and maintaining identifiable relationships. We find ourselves more than familiar with this sort of culture, and—upon some reflection—with the types of causes offered above.
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.