Is Sex Just a Physical Act?
What is sex, seriously? A clear look at a hot topic.
What is sex?
This is no abstract, intellectual bull session fodder. It’s the target of a passionate inquiry.
Is sex just a physical act?
Is it just a harmless romp? A mere sport, like checkers or badminton? Or to be more accurate, a contact sport, but where the “contact” part feels good and sometimes makes babies?
Is it merely a stress reliever, like jogging? A basic bodily function, like going to the bathroom?
Is sex nothing more than a physical act between two bodies?
It’s a huge question that touches a lot of nerves.
(No pun intended.)
A lot of confusion, misinformation and miscommunication seems to surround this inquiry, yet it can have profound consequences on peoples’ lives.
Seems like a perfect job for your trusty and cuddly LiveReal Agents.
Let’s try to get some clarity on the matter. Let’s put our previous opinions aside, and approach it while being as clear, fair, honest, and reasonable as we can. Let’s try to just get a clear look at the truth of the situation, and see where it leads us.
The “Prudes” verses the “Libertines”
This is how the problem is often framed.
Which causes problems.
Finding clarity can be challenging because the topic seems to consist primarily of two extreme and opposing sides that caricature each other. We can call them “Prudes” and “Libertines.”
They could go by other names: "orgy-goers" verses "finger-waggers," "morally-casuals" verses "stiffs," and so on - but we'll stick with this for now.
“Prudes” are seen by Libertines as finger-wagging, fun-spoiling, joyless, repressive, crusty old cranky goody-goodys who only seem to take pleasure in making others miserable. They’re seen as anti-sex. (Think of the dads as portrayed in the original Footloose and Dead Poet’s Society combined with Nurse Ratched from Cuckoo’s Nest.)
“Libertines” – basically advocates of “the more sex, the better, and just do what you want” – are seen by Prudes as mindless, thoughtless, blind-hormone-driven forces of wanton destruction that make themselves slaves to their own animal instincts and wreak havoc, chaos, pain, heartache and destruction everywhere.
These are the two extremes.
Needless to say, they don’t get along all that well.
Each side seems to point out legitimate flaws in the other. And each side uses those flaws to justify their own positions.
“After all,” they seem to say, “those other folks are clearly wrong. And I’m against them. So that must make me right.”
Luckily, few folks actually live on these extremes.
Most of us are somewhere in the middle.
Extreme, anti-sex prudery doesn’t seem right. But then again, becoming a human id (which even Freud didn’t recommend) and treating the entire universe like it’s Daytona Beach on Spring Break, well, that doesn’t seem right either. As usual, the truth of the matter just seems more complicated than it’s usually portrayed.
(This might seem too obvious to say. But then again, a lot of folks – Prudes, Libertines and others – seem to think that the answer to it all really is simple. They just can’t seem to agree on what exactly that answer is.)
Nietzsche described this dynamic as the Apollonian verses the Dionysian: order verses chaos, reason verses passion. These forces seem to form two different poles. Each can’t seem to exist without the other, yet the two can’t seem to exist together.
Meaning, passion and reason often seem to oppose each other.
There’s a tension between them. We live in that tension.
Prudes try to resolve this tension by eliminating passion. Libertines try to resolve it by eliminating reason. Each pole tries to resolve the tension by eliminating the other pole.
And this – trying to solve the problem by eliminating one of the poles – is a bad “solution.” It’s like curing the disease by killing the patient, or trying to win a chess game by sweeping all of your opponent’s pieces off the board. It’s a solution that winds up worse than the original problem.
So we need both passion and reason. We can’t and shouldn’t eliminate either one of them. Yet they often seem to conflict, like two roommates living together in close quarters that just can’t seem to get along. (Those “quarters” are our own bodies.) But they have to get along.
First of all, let’s clarify what exactly we’re asking here.
Let's take a brief aside to quickly turn the philosophical lights on here.
All of this is part of our life philosophy. We’re all philosophers, and we all have a worldview. And this philosophy and/or worldview determines much of what we think about this.
So if we’re trying to clarify and upgrade our life philosophy here, let’s be explicit about it (the philosophy, that is.) What we’re asking about is ontology: what is sex? What is the nature of sex?
And from here, this can help us with the other part – how should we live? – which is to say, ethics.
