Sex and Sustainability

gorazd princicMarc Barnes

The great expectation of the Sexual Revolution was that a casting-off of norms, taboos, virtues, vices and washed-out traditions would lead to a growth, an increase in sexual experience, a loosening of the reins and an opening-up of what had hitherto been the object of penning, rigor and control. This was the common myth of proponent and opponent alike. For those who supported its trends, the garden of sexuality would blossom from its cages and austere beds and usher in an age of exciting possibilities. For those opposed, it would become wild, unkempt, and rank. The attitude differed, but the hypothesis was the same – an end to a Christian sexual ethic would result in growth free from control.

Hindsight suppresses a smirk. The present proves both the hope and the fear unfounded. By all measures, the sexual revolution triumphed, bringing a new ease and comfort with the sexual, as well as the normalization and popularization of contraception, abortion, divorce, pornography and all those new and indulged sexual freedoms the Calvinist preacher keeps memorized, ready to list on occasion of condemning the modern world to hell in a hand-basket. But the result of this revolution’s resounding success has been, far from a newfound freedom, the hyper-accentuation of control, the meticulous and technical ordering of sexuality’s garden – mastery and stark dominion. It takes no great effort to show this.

Pornography, it was on the one hand feared, would make men rapists and adulterers, wild and uncontrollable animals. No, argued its promoters, it is a normal, healthy outlet. It will help men develop their sexuality. In reality, pornography has made of men neither healthy blossoms nor raging beasts, but bored, depressed addicts. Porn is delivered as a dose. Its side-effects are not wild – study after study shows that erectile dysfunction, not licentiousness, the inability for intercourse outside of the safety and control of pornography, not adulterous freedom, and the gradual decrease of pleasure, not its sordid increase are the fruits of this exciting, new sexual education. “Internet porn is killing young men’s sexual performance,” Dr. Carlo Foresta, the head of the Italian Society of Andrology and Sexual Medicine, has recently argued – atrophy, not growth, wild or otherwise, has been the result of a pornographic age.

Contraception, it was feared, would free women from commitment, or, from the view of its proponents, from “slavery to their biology,” but regardless of the extent to which these freedoms have been realized, they have been realized at the price of a new slavery – a slavery to the pharmaceutical company, which, with the advent of the contraceptive, are now necessary partners in a couple’s reproductive life. Feminist writers like Holly Grigg-Spall have been quick to note that it is not freedom from control, but a new and starker control that is inaugurated with the routine of menstrual suppression – and at the price of good health.

Sexual identity, it was pointed out in alarm, would become utterly loosened of meaning by these changes to biology, society and morality. This same prospect was cheered by those who saw in ‘gender roles’ and heterogeneous sexual expression a rude, controlling clamp. And while it is true that the rigid concepts of ‘man,’ ‘woman,’ and ‘family,’ have become foreign to our modern minds, the casting-off of these structures, far from inaugurating an age of free, ‘personally-defined’ sexuality, has hoisted above us a more complex and rigidly defined system of sexual identity than a Scholastic philosopher could conjure up in his worst nightmares. Modern gender theory and its pop-psych proponents divide, sub-divide, and sub-sub-divide ‘sexual identities’ with the spirit of the best of systematizers, leaving one dazzled by the intricate differences between the pan-sexual and the omnisexual, the asexual and the non-sexual, between the emotional, physical and social components of erotic love, a human experience growing more scientific by the moment, so that one might, with only a month of grave and rational contemplation, and with the help of several charts culled from the Internet, declare oneself a “biromantic, cisgendered, homosexual” – and begin to work on designing a flag. Far from freedom, the quintessence of a real, vibrant, and personally accepted sexuality has become – admittance into the system. Thus 2009 witnessed the lobbying for the inclusion of asexuality into the official acronym of possible sexualities – LGBTQ became LGBTQA became LGBTQQIAAP became LGBTTIQQ2SA, and once again, hopes for a loosening of the reins has ended in a new rigidity.


