Meaning versus Desire: A Theory and Critique of Contemporary Sexuality

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going” by Paul Gauguin

Today, there are two main economies of sexuality. By “economy,” I mean a complex and dynamic system that centers on some “currency” that the members of the economy seek–something that can be intentionally given, taken, and sought. Economies transform themselves, depending on what is sought and how: the economy “grows,” “shrinks,” or “moves” to a different currency. Economies exist in nature as well as in human society–water economies, economies of reproduction, economies of light: pick your resource.

The currency of one of the economies of sexuality is desire; the currency of the other is meaning. These two economies constitute two semi-independent aspects of our experience of sexuality, two distinguishable complex systems for making sense of that experience. Neither of them, interestingly enough, have pleasure as their currency, though we often confuse the agitation of desire with pleasure. A community of true epicureans, in the classical Greek sense, might produce an economy of sexuality that truly centered on pleasure, but such a sexual economy is all but nonexistent today.

The Economy of Meaning

Part of what most people hope to achieve in their sexuality is meaning, purpose, intentionality. And by these things I mean a meaning or purpose that is external to the experience itself. The experience is directed at something “beyond.”

The most likely object of meaning for a sexual experience (to contemporary souls, anyway) is a relationship. The most likely object of meaning for a sexual experience, in the view of our ancestors, would likely have been us, their descendants – procreation. And these two meanings are the ones with which I am primarily concerned.

But a relationship or procreation are not the only possible objects of meaning for a sexual experience. To the extent that the sexual language of some mystics is more than metaphorical, I assume that those experiences, together with the Tantric Hindu or Buddhist sexual experience, belong to the meaning-centered economy of sexuality. Bad meanings are possible too–rape, when it is not just an act of lust, but an expression of hatred, revenge, or domination, participates in the sexual economy of meaning. I have no experience with any of these except the two original and primary meanings, but I mention them simply as examples of how sexual experiences can have various external objects of meaning.

The Economy of Desire

Nearly all (all?) sexual experiences participate in the economy of desire: the chief quality of sexual experience in and of itself is, not pleasure, but desire. This is the basic economy of sexuality. But sexual experiences that participate only in the economy of desire lack any external object of meaning. Rather, the experience is directed solely at the heightening and sharpening of the experience itself. Masturbation is probably the purest example of a sexual experience that likely belongs exclusively to the economy of desire.

Back in the days when science was just beginning to figure out which parts of the brain did what, there was an experiment with mice in which they stimulated various parts of the mice’s brains. The mice who received the stimulation in a certain part of the brain would starve themselves rather than leave off being stimulated. The scientists figured that this part of the brain must be the pleasure center. Later on, they learned that they were probably wrong. More likely, it was the desire center.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes perfect sense that desire should be more compelling and more dominant than pleasure. The crucial thing, for survival-of-the-fittest purposes, is not that animals enjoy food or drink or sex, but that they track them down. The difficult part is the obtaining. Once obtained, a moderate degree of pleasure is an adequate reward. A man in the throes of sexual desire for an unobtained woman does not aim chiefly at the pleasure of orgasm, but rather at the agitation and voluptuousness of the initial phases of sex–the moany-groany graspy-claspy.

As suggested by the starving mice, the economy of desire has a dark side. Indulging in desire, especially at the expense or in lieu of actual pleasure, is masochistic. It is self-torture to stare at the fruit in the branch that cannot be reached. The wizards in the world of Harry Potter who waste away before the mirror of Erised (which shows them the image of their deepest desire) no doubt become cold and cruel toward everything else, toward it, and toward themselves. Desire that ceases even to aim at pleasure might well begin to aim at pain. It makes sense, then, that the use of soft pornography tends so quickly to degenerate into hard porn and then perverse porn (“porn is progressively perverse”). This “progression” is merely the fruit of desire left unweeded, without any meaning to lift it, without any pleasure to reach for, but incestuously propogating out of itself the whirlwind–dust and air flung about with aimless and resistless violence.

Sexuality is Healthier and Better if it Participates in the Economy of Meaning

A man who is truly voracious will go to any length to pursue an opportunity for food, but then he will hardly enjoy it–for, if he is like me, he will barely taste it in his hurry to satiate his desire. Similarly, dogs at a barbeque writhe with agitation at the smell of all that meat. Yet they snarf down at a gulp what scraps they may get from the well-meaning picnickers who suppose they are satisfying the dog instead of merely stoking its meat-lust. The dog would be better and happier if it were resigned to wait until its daily dole of kibble.

So it is that desire, past a certain degree, is not only separate from pleasure, but actually opposed to it: inordinate desire, in its very gratification, actively interferes with the pleasure one would expect in its absence. Thus, it makes sense that the classical epicureans of Greece held that temperance was the chief virtue, even though they recognized no other good than pleasure.

