The Ecstasy of St Teresa
This is a part of the large baroque sculpture of St Teresa (of Avila) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It is in the Cornaro Chapel in Rome. It has been claimed, by Jacques Lacan and others, that Teresa looks like she is in sexual ecstasy. She has sort of become the patron saint of orgasms. I write about that in my book on love.
Sex and Love
This blog essay is a version of a chapter in a large book about love that I have written but not yet published.2 The essay starts by looking at how sex is culturally constructed and later engages with how sex is constructed by ideas about gender. The essay also gets down to the nitty gritty in graphic detail. It is also overwhelmingly heterosexual in focus although many parts are equally applicable to lesbian and gay lovers. Other chapters in the book engage more with homosexuality.
I want a man with a slow hand.
What is sex? We live in highly sexualised times. The Victorian era was characterised by a very split conception of sex. On the one hand, upstanding gentlemen and ladies were saved from the dirtiness of sex by having it veiled and covered as much as possible. On the other hand, prostitution and drunken bawdiness, while associated in culture with the great unwashed, were the preserve of increasingly urbanised men. Good, nice women, the angels in the home, were depicted as being untarnished by anything sexual. Young urban men were lectured on the vices of the city and the whole concept of vice kept Victorian clergymen thumping their lecterns right through to the twentieth century. By the nineteen-fifties and in the wake of Oscar Wilde, D.H.Lawrence and assorted modernists, attitudes to sex were shifting dramatically. The availability of the contraceptive pill in the nineteen-sixties underpinned the ‘age of Aquarius’ and ‘free love’. The point being made here is that sex is something subject to changes in cultural fashion just like everything else subject to human representation (which means, simply, everything).
So where are we with sex today? There are two dominant strands to representations of sex today. Sex is widely represented in the public domain as a biological imperative and right. We are taught that we have biologically-based sexual urges that need to be acted upon or we will end up stressed, stifled, unfulfilled, acting out our urges inappropriately and potentially violent, murderous, ill or insane. This view derives, with some serious distortion, from Freud and some of his sometime associates – Adler and Reich to name but the most obvious. An alternative view regards sex as an expression of companionate love. While once, this might have been couched in purely reproductive terms, now it is viewed as a kind of practical bonding exercise recommended for the healthy functioning of a marriage or partnership – with or without offspring.
But one does not have to scratch the surface of civilisation very much to detect deeply puritanical ideas about sex: that it is in some way wrong or sinful or dirty or, at the very least, awkward and embarrassing. Indeed, a degree of the enjoyment of sex for many derives precisely from its forbidden, illicit or at least questionable status . This may be one of the reasons why teenage sex, one’s own and others, holds such fascination. This may also be one of the key attractions of much porn. Nothing like slapping laws on things to make them more attractive!
A great deal is claimed in current discourses for the over-sexualisation of everything and especially children. The growth of public media has occurred in tandem with the use of sexual imagery and text to sell everything, titillate audiences, promote and spin ideas and shape our views. Our views on what sex is and how one is supposed to do it are represented through visual media like film, television and photography well beyond what is formally classed as pornography. Some have argued that pornographic imagery has become so main-stream that we barely register that what constituted unacceptable pornography twenty years ago is now considered quite tame and normal imagery today.
It is impossible to subtract some idea of ‘natural’ sexuality from the representations of sexuality abundant in media. Cultural theorists can pinpoint the specific representations pertaining to different genres and geographical contexts, for example, sub-sets of Bollywood tend to represent sexuality differently to Hollywood macho movies, Rap video, French romantic comedies and British period-drama but in the main each of these operates with a heterosexual scripting that means that we can all recognise who are the girls and who are the boys.
So let us start with the idea that there is no longer (if there ever was) some kind of natural sexuality. We need to get past the idea that sexual desires and inclinations – what excites you and what excites me – are somehow essential, ‘natural’ and beyond culture.
