Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World provided a map for a world of sex where technology was used to increase our pleasure and mechanise our relationships. But as the dystopia suggested this divorces us from engaging with our partners and focusing on the pure mechanics of the act, writes Abraham Olivier. Instead we should see sex as an extension of art. Art therefore which will help save the future of sex.
In his classic Brave New World, published in 1932, Aldous Huxley portrays a dystopia of a genetically engineered World State with huge scientific advancements in all kinds of technologies. These technologies should guarantee a prosperous, pain-free life, including ultimate sexual pleasure. Huxley’s futuristic high-tech World State entertains what one may call technology’s dream of the ultimate sex encounter. Futuristic as it still may sound, current sex technology (sextech) is already selling this as a dream come true. Visit any of the countless online sex shops and you are promised a sex experience like you have never had before. Sextech sells dreams of, among others, VR (virtual reality) technology that takes sex to another level of unimaginable pleasure, or else of perfectly designed sextoys and even sexbots effectively replacing humans by offering better and also safer sex without potential harm and health issues. But is such sextech not just a dream? To state the obvious, sex comes with lots of issues and is – or rather can be – a complex affair. One tends to associate sextech with something simpler, with what some call “pornomechanics” - a pornographic fixation on the sensory stimulation of some genital parts of the body to reach maximum satisfaction. How should one imagine sextech to offer ultimate sex without reducing it to pornomechanics? A look at Huxley’s imaginings of a society run by future sextech may prompt some scenarios to think about.
Huxley wrote Brave New World in the wake of the Second World War. As he says in his retrospective reflection, Brave New World Revisited (1958), he was imagining a future society that would recover from the crisis and chaos of the War by offering “The completely organized society, the scientific caste system, the abolition of free will by methodical conditioning, the servitude made acceptable by regular doses of chemically induced happiness…” The chemically induced happiness he refers to is called “soma” in Brave New World. Soma is a drug, a kind of psychedelic, distributed for free to the citizens of the World State. Huxley himself describes the effect of soma as “Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant.” It offers instant gratification. “Soma” stems from the ancient Greek word for body. Huxley seems to use the term soma also in its broader sense to designate the technology used to manipulate physical aspects of sexuality. Therefore, I take soma not only to refer to the psychedelic drug but also to the design of what one may call a society fixated on physical pleasure. In this society, citizens are genetically engineered and conditioned to stay young and sexy, and to indulge in sex as long as they live. Soma comes down to physical conditioning in sex consumption to keep citizens happy and thereby under control. I refer to sex in this society as “somasex”.
Somasex is designed for both children and adults. Unlike adults, children did not seem to get the drug “soma” in the World State. Somasex in children rather refers to what Huxley calls “erotic play”. Huxley is not clear about it, but one can infer that erotic play indicates a sex education of sorts, including practising sex. In this sense, I speak of somasex designed for children. As such somasex is a technical matter of conditioning children to prepare them to partake in the sex consumer culture of the adult world.
Somasex in the adult world consists of individual soma dates and soma socials. Soma dates are kind of one-night stands, fleeting individual affairs with as many others as possible. Dating only one person goes against the educational and social order of things.
Soma socials are public events where everyone indulges in erotic play with everyone else. Somasex is kick-started with the sextech of the drug soma, which sets off a bodily orgy of its own as it merges multiple erotic zones of a person’s body in a massive event of sexual pleasure with the multiple body parts of other persons. All that matters here is what Voltaire’s Candide may have called pleasing as many bodily parts as possible for as many persons as possible in the best of possible sextech worlds.
Now according to Huxley, the socially instilled workings of sextech suits most well, until some start questioning it, or worse, until they start feeling more than what the World State allows: falling in love.
Huxley’s futuristic high-tech World State entertains what one may call technology’s dream of the ultimate sex encounter
This brings us to another scenario in Huxley – sexuality conceived of in terms of love. Love is the enemy of the Brave New World. Love features in the primitive world of savages, a reservation outside the World State where its technologies have not been introduced. Here, traditional codes of conduct such as strict religiously instilled monogamy still run society. Those who live here are savages primitive enough to believe in love. One can go there on holiday to go savage and break away from all the sex in the city, as Huxley says, “...reality, however utopian, is something from which people feel the need of taking pretty frequent holidays....” During their holiday, people from the civilized state are granted the freedom to make love for a turn instead of just having sex. Call it lovesex. The savages, on the other hand, seem to see love as one thing, a religious affair, and sex as another, a matter of reproduction. However, if you have sex, then it should be blessed by love. It is lovesex of its own kind, proportionally with as much love and as little sex as possible.
There are abundant classic philosophical views on what one may deem “lovesex” – typically they are more charitable about making love than Huxley’s seems to be. For example, making love in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s terms means, one subject plunges into the world of the other. For Jean-Paul Sartre, it requires a full submission to the other to please them until a sexual climax deflates the desire. Simone de Beauvoir thinks desire can persist beyond sexual satisfaction, the affair could last longer than Sartre imagined. In this line Luce Irigaray argues that sex is not only about physical pleasure, but rather it is about the many dimensions of care invested in the reciprocal “caress”. Accordingly, the sexual encounter is about the reciprocity of touching and being touched, giving and receiving, activity and passivity, loving and being the beloved.
