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Author Topic: Why Sexuality Matters ~ John Russon, Ph.D.  (Read 567 times)
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« on: December 15, 2016, 07:23:45 AM »

Why Sexuality Matters
John Russon (Ed. Gary Foster)
Desire, Love, & Identity (2016)
Chapter: Philosophy of Sex and Love


Excerpt: We use the word sex easily, but how well do we really understand what it means? I propose to take up the question of what sex is, and thereby to show how and why it is one of the most important things in our lives‚ but also one that we often misunderstand. To carry out this investigation, I will first set things up through three short reflections on familiar aspects of our lives. I will then use the results of this discussion to think about the experience of growing up, especially focusing on the experience of "losing one's virginity. I will conclude by reflecting on how we most effectively fulfill our erotic desires.

Intimacy

When we look at what is really happening psychologically in our sexual experiences, we can see that what we desire in sexuality is not primarily bodily pleasure; what we desire is another person. We desire the other’s desire; we desire that our desires be desirable to that other, and we ourselves desire to fulfill the desires of the other. Let us think a little bit further about what this implies. Inasmuch as I desire to satisfy that other person, what that other person really wants is what I want to answer to. Inasmuch as I desire that I myself be desirable to the other, what I really want is that the other person wants to satisfy me; that is, I want that other person to desire to offer me what I really want.  What is ultimately at issue here, then, is intimacy. It is my most intimate desires and your most intimate desires that are called into play in our sexual engagement with each other, our deepest, most vulnerable, core of desire and aspiration. This brings us back to the third thought with which we began. For each of us, our sexuality is about the unique, and uniquely intimate, personal desires we – and our partners – have. What is really at stake, then, in our sexuality is our shared embrace of that within us that is most personal and intimate. The real pleasure in sexuality is the pleasure of accomplishing a shared intimacy.

Notice what this this means, though. Because for each of us, our most intimate desires are unique, there is no way to know, outside of our communication, what form our sexual satisfaction will take. There is no way to way, in other words, what specifically we want in sexuality, what specifically gives us pleasure, without learning that from each other singly. There is, in short, no “general” answer to this question, no answer that is true for all. The answer, rather, could only be found uniquely by us in our joint accomplishing of a shared intimacy, an accomplishment only realised through communication and mutual learning. What form our sexuality should take cannot be defined outside of us; we must, rather, create it jointly through a process of learning from each other who and how we want to be. We must approach each other not knowing what it will mean for us to be sexual with each other, without knowing what we want or how we should behave, for those things will all have to be learned through our unique and intimate interpersonal dialogue.

***
These stories present themselves as the answer to the questions about sex, whereas we are seeing that what is most essential about sex is that it be a question for us. What our sexuality calls for, then, is in effect, that we return to the attitude of the child, and acknowledges our ignorance about sexuality, rather than substituting cultural clichés for the satisfying of our deepest needs for interpersonal intimacy.

***
Sexuality is where the experience of our own singular importance comes together with the experience of the importance of being responsive to others. It is also the site of experiencing this coming together as calling for our singular action and initiative, and further, the experience of the need to be creative in a situation in which there is nowhere else to turn for “the right answer”. We can thus see in sexuality, in this call to creatively realizing a joint care for you and me, the original ethical experience.

Excerpt
Why Sexuality Matters
John Russon, Desire, Love, & Identity. Philosophy of Love and Sex, 2016.
Ed. Gary Foster

We use the word sex easily, but how well do we really understand what it means? I propose to take up the question of what sex is, and thereby to show how and why it is one of the most important things in our lives‚ but also one that we often misunderstand. To carry out this investigation, I will first set things up through three short reflections on familiar aspects of our lives. I will then use the results of this discussion to think about the experience of growing up, especially focusing on the experience of "losing one's virginity. I will conclude by reflecting on how we most effectively fulfill our erotic desires.

1. Three Short Reflections

Though my goal is to understand something about the importance of sexuality in our lives, I want to begin with a short reflection on something seemingly unrelated. I want to begin by thinking about public speaking, and, in particular, I want to consider the emotional dimensions - both the ones that make it difficult and the ones that make it desirable - that we encounter when we are called to speak in front of a group. I do not intend to give a scientific study of this experience, but simply to acknowledge familiar features that any of us
should easily recognize.

