Casey: Sigh, Pat. It seems like there is nowhere in this culture we can escape the pernicious influence of religion.
Pat: What are you thinking of in particular?
Casey: I’m thinking of the way that even some of the most “sex-positive”, taboo-breaking, kink-celebrating, sexually liberated people I know still cannot enjoy the pure physicality of sex without needing to justify it to the little Christian puritan deep inside their skull who tells them that unless sex is “spiritual” it cannot be any good. These people ostensibly look as though they’ve escaped religion and are back in touch with their uninhibited sexuality in all its gloriously gory unchristian carnivorous indiscriminate fluid soaked messiness—and yet even they, sometimes more than anyone else, feel the need to describe what they’re doing in tedious, vacuously sentimental, bullshit abstractions about “spirituality”. It’s Christianity all over again at its core. The message is still there that the body is bad, that nothing done purely for the sake of bodily pleasure and with no other justifications can possibly be any good. So, in the most base and animalistic of contexts, people deny their animal natures and go so far as to perform silly rituals and incantations and give all the credit and attention which belongs to their throbbing genitals to their wholly non-existent “spirits”. It’s all such backward, repressed absurdity. Why can’t we be done with this word “spiritual” once and for all. All there is is the physical. Enough with the hocus pocus and superstition, people! Enjoy your bodies as they are, the pleasures they offer are good enough! It’s time to take off the final fig leafs of “spirituality” and just embrace sex in its total nakedness with no further pseudo-mystical justifications.
Pat: Well, I fully appreciate your concerns that people embrace the fact that there is nothing inherently bad or shameful about physical pleasures. And I too find it off putting if people are talking about sex being “spiritual” because of such embarrassment. That would be definitely be an unfortunate holdover from repressive religious hegemony. And of course, I don’t believe we have anything like an immaterial spirit and I would readily disabuse anyone of that misconception. But, all that said, it’s not necessary that all people when talking about sex as spiritual mean to imply they believe in a dualistic metaphysics whereby there is a spirit which is totally distinct from the body.
Casey: Oh but they do. In many cases this is even explicitly tied up with entire religious frameworks. They may not be your familiar Western Abrahamic religious frameworks, but they’re no less matters of mush-headed gobbledygook that gets in the way of fully and shamelessly understanding, embracing, and exploiting the actual physiology of sex. Instead gunky layers of mythology are slathered all over things. It’d be practically obscene if it weren’t so often so laughable.
Pat: But, look, even if they are making an unfortunate metaphysical error and believing in a spirit that is somehow different than their bodies, a large part of the issue may be that they’re hemmed in by language. We unfortunately don’t have any proper words for the complex phenomena that people truly do experience but confusedly and confusingly call “spiritual”—
Casey: No! We have a word for what people call “spiritual”—it’s “bodily“. Every shiver and tingle and ache and twitch and moan and gasp and spasm and rush of euphoria is ecstatically physical. All of the dizzying whirlwinds of pleasures that accompany what people call “spiritual” sex are physiological. And yet because of the influence of Christianity, people refuse to acknowledge the truth that is coursing through their very bodies—that it is their bodies that are on fire and that it is chemicals showering down from their brain that create all those gooey mystical feelings in their bodies, from the flush in their cheeks to their exhaustedly exhaling lungs.
Pat: Yes, all of that is deeply and wonderfully physical. There is no denying that. But I don’t think that people who use the word “spiritual” here necessarily deny any of that. The word spiritual has other connotations going on. You’re focusing here on the question of “what is the locus of pleasure?” and thinking that people must think of it as either in a “spirit” or a “body”. Whereas I don’t think that’s an either/or they’re worried about. I don’t think they’re trying to deny the (rather unavoidable) reality that sex is primarily felt in physical pleasures. I don’t think they think the physical pleasures are shameful or bad.
