Sex: Playful or Boring?
In France, one book champions libertinism, while in another book, saturation dims desires. Who is right?
Review of Sylvère Lotringer, A Satiété Paris, Editions Désordres, 2006 and Michel Onfray, Théorie du corps amoureux: pour une érotique solaire. (La Reppublica, March 16, 2006)
A female body carrying, under her arm, a sculpture shaped like a phallus: at first glance, this image is reminiscent of the figures found on Attic vases. Some years back, it was winking at the passersby from the windows of the best bookstores in Paris: it was the illustration on the cover of a book by Michel Onfray, entitled Théorie du corps amoureux, subtitled Pour une érotique solaire [Theory of the Body in Love: For a Solar Eroticism]. Well then, that image and that title are in themselves programmatic: the woman seems to be carrying the penis with her with triumphal detachment. And what comes immediately to mind are the protagonists of Sex & the City: modern, liberated women who go around New York City with a sex toy in their purse. And then there is the promise of a kind of solar eroticism and sexuality: it is as beautiful as a ’68 slogan, it allows you to dream. Now Onfray’s Pour une érotique solaire has arrived in Italy, published by Fazi; after the success of his Traite d’atheologie [Treatise of Atheology], in which he chipped away at the foundations of the three monotheistic religions, the French philosopher presents us with some insight on “solar libertinism,” inviting us to break, once and for all, the chains of monogamy and fidelity.
Easier said than done: Onfray himself admits to the difficulty of distancing ourselves from a few thousand years of strict indoctrination on the subject of sexual habits. It is, in fact, in his role as a theorist of atheology that the French philosopher gives us the best of his work, when, in the second part of the book, he flies off in a tirade against Saint Paul, the father of all sexual frustrations. Onfray revels in defining Paul of Tarsus as “the most neurotic man in the origins of an intellectual, ideological and philosophic revolution (…) who propagates his own incapacity to live, first, in the Mediterranean Basin, and then, on the entire planet.” He is totally relentless when recalling a passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “Better to marry than to burn.” In brief, Onfray explains: if privations and sexual frustrations become intolerable, then have the decency to do it in moderation within a precise and regulated framework, that of marriage. This, according to the philosopher, is the judgment that weighs upon all of us even until today, including those “non-Christian, secular, atheists who are grounded in the same dominating ideology.” He continues: “On one hand, we have a libido sublimated into prayer, contemplation and meditation, for athletes capable of virginity; on the other hand, the couple, marriage, monogamy and fidelity, for those individuals endowed with only frail will power. Those of the first group become hermits in the desert; the others become traditional couples and renounce sensual pleasure. To sum things up: pleasure and desire repressed by abstinence or limited to the bare minimum by a stringent codification which Onfray defines in this way: “Sexual practice is regulated by social norms which were formulated by Christianity. No sexual relation outside the bounds of marriage, no amorous passions, no bisexuality, no incest, no nudity, no homosexuality, no sodomy, no eroticism, no amorous play, and no masturbation.”
Anyone who reads the above list understands that we are all destined for hell. But Onfray invites us to stop believing in the afterlife and to build a paradise of the senses here on earth, here and now, thus developing an “atomistic theory of desire.” Putting it this way can leave us baffled, but Onfray explains: “Refusing to believe that the body is made up of immaterial components, such as the soul, desire and the subconscious. And understanding that desire is not built around the search for a fantastical and phantasmagorical ideal (Prince Charming, the Ideal Woman), but around the structuring of fluxes and desires which are substances, that is to say, atoms. And these atoms should not be repressed; rather, they should be directed toward playful movement.” So then, the message is simple: let us abandon the Platonic ideal and enjoy sex freely when and where we want. To do so, however, we need to be militant, not only in terms of freeing our bodies, but also on behalf of a “libertine feminism.” Or, translated into Onfray’s terms, women should have sex as much as men. “Judeo-Christian society is chauvinistic – created by men, for men, without, and in spite of, or against, women. Men boast of their sexual freedom and they flaunt it – let us think of Don Juan and Casanova – but, at the same time, they deny that same freedom to women, calling those women whores if they dare to enjoy such a sexuality. Libertine feminism presupposes the practice of libertinism, erasing the division of roles between the domineering and conquering male and the dominated and conquered female. Freedom, autonomy, and independence for both genders are the foundation of libertine feminism.” This goal entails the overturning of certain presuppositions: “The Western male considers the right woman to be, above all, a good mother and wife, who renounces her femininity in order to put herself at the service of others – her children, her husband. In the West, we excel in the art of effacing the woman in order to glorify the wife and the mother, substitutes for the Virgin Mary.” Here is the first leg of the itinerary toward a solar sexuality.