First, there are some well-known ways in which that experience can be difficult. It is quite a common experience to feel nervous in front of a group: 1 we feel butterflies in our stomachs, we get dry-mouthed and choked up as we begin to speak. Perhaps we blush, shake, or perspire. Why does this happen? I think most people would agree that we feel these things and react this way because we notice that we are being looked at by others: we experience ourselves as being evaluated by them - judged - and, most basically, we fear that we will not perform well. Typically, we embark on the project of speaking because we have something we want to share, but we become nervous because we fear that we will not speak well enough to be engaging, or that we will not communicate ourselves clearly, or that others will not be receptive to what we
have to offer.

Of course, public speaking can also be exhilarating. This very experience of being under the gaze of others can be energizing and enlivening. It can spur us to creativity - to think or to speak or to act in unanticipated ways that we would otherwise be unable or unwilling to do. We can relish the Spotlight and enjoy the
fact that we "can- command others" attention‚ that we are being recognized. And we can be gratified personally or morally because we are succeeding in getting an important message across and having an impact. Surely there are many more things that we could say about the experience of public speaking‚ or, really, any performing in public. I trust that these few remarks sketch out clearly enough some feelings with which we are all familiar. We have something we want to share with those others, and the experience of having others attention directed towards us is both exhilarating and challenging. We desire to have an impact on those others and to win their approval, but we also risk the possible humiliation of having them judge us to be failures. Holding those thoughts about public speaking in the background, let us now reflect upon the second topic, this time a thought more obviously connected; with our theme of sexuality. I would like now to think about the familiar stories we learn in our culture about what sexuality is. l am not proposing here that we think about the learned and insightful theories we may have developed, but instead about the familiar cultural narratives we grow up hearing.

Of course we hear many stories, and I do not intend to canvas them in any thorough or detailed way, but I think there are some stories that we should all easily recognize as being part of our familiar cultural heritage. We hear, typically, that sex is about genitals, about vaginas, penises, semen, orgasms. We hear that sex is something that properly involves two people, and that it can be engaged in either with fidelity or as cheating. We hear that it is exciting‚ perhaps the most exciting thing of all‚ but also something that should be kept private, perhaps even secret, as there is a significant degree of shame attached to it as well. Though same sex practices are widely recognized as legitimate, they are still commonly challenged and, indeed, most of the images we see of sexuality are hetero-sexual images‚ images of provocatively clad young women with shapely legs, thin waists, and round breasts, connecting with usually slightly older self-controlled men whose tall bodies are surely crafted through time at the gym. Men with perhaps a rough edge, or a nerdy but adorable edge, or a look of reliable professionalism and confidence. As we are growing up, and still when we are older, our familiar cultural stories‚ on television, in the movies, in-pop songs, in advertisements‚ communicate that Sex is what grown-ups do, and that getting it and finding yourself in this story doing these things with a person like that is success.

Obviously this story could be told with much greater detail and complexity, but I imagine that anyone in our contemporary society will quickly recognize the familiarity and pervasiveness of this general portrayal of sex.

We have now reflected briefly on the experience of public speaking and then on the common-way in which sex is portrayed. Now, I propose a third and final short reflection, after which I will turn to my own claims about
why sexuality matters.

For this final reflection, I would, like to think about our own most intimate sexual desires - what is it that we really want, that we really would hope for in our sexual life. This third thought is not I can write about, however, because I am asking about what is, for each of us, most personal. I could articulate my own most intimate and private desires (or at least I could try) but I cannot say what yours are. This third reflection, then, each reader must perform for her- or himself, and so I ask you now, in reading this, to pause for a moment and think honestly and truly about what you really want sex to be.

Losing Your Virginity

What I want to do now is to bring the results of the above three reflections together into my own account of why sexuality matters. I brought out these three thoughts in particular about public speaking, about common cultural por-
trayals of sex, and about our most intimate desires‚ because I think each of them takes us into a distinct and an essential aspect of our sexuality. In order to see this, I want us to think about the experience of children as they grow
up into the world of sexuality. Let us consider, then, what it is like to be a child.

Children grow up hearing about “sex.” They hear how exciting it is, but they also
hear about it as something they are not part of. Sex is something for older people‚ the bigger kids at school in the higher grades, older brothers and sisters, the grown-ups on television‚ but not something they can yet have or understand. For children, sex is presented as a question, as something to which they are destined, but something into which they currently have no insight. Children wonder what sex is, and they anticipate it, having only its popular “reputation” - the very reputation we just described - to go on. With this in mind, let us now think about what happens when children do in fact enter into the world of sexual experience.

