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How to save sex All our erotic tension is being deflated

Don't be so vanilla. Credit: Paul Hartnett via Getty

Don't be so vanilla. Credit: Paul Hartnett via Getty


July 26, 2022   6 mins

“Is it okay if I touch you?” Half an hour after I’d started chatting with this guy on Grindr he was in my bedroom, beginning a series of questions meant to lead from touching to any number of other acts. I suppose he expected, or hoped for, an enthusiastic “yes!”, signalling what the orientation-day workshops on college campuses call “affirmative consent”. But it didn’t occur to me to answer with the eagerness of a child agreeing to dessert. Instead I tried, with a soft laugh and what I hoped was a seductive “ok”, to seem as if I needed my reticence knocked out of me.

What I got were more questions. “Is this ok? And this?” Soon I began to wonder: “Is it ok?” I’d thought it was when I’d told him to come over. But it’s one thing to want someone in an unspecified way, quite another to start itemising what it is you actually want from them. With my own desire in doubt, I started to feel the very thing this line of interrogation had been meant to avoid. Instead of making consent as simple as saying “yes”, these questions had plunged me into a deeply unsexy uncertainty.

In reading me his sexual questionnaire, my partner was showing me that he’d internalised the ethic of “consent”, which over the past decade has emerged as the dominant liberal framework for distinguishing between moral and immoral sex. At the core of this ethic is explicitness. The purpose is to make sex — and all of its constituent acts — something one can and should directly say “yes” or “no” to, a contract negotiated between individuals.

This model of consent has been roundly criticised for deflating erotic tension, leading to sometimes-cringeworthy campaigns to insist that “consent is sexy” (“If asking for consent ruins sex you’re what? A rapist who sucks at talking dirty?”, reads one viral Tumblr post). But the deeper problem with this model is that it produces, or rather reveals, exactly what it is meant to avoid, which is the ineradicable ambivalence at the heart of sex. In other words, while we can and should maintain a distinction between consensual and non-consensual acts, there is an important sense in which we are never able to say “yes” to sex. Indeed, enjoying sex seems to involve a certain suspension of our usual relationship to ourselves, one in which we are overtaken not so much by the other person as by sex itself.

The original sexual relation — prior to the one we have with any particular person — is our relation to sex itself. This relation is not consensual but something we experience as a given. We are born, we mature, and at some point in this process we discover that we our prisoners of our sexuality. Sex, after all, makes us uncomfortable. It can conjure feelings of disgust and embarrassment. It can be a distraction, an excruciating deprivation, even a source of catastrophic humiliation. We notice how attractive the “wrong” person is — a boyfriend’s brother, an ex, a colleague, a student — and feel violated by our own urges. Sex with a partner works, when and to the extent that it does, in part by letting us suspend our inhibitions and want things without having to admit to ourselves that we want them.

There are several ways in which we try to ignore the non-consensual core of sex. One is to separate “good” sex from “bad” sex, a strategy familiar to both conservatives and progressives. Growing up in an evangelical community in the American South during the Clinton and Bush years, I was often told by teachers and pastors that sex is a wonderful, beautiful experience — for married straight couples. They’d quote the Song of Solomon or, worse, talk about how great sex with their spouses was. It was more effective pro-abstinence education than all the videos of STDs and abortions they showed us. They’d warn us, however, that sex outside of marriage is degrading. Once after chapel, they organised a skit in which a girl held a rose. Its petals were plucked off one by one by a line of boys, leaving her with a bare stem. The lesson: that’s what will happen to your soul, and possibly your genitals, if you don’t wait until marriage.

Progressives in their churches — universities — also believe in a magical boundary that transforms the degrading into the delightful. For them, this boundary is consent. But consent is a more difficult concept than it seems. Already in 1981, feminist legal theorist Catherine Mackinnon argued that any sex after which a woman feels “violated” is rape, whether she consented to it or not. She extended this point in Towards a Feminist Theory of the State, where she claimed that women, as a group, lack “power” relative to men and thus cannot ever consent. Here, the search to give consent a solid foundation, to divide good sex from bad sex, tips over into a totalising conflation of sex with rape.

