Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sexual Shame (aka Araki 2)

This topic, sexual shame, was once again on my mind. So I thought I'd bump this old post to the top of the cue. Why's the topic on my mind now? I've been thinking about Darwinian literary criticism and evolutionary psychology. I'm not aware that either have really addressed this issue, though I assume that the evolutionary psychologists have something to say. I'd think it would be front and center with the critics, but I'm not holding my breath.

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Thinking about the Akaki exhibit set me to thinking about something that’s puzzled me for a long time: sexual shame. Why are humans secretive about our sexual activity? Animals are not. In particular, our primate relatives are not. But we are. Why?

(To be sure, the way sexual privacy is staged depends, in part, on physical living arrangements. But not matter how sparse those arrangements may be, privacy is honored in one way or another.)

I assume that there are non-theological answers to this question here and there, but I’m not aware of any. Nor have I come up with any that I like.

I approached something like this topic in an old post on Sex and Metaphysics, where I said this:
The basic circuits for sexuality, like other biological drives, is located deep in the core of the brain in the limbic system. Except for sexuality, those drives are active from birth. But much of the brain is quite immature at birth, especially the neocortex, which is phylogenetically the newest part of the brain. And it’s where our ‘higher’ capacities are more or less localized. All the other emotional and motivational equipment becomes integrated into the ever more sophisticated patterns of thought, desire, and action that are realized in the maturing cortex.

Along comes adolescence and WHAM! the whole system becomes unglued. All of a sudden distinctly new feelings and motivations have to be integrated into one’s repertoire of thoughts and actions. Even if you grow up in a culture that more or less “makes room” for sexuality, it still comes as a shock. Knowing it's going to happen, play-acting at more adult behavior when you're a child, that doesn't really prepare you for having to deal with a whole new hormonal riot. What’s new and confusing is the riot itself.
This leads me to the notion that there is some subtle instability in the overall dynamics of the human nervous system and that sexual privacy is a way of protecting us against that instability.

I go on in that post to speculate about the developmental timing as between the emergence of sexuality and the emergence of abstract thought (in Piaget’s sense). Perhaps that’s where the instability lies. Or maybe it has to do with specifically human sociality which, as I’ve argued in Beethoven’s Anvil, is a bit different from, in addition to, the sociality we’ve inherited from our primate ancestors.

Araki’s sexual imagery, then, stresses these neurodynamics. The images are on public display. We are with others when we see them. But they call for privacy.

Just where ARE those images in social space? What's the connection between sexuality in our lives and in our notions of art?


  1. since we covered oursalves with pants

    what you want us to take them off now?

    it's not going backwards baby!

    and the africans and the other primitives in their native state are mostly naked or near naked

    maybe that shame is the relative brain correlate of 'not going backwards'

  2. "But not matter how sparse those arrangements may be, privacy is honored in one way or another"

    The love hotel seems to be a response to densely packed spaces of Japanese society.

    "We are with others when we see them. But they call for privacy."

    "In my girlfriend's culture, when you are in a room together, you are assumed to participate each other’s presence..... You need to go to the other room and shut the door to have privacy..... Her privacy takes four walls and a shut door, which is about 100 square feet, my privacy takes 30” by 30” newspaper, which takes about 6 square feet.