Politics and Sexual Attraction
Sexual Attraction and the True Selfby
1. Sex and the Self
Foucault (1976) claims that we have come to think of our identity as being our sex. Sexuality and the orgasm are not merely a celebration of who we are, but offer us a chance to meet our true selves. A view like this seems at odds with our everyday intuitions. Sex is no doubt part of who we are, but it seems a bit exaggerated to reduce our lives to sexual relations. It might be true that in intimate or private situations, we feel less compelled to hide behind illusions. But this is by no means universally the case. Very often, as with the rest of our lives, sex can be full of illusion and fantasy.
As we shall see, this fact does not render the question of how sex relates to identity insignificant. The growing publicity of sex has not solved the problem. As it is more acceptable to talk about sex outside of the bedroom, sex has in turn become increasingly expected. Youths face serious social pressure related to the practice of sex, and self-esteem is often related to one's sense of how sexually attractive one is to others and to whether or not one engages in sexual contacts. A glance at politics and entertainment provides support for the claim of a relationship between sexual attraction and social prestige. Whether it is the result of recent historical developments or an old truth about human beings, much of who we are might be explicable in terms of sex.
The following reflections on submissions to the sixth edition of Ballicatter are concerned with identity, truth, and the place of sexuality in our lives.
2. The Sacred
“Swollen Hand,” by Stacy Pawlowich, plays as a metaphor for the initiation into sexuality. Let us consider the piece as though sex were a matter of self-revelation. The man in “Swollen Hand” is helping the woman to unveil her true self, by introducing her into sexuality. The short-film starts with a couple walking into a bowling alley. The man is confident and in full control. He is in familiar territory. The woman, on the other hand, is clinging to his arm and looking about in amazement. She seems to be attracted to this almost-sacred-world; emotions of doubt, shyness, curiosity and contentment can be read on her face. Annie Potts, drawing on Foucault among others, asserts that in contemporary western society, identity (through sexuality) can be seen as an obligation to act: “If you are not doing or having sex and orgasms, you cannot really exist, you are hopelessly incomplete” (2000). From Potts, one would expect the woman in “Swollen Hand” to be faced with this reality as she is exposed to all the people who are ‘doing it’. She should be uneasy about discovering a new world, in which others seem knowledgeable and comfortable, and in which she is at first disoriented.
The game of bowling is organised around the goal of knocking down pins, ideally all in one massive explosion. The analogue in sex is the orgasm. At first in the video, the woman is very clumsy with her ball, demonstrating an obvious lack of mastery. Her inexperience is almost too exaggerated. She is disappointed when she fails to knock down the pins. We see her trying to explain how she feels to the boyfriend, who tries to comfort her. According to Potts, this failure on the part of the woman to reach the privileged and desired end point of sex could indicate a certain continued ignorance of her true self. The woman's inability to reach orgasm is a sign of sexual incompetence and prohibits her from reaching self-transcendence or self-actualization (Potts, 2000). “Swollen Hand” unfolds to show the woman gradually succeeding in knocking down all the pins. Through this process, she acquires knowledge about herself and the techniques that must be used to attain her goal. She gains full control of her body and of her ball. Others approvingly observe her reaching that state and Pawlowich's emphasis on the light suggests that this is a scene of ‘enlightenment'. She has discovered her true self. The short-film ends with the woman holding onto the ball and not letting it go.
In what sense does a person's true identity appear in orgasm? Isn't this a contradiction? Isn't the orgasm a sort of sexual fusion that blurs the independent identities of beings into an undifferentiated mixture of pleasure? What is exposed through the sexual act that is not otherwise accessible? It seems possible that the view captured by Foucault and Potts is a mystification of sex — a view that suggests that sex contains profound truths that can nowhere else be seen. If virginity was once simple self-identity — a pure, holy innocence — this view reverses things and suggests that the virgin is hidden from the truth about him or herself. In this sense, orgasms have now become sacred.
Pawlowich's piece also explores the roles adopted by men and women in relations to sexuality. Here, the man is the initiator, the experienced, the knower, the supporter. It is through him that the woman comes in contact with sexuality. She, on the other hand, is innocent, feminine, willing and emotional. Certain of these characteristics are also found in Sean Ryan's short story “In Bed”. We find there a character whose life seems to be arranged in terms of sexuality. He appears to relate to the women in his life principally in sexual terms. It is as though the women were there to satisfy his sexual thoughts, urges and needs. These women are first described in terms of their physical characteristics and only sometimes does the main character consider their personality. The character uses such terms as ‘hot’, ‘sizzling blonde’ ‘greatest body to undress’ to define women. Their personalities, or identities as persons, are secondary. The man makes no effort to know them as persons, but focuses solely on sexual characteristics (1). The man of this story is hypersexualized, powerful, successful, confidant, active and manipulative. Women, on the other hand, are submissive, physically striking and emotional. In the main character's eyes, women exist to tantalize him sexually and, if he is lucky, to cater to his sexual wishes.
