Remaking meaning

Have we accidentally robbed sex of meaning?

“Except in the modern world,” wrote the Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade, “sexuality has everywhere and always been a hierophany, and the sexual act an integral action and also a means of knowledge.”

That’s a really big “except.” Once, sex was inextricably linked to the larger stages in personal development. But nowadays? Is there anywhere that sex is regarded as anything more than a pleasure or a right or perhaps a last-ditch psychic tranquilizer?

Sometimes I think crystal meth only caught on because sex had become so mundane, people needed a high-risk, high-voltage pick-me-up to spur them on.

On TV, that leading bellwether of consumer trends, 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon asked, ahead of a big date, if they could just skip the sex part and move straight to the stage where they could sit around in schlumpy clothes and watch TV.

Which I thought was a pretty understandable reaction. Like our society at large, sex has become safe, trivial and entirely un-mysterious. Most of the time it’s treated as a drug, a cure-all for lethargy, anxiety and depression.

“I really need to get laid,” we say, and off we go to pick up a pill in the form of an encounter.

To be fair, this is no particular group’s fault. Gay men sometimes act like we invented meaningless sex, like we’re the only genus in town with the slut gene. But it’s more like the culture invented us as an instrument for its own ends.

Consumerist and technocratic, our society has no use for anything that can’t be fixed, packaged, bought or sold. Intricate and individual, relationships resist this kind of packaging. But sex — endlessly desirable, easily malleable sex — is a perfect fit. It’s the one product you can never have enough of. Hence, the consumer products division of Sex Inc — porn, baths, dating sites, sex toys and, of course, the advice industry. It’s a growth area, even if it’s one where true innovation is hard to come by.

Further leaching sex of its mystery is our addiction to technology. Assuming sex is just another habit in need of improvement, we subject it to a plethora of technologies — sex manuals and pop-up pills and advice columns. This may or may not be good for your mental health, but it certainly doesn’t do much for the imagination.

I like Dan Savage’s sex columns, for instance. As advice goes, it’s probably as good as it gets. But read enough of them and you get the feeling that sex is just another thing to put on your to-do list and nothing that can’t be improved with a little one-two-three advice. Even the oddest and most personal of kinks are only so much fodder for the self-improvement mill. In a world where people “date” via the ever more heavily mediated world of the internet — through screens and codes and texts — nothing is foreign to the technocratic gaze.


Of course, one man’s meaning is another’s political constraint, and to be fair, there are major advantages to “meaningless” sex, not the least of which is that nobody can get too upset about it. So long as sex was a portal to the mysterium, a step (via reproduction) to social continuance, a way of tying the individual to the group, nobody but nobody was going to let the fags in on the action. It was just too darned important. But now that sex is like blowing your nose — fun but not difficult — who’s going to object?

The people who object to gay marriage are among the last proponents of an older view of sex, a view that said sex was so important it had to be rationed, doled out, sanctified and controlled.

The rationale for this point of view was probably never quite as moral, rarefied or transcendent as its proponents would have us believe. The Catholic Church, for instance, considers priestly celibacy a sure-fire ticket to spirituality and spouts a lot of malarkey about how it allows the priest to escape the exclusivity of two-person romance and spread his love around. But its original purpose may have been far more mundane. Instituted in the 12th century, mandatory celibacy protected the church’s vast wealth from grasping priestly heirs.

Personally, I’ve never found any kind of sex, whether short- or long-term, meaningless. Obsessive, annoying, time-consuming and fruitless, perhaps, but not meaningless. Still, I don’t know that, in and of itself, it’s ever delivered much more than a 24-hour high, and today’s version is a long way from what, just a few decades ago, Northrop Frye called one of humanity’s “chief and most distinctive assets” — our “sense of sex as an imaginative experience.”

Tongue Lashing appears in every second issue of Xtra.

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