Casey: No, but they’re saying that the physical pleasures are not what gives sex its “meaning”. And they’re saying that sex needs meaning. They’re afraid to just fuck and to enjoy a fuck for a fuck’s sake. It cannot be anything so profane as that. It’s got to be lathered up in meanings. It’s the same old sex-suspicious logic as “you can’t have sex unless you’re intending to have a baby” or “you can’t have sex unless you’re making love”—where that grotesque phrase is taken to mean “expressing absolute committed love in a gentle worshipful loving lovingness of loveful lovers overflowing their love”. It’s all these caveats on sex that are the problem. No one can just have pleasure. It’s like Foucault talked about in The History of Sexuality—the Victorians were sexually repressive in famous ways but actually weren’t really obliterating sexuality at all but sublimating it into obsessive chatter about it. Instead of having any actual physical pleasure, they just got off on intricately conceptualizing it, regulating it, gossiping about it. It was so much energy spent pouring intellectually over who does it and when and why and how. Can we please be done with all this intellectualizing? Why are we even still talking and why are people even still reading this and not just getting on with having some actual physical sex already? I mean, dear non-existent-god, here I am, roped into philosophizing about why I hate all philosophizing about sex. Would somebody please just fuck me already and end my misery?
Pat: Are you done yet?
Casey: If you have to ask that, you’re doing it wrong.
Pat: Look, I get it, sex can be over-intellectualized and over-scrutinized and many people can’t escape their neuroses. But that does not mean that the other extreme is any more appetizing in fact. If you literally were to strip sex of all its mental/symbolic/relational content and make it about the most simply physical sensations then a whole lot of the charge of it goes away. You can have waves of pleasure from many other experiences—even from a long overdue urination or from, um, defecating or farting. And sexual pleasure at its most meaningless and most disconnected from human imagination can be as rote, stupid, and incidental as those pleasures. It can be just a little biological payoff to reward and entice basic bodily functioning. But we rightfully want sex to be more “meaningful” for the same reason that we infuse all other manner of things in our lives with meaning and with complex associations with higher purposes and deeper life projects whenever we can. It’s because it intensifies and multiplies our pleasures to connect them up to things which matter to us mentally and emotionally and socially, etc. Whole other kinds of pleasures come in then. The barest physical pleasures of sex can pretty much be stimulated with the most minimal work necessary in many cases. Making sex into something exciting and satisfying on multiple deeper levels makes it a more and more fully human activity by infusing it with all the other parts of our fully human selves. We are mental, emotional, social, creative, ritualistic, symbol-loving creatures. I mean, you don’t object to fetishes or role playing or even *gasp* good old fashioned “totally putting the love in ‘love-making’ sex”, do you?
Casey: Of course that stuff is fine (but for that god awful “making love” phrase). But all of that stuff is connected to real things, not to hokey spirits. We have emotions and we have minds. But we don’t have spiritual sides.
Pat: But I think that the phenomenon that probably all people at some time experience and which they mean to refer to when they use the word “spiritual” is a kind of experience which fuses and integrates their mental, emotional, social, and even metaphysical grasp of the world into a physically shuddering experience. Don’t we all know these moments of wonder and awe? Of course they are mistaken to leap from that feeling of deep integration of these various deeply embodied and fully natural experiences to an unfortunate literal belief in a “spirit” that is capable of being disembodied. Of course they are mistaken if they buy into theologies that denigrate the physical, rather than celebrate its utterly irreplaceable contribution to those experiences. Those metaphysical inferences are counter-productive. But I don’t think they’re important to people’s use of the word “spiritual” in every case. I think people can be rightly identifying that they are having a fully integrative human experience that is, as simply a matter of standard conventions, called “spiritual”, independent of whatever other metaphysical inferences they might make from that experience. From the most to the least woo-minded person who refers to that kind of experience, I can feel comfortable saying they have the kind of experience that our language only has the word “spiritual” to describe. I don’t think that commits me to endorsing every erroneous philosophical belief with which they surround or interpret that experience. It’s like with “morality”. If someone says “murder is bad”, it does not matter to me if their whole philosophy of morality, or even if only their account of why exactly murder is bad, is off base. All that matters, in a limited sense, is that they get it right where it counts—murder is bad! Same here. And the people you complain about are minimally right—sex is “spiritual” in the sense of a fully integrated human experience which incorporates mind, emotions, sociability, metaphysical sense of place in the universe, and intense physical delight.
Casey: But if you validate the use of the word “spiritual” then you’re allowing them the stepping stone to superstitious, non-scientific, anti-physical metaphysics.