Now, let’s return back to where we left off, which is looking into how these two seemingly incompatible forces can ideally learn to live together, and what that might look like.
The ideal solution would be to take the best parts from both sides.
In other words, this approach would mean keeping both passion and reason.
After all, each has something positive to offer. Reason offers intelligence, clarity, wisdom, not waking up in a pool of vomit or with overwhelming feelings of regret. Passion offers vitality, energy, joy, life.
Ideally, it seems, a person is both passionate and reasonable. The ideal is to become a passionate person who can reason, and a reasonable person who is passionate. Each in the right proportion at the right time.
But again: how?
Let’s look at the sexual experience from both sides of the argument.
What does sex really mean to the Prude and the Libertine?
The Libertine argues that sex “means” nothing. Nothing at all.
It’s like going to the bathroom. It’s a physical function. It’s like backgammon but with body parts, or full-contact sport-fishing with a certain kind of contact. It’s an animal act, it’s physical pleasure. That’s it. Nothing more.
For Prudes, on the other hand, sex means a great deal.
It has tremendous, profound, far-reaching consequences. Sex can be spiritual – meaning, it affects you deeply. It can touch your soul. A person’s sexual experiences can be profound and life-changing events that affect them in ways they can remember for the rest of their lives. And not only that, but it even has the power to create an entirely new person that will remember things for life as well.
So, this again shows two very different perspectives on the matter. Who is right?
Let’s approach this from a different position.
Is there really such a thing as “casual sex”?
Let’s be clear: “casual sex” never really existed on a widespread scale until a few decades ago.
(Not for the vast majority of regular folks, anyway. Whatever else it was seen as traditionally, sex was always treated as a power to be respected. Which is pretty much the opposite of “casual.”)
Up until very recently (the key difference being the line before and after reliable and inexpensive birth control), sex has always been closely connected with pregnancy, childbirth, and the raising of children. (Which is to say: it had previously been seen as a potentially very serious business, potentially involving, among other things, decades of your life.)
But of course, that’s now changed. The link between sex and raising children isn’t as tightly connected as it used to be.
So again, we can ask: is there really such a thing as “casual sex”?
This will again bring us back to philosophy.
There’s the ontology question: “what is sex?” Because if it’s an act that’s just like going to the bathroom, then that makes our answer on the “ethics” side pretty easy. If sex is like a potty break, then it’s no big deal.
But if sex is something more than a potty break, then it is a bigger deal, at least. Which helps us answer the “how should I live?” or ethics question.
So, how can we answer this?
Let’s try to get some help from ancient wisdom, modern science, and everything in between.
First of all, the “ancient wisdom” side of things is pretty clear.
Sex is a big deal. The phrase “casual sex” is an oxymoron. It contradicts itself. The perspectives of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and others vary widely, but they essentially agree on one thing: sex is a force to be respected, and not to be treated lightly.
What about “modern science”?
Modern science here is all over the map. Science studies phenomenon, but doesn’t venture as much into ethics, or recommending what we should do. Often, it punts on the question: it describes how this works and how that happens, and it leaves the rest up to us. Of course, individual “sex therapists” and psychologists and counselors and so on have their own individual opinions, but they’re often personal opinions. There is no single, unified, universally recommended ethic on the matter from science as a whole, and there are seemingly as many opinions as there are individuals.
There’s obviously plenty more we could explore here (and should) explore here. But those are the high points, and they'll work for now.
Now let’s look at this from a perspective of personal experience or common sense.
As we figured out earlier, for “casual sex” to exist, it would have to mean that sex is something like going to the bathroom.
Which is to say, it means nothing. It’s simply a bodily function, and nothing more. A casual potty break has nothing to do with our emotions or deeper psychology.
Now, let’s take a look: is that what most experience of sex is really like? Is it really as casual as going to the bathroom?
Let’s consider this:
For “casual sex” to exist, we would have to assume that sexuality is disconnected from a person’s emotions, thoughts, and identity.
Now, let’s slow down and look at this very carefully.
Nobody gets emotional about a visit to the bathroom. (OK, almost nobody.)
Let’s assume that a person’s emotions, thoughts and identity are “important.” (Which seems like an extremely safe assumption.) This is, essentially, a person’s psychology.
“Important” is pretty much the opposite of “casual.” “Casual” means something we don’t need to bother with or worry much about, or something relatively unimportant.
