30 December 2008

Sexual arousal: towards a truly useful theory of sex

One of my larger projects is to try to develop what I call a theory of sex that is useful for anthropology. This would involve a theory of sex that is truly social and that can lead towards and understanding of sex AS culture, sex AS social, and sex AS social action. The alternative, what we have now, is various social constructionist approaches (Foucault, Lacquer, etc.), psychological (Freud, Maslow, all psychologists), or biological-essentialists (the 'evolutionary' theorists and their just-so stories, the real biologists, etc.)

One of the issues that concerns me now in this effort is the issue of sexual arousal, or what I call (here) Long term sexual arousal (LTSA). It seems to me that this is distinctively human and importantly, even centrally, social.

The existence of LTSA may be responsible for the difficulty in talking about sex. But it is more than this. I want to address a few topics here, and ask a question for anyone who might read this.


In my writing and thinking about sex, ‘the material realities of sexual relations’, as you say, the stuff that gets lost in the ‘discourse’, I have been thinking lately about something that seems to me to be distinctive: long term sexual arousal. This seems to be a human characteristic, and one that is distinctly human and therefore critical to understanding sex. It is largely neglected, however, as a significant feature of sexuality. Clearly it is the ‘condition for the possibility’ of sex, or at least arousal is *for males*, but is still a problematic category for thinking-about.

It seems to me that arousal has some of the characteristics of that other evolutionary mystery, or set of mysteries, loss of oestrus, and concealed ovulation. Also of menopause, and the social role of ‘grandmother’ (caring for grandchildren that this is supposed to have enabled).

In brief, I have been thinking about the social consequences of arousal. According to the theoretical perspective that I am developing, we have to account for the pair-relationship in social ways, and as a consequence and context for sex. This clearly does not mean monogamy in humans, but it does mean that there is a close intimacy established, generally between two and only two people, during sex. I call this ‘the space of the dual’. My current problem is to explain how this ‘space’ of intensive pair-wise focus (the sexual couple) comes about.

Obviously (?), this has to do with arousal. Or that is what I have been thinking. Humans are capable of long-term (hours, or even days ?) of ‘arousal’, that is, an ‘alternative’ or ‘altered’ consciousness of another person that is—or is intensely perceived as—sexual. This long-term arousal is, it seems to me, unique to humans, and is coordinated with loss of oestrus and concealed ovulation since the dynamics of arousal replace the dynamics of oestrus signals (red bottoms on female baboons, oestrus odours, etc.) and effectively make up for the ‘concealment’ of ovulation. In other words, for an aroused, ‘horny’ couple, it does not matter whether their bottoms are red or if their smell signals fertility: they are aroused by each other, and this is a profoundly social bond.

So, one of the lynchpins of a truly social theory of sex that is useful for anthropology is a focus on the notion of arousal, especially long term sexual arousal (LTSA). Clearly arousal is not the same thing as ‘pleasure’ or ‘desire’ but has a more direct effect on social action. In trying to develop such a theory, it may be important to leave ‘gender’ entirely or relatively out of it. That is, to not make sex the reflex of abstract categories, but rather a social act that is predicated on meanings and motives. It would be useful to develop a theory of sex that does not collapse in the presence of “homosexuality” (sex that is seen as wrong, with wrong ‘object’, non-fertile, etc.) but which can account for sex-as-sex, sex in general social terms, rather than moral terms, or in terms of its effect on fertility and populations (evolutionist and bio essentialists views).

The problem, however, is to what extent is arousal ‘gendered’? When I first presented some of these view at the beginning of December 2008 at a seminar at University of North Carolina in the Anthropology department, one of the female members of the seminar said to me afterwards, ‘But its not like that for women; your perspective is entirely masculine’. Of course, and male these days is used to hearing that almost any view they express is nothing but a ‘male perspective’, ‘gendered’ and so on. But there is also some merit to her suggestion that men and women do not experience arousal in the same way. My interlocutor, a woman, suggested that “Of course, women don’t necessarily become aroused at all. You are just talking from a male perspective.” Ouch. But so be it. From a ‘male perspective’. She is certainly right in some cases, but not all.

In thinking about this, it occurs to me that it may be rather the case that no two people experience arousal in the same way, but that some men and women do experience it is very similar or the same ways, while others irrespective of ‘gender’ experience it in other ways. In other words, it seems to me that arousal may be a very social experience, but is also high variable. Indeed, its variability points to a social and cultural dimension since features that are simply determined by biology, or by evolution, are generally much more stable and determined.

Clearly, too, sexual arousal for the male is necessary for sex (penetrative sex) to occur at all and this is not (necessarily) the case for females or for anal-receptive males. This also makes female prostitution possible and profitable (while it is much more difficult for a male prostitute to have as many clients in a night, say, that for a female), but does not make is ‘necessary’—that is, it is a condition for the possibility of female prostitution, but not a cause of (female) prostitution. There are many others issues like this that arise as well.

This difference between the sexes in arousal also, I think, has implications for the question of female ‘subordination’ and for male claims to power (I don’t always agree with the feminists that men have as much social power as they are attributed by feminists, but that is another matter).

The claim I wish to make, then, is that long-term sexual arousal is a fundamental human characteristic that is partly biological and partly social and cultural, and therefore a significant dimension that must be investigated in order to develop a theory of sexual action that is useful to anthropology. Arousal cannot simply be assimilated to the discourse on desire, pleasure (Foucault), impulse or libido (Freud), and is highly social, but in a restricted sense: it involves the pair, the one-to-one relation, rather than the social (Many-to-many, or many-to-one relations), and is not restricted to the psychological (the one, the self).

The problem is that it appears to be so variable in the way it is experienced, and also both necessary AND contingent.

This has become too long.

My question, then, is how to examine this variability in the experience of arousal?
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