Taking up this conflation another way, more ostentatiously radical thinkers have agreed with Mackinnon that sex is inherently abject and violating. Unlike Mackinnon, however, they take this to be a good thing. Sex shatters our egos, and the acts that are most revealing of this fundamental truth are the most apparently degrading ones. Kinky, violent, and otherwise non-normative sex is, according to this view, not only more theoretically interesting than, but in some sense morally superior to, the merely “vanilla”.

This is the position taken by a strain of American queer theory. Grasping the truth that sex is messy, ambiguous, and difficult to “consent” to, these thinkers ironically make it into a falsehood by eliminating that very ambivalence with their strident declarations.

The disturbing pinnacle of this kind of thinking is the work of Andrea Long Chu, who in such writings as her 2019 pamphlet Females affirms that sex makes us pathetic, debased, and powerless, or as she puts it, “female”. Perhaps Chu, a transgender woman, has changed her gender in order to affirm grotesque “truths” about women’s condition that she would not have been allowed to state otherwise. Indeed, Chu’s work invokes the range of contemporary fetishes — such as sissy hypnosis, bimbofication, and cuckolding — by which men and women eroticise powerlessness. We do so perhaps because we are uncomfortable with the actual, but never total, powerlessness that is inherent in all sex. But the truth is that we cannot simply lie back and wallow in domination or debasement, since we can never fully escape the self. This is as much a misguided fantasy as the idea that we can be completely in control.

What would a decent approach to sexuality look like — one that acknowledges that sex undermines our attempts to maintain pristine egos without tipping over into a celebration of the grotesque? There may be a clue in Hatred of Sex, a recent book by Tim Dean and Oliver Davis. Looking at widespread paranoia about bad sex, from #MeToo to QAnon’s conspiracy theories about child sex-trafficking, Dean and Davis argue these cultural phenomena, like our efforts to sanitise sex through consent or marriage, show how intolerable we find the combination of freedom and unfreedom inherent in any sexual experience. Afraid to acknowledge our own conflicted yearnings, we hunt for villains — men, in the case of #MeToo; global elites like Hillary Clinton in the case of QAnon — who we blame for ruining what would otherwise be a safe and pleasurable experience.

We can escape the constitutive tension of sex, Dean and Davis warn, neither by trying to cordon off good sex — that is, sex within contractually defined relationships — from the bad and dangerous outside, nor by trying to affirm and reclaim the aspects of sex that we cannot help but experience as degrading, disgusting, or disappointing. What we can perhaps do is ease some of the pressure off of sex by refusing to allow such an inherently contradictory thing become the platform for so many political, ethical, and identitarian projects.

Absent such a reprivatisation of sex, Dean and Davis argue, we will continue to allow emerging “sex bureaucracies” to regulate previously intimate aspects of our lives. These bureaucracies, which in the United States include university Title IX offices and corporate human resources departments, acquire power by framing an ever-increasing array of sexual acts and speech as “harmful”. They insist sexual relationships need to be based on the model of the contract, with swift punishment for anyone who violates the contract’s terms.

To resist this encroachment, we must accept that there is a wide domain of what Dean and Davis call “benign sexual inappropriateness”. This is behaviour, such as unwanted flirtation or mildly obscene display, that violates politically correct or conservative propriety but does not merit formal sanction. To deal with such behaviour, they argue, we must abandon our urge to go running to the manager and instead begin to recover the informal tactics of “discretion and dissent”. No bureaucracy can save us from the inherent ambivalence of sex, but we can, perhaps, still save sex from bureaucracy.


Blake Smith is a Harper-Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago. A historian of modern France, he is also a translator of contemporary francophone fiction and a regular contributor to Tablet.

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Matthew Baker
Matthew Baker
1 year ago

I’m sorry but if you were having sex with someone 30 minutes after meeting them online, we’re already starting with a pretty bad view of sex and sexual relationships. You draw a caricature of the traditionalist position (which, to be fair, some fundamentalist Christians do hold) but ultimately the only way out of the libertine-bureaucracy dichotomy is to acknowledge social relation and role (traditionally marriage within a larger family structure) create the place for sexual intimacy and safety. Social roles confer certain duties and responsibilities to another person and society, which is the only way to healthily contextualize the messiness of sex.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
1 year ago
Reply to  Matthew Baker

I’m not so sure – same-sex marriage is a very recent thing. The legal/cultural setting for gay relationships has changed so much, so fast over the last 50 years, that how could these ‘social relations and roles’ – for gay people – have developed into anything stable so quickly? Unless you think that they now, given the chance, should naturally fall into the pattern that most heterosexual people do.

