By Andrew Haslam
No Strings Attached. Few expressions better capture the modern view of sex. Which means that, despite their obvious respectability as philosophers and social commentators, the Spice Girls got it exactly wrong when they sang,
Are you as good as I remember baby, get it on, get it on,
‘Cause tonight is the night when two become one
They were (knowingly or unknowingly) articulating a very, very old view of sex as something that has deep soul-level power; the very opposite of No Strings Attached. And this is why Bloodhound Gang were much more in tune with the times with their immortal lines, ‘You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals // So, let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.’
Both of these songs come from the 1990s when few could have predicted how much mammalian activity would be enabled by the onset of hookup apps, so that now, more than ever, sex is mainly about fulfilling your appetites. It doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s not much different from eating, drinking, or sleeping. Who you do it with is not of much consequence, provided they’re good.
How did our view of sex change so profoundly, and so quickly?
For one thing, it was not so long ago that sex was inextricably bound up with making babies. If you were a man and you got someone pregnant, you’d have to take responsibility (especially in a world with no state support for single mums). Your community kept you accountable. But that has changed: it is hard to exaggerate the effects of widespread contraception available since the 1960s in separating the act of sex from its natural, biological consequence. This has had a profound effect on how we think about sex, at a deep philosophical level. It used to be the case that only the rich or powerful could bed whoever they wanted, for the simple reason that they could get away with it. But contraception democratised the seeming freedom of sex-without-responsibility, and turned sex into a momentary act rather than a life-changing decision.
Another reason can be given. The secularisation of the West has been a potent force here. If your religion says sex is a sacred act with the power to bind souls, that view might linger for a little while after you have cast off religious restraint, but eventually it dies. The new narrative is that we’re clever monkeys, and if monkeys can do it with whoever they want (bonobo chimps being a perfect example of a ‘free love’ primate society), then the social construct of sex being sacred need not hold us back any more.
And so, we have landed in a new era. It’s an era in which love is optional, and sex is easy. In fact, it’s only a few swipes away. And you don’t need any of the traditional skills of seduction, which means you can get away with being clumsy and cheap. Hit upon a match, exchange a few texts, and you’re done and dusted within the hour. And it’s free. Did I mention that? And you don’t have to speak again. And you can try someone else tomorrow. And there are no babies. And nobody else need ever find out.
All of this rests on the assumption that sex can be No Strings Attached. But can it? I’m not convinced.
First, there is the problem of ‘catching feelings’ and the consequent experience of rejection. The subject of so many sitcoms and low budget movies, we might be tempted to downplay how destructive this kind of rejection is for the soul. But consider, how many times can you get the cold shoulder from a hookup and not suffer some kind of erosion on the inside? I mean serious psychological harm. It seems we have more compassion and understanding for dogs abandoned on the street than we do for ourselves, since we are willing to subject ourselves to relentless and repeated experiences of being discarded. The simple reality is quite straightforward: if they don’t call you back, they don’t want you. They want someone new. And we might bury this truth and pretend that’s not the case since we’re both consenting adults entering into a kind of social contract for meaningless sex. But lying to ourselves doesn’t change the facts. You were yesterday’s choice, not today’s. Of course, rejection is a risk in any kind of relationship, but the nature of NSA sex is that you are deliberately exposing yourself to hurt. And if you’re the one with the bullet-proof confidence, how can you know that you are not causing immense harm to the other person?
Then consider the reality of jealousy. I know that the word is usually viewed as a negative quality, a mark of a deficient, weak, and insecure person. But jealousy is also hardwired into us as a fierce guardian of committed love. It can set a wall of fire around a relationship that does not allow casual invaders to maraud and steal what is precious. And jealousy proves that we don’t really believe in NSA sex. We get jealous in talking about our partner’s old lovers and past experiences; an irrational and inconsistent reaction if sex can be meaningless. We also insist on exclusivity as love grows. But why? If your partner can claim that sex with another person was just NSA, doesn’t that let them off the hook? Absolutely not. Every fibre in your being tells you that. Your jealousy contradicts your belief in NSA sex. (Which is why Ross’s excuse, ‘We were on a break’, doesn’t hold water for Rachel; sex is never NSA.)
Another proof of the lie of NSA sex has to do with our inconsistency when it comes to taboos around sex. These taboos are still deeply embedded in our minds and our society (though for how long, I am not sure), and reveal that we still understand the power of sex as something that cannot be as meaningless as a handshake. Think about incest. If sex could truly be NSA, then why sustain such artificial boundaries? By what logic do we say that it is wrong for siblings to sleep together, or a father with his daughter, if it is No Strings Attached? We can’t have it both ways, and our deep and intuitive revulsion towards incest tell us that sex is never NSA.
Finally, consider the painful reality of rape and sexual abuse. Why is rape so damaging? What is it about sex that it has such powers of destruction, so that a person can be changed forever by one brief, momentary act? Why can it make people feel so dirty, so defiled, so used? The answer must be that sex is inherently powerful. Of course, you might argue that the crucial missing element here is consent. But does the giving of consent render sex impotent, as it were? And if so, why do so many feel dirty and guilty after a mistaken fling, or a casual hookup? It seems to me that we are fighting against our very souls when we try to make sex a meaningless act.
Sex is a force of nature; a force in our nature. It goes down to the roots of a person. It involves the most hidden parts of our souls. Such have humans believed for thousands of years. There is accumulated wisdom in beliefs that have transcended all recorded history and most cultures, and we discard such beliefs at our peril. The modern dating scene is an anthropological test tube, an experiment we are running, and nobody knows the future ramifications of a generation raised this way. How will it affect our ability to make long-term commitments (essential for our own wellbeing and that of our children)? How will it affect our ability to simply be happy and content?
The flip side to all this is that if sex is powerful, its power can be directed and used well. Sex can actively restore ailing marriages, reinvigorate forgotten love, and repair the bonds of broken intimacy. In other words, sex attaches strings.
It is with good reason that the ancient Hebrews spoke about sex as knowing someone, because it is essentially a relational act. We all want to know and to be known, and we want that deeply. Perhaps that is the deepest need of all. They also spoke about sex as uncovering your nakedness; it was a euphemism that somehow captures the pure vulnerability, total openness, face-to-face and soul-to-soul intimacy that sex is meant to involve. To be naked with another – in both the literal and metaphorical sense – is to reveal your very soul. That is why the walls of commitment are so vital, since you are never more at risk than when you are totally opened up to another.
And all of this makes me wonder, if sex is really about intimacy, perhaps the modern view of NSA sex is a thinly veiled attempt to experience love, even transcendence, if only for a moment. If so, there is great tragedy in that. It is a misguided quest, a fool’s errand. No amount of hookups can fill this gaping void. But it also signals a deep disquiet in the soul of this generation. What are we searching for? And, what have we lost? God only knows.
If you found this interesting, you may enjoy listing to the recent Salt Live talk, ‘Can Love Survive the Dating Apocalypse?’ available on the Events page.
Question or comments? Email Andrew