Hope and Disappointment

What began with high hopes for freedom, and more than freedom, of self-assuredness and comfort in our own skins, ended in control. One could easily show this same pattern in cosmetic plastic surgery, abortion, in-vitro fertilization, or divorce, which ends in the crippling control of legal structures over our children, belongings, income, time and even location. The average sexual life is characterized, not by a wild and enjoyed freedom (though perhaps there are lucky ones who really do incarnate the lives of Jersey Shore), but by rigid control, a panic over possible ‘mistakes,’ dependence on experts for our identity, looks, fertility and even, in pornography, for our arousal. We are not quite happy with it all. Even those with a firm faith in the above-mentioned technologies and practices will admit that, as the Betsy Stevenson’s 2009 study “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” pointed out, American women are less satisfied with life at the tail-end of the revolution than at its beginning, sexuality is more stressful, and the promise of pleasure and comfort is largely unmet.

The solution of the revolution’s advocates is simply a greater and more educated application of those same technologies. No doubt this is the route we will take. But note an alternative, not for the ‘world’ or the ‘culture,’ but for the particular person with whom this alternative will resonate. If we are not happy with our sexual existence, if there is a mismatch between what it promises – love, joy, satisfaction, pleasure – and what we receive, then let us be bold and childish enough to ask – “are we doing this right?”


Sexuality and the Land

For an answer to this question, all we need is a reasonable glance towards agriculture, one which owes a sizeable debt to the author Wendell Berry and his marvelous essays “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” and “The Body and the Earth.”

Sexuality and the land both have a life of their own. The land presents itself to the farmer with a life outside of that farmer’s control. It has its own soil, weather, shape and location, its animal and insect life, its patches of rocky outcrop, its idiosyncrasies of geography – cliff, hill, marsh and so forth. So too, sexuality presents itself to us with a life of its own. It has its cycles of desire, fertility and menstruation which we did not establish. It has its own drives, drives that do not always ask our permission to operate. It has its own geography, it determines our shape, the breast, the beard, the hip, our sex and sexual characteristics – it is our and it is not ours. The whole awkwardness of puberty, so amusing to adults who have forgotten its embarrassment, is a painful recognition of this fact, that there is within me a life that “goes on without me” – and gives me pimples. This “going on without me,” this “life of its own,” we will call the “otherness” of sexuality and the land, respectively.

Now the otherness of sexuality has been a source of suspicion for quite some time. The great rigorist religious and the average liberal feminist are in agreement here. Both see this “otherness” of sexuality as encroaching on the person. The rigorist sees its life as encroaching on the life of the spirit, a separate demand of the sinful flesh, an embarrassment within us to be suppressed. The advocate of contraception sees its cycles and it fertility as encroaching on the life of work and fulfillment, a separate demand of “the biology” and an inconvenience to be repressed. The former advocates fasting, mortification, and prayer, the latter – ethinyl estradiol. Both shudder at the face of an apparent paradox – that there is within us that which goes on without us, quite without permission, a life that belongs to us, and yet, terrible thought – we belong to it. This is, quite simply, why the sexual revolution ended in tying the person to more controlling powers than freeing him from them. The use of control is our only possible method of making that which has its own life absolutely ours, stripped of all otherness. This is obvious in reference to the state. The totalitarian state controls its subjects, stripping from them their life that goes on apart from the state by implementing techniques of power – secret police, spies, propaganda, and so forth – aiming at a final identity between the citizen and the state. So to the modern sexual existence, frightened as it is of a life it does not control, implements techniques of power – contraception, abortion, surgery, and all the rest – to strip from sexuality all otherness, until it is absolutely subject to our desires. The logical tendency of the sexual control is towards this absolute. Trans-humanists dream of “the end of sex” and the inevitable rise of the artificial womb” (to quote two recent headlines), well-meaning progressives let children choose their gender, and advocates of contraception look to a future of total fertility control, where, through implants and IUDs, women will only be fertile as a definite choice – everything that presents itself as given, as a possible surprise, is reconfigured under some technique of power so that it becomes the outcome of a willful decision.