Maybe the ideal you state is applicable for most people, but not necessarily for everyone, especially the ‘queer community’. One size may not fit all. (Here, if you’re old enough, you could think of Quentin Crisp).

Matthew Baker
Matthew Baker
1 year ago

I’m not sure I follow your argument. You’re saying legal/cultural status for gay relationships has changed over the last 50 years
so that disproves my argument that sex needs to be contextualized within a stable and socially recognized relationship? Why does the change in attitudes towards gay relationships matter to what I said?

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
1 year ago
Reply to  Matthew Baker

Hi Matthew,

You wrote: “I’m sorry but if you were having sex with someone 30 minutes after meeting them online, we’re already starting with a pretty bad view of sex and sexual relationships. ”

And I thought that because the author was talking about gay sex, you were making a few assumptions in expecting that his norms about sexual relationships should be the same as the heterosexual community and were … ‘pretty bad’.

I can remember when homosexual acts were illegal, so gay people haven’t had much time to work out what kind of sexual relationships they feel comfortable with from the options now available. They didn’t grow up seeing your ideal modeled in a way that was possible for them, so experimentation is to be expected, and I don’t feel a need to label it ‘bad’ just yet.

Also, doesn’t it seem possible to you that for those 4% of the population whose sexual orientation isn’t mainstream, some different sort of relationships from the mainstream might be more suitable?

Last edited 1 year ago by Russell Hamilton
J Morgan
J Morgan
1 year ago

Perhaps Chu, a ‘transgender woman’, has changed his ‘gender’ in order to indulge his sexual fantasies of debasement and humiliation, which everyone knows you have to be a woman to experience.
Less a truth about women than one about the all too common pecadillos of ladies like Chu.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 year ago

In the meantime, a great many people, straight or gay, most likely have a helping of ‘vanilla’ once a week, with the person they are married to or in a relationship with, and are perfectly happy with it.

Last edited 1 year ago by Alphonse Pfarti
HD Friedland
HD Friedland
1 year ago

Vanilla is the most popular flavour. Ask any ice cream vendor.

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
1 year ago

Don’t forget the strawberries, chocolate syrup, and bananas. There goes the metaphor.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

“Indeed, enjoying sex seems to involve a certain suspension of our usual relationship to ourselves, one in which we are overtaken not so much by the other person as by sex itself.”
Indeed; good point; and one that the consent puritans miss.
The wider point is that consent only becomes necessary in a context where people have sex with each other way too soon.
But liberals view casual, drunk, sex as a human right. You’re not allowed to say that its cheap, exploitative and dumb behaviour.
Instead, we must maintain the fiction that wanting to shag someone the same night you meet them is decent and acceptable behaviour. It can be, but it generally isn’t.
If you really are interested in someone, you don’t even want to have sex with them too soon anyway. If you want to bag someone right away, it’s always because you’re planning to dump them shortly afterwards, if you’re being honest about it. Apart from the shag, you have no other plans for them, so why wait? 
But if you wait, and *get to know the person first*, over, say, a few months, you will then be so attuned to them that both of you will just know and be able to read each other very well, without needing all this absurd, autistic contract-theory approach. 
We used to call this “courtship”, and “dating”, and we need more of it, instead of the “get drunk, hang out and bang” tawdriness of today. As the author notes, the 20 questions approach to consent is embarrassing and un-erotic. 
If we started treating other people as people again, instead of treating them as w**k-aids, then none of this autistic consent rubbish would even be necessary.  

Last edited 1 year ago by Frank McCusker
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

I know this might be shocking, but not all sex is a preliminary to a relationship!. Sexual desire is complex, it can be related to lust, love, companionship, or any combination of these.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 year ago

The problem is that so many people are completely out of touch with what their bodies are telling them. On the one hand is the modern cult of dating apps, pornography, ‘gender’ ideology and compulsory promiscuity and, on the other, the dead hand of ‘marriage and family’. Real, mutual, sexual chemistry is extremely rare. When it happens, go for it. It might well lead to a wonderful, lifelong relationship. If it doesn’t, you will have had something wonderful that many people never experience. Feeling used and dirty doesn’t go away because you have a wedding ring on your finger – if the chemistry isn’t there, it never will be.

