Here’s an interesting question: can sex help us find ourselves? In other words, besides the external practical knowledge about bodies, their movements and the various different ways to please, does sex also provide us with internal wisdom about who we really are?
In some sense, it wouldn’t be a lie to immediately answer yes and ask back: how could it not? After all, there are nuggets of wisdom in pretty much every conscious human activity. Do something long enough and you’ll learn not only its essence, but also what it is to learn something new, acquire discipline, achieve mastery and find meaning along the (at times inevitably difficult) way.
The question then takes a more refined form: how can one use sex to learn more?
I originally approached this question a week ago. I was thinking about individuality and which approach to sex could help me best discover mine. After all, like it or not, I am certainly going to spend a lot of time thinking about or having sex in the next few decades of my life. It would be great if I knew where to direct my sexual attention so I could come out the other end a better and a more enlightened human.
Thus, I was led once again to the familiar dividing line of sexual attitudes in the contemporary west: that of promiscuity and long-term commitment. Whatever one’s instinctual reaction to these topics, there are important questions to answer with regards to individuality. For example, does one become more of oneself the more people one sleeps with? If we define ourselves through the things we do differently from others, and if we grow through imitation of those we come to meet, then wouldn’t a basically promiscuous lifestyle lead to a greater sense of self — one aware of its own limits, but also quite substantially enlarged by the variety of sexual experiences? (after all, the more people you seduce and sleep with, the more you see how different you are from them)
It’s a compelling idea for sure. But there is another side to the story, a balancing counterweight which makes the whole dilemma into a real one indeed.
Now, no one would think about sex as a source of deep philosophical problems (and potential practical insights) about identity, but, funnily enough, that’s apparently the case. What if who we are is not defined through others, but the variety of life situations we encounter. In other words, having multiple sexual partners might well be all well and good, but perhaps the deepest individuation happens when one commits to a single (few?) partners and starts living all of life through a multiplayer lens. (not just the meet-flirt-seduce-fuck-repeat side of life seen through a forever single-player lens).
Maybe you discover more about who you are when you have to be by the side of your loved one after surgery (or during childbirth) than after the hundredth all too familiar seduction? Moreover, it is questionable how attuned one can be to the subtle differences among the many sexual partners if every relationships last just a single night? (maybe to discover something new about yourself through contrast with another, you must have known the other for years already ) Thus, perhaps a methodic promiscuity only ends up contrasting you not with a hundred individuals, but the least common denominator of them all. (the memories of each single partner uniting into the image of the common generic partner — a unformed blob of traits many of which you share and many of which you don’t)
Of course, some try to combine the best of both approaches through novel relationship arrangements such as open relationships, polyamory, group marriages, etc. However, albeit possible, these are difficult to arrange. Most of the time, in the west at least, there is a basic dichotomy one has to respect between promiscuity and commitment. And besides that, it’s not like polyamory has no cost either. Even beyond the obvious issues of envy, the heightened dangers of your partner leaving and so on, there are also unique questions around individuality too that polyamory raises. For instance, is having your sexual needs met and desires essentially always satisfied ultimately better for individuation than feeling a sexual desire that you have to control? Is not having it all and struggling with unmet desires an important part of discovering who you really are? (if so, reconsider the desire of many religious fundamentalists to abstain from sex at all)
These questions of identity can be taken in a different direction too. Pagans and eastern religions have both at times viewed sex as a sacred act imbued with a spiritual meaning. Even if you don’t buy the spiritual woo-woo, it’s a fact that good sex is inherently meditative, i.e. a great way to transcend yourself. In any case, if one is inclined to agree with a holistic view of consciousness (we are all one, our minds are one and the same), then maybe sex offers a great way to dispel the illusion of the individual and become one with the selfless universal mind.
If that view is true, then it doesn’t seem to matter how promiscuous or not you are. As long as the sex is both consistent and good, it seems to do the job. Although, one could argue, the feelings and emotions of committed relationships might get in the way of forgetting that individuals, seen for what they are, do not really exist. So, maybe promiscuity is potentially the more enlightened path? But then again, buddhism itself warns of letting excessive desires of any kind run amok. So either you moderate your promiscuity or you dampen down the feelings for your partner, at least during sex. Hardly an exciting conclusion, but one consistent with the intuition that the truth lies in the middle among extremes.
Yet another way to link sex and individuality is to simply regard sex as an act of exploration. Put differently, which sexual path you choose (commitment, promiscuity, a combination thereof, or who knows what else) is ultimately the lesson itself. Looked at in this way, the goal is not to stick to the one true kind of sexuality (and discover yourself through it), but rather to find which kind of sexuality is the one for you. Perhaps there is no one true universal way to use sexuality to find your inner self. Perhaps the very way you choose is intimately tied with who you are and what works for you. Maybe promiscuity works best for some and marriage works best for others and that’d always be the case even if they tried to live the other way?
There is one more, final, option too. If we are little nature and plenty nurture, then maybe there is no “self” to discover at all. Instead of being a discovery, maybe the self is much more a case of our own creation. So, perhaps we can discover ourselves as whatever we want to see ourselves as in the end. Even if that means at times ignoring the few natural feelings or emotions one might feel along the way. (if you don’t like marriage, but you want to do it, you can persevere through the initial resistance and ease into it; ditto for a more promiscuous lifestyle, etc) Maybe sexuality is linked to individuality the way a canvas is to a painter’s creativity — it’s the medium through which individual expression is enabled and made to shine.
In any case, it’s fun to consider all the possibilities and truly ask what sex contributes to our sense and idea of who we are as individuals…
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