It’s only recently, in these last couple of decades, that we’ve been able to talk about sex. Until now, sex has been in the dominion of religion, and as such, cultural mores and taboos have overwhelmed the acknowledgment of sexual activity and its place in society. That’s no one’s fault in particular: before the advent of science and reason, we turned to intangible and supernatural sources for answers on all our biggest questions. Sex is central to our survival, so it’s only normal that it too fell under the remit of spiritual teaching. Good sex does, after all, have something spiritual about it.
Things that we deem necessary for our survival, like sex, food, air, water, and so on, have and will always preoccupy us. A large proportion of the world still can’t afford to think far past these fundamental necessities, given that nourishment and shelter are not guaranteed for them. In the West, we take for granted that we have a safe place to live and plentiful food and clean water. This frees us up to worry about and focus on things that aren’t mandated for our species’ survival. Things like pleasure, for example.
In the West, we live longer and more safely than ever in history, generally free from war, predation, and the deletion of our liberties. But this freedom from fear generates its own issues. Once we’re free to de-emphasize the need for our most basic requirements, we tend to crave more and more of the excesses of joy and pleasure. Unbound by violence or famine, we pursue higher and higher levels of pleasure, and we find ourselves seeking out things to be disappointed by, or unhappy about, because of an innate yearning to experience the entire spectrum of human feeling. There’s nothing we can do about it, except acknowledge it.
This is where sex in particular comes in. Sex is not the same as love, for example. Nor is it the same as high self-esteem, or confidence. We have only a passing awareness of, or concern for, the consequences of sex, especially while we’re actually doing it. Because of our relative freedom, we demand increasingly more from sex than mere survival. We want sex to be love, or high self-esteem, or confidence, or any number of other things that it isn’t. We append significance to sex because we have the freedom to do so.
That’s largely what allows a company like LELO to exist. For most intents and purposes, the majority of us have the ability to masturbate literally at our fingertips. The fact that we want to augment those sensations with luxurious sex toys is a profoundly telling fact about us as a species: we are free to create the world to our liking.
We’re the first and only species in the universe, as far as we know, who have shrugged off the conventional processes of evolution. Most living entities adapt themselves over time to suit their environment. We don’t. We adapt our environment to suit us, and that makes us absolutely unique. If we’re cold, we take the skin from warmer animals. If we’re wet, we take down trees and convert them into shelter. If we’re hungry, we plant food. We have sex for fun. We masturbate despite it not being essential to the perpetuation of our genes.
We’re only beginning to admit this now. We’ve been uncomfortable around sex for a long time now – our entire recorded history, in fact, and probably long beyond that too. Since we invented agriculture to fortify our food resources and domesticated animals to speed up our daily duties, sex has accrued more and more social gravitas, becoming entwined with our most intrinsic cultural myths. The story of Adam and Eve, for example, is a parable of coming of age through sex. Yes it is. YES. IT. IS.
That doesn’t cut it though. For all the good that it does, relying on religion for your sexual morality is the same as using religion to comprehend mathematics. It’s not really very helpful. One thing has nothing to do with the other.
The upshot is that, after millennia leaning on theology to teach us the ins and outs of sex and masturbation, we have little understanding of our sexual needs. We have so much understanding of our other needs, needs that are ungoverned by theology. For example, we know roughly how much gas we need to put in our tank to drive across the state. We can make an educated guess about how many calories we need daily. We have an idea of how many hours of sleep is healthy.
But ask someone how much sex they need, and they’re at a loss. That’s because our collective sexual education has been inadequate for generations. That’s why the recent explosion in sex toy brands, sales, and awareness is so important: it denotes not that our cultural morals are loosening, but that we actually know and understand them better. This is why sex toys aren’t some frivolous, throw-away part of sexual subculture. Sex toys are perhaps the perfect cultural barometer. Sex toys represent the ultimate victory of humanism over superstition, and for that reason they deserve to be taken seriously, and defended as such.
Knowing and understanding our sexual needs will ultimately mark a seachange in our personal and communal identification, and our sense of freedom. It might seem silly to ascribe such importance to something as seemingly unnecessary as a sex toy, but I’m dead serious. In a century or two, when sexual independence and agency are embraced as normal, our descendants will look back on us gratefully. We’re in a hugely transitional time right now, as desire and reason combine to mean the same thing, two sides of the same coin, and I can legitimately think of no better symbol of this changing than a sex toy.