The New Statesman Essay - How we have lost the joy of sex
In a world full of sensual images, why has sexual misery never been greater? Ziauddin Sardarblames e
Sex has become impossible. It has turned into a mindless, egoistic, explicit league championship event, a public performance art in which instant gratification must lead to total satisfaction. But the equation that sex equals satisfaction just does not compute. On the contrary: sex is increasingly synonymous with misery and unhappiness.
Sex is the pre-eminent spectacle of our time. Sex is everywhere, and impossible to escape. Sexual voyeurism is the fastest growing genre on television. The late-night output of Channel 4, Channel 5 and satellite channels such as Sky One, Living and Bravo are largely devoted to programmes ranging from the smutty (Greece Uncovered, Prickly Heat) to soft porn (Sex and Shopping, Red Shoe Dairies) and even more explicit stuff.
Elsewhere, extensive discussions about dysfunctional sexual performance become chat shows, game shows, any kind of show as long as it is on television. The airwaves are full of graphic pop songs, and talk-ins where people phone in to talk about their sex lives. The mechanics of sex - sweaty rutting, attentive pawing and scraping, and athletic (not to say ergonomically) challenging engagements - have become essential elements of almost every Hollywood production. Newspapers, magazines, advertisements and billboards constantly flash sex all around us.
This quantity of visible sex is quite unprecedented in history. We are the first generation to be constantly watching, listening to, thinking about, preparing for, engaging in and recovering from sex.
Yet all this sex, far from producing joy, leads to more and more angst. The more we flaunt our sexuality, the more therapists, counsellors, pop psychologists, agony aunts and uncles we spawn to minister to our deep unhappiness and misery. It's rather like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: "Water, water, everywhere,/Nor any drop to drink".
The evidence of our sexual misery is indeed everywhere. It is best captured in films such as Todd Solondz's Happiness and Catherine Breillat's Romance, both released last year, which try to represent the sexual spirit of our time. The three sisters of Happiness are doomed to grotesque fates in their perennial quest for sexual fulfilment. One goes on a disastrous date with a man who, after being rejected, kills himself. The second seeks an encounter with a habitual maker of abusive calls but finds him too tame. The third, an apparently happy housewife and mother, discovers that her husband is a paedophile. The film explores almost every kind of sex, including necrophilia. Yet nothing satisfies its characters - they remain pathetic, lonely individuals doomed to misery.
Like Happiness, the plot of Romance, one of the most explicit films to go on public release, revolves around a succession of humiliating and degrading encounters. But no matter how far-out the sex, there is no fulfilment to be had.
The world at large reflects the sexual misery we find in such films. A recent survey by the University of Chicago, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and billed as the most comprehensive investigation into adult sex habits since the famous Kinsey report of 1948, paints a very bleak picture of sexual satisfaction. One in four American women does not enjoy sex and one in three men in all age groups thinks he is sexually inadequate. Some 27 per cent of women in the 18 to 29 age group get no pleasure from sex and consider it a necessary ordeal. All the rest feel unhappy and dissatisfied because they think they are not doing it right, or not doing it enough, or not doing it the way their partners want them to do it.
So, why all this sexual dissatisfaction, misery and unhappiness in an age of total saturation which has no inhibitions and no limits?
I got my sexual grounding through The Perfumed Garden. One day, just after I turned 18, a well-thumbed copy mysteriously appeared in my room. The book was written in 14th-century Tunis, famed for its learning and splendour. In sharp contrast to contemporary Muslim societies, Tunis was an open, sensual society where people believed that a healthy sex life brought a well-balanced personality, good health, happiness, spiritual fulfilment and many other noble virtues. Not surprisingly, Sheikh Nafzawi, the author, reflects the candour of his times.
The west tends to see Nafzawi as a dirty old man. But he was a poet and a philosopher with a truly wicked sense of humour. He wrote the book with an eye on the market, so there is a strong accent on technique - the widely available translation by Richard Burton includes only a fraction of this section. But for Nafzawi, sex had another altogether different dimension, which comes out through the aphorisms, epigrams and sayings of "wise men and sages" that are scattered liberally throughout the text: "whatever posture you prefer, speak and you shall be satisfied"; "when you copulate, let your mind be free of all other thought", and so on. It is this dimension beyond the physical act that we have totally lost. Indeed, we have turned the ancient wisdom and metaphors of people such as Sheikh Nafzawi on their head - that is why sex has become such an unattainable goal.
Nafzawi taught me three basic lessons. First, sex is a product of deep passion. Satisfying sex has to be based on something much greater than the base desire of the groin. Good sex cannot be had from a cold, clinical relationship - the kind personified by characters in Happiness and Romance. It requires all the passion in our souls.
In place of passion, we have obsession, to the extent that many of us are happy to mutilate our bodies in the pursuit of sex. In an age of aerobic exercises, hard, bulging bodies, oversize silicon breasts, bleached hair, nose jobs, the absolute necessity to look good at all times under the most minute scrutiny, and the need to deliver hydraulic-quality performance, is it any wonder that sex is angst? Passion, in contrast, requires romance, commitment, pain, inconvenience - all those things that we shun.
Consider the cult teenage television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In one episode, our heroine reaches her 17th birthday and celebrates by exercising her newly acquired legal right to be a fully sentient, rightfully liberated woman. She does so by having sex with her boyfriend, who just happens to be a morally confused vampire. Whatever turns you on. The moral (forgive what seems like a prostitution of the language) of the tale is clear. Sex is both a right and a necessity.
What struck me so forcefully was the sheer cold-blooded deliberation, the calm calculation of Buffy, the model teenager for millions. The romance, bizarre in itself, was subordinated to self-possession and a total lack of passion. No doubt the programme-makers regarded their story line as educational and responsible. But these mores are not conducive to a fulfilling sexual life.
