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Matthew Nicholls - April 19, 2018
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Academic Armchair: Between platonic love and internet pornography

Attempting to show readers how an “holistic approach” to matters of sexuality is a better one, Tanja Staehler and Alexander Kozin tackle most aspects of modern life in this article, aiming in their own words to define “the role of sexuality in our contemporary world”.

The contemporary world can be frightening in its opportunity, and this seems to be something reflected in this article.

We asked Tanja why she and her co-author called loss of sexual desire “one of the scariest prospects” we face, and whether she feels some students might be in danger of this happening to them.

“This statement pertains to the kinds of emotions that are basic to us as human beings, students or otherwise; and losing desire is a deep fear as it disconnects us from one of our main drivers, no matter how you want to interpret the nature of such ‘drivers’ (which can be interpreted in psychological, biological, or as we would like it, phenomenological terms- that is, in terms of our human experience).”

“Losing desire makes us numb, more prone to depression, boredom, loneliness.”

“But your question perhaps also implies a diagnosis of our times, and whether we in our times are particularly at risk. I would say, yes.”

The idea that we today are more at risk of things like mental illness due to our hugely interconnected world in which (it can be argued) real connections are lacking is not a revelatory one, but its ramifications if taken to be true are enormous.

Tanja is doing other research on this topic, which students will no doubt be just as interested in.

“Just recently, empirical research has given an estimate that 24% of young teenage girls suffer from depression, and social networks were thought to contribute to the change as well as to the gender effect.”

“One’s social media profile is yet another thing to worry about when it comes to being seen by others (as Sartre explores it), especially if you have doubts about yourself, which we all do (but teenage girls by and large more so).”

“If you take the effects of social networks and internet pornography together, I am quite worried about the future of erotic relationships. David Foster Wallace expressed a concern that virtual porn, once we have it, will be so good that we’ll not want to do anything else.”

This idea perhaps sounds like dystopian fiction, but- when the almost scarily rapid advancements in our technological capabilites are considered- you are forced to wonder. Could we as humans go the same way as animals like the notoriously sexually lethargic panda?

“When we are confronted with ever more ‘improved’ and engaging versions of social networks as well as porn, I am indeed concerned about our social relations and especially about our erotic relations.”

“We would feel ever more deterred from communicating with actual human beings, yet in the end all the more lonely and paralysed.”

As a small part of the article, Tanja and Alexander focus in on the “no-fap” movement. This online phenomenon encourages abstinence from masturbation, under the assumption that masturbation is detrimental to life.

We asked Tanja why she feels the movement, though strange to many, has gained so much traction online.

“I think it has gained such traction because of an emptiness and loneliness that many people feel, to which they originally sought porn as a remedy but which doesn’t work on a deeper level and in the long run.”

“But instead of exploring the problems and contextualising them in our existence as humans, there is a desire to find a ‘one-for-all’ remedy.”

“I am very confident that abstinence from internet porn helps for those who have been using it a lot and are experiencing erection problems.”

“But the problem with porn is a much deeper rooted problem which relates to modern technology and the way in which it seems to become more and more difficult for us to interact with and trust actual people.”

“I am worried that it can lead to a more desperate attitude and danger of harassment.”

While excessive masturbation is almost unanimously viewed as a negative thing, this extreme aversion to masturbation notable in groups like No-Fap seems to be almost as unhealthy in the opposite direction.

We asked Tanja whether she thinks this aversion is necessarily unhealthy, or if sexual habits are just something that shouldn’t be vigorously regimented.

“I don’t think an aversion to masturbation is unhealthy; in fact, I find that the social aspect of actual sex, that is, encountering an actual human being, is really crucial to what we understand by Eros.”

“In masturbation, this spark, the transgression to the actual other human being, as we call it in the article, is missing.”

This brought us on to the subject of Plato, whose work Tanja and Alexander focus on not insubstantially when talking about love, sex and life.

We were interested in why Tanja thought that responses to Plato- an inarguably archaic figure- can offer a good baseline for understanding contemporary relationships.

“Because ironically, Plato does not tell us that the response to the dangers of love is what we call ‘Platonic love’, as in, love without sexual component.”

“Plato teaches us about the ambiguity of love that we need to learn to endure and navigate — as if steering a chariot pulled by two very different horses, a good one and a bad one (a famous image from the dialogue ‘Phaedrus’).”

“The bad one is not sex as such; it is excess, irrationality, narrow-mindedness, self-destruction.”

Tanja and told us that students were instrumental in the process of writing the article. We asked about how exactly students helped with the research, and how she hopes students will respond to the article as it stands.

“Parallel to writing the article, we tried something we hadn’t done before and ended up doing in an ‘amateur’ fashion due to absence of funding: a video on the topic.”

“We prepared this video for the 2015 Being Human Festival, and it was scary as well as exciting (scary because completely homemade, exciting because we wanted to try this new medium, philosophical discussion on film).”

“I asked students from my first year BA Existentialism module whether they wanted to participate by answering four questions about Platonic love and internet pornography, and two of them indeed followed through to the final product.”

“They did extremely well, and I am very proud of them, which inspired me further to conduct the second half of the movie, a dialogue between Alexander Kozin, co-author of the article, and myself, about internet pornography and what an existentialist or phenomenological (by which I mean, based on our experience, and viewed within the context of our existence) approach to the topic might look like.”

“Then we had a viewing and discussion of that film as part of the Being Human Festival, which was a further interesting step in the process because it was a very intense, honest discussion at the front of Fulton A lecture theatre where we all sat on the floor and chatted.”

“I know that several of the participants from that discussion have gone on to do work related to similar topics (for example, a recent JRA project by Phin Jennings on Shame and Art, the poster of which can be seen in Arts A).”

You can read a blog Tanja wrote for the Being Human Festival website at the web address beinghumanfestival.org/from-platonic-love-to-internet-pornography/.

Since Tanja and Alexander’s project is still ongoing, we asked Tanja whether there is anything she finds interesting that isn’t present in the article in its current state.

“There is lots of additional work that is needed. Ideally, we would like to try understanding human desire, erotic relations, and sexuality very differently, with the help of words, speech, philosophy and literature.”

“I am also involved in research around ‘musical orgasm’ (apparently better called ‘frisson’) and food orgasm as the current discussion focuses on bodily symptoms (goosebumps and the like) but leaves out the actual experience, and omits something which we suspect to be very crucial: the social or interpersonal aspect.”

“The research on musical orgasms claims that musical orgasms hijack on mechanisms in actual sex in a similar way masturbation does.”
“That is an interesting connection to the porn project because it would imply that orgasm in masturbation is different from orgasm in sexual intercourse, which is difficult to believe from a physiological perspective but entirely plausible from an existential or phenomenological viewpoint.”

“If anybody wants to contribute to the ongoing research, there are several projects for which we are seeking participants, ranging from musical orgasms to sex after childbirth to a continuation of Phin’s JRA project on shame and art.”

These can be accessed through Tanja’s webpage: tanjastaehler.org

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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