These philosophers thus seem to defend what one may call lovesex - sex as making love. Lovesex seems to be not quite as bad as it may appear in Brave New World, after all Huxley’s civil servants like to do that during their holiday.
In Brave New World Revisited (1958), Huxley admits that he initially thought that George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1948, would be more predictive of the future than his Brave New World. It looked like the society that rules by punishment rather than reward, would triumph. It appears that Huxley’s utopia prevailed as reflected in current day consumer capitalism. In Brave New World there is constant encouragement to consume goods as demonstrated by quotes about relationships like ''ending is better than mending'' and ''the more stitches, the less riches”. Sex is one of these goods to be consumed maximally. Accordingly, human actions, like sex, are goods for consumption in the domain of the market.
As alternative to somasex and lovesex, I suggest one consider sex as a form of art
Like all utopias, however, one needs checks and balances, in short, one needs to manipulate and condition people to control them. As Huxley says: “One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.” Huxley’s apparent utopia for sex ends by critically showing it to be a sexdystopia. Somasex uses sextech (soma) to control (condition and manipulate) people. The result is a reduction of sexuality to sex without love. Alternatively, there is the religious manipulation of a society of love stripped of sex. Huxley’s high-tech Brave New World ultimately seems to offer two dystopian scenarios of both somasex and lovesex. In each of these scenarios sexuality is manipulated in a way that reduces it to either sex or love.
Many philosophers seem to accept that sex and love can be both combined and separated. Sexuality is indeed a complex affair. Can a sextech be imagined that does justice to the complexity of sexuality?
As alternative to somasex and lovesex, I suggest one consider sex as a form of art. Recall, technology means originally art. Sextech is actually sexart. Art is most basically defined as creative activity. Now, I would like to distinguish between technocratic and technological activity in sex. Technocratic sex manifests as pornomechanics: technology is used to reduce sex to physical - mostly genital - stimulation, which typically becomes a mechanical act stripped of imagination. Technological sex activity I take to refer to sexart: a creative act that uses technology as tool to set free the sexual imagination. Whereas technocratic sex is reductive and fixated on one aspect, the genital, sexart is explorative and opens venues to creatively unfold the complex aspectuality of sexuality.
Sexart in Huxley’s terms requires education in “erotic play”, ideally, free of the fixation on pornomechanics. Not only for children to explore the art of playing sex, but also for adults to be creative in exploring. A more recent and even more explorative example of sexart may be Sophie Lewis’ imaginings of the erotic play involved in the creative act of both having sex (somasex) and making love (lovesex) with water of a reservoir in her provocative paper “My octopus girlfriend: On erotophobia.” This creative act has multiple complex aspects or episodes. For instance, there is the aesthetic aspect of the water’s “tinkling mineral embrace”, an aspect that sounds like the caress Irigaray would ascribe to making love, thus lovesex. But then the act takes a sensual turn and becomes hard somasex with the water’s “buzzing currents unendingly fucking” her and “never before had her cunt opened so wide or drenched its surroundings to this extent.” However, what seems to be a pornographic fixation on the genital is absorbed by a non-genital episode “in the art of oceanic nongenital climax.” Then again there is a complete non-binary gender aspect as the “sexual ambush by the reservoir sluiced it” (gender) “beyond comprehensibility.”
Now imagine a sextech encounter that can offer these complex sexual episodes virtually enough to feel real. This then would be what I can imagine to be sexart freed from its reduction to somasex or lovesex. What if sextech can make possible, at least virtually, such sexart? This may just be a limited example of the complex episodic diversity of sexual aspects set free in what Huxley called erotic play. One can imagine this to happen in enhancing human sex by using VR Technology. One can imagine Huxley’s psychedelic (soma) to help trigger such sexart as it did for Sophie Lewis who indulged while going on an LSD trip. As Lynn Hall suggests in “Sex with Robots for Love Free Encounters”, VR headsets, linked with teledildonics and soft robot technology offer considerable potential for interactive and immersive sexual experiences. She is, however, sceptical about the current potential of sex with robots, simply because they are not yet that well developed and will not be in the near future. But then there is no reason why well advanced sex robots linked with VR Technology may not blow our future sexminds with explosive multidimensional sexart. This assumes that sexart remains creative, aspectual and explorative, in short complex.
The open society has its enemies, so sexart has its challenges
The challenges of sexart
The open society has its enemies, so sexart has its challenges. Here are some. One challenge is that of ideological barriers to the idea of the sex education that “erotic play” requires; most societies may not be open for this kind of sexart. It is after all more than a Netflix matter of Sexeducation. Another challenge lies in the very complexity of sexuality itself. The diverse aspects of sex have inherent conflictual tendencies. Love, desire, possession, care, passion, genital indulgence, these aspects may not always sit well with each other, and each on its own is prone to stop the game. There remains especially the challenge to counter the inclination to the pornomechanical overemphasis of genital fixation. Further, there is the challenge of seeing that the dream of sextech to generate the ultimate sexual encounter remains but a dream, because, as Slavoj Žižek said, sex cannot be perfect; rather sexual desire lives of the very incompleteness of sexuality, of what makes us chase and strive. Finally, there is the challenge of imagination – after all, how do we learn to have sex, or make love, with water?
Join the conversation