Stumbling Along an Inverse Arc

13 Aug

A couple years ago, in a Cultural Anthropology course, we were asked to dissect love from an alien perspective. What would a foreigner notice about what our culture calls love?

The project was interesting, and I was proud of the analysis I produced, the conclusions upon which I stumbled. But there was one aspect of it I didn’t get to include.

It’s obvious that there is a natural arc of emotional and physical intimacy—a direct relationship between how well you know someone and how sexual you can and want to be with them. A simplified example:

two people are friends and only touch in a casual way (high fives, maybe hugs); they begin to date and start holding hands and kissing; they might make a commitment to become exclusive to one another and begin a sexual relationship. Regardless of form or timeline, the deeper the two go mentally and emotionally, the deeper they go sexually.

But this natural arc is disrupted by one observation. A visitor to our culture, examining practices of “love,” would immediately notice that while those intimately acquainted are able to enjoy the most intimate sex, it would also seem that the opposite is true. People who did not know each other were also able to engage in extremely intimate acts. If all you had were observations, you would see a million couples—from their early 20s to their 70s—enjoying few parameters in their sexual relationship. And then you would see a million strangers seemingly enjoying the same thing.

One night stands. Sex for pay. The porn industry.

What these things have in common is anonymity. An absence of emotion and intellect that is the opposite of intimacy. A chasm where normally there would be vibrant life. I’m not making a moral judgment and not arguing sex can’t feel great between two people who don’t know each other. But any high school girl can tell you what we all really hate admitting to ourselves: sex is not an exclusively physical act. Some of us want it to be, some of us convince ourselves it is, a few of us even live the lie our entire lives, earning our way as a “provider of services.” But I implore you to talk to people who have been forced into a sexual situation, or who’ve regretted certain decisions. They will tell you that they didn’t heal from those wounds like they’ve healed from scrapes or broken bones.

What’s interesting is that prostitution, sex trafficking, and the porn industry rely on our desire for wholly intimate relationships. They know what we want is to follow the arc until the end, eventually reaching a fully realized intimacy that inspires and challenges and comforts and excites.

So the anonymity is purposeful. They know a person wouldn’t feel free to watch or fantasize about someone they know; it flips the arc upside down, destroys their desire for a natural progression. Imagine trying to “get off” when the people you were watching were close friends, or people you greatly respected. It wouldn’t work. You stop yourself from even imagining it. So to combat this resistance, the entire emotional and intellectual sides are cut off. And people act only on sexual urges to meet sexual needs. Never letting themselves even think of the people they are with or watching as real people, with friends and family, with goals, dreams, loves.

With pornography, this is even oftentimes the verbalized admission. “It’s only sexual.” The tragedy here is that for everyone involved, it isn’t.

The people having sex in front of the camera. The person watching (even though he is separated from the couple by distance and time). The people involved in making the clips. All of their future relationships.

It’s like war.

Military personnel are taught to dehumanize the enemy in their minds so that they can kill without serious psychological ramifications. It is imperative that a void surround each of the enemy’s soldiers; if there was any type of relationship or realization of camaraderie or fellowship, the slaughtering could not continue.

But the slaughter does continue. Our society has successfully persuaded you and I that there are people worth killing. And it has persuaded most of us that as long as you don’t know the person, you can skip all the drama and rejection and go right to your most intimate (and many times most reviling) fantasies.

But like war, it’s not a very good lie.

Eventually people remember that the things they’re shooting at are humans.

And eventually you’ll reach a point when you realize the woman on your screen is a human. And the more ties you are able to find, the more ways in which you can connect yourself to her, to understand her, to imagine her in a context that isn’t void of the emotion and intellect we all possess, the less you can participate in something that hurts her.

Anonymity is a comforting thing at times. I love people-watching in Chicago. I can stand right in front of everyone and observe them without them paying the slightest bit of attention to me.

But listen to yourself. What your past experiences have taught you. No matter what you’ve endured or enjoyed, I know your deepest desire isn’t to be a sex slave, even to yourself. We all want someone to understand us—whether that person is male or female, whether it’s through marriage or just through a life together. And as we are understood, and as we understand, sex is another way to attain that. To never be known, to live a life behind a screen of anonymity, especially in relationships, is to die alone. When what you crave is no longer physical, but something with much more depth and longevity.

I say live. And live well, allowing others the same opportunity. Not dehumanizing anyone through our desperate search for intimacy. Not participating in industries that enslave and destroy. But liberating ourselves, and others, from the lie that there are people in this world not worth caring about.




I like getting feedback on writings. You are thoughtful. You are brilliant. What have you noticed about the dynamics of sex and relationships? Where do people most often falter? Are there opposing views to the “natural arc” idea? Is it even a universal desire? What did this subject bring to mind?

One Response to “Stumbling Along an Inverse Arc”

  1. snowtone August 16, 2009 at 6:45 pm #

    love it. needed.

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