monthly column from author/activist
Comes Naturally #135
Life To Hold On To While Death Is Passing
In the heaving crowd, now all she could feel was a penis slowly being slipped into the opening of her skirt.... The condemned man stood on the scaffold now and the noose was put around his neck. The pain of watching him was so great that it made this touch of flesh a relief, a human, warm, consoling thing. It seemed to her then that this penis quivering between her buttocks was something wonderful to hold on to -- life, life to hold whole death was passing.... She was palpitating with fear, and it was like the palpitation of desire. As the condemned man was flung into space and death, the penis gave a great leap inside her, gushing out its warm life. The crowd crushed the man against her. She almost ceased breathing. And as her fear became pleasure, wild pleasure at feeling life while a man was dying, she fainted. -- Anais Nin, Woman on the Dunes
It's been a month now -- this time of death spinning out of control.
Death sprayed everywhere, day after day after day after day, in triumph, in celebration -- a display of raw killing power such as the world has never seen before, according to the wild-eyed Secretary of Offense.
We see only a few of the pictures -- the ones that Daddy thinks we children will be able to handle -- but enough that we know, in our bones if nowhere else, that something horrible and unnatural is happening halfway around the globe, where the people are opposite from us -- upside-down, left-handed, Islamic, whatever -- and therefore easier to obliterate than the folks next door.
It's the folks next door, boys and girls not unlike us (though generally younger), who have been cast as Archangels of Death, who will come home with images in their brain that no human being should have to carry for a lifetime, who year after year will not talk truthfully to their wives and grandchildren about what they have seen, no matter how many times they are asked.
All this in our name, no matter how many signs we carry saying Not.
It's never easy to look Death in the eye, and the times of mass, collective death -- when death awareness is forced on all of us at the same time, unrelentingly, from every direction, it seems -- are the hardest times of all. This even if we insistently maintain what Europeans call our Terminal American Cheerfulness -- even if we buy groceries, and clean the house, and pack the kids off to school, and celebrate the Giants winning 13 of their first 14 games -- as if we are not being deeply affected by what is
But I daresay we are all being deeply affected by the reality of the American Killing Fields, by the sudden and persistent foregrounding of death that is one inevitable corollary of war. For the moment -- as after 9/11, as in some communities at the height of the AIDS crisis, as in all Europe during the time of Bubonic Plague -- it's not easy to sweep conscious awareness of death under the rug of our collective unconscious, not as easy as it was in more innocent times.
We are, all of us, being radically altered by witnessing and, to a certain extent, participating in this mass destruction of life, even if we don't know any of the 123 People Like Us acknowledged to have died in Iraq so far, even if we are extremely unlikely to know any of the tens of thousands of People Unlike Us who the People Like Us have undoubtedly killed -- even, that is to say, if the current episode of Great Intentional Death is happening by us, rather than to us.
Death, separate from war, is the ultimate exercise in powerlessness, the ultimately humbling reality. No matter how intelligent or well-adjusted we are, no matter how much we learn in school or in therapy, no matter how much money we make, Death always wins in the end. It is the awareness of death, awareness of our own impending death, that makes us different from all other species of animal, and this awareness shapes our lives profoundly, for better and for worse.
And these days, for many of us, over and above the simple existential powerlessness we feel facing death, there is the additional deep confusion and hopelessness we feel because we are so pathetically unable to prevent, or even mediate, the massive, casual, even careless spewing of death and destruction that is tearing through the lives of 23 million people, and destroying the artifacts of thousands of years of history in the place that gave birth to civilization as we know it.
It's hardly surprising that we are powerfully drawn to sex during death-ridden times such as these. If death is the ultimate expression of the limitation and powerlessness of the human condition, sex is just the opposite -- the ultimate expression of human expansiveness and personal power.
When there are so many arenas in which we feel afraid, where we are lacking the power to make the world be what we want it to be, it becomes especially important that we affirm and exercise the real power we still hold. Sex is one way to do that. The right and ability to be deeply sexual in satisfying ways is a profound source of personal empowerment. That's why so many governments and religious institutions try to control that most personal part of our lives, and God knows their antisexual efforts do take a toll on us. But, despite the debilitating effects of sex-repressive attitudes and prohibitions, most of us retain the ability to turn to sex as a way of reminding ourselves that we are vibrant, effectual, repositories of the power of life.
Each time we have sex in meaningful ways we make that statement -- to ourselves and to the world outside of ourselves.
Many people experience a striking increase in sexual desire at times when Death raises its ugly head, personally or collectively. After the World Trade Center attacks, for example, tales of people's powerful urges to be sexual (especially in New York) circulated everywhere, a virtual media phenomenon. So much so that hospitals throughout the country prepared for an anticipated surge in births during the early summer of 2002. (The birth surge ended up being much smaller than expected, a testimony, perhaps, to the power of birth control.)
In the past, during times of extended war -- World War I, World War II, the Korean War -- there was likewise a noticeable overflowing of sexual activity, activity that often transgressed the contemporary boundaries of social propriety. It was as if everyone understood that when Death was at the door, the usual rules about sex needed to be loosened. Perhaps the most noted reshaping of traditional sexual mores during past wars was the prevalence of extra-marital affairs among women. Of course, women had an easier time having affairs when their regular sexual partners were overseas and they had needs for sexual outlets because their husbands and boyfriends were simply unavailable.
But the phenomenon was remarkably widespread, especially for times when sex outside of marriage was condemned much more vociferously than it is today. Something more than convenience and lack of available partner sex was going on, and it seems likely that one significant dynamic motivating women who carried on war-affairs was a need to be sexual as a way of responding to the painful reality that they might learn any day that their husbands or boyfriends had been killed or maimed in battle. "Fuck me now because tomorrow I may die" may be the oldest line in history, but it's effectiveness speaks to the need people feel to affirm their sexuality when they come face-to-face with danger and death. Perhaps the more pointed (if less opportunistic) dictum would be "Fuck someone now because tomorrow you may have to deal with the death of a loved one."
When Death suddenly appears at the window, we have a strong and sensible urge to reach for Life. We cannot ultimately vanquish death, but we can counterthe reality of our pending personal death (and the reality of our government's mass perpetration of death) by making our own, personal declaration of life as strongly and deeply and soulfully as we can. Sex is not the only way to do that, but being sexual -- especially being sexual in deeply connective, loving, soulful ways -- may well be the most basic affirmation of life available to us, day in and day out.
We may not be able to get George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld to choose life over death, but we can choose life in our personal worlds, in our most important and intimate relationships, in our significant interpersonal interactions. We may not have the power to insist that the elite who run this country makes love, not war. But we do have the power to make love ourselves in response to the horror of war. When we do so, the act of sex becomes an act of personal resistance to both the war and the death that have been inflicted on our lives and psyches. Perhaps, in the long run, it can also be a viable antidote to the general dehumanizing war/death mentality that now threatens to pollute the essence of our human kindness and generosity both as individuals and as
This article first appeared in Spectator magazine. If you'd like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives." Two books edited by David -- Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies, and The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self -- are available from him by mail order.