This is a fitting place to raise the question of what exactly sexual attraction is. Is it, as the lead character in Ryan's piece might say, a pull purely based on physical attributes? It seems unlikely that this is so, considering the historical and cultural variation in physical features that give rise to sexual reactions, and given the many factors that influence sexual attraction. Intellectual, emotional, and psychological phenomena often appear to play a role. Indeed, Ryan's story invites questions about the psychology of the central character, whose concern for power (mirrored perhaps in that of the governor) may provide the best explanation of his sexual practices.
Rather than worrying about whether the feature that gives rise to sexual attraction is physical or of some other kind, it might be best to distinguish sexual attraction from other kinds according to the physiological response in the individual who experiences the attraction. Such an account enables us to make good sense of the development of sexual relationships out of friendships and appreciates that the psychology of desire is complex. It may well be that in a given case, the appearance of a certain strictly physical sign could trigger a sexual response; and thus the phenomenal experience of Ryan's lead character can also be preserved in this approach. But we remain free to ask what is the nature of the system in which this particular physical sign can be effective in stimulating a sexual response? This is a Foucauldian question. Thus, when Pierre Cabanne (1971) describes sexual attraction as a wonderment of the senses, we may agree, but wonder whether that approach will reveal what is most interesting. The phenomenal experience of sexual pleasure deserves critical attention, but it threatens to hide the most significant explanations about sexuality.
Whether by focussing on such phenomenal experiences or by leaving investigation into sexual attraction to biochemists (2), we may well be hiding these potentially uncomfortable explanations intentionally. Consider how unpopular, politically, it has become to inquire into the reasons why, for example, certain gay men (or, indeed, heterosexual men) prefer effeminate partners while others don't. It is certainly appropriate that in the recent public discussion of same-sex marriage the central matter in question has been civil rights, and not the ultimate explanation of sexual preference. But the unspoken threat felt by the conservative is likely to be a threat to his or her own sexual identity. Why?
We tend to think that what is normal requires little explanation, that only deviant cases require reflection and analysis. Indeed, conservatives sometimes offer explanations to account for deviance (childhood problems, the media, or ‘evil’), while taking their own sexual practices to be a model given by nature or by God. Breaking down the distinction between the normal and the deviant, for example by eliminating legislation that protects heterosexual couples but not homosexual couples, could force conservatives to confront the uncomfortable possibility that there might be a story to be told about their own sexual development.
Here, perhaps, it may appear that truths about who the individual is are indeed revealed through sexuality. There seems to be a concrete link to some aspects of one's ‘true identity’ in sexual attraction. A person can certainly make false reports about what he or she finds attractive, but there may be an undeniable authenticity in the experience of being sexually excited. Tracing from the experience of excitement to an explanation for it as a response to a certain object is not an easy task, however. Besides that difficulty, there is reason to wonder whether the search for one's true self is best conducted in this way.
4. The Limits of Sexual Attraction
A possible drawback of asking how an individual's sexuality takes shape — which objects excite the individual, how the individual orders the various practices that make up his or her life — is that (potentially) everything takes on a sexual dimension. How many of our relations with others are explicable in terms of sexual attraction? Many of our relationships are certainly explicable in terms of attraction of some kind: not only lovers, but people related in any number of ways are happy to speak in terms of ‘chemistry’ they share or do not share. Under the law, we are in many cases expected to exercise judgment on purely disinterested, rational grounds. To what extent do we do this successfully? Some suspicion about our capacity to suspend interest is warranted, but how large a role does sexual attraction play in our relations to our bosses, our friends, coworkers, politicians, etc.? If the threat exists that desire everywhere influences our relationships with others, the limits of the state's jurisdiction are not obvious.
