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Slavoj Zizek: Can Covid-19 remind us that SEX is an important channel for sprituality?

Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek

is a cultural philosopher. He’s a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London.

is a cultural philosopher. He’s a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London.

Slavoj Zizek: Can Covid-19 remind us that SEX is an important channel for sprituality?
The Covid-19 epidemic will certainly give a boost to digital sexual games, but hopefully it will also lead to a new appreciation of physical intimacy and we will remember that sex between two people is a medium for spirituality.

The Irish Health Service Executive has issued guidelines about practicing sex in the time of coronavirus, and the two key recommendations are: 

Taking a break from physical and face-to face interactions is worth considering, especially if you usually meet your sex partners online or make a living by having sex. Consider using video dates, sexting or chat rooms. Make sure to disinfect keyboards and touch screens that you share with others.” 

“Masturbation will not spread coronavirus, especially if you wash your hands (and any sex toys) with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after.” 

Reasonable common sense advice for a time of epidemics spread by bodily contact – but one should note that these recommendations just conclude the process which was already going on with the progressive digitalization of our lives: statistics show that today’s adolescents spend much less time exploring their sexuality than surfing the web. 

Also on rt.com The only way to ‘win’ against porn is to fix our culture, not to impose bans

Even if they engage in sex, is doing it in a virtual space (with hardcore pornography) not much easier and more instantly gratifying? 

For this reason, the new American TV series Euphoria (described by HBO as “following a group of high school students as they navigate drugs, sex, identity, trauma, social media, love and friendship”) with its portrayal of the dissolute life of today’s high school population is almost the opposite of present-day reality. It is out of touch with today’s youth and, for this reason, weirdly anachronistic – more an exercise in middle-age nostalgia for how depraved the young generations once were. 

But we should go even a step further here: what if there never was an entirely “real” sex void of any virtual or fantasized supplement? The usual definition of masturbation is “doing it to yourself while imagining partners,” but what if real sex is always – up to a point – masturbation with a real partner? What do I mean by this? In a comment for the Guardian, Eva Wiseman refers to a moment in ‘The Butterfly Effect’, Jon Ronson’s podcast series about the aftershocks of internet porn. “On the set of a porn film an actor lost his erection mid-scene – to coax it back, he turned away from the woman, naked below him, grabbed his phone and searched Pornhub. Which struck me as vaguely apocalyptic.” She concludes: “Something is rotten in the state of sex.”

I agree, but I would add this lesson of psychoanalysis: something is constitutively rotten in the state of sex, human sexuality is in itself perverted, exposed to sadomasochist reversals and, specifically, to the mixture of reality and fantasy. Even when I am alone with my partner, my sexual interaction with him/her is inextricably intertwined with my fantasies, i.e., every sexual interaction is potentially structured like “masturbation with a real partner” – I use the flesh and body of my partner as a prop to realize/enact my fantasies. 

We cannot reduce this gap between the bodily reality of a partner and the universe of fantasies to a distortion opened up by patriarchy and social domination or exploitation – the gap is here from the very beginning. So I quite understand the actor who, in order to regain his erection, searched Pornhub – he was looking for a fantasmatic support of his performance. It is for this same reason that, as part of sexual intercourse, one partner asks the other to go on talking, usually narrating something “dirty” – even when you hold in your hands the “thing itself” (the beloved partner’s naked body), this presence has to be supplemented by verbal fantasizing…

This worked for the actor because he was obviously not in a personal love relationship with the actress – her body was more a living sexbot for him. If he were to be passionately in love with his partner, her body would have mattered to him since every gesture of touching her would disturb the core of her subjectivity. When one makes love with someone one truly loves, touching the partner’s body is crucial. One should therefore turn around the common wisdom according to which sexual lust is bodily while love is spiritual: sexual love is more bodily than sex without love.

Will, then, the ongoing epidemics limit sexuality and promulgate love, a distant admiration of the beloved who remains out of touch? The epidemics will definitely give a boost to digital sexual games without bodily contact. Hopefully, however, a new appreciation of sexual intimacy will arise out of the epidemics, and we will learn again the lesson of Andrei Tarkovsky for whom earth, its inert, humid stuff, is not opposed to spirituality but its very medium. In Tarkovsky's masterpiece Mirror, his father Arseny Tarkovsky recites his own lines: “A soul is sinful without a body, like a body without clothes.” Masturbation in front of hard-core porn images is sinful while bodily contact is a path to spirituality.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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