Our painful attempts to live a fulfilling sexual existence could be helped by a consideration of the world of agriculture. This idea is hardly novel, and it owes much to that fine essay by Wendell Berry, “The Body and the Earth,” but I think we have yet to tease out the essential connections uniting the body and the land.
Sexuality and the land both have a life of their own. The cycles of the land, determined by soil, weather and biology, exist quite apart from the decisions of the farmer. Nor do we control the cycles of sexuality, which are governed by desire, fertility and menstruation. The land embodies a particular geography, forcing the farmer to work creatively with hill, creek and grove. Sexuality has its own geography too; it determines our shape, breast, beard and hip. It is ours, and not ours. Puberty, so amusing to adults who have forgotten its embarrassment, is a painful recognition of this fact, that there is within me a life that “goes on without me”—and gives me pimples. This is the “otherness” of both sexuality and the land. It is that which presents itself as primordially given.
The otherness of the land is now being greeted with enthusiasm by organic farmers and advocates of permaculture, a system of farming that seeks to work “with, rather than against, nature” (Bill Mollison). A new breed of philosophical farmer is interested in the harmonious and sustainable use of the land as a rebuttal to industrialized farm systems. The otherness of sexuality, on the other hand, remains a source of suspicion. The moralizing religious person and the secular feminist are in agreement here. Both see the otherness of sexuality as encroaching on the person. The moralist sees sexuality as encroaching on the life of the spirit, a separate demand of the sinful flesh and an embarrassment to be repressed. The advocate of contraception and legalized abortion sees the body’s cycles and fertility as encroaching on the life of work and fulfillment, a separate demand of biology and an inconvenience to be repressed. The former advocates fasting, mortification and prayer, the latter—ethinyl estradiol. Both shudder in the face of a force within us that goes on without us, quite without permission, a life that belongs to us, and yet, terrible thought, we belong to it.
This is why the sexual revolution, far from ushering in an age of freedom, inaugurated an age of control. Control is our method of making that which has its own life absolutely ours, stripped of all otherness. This is obvious in reference to the state: the totalitarian state controls its subjects, stripping from them the life that goes on apart from the state by implementing instruments of power—secret police, spies, propaganda. So the modern sexual existence implements techniques of power—pornography, menstrual suppression, abortion, surgery—to strip sexuality of its otherness and render it absolutely subject to our desires. And the logical tendency of sexual control really does aim towards this absolute. Trans-humanists dream of “the end of sex” and “the inevitable rise of the artificial womb” (to quote two recent headlines), pining for an absolute control over pregnancy. The more enthusiastic advocates of contraception look to a future of total fertility control, where, through implants and IUDs, women will be semi-sterile—fertile only when they choose to be. Here, everything that presents itself as given, as a possible surprise, is reconfigured so that it becomes the outcome of a willful decision. Every outcome can be traced to our rational choice. Nothing is given.
If this all sounds wonderfully progressive, we ought to recall that the average sexual life fits somewhere on a scale of “stressful” to “unendurably frustrating,” that many women appear to be less satisfied and happy after the sexual revolution than before (“The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association), and that the price of trans-mutating our dominant relationship with our own sexuality has been, paradoxically, an increased dependence on structures of power to maintain this control.
The independence that contraception, sterilization and abortion give us from our own fertility is achieved by a simultaneous dependence upon pharmaceutical companies, surgeons and abortionists. The independence pornography gives our sexual arousal from actual encounters with another is achieved by an increased dependence on the pornography industry, on its stars, producers and slaves. The freedom the ever-growing system of gender theory gives us from binary sexual identities is bought at the price of a dependence on academics to define and distinguish the pansexual from the omnisexual, the nonsexual from the asexual, the biromantic or the two-spirited from the polyamorous and bisexual. The freedom of divorce is a dependence on the legal system, and the independence surgery gives us from our bodies is simultaneously a dependence on surgeons—and the means to pay them. Every liberating innovation in the erotic sphere has brought with it a chain of increased dependence on the impersonal structures of power behind it. The will to power has made us powerless; and it is the poor, who cannot afford many of the expert services and technologies required to dominate our sexuality, who most suffer the consequences of a culture of sexual dependency.