All sexuality is learned. Now you may argue that some sexuality is learned at such a young age that it is impossible to differentiate it from what seems essential to a person. It is a fair point and one that is inevitably tricky to deal with. We are a long way from a serious understanding of the learning processes of early infancy though good work is going on in this field. But the fact that we are a bit ignorant about the processes through which a neonate comes into possession of an individual sexuality says more about our inability to prioritise this area for study than it does about the ‘nature’ of sexuality. Sex has been far from ‘natural’ for a very long time.
All sex involves human communication. Psychoanalysts will point to this as the nexus of a problem in human sexuality. If we were just biological beasts who fucked in the fields whenever nature produced an urge we would not get into nearly as much trouble as we do. Sex becomes incredibly troublesome because of the meanings associated with it. In a way, the Reichian and hippie views of sex are ones in which the meaning content of sex is argued to be the problem and if we just gave way to our natural urges, all would be fine. It is hard for human beings, cultured as we are, to go beyond our cultural determinants and find a pre-cultural simplicity in which to indulge our non-neurotic sexual impulses. Simply put – we would not be human any-more. Given that we opt to be human then, we need to look at the cultural choices we make in the construction of our discourses and to take what action we deem necessary to make our cultural constructions fit with our human aims and ethics.
This looks like a call for social engineering and in a way it is. My argument is that we are currently doing social engineering in a haphazard, ignorant and ineffective way. I am also quite sure that certain types of social engineering are done, consciously and unconsciously to benefit the interests of powerful groups. That is something that needs to be addressed politically. My argument is that, just because powerful groups serve their own interests through social engineering, that does not, in itself, make social engineering a bad thing. The point is - who is doing the social engineering and to what ends?
The idea that we have cultural choices may seem radical and indeed it is. This is to consider not just culture at the level of conscious choices but to consider the operation of culture in the very fabric of our thinking about what and who we are. It is to expel the idea that any of our representations about ‘us’ are natural or down to biological determinants and to take human responsibility for the creation of the social and psychical world that is already of our own making. It is to call for far more learning, individually and collectively, about how we come to think about ourselves and how that creates our world. It is, in short, a plea for more social science, more psychoanalysis and more cultural investigation.
What does it mean to say that all sex involves human communication? What is sex for? Sex seems in the first instance to be for bodily enjoyment. It is a way, perhaps the way par excellence, for us to indulge and deal with excesses of bodily excitement and tension and channel them to a specific and pleasurable release. The metaphors of energy, mechanics and electricity, so central to nineteenth-century science, were co-opted by sex (and nervous system) theorists and they continue to be the dominant way in which sex is thought today.
But sex has taken on many further meanings in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It has become a marketable commodity and a site for interpersonal negotiation and violence. It is constructed as a health problem and indeed one that needs to be policed in terms of contraception, age, fecundity or its lack, volition and personal responsibility. It is a focal point for the political suppression and domination of women.
But what is sex? Sex is a way of sharing your enjoyment of your body and your enjoyment of each other’s bodies with each other.
Of course, as Freud and others have shown, the objects of sexual drives can be wide and varied. One person is excited by the feel of leather, another by phallic objects, another by draped silk and another by ‘sweet nothings’. What stimulates excitement is also wide and varied. What heightens sexual tension differs from one to another. But we seek, as human beings to express sexuality with others. This is not to deny that bodily pleasure can be had from masturbatory acts. Whether you manually stimulate your own body or seek satisfaction from the use of toys, artefacts, animals, torture equipment, objects, plastic replicas of bodies or bodily organs or indeed melons and carrots, if you do so on your own and for your own pleasure, you are engaged in masturbation. You may well be engaged in a mental communication with a fantasy person but you are on your own, you are having a self-orientated time to yourself. There may be some interesting questions for you to consider about this dimension of your sexuality – why it takes this form, why this and not that accords you pleasure, but you are not engaged in, what for the purposes of this essay, I am going to designate as the social act of sex.