But this is not enough; there is another obstacle which blocks the path toward libertinism: the idea – the norm, actually, in our society – of a monogamous and faithful couple. In Théorie du corps amoureux, Onfray speaks about a “contract based on the will of two single and free human beings.” What he tells us is that, “in order to save the couple, we need to rescue it from a fusional relation based on the destruction of the identity of the weaker in favor of the stronger, of the more aggressive, of the more perverse. History has amply proven that the faithful monogamous couple model does not work. Today, even as we pay lip service to the existence of the free couple, we delude ourselves, because in reality there is no such thing. Let us take the example of the couple Jean Paul Sartre / Simone de Beauvoir, which, at the time of their fame, caused an uproar; more than half a century has gone by, but their model continues to be the exception and not the norm.” Undeniable statement: When Catherine Millet published the tale of her sexual exploits (La vita sessuale di Catherine M., published by Mondadori, which sold millions of copies) television stations around the world obsessed over her husband Jacques Henric, the well known novelist, trying to imagine how he could tolerate the extreme libertinism of his mate. And Henric lucidly explained the situation with the same arguments used by Onfray: “A couple, in order to survive, needs to nurture itself on parallel lives and histories. The concept of exclusivity, of the fusion of two beings, is utopian. The monogamous couple self-destructs in a deadly narcissism.” Let us suppose that the writer and the philosopher are correct and that in the future we should adopt a hedonistic morality based on the pleasures of the flesh, on a nomadic and playful libertinism. Are we absolutely sure that society is ready to renounce God and Plato in the name of Epicurus? Are we sure, in other words, that sex and sexual practices are not only desecrated but also rendered banal and experienced as one of the many pleasures of daily life? Paradoxically, permissiveness seems to augment proportionately various forms of repression, be they legal or medical in nature. The pornography market is growing exponentially and legislators are imposing new systems of censorship. Pedophilia is now considered an absolute evil; but in our fashion spreads the thirteen year old Lolita figure rules the market. Gay couples gain the right of being recognized, and yet, in the developed nations, we see the increase in clinics specialized in “curing” homosexuality. It is as if the sexual question itself, while approving of some practices, remains a mine field.
We saw recently, in France, the publication of a harrowing document entitled A satiété [Overexposed] and written by Sylvère Lotringer, professor of French Literature and Philosophy at Columbia University. It is the result of extensive research conducted by the author in certain American clinics where sexual perversions and deviations are studied and, theoretically, cured. As Lotringer emphasizes, gone are the days of “dissuasive” therapies based on pain, when, for example, adolescents used to be tied up and left naked in the freezing cold in order to prevent them from masturbating; transvestites would receive jolts of electroshock every time they would wear a skirt; or gay men were compelled to vomit as soon as the got an erection. “In a civilized society,” Lotringer explains, “coercion must have the appearance of civility.” Thus, the new cognitive behavioral theories overturn an entire tradition based on the violent repression of perversions; instead, they encourage an “inciting towards vice.” In plain terms, it means that the patient is encouraged to express all fantasies, even those which are horribly beyond confessing, to articulate them out loud in their most abject and sordid details; and, above all, to masturbate ad nauseam. In the guise of a post-modern Virgil, Lotringer takes us, his readers, by the hand and leads us into a sexual hell where we meet voyeurs, fetishists, child molesters, sadomasochists, exhibitionists, pedophiles, rapists and sadists. At first one has the impression of having been dropped off at the set of “A Clockwork Orange”; in order to determine what truly stimulates a subject, the subject is shown images and told stories which are particularly shocking. Scientific instruments measure the dilation of the pupils, the blood flow to the penis and the increase in cardiac activity. The data gathered are used to pinpoint a particularly arousing situation which will be used as the basis of the treatment; the patient is required to comment on the scene and to relive it mentally while masturbating quickly as many times as possible. For a week, a month, a year; to the point of satisfaction, or, better yet, to the point of nausea. “Desire is canceled out in one’s own pornography,” Lotringer writes. “Let us call this strange reversal, which puts an end to desire by means of its own satisfaction, the therapy of boredom.”
This is clearly the stated objective of the sexologist Seymour Sachs, director of a sexual therapy clinic in Chicago and Lotringer’s main interlocutor: to bring all the perverts to the same degree of satisfaction, adopting purely mechanical techniques such as verbose discourse concerning one’s own sexual fantasies and repetitiveness. Lotringer indicates that Sachs has totally abandoned pain-based therapies because he is convinced that “boredom is much more powerful than suffering.” Of course, in Dr. Sachs’s clinic, just as in many other specialized hospitals in the United States and also in Europe, patients are, by and large, extreme cases, often sexual criminals who have volunteered to take part in these hospitals experiments, rather than to be locked up in the penitentiary. Sachs himself emphasizes (as Freud did, before him, so masterfully) that all of us are potentially perverted. It is impossible to avoid thinking about the infinite possibilities generated by the sexual revolution, while certain financial analysts predict that the sex market has the same potential, in terms of volume and benefits, as that of the agricultural and food industries. What an unwitting, perhaps, yet interesting parallel: undernourished, starving, obese, bulimic, anorexic – ill, that is – no longer because of food, but because of sex. In the postscript to A satiété, Lotringer ponders the paradox of our society: “The therapy of boredom highlights the curious dilemma of our times; pleasure, and not pain, consumerism, and not reproof, have become forms of punishment.” Lotringer and Onfray do not know one another, but their books seem to show us two sides of the same coin. They leave unanswered, however, one question: will the hedonism and libertinism which we yearn for lead us to a joyous sexuality or to a boring one?
Translation from Italian to English by Isabella Bertoletti and James Cascaito