The history of modern sex can be told as a turn inward, toward sexual subjectivity over against social constraints, toward personal fulfillment over against economic alliances and household management, toward love over against procreation. Modern sex, at its best, is an inter-subjective reality. It is an expression of the sexual self, and the self is drawn, through this need for expression, into relationships that are conceived as "sexual." Those who identify a relationship as something social, as a marriage or friendship, are likely to identify a distinct sexual relationship that coexists along with or within their practical or public relationships. This relation between the sexual self and a discrete sexual sphere corresponds, ironically, with the dominance of an impersonal industrial economy and anonymous political relations. While sex has been freed, supposedly, from social and economic constraints, the very idea of a pre-social sexual sphere has come to serve contractual individualism and the market economy. The dominant social economy is reproduced by the inviolability of desire, sexual and otherwise. To be inviolable, desire must be conceived as preceding the social. The sexual self is the natural self that stands outside social relations, and sexual relationships are believed to enliven personal subjectivity in an impersonal social world.
The subjective structure of sex is complemented with a modern conviction that each of us is, inescapably, a desiring subject. Sex and sexual desire point to a truth about us. We are sexual beings. As such, we communicate who we are, sexually, through a variety of interchanges: some overtly sexual, others not, some casual, others profound, some whimsical, others dutiful. Sexual activity need not fulfill any purpose other than the ends determined by the persons who engage in the activity (e.g., physical pleasure, emotional intimacy, love, mutual conquest, or procreation). Sex is defined by the willful making of our subjectivity. If, in ages past, the desired product of sexual activity was children and a display of social position and hierarchy, the desired outcome, in recent times, is both self-determination and a display of the sexual self. If Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans worried about producing progeny and reproducing the social body, modern Americans worry about themselves. In this regard, sexual desire is a product that comes out of the self. Self-referential sexuality is, in a word, romantic.
Because sexual activity is thought to express the self, the end of desire represents a loss of self. Children, pleasure, and power may be goals of sexual activity, but they will not bring sexual satisfaction insofar as "satisfaction" implies an end to motivation and desire. Rather than enjoying the tranquility of their maturity, middle-aged men would rather feel yearnings from within. A sexual drive (or Viagra) restores the self, inasmuch as personal contentment is found through inextinguishable desire. Medieval troubadours, in celebration of the beloved's lure, did not strive for consummation as much as for the abandonment of self in the striving. Consummation marked an end never to be reached, particularly since romantic love was defined outside of the social bonds of household and marriage (Rougemont 1983). Late twentieth-century romantics, in contrast, gain a self through desire. Their true love requires no sacrifice, and now, sexual objects are expected to be both accessible and exhaustible. Romantic love need not endure to be true. Likewise, consummation has been converted, no longer a boundary line but an intermediate point of consumption. If modern adolescents brag about "doing it," mature adults fantasize about "doing it all night long." Good sex will not satisfy as much as spur a lover on for more and more. In other words, sex flounders when it can be sated. Sex must reproduce desire.
This reproduction of desire for the sake of desire is produced within the dominant market economy. Late twentieth-century capitalism is an economy, not of products, but of consumption. It requires ever-expanding markets and innovation for its continuation, and as a result, it must produce desire through the introduction of a product or service. The economy creates markets and reproduces choices and social relations friendly to market rationality (Rifkin 2000). This kind of social reproduction has been used by free trade advocates, as an argument for opening and expanding trade with China. Certainly, China's political system is reprehensible to Americans, but what better way to change their culture of oppression than open our economy to them (McGrory 2000; Mufson 2000; Vita and Eilperin 2000). This familiar argument assumes that the economy carries forms of subjectivity and social relations. Likewise, consumer capitalism pervades a cultural code of sex and sexual desire, and this code impinges on social relations that are ostensibly nonsexual. We all know that sexual cues are used to attract us to one toothpaste rather than another. We all know that non-sexual social exchanges often have a sexual sub-text or operate through a tacit sexual code. It is less recognized or accepted that our sexual desires are structured and constrained by the systems of exchange where they appear (Illouz 1997).
The logic of "reproductive desire" demands that our desires appear to us as only natural (e.g. it is only natural that the Chinese people, as opposed to their oppressive government, would want our market choices). If pre-social, desire can be conceived as a personal reality that impinges upon the world. If not a personal choice, then our sexual impulses must be pre-determined naturally, as sociobiologists will confirm (Dawkins 1976). In either case, desire is conceived as a foundation outside social and economic constraints. As a foundation, it is assumed to produce social relations rather than vice versa. In this regard, market desire justifies its own ends.
By lifting desire out of the "only natural," I do not intend to take what is typically called a constructionist view of sexuality (i.e., that sexual desire and practices are merely historical and cultural constructions). Such a theory is the inverse and complement of a modernist reduction to nature. The constructionist tends to view cultures as mechanisms that stand outside and work upon the people that inhabit them; yet, the constructionist argument is often used to justify personal lifestyles and choices, since all "sexualities" are arbitrary anyway. In other words, it is used as a counter-position to those who claim that sex has a normative pre-social basis. Like the naturalist position, the constructionist view is often shaped by an individualist conception of culture and social formation. Culture is considered a collective individual who is self-determined by force of the will (or the majority will) over against a never-to-be-known "nature." In any case, when all desire is defined as arbitrary, the desire of individuals is once again freed from social constraints, just like the modern individual is freed from determination by the social body
My point is that sex is social reproduction, that sexual practices cohere with and perpetuate forms of social production. With this claim, culture as such is not set over against nature as such, but neither are they considered a seamless whole. There are a variety of contending and coextensive social forms, and it is plausible to propose that any given culture or era will be a complex of dominant, emergent, residual, and auxiliary social forms, all of which impinge upon, contend for, and form feelings, impulses, rationality, and conceptions of the social or pre-social self (Raymond Williams 1977: 121-8). Some social and sexual practices, perhaps, are reproduced more "naturally" than others, but it is a particularly modern notion that it is important (or possible) to distinguish difference between natural and social, and that the difference can be determined without a conception of human beings as created with an end. Modern "sex without ends" lacks a conception of human fulfillment that interprets and unifies both social and natural life. If sex is socially reproductive, then a grammar of desire, market capitalism and contractual individualism fit together as a dominant network of social reproduction. They represent a dominant set of constraints on conceptions of the sexual and the logic of sexual practices. A challenge to this reproduction of desire is not a turn to the individual or pre-social self, but an alternative social body, which presents contending practices of social reproduction.
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