One central function of the democratic state is to intervene in certain cases of preferential treatment; this is so by almost all accounts of democracy, since democracy is thought to champion the two central values of freedom and equality. In our private lives, we hold dear the freedom to make choices based on our attraction to certain persons. The state limits the exercise of this freedom outside of strictly private affairs, in order to protect the equality of citizens. The state goes further, distinguishing the normal from the deviant object of sexual attraction and the acceptable from the unacceptable sexual practices. The state intervenes here in many cases for good reason, as in cases of child abuse. But how does the state decide about the limits of its power to ‘protect’ private individuals?
The legislation that guides the determination of these factors is derived from the British criminal code that was largely influenced by religious principles (Manseau, 1982). Sir James Stephen, who in the 19th century elaborated the foundations of what would become the Criminal Code of Canada, 1892, conceived of the law as an extension of God's Table of Commandments (Manseau, 1982). We can see in the debates that surround the question of gay marriage that even today, religious questions continue to influence public debates about law. Although the Supreme Court of Canada has been applying the words of the 1982 Charter to the issue of gay marriage, this authority is not universally respected. Different interest groups offer a variety of arguments on that matter, but a still widely held belief is that the very reason for marriage union between a man and a woman is to procreate. Many of those who profess this belief cite their faith as support for it.
Kaspar's poem “Rise of the Inferno” calls to mind religious sermonizing concerning the measurement and judgment of evil in the world. Evil, in this case, seems to be man's ignorance, the harming of the innocent and the weak, and wickedness. In the poem we find no explicit reference to sexuality, but the preoccupation is with acts against children — and there are references to destruction in homes, those sacred and private places where sexual attraction culminates in procreation. Kaspar notes the “ruin and waste” in “each home”, suggesting that evil is omnipresent. When he writes, “Where children suffer needlessly at the mercy and whim of cold and shattered souls now will come sanctity so that they may find nourishment and peace from the evil that once harboured pain and misery”, we might stretch and interpret the passage as referring to sexual abuse. But the point of Kaspar's sermon remains, even without this interpretation, that there is a potential for self-destruction in every home.
Kaspar suggests a force that will divide the just from the unjust, the good from the evil, the innocent from the guilty. Those who commit evils will be judged by justice and will “settle amidst the charred remains of the inferno”. But Kaspar has noted that those who cause suffering are themselves “cold and shattered souls”, and one must wonder why. Considering that abusers have themselves often suffered, one might wonder whether it is as easy as Kaspar suggests to decide which souls should burn in Hell and which should find peace. Can we really think of acts and individuals as entirely good or evil? The call to the supernatural to adjudicate can perhaps be understood when we recognise how complex these abuse cycles can be. The state's capacity to understand what happens in the home and respond effectively is obviously in doubt. Sinners in Kaspar's poem are sent to Hell, where they suffer eternal punishment for the evil they have caused; in the justice system, they are sent to prison or to treatment, or fined, or they have their freedoms limited in some other way. The great difference between eternal and temporary punishment could hardly be overstated. Presumably, the attraction we feel toward the notion of eternal punishment emerges from our horror at the evils committed; we summon the gravest imaginable punishment. But this intellectual or emotional leap does not solve practical problems about what should be done in the ‘temporary’ world. And given that when temporary punishments seem appropriate, the public is increasingly ready to believe that justice has been done, one might wonder whether fantasies about the fires of Hell serve a function unrelated to justice.
5. Sex and Society
The state is ready to limit personal freedoms in order to protect specific individuals. Things are more complicated when the issue is whether to limit freedoms in the general promotion of the good. Are we ready to limit an individual's freedom of expression or right to pursue his or her happiness, in order to discourage the proliferation of ideas or images that make the world unsafe, especially for the young? What do we make, for example, of the personal consumption of child pornography in cases where there is no production or distribution of the material? How seriously should we punish an individual who produces and sells child pornography? Do people have the right to legislate with the aim of preparing a secure world in which children might live? Would measures to eliminate altogether child pornography have this effect? Perhaps the individual's sexuality is entirely his own business, anyhow, and there should be no intervention except if absolutely necessary. Cases such as these force us to think, together as a society, about whether certain freedoms should be sacrificed for more ultimate values.
John Morris Healy proposes a criticism of the values upon which sexuality nowadays rests. His poem “Sex and Politics” suggests that much (maybe too much) emphasis is being put on sexual pleasure to the detriment of more important values. Healy's work resonates with Lipovetsky's (1996) argument that two tendencies mark our society:
(a) hedonism — the intensification of the cult of the here-and-now in which pleasure is valued and normalized. This search for pleasure is purely narcissistic and empty. It is a move away from a homogenous sexual morality into individually-elected social norms.
