Written in the Flesh

By Edward Shorter

Written in the Flesh is a book that develops a single bold, provocative, and yet simple thesis. This thesis takes the form of a history of sexual desire. What Shorter argues is that after the “free-and-easy sexuality” of the Classical period, sexual practices and fantasies in the West were restrained for fifteen hundred years by religious stricture, community standards, disease, and poor hygiene, only to begin to break free around the end of the nineteenth century, and then explode after the 1960s. This explosion was driven by hardwired biological urges. The brain – not the mind, reason, or spirit – has at all times been the engine and author of our sexualized, hedonistic culture. What it has been moving toward is something Shorter calls “total body sex”: “the body as a whole as an instrument or a receptacle of desire, not just the face and genitals.”

That’s the thesis. In order to make such an argument Shorter begins by setting out a sexual “baseline”, the “minimal level of erotic pleasure required for human reproduction.” This is the sexual behaviour we were stuck with through the long (sexual) dark ages of Christian Europe. For heterosexual men and women it meant the missionary position. For gay men it meant buggery. For lesbians a bit of friction. There was kissing, but no one was getting any tongue. Nor was there any oral sex, nipple play, anal sex (for heterosexuals), or fetish. These were the vanilla years.

The “great breakout from the thousand-year carapace of limited sexual expression” into total body sex was the result of the removal of external limits and restraints on the human capacity for desire. With the growth of a culture rich and permissive enough to allow its development, hedonism came into its own.

As with any book arguing a single Big Idea, it’s natural to be a bit skeptical. Shorter confesses to making bold generalizations. From the fall of the Roman Empire (whenever that was) until 1900 is treated as a single unit, with “sexual experience . . . relatively unchanging from century to century.” And then there is the problem of evidence. We don’t have a lot of scientific data for what people were doing before Shorter’s “breakout” (which, luckily for the researcher, took place just around the time of the Kinsey Report). Shorter’s main sources for sex before sex was invented are porn and private diaries. These do have weight – as Samuel Johnson once remarked, no man is a liar in his vices – but it’s hard to tell how representative they are.

But taken for the general outline that it is, Shorter’s thesis on the history and progress of desire seems credible. In fact it is hardly surprising, especially given the authority of current genetic and biological approaches to understanding human behaviour. For Shorter biology is in the driver’s seat: superior to rationality and will, driving the body endlessly forward, actively forming consciousness and culture, and “creating a society oriented towards personal gratification in a way that previous generations could never have imagined.”

This leads to some interesting considerations. If everything about us is biologically determined, might there be other biological drivers even more powerful than the pleasure principle? And where are all these ineluctable “hedonic changes” taking us anyway?

Away from each other.

Since desire is all about personal gratification, sex is necessarily “antisocial.” Shorter concludes by pointing to how “people are asserting sexual pleasure over community, rather than over reason.” Of course reason, as he has already argued, isn’t up to the task of controlling desire anyway. But sex is also a privatizing force, taking us out of contact with the community to places where we can indulge ourselves to the fullest. This shift in social behaviour, which Shorter relates to the anti-civic society “bowling alone” phenomenon, has consequences for all of us.

Could we take such a thesis even further? Doesn’t the massive cultural force of Internet pornography – which some estimates place at 75% of the World Wide Web and a third of all Internet use across the board – indicate an even further withdrawal? After all, if the pursuit of pleasure is nothing but self-gratification, why bother with a partner? Might the next step after “total body sex” be a form of computer-assisted “post-body” virtual sex?

Shorter tells us that people today “act on the basis of a desire in a way that would have been inconceivable even a hundred years ago.”

And a hundred years hence? What is the future of desire?

Review first published February 11, 2006.

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