Of course, entry into sexual experience takes all kinds of different forms‚ some
Brutal and unfair, to be sure, others no doubt thrilling and satisfying‚ and I will not try to catalogue them all. I will simply point to what are some central features of this experience as it typically occurs. Typically, it will be as adolescents – teenagers - that this issue becomes a burning one, and commonly an adolescent will have a first sexual experience in private with another young person. For the sake of simplicity, let us imagine this to be a reasonably happy experience, (though this is by no means always the case), and let us think about what is involved in the experience.

An obvious dimension of this experience will be the pleasure in the nice bodily sensations produced by being touched. Our familiar cultural stories often focus on this dimension of pleasure. We see images of the woman writhing and moaning with pleasure under the touch of the man, or of the man expressing in
his tightened face his submission to the transporting pleasure of orgasm, no doubt coupled with the pleasure of forceful and energetic bodily engagement. Presumably, such bodily pleasure is typically a significant dimension of the first sexual experience. This bodily pleasure, however, is not the only pleasure that is
going on here, nor even the most prominent.

To make this first point, let us note two other significant dimensions to the pleasure of this experience.

Prior to this first sexual experience, sex was a provocative mystery, and not having entered the world of being sexually active‚ counted as evidence of one’s immaturity. For that reason, one of the most powerful dimensions of the first
sexual experience is the sense that our question is being answered; our sense that “I’ve made it” and crossed the threshold into the world of people who have “done it”.

Indeed, much of the reason one pursues this initial sexual experience is to become initiated. Once we have participated in a sexual experience with someone else, we say, “Now I know what it is” or “So that’s- what it’s like” and we" have a sense of accomplishment or maturity, seeing ourselves as doing the “grown-up” thing; or perhaps a sense of relief, feeling that we have now been able to leave behind the stigma of immaturity and failure that can come with being a “virgin”, or, indeed, a sense of shame at not having waited for the proper time and the proper person or for being-interested in “wrong” practices.

Here, then, we begin to see the significance of our earlier thoughts about the public “reputation” of sex: the cultural stories we have heard about sex set sexual initiation up for us a goal, and our sexual experience is thus wrapped up with a sense of our succeeding according to the imperatives of our culture. This
experience of cultural success, then, of having “made it” is the second pleasure involved in that first sexual experience. I will return to this point a bit later, but before doing that let us focus a bit more on the specifics of the last point I made about the experience of relief in “losing one’s virginity” in order to identify a
third dimension to the pleasure" involved in that first sexual experience.

Why might it be a “relief”, in particular that one experiences in losing one’s virginity? As we noted above, it is no doubt in part simply a matter of arriving at a destination one has been anticipating; but there is also more to it than just
that. To see what else is involved, let us consider again the experience of the person growing up. When each of us is growing up, though we hope and expect to enter the promised world of grown-up sexual life, we are not sure we will, in
fact, get to have sex. Because losing one’s virginity is not something one can do on one’s own. One must be chosen as a partner by someone else; this observation reveals the third dimension of the pleasure of the sexual "experience”, which is the pleasure of being chosen, the pleasure of having been attractive to another, of having appeared in the other’s eyes as someone-desirable. The pleasure in that first experience, then, in addition to being the pleasure of bodily stimulation and the pleasure of social success is the pleasure of being desired, the pleasure of mattering to another person.

And again, I was presuming this first experience to be pleasant, but it is important to remember that the experience can also be unpleasant. Thus, to correspond to the thrill of bodily stimulation, social success, and inter-personal recognition, we can also understand why anticipation of “losing one’s virginity” can equally be a matter of fear of bodily pain, fear of negative social judgment, and fear of personal rejection.  But whether the experience is positive or negative, the main point I want to make is that the pleasure or pain involved in sexual experience involves much more than bodily stimulation. In fact, it seems to me that, despite what we are told in our cultural narratives, these latter two dimensions that I have identified – the pleasure or pain of cultural success or failure and the pleasure or pain of being desired or rejected by another – do much more to shape our sexuality than the pleasure or pain of bodily sensation does.

I want now to explore more fully these other dimensions of our sexuality. Let us look first at the distinct issues that arise from the fact that what we seek is the pleasure of being desired by another person.

