Sex (American Style)

If we spiced our lives with more sensuality, we might make public life more sensuous and the gutters classier.

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As I’ve been writing a book about sex in recent months, I’ve had the Kama Sutra, the Indian guide to personal sexual culture, on my desk, and occasionally I’ve consulted the Internet to track down relevant books and articles. On the Internet, I’ve noticed, as soon as you venture in the direction of sex you quickly come upon crude, unadorned images of stark sexual union. Apparently we have finally found a public place where we can show our private parts and secret fantasies, free of the repressive eyes of the government agencies that serve our culture’s dominant Puritan philosophies. But here there is no love, little sentimentality, and almost nothing that could be called foreplay in any innocent sense of the word.

In contrast, the Kama Sutra discusses a wide range of sexual matters, from the general comportment of one’s life (dharma) to the establishment of personal economic security (artha) and the cultivation of the arts of love (kama). The Kama Sutra, graphic and open-minded in its own way, places sex within the context of a refined, humane life, while the Internet focuses on organs and acts. I’m reminded of the beautiful erotic figures carved into the Indian temples of Kharujaho and Konarak more than 1,000 years ago, images that depict every imaginable sex act within a context of worship and prayer, and I wonder why the Indians put their sexual fantasies on temples while we give ours over to pornography. This is one of those questions that I believe, if we could answer it, would pinpoint exactly what’s wrong with our culture.

Although I’m convinced we’re all moralists at heart, I’m not interested in making any judgments here about the ethics or appropriateness of the Kama Sutra, the temple sex couples, or the Internet, but I am interested in the sexual life of the community in which I live. We seem to be obsessed with sex and embarrassed by it. Sex sells, I’m told by almost everyone who hears I’m writing about the theme. Some insinuate that I must be writing about sex for the royalties alone, cashing in on our mass compulsion, but I wonder if I’ll lose readers, because you aren’t supposed to be interested in both spirituality and sex — unless you’re writing about sacred sex (whatever that is), or offering suitably cantankerous health or moral cautions.

Medieval monks spent hours copying the Bible, while in the margins, called gutters, they would occasionally doodle obscene images and phrases. We do something similar when we create an efficient, clean world of speedy highways and no-nonsense office buildings, while our extravagant sexual images — our dirty thoughts — are funneled into red-light districts, a 42nd Street or a Hollywood and Vine, or into an unregulated highway called the Internet. We divide sex from ordinary life and then wonder why it enjoys emotional autonomy in our lives.

History shows that sex has always had its selected areas of tolerance — usually far from the center of daily commerce, except perhaps in ancient Pompeii, Greece, Rome, or Sodom and Gomorrah. I’m not arguing for a democratization of sexual images; it is appropriate to be as careful about sex in public as a parent might be about it at home. But I do question the sharpness of the line drawn between public life and the gutter. I wonder why we demand that our political leaders be without sexual fault — I discovered while practicing psychotherapy that everyone, including our most upright fellow citizens, has skeletons in the closet or lurid dreams and fantasies.

Maybe if we spiced our daily lives with qualities associated with sex, we might make public life more sensuous and the gutters classier. People used to build beautiful, sexy bridges, for instance, but now we build them for cost-efficiency. People used to build roads that you’d want to drive on for a Sunday outing, but today we just want to get from one place to another as quickly as possible — no foreplay. In some parts of the world they still make life itself sexy with their sensuous movies, their extravagant cuisines, and their seductive streets. In, say, a piazza in Rome or a plaza in Mexico, cafés fill the square with chairs and tables decked out with food that makes you salivate as you pass by. We have our oases of public sensuality (Bourbon Street in New Orleans and maybe the casinos of Las Vegas) but usually they are so removed from the culture at large that they quickly become outrageous and tinged with unsavory — a telling word — associations.

When I’m out in public spaces, I look in vain for a good chair. Most have no place to sit down, or if they do, the seats appear to be designed for something other than the human body. Sitting on a concrete slab doesn’t do much for my sexuality. My body would also like to see some nourishing color in place of the ubiquitous metallic glass; an abundance of flowers and trees instead of an architect’s skimpy afterthought — the token juniper and the de rigueur marigolds; and sensuous flowing water that isn’t hidden behind warehouses and bridge supports. I hope it’s obvious that food, flowers, seats, colors, and water have something to do with sex.

Office buildings are the most sexless places in public life. Our vision of work translates into hard marble, cold granite, pale walls, authorless art, green-only vegetation, scarce windows, white light, modular desks, thin carpets, and disembodied background music. No wonder Eros ignites the office affair as often as possible; it’s his only refuge. Here I find a rule that has broad application: Take sex out of the world we live in daily, and it will become a giant, unsettling force in our personal lives.