So in order for casual sex to exist, it would have to look like this:
A person’s emotions, thoughts and identity: important
The sexual act: unimportant
So for sex to truly be casual, for example, there would have to be a lack of connection between the physical body and the emotions.
There would have to be no connection between some of the most sensitive parts of the physical body and the mind.
So, is that true?
Are the mind and body connected?
Is that connection something that can be strengthened, weakened, or even severed?
Let’s look at the experience of folks in the world.
Or even movies and television shows where this kind of thing is depicted. (Eg, Seinfeld, between Jerry and Elaine is one example, but there are plenty.)
The plot is predictable: folk adopt the idea that sex is “casual.” They try it for a while. (“Let’s have sex, but let’s just be friends! Nothing else has to change!”)
They soon discover that it isn’t so simple. Emotions get stirred, despite everyone’s best efforts, and drama ensues.
Meaning, they typically start with the assumption that sex and emotions are in separate realms, and have clean lines between them. They run an experiment. And they soon discover that it’s simply not accurate. Emotions follow.
And in some cases, that is putting it mildly. Sometimes folks in the real world – outside of the big and small screens – are surprised to discover, in the wake of what they think will be a “purely physical” act, that guilt, shame, hurt, raw vulnerability, intense longing, obsession, and a tsunami of many other emotions suddenly appear, coming along for the ride.
They’re often surprised to discover that sex is not naturally disconnected from a person’s emotions, mind, and identity.
In fact, they sometimes discover exactly the opposite: it’s all connected.
The idea of sexuality as something that’s naturally and easily disconnected from a persons’ emotions, mind, and identity, and is a free-floating, completely independent, fully detached aspect of life…well, sometimes it just crashes against the shores of reality. Folks want the bait, but they don't want all the rest of it, the stuff that's connected to it (which is, in that metaphor, the hook, line, fishing rod, and fisherman.)
In some cases, it can be emotionally traumatic. Individuals sometimes surprised by the emotional, mental, psychological, even spiritual effects of the sexual experience, for better or worse. They remember experiences for the rest of their lives. And it shapes them.
Which is to say: often, when the entire thing plays out, it’s the exact opposite of “casual.”
The model of human nature this relies on – that your sex organs and behavior are over here, and everything else is over there – seems flawed. Which is to say, it doesn’t seem to be an accurate model of human nature.
To be clear: this isn’t a matter of being moralistic; it’s a matter of having an inaccurate map to navigate the world by.
We can clarify this more by taking a closer look at different possibilities.
This whole inquiry can go much deeper if we widen the scope. For example, let’s put the words “casual” next to a few other words:
Pedophilia. Necrophelia. Pornography. Sex addiction. Stalking. Exhibitionism. Voyeurism. Etc. (We could keep going, but we won’t.)
There’s nothing “casual” about any of the above that is anywhere close to “casual.” Zero.
So clearly: there are at least some dimensions of sex that are anything but “casual.”
So, granted: it's vividly clear that the word "casual" isn't accurate when it comes to all sex. Some aspects of sexuality are profoundly important. Even, in some cases, matters of life and death.
But then there’s the other side of it.
What about strip clubs? Porn? Bunny ranches and bordellos? Massage parlors? The world’s oldest profession? Vegas?
Sure, much of this is “in the shadows” – it’s not something many folks advertise openly or are most proud of in lucid moments.
That said, plenty of folks (especially men) are looking for exactly the opposite of “it’s all connected”? Sex with no consequences, no connections, no intimacy, no meaning or implications beyond the immediate experience of it?
So clearly: there are at least some dimensions of sex that some folks want to be entirely casual. Purely physical, consequence-free, a good time, and that’s it. No strings attached.
Some folks want sex to be meaningless.
So this brings us to an interesting point.
In terms of the question “what is sex,” there’s something about sex that seems to be undefined.
Which is to say: sometimes it can be extremely meaningful.
And sometimes it can be meaningless.
It isn’t necessarily fixed as something that's either one way or another. There's some freedom there. Sex has the potential to become both, based on how we approach it. Sex, in itself, can be neutral. And we can make it either meaningful or meaningless ourselves, based on how we think about it and what we do about it.
All of this leads us back to asking about “human nature.”
Since this exploration is drawing us into deeper waters, let’s swim with it.
What is “human nature”?