Unsustainable Use as Disrespect for Otherness

But it would be absurd if the farmer took the same tact, and said of the land, “this land which belongs to me nevertheless has a life of its own. I will suppress that life, and thereby be the sole master of this land. I will no longer be a slave to its ecology.” Rather, it is obvious that the otherness of the land is precisely what enables the farmer to farm. The farmer places his seeds in the soil he did not create, under the sun he cannot command to shine – he uses what is given, and only because it is given as “already going on” can he use it at all. His is a work of cooperation with the land, not sheer mastery over it. Even the most brutally technological agricultural practices, rely, at base, on processes beyond the farmer’s control. Planting crops without rotating them, plowing without regards to the particulars of geography, these efforts abase the unique life of nature, with its cycles, rhythms, and idiosyncrasies, to the monochrome will of man. They are idiotic efforts, ending in dust bowls, for it is the unique life of the land which enables us to use it in the first place. Unsustainable use does not respect the otherness of that which is used. It is always a phenomenon of hyper-control, one that denies the life that goes on apart from our power and desire, and thus ends in destroying the otherness that was the possibility of use in the first place.

So too, unsustainable use of sexuality is really the destruction of the grounds by which we enjoy sexuality in the first place. It is precisely the otherness of sexual arousal that makes it enjoyable, the fact that our body responds to our beloved without asking permission. This is the adventure, surprise, and danger of erotic feeling – that it cannot neither be forced nor mustered up by the sheer power of choice, but comes as a blessing and a gift from the other. The indulgence of pornography and masturbation seeks to make erotic feeling and sexual pleasure the outcome of our willful decision and choice. It is always chosen, done to oneself, administered in a controlled time and place, with total power over its indulgence, actively opposed to the other-orientated nature of sexuality, and thus to the spontaneity and otherness of erotic feeling. With the advent of Internet pornography, this “control” becomes highlighted – we sit before an infinite array of possible stimuli, utterly available to our choice. A real person cannot compete with pornography, not because she lacks this or that arousing trait, but because a real woman is an other, and thus exceeds our growing desire for control. But what is the outcome of this unsustainable use which denies the otherness of what is used? The destruction of the very ground by which we achieve pleasure in the first place. Our sexuality cannot sustain being reduced to our total control anymore than the soil can sustain a single high-yield crop. Pornography becomes boring, pleasure decreases, and the capacity for sexual activity is diminished, for we have destroyed the very means by which pornography was pleasurable in the first place – our erotic feelings responding powerfully to something other than ourselves.


Sustainable Use as Cooperation

Sustainable use respects the otherness which is the possibility of use. No matter how much a farmer may wish to grow a single crop, he knows that the soil will be harmed by it, and the very possibility of future growth will be ruined, so he plants in harmony with the life that goes on without him, rotating his crops. He does not see the land as a mere extension of his will, but as embodying a life of its own. So too, a sustainable sexual existence respects the otherness of sexuality, its unique life. For it is not true that the only method of dealing with a life that goes on without us is control. Control (from contra, against) opposes the otherness of what is used – we may also cooperate, live in harmony with. This is not a succumbing to the life of sexuality. Following every drive, living as determined by the sexual existence that goes on within us, this is simply another way of destroying the otherness of sexuality. By rigid control, we destroy the otherness of sexuality and make it synonymous with our own desire. By ‘succumbing’ to every life, we destroy the otherness of sexuality by making ourselves synonymous with our sexuality. In both cases, diversity is reduced to identity, and the possibility of harmony is destroyed by the pretence that, really, there is only one note playing. What’s needed then, is a sustainable attitude towards our sexuality, one that respects its otherness without succumbing to it, one which operates in harmony with its unique life by establishing a mutual relationship wherein I inform my sexuality, and it informs me, as farmer tills the land, and the land dictates the methods of the farmer. If our body presents itself as a difficulty, our impulse should not be one of power, the eradication of that difficulty, but a cooperation with the body along with its difficulties, that we might sustain and not destroy.