Pat: Well, until we can replace the word “spiritual” in the language with another word that people are so attached to, we risk being heard and dismissed out of hand as emotionally and intellectually impoverished when we say there are no such things as “spiritual experiences”. People mean by that phrase a certain raw datum of qualitative experience. We can say, “Yes! Those exist! And they’re no less real for being fully physiologically based!” I fear it’s a losing battle to fight to expunge a word like that from the language. I think our only hope is to coax people to step by step interpret what they mean by it in increasingly rational ways a little at a time.
Casey: But they will take the validation of the word “spiritual” as all the opening they need to go off a woo deep end. We can talk about “experiences which integrate the mental, emotional, social, physical, etc.” I don’t know what you meant by the jibberish about the metaphysical, so I won’t go along with that.
Pat: Wait—you’ll keep the word “mental”?
Pat: Well you do know that that word is interpreted in dualistic ways too. Are you sure it’s not too tainted, not too impure, for your cleansed language? I mean, you’re essentially complaining about Cartesian dualism and yet it was specifically the mind that Descartes argued was disconnected from the body.
Casey: Well, mind has plenty of secular and rational connotations. It’s not as intimately and inextricably bound up with religious ones. The people mystifying sex are claiming to get out of the reach of mind and into the realm of “spirit”. That’s the trouble, it’s the overlay with religious concepts.
Pat: But what if the religious symbology and the language of “spirituality” can be just reinterpreted in ways that reflect truths. Like it is in some sense a metaphysical truth that we are all deeply connected as physical beings and the sex act makes some people feel that truth. And there is something extraordinarily special about sex, as the act which makes our being alive at all possible, as the act which has linked millions of years of our ancestors (of so many species!!) to us, creating each and every one of them and us. It makes us feel so intensely and it drives so much of our behavior so maddeningly and consumes us so importantly precisely because it is truly a matter of importance of the highest order and truly something worth taking the greatest possible joy in. In other words it is a correct and eminently rational value assessment of sex to treat it with some solemn appreciation on some occasions. It’s a matter of aligning our feelings to a thing which makes rarely paralleled contributions to life itself. Maybe a little ritual which focuses the mind on that deep truth about sex’s value, or which even just helps us to meditate on its powers to unify and to please, etc. is a good thing for helping us to emotionally connect to sex’s objective goodness. It’s not just a matter of hedonistic indulgence and nothing more. It’s something of truly enormous significance we could never get our minds around or appreciate enough. While others are worshiping and devoting rituals to non-existent supernatural beings, I can hardly fault people who redirect their revering energies to something real and in fact supremely valuable like the true giver of life: sex itself.
Casey: But they do worship mythical beings! Some sex spiritualists involve gods and goddesses. It’s maddeningly, unnecessarily, and misleadingly mythological.
Pat: Well, hopefully they’ll keep it on the level of mythology and their mythologies will correspond closely to rational truths about values.
Casey: See, this is a double standard, Pat. You’d never give Christians a pass like this. You’d never say, “Just as long as their false theology can be given a morally edifying reinterpretation, who cares if they believe in literal nonsense?”
Pat: That’s true, I wouldn’t say that. I guess, as far as I’m concerned, nice as it would be if all humans were superstition free, in the meantime, I will be at least somewhat happy if the myths and symbols which the overwhelming number of people are still attached to employing become progressively correlated more and more to actual, real world metaphysical truths and rationally defensible value judgments. The more that people’s mythologies (even Christian ones) really turn into just literary and symbolic and ritualistically participatory ways to express things which are capable of true philosophical defenses, the far more acceptable they are. Such myths, even if unfortunately literally believed by some, at least could be a halfway house to full rationalistic embrace of those values and of literal truths. In the meantime, if overnight the great number of people are not going to become rationalistic atheists who feel no craving for rituals, I would rather encourage their movements away from myths which express literal falsehoods and heinous value judgments. And if that means not fighting tooth and nail over myths which at least correlate to true values, then sobeit. And, honestly, if someone had a fully rational account (like the kinds I gave earlier) of what they meant when they said sex was spiritual or of what they intended their rituals to focus the mind on, etc., then such a “religious” expression would be fine with me. I don’t see any inherent harm in integrating the rational, emotional, ritual, and social in ways that focus on truths about value like that. It clearly enrichens experience for countless people to have their experience have that “religious” character. It’s only the falsehoods, bad values, and authoritarian institutions that trouble me—not the use of ritual and symbol themselves.
