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A Matter of Urgency

In response to:

Pox Americana from the December 30, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

The fact seems to be,” writes Edgar Friedenberg [NYR, December 30], “that people usually have to be taught that they ought to enjoy fucking, as they do drinking or getting stoned.” It would be hard to convince some kids that that is a fact. Daphnis and Chloë didn’t know how, but they knew that they wanted to. The correct analogy is to eating or excreting. Often new-born infants need some encouragement to start suckling, but thereafter they go at it with a will. I have not heard of anybody needing lessons to shit or piss. If sex were quite so cultural as Edgar says, I am puzzled that the animal races have survived.

The word “enjoy” is wrongly chosen for these physiological urges—I am afraid it is Edgar who has the liberal attitude. Even mechanical terms like “drives” or “needs” are preferable. The pleasure in eating, shitting, or fucking is, as Freud used to say, “anaclitic,” dependent on functions that must occur anyway.

I am more in sympathy with Edgar’s main point, his objection to the mental-hygiene view that sex is groovy and not nasty. Long ago Otto Rank said that it is better to learn the facts of life in the gutter where they are not shorn of their risk and mystery. But Edgar’s explanation, that people are ashamed, is again wrong. They are not ashamed but endangered. Such necessitous acts are dangerous to the ego and its will to control. Orgasm and tending toward it are especially uncontrollable; but hungry primitives, who have to gorge themselves when they can, are suspicious in eating too, and many animals are scary and secretive about excreting. If willy nilly a person gives in to such needs and loses control, he/she is vulnerable, out on a limb; and in this situation, he/she can be deeply shamed if not accepted.

Thus, dirty jokes perform three invaluable services: 1) They try out verbally what is in fact risky and unknown. 2) They test out the social situation, so the ego can disown the whole matter and save face if necessary, to avoid shame. 3) They hopefully rouse excitement, leading to a ball.

Paul Goodman

Waimanalo, Hawaii

Edgar Z Friedenberg replies:

With respect to urgency, eating and excretion are not analogous to sexuality at all. An animal that fails to do either of these must shortly die, and there is certainly in most organisms an urge to preserve life. Continence, however, never killed anybody. Nor can it be said to endanger a species that is already overcrowding its ecological niche, as man is today.

Studies of animal behavior, in fact, suggest that when such overcrowding occurs and reproduction thus loses its urgency for the species, the sexual impulse becomes weaker and more sporadic and is more rarely carried through to intercourse. If this is true for humans as well, it is highly probable that many—perhaps most—people living under the conditions of modern urban life continue to fuck primarily for social purposes, to relieve anxiety, or because their self-image depends on it; and the norms so established are among the most cruelly enforced in any society.

Other animal studies—in this case the much publicized research of Harry F. Harlow with primates—indicate that those animals assigned to the same biological order as ourselves must indeed learn mating behavior or they cannot mate. Many New York Review readers will recall these observations of apes nurtured in the laboratory by “surrogate mothers”—actually warmed and padded contraptions the animals could cuddle up to—which appeared to develop “normally” until they reached puberty, but then did not perceive another, normally bred monkey of the opposite sex as a possible mate: the idea, apparently, did not occur to them.

These findings are usually interpreted to mean that the development of robot-reared monkeys had been grossly impaired by deficient experience of mothering. But this is an ideological inference. The observations themselves tell us merely that sexual behavior among primates did not in these cases arise spontaneously: a real mother is apparently a prerequisite to the development of what we have been calling a mating instinct in primates. Mothers are stimulating and instructive in ways that an electrically heated facsimile can never be—that’s for sure. But those laboratory-reared monkeys may not have felt themselves deprived; they may have been happy to have been spared the ravages of Portnoy’s complaint. Omne animal post coitum triste, though perhaps less in Hawaii than elsewhere.

Finally, if dirty stories performed the three invaluable services Goodman mentions, they wouldn’t be regarded as jokes at all, let alone dirty. He seems to regard sexual engagement as requiring the kind of precautions taken by industrial or military saboteurs. But people who engage in such dangerous, clandestine, and exciting exploits seldom regard them as peccadilloes; and though they may feel fearful while performing them and triumphant when they have finished, they don’t feel undignified. Lovers, alas, very often do.

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