Religion has a powerful influence on sex in America, but the religious institutions merely reflect an attitude deep in the American psyche. Spiritually we are virtually all believers in transcendence, imagining our values, inspiration, and faith all coming from above the clouds, off the earth, out of our bodies, far from sex. We believe in the mind, and we don’t trust the body. We are profoundly unsettled when we hear about a priest, preacher, or guru caught in some sexual scandal — our outrage comes from the old theological idea that humanity is contrary to divinity. We are working up a fever making new laws against touching, and we’re more scandalized by a photograph or painting showing a nipple or a penis than by the image of a starving child on a dry, dusty road.

The body is our central embarrassment — merely having one, making love with one, or indulging in the human fascination for the sexual body. To all appearances, we’d like to be bodiless, and most of our recent inventions point toward that goal; they encourage us to sit in front of a screen and work, play, shop, and meet with old friends electronically. But after a lifetime of avoiding the body, we meet it face to face in illness, where, not coincidentally, we also discover our souls. Illness teaches us lessons our high-tech education has overlooked: We are mortal, we have a body, to be human is to have sensation, and we could discover what is really important by paying attention to the body’s reactions. I suspect we could learn all these lessons more pleasurably by living every day less mentally and more sexually.

The repression of the body and its main work, sex, wounds the soul immeasurably and deprives us of our humanity. Often we refer to sex as “physical love,” the work of a soulless body, and then we try to justify this biological act morally by making sure that it’s in the service of affection. But the bifurcation of body and soul can’t be healed so easily. We have yet to discover that sex is not physical love but the love of souls. You don’t have to spiritualize sex to make it valuable, because by its very nature sex is a deep act of the interior life and always brings with it a wealth of emotional and spiritual meaning.

Mircea Eliade, the religion scholar, remarked that the sacred sometimes lies camouflaged in the mundane. As a student of world religions myself, I notice that the positions and organs on the Web’s erotic pages are identical to those on Indian temples, on Greek pottery, in ancient ritual, and in religious legend and lore. Oddly, pornography may, at its root, be an unconscious attempt to preserve the sacredness of sex. Where do you find graphic sexual imagery today? In pornography, in religious ritual and statuary, and in dreams. If we assume that dreams portray the soul’s interests in pure form, untainted by conscious manipulation, then they tell of the psyche’s necessities and of what role erotic feeling and fantasies play in the economy of the heart. Religious erotic art shows us how profound sex is in the nature of things, and how much like religious ecstasy is the pleasing oblivion it grants. Pornography plays the role of providing a symptomatic presentation of the erotic realities that we’ve excluded from our canons of propriety.

We have lost religion, not as an institution or as a set of beliefs, but as a way of living in touch with the raw roots of desire and meaning. With religion absent, sex, historically wedded to religious practice, falls into the gutter, as much outside of life as religion. Now shaded in darkness, potent sexual imagery, removed from public life, appears only in graffiti and in taboo magazines and movies. Artists, always intimate with religion, intuitively perceive the relation between sex and religion and try to give Eros a prominent place in their work, but since art, too, has become marginalized, we misjudge sexual imagery in art as irreligious and pornographic.

Sex is trying to break through and out of our secularism, but we misread the signs, thinking we’re beholding the work of the devil instead of the angels. Pornography is the return of the repressed, the religious nature of sex presenting itself in dark instead of bright colors. Every time we think of sex as biological, every time we teach sex education as a secular study, we are setting ourselves up for more pornography. But mercifully, for all its stupidity, lack of taste, and outrageousness, pornography keeps sex from becoming the heartless preserve of the medical establishment and the social scientist.

Sex is the ritual recovery of vitality and life. It makes marriages, creates families, and sustains love. It takes us momentarily out of our minds and into our souls. In sex we “come” — come back to ourselves in unmediated sensation, come back into our world from our mental outposts. It’s no wonder we’re obsessed with sex, since it is the very epitome of vitality, and yet, because it is full of vibrancy, we’re also deathly afraid of it. Unlike many other cultures, we don’t appreciate orgy, even within strict ritual limits. We leave it to pornography, where it is either indulged compulsively in the way of a spectator or moralized against, or both simultaneously.

The most common story I heard from people in psychotherapy dealt with a happy marriage in which one or both partners felt compelled to engage in an extramarital affair. The parties involved couldn’t understand the reason for the overwhelming allure of another carnal liaison. They assumed something must be wrong in the marriage or in their own past. They never considered that there might be some deep need for orgy, for sex without the weight of moralism, or for enough and varied sex to offset the bodiless, passionless life that modern work and family values insist upon.

In many cases, the affair looks to me like the office flirtation and the pornographic photo — it’s symptomatic of a failure to give sex enough prominence in daily life and in the privacy of a marriage. I don’t advocate affairs, but I can understand their allure in an age of incessant labor, anxious leisure, compulsive entertainment, uprooted ethics, and a public life built on efficiency and machinery. In this cool, gray world, we’re starved for friendship, excitement, and intimate conversation. One sought-after reward of an affair might be a forgetting of responsibilities, as the participants risk their reputations, marriages, and, in some cases, their livelihoods for a few wicked hours of carnal delight.