Most people, again for entirely cultural reasons, want to have sex involving other people. We could ask why? There are some exceptionally good reasons for wanting to have sex on your own. If you have sex by yourself you can dictate the pace, take charge of the ambience, decide on the accompanying thoughts or speech, stop and start again to suit yourself, do lots of things that you might feel inhibited or prohibited to do with another present – in short, you can pretty much please yourself – indeed it is sometimes coyly referred to as ‘pleasing yourself’. Given this list of recommendations, it is almost surprising that people would opt to give up this autonomy and make the compromises that come with partnered sex. But they do.
Now, historically, there may have been injunctions associated with reproduction that vilified masturbation. Or it may have been projections on to the anti-social that made of masturbation a social crime. Nowadays, there is an abundance of health, social care and even religious literature that assures us that ‘there is nothing wrong’ with masturbation. But while it is no longer threatened that your member will drop off or you will become blind from the practice, it is still very much a second best to the recommended regular ‘real’ sex.
Let us talk about real sex. That is, sex between two people. What are the parameters of sex between two people? I have said above that sex is an act of human communication. I am saying this in a definitional sense. If a person has a sexual encounter with another in which the other is no more for them than an object of sexual release, then they may be in the physical presence of another person but they are effectively masturbating in the terms discussed above.
Real sex requires an act of communication between two people. That is what differentiates it from masturbation. Given that there is a lot to recommend masturbation, why do people choose to have sex with others? At one level, the answer to this question is the same as for any other cultural question. That is, a cultural value is put on having sex and people choose to accede to that cultural value.
What do people want from a sexual encounter? They want to enjoy a physical release. They want to enjoy the image of themselves when held up in relation to the images of sexual beings in their socio-cultural milieu. They want an intimate connection to another’s body and they want an intimate connection to another. This is where gendered cultures of sex start to make the picture more complicated.
To enjoy a physical release one could just stick to masturbation. To enjoy an image of oneself being sexual to please one’s ego one could just remain at the level of fantasy. But to make an intimate connection with another’s body and to make an intimate connection to another, one needs to go beyond oneself.
First of all, one needs to have some means of accessing another and their body. The cultural prescriptions surrounding how one might make contact with another and under what circumstances one might attempt an intimate connection with another are myriad and very variable. In one instance people will stumble together at a drunken rave, in another years of courtship attended by chaperones may be required, in another contact will be made via digital images and chat, an arranged marriage might be needed, people may hover round each other in a workplace before deciding to get together, in yet another instance few social niceties are employed before getting stuck in and in another a dance of ‘will we?’, ‘won’t we?’, ‘might we?’ may ensue providing a painful but enjoyable drama of heightened and flattened tension before the possibility, or not, of consummation. This is the stuff of most romantic drama.
So much emphasis in literary, cinematic, theatrical and sung culture, is placed on this staging of attraction, seduction, wooing, courtship and the management of desire that there is comparatively little left over for the stuff of bodily mating proper.
The hunt dimension of desire and the attendant desire for desire means that for some people, the joy of the sexual conquest ends with the moment of access. For another proportion it ends with the moment of sexual release.
We are now deep in territory governed by very divergent gender cultures. Let us pause here to think about what culture tells men and women to ‘want’ in and from sex.
Here is a set of image-based prescriptions regularly offered to men – image of himself as conqueror. Image of himself as sexual performer. Image of himself as meeting a stipulation of manhood as opposed to boyhood (rites of passage). Image of himself as glorious in the eyes of his partner (narcissism). Image of himself as befitting the valued ideals of masculinity in his socio-cultural milieu – a stud, a player, a Don Juan, a man who can control women, a man who can control his woman, a man who is not at the mercy of his idealisation of a woman, a man who is at the mercy of his idealisation of a woman, a man who heads a family, a man who has a ‘good’ woman to look after him, a man who has a motherly woman to tend to and nurture his children (and/or himself), a man who is chastised by a stern nanny figure, a family man, a man who has a family to be proud of, a man who has a helpmeet at home and sex objects elsewhere, a man is who is free and adventurous and who has no ties but multiple sexual partners.