In sexuality, pornography is the clearest example of the economy of desire at work. Porn does not give pleasure, but desire. Porn addicts are like the mice in the experiment–transfixed by the need to need. Porn is an elusive and seductive mistress who enflames and agitates the desire by her well-accentuated curves, her teasing poses, and her inviting glances, but who can never actually be obtained. Consummation is impossible, and if achieved would destroy her mystique. (Can it be doubted that an actual sexual relationship with a porn star would degrade the agitation of viewing her porn?) Yet her followers abandon their wives in her pursuit, just as the mice abandoned their food in favor of artificial stimulation.

To return to the dogs-at-a-barbecue metaphor, I do not say that one’s marital relations become, with time, bland as kibble. But then, for all I know, dogs may find kibble more than adequately tasty a thousand and one days into their all-kibble diet. If so, the simile is somewhat apt. For, while the dog remains excited for mealtime, there is none of the titillation of the barbecue, no agitation to the point of making the dog beside itself with desire, and no danger of self-destructive gorging. So it is with marital relations.

Marital relations do experience a drop in titillation. To some, the loss is unconsolable–particularly to those steeped in the pornographic imagination of our society. Sex in marriage does not become rote, but it does become integrated into daily life. It does not necessarily become mundane, any more than family dinner does, but, without a special particular effort, it loses the edge and excitement of eating out. And this is, admittedly, a loss. Yet it is common knowledge that it is healthier, physically and financially, to eat at home than to eat out. Likewise, if all or any of us would be faithful in marriage, we would be happier for it–generally and sexually. Faithful married people have more sex, live longer, are financially better off, have stronger immune systems and more robust psychological and spiritual health than any other class of people. Not only do they have more sex, they are better satisfied with it:

Married people have both more and better sex than singles do. They not only have sex more often, but they enjoy it more, both physically and emotionally, than do their unmarried counterparts. Only cohabitors have more sex than married couples, but they don’t necessarily enjoy it as much. Marriage, it turns out, is not only good for you, it is good for your libido too.

The Semi-Independence of the Two Economies

Desire and meaning are not fundamentally opposed to each other, in general or within sexuality: the sexual economy of meaning and that of desire coexist side by side. Indeed, both meaning and desire are absolutely basic to human experience, and it is difficult to say which is more so. They seem related, and it is difficult to imagine one in the absence of the other. The difficulty of saying which is the more fundamental is compounded by the ambiguity of the terms: “meaning” can mean any meaning or it can mean the particular type of meaning that is synonymous with “purpose,” “direction,” or “intent.” If we mean any type of meaning, I think it is clear that meaning is more fundamental than desire, for the object of desire cannot be desired until it has some meaning to the desirer. Meaning in this sense is the very ground of human experience–level one. But I mean the purpose/direction/intent kind of meaning. Whether it or desire is the second level is a more difficult inquiry. But the question is not important for this essay.

The question here is how each of the two “levels” can function as the chief dwelling-place of sexuality, and their different effects on sexuality. For at any given moment, the center of gravity of one’s sexuality will certainly reside at one or the other location; it cannot be in two places at once. This is partly because the two economies resist merging into each other. A married couple’s coupling is the closest thing to a merger, but even there, the agitation of the experience on the one hand and its sweetness on the other tend to ebb and flow in an inverse relationship. It is very difficult for the sexual experience, at a given moment, to be mainly “about” both itself and something else. Desire and meaning can and do perpetually coexist, but they are in tension, and vie with each other for the upper hand.

The tension between desire and meaning in sexuality is played out vividly in the tension between faithfulness in marriage and adultery. These are two conflicting impulses, two adverse instincts. Desire is the hunter. Meaning is the gardener. Desire seeks fresh meat, new spaces. Meaning cultivates the same old tract of land; and it abuts the home.

One can be a faithful spouse and still experience the passion of sexual desire, just as one person can be a hunter and a gardener. Often the desire side of sexuality gains dominance for a while in the bedroom: and so long as the desire is not inordinate or inconsistent with a healthy relationship I can see no problem with this. This is not an either/or proposition. For married couples as well as for adulterers and masturbators, desire plays an elemental role, even when there is also an external object of meaning. The question is where the center of gravity resides–or, in practical terms, whether one will be a hunter only to the extent consistent with gardening, or a gardener only to the extent consistent with hunting. Is one’s desire chastened except within certain limits, the bounds of which are determined by the meanings one is trying to fulfill? Or do the meanings one is trying to fulfill shift according to the desires of the moment? Is one faithful only as long as the relationship remains exciting and fresh? Or is one faithful because it is good to be faithful–because faithfulness is the most meaningful way to live?

My Beef with Contemporary Culture

One of my biggest problems with contemporary society is that its sexual culture has shifted markedly towards desire, at the expense of meaning. There is less respect for the idea that desire should be chastened at all, and even less for the idea that society has any business regulating issues of sexuality, whether by actual legislation or by informal pressures. Mere tolerance–that standoffish modern virtue–is replacing the concern and engagement of higher forms of care.

