Feeling Sorry for Sex: Lauren Berlant and Erotophobia

For sex to be “playful” in the way Lauren Berlant yearns for, it must exist within a game with rules.

This essay by Lauren Berlant at The Nation about how we denigrate sex in the public sphere is a good example of something I agree with, but the way it’s expressed makes me want to repudiate it and come up with a counterargument.

If her point were that sex scandals reveal how social attitudes about sex are used to control what sorts of relationships people think to create for themselves, I would be on board completely. But she is claiming that sex scandals are, at root, about erotophobia – the fear of sexuality because of its alleged ickiness. That seems flat-out wrong. First, prostitution may not be primarily a sexual matter, any more than pornography is about sexuality – they are both expressions of power and control through sexual means, with the sexual overtones serving only to make the thrills of power seem more salient.

People are not scandalized by Spitzer’s having sex. If anything, they are excited and titillated by the sex in the story. Sex scandals make good press because people love having an excuse to talk about sex publicly. If the public is offended by anything, it may be his breaking the law in a highly hypocritical fashion and spectacularly violating the social contract he entered by getting married. In the coverage of scandals such as these, sex itself is not made to seem morbid and unnatural, as Berlant argues, but instead, it’s the rejection of approved forms for intimate relationships – that one would dare to ignore the strictures of the nuclear family – that is pathologized. That is where the shame is, not in the sexual activity itself. Berlant makes it seem as though the problem is that people aren’t having enough sex; but it’s the use of sex as a social tool to control the sorts of relations people can have or even consider having.

This is the paragraph from Berlant’s essay that most annoys me:

Nonetheless, I’m just saying, I really like sex. We have no idea what sex would be like in a world that saw it basically as a good. A weird good. A good that can tip you over and make you want to do strange things. A good that can reveal your incoherence, your love of a little disorder, your love of a little control (adjust the dial as you like). A good that can make you happy, for a minute, before the cat starts scratching the corner of the bed, or the phone rings, or the kids mew, or you’re hungry and sleepy, or you need another drink or the taxi comes.

That last line could describe a beer or a cigarette or Wii. What about sexuality that’s not conceptualized as a reified product to be maximized quantitatively? What of sex that’s not a part of the experience economy – which is what prostitution is simply the ultimate expression of – but is instead a lived-in process that has no rigid boundaries, that expresses the curiosity that fuels an active attitude toward life’s constructive possibilities, that isn’t just something you do to distract yourself from work or everyday hassles?

Anyway, society approves certain modes of sexual expression precisely because the power of sex is so respected. That power is cultivated, Foucault argues in The History of Sexuality. The power of the sex drive allows it to be an extremely useful tool in structuring social institutions and systems of control. Sexual morality is not an expression of a “fear” of sex; it’s a honing of sex’s power to dictate the shape of people’s lives. Many welcome this – they are following these scandals carefully, not out of horror but out of the satisfaction of seeing sex’s cultural power reiterated. To oversimplify a bit, prohibitions make sex more intense and exciting. It reaffirms that we are right to be thinking of sex so much and that it’s appropriate that sex appeal is used ubiquitously to sell products.

That’s why it’s hopelessly utopian and likely counterproductive to wish for a “world that saw [sex] basically as a good. A weird good.” It’s too powerful an impulse to be ignored in forming social institutions. It will always be structured and therefore regarded instrumentally, not as some end-in-itself, some independent good. For it to be “playful” in the way Berlant yearns for, it must exist within a game with rules. “Who knows what sex could be if people were encouraged to enjoy it as play rather than as a drama” – but isn’t drama a form of play? – “a genuine test of recognition or tool of unwanted control over selves and others.” I don’t know, but I’d venture this guess: To wish for a world that left sexuality unstructured socially would be to yearn to see sex stripped of its power and made into a mundane, natural, and inevitable, strictly personal process akin to going to the bathroom. thenhen it truly would be icky.