Casey: But I dispute your praise of their “spiritual” value judgments. When I’m feeling sexual pleasure I’m not celebrating “the great contribution of sex to the world”. In fact most people aren’t. It just feels good. All by itself. No cosmic significance needs to be heaped on top or made a mandatory part of it. And this matters because there are serious dangers if we adopt your idealization and over-reverence of the life-creating powers of sex. It puts us down the road towards never interfering with those oh so “sacred” bestowals of life from Mother Sex. It’s a short “hop, skip, and a jump” to creating fertility cults like the Catholic Church which would irrationally ban contraception and meaningless sex and anything else that threatens to thwart sex’s supposedly “true” and “holy” and “ultimate” purpose. Nothing should be treated as so unpragmatically constrained in its importance. Sex is a tool for humans. It shouldn’t be viewed as anything more than that.
Pat: No, I don’t mean that you or I or most other people automatically consciously have sexual pleasure only because we are consciously thinking about sex’s role of passing on life for millions of years. I’m saying that the experience of orgasms and related sexual intensities are so strong because natural selection has (obviously) “found” sex so indispensable and something worth impressing on our minds as powerfully important. I’m saying were we to train ourselves to dwell on the connection between how important and objectively good it is for these purposes, it would only add to our appreciation and delight when we feel it. I’m not saying we automatically do this already but it would be a way to connect our pleasures to a truth about value which is actually, through natural selection, the main influence on those very pleasures, to create that association in our minds between the intense pleasure and the amazing truth. And rituals for that would be a promising tool to help us get that truth through our pleasures. But none of that is to say we would have to have only procreative sex or to have procreative sex at all. That’s absurd! Its life-giving role can be celebrated in theory in our pleasures as one thing that makes it worth celebrating, even as we also conscientiously choose not to create life ourselves. We can be grateful to the way it has millions of times over successfully led to our individual existences without that leading to any logically necessary obligation to let it create another life which we are not ourselves in the right personal place to take care of!
Casey: But you’re unleashing that same dangerous power of reverence of something “sacred” that can then swamp all pragmatic considerations. But the more it gets to be about the “sacred” the less it can be about the brute physical pleasures of sex. The emphasis on “sacredness” alienates us from the sex. Whatever gets called “sacred” winds up getting “set apart” and put on an unapproachable pedestal.
Pat: Well, I agree to the extent that I worry about the language of the “sacred” since it encourages people to wind up taking dangerous attitudes about protecting certain things from due criticism or other potentially valuable irreverent treatment. And I certainly wouldn’t want the celebration of the truth of why it so overwhelms us—because its great importance to life makes it so urgent for our bodies to be so drawn to it and satisfied by it—to be simplistically confused for an ethical basis to let it run our lives and lead to babies people are not in a place to raise. But does the sacred really need to be antithetical to the physical, as you also put it? I don’t see why. That seems to be your hang up on dualistic Christian categories when you assume that dichotomy. I don’t get the impression the non-Abrahamic pagans feel that way at all or mean to imply that at all. In fact, there are strong strands even of Christianity that emphasize “incarnational” theology whereby all of physical reality is essentially good, as evidenced by God calling it good in Genesis and by God himself taking on human flesh. The gnostics were rejected by the early church in part because of their dualistic, anti-material world Platonic doctrines.
Casey: I don’t know. I still think that sometimes sex is just physical pleasure and that’s nothing to be ashamed of and all the talk of sacredness is neurosis that gets in the way of genuinely free and unencumbered fucking.
Pat: Well, I don’t know. I see room for treating any valuable part of life with special attention to its specialness on some occasions and with less self-conscious engagement on others. I don’t understand why you have to be so either/or about this.
This dialogue was inspired and influenced (but does not exhaust) the thought provoking remarks here, here, and here (and all throughout that stimulating and diverse and well-informed comments section). And special thanks to Greta Christina for tip.
More such fictional debates about sex on Camels With Hammers:
More debates with Pat on Camels With Hammers:
The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.