Desire  

Typically, the person whose desire we seek is a person whom we ourselves find desirable. Winning that person’s desire is what we want, and knowing about ourselves that we are pleasing that person is what will exhilarate us and satisfy our desire. Ideally, we should thus experience a situation of two people happily enjoying their shared experience of mutual desire. But because that other person has the power to give or withhold his or her desire for us, we can also feel captive to that desire as a “prize” to be won or a challenge to be overpowered. We may thus live out our sexual life as a practise of seduction, trying to turn ourselves into a desirable object that captivates the other.  In an extreme form, this can lead us to enter into sexual life not focusing on our own pleasures but instead entering into sexual experiences for the sake of “winning” the other’s desire, affirming to ourselves our own desirability by being able to command the desire of the other. Indeed, even in a more reciprocal situation in which we do not reduce our own desire to the attempt to be attractive to another, the essential dimension of our pleasure can still be the sense of success in actually being able to make the other happy; this can be true to such a degree that not being able to satisfy the other’s desires can make all the experiences of or own pleasure turn into pain, as we feel incompetent, guilty, selfish, or impotent in our inability to reciprocate. These ways in which the possible pleasure of the other can also be a site of pain can point to other sorts of sexual behaviours.

In order to minimize the threat to our own self-esteem that might come from opening ourselves up to the other and failing to satisfy them, or worse, being rejected by them, we can become cold with our partners, closing off our emotional attachment so as to avoid the situations that could be sites of possible pain. Or again, we may become possessive or controlling, trying to use force to contain the constant thread that the other person’s desire might turn elsewhere. Or perhaps we deal with our own insecurity by turning our moral condemnation on our partners to make them feel guilty for having the desires that leave us feeling vulnerable. Or, more extremely, we become intentionally cruel to the other so as to demonstrate to ourselves our ability to have an emotional impact on the other, or to prove to ourselves that we are not dependent upon them. In other words, though we initially seek is the pleasure of being desired by someone we find desirable, our fear of failing can lead us to become cold, controlling, or hurtful in our treatment of the other person.

What we are seeing in these examples is the way our sexuality – because it is a domain of our experience that can only be unfolded through the help of another – is always a domain charged with issues of emotional vulnerability and that it will therefore always be shaped by the practises and strategies we adopt for dealing with that vulnerability – practises that can be healthy or unhealthy. Sexual life is the domain in which we navigate interpersonal issues of care, self-esteem, and power, and, more basically than being a domain defined by the experience of pleasing bodily sensations, sex is an activity in and through which we establish – both to ourselves and to others (either our sexual partner or others through whose eyes we evaluate ourselves) – a sense of our desirability to other persons. Through our seductive posturing or our cool indifference, through our skills in touching or our responses in being touched, through our dramatic demonstrations of ecstatic abandonment or our subtle expressions of disappointed detachment, we position ourselves with respect to the “dialogue” of desire; we communicate through our behaviours – at a level beneath our explicit words- our affirmation or disapproval of the other and our openness or closedness to our own vulnerability. In so doing, we hope to demonstrate or to discover our desirability, our strength – indeed, our very worth as persons. Sexuality, in other words, is by its nature a phenomenon of interpersonal vulnerability and communication and it is this that provides the context that will determine the significance of whatever pleasant (or unpleasant) bodily sensations we encounter.

We can now see the significance of our earlier thoughts about public speaking. The example of public speaking allows us to bring into focus what sorts of issues are at stake in encountering other people – experiencing oneself as an object being judged and evaluated, experiencing exhilaration at the thought of being recognized and appreciated, having unknown strengths drawn forth from us or feeling ourselves shut down without ever having adequately expressed ourselves. Those earlier reflections allow us to bring into focus precisely the issues we are actually grappling with in sexual experience, because sex, like public speaking, is first and foremost a matter of our desire to be desired by another – a matter of being evaluated by the perspective of another. What we see from our reflection on public speaking, though, is that the issues at stage in that encounter are quite different from matters of bodily pleasure. We will understand what “sex” is much better if we take public speaking, rather than the writhings of naked porn stars, as our image of what is going on in our sexual experiences.

