Why is it Interesting to Write About Sex?

In his collection of essays, Wallace Shawn pens one called "Writing About Sex" which has several outstanding nuggets.

Why writing about sex is interesting:

One reason is that sex is shocking. Yes, it's still shocking after all these years. At least, it's shocking to me. Even after all these years, most bourgeois people, including me, still walk around with an image of themselves in their heads that doesn't include — well — that. I'm vaguely aware that while I'm going about my daily round of behavior I'm making use of various mammalian processes, such as breathing, digesting and getting from place to place by hobbling about on the legs we have. But the fact is that when I form a picture of myself, I see myself doing the sorts of things that humans do and only humans do — things like hailing a taxi, going to a restaurant, voting for a candidate in an election, or placing receipts in various piles and adding them up. But if I'm unexpectedly reminded that my soul and body are capable of being swept up in an activity that pigs, flies, wolves, lions, and tigers also engage in, my normal picture of myself is violently disrupted. In other words, consciously, I'm aware that I'm a product of evolution and I'm part of nature. But my unconscious mind is still partially wandering in the early nineteenth century and doesn't know these things yet.

Why sex is both meaningful and meaningless:

Sex is of course an extraordinary meeting place of reality and dream, and it's also — what is not perhaps exactly the same thing — an extraordinary meeting place of the meaningful and the meaningless. The big toe, for example, is one part of the human body, human flesh shaped and constructed in a particular way. The penis is another part of the body, located not too far away from the big toe and built out of fundamentally the same materials. The act of sex, the particular shapes of the penis and the vagina, are the way they are because natural selection has made them that way. There may be an adaptive value to each particular choice that evolution made, but from our point of view as human beings living our lives, the various details present themselves to us as arbitrary. It can only be seen as funny that demagogues give speeches denouncing men who insert their penises into other men's anuses — and then go home to insert their own penises into their wives' vaginas! (One might have thought it obvious that either both of these acts are completely outrageous or neither of them is.) And yet the interplay and permutations of the apparently meaningless, the desire to penetrate anus or vagina, the glimpse of the naked breast, the hope of sexual intercourse or the failure of it, lead to joy, grief, happiness, or desperation for the human creature.

On the sex-less, faithful partnership:

A recent survey of married people in the United States found that when asked the question, "What is very important for a successful marriage?" the quality mentioned most frequently — by 93 percent — was "faithfulness" while "happy sexual relationship" came in with only 70 percent. In other words, to 23 percent of the respondents, it seemed more important that they and their partner should not have sex with others than that they themselves should enjoy sex.

On why nudity would disrupt the NYT's mission to present a world not ideal but still good enough:

My local newspaper, the New York Times, for example, does not include images of naked people. Many of its readers might enjoy it much more if it did, but those same readers still might not buy it if such images were in it, because it could no longer present the portrait of a normal, stable, adequate world — a world not ideal but still good enough — which it is the function of the Times to present every day. Nudity somehow implies that anything could happen, but the Times is committed to telling its readers that many things will not happen, because the world is under control, benevolent people are looking out for us, the situation is not as bad as we tend to think, and although problems do exist, they can be solved by wise rulers. The contemplation of nudity or sex could tend to bring up the alarming idea that at any moment human passions might rise up and topple the world as we know.

On the humanizing effect of being reminded of our leaders' sexuality:

Sex can be a humbling, equalizing force. It's often noted that naked people do not wear medals, and weapons are forbidden inside the pleasure garden. When the sexuality of the terrifying people we call "our leaders" is for some reason revealed, they lose some of their power — sometimes all of it — because we're reminded (and, strangely, we need reminding) that they are merely creatures like the ordinary worm or beetle that creeps along at the edge of the pond. Sex really is a nation of its own. Those whose allegiance is given to sex at a certain moment withdraw their loyalty temporarily from other powers. It's a symbol of the possibility that we might all defect for one reason or another from the obedient columns in which we march.

[via Harper's]

5 comments on “Why is it Interesting to Write About Sex?
  • I can’t say I agree with that assessment in the last paragraph. It seems to come from someone with a puritanically rooted feeling toward sex. (not to say conservative as Americans would understand it, but just regarding sex as outside humanity [don’t forget progressivism as puritanical roots).

    Personally, I think sex humanizes leaders. A scoundrel like Berlousconi gets away with his antics a bit because he is admired (if even secretly) for cavorting with much younger women as a seventy year old.
    I remember during Bush’s first term, it was his wife’s birthday and after the end of a brief press conference someone asked him what he was going to do for Laura’s birthday and he winked at them. I remember thinking “good for him” and then wondering why I had that reaction.
    People instinctively look toward virile leaders.

  • The NYT will also almost never print anything involving bodily fluids – no funny essays involving vomit, for example. But I do know someone who recently got an essay printed which referenced urination, which was met with great shock by those who know the Times’ editorial policies.

    Wallace Shawn: Wow, wonder if there are any political essays in there and what you thought of them. As I recall, dude’s got some super crazy views.

  • Sex is an interesting complex subject – and also interacts in various dimensions with race, sex, class…

    For the whole of this year I have been authoring a blog on the sexuality of African women (Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women) and have had to dance a delicate dance with what’s sex education, sexy (but not pornographic, useful informational content…

    I think there is still a huge need to have open conversations around sex

  • Interesting, but I will note that the part about demagoguery regarding – er, targeting – is ridiculous. By that logic, and only to pick one part of the logic that is wrong, it is either equally acceptable for me to pick my nose and your nose, or never for either. Not even in public, mind, just the general idea. If you really want a different one, how about that a parent is allowed to wipe their own child’s bum, but absolutely no one else’s.

    Not (necessarily) wanting to take any sides, other than to say that he does spin off the axis a few times in this piece.

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