Isn't our culture obsessed with sex? Isn't there way too much out there in public that should be private? So what is the 'privatisation' of sex? This article looks at what has happened to the public idea of sex in our culture, and how this is affecting the experience for many people.
The Phenomenon of 'Privatisation'
It might seem odd to express it like this but our culture is suffering from a 'privatisation' of sex. At first glance it might seem to be the exact opposite. There is so much now that should be kept private which is out there for all the world to see. But there is another meaning of the word 'privatisation' - as in the 'privatisation of religion'.
For a long time in Europe there was one predominant religion, Christianity, lived in one church, the Catholic Church. Then serious divisions arose leading to an enduring split between Catholic and Protestant churches or communities. At first there seemed to be an intensification of fervour as different confessions competed. But over time there was a running down effect and significant sections of society started to wonder if they could do without Christianity and just have a more generic religion. This transitional phase was known as 'deism'. Then some churches began to adapt their beliefs to accommodate a less 'ontological' and more 'ethical' notion of religion. Then society as a whole started to adopt, not just an impartial view with respect to different religions, but a secularist view that saw no essential role for religion at all.
This process led to what has been called a privatisation of religion. Beliefs which once were more or less universally held had now become a 'private' matter, and people could be left alone with their private beliefs. Public profession of religion was now not really public in a full sense but formally private even while having some limited public character.
The Privatisation of Sex
I think we are in a similar process now, in which the once universally held notion of what sex is has been called into question. The preeminent form in which the public character of sex was affirmed and celebrated was marriage. But now this notion is becoming privatised. Different people believe different things about sex to the point of outright contradiction, so there cannot be any single public character of sex.
One of the core beliefs about sex was that it could only properly be engaged in within marriage. Even when people fell short of that expectation, or if some flouted the convention, the overwhelming majority accepted it as fundamental. This meant that the meaning of sex was integral with the meaning of marriage.
However, over the last two centuries and more marriage has been under sustained ideological attack and its meaning has been undermined by stages, beginning with permitting divorce. By a series of steps we have now reached a kind of endgame where it is not only marriage whose meaning is being dissolved, but sex as well. And it is not only sex but human nature as such which is called into question.
Loss of Faith in Sex
It is a strange irony that sex is one of the reasons associated with loss of faith in God, yet now that loss of faith in God is leading to a loss of faith in sex.
The champions of the liberation of sex from marriage could always use the opposition of the Catholic Church as rhetorical capital. But now it is the Church which is the leading champion of sex (in reality, even if not yet in public perception). The others have gone on to champion something else - who knows what it is?
The notion of 'gender' seems now to have been only a way station. It seems to be in the process of being replaced by 'identity'. After all, once you can have dozens of supposed different 'genders' the word has lost all meaning. What connection does it have any longer to sex? There are now only identities ascribed with various preferences in relation to something to do with sexual feeling, and perhaps still with the sexual organs, though that is unclear.
The Dissolution of the Sexual
Yet this dissolution of the notion of the sexual is not the end either. There are various projects imagined for technological interventions to shape human beings into ... something else?
This whole process has been a dis-integration. The core integrating ideas, beliefs and practices which define human nature and the human person are being progressively dismantled.
What is needed is a reintegration, from nature, to person, to sex, to marriage. In the public realm marriage is the key and in culture the complementarity of men and women is the key. Without these as public goods there is no coherence to the very notion of community itself.
Community cannot be an aggregate of disembodied selves pursuing their individual self-projects.
That is the opposite of community. It is the disintegration of community. Indeed, such individualism is the 'privatisation of community', which is the ultimate contradiction in terms.
A Loss of Interest
This process of diminishment initially takes on the form of an intensification, at least for a while. Just as the privatisation of religion can lead to an increase in fervour for a while, soon enough it wanes.
There seems to be an obsession with sex but it is really the beginnings of a loss of interest. The fire, when it is in the fireplace, warms the whole room, and more, even at times burning very hot, yet safely.
But if the burning coals are taken out of the fireplace and scattered on the floor, the whole house burns down. For a time it seems like an intensification, a great increase in heat, but it is consuming itself, and soon burns out.
It can cause a cascade of fires all around, and for a time more fuel can be found in other places. But it's only leaves and grass, not solid logs. And soon there are only ashes left.
So we need to go back and start again. Plant the trees that will grow into the logs that will eventually be able to provide the fuel for the fire. We need to pay heed to the whole 'ecology of the sexual'. To teach people how to build fireplaces for homes. And why bushfires, and their spreading spotfires, are dangerous. And how they keep burning the new shoots, so that strong, healthy trees struggle to find the space and time to mature.
Many people are now losing faith in sex.
The sheer scale of bad sex, disappointment, heartbreak, loneliness and abuse of trust is taking its toll. Young men who develop a porn addiction can end up literally unable to get aroused when with a real woman. It seems absurd, but there appears to be a widespread diminishment in the very thing previous generations struggled to keep a lid on.
Many married couples are also jaded and struggling to enkindle sexual affection. The mutual attraction which is meant to keep the flame of passion alive is in many cases fading away.
The Need for a Renewal
All this points to the need for a renewal of the public character of sex. (I trust that readers will realise I'm not talking about orgies!) Rather, we need a renewal of marriage, and the renewal of a public culture of complementarity.
Why is the public character of sex so important?
In the first place it provides the context for simple, wholehearted approval and joy for the gift of marriage, not only for those already married, but for those who aspire to it, and to the rest of the community who benefit from the goods of family life. But now this consensus is ruptured, and people hesitate to speak openly and unselfconsciously of the good of marriage.
In the second place it gives a public arena in which the complementarity of masculine and feminine is seen in its attractive power. The nature of this attraction lies not in solitude but in mutuality. But now the measuring stick for 'attraction' is more strongly individual, rather than mutual.
Thirdly, this mutuality in complementarity is the moderating context in which the wellsprings of attraction are renewed. Sexual attraction is not something that can work with the dial turned up to '10' all the time. It has its own rhythms and dynamics, and these are meant to be intrinsically personal.
To Be Loved by Another
We can see then that the privatisation of sex is the dissolution of sex. The very phenomenon itself begins to disintegrate and diminish. The love that is meant to be at its core is replaced by self-referential desires that consume the self's very reason for existence, which is to be loved by another.
In a whole variety of ways sex disintegrates into attempts to be loved by 'another me', rather than by someone who is irreducibly other.
The complementarity of the sexes is the solid ground in which to find someone who is indubitably other in the very ways needed to draw our own deepest selves into being, to discover and become myself through the other without becoming the other.
It reveals that the differences between men and women do not comprise a 'zero sum' equation. Complementarity is not a trade-off. Rather, deeper union leads to stronger individuality. I find myself by losing myself.
Now, where have I heard that before?