And, of course, plain old physical release.
Here is a set of image-based prescriptions regularly offered to women – image of herself as sexually desirable. Image of herself as loving in the eyes of a man. Image of herself as having successfully become part of a couple. Image of herself as no longer in danger of being a spinster, rejected or left on the shelf. Image of herself as potentially in something through which she can fulfil her desire to be a wife and/or mother. Image of herself as sexual performer (much more recent). Image of herself as a good woman but with a shine or wink in her eye. Image of herself as a lure. Image of herself as a sexual adventuress. Image of herself as brazen and predatory. Image of herself as potential bride. Image of herself as free adventurer with no ties but multiple sexual partners (mostly more recent).
And, of course, plain old physical release.
In both cases we can say that sex is a significantly over-determined entity – and therein may lie some degree of explanation for the problems associated with its many meanings. What I may have in mind when I am ‘having sex’ and what you may have in mind when you are ‘having sex’ may differ very substantially despite the fact that we are conjointly making the same ‘beast with two backs’. The gendered dimension to this is that cultural prescriptions will determine that I as a woman and you as a man are supposed to be having somewhat different experiences.
In the best of cases both participants will experience self-abandonment in intimate coupling where two bodies enjoy the sensation of skin on skin. In the best of cases two people enjoy the sense of oneness in which they experience the wants and desires of the other as, if even for a short time, commensurate with or at least complementary to, their own. They can play out the love they have for each other by showing (a form of communication) how attuned (in the ordinary sense) they are to the needs of the other, where they can show that they have some resources at their disposal to offer enjoyment to the other and that, more than that, they are willing to share that with the other, and much more than that, they are not just willing to share with the other but they actively want to give to the other. They want to find ways to make sure the other enjoys. They want to identify sources of enjoyment for the other, this touch, this look, this lick, this speed, these words, this friction, this rubbing, this caressing, this kissing, this holding, this stroking, this focussing on you, this attentiveness, this enjoyment, this exploration, this gentleness, this strength, this love. And they want to show the other that they appreciate what is good about what is being offered and given.
Is this not what brilliant sex is all about? It is for many women. And yet, the clumsy depiction of sex in most published material focuses on the physical prowess of men and their dicks. Let there be no mistake – there is such a thing as a too small dick. And trying to have sex with one is limiting. There are also physically lazy or unfit men who find it difficult to generate some energy and appropriate speed in penetrative thrusting. These can be problems. But by far the biggest problem for most women in sex is the clumsiness, awkwardness and ignorance of men at the level of communication.
In the worst case scenario a woman is coerced into sex with someone who sees her as an object to be used. Slightly less painful for a woman is sex with a man whose culture has told him that what women want and need is a physical dealing with by a man who does not need to know anything about this particular woman because he has a thrusting technique laid down by his male mentors. He gives it to her ending with a satisfied grunt (the nearest he gets to communication) and she better accept if she knows what is good for her. Marginally better is the man who acknowledges that a woman has needs and desires that he may not comprehend too well but who cannot compromise his masculinity by letting her know that there is something he does not know (i.e. her) and who therefore stumbles about in blundering ineptitude which she is not allowed to put in question because it would rock his fragile sense of manhood. A little better than these is the new man who is trying to please a woman even though his ignorance and anti-social training mean that he has a long way to go to even begin to scrape away the cobwebs of redundant masculinity and relate to her without a burdensome ego getting in the way.
There are some men who are quite good at sex in the sense that they have some baseline generosity of spirit along with some, mostly recently acquired, know-how about the bodies of women in general, and, if she is really lucky, about the sexual proclivities of this woman in particular. The best of men, when it comes to sex with women, are those who are able to shed their egos, ask a woman confidently what she likes, show a woman that he wants to love her body and her mind, manages some humour and is truly sensitive to the goings on between them. But mostly men have a long way to go to begin to meet the needs of women sexually. This is not about Viagra. It is about meanings, culture and communication.