Unsustainable Use as Disrespect
How, then, are we to live? With an eye on agriculture. For it would be absurd if the farmer took the same tack of stark dominion, saying: “This land that belongs to me has a life of its own. I will control that life, and thereby be the sole master of my property. I will no longer be a slave to its ecology. My power will be the sole source of its fruits.” No; it is obvious that the otherness of the land is precisely what enables the farmer to farm. The farmer places his seeds in the soil he did not create, under the sun he cannot command to shine. He uses what is given, and only because it is “already going on” can he use it at all. His is a work of cooperation with the land, not sheer mastery over it. Even the most brutally technological agricultural practices rely, at base, on processes beyond the farmer’s control. Planting crops without rotating them, plowing without regard to the particulars of geography—these efforts abase the unique life of nature, forcing it to comply with the monochrome will of man. They are idiotic efforts that end in dust bowls, for it is the unique life of the land that enables us to use it in the first place. Unsustainable use does not respect the otherness of that which is used. It is a phenomenon of hypercontrol, one that denies the life that goes on apart from our power and desire.
So too, the unsustainable use of our sexuality is really the destruction of the grounds for our enjoyment of it in the first place. It is precisely the otherness of sexual arousal, for instance, that makes it enjoyable, the fact that the body responds to another without asking permission. This is the adventure, surprise and danger of erotic feeling: that it can neither be forced nor summoned up by the sheer power of choice, but comes as a blessing and a gift. The indulgence of pornography and masturbation makes erotic feeling and sexual pleasure the outcome of our willful decision. It is always chosen, done to oneself, administered in a controlled time and place, with total power over its indulgence, actively opposed to the other-orientated nature of sexuality. With the advent of Internet pornography, our power to control attains a new height—we sit before an infinite array of possible stimuli. A real person cannot compete with pornography, not because he lacks this or that arousing trait, but because a real person is an other, a unique private life. A real person checks our growing desire for control by asserting, like the land, a unique life of his or her own.
Our sexuality cannot sustain being reduced to our total control any more than the soil can sustain a single high-yield crop. More and more evidence points to the conclusion that addiction and erectile dysfunction, not some wild freedom, are the fruits of male pornography use. Pornography becomes boring, pleasure decreases and the capacity for sexual activity is diminished, for we have destroyed the very means by which pornography was pleasurable in the first place—responding powerfully to something other than ourselves.
Sustainable Use as Cooperation
No matter how much a farmer may wish to grow a single crop, he knows that the soil will be harmed by it, and the very possibility of future growth will be ruined, so he plants in harmony with the life that goes on without him, rotating his crops. He does not see the land as a mere extension of his will, but as embodying a life of its own.
So too, a sustainable sexual existence respects the otherness of sexuality. It is not merely an extension of our power. It goes on without us, intimately bound up with other people, with the given—the body we did not ask for, the kiss we do not deserve, the child we cannot will into or out of being. Control (from contra, “against”) opposes the otherness of what is used, and thus cannot be the foundation for a happy sexual existence, which is a phenomenon of otherness. A new method is needed, one of cooperation and harmony.
To operate in harmony with our sexuality is not to succumb to its unique life. Yielding to every sexual drive is simply another way of destroying the otherness of sexuality. If by rigid control we destroy the otherness of sexuality and make it synonymous with our own power by succumbing to every sexual feeling and drive, we make ourselves synonymous with our sexuality. In both cases, diversity is reduced to identity, and the possibility of harmony is destroyed by the pretense that, really, there is only one note playing. Instead of a marriage of body and soul, in which the partners celebrate a real unity without abasing their autonomy, we advocate on the one hand an angelism, in which the spirit of man rules the body as a tyrant rules a rebel, and on the other a bestialism, in which the life of the body crushes the freedom of the soul.