(b) the rational management of the body and time — professionalism and the obsession with excellence, quality, health and hygiene are favoured (Lipovetsky, 1996).
This desire for pleasure encourages us to develop a form of eroticism that is centered on the body. It does not necessarily involve the eroticism of the heart, as Bataille (1957) described it. In fact, this individual search for pleasure may act to pull us away from the ‘other’. We do not invest ourselves in others and cultivate relationships. We act in and on the here-and-now. We must ask ourselves what kind of long-term impact this might have in our life and in our society.
Healy points to the negative consequences of this edification of pleasure. By making love's pleasures a commodity, we turn sexuality into a game where frustration, deception, lies, pain and broken hearts are simply means to an end. The importance attributed to sexual pleasure tends to produce a society of lonely individuals who are looking for a chance meeting, a brief encounter lasting the duration of a sexual encounter, only to then return to their solitary world. The emphasis is put on pleasure (the orgasm) and not on the union of two beings. Have we become disinterested in the other or have we simply stopped believing in relationships? Why shouldn't we be disillusioned about the value of investment in a relationship when we know that over half of the marriages end in divorce? When all we see are broken hearts, broken families, broken promises. One is tempted to ask, naïvely: have we given up on love?
This may not be the case. It is possible that what we observe in relationships is not a new phenomenon. It may be that now, as in the past, individuals have means-to-end relationships — the only difference being that such relationships are no longer frowned upon. Individuals now have a way out when they feel like love is absent from their relationship. It is no more ‘till death do us part’. (Can what is hardly together come apart?)
This is not to say that love is not present while a relationship lasts. In fact, David Lobel's piece shows that it is love-ties between two partners and within a family that make us most human. However, some of the policies adopted by our elected government hinder the good functioning of relationships and families. Certain policies do protect the welfare of individuals but some seem to serve as obstacles to the development of unity and love between individuals. We can ask ourselves what type of intervention we consider necessary on the part of the state. As Lobel points out, the only way to add weight to issues concerning the welfare of the couple and the family (as opposed to the welfare of society) may be to reinforce the unity of these associations. As a community of couples and families, it may be easier to ward off the model of values that a government founded on a principle of individual liberty aims to impose on us. There is risk here, of course, and it is not clear how we might proceed.
Ricardo's photo “Government Product” invites us to consider the way in which an individual is constituted by social or political practices and principles. The influence may be deep. We see a woman with an image superimposed on her, but one may wonder whether the image does not form part of her. What are the bounds of her identity? She wears makeup (a common symbol of femininity) and stares blankly, almost as though she had accepted the fact that she has been moulded by outside agents. How much of each one of us is constructed by the state? If we are partly the products of government, then we must ask whether we must endure government when it makes us into deviants, when it makes our world hostile and unsafe for our children. Is it not the paradox of democracy, whose central value is freedom, that we find ourselves handcuffed by it – unable to act to protect ourselves from the horrors to which it gives rise?
- What has been considered ‘deviant’ has changed immensely throughout history. According to Foucault, we should look to the relations of power and the needs of a society for reasons why certain practices, thoughts and desires are considered abnormal. We must then ask ourselves what purpose our definition of the deviant serves.
- Teen Pregnancy:
- If true identity is thought to be found in sexual relationships and if teenagers hear about their friends having such experiences, it is no surprise that adolescents feel pressure to participate in such contacts. For adolescents struggle seriously with their sense of self-identity. There is some question how well they understand the act of sex — the ultimate outcome of which is sometimes pregnancy. Since we are encouraged to see orgasm as the end of a sex act, the idea that the end of a sex act could be conception is hardly considered. Sadly, little understanding has been shown to teenage mothers. We can see the state's position on the matter in the poor resources attributed to them.
- STDs act as a reminder of how ‘wrong’ sexuality can be. STDs are a threat to anyone engaging in sexual acts. Sexuality is therefore lived, in part, in fear of contracting STDs. The rise of HIV serves to fuel the discourse of some individuals who claim that the consumption of sexuality will lead humans to annihilation. In fact, the social judgement on individuals who have contracted STDs can be quite harsh.
- Sex Ed:
- Since the pertinence of sexual education in schools and at home somehow continues to be doubted, it is obvious that considerable work remains to be done in this area. A pan-Canadian study indicates that the province of Quebec has the highest rate of abortion in Canada, and that the rate is so high it approaches rates in very poor countries (Kazakhstan and Moldavia). In fact, this year, Quebec registered 76000 births and 30000 abortions. Thus, almost a third of pregnancies end in abortion. More shocking is that the average age of women having abortion is 26 (Martineau, 2005). One can suppose that, though we believe the population to be well informed, this is far from the case.