Some, of course, would say that affairs are the result of a breakdown in traditional morality. Whatever the merits of this analysis, it is generally presented in a self-righteous, paternalistic, and uncompassionate tone — indicating discomfort with sex and with the moral complexity it may bring into the lives of ordinary people. It’s difficult to trust an approach to life’s most fascinating and challenging mystery that demonizes sex or deals with sexual problems without showing heart.

One solution to our obsession/repression pattern would be to align sex with intelligence, civility, spiritual values, and all the other aspects of our daily lives. In the realm of the psyche, it seems that the segregation of any element leads to trouble. If the only thing in life is your depression, then you may have little chance of being liberated from it. If money is the aim of your life, then it will probably reveal its emptiness in due time. Sex makes important demands for privacy and secrecy, but if we cut it off from the fabric of life’s totality, it may begin to show itself as odd and even monstrous.

It isn’t enough to make easy intellectual deals — “I’m willing to understand that sexual feelings are basically good and normal, if you, Sex, are willing to leave me alone and let me live my life according to my plans.” A more substantive weaving of sex into life may be accomplished by softening the barriers between ordinary living and sexuality.

We might temper our moralistic approaches to food. If you want to feel guilty these days, eat a sumptuous dinner with friends or boldly buy some food that someone in a lab coat has determined is bad for you. Few things in life are closer to sex than food, and yet we have gone too far in surrendering this ordinary pleasure to the medicine-haunted guardians of kitchen virtue.

Or, in a culture that frowns on idleness, give yourself some completely unproductive time. Excessive productivity is incompatible with an erotically interesting life because the senses get distracted by busyness. Not spending your time profitably might be the best thing you can do for your sex life.

We might give serious attention to qualities associated with sex, such as pleasure, desire, intimacy, and sensuality, and give these very qualities a place in all aspects of daily life. We might take the body’s needs into consideration as we build and arrange our world. Sex finds its way by means of desire, and it follows that if we were to live in tune with our sexuality, we would give desire its proper place. Some would object that responding to our appetites is narcissistic and irresponsible, but taking desire into account is not the same as doing whatever we feel like. We are not sophisticated about desire, and so tend to reduce discussion of it to absurd, simplistic, and obviously objectionable terms.

Every day desires spring up from the pool that is the human soul and source of life. Some are strong, some weak. Some often contradict others. Some are impossible to satisfy, some we can deal with in a few minutes. The point is, desire serves vitality and ushers in life. We can’t act on all desires. If that were possible, at this moment I’d be living in several states and countries. Some desires stay with us for years — late in life we may find a desire fulfilled after many years of containment. Being loyal to desire, giving certain desires time to show themselves more fully and reveal how they might make their way into life, is a form of sexual living. Broadly speaking, it is an erotic way of life.

We could learn from sex to live all of life more intimately. There’s something sexual, again in a broad sense of the word, in a warm neighborhood community. I will never forget the afternoon, shortly before we moved from Massachusetts, when our family gathered our neighbors together for a goodbye ritual. We created a small, spontaneous ceremony in which we all said something from the heart about our history in the neighborhood and about the loss we were all feeling. This moment reflected an intimate way of living there. We could have kept our thoughts and feelings to ourselves, but the closeness of that moment represented the Eros, the sexuality, of living among good friends.

In the area of sex, our society can hardly be called compassionate. We quickly judge celebrities whose private sexual difficulties become public. We dispose of politicians and military personnel who miss the mark of our anxiously protected norms. Because sex is so full of life, it is rarely neatly arranged or easy to deal with. In general, if we want to live a soulful life we have to allow some latitude for the unexpected in ourselves and others, but this is especially true of sex. It is the nature of sex, maybe its purpose, to blast some holes in our thinking, our planning, and our moralisms — sex is life in all its boldness.

Read the biographies of the men and women who have made extraordinary contributions to humanity. List their achievements in one column and their sexual idiosyncrasies in another. Notice the direct proportion between sexual individuality and creative output, between desire heeded and compassion acted upon. Then reflect long on your moral attitudes: Are they suitably deep, humane, compassionate, and complex?

Every day we could choose to be intimate rather than distant, acting bodily rather than mentally, responding thoughtfully from desire instead of from discipline, seeking deep pleasures rather than superficial entertainments, getting in touch with the world rather than analyzing it at a distance, making a culture that gives us pleasure rather than one that merely works, allowing plenty of room in our own and in others’ lives for the eccentricities of sexual desire — generally taking the role of lovers rather than doers and judges.

Thomas Moore is the author of the best-selling Care of the Soul and, more recently, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life. His next book, The Soul of Sex, will be published in 1998 by HarperPerennial.


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