Penis Rings: You May! Why Sex Doesn’t Matter

May I? Yes, you may!
May I? Yes, you may!

We are obsessed with sex. It’s everywhere. You can’t turn your head but suck a breast, cock an eye but glimpse a cleavage, change the channel but catch the dying groans of someone else’s ecstasy. In fact, if you come across the latter then you might well be watching Durex’s much-publicised advert for what it describes as ‘pleasure gel’. Durex used to be a company that made condoms, pure and simple. Today, however, it is a £40m brand, a promoter of such exoticisms as vibrators, penis rings, oils and lubricants, and – most importantly – a symptom of where we stand ideologically in terms of sex.

Now, there are two ways of approaching this phenomenon, and both – I hope – avoid the common errors of, on the one hand, predictable conservative fundamentalism (sex is sinful…blah blah blah) and, on the other hand, the orgiastic mantra of an ‘18 to 30s’ holiday. The first approach derives from Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst, who has been described as the ‘Elvis Presley of cultural theory’. Throughout his work he stresses that whereas in traditional psychoanalysis the superego was effectively the ‘No!’ of the father, that which forbids (“Can I do this?” squeaks the meek child “NO!” booms the castrating father), today’s superego might be said to be the polar opposite: ‘You may!’ Now, superficially, that seems fairly harmless: ‘What a nice superego! It’ll let me do whatever I want! I can drink and whore till my heart’s content!’ The downside, however, is that ‘You may!’ is a command, and all commands have a nasty side, something in them which is excessive. Suddenly, what seemed like permission to drink becomes a command: ‘You WILL drink excessively and you WILL enjoy it!’ Who hasn’t experienced a night out where, after drinking so much you vomited, you then felt compelled to go on drinking, since that’s ‘fun’? The same goes for sex today. Just because we are a post-hippie, everything-goes generation does not mean that we are a flourishing one. Being free to have sex where, when and with whom we like often transforms maliciously into the Durex implicit imperative ‘I must have sex and it must be good, or else.’

Unfortunately, Bernini never read my blog.
Unfortunately, Bernini never read my blog.

Given that that is the current state of play, the second approach to the problem has the potential to be fairly radical, and it comes from my favourite of unlikeliest sources: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He observes that, despite the fuss that the Church has made historically over sex and sexuality, if you consider the New Testament carefully then you’ll see that sex just isn’t that important. Here is a quote from an essay he wrote over ten years ago, but which has recently been making the rounds on several theology blogs (Ben Myers’s and Halden’s in particular):

“What is baffling and sometimes outrageous to the modern reader is just this assumption that, in certain circumstances, sex can’t matter that much. And I want to suggest that the most important contribution the New Testament can make to our present understanding of sexuality may be precisely in this unwelcome and rather chilling message. We come to the New Testament eagerly looking for answers, and we meet a blank or quizzical face: why is that the all-important problem? Not all human goods are possible all the time, and it would be a disaster to think that there was some experience without which nothing else made sense. Only if sexual intimacy is seen as the last hiding-place of real transcendence, to borrow a phrase from the American novelist, Walker Percy, could we assume that it mattered above all else.”[1]

In other words, precisely because we live in an age obsessed with sex and sexuality, we tend to stake almost everything on those terms. What we forget, and what the New Testament suggests, is that sex just isn’t important. Indeed, in a follow-up post, Halden provocatively concludes that “If Christ is truly the fullness and definition of authentic humanity, we must say categorically that marriage, sex, and parenthood tell us nothing whatsoever of ultimate significance about humanness”. And in this day and age, that is in no small way shocking.


[1] Rowan Williams, “Forbidden Fruit”, in Martyn Percy (ed.), Sexuality and Spirituality in Perspective (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997), pp.25-26

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3 thoughts on “Penis Rings: You May! Why Sex Doesn’t Matter

  1. Robert says:

    The second of your points is brilliant! I’m rather warming to Mr. Williams.

    I also enjoy the fact that the “Possibly related post: (automatically generated)” which comes under your post is: “Does Penis Size Really Matter”.

    Answer: well it’s just not that important.

  2. Tony says:

    “What is baffling and sometimes outrageous to the modern reader is just this assumption that, in certain circumstances, sex can’t matter that much.”

    I would highlight the “in certain circumstances” in the quote above. Rowan Williams exemplifies word-care; Halden’s post, and it seems yours as well, throws the baby out with the bath water.

    1. Daniel Hartley says:

      Tony,

      Thanks for your response. You are absolutely right about Rowan Williams exemplifying word-care. And I agree with you: my post does indeed throw the baby out with the bathwater.

      I can say only this in my defence. Firstly, a significant proportion of my target audience is the average, relatively well-educated internet user, who is most likely atheist or agnostic, and who has no specialist knowledge of theology or philosophy. I’m sure you’d agree that to attract such an audience, it would be wise to avoid diving into the subtle niceties of a particular doctrine, however much I believe that to be important in other circumstances.

      My posts seem to fall into two broad categories: tightly-argued/ nuanced posts, on the one hand, and, on the other, polemics. They both have the same aim, but what one does positively the other does negatively. The former aims to guide the reader to a more enlightened state than that in which they began; to coax them bit by bit or take them gently by the hand. The polemic, in contrast, aims to be bold, to jolt and to shock. The ‘truth’ of its thesis is not immanent to the post itself, but rather arises negatively out of the momentary scission of the habitual. It is the difference between painting a fresco on the side of an already very beautiful house and knocking the house down ready for it to be replaced by another, perhaps more commodious, abode.

      None of that, of course, alters the fact that your criticism is justified.

      Best wishes,

      Daniel

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