What Is Sex For?
Posted on Mar 24, 2017
By Robert Jensen
Amsterdam’s red-light district, famous for its brothels and other sex businesses. (Gina Collecchia / CC 2.0)
The following excerpt is from “The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men” (Spinifex Press) and is reprinted with permission of the publisher.
[In this book] I argue that it’s impossible to imagine any society achieving a meaningful level of justice if people from one sex/gender class could be routinely bought and sold for sexual services by people from another sex/gender class. If one class of people are defined as “available to be bought and sold for sexual services,” is there any way that class of people won’t be assigned subordinate status to the dominant class that does the buying? Is justice possible when the most intimate spaces of the bodies of people in one group can be purchased by people in another group?
The same idea, stated differently: If we lived in an egalitarian society with sex/gender justice, would the idea of buying and selling people for sexual services likely emerge at all? If we lived in a society that put the dignity of all people at the center of its mission, would anyone imagine “sex work”?
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I am confident in making the claims that (1) women are fully human and that the sexual-exploitation industries are inconsistent with human dignity, and (2) however complicated women’s options are in patriarchy, we should focus first on men’s decisions to participate in the buying and selling of women for sex.
But on the more complex question of “what is sex for?” I am more hesitant to make definitive claims. I believe that in a healthy society, sex should not be reduced to reproduction or pleasure-acquisition. But sex can, and does, play a variety of roles in our lives, which can change within one’s own lifetime and vary between individuals and cultures. Any answer will be specific to time and place. When we are young, for example, sex might be primarily a way for us to explore ourselves as we develop emotionally. As mature adults, sex might be primarily a way to establish stable bonds with a partner.
At this point in history, in contemporary U.S. culture, I worry about how much of life has become commodified and mass-mediated — about contemporary capitalism’s obsession with pulling every aspect of human life into the market, and advanced-technology’s colonization of our experiences through screens. Combining those concerns with a critique of patriarchy, I return to the power of sexuality to help us connect in meaningful ways to another person — sexuality as a form of communication, part of the ongoing quest to touch and be touched, to be truly alive. James Baldwin got to the heart of this:
I think the inability to love is the central problem, because the inability masks a certain terror, and that terror is the terror of being touched. And, if you can’t be touched, you can’t be changed. And, if you can’t be changed, you can’t be alive.
To assert that sexuality is centrally about love is not to limit our sexual connections to some notion of divinely sanctioned heterosexual marriage or Hollywood-defined romance. Suggesting that the central role of sexual connection in human society has something to do with love is to open up our exploration, to get over the terror of being touched.
Though love defies easy definition, it’s easy to identify the sexual-exploitation industries’ answer to “what’s love got to do with it?”: Nothing.
More than two decades ago, when I first started thinking about this question, I kept coming back to the phrase to describe an argument that is intense but which doesn’t really advance our understanding — we say that such a debate ‘produced more heat than light’. Much of the talk about sexuality in contemporary culture is in terms of heat: Is the sex you are having hot?
What if our discussions about sexual activity — our embodied connections to another person — were less about heat and more about light? What if instead of desperately seeking hot sex, we searched for a way to produce light when we touch? What if such touch were about finding a way to create light between people so that we could see ourselves and each other better? If the goal is knowing ourselves and each other like that, then what we need is not really heat but light to illuminate the path. How do we touch and talk to each other to shine that light?
Though there is no sexual instruction manual to tell us how to generate that light, I do not hesitate to suggest that the sexual-exploitation industries leave us in the dark.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.