Please note: This piece includes a few passing references to my personal sex life. Family members and others who don't want to read about that stuff may want to skip this one. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
For some reason, the sex- positive community is also, very often, a spiritual community. (At least in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live.) It's not often a conventionally religious community; but many varieties of Wicca, Goddess worship, shamanism, Tantra, astrology, chi, chakras, belief in a collective metaphysical consciousness, and other forms of New Age belief and magical thinking permeate it, both privately and publicly.
This troubles me. I am a hard- core atheist/ materialist/ naturalist/ humanist/ skeptic/ whatever you want to call someone who doesn’t believe in any supernatural entities or substances. And I'm just as unconvinced -- and almost as troubled -- by the ideas of the Goddess and chi energy and immortal consciousness and so on, as I am by the ideas of God and angels and Hell.
Now, I'm not writing this piece to argue against religion. I may yet write a piece criticizing spiritual beliefs and practices in the sex- positive community... but it's not what I'm doing here. (If you want to see my reasons and arguments for my lack of spiritual belief, you can do so here, and here, and here and here and here.)
What I want to do here is offer an alternative.
I want to offer a positive way of looking at sexuality and sexual transcendence that doesn't involve any sort of belief in the supernatural. I want to offer a sex- positive philosophy that is entirely materialist. The materialist view of life in general and sex in particular is often viewed as cold, bleak, narrow, mechanical, reductionist, and generally a downer. I don't think it is. And I want to talk about why.
The materialist view says that there is no supernatural world. At all. There is only the physical world. All those things that seem non- physical -- thoughts, feelings, choices, selfhood, transcendent sexual ecstasy, consciousness in general — are actually products of the brain, and of the brain's interactions with the rest of the body and the rest of the world. We don't yet know exactly how this works -- the science of neuropsychology is still in its infancy -- but the overwhelming evidence we have so far is that this seems to be so.
And to me, this is not a downer. This is magnificent.
To me, the idea that, out of nothing but earth and water and sunlight, these wildly complex living beings have developed, not only with the capacity for consciousness but with the capacity to create the experience of ecstasy for ourselves and one another... that is just jaw-droppingly astonishing. We can create the experience of joy, of deep, expansive pleasure that takes us out of ourselves and into one another... and we do it through a complex re-arrangement of the energy of the sun, and the atoms and molecules of the planet.
That is magnificent. That, more than any spiritual belief I ever had, makes me feel both humble and proud. That makes me feel intimately connected with the rest of the Universe... in a way that no spiritual practice ever did. What's that old hippie song about how we're stardust, made of billion- year- old carbon? You don't have to believe in metaphysical energy to think that that is wicked cool.
There's something else, too. When you look at human beings from a materialist and evolutionary standpoint, not as special spiritual entities or children of the Goddess but simply as another twig on the evolutionary tree... that view puts sex squarely front and center in the human experience. Sex has an immensely important place in the evolutionary scheme. Darwin wrote an entire book about it.
Why does sex feel so good? Sex feels so good because it evolved to feel good. Sex feels profoundly, transcendently amazing because evolutionary forces strongly favor animals who really, really like to boff. That's an oversimplification -- for one thing, evolution can also favor animals who are picky about their sex partners -- but it is a huge part of the picture.
Of course, birth control and other non- reproductive sexual practices have been shifting this picture somewhat for humans, putting reproduction into our conscious control and increasingly setting it apart from sexual pleasure. And as a queer spanking fetishist who neither has nor wants kids, I'm very much in favor of that. My DNA is apparently under the impression that it's going to replicate by spanking other women, and I'm happy to let it dream on. But it is undeniable that these evolutionary forces are where the roots of sexual pleasure lie... roots that go back hundreds of millions of years.
In other words: According to a materialist viewpoint, the capacity for transcendent sexual joy is hard- wired into our brains... and it's deeply and powerfully hard- wired, as a crucial and central feature of our lives, by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. And this doesn't just mean that suppressing or trivializing sex is stupid and futile, dangerous and harmful, a cruel and pointless crusade against the deeply- laid grain of our nature. (Although it certainly does mean that.)
It means that the act of sex, and the experience of sexual pleasure, connects us to every other living thing on earth. We are the cousins of everything that lives on this planet, with a common ancestor of primordial soup going back billions of years... and we are all related, not entirely but substantially, because of sex.
That is awesome. That makes me want to go fuck right now, just so I can feel connected with my fish and tetrapod and primate ancestors. That is entirely made of win.
When you don't believe in God or the soul or any sort of afterlife -- when you believe that this short life is all that we have -- then making the most of that short life, and taking advantage of the joyful experiences it has to offer, suddenly becomes a whole lot more important. It's almost a moral obligation. The odds against you, personally, having been born into this life, are beyond astronomical. Are you going to waste that life by not giving yourself, and other people, as much joy as you possibly can?
Now, this doesn't mean, as many anti- atheists claim, that without a belief in God or an afterlife, we can and would behave entirely selfishly and with no moral compass. It doesn't mean that even a little bit. But it does mean than we can base our morality -- including our sexual morality -- on how our behavior demonstrably affects people in this life, and not on how it supposedly affects invisible beings in an unproven hypothetical life after this one. And it means that -- as long as we don't cause harm to people in this life -- it is not only acceptable, but a positive and meaningful good, to engage in any activities that bring joy and epiphany and meaning to ourselves and the people around us. Including, and maybe even especially, sex.
In other words:
I don't think we need to see sex as spiritual in order to see it as transcendent.
I don't think we need to see sex as blessed by the Goddess, or a telepathic connection between souls, or a channeling of the chi energy, or as any form of worship or spiritual practice, in order to see it as valuable. I think we can see sex as a physical act between animals... and still see it as richly, deeply valuable and meaningful. I think we can see sex as a physical act , and still see it as an act that connects us intimately, not only with ourselves and with one another, but with all of life, and with the expanse of history, and with the vastness of the universe.