I have a fiery hatred for Cartesian dualism. There are well documented problems with dualism, and modern neuroscience indicates a close relationship between the physical aspects of the brain and the subjective experiences of the mind. Being embodied can really suck sometimes (trust me, I have an eating disorder), but one of the important elements of being mentally healthy for me is accepting not only that I have a body but that in many ways I am my body.
I recently posed the question to a friend “if you were removed from your body and put into a robot, would you still be you?” I suggest no, as the ways that I can think of to define self nearly all rely on bodily experiences: our actions, our thoughts, our feelings, our values. These things are all highly dependent on what we sense and how we sense, and are affected by the ways that our bodies work. A well fed body acts, thinks, and feels differently than a hungry body. These experiences of being dependent on something that is changeable and fallible seem to be an essential part of being human.
Even when we think of the memories and narratives that we have, our bodies are essential to a sense of self. Memories are often sensory experiences, dependent on what we perceived and the emotions elicited in the moment. There’s evidence that smell is more connected to memory than other senses, which points towards the idea that our memories are colored by both our fallible and finite brains, and the ways that our body is capable of processing an experience. Even the stories that we tell about ourselves are highly influenced by our bodies, if only because our social position is affected by our weight and height and strength and gender presentation. It’s easy to imagine that our concept of selfhood is entirely abstract or mental, but most of our emotions are experienced physically, and things like stress or relaxation are very physical, embodied experiences.
All of this is to say that I’m firmly convinced that me, Olivia, is not simply my conscious experience, but my conscious experience as situated in this body, and that if I were to be transplanted there would be a pivotal change in my essential identity. I’m not entirely sure what this means as far as continuity of identity or whether or not we can really assert that we have an underlying self that continues to exist through all our experiences except insofar as we have memories and stories, but that’s not the focus for today.
Instead, I want to talk about sex.
Some people are totally down with casual sex, and this post is not for them. This post is about why (at least for me and probably some other people too) sex can seem so intimate and personal, why it seems so vulnerable, and why for some people it feels violating. One of the reasons that I am starting to consider labeling myself “sex-averse” is because of the highly intertwined nature of self and body. I trust very few people with the more intimate parts of myself. Sure, I’m open about the fact that I have an eating disorder, and I write about my experiences here, but in person there are many, many things I don’t talk about often. Many of these things are embodied experiences: sexual assault, self harm, purging. My experience of my body is one of pain, and more often than not it is a solitary experience because these things are shameful.
It is deeply embarrassing and terrifying to me to let that side of me be real, to actually be quiet and vulnerable in my body. My body is puke and blood and tears and snot. That is not the intimacy I want. I can grudgingly accept that those things are a part of me, but I don’t want to dwell on them or revel in them. It’s possible that at some point in the future my body will become something else to me: strength or grace. But those elements, those animal elements, the things that we cannot control will always be an essential part of having a body and of sharing that body.
For many other people, discomfort with sex is about judgment. It’s easy to write this off as the same kind of fear of judgment we have when we’re going to the beach and showing more skin than usual, or when we’re spending some serious one on one time with someone. I tend to think it’s more than that though, which is where questions of dualism come in. I’m sure some people are fairly capable of bifurcating self from body (although I also am fairly sure that this is somewhat illusory for the reasons presented above). But I think that some of us feel the “me”ness of our bodies more: we feel intimately that my body is not simply something that belongs to me or a bit of meat that carries me around, but is in fact an integral part of how I experience the world and what makes up my worldview.
I feel this quite thoroughly when I am in sexual situations, and that’s a major part of why they are so intimate to me. I am not simply sharing pleasure with someone or sharing my body with someone: I am sharing one of the most essential elements of self with another person, the part of me that is my only way of connecting to the world. This is perhaps why all physical contact is intimate to me in a way that speaking is or writing is not: it demands that I am present.
And because allowing another person to experience your body is so close to letting them experience you (just as having a serious, deep conversation is, or showing them something you care deeply about is), it becomes so much more rife with potential judgment than other situations, and when judgment occurs it is much more painful. It feels far more like a rejection of self than many other circumstances.
Perhaps all of this is overthinking things, but I think it’s too easy to write off our bodies as simple mechanisms that allow us to feel pleasure and pain, or get from point a to point b. There is so much more to them, so much that is terrifying and disgusting, but also that is intimate, vulnerable, and exciting. For the moment, the selfhood of my body makes me want to shy away from physical contact, but perhaps in the future it will make it more fulfilling. However it ends up interacting with my sexuality, I want to be aware of my body and its role in my self-identity before I gallivant off into the land of sex.