Sexuality and Ecosystem

A further point may be made here. There is an intimate connection between the fact that something is other to us, and the fact that it is embedded in an ecosystem. An ecosystem is the complex network of an organism in relation to its environment. Taken in a broad sense, we consider a thing as embedded in an ecosystem when we consider the multitude of relations which comprise it. But this consideration of thing as the center of a web of relations, known and unknown, is at the same time a recognition of the otherness of the thing. How clear this is in an encounter with other people! What makes our friend stand out as “his own” more than contemplation of his multitude of relations, that he grew up under the eye of a particular father, that his grandmother means the world to him, that he struggles to relate to his sister, that he mourns the death of his brother. Precisely by seeing a person as part of an ecosystem which exceeds our power and our knowledge, a center of a history and a narrative made up of relations which will never be ours, do we begin to see him as “other” to us. So too with the land. The whole work of ecology is to mark out the web of relations all things are embedded in, especially those relations which exceed our power and particular ends. The fish is not just our food – it is the bear’s and the eagle’s, it is a filter of water, itself a feeder, supplying this tribe with a religious ritual and that tribe with food for the winter. To respect the thing in accordance with its multitude of relations, those known and those unknown, is to respect the thing as other, with a life of its own, an existence which effects reality is affected by it quite apart from our designs. Thus all sustainability is ecological, and all unsustainable use is a disregard of a thing as a being-in-relation.

To relate to our sexuality in the mode of control is anti-ecological, for a denial of the otherness of a thing is, at one and the same time, a denial that it exists embedded in relations that exceed our particular uses. That the suppression of fertility leads to a subsequent suppression of sexual desire and pleasure, especially in women, should no more surprise us than the fact that over-fishing a river affects other animals in the same ecosystem – in both cases we deny the entire life of the thing. We are shocked to learn that condoms reduce the bonding effect of sexual intercourse, but this is only because we denied sexuality as being embedded in a relationship to human bonding as much as human pleasure and procreation. We resist any studies that posit a link between oral contraceptives and breast cancer and blood-clotting, but this is only because we do not consider sexuality ecologically, as fundamentally related to such a foreign notions as breastfeeding and our cardiovascular system, but only in accordance with the ends we desire and may control – our fertility. That oral contraceptives have been shown to alter a woman’s attraction to men, that, when using hormonal contraception, women in relationships “reported significantly lower levels of intrasexual competition,” or that, according to the 2011 study “Relationship satisfaction and outcome in women who meet their partner while using oral contraception,” women “who used OC scored lower on measures of sexual satisfaction and partner attraction, experienced increasing sexual dissatisfaction during the relationship, and were more likely to be the one to initiate an eventual separation if it occurred” – these strange and fascinating connections should be no surprise to a view which aims at sustainability, the respect for the otherness, and thus the ecological nature of our sexuality, taking it as embedded in a multitude of relations that “go on without us.”

I do not mean to limit this anti-ecological phenomenon to our use of contraception, though it is easier to point out, as studies have been exploding around that topic for several years. It is present in pornography, which tends to reduce our sexual existence to culling the comfort and pleasure of the sexual drive, when in reality our sexual drive relates to more than physical pleasure, but also to inter-personal bonding – and thus we end with an addiction to pixels. It is present in divorce, of which the ecological relations to economy, culture, child psychology are still being drawn out. It is present in abortion, hook-up culture, and artificial reproductive technologies. Should we be offended that our sexuality exceeds us in its relations, those known and unknown? No more than the farmer should be offended that the land is embedded in a web of relations, which it is his task to learn and sustain, not merely for the good of the land, but for his own good and success as a farmer.


Towards Freedom

In the end, our sexuality is our own. To live in harmony with what is given in sexuality, as opposed to using sexuality for ends which limit, control and deny its entire life, is simply to live a more holistic, integrated existence. The project of sustainability is difficult, precisely because it requires a deep understanding of what we use, an attitude of care and respect towards its unique life, and a willingness to deny ourselves and our immediate desires in favor of a greater good – the total integration of our sexuality with our person. But a joy rises from precisely in this difficulty, because, as a harmony and mutual relation ends the need for control, rigidity and mastery in the state, in the family, and on the farm, so the harmony of the person with his or her sexual existence inaugurates a new, personal freedom.


This article was originally published in Slovenian translation in Razpotja magazine issue number 18 (Fall 2014).

Illustration: Gorazd Prinčič

Slovenian translation

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