Are we animals? Or is there a spiritual component to human nature?
(In regards to our life philosophy, now we’re going from ontology and ethics to metaphysics and psychology.)
In regards to psychology, perhaps we’re just animals. And we’re only animals, which is the main argument of the libertine.
But maybe that’s not all we are. Maybe we’re animals plus something else. Maybe there’s a spiritual component to human nature, which is the key point of the prude. The important thing there, according to the perspective of the “plus something else,” is maximizing that “something else.”(Which we call "inner work.")
Maybe, even if we are animals, that’s not all we can be.
If “it’s all connected” – if your most sensitive body parts are connected up to the rest of you (emotions, thoughts, identity, heart/mind/soul/etc) – then treating them as something meaningless might wind up pulling your thoughts, emotions, and identity into meaninglessness too.
If it’s really all connected, then well, folks might find that actions they take with their bodies might lead to their hearts, minds, and souls coming along for the ride.
So in a way, sex is like life.
Meaning, it can be either meaningless or meaningful. It depends on how we approach it. If we treat it a certain way, it can become meaningless. Or the opposite: if we treat it a different way, it can become meaningful. Either way, we can then point to it, and say, “See? I was right! Sex is meaningful/meaningless!” And we'd be "right." But what we often miss is that we’re only seeing our own evidence – the evidence we created through our own actions. It becomes a kind of moral self-fulfilling prophecy. We often don’t realize that all of it – including whatever evidence we’re looking at – could have been, and can be, very different.
In this sense, sex can be like a microcosm, a miniature version, of life itself.
Now let’s consider a few more random pieces of evidence.
• Let’s not forget the obvious: sex is the way to create a human being. And an act that has the power to bring a new person into the world…well, a new living person, existing instead of not existing, seems like it would count as – what’s the opposite of “casual”? “Kind of a big deal.”
• Has anyone ever known anyone to be as obsessed with anything as much as almost any average teenage boy is about sex? Is there anything remotely “casual” about that? (The word “obsessive” is more apt, and if anything, understated.) If sex is "casual," a sport, like jogging...do you know many average teenage boys that get completely and utterly obsessed with jogging, and think about it all day, every day?
• If it’s “casual,” why have so many people throughout history (especially men) ruined their careers and families for the sake of it?
• There’s the idea that “sex is natural.” Which seems to imply that it should be “simple” and “easy or something. So, yes. But eating is also “natural.” (What could be more “natural” than eating? It’s required for survival.) But then there’s relentless dieting, obesity, calorie-counting, billions of dollars spent in the weight-loss industry, and so on. All to say: “natural” doesn’t really answer much.
• If sex is essentially a harmless romp in the hay...then why has every major spiritual tradition in history treated it as something to be – at the very least – taken seriously?
• Maybe the Taoists are on to something. They see vitality – the various energies of the body, subtle and otherwise, which they've studied and mapped extensively – as something that can be either squandered or spent wisely. They see the body as full of precious oils, energies and fuels – an incredibly complicated and intricate system. Sexual energies, according to the Taoists, can be dissipated, which can be like draining all the sap out of a tree, leaving mostly dry wood behind. A better approach is cultivating, harnessing, redirecting and transmitting this energy so it becomes life-enhancing instead of life-draining. (Mantak Chia is one thinker who has things to say along these lines.)
There’s some progress.
Is this “The Answer”? No, but it seems like we've made some progress along the trail, at least for ourselves. At the very least, we can safely say that sex is more complex than a lot of the easy bumper-sticker platitudes that get thrown around these days.
Hopefully, this can help reason and passion to become better roommates within us, at least in some ways.
There’s a chance that there might be a lot more to sex – especially higher potentials aside from the obvious bodily functions – that aren’t even on most folks’ map yet. Sex might be more complicated than a lot of folks think. And maybe that’s something worth looking into.
There's a lot more to explore here.
We, your trusty and passionate-yet-reasonable LiveReal Agents, plan to keep exploring this hot topic.
And not casually.
"Given our obsession with sex,
we need to get more of it, not in quantity but in quality.
It's like a person addicted to junk food.
He eats as much as he can because there is nothing there.
If he were to eat real food
- unprocessed, close to its earth origins, wonderfully prepared -
he might leave the addiction behind.
We need more sex, not less,
but we need sex with soul."
- Thomas Moore