What is needed is a sustainable attitude toward sexuality that respects its otherness without merely succumbing to it. If our body presents itself as a difficulty, our impulse should not be one of power, the eradication of that difficulty, but a cooperation with the body along with its difficulties, that we might sustain and not destroy. It is not by accident that Pope Francis, in his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” connected sexuality and the land, arguing that “thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology” (No. 155).
Sexuality and Ecosystem
A further point may be made here. There is an intimate connection between the fact that something is other to us and that it is embedded in an ecosystem. An ecosystem is the complex network of an organism in relation to its environment. Taken in a broader sense, we consider a thing as embedded in an ecosystem when we contemplate the multitude of relations that make it up. This consideration is at the same time a recognition of the otherness of the thing. How clear this is in our encounters with other people! What makes our friend stand out as “his own” or “her own” more than contemplating his multitude of relations, that she grew up under the eye of a particular father, that his grandmother means the world to him, that she struggles to relate to her sister, that he mourns the death of his brother? Precisely by seeing a person as part of an ecosystem that exceeds our knowledge, as a center of a history and a narrative made up of relations that will never be ours, we begin to see him as “other” to us.
So too with the land. The whole work of ecology is to mark out the web of relations in which all things are embedded, especially those relations that exceed our power and particular ends. The fish is not just our food—it is the bear’s and the eagle’s; it is a filter of water and itself a feeder, supplying this tribe with a ritual and that city with food. To respect a thing in accordance with its multitude of relations, those known and unknown, is to respect a thing as other, with a life of its own—an existence that affects and is affected quite apart from our designs. All unsustainable use, then, disregards a thing as existing in relation to other things.
We are shocked to learn that condoms, by reducing female exposure to the prostaglandins contained in male semen, may reduce the bonding effect of sexual intercourse (“Does semen have antidepressant properties?” Archives of Sexual Behavior); but this is only because we deny that sexuality is embedded in a relationship with human bonding as much as with human pleasure and procreation. We resist any studies that posit a link between oral contraceptives and blood-clotting, but this is only because we do not consider sexuality ecologically, fundamentally related to a total system, embracing the cardiovascular system as much as the mammary glands. Instead, the scope and breadth of sexuality is limited to the end we most desire to control—our fertility. That oral contraceptives have been shown to alter a woman’s attraction to “genetically compatible” men (“The Scent of Genetic Compatibility,” Ethology), that, when using hormonal contraception, women in relationships “reported significantly lower levels of intrasexual competition” (“Hormonal contraceptive use lowers female intrasexual competition in pair-bonded women,” Evolution and Human Behavior)—these strange and fascinating connections should be no surprise to one who strives for sustainability, taking sexuality as it offers itself, embedded in a multitude of relations that “go on without us.”
I do not mean to limit this anti-ecological phenomenon to our use of contraception, though it is easier to point out because studies have been exploding around that topic for several years. It is present in pornography, which tends to reduce our sexual existence to enjoying only the comfort and pleasure of the sexual drive. It is present in divorce, whose ecological relations to economy, culture and child psychology are still being drawn out. It is present in abortion, hook-up culture and artificial reproductive technologies. Should we be offended that our sexual life exceeds our direct control by branching out into diverse relations, those known and unknown? No more than the farmer should be offended that the land is embedded in a web of relations, which it is his task to learn and sustain, not merely for the good of the land, but for his own good and success as a farmer.
To live in harmony with our sexuality, as opposed to using sexuality for ends that limit, control and deny its total reality, is simply to live a more holistic, integrated existence. The project of sustainability is difficult, precisely because it requires a deep understanding of what we use, an attitude of care and respect toward its unique life, and a willingness to deny ourselves and our immediate desires in favor of a greater good—the total integration of our sexuality with our person. But a joy rises precisely amid this difficulty, because just as democratic harmony puts an end to any temptation toward control and mastery in the state, so the harmony of the person with his or her sexual existence inaugurates a season of personal freedom and the end of mere control.