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NO MYSTERY

A philosopher of sex says sexual freedom is destroying desire

Flirting builds sexual tension.
  • Olivia Goldhill
By Olivia Goldhill

Science reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

Philosophers claim to explore the most fundamental features of existence, but have been disappointingly silent on one all-important subject: Sex.

Sure, Michel Foucault addressed the sociological discourses around sex and Simone de Beauvoir definitively demonstrated the value of sexual equality, but what about sex itself—or, as philosophy professor Jeanne Proust researches, sexual desire?

Proust, who has an upcoming ThinkOlio lecture on the subject, says she was hugely frustrated by the near-absence of philosophical discussion about sex. “If the role of philosophy is to get deeper about things in life, daily preoccupations, then sex should be more analyzed and studied,” she says.

European continental philosophy failed to address sex in large part, she believes, because “the Judeo-Christian luggage is still heavy to carry.” Religious teachings in the West portrayed the body as “the enemy of the philosophical process,” and a dangerous distraction from intellectual thought. “It didn’t have the worth or dignity that traditional philosophical subjects are supposed to have,” she adds.

Philosophy also typically strives for objective, universal truths, and Proust believes this approach is largely incompatible with the inherently subjective sexual experience.

It’s not that philosophy in the canon can’t be applied to sex: Proust argues that philosophical discussions of desire in general are often relevant to sexual desire. The 17th century rationalist Baruch Spinoza, for example, wrote: “We neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it.”

Anyone who’s been in love or lust with a person who’s clearly flawed will recognize the truth in Spinoza’s words: We don’t desire someone because they’re attractive; we think they’re attractive because we desire them.

Proust has developed her own philosophical theory of sexual desire, and one of its central tenets would surprise many in this sex-positive age: She believes that taboos, though restrictive, are essential to build such desire. “When you feel sexual attraction, there’s something close to transgression,” she says. “When you observe how we get stimulated sexually and what makes sexual attraction very strong, the moral taboo plays a role.”

Though Proust appreciates the political value of free conversations and a lack of shame around sex, she believes that a totally open, blasé attitude can dampen desire.

“Maybe when we speak too freely about sex last night as though we were speaking about a new pair of socks, we destroy something essential to sexual desire: The secrecy and intimacy,” she says. “That’s why people from the beginning of humanity hide to have sex.”

This isn’t to say we should encourage moralistic norms that restrict sexual liberation. But it certainly explains why contemporary forms of dating, where sex is free and easy, can still be so sexually unsatisfying.

Proust points to sociological works such as Why Love Hurts and The Agony of Eros that explore how online dating has shifted the parameters of desire. “Especially in a city like New York, sexuality becomes more and more something that you consume and throw away,” she says. “You don’t allow the possibility for desire to grow: You just consume it right away and are almost proud of it. As if we’ve passed these moral rules and now sex is just a normal thing like going to the toilet.”

Proust says she began her work by simply describing sexual desire, but her exploration of the subject led her to criticize contemporary sexual culture. “The consumerist society and this culture of efficient performance takes away something crucial within our intimate lives and leaves us empty,” she says.

Sexual freedom, portrayed as a liberation of sexual desire, can in fact destroy it. And so, while online apps that facilitate easy hook ups may lead to more orgasms, they have a tendency to thwart real desire.

But there’s a potential solution. Traditional customs around how to initiate sex—the flirting and coyness—defer to the mysterious, secretive nature of sex. It’s worth honoring this timeless dance, Proust argues.

“There’s a whole game that takes place and allows space for the desire to grow,” she says. “By respecting some of the decency rules, you feed that space.”

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