Sex is not an act
Why you can’t separate what goes on between the sheets with what happens before and after
What is sex? Both in science and common sense it is a very specific set of actions. In biology textbooks it is defined by the reproductive act that begins with arousal and ends with ejaculation. In the movies, the sex scenes are the ones that begin with a kiss or caress and end with cries of orgasm. In both cases, sex is defined narrowly as the human version of an act found all over the animal kingdom, something with a clear beginning, middle and end.
What we call sex has a before and after and these are intimately part of the one experience.
In some respects, this is perfectly accurate. The full meaning and nature of sex, however, cannot be understood if it is seen in only these narrow terms. What we call sex has a before and after and these are intimately part of the one experience.
Take the before. Sex is very different depending on whether it follows a long courtship, a night of dancing, an evening of heavy drinking, a financial transaction on a street corner, an illicit meeting behind a regular partner’s back, a decision to try for a child, a reconciliation, a threat of violence. The fact that the same physical movements might comprise each act is besides the point. Human beings are not “just” animals and the whole nature of what we do is changed by the context within which we do it. Sex is no exception.
It might be argued that once the blood starts pumping and the nerves start tingling, sex is just sex. That seems improbable. Even at the peaks of ecstasy, we are aware at some level of who we are with and why. But even if it were true that there are moments in sex when we are purely in the moment, that is besides the point. We soon come out of it again and the context re-asserts itself. We find ourselves with or swiftly apart from the person we shared that intimacy with. Again, this alters completely the nature and meaning of what has happened.
This relates to a broader point. Life is not a collection of experiences, although that is the way it is increasingly portrayed. We are being sold experiences like we used to be sold candy. There are places you must visit, albums you must hear, foods you must eat. The check list of things you must do before you die gets longer and longer.
Memorable experiences are important in life. But what makes most of them valuable is how they fit into the broader story of your life. Seeing Bob Dylan in concert, for instance, has a different meaning depending on whether you go as a devotee, experience the music as an epiphany, or simply tag along with a friend and find it impressive.
No human action occurs in a vacuum and so no human act can be understood in a vacuum.
The bucket list approach to life strips out this context, reducing every experience to something self-contained. Sometimes, that is fine, appropriate even. But on the whole, these atomised experiences are not the most fulfilling, memorable or meaningful. They provide fun and pleasure but little lasting satisfaction.
Sex is no different. This is not a moralising observation. Even if you believe it is fine to lie your way to bed or abandon your lover as soon as you can, it is still true that what exactly happens before and after alters the act itself. The truth here is no more than the truth that no human action occurs in a vacuum and so no human act can be understood in a vacuum.
Contemporary mores occlude this. The questions people seem most likely to ask about their own sex lives concern how much they’re getting, how exactly they do it and how many people they’ve done it with. If we pursue sex in this way, as a collection of discrete experiences we seek to optimise, no wonder it often seems meaningless. We need to remember that no one has a sex life that is separate from their life as a whole. If we want better sex, we need to think about sex fits in with our wider life goals, not just about how we do it.
This article is part of a series on rethinking the sexual revolution
Julian Baggini is a writer and philosopher. His latest book is The Godless Gospel: Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher? (Affiliate link)