Second, sex is about relinquishing power, about giving and giving everything. And the most important thing to give up is your own ego, the barrier between yourself and sexual happiness. In Nafzawi's terminology, sublime sex emerges after the total annihilation of the ego. Selflessness gives you self-control and self-control is the key to that elusive, long-lasting orgasm, the recipe for happiness.
But if sex is a power trip, an uncontrolled expression of ego, than you are cooking with the wrong ingredients. It is quite impossible to have satisfying sex with power-mad, self-centred, selfish imbeciles such as those represented in Sex and the City or Ally McBeal. The high-powered, thirtysomething single women of Sex and the City treat men as sexual playthings and reap the consequences: when they do have sex, it is never satisfying. Ditto for men who treat women as sexual objects. The characters populating Ally McBeal are just too obsessed, too self-centred for anything as elevated as satisfying sex - they have to settle for plumbing jobs.
Sex has become selfishness writ large, a transaction judged by personal, individual benefits. It is about taking everything for yourself, not about sharing or giving. If you make sex into an end in itself for the purpose of personal gratification, you should not be surprised to end up as a lonely individual.
Third, sex requires sincerity and time. Good sex is not possible without tenderness, and tenderness requires sincerity. But sincerity cannot be expressed instantly; it has to be demonstrated. That means you need bucket loads of time. You are not going to be sincere to someone you have just picked up in a bar. Sincerity is totally at odds with our ironic postmodern society. And in a society where everything is accelerating, time is rather rare. Sex is thus little more than an insincere, breathless activity. It is, as promoted by so many chat shows, lads' magazines and women's glossies, a lifestyle - something you slot in between office, picking up the kids, checking your e-mail and the shopping trip. Or it is a leisure activity - the outcome of a good night out. It is hardly surprising then that it has become so oppressive and unsatisfying.
Ideas of sex expressed in eastern classics such as The Perfumed Garden horrified and attracted Europe in equal measure. When Europe expanded its bounds and launched its colonial career, it denounced the east for libertine licentiousness, fornication and generalised sexual perversions. And countless Europeans headed east in search of a liberated sex that they could only dream of in Europe.
But if the east was content with sex, it was because it circumscribed sex within a philosophy. Sex, as we are told in Kama Sutra, another classic that everyone has heard of but no one has actually read let alone understood, begins and ends in the mind. And an empty mind, a hedonist mind, a mind devoid of imagination and conviction, is incapable of satisfying sex.
Indeed, sex is like Kama Sutra itself: difficult, intricate and mysterious. The west has made sex easy and explicit. It has therefore drained it of its nourishing and spiritual content. Sex has become so easy that it is brandished as a metaphor for everything, everywhere in our postmodern culture. Sex sells - not just cars and holidays but even instant coffee, toothpaste and insurance. It is so explicit that nothing is left to the imagination. The mind, the heart, the soul, has no part to play in its execution: everything is reduced to simple mechanics.
This is why the debate about sex education focuses on operation and orientation. Sex education has all the sophistication of a computer user's manual for proficient performance and proper maintenance. But we teach a lie. We teach that sex is easy, an effortless, uncomplicated part of everyday living, an activity divorced from philosophy and outlook on life. By leaving out the most important parts of sex - passion, sincerity, selflessness, time, imagination and mystery - we make sex impossible for our children. An education based on sex for sex's sake is no education at all. That's why all the sex education in the world has no impact on teenage pregnancies or shattered family lives.
It is time we understood that sex is not an infantile pursuit. The more we pursue sexual happiness for selfish ends, the more it will recede from us. Satisfying sex is an adult endeavour. Sexual ecstasy requires the agony of mature sentiments, hard work and integrity. The only way to make satisfying sex possible is to place it within a philosophy where it is neither the sole purpose nor an end in and of itself.
At the very least, we need to relearn and appreciate that satisfying sex is a shared experience. Anything that is shared requires mutual give and take. Mutuality, so abused by new Labour in the economic sphere, is central to sexual happiness. Mutuality is the idea that we are much more than a mere individual. It is the idea that our greatest personal fulfilment will arise from merging our sense of self in a selfless care for the well-being of people other than ourselves, simultaneously giving and receiving.
We do pretty well with sex as a metaphor for self-love. But we have lost entirely the sense of sex as a passport to the love of anything beyond the self. And that used to be the sublime mystery, so fascinatingly outlined in the Kama Sutra, that sex implied and expressed.
Classical Persian and Urdu poetry is awash with love, with potent sexual inferences and references; yet it is actually religious by its metaphoric intent and its generally understood meaning. Sex is a metaphor for love and love is a metaphor for spirituality. In ancient, eastern wisdom it is through the mutuality of human relations, fully functional sexual loving of another, loving and parenting the offspring of a sexual union, that we acquire the experience and the concepts to understand the divine. Mutuality puts sex in its place as part of a more profound conception of what it is to be human in a world where life is us and other people, me and you.
Without some notion of mutuality, sex is almost impossible. If we think of sex as easy, casual, fast and uncomplicated, we turn it into an albatross, a dead one, hanging around our necks and leading us into untold misery and personal unhappiness.
But if we return a touch of mystery to sex, temper our egos with some modesty and selflessness, if we are willing to devote time, energy and integrity to sex, it can become the true fountain of happiness. When my children turn 18, and mysteriously find a copy of The Perfumed Garden, this is the idea they will grow up to imbibe.
"The Perfumed Garden" and "Kama Sutra" are available from all good (not necessarily dirty) bookshops
Ziauddin Sardar's "Introducing Media Studies" has recently been published by Icon Books, £8.99