The ‘S’ Word

The ‘S’ Word (Hint: this is no fecal matter)

            It is perhaps ironic, given its most human and personal quality, that sex is the topic that most people find the most difficult to speak about. If death is the unfathomable topic, and religion as well as politics are the ones most likely to lead to conflict, it is sex that all agree upon in an oddly related manner. It is quite fathomable, and simply speaking about it, at least, is unlikely to lead to conflict per se. And yet it remains taboo in all agrarian and post-agrarian social organizations. Any investigation into the reasons for this perduring sensibility would have to be anthropological in scope, and I am not equipped, so to speak, to perform such an analysis. What I can do, however, is ask a number of questions about the current version of the taboo, to see how it employs the same principle as the Durkheimian sacred in order to traverse world-scale historical and cultural boundaries and thus maintain its almost ominous elephant in our shared rooming house of society.

            Before the agrarian epoch, as may be observed in the remaining ethnographic contexts over the past century and a half, eating and sex were equivalents. In a great many such horticultural organizations, even the word for both acts is exactly the same. This notion that consumption was somehow related to consummation suggested a nascent mysticism. The Christian cult, in its first fluorescence, held that the Agape, the ‘love-feast’, was a mimesis of the union between Man and God, between the material and the mystical, and it is very likely that in pre-canonical Christianity, a strong erotic component was present, as it was in almost all of its Levantine competitors. The two key factors for Christianity’s ultimate success, well before it became imperially legal and thence ultimately official, was that unlike its competition, it admitted both males and females equally, and it also did not hitch itself up to a specific laboring class. Though, as Weber notes, it was the artisanal class of the Roman Empire that was first attracted to its ideas – which reminds us that Nietzsche’s comment that Christianity was a ‘slave religion’ must be taken metaphorically only, however else one may take it – these radically new sensibilities regarding ethics quickly spread. The artisans, used to working for aristocracy and thus witnessing both its splendor and leisure without ever being able to partake in it themselves, were the most obvious first catch of Pauline pastoralism, and it is rather this other historical point that lies in Nietzsche’s favor when he also characterizes Christianity as a religion based upon ressentiment.

            The Agape would likely scandalize today’s evangelicals, but it also served to promote the anti-gay stance that gradually became associated with the new instanciation of Abrahamic social relations. Evangels tend to want to have things both ways, as it were, but in this case, one must accept the usual bimodal eros untethered in order to maintain the boundary against same-sex unions and associated activities. Repressing the former only yields the presence of the latter, as the early Christians were aware but which our own versions of them desire to deny. Yet as early as Hellenistic times, as Foucault relates in his celebrated if regrettably truncated ‘History of Sexuality’, tracts and texts abounded exhorting people to abandon same-sexuality in favor of what was to become the dominant act. The Hellenes’ arguments were, by our standards, often earthy, laying out in the plainest language, for example, the advantages of womanhood as a sexual being in terms of there being willingly present a full three apertures, to stay civil, as opposed to the mere two available in men. That these are pre-Christian positions is instructive; the sense that large-scale Near Eastern civilizations had an immense demographic and hence military advantage over those Mediterranean was already very clear. With the Alexandrian empire at its height, these same early Europeans had at first hand come up against the great hordes of Asia Minor and well beyond, before Alexander himself wisely chose to stake his uttermost outpost in southern Afghanistan and proceed no further.

            Gay unions do not reproduce, and this basic biological fact contributed mightily to the sense that such activities would, in the end, result in the loss of culture as a whole. It is this sense that became a true sensibility, and may be seen today not only inside evangelical circles. There is yet a widespread notion that any departure from doxic sexuality is dangerous, even promoting of a crisis. That there are differences along more picayune lines – that sexual activity should be the sole purview of formal marriage, say, rather than of youth and its attendant ‘fornication’ – does nothing to obviate the more general agreement that in order for a culture to preserve itself, it must bear its own children. This last can be emphasized as a rider to the previous because anti-gay sentiment is often linked up with that anti-immigration. This too has both an irony and an authenticity to it: these ‘others’ still know how to breed! That is the essence of their threat to us. Even if we can scoff at the outlandish claims of Moscow and Tehran that ‘there are no homosexuals in our country’, what cannot be sniffed at is that however many are present abroad, their combined presence has no effect on the ability of these other cultures to think to dominate, and on a global scale. The clearest sign of this emerging dominance lies of course in the market, and hence in economic power, rather than that military, but the latter is coming along as well. In an age where large standing armies are obsolete, the link between demography and power is much more indirect than it was for the Alexandrians and their immediate successors. Even so, such a link is not entirely vacant. All of this contributes to the anti-gay line, and its historical bases, if not necessarily its contemporary concerns, are eminently factual.

            Aside from these more objective factors, there remains the residue of mystagogic variables which proclaim that informal sexuality, let alone same-sexuality, constitutes a betrayal of the covenant Man has with God. If Adam’s rib is more truly his upstanding member, then we allow ourselves to perform the singular act of mystical union, a kind of personal Agape, if you will, and with the same goal as had the early cultists, and this aside from admitting a great variety of obvious japes; the ‘ribbed’ condom, say. This singular goal, to reproduce the new ethics and spread the glad tidings – the one is the action and the other the resultant act – had as its resistance the previously dominant same-sexuality which was seen in Greek and Roman cultures as both a form of mentorship and of simple pleasureful leisure, as well as the sensibility that the Gods were themselves equally capable of desire, even lust. Zeus’ intimate and unceasing peregrinations were well known, but it cannot be more clear that the pre-Christian Mediterranean also made less transparent distinctions amongst love, lust, desire, and pleasure which became more rigid in the following epoch. As Nietzsche cleverly put it ‘Christianity gave Eros a poison to drink; he did not die of it, to be sure, but degenerated into vice.’

            And the scope of what constituted vice thus became much wider, so that by the time of the Troubadors and the incipience of romantic love, the chief draw of this new feeling was not so much that contrasting-sexuality be abandoned, but rather that its very formality had gotten in the way of its authentic celebration and thus union. And though it is certainly the case that in some arranged or pseudo-arranged marriages, the latter the ideal of evangelicals, love can arise after the fact of formal union, most Westerners agree that love precedes marriage and must do so if the formal socially sanctioned relationship should have any authenticity and perdurance itself. And it is not that vociferous Christians entirely disagree with this notion either, it is just that one should refrain from materially consummating such love in sexual union pre-maritally. This mutual chastity, it is argued, can only heighten desire, and thus and thence the desire of the lovers for one another. It is, perhaps oddly, an ethic borrowed not from the history of religion but rather from that of poetry and the courtships of the medieval romances.

            We have briefly seen that there are a number of related and unrelated factors at work which backdrop the ongoing taboo surrounding sex in our society. Foucault himself warned us that we should talk less about sex, perhaps contra to Salt-N-Pepa and a myriad of others, and actually do more of it. This Dionysian cast was not at all absent for the early Christians, so we are left to explicate, insofar as we can given the vicissitudes of history more generally, how we have moved ourselves from doing to talking, from openness to secrecy, from blitheness to neurosis, about sex. If we can do so with candor, it may be the case that we begin to see more clearly the relationships between technology and same-sexuality, between demographics and political economy, between morality and ethics, and of the utmost, those tensions interior to the intimacies between actual human partners, no matter their ‘orientations’. If we yet seek a unio mystica between and amongst human beings, if we continue to imagine that reality may be reenchanted through desire and even lust, then by working through what can only ever be a partial talk therapy of the phenomenology of sexuality, we may find ourselves much closer to understanding our culture’s essential ideal; that of love itself.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.