David Yetter
David Yetter
1 year ago

The experience of the many (to Westerners, with our notions of romantic love as the proper foundation of marriage, surprisingly many) happy arranged marriages, found in a variety of traditional cultures throughout the world, suggests your last sentence is baseless.

Jason Highley
Jason Highley
1 year ago
Reply to  David Yetter

Amen! Well said.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 year ago
Reply to  David Yetter

From speaking to friends of Indian Hindu and Sikh heritage, the arrangements they had were less about your parents deciding for you and more about arranged introductions. If the two young people hit it off, they could choose to get married. If not, you move on. Granted, this may not be true of all such arrangements or all cultures where arrangements are made. Their marriages have all lasted; it seems like gut instinct and first impressions may not be a bad way to go.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
1 year ago

I hope the individual in the photograph never wears that costume outside during an electrical storm.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it’s plastic anyway, as that much solid metal would likely weigh several pounds. Ever held several six inch long quarter inch thick nails in one hand. It’s not exactly heavy but it’s not something you’d probably want hanging around your neck or sitting on the top of your head.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Jolly
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

Sure seems like the Grindr sex delivery system isn’t all that concerned with Monkeypox. Oh, and the guy you ordered wasn’t your “partner”. He was the guy you ordered.

Last edited 1 year ago by Allison Barrows
Rhonda Culwell
Rhonda Culwell
1 year ago

Haven’t you heard? It’s the government’s fault if you catch Monkeypox while not practicing safe sex.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago

The obsession with sex has made it boring…

Last edited 1 year ago by Cathy Carron
Dave Corby
Dave Corby
1 year ago

If sex is reserved for marriage then all of the issues become simple and clear. The great thing about principles is that you can measure each issue against them.
Are these sexual advances wrong? – yes because they are not married.
Just imagine, almost: no children without love and financial support, no unwanted pregnancies, no STDs, no prostitution, no need for government to have any part in our sex lives.
We are human so it is an ‘almost’. We would still fail but the problems would be vastly more manageable.
I blame the 60’s sexual revolution and people leaving marriage to later in life (if at all) which causes a big need for casual sex and a massive p-rn industry.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave Corby

I agree but, as you say, it is theory! Carl Foreman addresses this indirectly in his book, ‘The rise and triumph of the modern self,’ and so does Tom Holland in ‘Dominion.’

David Baker
David Baker
1 year ago

I’m sorry but if you were having sex with someone 30 minutes after meeting them online, you’re the last person to consult about healthy sex. You draw a caricature of the traditionalist position (which, to be fair, some fundamentalist Christians do hold) but ultimately the only way out of the libertine-bureaucracy dichotomy is to acknowledge social relation and role (traditionally marriage within a larger family structure) create the place for sexual intimacy and safety. Social roles confer certain duties and responsibilities to another person and society, which is the only way to healthily contextualize the messiness of sex.

Simon S
Simon S
1 year ago

Last Monday, after a four-day yoga retreat in the mountains of North Carolina, I bade farewell to a beautiful woman. We had worked, walked, laughed and cried together. As we held each other in a magnificent hug, which was of a total and tender surrender I had not experienced in years, without thinking in the slightest I asked if I might kiss her cheek. She said yes, I kissed her cheek, and as we separated she asked if we could have coffee on our return. I have no idea what the future holds, and we will probably back off – but my asking permission framed that kiss forever.

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
1 year ago

Does having one’s head up one’s own backside count as some sort of sex these days? I was under the impression that the involvement of another human being was still the general idea.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

The height of introversion where a lot of things are heading it seems.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 year ago

Are these recent sex headlines a sign that Unherd has officially entered the silly season: Saure Gurkenzeit in Germany

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago

It certainly sounds like it. Nothing to build yourself up with or learn anything this time.

Jim R
Jim R
1 year ago

I remember a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, studying the Freudian concept of sexual sublimation in school. The example was Leonardo Devinci – who was thought to have sublimated his sexual energy into his work, because homosexuality or any kind of licentiousness was forbidden, resulting in of course a life of incredible productivity and creativity. Earlier today I walked by a very old church and looking at the intricate stone carving that took decades to complete, I wondered why we don’t create beautiful things anymore. This is just a thought – but if there was a little more sublimation of all this energy directed at sex (much of which, separated from real intimacy just seems like mutual masturbation) imagine the progress the human race would be capable of? Maybe we need to stop celebrating people for simply finding ways to feel good without doing anything of real value?

