With the issue of what people do with their genitals looming larger with every passing day, I’ve been thinking about the way people talk about the function of sex. “It’s for procreation”, they say. Asked why, they may point to Genesis, saying “God said so.” Or they may point to Darwin, claiming “natural selection says so.” Underlying even sex-postivist, ethical slut, reclaiming cunt attitudes is a sense that reproduction is the primary function of intercourse — they just believe we’re lucky enough to be smart enough to figure out ways to forestall reproduction and still have the sex.
But why privilege the reproductive capacities of our genitals as their primary function? (4,000 years of Judeo-Greco-Christo-Roman-Celto-Muslim teachings, that’s why!) Sex, it’s true, is involved in the reproductive process (except when it’s not — see below), but function does not necessarily show intent. My car makes a good deer-killing tool, but that’s not what it was intended for. And it’s the assumption of intent that dominates the debate — that sex is somehow “intended for” procreation, by God or by nature or by both — as if either had intentions (ok, God, if she existed, might have intentions, but most of the faiths I’m familiar with that posit such a being place those intentions well beyond the ken of meagre human minds and thus hardly applicable to human understanding).
Frankly, reproduction isn’t something sex is even particularly good at achieving. In the best of circumstances, the odds of viable sperm actually reaching and fertilizing a viable egg, and of an egg thus fertilized actually implanting in the uterus, and of a zygote thus implanted developing properly and reaching term, and of a fetus thus developed being delivered, and of an infant thus delivered surviving a reasonable amount of time, are pretty slim. And that’s under ideal circumstances — a thin sheet of latex drops the chances to virtually nil, a simple pill drops them even further.
What’s more, as every right-winger railing about lesbian-raised “baster babies” (I’m talking abou you, Hannity) tacitly admits, there’s lots of ways to achieve reproduction without having sex at all — ovum can be fertilized in vitro and implanted in the uterus with nary an orgasmic groan. What’s more, our genitals seem perfectly content to do their thing regardless of the reproductive potential of the encounter (with the odd exception of the neurotic sperm played by Woody Allen in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask).
No, sex is hardly necessary for reproduction — and getting less so — and not much good at it. On the other hand, sex is really good at creating orgasms, and, defined widely enough, some sort of sex is essential to the process. Sexual excitement is crucial to orgasm, whether through touch, language, or really vivid fantasization. Considered something like obectively (that is, in the absence of literary traditions like that of Christians condemining sexual pleasure) we would probably have to admit that the primary function of sex — the one it’s best at, and the one it’s most necessary for — is to produce pleasure. Reproduction is merely a side-effect of some ways of achieving pleasure — sometimes a pleasant and even desirable side-effect, but by no means a predictable outcome of pleasure nor necessary to the attainment of pleasure.
Of course, I’m not saying that sex is “intended for” pleasure — it just is what it is. We assume, impose, invent, construct the intentions, sex doesn’t. In the end, sex is much better at creating orgasms than at creating babies — that’s just the way sex is. It functions to create babies, just not well — that, too, is just the way sex is.