Let’s Talk About Sex

I completely agree with Wittgenstein and Heidegger on this: philosophy questions as traditionally posed are a dead end. For example, the main issue isn’t which answer to the mind-body problem is right, whether it materialism or dualism, etc. Dualism is totally unhelpful as an answer, and materialism is trivally true. The problem is that the question, “How is the mind related to the body?” is too general a question to get a grip on clarifying the issues. There isn’t one question there. There are thousands and progress requires asking new questions that might shed a new light on how to understand ourselves as minded and material beings.

If this is right, what about the thousands of people who find the mind-body problem as traditionally stated compelling? What do we make of them? Well, what do we make of the millions of people who still think that the Bible or the Koran or the Gita is the only one true word of God, and so who insist on asking questions from that perspective? There are many reasons why people get stuck in certain frames of inquiry.

There is no point trying to argue someone out of a question which is gripping to them. The only thing one can do is to follow the questions that are interesting to oneself. This was Wittgenstein and Heidegger’s limitations. They, and many of their followers, got stuck arguing against others, rather than focusing on the new questions they find interesting.

That’s what I am going to do now. Follow my own sense of interesting questions, no matter how unlike traditional questions they are, philosophical or not.

Here is  a question: Why do people sexually attracted to women (be they straight men or gay women) find women’s breasts sexually exciting? 

This is puzzling. What do organs meant for feeding babies have to do with being sexually exciting?

There is the flat footed biological-ish answer: “One is attracted by breasts because they are an indication that the woman can feed the baby nine months after one has sex.” But this doesn’t address the crux of the question as I am thinking of it. After all, many people are attracted to women with small breasts,or are flat chested.

Even more to the point, sometimes when a guy is attracted to a women by her breasts, when having sex, the guy will suck on the breasts. This is surely not because the man is testing the breasts to see if they function properly for the baby to come later!

This is what is puzzling. Sex is the paradigmatic adult activity. But it seems to be somehow connected, in the phenomenology of the activity, be it fondling breasts, kissing them, or sucking on them, to a fundamentally infantile activity. What is the connection?

A different answer, which is more helpful: “It’s a matter of culture. Once humans started to become “civilized”, they started to wear clothes and cover breasts. So there became a contrast between the visible, polite world of decorum, and the hidden world of sex. Thus the sexual energy got connected with other energies which also got covered over, like those associated with breasts, anus, and so on. For example, some people have a foot fetish, they find the foot sexually enticing. This is because for them the sexual energy has gotten merged with taboos regarding feet, so that transgressing those taboos and sexual excitement are intertwined. Similarly with breasts. If all women walked around topless, that would in due course change their connection as sexual.”

On this view, the reason a guy might suck a women’s breasts during sex is because fundamentally having sex is rooted in the sense of transgressing outwardly accepted social norms, and so even transgressing the outwardly accepted norms of adulthood. The very social, and even biological, ludicriousness of an adult male sucking a women’s breasts is also what makes it sexually exciting. Since outward social norms curtail the libido, transgression of social norms is a release of the libido.

This brings out a striking fact: that a human being is through and through cultural. There is no pristine biological functioning (be it sex or going to the bathroom or eating) which is pre-cultural in human beings, which is supposedly the purely “animal” side of humans. The human being cannot be neatly divided into the animal part, and the separate rational part. Human rationality is not a matter of curtailing the brute animal part of human nature. Rather, rationality is a matter of reflecting on an earlier cultural part of human history. What is often deemed “animalistic” is simply an earlier cultural feature of human life which is now deemed wrong.

The sense of humans as through and through cultural can give rise of a sense of vertigo, like one is losing one’s grounding on an unshakable reality. Part of one wants to protest: “But what is really real if everything is just part of the flux of cultural change? If even sex is just more of how we are conditioned, what part of me is safe from being controlled by others?” If it isn’t somehow objectively the case that a woman in a wet T-shirt is sexually enticing, irrespective of cultural norms, it can seem like an affront to sexuality itself, as if then one’s sexual desire is not really one’s own desire but simply manipulated by social conditions.

This sense that one’s desire must be one’s own (not determined by society) – that is what underlies the traditional mind-body problem. The mind then is treated like a sui generis, individually rooted reality, not succeptible to the ebb and flow of culture. A true groundedness of human cognition is treated as something real and basic, more primary than culture, something which is the foundation of culture.

But that is a myth. There is no part of human life like that. We humans are forever in a social and cultural matrix.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Sex

  1. Gautam

    (A) “a human being is through and through cultural. There is no pristine biological functioning”

    Good point (though arguably actual genital areas may be cross-culturally erogenous). It is interesting to compare with the following statement:
    (B) A human being is through and through biological. There is no pristine cultural functioning.

    Are (A) and (B) saying the same thing (in terms of arguing against a culture/biology duality)? If no, in what way are they saying different things?


    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      In a way, (A) and (B) are saying the same thing. After all, our cultural being is not something beyond our biological being. The point is that for us our biological and cultural beings are so fused together that they can’t be seperated, not even in principle.

      To the question, “Why female breasts are sexually exciting for men?” No answer is possible which doesn’t make reference to our cultural norms and habits. There is no “purely” biological answer in the sense that it only refers to body parts. We need to also incorporate an explanation which takes into account the clothes on our bodies, the art or representation of the human body, etc. This is all true even as the sexual impulse and sexual attraction is one of our most basic activities.

      The cultural dimension of sex can seem obvious enough. But holding onto that cultural dimension with the phenomenology of sexual attraction seems hard. For the phenomenology makes it seem like a brute, basic attraction, almost as if it is too basic to be culturally affected. Holding onto the phenomenology while being mindful of the cultural dimension of the attraction feels like trying to see the duck and rabbit at same time.


  2. Gautam

    > No answer is possible which doesn’t make reference to our cultural norms and habits.

    Yes; in fact, this seems “intuitively obvious” in the context of pornography or eroticism in movies or books, where the erotic charge comes from playing against a type or transposing context, or somehow stimulating the imagination.

    An interesting blog post on this point: https://broadblogs.com/2010/11/04/men-aren%E2%80%99t-hard-wired-to-find-breasts-attractive/ … clearly this is a question of great interest! 🙂



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