A powerful argument in the construction of the otherness of women is that they are incomprehensible, don’t know what they want, change their minds, shift the goalposts, say they want one thing then say they want something else and are generally unsatisfiable.
Let’s take an example. A woman tells a man that nuzzling her neck is something that turns her on. He then uses this information as part of a formula. “I want sex, I want her to want sex too therefore I will nuzzle her neck”. She, because she is much more acutely aware of what goes on between them, knows that he is rather unimaginatively and crudely applying that piece of information. This makes her disappointed and angry. Why?
He is confused. She told him this was a key to her sexuality so why should she be upset when he employs it. She told him she liked this kind of foreplay so what is her problem now? See – fickle, inconsistent and unfathomable! She wants more, she wants different – what does she WANT?
She wants to know that she is of interest to her lover – and, frankly, is that too much to ask? If he routinely applies this piece of intelligence that she has imparted to him, what it tells her is that he does not or cannot take an interest in her except as an object to whom he can apply a formulaic principle like someone repeating a technological procedure in which the correct result is a foregone conclusion – press the neck nuzzling button and the desired (by him) sexual stimulation will be effected.
For neck nuzzling here we can substitute any specific demand made by women of their partners: to be wined and dined; to be bought flowers; to have one’s toes sucked; to have one’s nipples tweaked; to hear certain music; to be told, at least once a day and contrary to much evidence, that he loves her; to have her birthday remembered. What all of these have in common is that they are all examples of being shown attentiveness and care.
He has a little notebook like a train-spotter in which he records a series of technical tricks he can deploy. Schedule dinner x times a month. Buy flowers on any occasion of anniversary, uncertainty or guilt – but remember not to get the basic ones from the garage. Pull that, but not too hard. Push that in a circular motion. Marvin Gaye or Phyllis Nelson combined with low lighting.
The point about all this is that a robot could be trained to perform these functions. Collect information, learn it and apply it. Unfortunately, while she might be pathetically grateful that he is trying, his cumbersome application of learned principles means he is not really there as a subject in the relationship and neither is she. She ceases to be a human being for him and becomes instead a site of technical manipulation. His recourse to a set of technical guidelines means he does not have to ‘be’ there. His subjectivity need not be called upon because he can act with a set of pre-determined formulae. What she wants is to be a real subject in a relationship with another real subject. To be a human being who matters to another human being. To have her being recognised.
How does that work? We have already said (in the Passion chapter of the book), that people are essentially alone. I cannot feel as you and you cannot feel as me. But that does not mean that I cannot, necessarily, feel for you and you for me.
The dictates of sexual release are such that I need to be pursuing my enjoyment for my body and you for your body. How do we then ensure that we are not just masturbating in company? How do we engage one with the other to provide pleasure to the other when we are focusing so concentratedly on coming to our own climax? We have already indicated, also in the chapter on Passion, that at the points when we are both near and then in our own orgasm, we are, perfectly understandably, up to our own narcissistic ears in the sensations of our own bodies. Truly, if we are any good at orgasming at all, we are not just up ourselves but ultimately so up ourselves that we become beside ourselves. Having reached that point of overwhelming exploding that is orgasm we are transported beyond ourselves so that the whole concept of ‘ourself’ becomes meaningless. Given that we have so substantially lost track of ourselves we are certainly in no position to be thinking consciously about the needs of the other who happens to be beside us – and, if all is going well, simultaneously beside us and beside themselves too.
