on sex negativity

(and on the promise of eros)

Last week, two articles got me thinking about sex. The first was a New York Times op-ed piece by regular columnist Michelle Goldberg, wondering why “sex-positive feminism” was falling out of fashion. Quoting heavily from a new book, the feminist philosopher Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex, Goldberg suggests that members of today's youthful Generation Z might be more wary of sexual excess than their millennial forebears; more wary, too, of the visual and ideological freedom implied by the ubiquity of pornography.

The second piece that got me thinking was the recent Slate profile, by L.V. Anderson, of the “Savage Love” sex columnist Dan Savage. A few decades ago, Savage was considered a pioneer of sexual experimentation, normalizing “monogamish” relationships and the requirement for a partner to be “GGG” —  good, giving, and game — when it comes to kink. But for many members of generation Z, his views — including past statements on trans people, fat people, and bisexuals  — are considered passé, if not problematic. In the piece, Anderson reflects on her own experience reading Savage Love as a young woman, and the way in which the sexual optimism she felt as a young woman, eager to be “GGG,” has been supplanted by an uneasiness that “GGG” all too often means “a dictate to go along with whatever your partner wants.”

It would be easy to dismiss what we might call the elder-millennial model of liberal sexual freedom — pleasure as liberation — as sheer hedonism, and to greet what some have called a puritan revival as a much-needed corrective. It would be easy, too, to go the other way: to treat Generation Z as a bunch of reactionary prudes, thoughtlessly raining on their elders’ hard-won pride parade. Yet both pieces, I thought, spoke to the intellectual tensions I’ve been wrestling with — in both my fiction and nonfiction — over the past few years. 

I grew up in and around the exemplar of the liberal model. I grew up in a relatively secular, progressive home, where sex was openly discussed, and sexual freedom was a given. As a teenager, I dutifully read Dan Savage, and adopted unthinking its wider tenets: sex was the sort of thing a person was supposed to have a lot of; it was the sort of thing, too, they were supposed to get good at. Pornography — so long as it was ethically sourced — was a good thing: a useful primer for anyone, regardless of gender, to learn about their own bodies and desires.

In some ways, growing up in that social context was a privilege — when, as a young teenager, I realized that, whatever I was, I wasn’t fully straight, the process of coming out to friends and family alike was relatively straightforward; by then, after all, I’d read plenty of Oscar Wilde and Anaïs Nin.

As an adult, though, having lived through my twenties, and my experience of the pornographic panopticon that is the New York dating marketplace, I’ve become far more wary of my own past assumptions. I’ve become wary, too, of the liberatory gospel I would have preached then — that the joy of freedom is doing what you want, when you want it, with whom you want it: reframing nightmarish autonomy as “radical self-love.”

This wariness doesn’t mean I’m more conservative, exactly — though perhaps I am. Rather, I worry that freedoms predicated on this liberal notion of sex, sex as a commodity other people provide, as a set of fantasies other people can enable, as a safe space for self-actualization, help to foster a feedback loop that tends to make us, well, worse people overall.

More often than not, sex-as-liberation, taking its cue from the contractual model of consent, reifies the same problems I have with liberal contractualism overall: a model in which we negotiate with one another to seek our own (perceived) goods, in which the polity becomes a kind of giant coordination problem designed to maximize the number of desires each of us can satiate. The sexual marketplace becomes yet another market in which we can perform: both in terms of our sexual capital (what we can “get”), and in terms of being “good” at sex in a strictly technical sense: what props, what techniques, have we mastered; what level of expertise have we reached?  

Yet it’s striking to me that the Generation Z figures both Goldberg and Andersen quote frame their opposition to millennial sexual freedom as rooted in the harm principle: ways in which even-consensual sex can be dangerous, or harmful, or toxic. Pornography is suspicious, in this paradigm, because it prioritizes the pleasure of one (usually male) partner over another. If the liberal model treats the sexual realm as value-neutral, the Gen-Z-model tends to treat it as inherently violent, seeing its strangeness, its ambiguities, its uncertainties as unidirectional. In both cases, however, the erotic life — as a phenomenon related to, but not identified with, the sum total of one’s sexual experiences — is overlooked. The liberal model dispenses with it entirely; the erotic is simply equated with sexual desire. The Gen-Z model, too, has little room for the erotic; they recognize its danger, but not its possibilities — or at least, its possibilities beyond the inherent individualism contained in the word pleasure.

I joke, sometimes (often), that I’m “sex-negative” but “eros-positive.” But there is a kernel to truth in my self-assessment. The erotic life, as a totality — one that includes sexual union but also a wider sense of openness, of attention, of desire for both sensual experience and the kind of sublimation and self-surrender we as human beings often crave — is dangerous by necessity, precisely because it is conducted in uncertainty, in vulnerability; precisely because it often leads to a transformation of self.

I am thinking, here, of the inherent eroticism of reading: the seduction of Dorian Gray by Lord Henry Wotton’s copy of the mysterious “yellow book.” I am thinking, too, the erotic desire for God, of John Donne’s impassioned begging: “batter my heart/three person’d God … bend your force to break, blow, burn.” (It is precisely in this sense of the erotic life as transcendent of physical sexual intercourse itself that some of the more seemingly-outré Tumblr labels, such as aegosexual — “feeling attraction or desire only for situations that does not involve oneself” — or volitsexual — “feeling attraction that is not directed at anyone in particular”— make the most sense: as attempts to give voice to this liminality.)

Erotic danger, in turn, imbues us with responsibility in ways that both map and do not map onto contemporary understandings of sexual or social power hierarchies: the people with whom we come into contact, in this more expansive concept of the erotic life (our sexual partners, yes, but also the people with whom we make flirtatious eye contact on the subway; the friends on whom we have nonsexual crushes, the people with whom we share our favorite poems). We are responsible for one another, not just because we are in a hypothetical position of power over another person, but simply because we are people, period, and because it is in our erotic sense of the world — our senses heightened, our spines tingling, our attention rapt — that we are most enmeshed with one another.

Ultimately, I would argue, that a robust conception of the erotic life also demands a robust answer to the question what is eros for? An evolutionary answer that just talks about sex and conception — aside from passing over non-procreative sex — risks also seeing the act of sex itself as merely biological and thus meaningless beyond its output: sex reduced to lucky pleasure, a byproduct of Darwinism, a vestigial tail. As a Christian, of course, I’m inclined to see all human eros as a way of making sense of, and exploring, our desire for God. But I think there is something useful in that model even outside the language of orthodoxy or doctrine. The erotic life is where, and how, we discover ourselves and one another most fully as interdependent beings; where we, too, explore the truth that the kind of desires that shape us are desires for something more, and stranger than we can ever commodify, explain, or fulfill.

The self-making of the capitalistic world view offers little space for the self-breaking inherent to the erotic life. Maybe the problem with all our conceptions of sex, both “sex-negative” and “sex-positive,” is that none of them are nearly sexy enough.