Sex is never just about sex

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Photo by Dainis Graveris on Unsplash

Someone asked in a Facebook group what seems to be a straightforward question: Why are we excited by sex? We may be tempted to give a simple answer. Isn’t it just about our basic instinct and biological need? But such an answer ignores certain key facts about being human.

Have you looked at Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs? Very often, we think that sex is just a basic need, located at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. But if it were so, then we could have satisfied our sexual needs by ourselves. Through masturbation, we can achieve orgasm. Our bodies will release various hormones: dopamine, oxytocins, and endorphins. Wouldn’t it be the end of the story? Why would we need a partner then? We’d be self-sufficient.

But that would be a gross oversimplification. Masturbation would satisfy some of our needs. But would it be fulfilling? Would it make you feel elated? Would it make you feel special? Probably not. What is so exciting about being able to orgasm through masturbation? Anyone can masturbate.

What most people fail to understand is that we are social animals. Our biological need is important. But what is more important is a higher need — the need for self-esteem. It is a big deal when another person values you enough to agree to have sex with you. That agreement is an honor and a clear affirmation of your worth as a human being. Implied in that agreement is your partner’s willingness to trust you and become vulnerable to you. Part of the joy of sex is to be able to put aside one’s ego and become uninhibited. Your partner is willing to reveal to you his or her animal self. Most of us would not want to do this with anyone. It is a form of total surrender, predicated on total trust.

Whether having sex with another person is thrilling also depends on another factor: the social role and motivation of that other person. If a prostitute wants to have sex with you, it wouldn’t mean much to your self-esteem. It would be similar to the case where someone wants to marry you because you have recently won the lottery or inherited great wealth. It just means that he or she wants your money. But if the agreement to have sex is not a commercial transaction and money is not the motivation, then you will probably be thrilled. It is interesting, isn’t it? The thrill of sex is not just about having the sensations or the orgasms. It is also not just about having sex with another human. It has much to do with whether the other person is someone you desire or admire. And it has to do with that person’s motivation.

The bottom line is that we are not just animals. We are social animals that put a high premium on self-esteem. For this reason, whether sex excites us or not depends less on the physicality of the sex act than the social symbolism. It is the nuanced social meaning of sex, rather than the nerve-ending business, that determines how exciting a sexual experience is. Clearly, sex is not just about the body and the physical realm. It has much to do with our mind, our psychological needs, our spiritual needs, our imagination, and all the subtle symbolism surrounding a sexual encounter. This is amazing in itself. Many of us spend so much time and energy to learn about sexual techniques that enhance the sexual experience. In the end, however, it is the soul of sex — the psychology and subtle symbolic meaning of sex— that determines our satisfaction or the lack thereof.

Learning about sex is a lifelong endeavor. When we were teenagers, we learned about its biological aspects and its mechanics. As we grow older, we learn more and more about the intricacies and the spiritual side of sex. Today, many American couples attend workshops and talks on Tantra, which integrates sexuality with spirituality. There is much to learn about the divinity of sex and the art of love-making. But the richness of sex goes beyond the special techniques, esoteric yoga, the heightening of our senses, the conscious exercise of breathing and mindfulness, and the careful observation of rituals. In the end, fulfilling sex requires us to address the entirety of our humanity. Just as Thomas Moore, author of The Soul of Sex, has pointed out, a human being is “a whole world of meanings, emotions, dreams, wishes, fears, a past, a cultural milieu, and an interior life of thought and fantasy.” More and more, we discover that sex transcends the material realm. The fullness of sex requires our attention to the full spectrum of being human. Our social need has to be addressed. So does our soul’s need.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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