How Descartes Ruined Sex

How Descartes Ruined Sex January 10, 2012

This is a fantastic moment to be a teenage boy. Briefly recalling your freshman year of college, your inability to attract women, and that awkward moment when you realized you had no talents the world would pay you for, you may do well to ask: Why? Because you can be on your parent’s health care coverage until you’re 26? Because the world is ending, and in a moment of dire emergency a man and a woman are given leave to confirm the sacrament of marriage upon each other, with the hope that a priest can bear witness to that sacrament at a later date? Short answer: No. Long Answer: Yes, but it is especially great to be a teenage boy when approaching the topic of Descartes’ soul-body dualism. Philosophers and theologians have spent hundreds of years and destroyed acres of forest rebutting his claims. They wrote books, essays and articles defying and bemoaning his philosophy, all attempting to say what only the teenager can say with intellectual impunity: René Descartes was a douchebag.

You heard.

Maybe he was a nice guy, and I know he was at least partially trying to prove the soul’s immortality, but he screwed up the world. When my toast burns, I blame Descartes. I won’t bother you with how he got to his conclusion, for the Internet hasn’t enough space for me to murder my way through his proofs, but I will give you his conclusion: the nature of the mind (that is, a thinking, non-extended thing) is completely different from that of the body (that is, an extended, non-thinking thing), and therefore it is possible for one to exist without the other. For Descartes there was little distinction between a mind and a soul. So, according to him, a body can exist without the soul and the soul without the body.

To which the world  — in general — has been all like:

And the Catholic Church has been all like:

…maintaining that man is an inseparable union of body and soul, the two cannot be separated, and that Descartes was just plain wrong. Again, I am not here to rebut his thesis. I’m here to look at the consequences. And the consequence is this: Descartes ruined sex.

In common terms, what is a body without a soul? A corpse. What is a soul without a body? A ghost. Interestingly enough, we view both of these things with fear. Our natural reaction to body-soul dualism is not approval, but fearful rejection. Whatever else may be true, our actual human experience of the separation of body and soul is that Something Is Wrong!

But this confusion of the soul and body is at the very heart of some of the world’s most stupid decisions. Take anal sex. The first things that needs to be said about it is that it is a gibberish phrase, like audial eating, or nasal urination. (Sorry.)  It ain’t sex at all. Biology and anatomy are a bit brusque with this issue: Sex is the reproductive act, all else is imitation. In fact, if one must qualify sex as to its location, use mechanical devices to have it, or otherwise separate its form from its function, then it is specifically defined as being ‘not sex’.

But notice what its advocates use in its defense, or in the defense of any other exotic form of foreplay being ‘sex’ itself. They will, in one way or another, split the body and the soul. They must. It’s impossible to argue that parts of the body besides the genitalia were meant for reproduction, so they will move on to “sex is what the partners make of it,” or something of the sort. What your body is doing isn’t important, whether it be anal sex, oral sex — whatever. You can have sex without sex. The union of the sexual act can be achieved without the true, natural union of your body. You can have the soul without the body.

What is the soul without the body? A ghost. Thus it happens that my problem with all this is not that such acts are wildly grotesque or physically repellent — it is that they are ghostly. If it be sex, it is ghost-sex, and I reject it not because it goes too far, or does too much, but because it is such a whispery, pale thing, and I will not settle for shadows.

This is but one example of the many, many incidences of our modern ghostliness. Take pansexuality, a really-hip sexual orientation my peers are into. It is a concept that “rejects the notion of two genders and indeed of specific sexual orientations, as pansexual people are open to relationships with people who do not identify as strictly men or women. Pansexuality can also mean the attraction to a person’s personality, rather than their physical appearance or gender.” (Wikipedia (You’re allowed to use Wikipedia for something like Pansexuality. (Right?)))

Here you have the logical conclusion of this soul-body split. It’s all soul. The body isn’t just not important in its function, it is not important at all. The soul is what’s sexy. Or take people calling themselves “male-bodied persons” instead of men. Or the oft-repeated phrase, “If two people love each other, why can’t they marry?” All soul, no body. The logical end of all this is the complete absence of physicality in sex — perhaps sex will become a passing glance.

But the reverse is equally bad, if less modern. It is the rejection of the soul for the body. It is objectification. It says that you are a body, nothing more. Thus pornography denies the soul (and on a rather obvious level, the body, but I digress) and does not interact on the level of emotions, personality, or spirit. Our hook-up culture denies the soul. One-night-stands, prostitution, friends-with-benefits — all of this seeks to banish the soul and leave the body. But what is a body without a soul? It is a corpse. I reject all this ungentlemanly rudeness not because it is too much, but because it is too little — it is merely decay, and I want life to its fullest. One might make the argument that the logical consequence of focusing solely on the body is rape, the complete objectification of another human being. I would argue that it is necrophilia, an idea we will not dwell on here.

Now obviously, I am entirely aware that our various methods of making sex boring are not performed with Descartes in mind. If they were, I imagine they would happen less. But his idea stuck. So have an alternative idea:

You are an inseparable union of body and soul. You cannot act with your body without acting with your soul, nor vice versa. You are whole, made in the image and likeness of God, and you have no more need to deny the body or deny the soul than to deny your own existence. All separations and splits of the body and the soul are just that, separations and splits, wounds that won’t lead to happiness. With God’s grace, let us avoid the fall into ghostliness and death, and learn once again what it means to be human.

That was long. If you’re here, you’ve earned it:

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