At that point we are both absent from both ourselves and each other. There is no way round this. It is an absolute fact of individualised bodies that we have our orgasms in isolation. In any sexual encounter it is not so much that we have an orgasm together but rather that we initiate orgasm together and then we go off to our different other places to enjoy our orgasm. One of the most awkward experiences most of us has in sex is ‘returning’ to the other after we have been absent in orgasm. It is a bit like we went on holiday together but when we got close to the best bit of the holiday we took off in different directions and had that bit of the holiday on our own. We each had fantastic trips but now we are on our way back to the encounter with our mate. We may arrive back at different times. We may want the magic of our trip to linger with us and so we do not want to engage with the other until we are ready. We may not have had the trip of a lifetime and so are in no hurry to share again with the other. But if we do care for the other, we need to negotiate our way back to an engagement with them in which we re-establish a lost connection. And because this is one of these situations in which we enjoyed our bodily passion to the point where speech was eclipsed (see the passion chapter), we cannot really speak about the trip we have been on. We went to the land of incommunicado and now that we have returned it is difficult to say exactly what we were doing there. Perhaps we need to work on just allowing the other to have been absent.
So, we can reiterate the question that came up earlier. Why, if the pinnacle of sexual activity dislocates us absolutely one from the other, do we choose to have our sex with others and not on our own?
This is where things get interesting. I may end up alone in my orgasm, but I like the fact that you are here having yours too. Why? And I am enjoying my orgasm all the more because you helped me make it. Why? And I think that you are enjoying your orgasm more because I helped you make it. Why?
We really need to ditch forever the idea that sex is a purely bodily release because if it was we would just be wanking alone and getting on fine with that without getting ourselves entangled in bed sheets with others.
The big question here is what do we get from sex with another? And in what way is the otherness of the other important for sex.
At one level this is simply the sociality of human beings. There are many things we choose to do with others that we could perfectly well do on our own – eating, going to the cinema, dancing, for example.
But, of course, there is much more to it than that.
There is the sexual stimulation of being in close proximity to your lovely body. (a bit objectifying but . . .)
There are the actual things you do to stimulate me. Physical touching AND psychical engagement.
There are the tangible things you do to make me feel good – nuzzling my neck, tickling me, making me laugh, feeding me ice-cream,
And the tangible things I do to make you feel good – insert your own proclivities here . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
There is the smug satisfaction I enjoy from being able to think – ‘here I am with X who is really lovely and cool and fun and attractive’.
There is the lovely warm feeling I have when I think that X likes me.
If these are really the difference between masturbation and sex – why are we not spending time getting better at these things? Why do we not talk and write about these things more?
What are the ingredients for a successful sexual encounter? Well – let’s start by acknowledging that a sexual encounter that meets your specific interests is always going to trump any other. And if your favourite sexual fantasy involves doing it on a trapeze or in an igloo or blindfolded or with gallons of oil or with lashings of custard or all five then the presence or otherwise of your fantasy objects will make a difference. However, beyond the more unusual tastes, what makes a sexual encounter great?
Two people need to be attracted to each other – that’s the first and most basic premise. For both to get enjoyment out of the encounter the following needs to happen:
Both need to be able to engage in the sexual encounter to the extent that their bodies can accept stimulation and travel together in sensual and sexual exploration. They each need the right mix of relaxation of mind to be able to participate in the proceedings but enough tension of body to allow the build-up of excitement.
Everyone will have their own tastes. What constitutes an enjoyable sexual encounter for one may not necessarily constitute an enjoyable sexual encounter for another. There remains however an onus on us all to know something about where our tastes have come from. Why do I like lovers rock and you like heavy metal, why am I ok with food in bed and you are disgusted by it, why do I prefer dimmed lighting and you want blazing strip lights, why do I want silence and you want to give a running commentary, why do I like to giggle and you don’t find it funny?
If sex is defined contra masturbation as social and communicative then good sex is going to incorporate good communication. That can be with eyes, touch, gesture or speech. At the height of excitement and climax, communication becomes superfluous but in the preliminary and developmental stages of sexual tension, the period after you have enjoyed your orgasm – and that can take various amounts of time to savour – and in the gaps between particular bouts of coitus, some sort of communication is going on.
If ever there was a case to be made for the teaching of communication skills this is it.