As procreation and the marital bond are the two most likely and important objects of meaning for sex, we see the shift away from meaning and towards desire primarily in the gradual distancing of sex and sexual desire from these meanings. Birth control has played a crucial role in the divorce of sex from procreation. Whatever good can be said of birth control (and there is much), we should also remember that birth control has drastically cheapened sex–in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense. It costs less: fewer risks, lower biological price, lighter social and economic costs. This cheapening fuels a casualness that favors the desire-centered and inhibits the meaning-centered sexual economy. The procreative meaning of sex is thought to be dismissable at will. Yet more illegitimate babies are born today than ever, and more fathers feel free to abandon paternal responsibilities than ever. For them, that was never what it was about, and if feels unfair to them that the procreative meaning of sex has asserted its claim.

For the procreative meaning of sex is its original meaning, and it can never be quite successfully dismissed. Even in the act of taking the pill, the meaning asserts itself as a negative image–the potentiality that must be actively kept latent. Semen and menstruation spurt and drip from the respective bodies of men and women–and these things have a particular meaning millions of years more ancient and more lasting than any culture’s particular notion of romance.

Our language about birth control and reproduction is somewhat disingenuous on this point, for when we stop using birth control, we say we are now “trying to have a baby”–when in actuality we have simply stopped taking active steps to prevent pregnancy. Perhaps this indirectness in our manner of speaking arises mainly from the pleasantness of speaking about babies, in comparison with intimate or medical topics. But I suspect it also stems from our abortive attempt to deny the primacy of the procreative meaning of sex.

We see the shift from meaning to desire in the “sexual revolution” of the 60s and its progeny of sexual “liberties,” which have now very often obtained constitutional protection, courtesy of the Supreme Court. Relatedly, we see it in a culture that has decided that a homosexual romantic relationship is equivalent to a heterosexual romantic relationship even though one is inherently non-procreative and the other is inherently procreative (the possibility of infertility notwithstanding). Because (so we think today) marriage is about the couple’s love, romance, sexual fulfillment, and companionship–with procreation as merely one option on the life menu, and one often perceived as distasteful.

But in fact, the type of sexual relationship in which the meaning is the fullest, richest, and highest is the marriage of a man and a woman. For in dual-gendered marriage there exists the union of male and female–the microcosm of all humanity and the joining of past and future that inheres in procreative action; and likewise in marriage there exists the deepest and completest joining of lives and fortunes. Dual-gendered marriage is also the setting in which procreation is the safest, healthiest, and most fruitful for all three parties involved.

We see the shift in the weakening of institutional discouragement of adultery, pre-marital sex, and pornography. We see it in the culture of permissiveness in dress, speech, and behavior. We see it in a generation of youngsters for whom “sexy” is a casual compliment, even among many of those who observe traditional standards of sexual morality. And of course, we see it in the decreasing rates of marriage, the increasing rates of adultery, and the persistently high levels of divorce.

We see the shift in the dissatisfaction of many spouses with their sexual relationship–the idea that it’s supposed to be always hot, exciting, passionate. The idea, in other words, that it’s supposed to be more like a fancy restaurant and less like a family dinner. I think the metaphor will bear some developing. The dining experience at a fancy restaurant is set apart from the rest of life, and the focus is on the dining experience itself, with the food as the focal point. By contrast, the dining experience at a family dinner is set squarely within the rest of life, and while the food is still important (and hopefully good), it is functional, and it is not expected to be always ravishing. It is part of a greater whole–the life of the family–and that life is the main meaning of family dinner.

It seems clear to me that the meaning-centered economy is the only one of the two that is worthy of encouragement, and the only one that requires it. Desire will fend for itself; meaning needs propping up, tending, development, protection. Yet, as a culture, we have neglected meaning and tended to desire. Our sexual imagination, like the poetry that Plato expels from his ideal society, “feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up,” and “lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue.” But perhaps even worse than our tending to desire and neglecting meaning is the sheer idiocy of supposing that in doing so we have achieved some sort of glorious progress.

No doubt today we are freer than ever to express sexuality. But we are less than ever free from the bondage of desire. We are more free from institutional control; but we are also bereft of institutional support, without which we are less able to make our freedom meaningful.

What is primarily needed is not the further freeing of sexuality (desire) to express itself, but its re-tethering to meanings higher than itself–not the wild growth of the forest, but the cultivation of the garden–not the James Bond but the husband (“house-bond”)–not free access to birth control, but renewed imaginative access to the miraculousness of birth–not more reveling in recreational sex, but more reverence for procreational sex–not license, but faithfulness–not desire, but meaning.

Our sexuality, like many other aspects of “self-identity” in our loony modern world, is becoming unmoored from meanings outside itself. But we are finding that sexuality does not fare well on the open sea, and nor do we when it carries us there.

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3 thoughts on “Meaning versus Desire: A Theory and Critique of Contemporary Sexuality

  1. This post beautifully and powerfully illuminates and defines sexuality in a way that really resonates with me. I now have the words to effectively share my feelings with others on this subject. Thank you!!

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