Intimacy

When we look at what is really happening psychologically in our sexual experiences, we can see that what we desire in sexuality is not primarily bodily pleasure; what we desire is another person.  We desire the other’s desire; we desire that our desires be desirable to that other, and we ourselves desire to fulfill the desires of the other. Let us think a little bit further about what this implies. Inasmuch as I desire to satisfy that other person, what that other person really wants is what I want to answer to. Inasmuch as I desire that I myself be desirable to the other, what I really want is that the other person wants to satisfy me; that is, I want that other person to desire to offer me what I really want.  What is ultimately at issue here, then, is intimacy. It is my most intimate desires and your most intimate desires that are called into play in our sexual engagement with each other, our deepest, most vulnerable, core of desire and aspiration. This brings us back to the third thought with which we began. For each of us, our sexuality is about the unique, and uniquely intimate, personal desires we – and our partners – have. What is really at stake, then, in our sexuality is our shared embrace of that within us that is most personal and intimate. The real pleasure in sexuality is the pleasure of accomplishing a shared intimacy.

Notice what this this means, though. Because for each of us, our most intimate desires are unique, there is no way to know, outside of our communication, what form our sexual satisfaction will take. There is no way to way, in other words, what specifically we want in sexuality, what specifically gives us pleasure, without learning that from each other singly. There is, in short, no “general” answer to this question, no answer that is true for all. The answer, rather, could only be found uniquely by us in our joint accomplishing of a shared intimacy, an accomplishment only realised through communication and mutual learning. What form our sexuality should take cannot be defined outside of us; we must, rather, create it jointly through a process of learning from each other who and how we want to be. We must approach each other not knowing what it will mean for us to be sexual with each other, without knowing what we want or how we should behave, for those things will all have to be learned through our unique and intimate interpersonal dialogue.

Our cultural narratives present themselves as an answer to the question: “What is sex and how should you do it?” We have already seen that these familiar stories are misguided because they misrepresent the inherent dimension of interpersonal desire as a simple dimension of bodily pleasure. But more than this these stories are wrong in principle, precisely because they present sex as a settled meaning, a settled pattern and formula. These stories present themselves as the answer to the questions about sex, whereas we are seeing that what is most essential about sex is that it be a question for us. What our sexuality calls for, then, is in effect, that we return to the attitude of the child, and acknowledges our ignorance about sexuality, rather than substituting cultural clichés for the satisfying of our deepest needs for interpersonal intimacy.

Erotic Life

Once we get past equating sex with the activities portrayed in advertising, we can appreciate the much broader and richer range of activities that constitute erotic life. I will point to three of our most important human practises that should, I believe, be understood as erotic experiences.

Sexuality is where the experience of our own singular importance comes together with the experience of the importance of being responsive to others. It is also the site of experiencing this coming together as calling for our singular action and initiative, and further, the experience of the need to be creative in a situation in which there is nowhere else to turn for “the right answer”. We can thus see in sexuality, in this call to creatively realizing a joint care for you and me, the original ethical experience. Indeed, in its validating of the essentiality of one’s own intimate needs and desires, our sexuality lays a foundation for a broader sense of the value of persons in general, offering the foundation for a sense of political responsibility. And, inasmuch, as our sexuality is the embrace of the “question” that characterizes our identity, it points, in all these domains, to the personal, the interpersonal, and the political – to the need for creativity, rather than to the following of established rules and patterns. Thus, such behaviours as conscientious disobedience and political insurrection and at root be understood as profound developments of our erotic experience. In contrast, then, to familiar portrayals of sex as something dirty or base, we can see that it is from our sexuality that our deepest concerns with goodness and value can grow.

Further, inasmuch as these challenges of shaping our personal, interpersonal, and political identities are all enacted within the arena of human sharing – of communication – they also point to the creative embrace of the sphere of human expression itself: art. In our artistic practices, we creatively redefine our capacities for self-expression and self-definition, and thereby deepen our ability to engage with and share the most intimate dimensions of our lives. In this way, we can see that artistic practise is itself a response – a profound response – to the erotic impulse within us.

Finally, inasmuch as the creative embrace of our shared nature involves understanding and insight, we can see that our sexuality cannot be fulfilled without learning, and without an enthusiasm for the ways in which our intellectual powers open us up to an appreciation of the realities and the possibilities of our human world. In our creative thought we hold ourselves answerable to the deepest desire to let what is other to teach us the terms in which to appreciate it. But this is precisely how we should understand philosophy itself, namely the effort to become wise in our ability to appreciate the depth and importance of our human world. Thus, it seems to me, philosophy itself is an erotic endeavor, and, indeed, it is the erotic commitment to learn about our erotic nature in the service of its creative transformation and development. In sum, then, if instead of looking at advertising, we look instead to our practises of ethics, art, and philosophy, for these practises show us more profoundly what is germinating in that original erotic impulse, that question that is sexuality.
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