What am I doing with my hands – am I making them available for the joint exercise of helping your tension to grow, helping my tension to grow, or even modulating the increase of tension so that we stretch our enjoyment and don’t just go for the first quick orgasm that might be on offer. What am I doing with my mouth – am I kissing you with passion? I need to be awake to how you respond to my gestures. I need to be alive to how my sliding my hand up your thigh is or is not arousing for you. I need to be conscious of how you respond to the stimulation I am offering. I need to be aware of when you want to feel your way inside of me. I need to be awake to the way you slide away from a deep kiss. I need to pick up on the signs that you don’t want my tongue far into your mouth. I need you to be aware that I feel like gagging if your dick goes the wrong way toward my throat.
And all the time I want to be having fun
And all the time I want to be feeling like we are doing something together
And all the time I want to be able to feel that I am doing something with someone who cares about me
And all the time I want to be able to feel that we are taking turns to be tuned in to our own and each other’s pleasure
And all the time I want to be interested in what works for you
And all the time I want that we open ourselves up to each other
And all the time I want to feel safe and unthreatened and loved
And all the time I want to feel that we are both celebrating the voluptuousness of our own and each other’s bodies
And all the time I want to feel that we are both enjoying the sensuality of ourselves and each other
And all the time I want us to be enjoying the differences between us
And some of the time I just want to shut my eyes and feel the warmth of your body next to, on top of, under, entangled in, parallel to or facing mine.
But when I have my orgasm, I want you to let me be.
In the chapter on desire I took issue with what seemed to be a masculine preference for lack of connection. I highlighted examples from the Marquis de Sade and Tim Dean’s work on homosexual barebackers to make the case that masculinity in extremis favoured sexual encounters that were also anonymous or asocial encounters. I also argued that a tendency to disconnectedness was a feature of masculine sexuality in general.
The descriptions I have been giving above concerning optimum sex are from a feminine perspective. They incorporate the idea that sex without communication is or might as well be masturbation. They foreground communication, connection, sharing, intimacy and togetherness. They rely on, with only one specific exception, the idea that the other in a sexual encounter is important. And they make the case for love as a key ingredient in ‘real’ sex.
It is not that it is impossible to have sex that is dislocated from the other. Clearly de Sade and the barebackers are doing this. And clearly there is scope for enjoyment, sometimes exceptional enjoyment in doing so. The point however, and especially if we recall that each of us must find and enjoy our passion, is that in these cases, the enjoyment that is being had is the bodily enjoyment of differentially distributed energy in the body. We may be enjoying the rollercoaster and the peaks of excitement and we might be doing so in tandem with another (or several others) but we are enjoying our bodies on our own.
What’s wrong with that? Well nothing and everything. So long as we don’t confuse what we are doing as the social (and sociable) act of sex and see it as essentially masturbation perhaps we should be allowed to proceed with it on that basis. And if we are consenting adults who want to wank together why is it anyone else’s business? That would be fine if that were the case though we have to be careful that the ‘consent’ of others is freely given (this was not an issue for the Marquis de Sade who could get his rocks off if there was no consent and sometimes because there was no consent).
There is a case to be made (and it frequently is) for masturbatory enjoyment and gay abandon with no connective strings attached.
However, if we want to recognise and respect the other, if we want to have sex that involves an other, we need to be engaging in the kind of communicative effort that makes sex with another more than masturbation (mutual or otherwise).
We can distinguish two very divergent notions of sex that run in parallel to our two over-riding notions of love. And surprise, surprise, they correspond exactly to historical ideas of gender difference.
Women try to build sexual relations based on connection, intimacy and communicating with the other. Men tend to prefer sexual relations that are less intimate, less connected and engage in less communication with the other.
What we need to be doing is deconstructing the stories we subscribe to about gendered sex and enter into an exploration of sex, in as much as it is possible, beyond the prescriptions set in culture for the last three thousand years. Now that would be a really sexy thing to do.