Le petite mort (the little death), is a French euphemism for orgasm and ties together the two things that concern me the most now that I am atheist. Sex and death.
It was not until I lost my faith at 28 that I decided it was okay for me to have sex outside of marriage. It was also not until then that I started awakening in the middle of the night panicking about my own mortality. I have come to experience sex and death as opposing forces that, paradoxically, presuppose each other and in some moments face one another so closely that they seem to intermingle.
Negotiating that tete-a-tete is difficult enough in itself, but as a post-Christian the act of sex and the thought of death are both so loaded with baggage that the confluence of the two can be mildly terrifying.
For that reason I will tackle them separately at first.
Aside from the ghastly prospect of hell for unbelievers, as a Christian death was, at its worst, a sad ellipsis until reunion with the deceased took place in heaven. Not that untimely death was not experienced as tragic but that the tragedy was undoubtedly mitigated by certain hope. Thinking about my own death only ever meant thinking about heaven. Of course there was an awareness that during my life I would survive people and at some point others would survive me and that this would entail a parting, but my family and closest friends all being Christian meant that goodbye was only really au revoir.
With no faith in an afterlife, death’s finality is an unquestionable tragedy and an unremitting vacuum waiting at my end. Life is no longer a trajectory towards God given impetus by my mother’s contractions, it is rather a slow syphoning of life force into death’s sucking maw. Melodramatic I know, but nonetheless how I sometimes feel. Death towers before me making a nonsense of anything I would try and achieve, and it whispers insidiously into the intimacies of friendship and love making a nonsense of those also, promising pain and abandonment.
With sex come inevitably the words shame, danger, lust, flesh and sin. And this despite having relatively open and tolerant parents and having developed a very sex-positive theology.
At first, having sex was hard. I have identified three main reasons for this.
1. During my formative years sexuality was a regarded as a secret you must keep at all costs; have female friends but don’t desire them, if you desire them deny it (to everyone including yourself). Hide your erections, despise them even. If you masturbate, do it in secret and paranoia. Needless to say, the secrecy, embarrassment and implied shame that became connected with being aroused made it very difficult to be comfortable in front of someone else.
2. As a young man I was encouraged to sublimate my sexuality somehow. Developing relationships within a conservative Christian missionary culture based in an Islamic country, there were very specific rules about how men and women should interact. To deal with physical urges many of my peers became aggressive athletes, I was not of this disposition. I became a thinker, a writer and a talker. I am practiced at being vulnerable in word and thought (this piece should be sufficient evidence of that). What I was very bad at was being physically vulnerable. Knowing how to be touched, to feel the warmth of a hug and understand it as love rather than to feel troubled, to be kissed and experience pleasure and amorousness rather than wanting to retreat into the cold ball of self-loathing that sometimes grew in my stomach.
3. The nagging feeling that having multiple sexual partners was a game of diminishing returns, even if it was always done in good faith. In this way romance and foreplay were often stymied by reluctance, hesitancy, fear and, of course, an ever present guilt.
La Petite Mort
Sex and death are two sides of the same coin. Sex is life, is how the vast majority of us came to be. It is the method by which the most fundamental evolutionary urge expresses itself. Because of this, sex is our weapon against death and progeny our only shot at an afterlife. It is what we atheists do in the face of the void. And yet, sex is also a death of sorts. Precisely in that most (potentially) creative of moments comes the obliteration of consciousness, that relinquishing of thought, of awareness, of self. This expenditure of life-force is also a reminder of our inevitable impotency (which in evolutionary terms is already death) and simultaneously a spur to repeat the act as many times as possible. Thus the cycle we now casually refer to as our, “sex lives”.
During my time as a youth pastor I was already aware of some of the negative consequences of a repressive approach to sexuality and did my best to broach difficult subjects and offer a more open-minded perspective to the young people during various ‘purity retreats’ and the like.
A question I often asked myself was: What should a person do with their sexuality before marriage if sex is not an option? I still see this as a very important question for the church as the majority of its sexual ethics were developed in a time riddled with taboos, when teenagers didn’t exist and people got married at 14, and when there was no internet. Other than throwing around vague terms like openness and honesty I have very little in the way of practical suggestion and this post is as far as I have gotten towards even those aims. I would be very happy if a conversation ensued.