Last edited 1 year ago by Jim R
Jason Highley
Jason Highley
1 year ago

Been married 13 years to a beautiful Christian woman. Never had to wonder what was ok and what wasn’t – that was easily discussed and has long been baked into our relations. Sex for us now is better than it has ever been, and it just keeps getting better. A huge part of it for us is realizing how God has brought us together to provide for each other. The fact that we both get enjoyment out of it is a huge plus; obviously sometimes its better than others, or maybe we’re interrupted by one of the kids (which we are delighted have come from our union). But overall I can’t fathom how people get anywhere near this kind of satisfaction out of fleeting and “casual” (LOL the lies) sexual encounters. I guess that must just be because my wife is brainwashed to enjoy me being all rapey or something.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago

In America the puritan attitudes toward sex never really went away. Among progressives and their oppressed/oppressor binary way of viewing relationships it is often seen as something a man does to a woman. Title IX is one big mess and needs to go back to being about women’s sports instead of litigating sexual relationships between young people. The American idea of ‘consent’ looks to be written by people who either chronically disapprove of sex or have simply never had it.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I think puritans have the best sex personally. They call them puritans because they wait until marriage then give their gift only to each other instead of spraying it around the streets.

Bob Null
Bob Null
1 year ago

Sex, politics, and Twitter: three things I will never figure out.

Edwina Addington
Edwina Addington
1 year ago

WOW!! this is all such high falutin’ stuff I don’t think I understood any of it but the words, Sex, Yes & No.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago

How is the idea of consent incorporated within a relationship where the dynamic is submission and domination? Obviously the couple can agree on where the submission of one to the other ends but within those parameters consent is not sought.

Nikki Hayes
Nikki Hayes
1 year ago

That is where safewords come in – a safeword is sacrosanct, I favour yellow for slow down and discuss, and red means stop NOW! Provided there is trust, its a far better system than the hesitant vanilla idea of asking for consent at every stage. Obviously there are BDSM relationships where this may not apply but they tend to be long term Master/slave relationships where the couple are very familiar with each other’s needs and desires.

Alan B
Alan B
1 year ago

The most interesting thing about this thoughtful article is the invocation of “privatization” near its conclusion. What strikes me is that the bureaucratization of sex is a form of privatization–not its opposite. Indeed, it is “privatization” in the exact same sense we find in “neoliberal” discourse: the coercive imposition of market logic not as a natural fact but as an “achieved and normative” standard.

Last edited 1 year ago by Alan B
Nick Marsh
Nick Marsh
1 year ago

All societies abhor sex because of its threat to social hierarchies and the limited privacy available in densely-populated areas. But, with our rapid escalation of electronic communications, contemporary society has become more paranoid than most. In fact, with the downfall of religion, it has resorted to a kind of secular puritanism, led by the media and supported by the mob.
Computers also make us believe that everything can be measured and controlled, and American psychology has turned us all into victims, unwilling to take responsibility for our actions, let alone our instincts. Thus, like pollution, racism or corporate greed, it’s always someone else’s fault, and ever more regulation (and data, of course) is needed to bring us back on line for Utopia.
But, as with all natural inclinations, the more we restrict it, the more it goes underground. Meanwhile, traditional societies have always shown that sex is as natural as any other human activity, in fact less dangerous than most.

Last edited 1 year ago by Nick Marsh
Nikki Hayes
Nikki Hayes
1 year ago

Those of us who are into kink have it far easier when it comes to consent – safewords take care of the consent issue, and a limits list is the starting point. Discussing a scene and the list can be pretty sexy – its nothing like the awful description in this article of some random person from Grindr.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
1 year ago

Dear me. Sex is all about the production of children. Everything else about sex is a penumbra or an emanation.
For everyone knows that the meaning of life, the universe, and everything is grandchildren.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 year ago

How ghastly and sad.

Jack Martin Leith
Jack Martin Leith
1 year ago

Not me mate. Speak for yourself. Downvoted.