- The very utterance of this word sets off debates about the sexual values we are ready to accept, as a society. Do we accept the commodification of sexuality to the extent that it would be legal to trade sex, or should we preserve the stringent and precise boundaries within which sex is considered legal, e.g. between two mutually consenting adults, where no monetary contract between the individuals obtains, and where the adults cannot be closely related by blood?
- As we have seen, the question of pornography also challenges us to consider which sexual values are acceptable. Is it appropriate that individuals be sexually objectified toward the end of others' pleasure? If so, what features must the object possess in order to count as a legal object (e.g. how old, what mental capacity, etc.)? One can also ask what role pornography has in relation to an individual's sexual identity, and how it affects sexual practices and interpersonal relations within a couple.
- Once sex has become a commodity, there is a question about who owns it and under what conditions. We think of a person's sex as being his or her own, and to the extent that sex is legally traded, property rights hold. Though consent is required for legal transaction, it is not obvious that a person's sexuality, aspects of which are certainly intangible, can be protected — especially in this, the age of digitial images.
- Some would say that gender is an outmoded concept — a concept used to make historical injustices appear as eternal truths. We might do better to speak of the sexes — but even that distinction is not protected by law, and perhaps shouldn't be. There seems to be a question whether there is anything that can be explained in terms of gender — whether this concept is helpful in discussions about the middle territory between real, given, natural sex distinctions on the one hand, and unnatural, absolute, sexless legal status on the other.
- As a navigational concept, orientation is about finding one's bearings wherever one is. It is, in other words, self-reflective. We do not think of sexual orientation in these terms, but imagine that it is a given fact of our being.
- No Business in the Bedroom:
- The state has falsely prided itself on staying out of the private domain of the individual's sexuality. The individual's sexual thoughts, behaviours and desire may be under considerable influence by laws, social values and images. The bedroom is not a private domain but one in which many influences are at play. Since social and political forces have an ineradicable presence there, one must ask not whether the state should be there, but what kind of presence it could or should have, if changes are possible.
- We must confront the problem of the private. If public forces constitute all persons, what does privacy mean? Is it, after all, the sphere in which no direct coercive force may be used by the state? Such a conception would protect child and spousal abuse. Work is needed on this question.
- Courts punish actions, primarily, and not desires — though desires can be significant in distinguishing between less and more serious criminal actions. There is great concern that, as the wealth of scientific and technological expertise increases, states may begin to legislate against desires of certain kinds. But even such extraordinary measures address only the consequences of psychological events. If we are to preserve an individual's freedom of thought or desire, and punish only actions, we may have to do better work in addressing the origins of deviant desires.
Bataille, George. (1957). L'érotisme. Paris : De Minuit.
Cabanne, Pierre. (1971). Psychologie de l'art érotique. Paris : A. Somogy.
Foucault, Michel. (1976). Histoire de la sexualité I : La volonté de savoir. Paris : Gallimard.
Lipovetsky, Gilles. (1996). “Le crépuscule du devoir.” In L'ère du vide : essais sur l'individualisme contemporain. Paris : Gallimard.
Manseau, Hélène (1982). Les projets de réforme en matière d'infraction sexuelle au Canada. Revue québécoise de sexologie, vol. 2, no. 4, p. 190-204.
Martineau, Richard. (2005). “Me, Mom and Morgentaler.” Journal Voir, 19 mai, p. 9.
Potts, Annie. (2000). “Coming, Coming, Gone : A Feminist Deconstruction of Heterosexual Orgasm.” Sexualities, vol 3, no. 1, p. 55-76.
- 1This latter observation reveals a personal preoccupation of mine with what seems to be an inability for individuals to overcome superficiality in their interpersonal relationships. I will come back to this point.
- 2To insist on the relevance of psychology in human sexuality is not to ignore the role of fundamental physiological processes or needs. Think of an analogous case. One can say that my need for food is determined genetically. But this explains very little about the specific food choices I make. It may be that certain foods are engineered to provide qualities more easily perceived and enjoyed by our senses. But even in such cases, this straightforward fact does not explain why a person eats this particular morsel of food at this particular time and in these particular conditions. To say, then, that sexual attraction cannot be explained exhaustively in terms of genetic predispositions is to assert that phenomena in human social life (ideas, promises, cultural norms, etc.) have causal power.