On Phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty, and Good, Hard, Sweaty Sex

After all, what can you really do with a degree in Philosophy? 



Merleau Ponty
Image via Philosophy Overdose.


I’m here. I’m ready. I’m about to blow your mind, using nothing more than my Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy (and a semester of a Ph.D. program, THANK you very much) and that fundamental, primal urge we all share to further the species, to evolve.


I’d like to be sitting in front of a fire, in a magnificent library draped with ornate velvet curtains, wearing a corduroy jacket with elbow patches, as I wax philosophical on Phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty, and good, hard, sweaty sex.  I love the mental image that produces, it just feels right, but here I am, sitting in a hand-me-down armchair in a tiny apartment wearing pajamas.


C’est la vie. Or, That’s Life, for anyone out there not a Francophile. Sing it, Frank Sinatra.


Here I am, a sexual being Being, and I want to have sex. But I’m also a Philosopher, so I want to philosophize.  And, lucky us, there just so exists an opportunity for both, the details of which I am delighted to expound upon below as I sip wine and bask in the rare opportunity to exercise muscles honed by a forty-thousand-dollar-a-year liberal arts college which have atrophied since graduation. After all, what can you really  do with a degree in Philosophy? 


This. This  is what you can do. You can do Phenomenology, and live, and if you’re very lucky, you’ll get laid and get to do them simultaneously. For me, my discovery of Phenomenology happened concurrently with the awakening of my libido, and I have never really been able to separate the two since.


Everyone should be having sex, in my humble opinion. And, according to Darwin, anyway, that really should  be everyone. We should all respect that evolutionary imperative, the drive for which is hardwired into our DNA to reproduce, in order for our offspring to reproduce; the true driving force behind the survival of the fittest. So for all those people having sex, I firmly believe this piece just might be a fortuitous discovery.


As previously mentioned, I’m about to blow your…mind (bet you thought I was gonna say something else), and I think it will improve your sex life. I think, if you open your mind to what I have to say, it could literally transform your sex life. And who doesn’t want that? Sex is vital, sex is at the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, and, goddamit, we should enjoy it while we’re on this planet.


(Sorry, Augustine. Sorry, God.)


So, you ready? Stick with me, it’s about to get sexy.


(It might just be philosophical urban legend, but I’ve read that Merleau-Ponty was so  sexy, girls would sign up for his classes just to sit and ogle him teaching.)  




I read a lot of Merleau-Ponty in college. Then I graduated, and discovered precisely  how useless an undergraduate philosophy degree is. I promptly put my brain on a shelf for an endless slew of barista, babysitting, and office jobs, rarely thinking philosophically except in the pained, nostalgic way people talk about the true love that got away. Increasingly and surprisingly, though, I started to find recourse to whip out my Phenomenological knowledge once again. My main motivation for returning to him was not philosophical, however. It was nothing if not sexual.


How very Freudian of me. 


Originally, I began studying Merleau-Ponty at the same time I became sexually active, and was immediately struck by how well Phenomenology lends itself to a philosophical interpretation of sex. (If nothing else, let this serve as a reminder the next time you find yourself between the sheets, that there is a school of thought wherein sex is better  just by thinking  about it.) The more sex I had, the better I got at thinking phenomenologically. And the better I was understanding Phenomenology, the more sex I wanted to have.


But let’s stay on track. Let’s try this from the beginning. It helps if you’ve had some philosophy 101 and some semblance of a memory of Rene Descartes’ Meditations on Philosophy, but I can also explain the following in terms of the most pervasive, all-encompassing, fundamentally significant forces on this planet…that is to say, Christianity.


Christianity holds to the Subject/Object dichotomy…that is to say, that there is a subject, and an object, and they are distinctly separate. The dichotomy manifests as a stark contrast between the body and the soul. The Body…or the Object…is temporary; sinful; of the Earth; all too human; finite. The Soul…the Subject…is immortal; Forgiven; of the Heavens; infinite. This dichotomy between the Subject and the Object bleeds over into everything, not just the Church. In every case, we have been taught in grammar school that we are the Subjects and what we are looking at, for example, are the Objects. The subject is active; the object is passive.  


For Merleau-Ponty, though, it’s not quite that black and white. A Subject is not just the individual taking in sensory data; an object is not just the source of that sensory data. Subjectivity is, to a Phenomenologist, that which is considering the world, that which has the capacity to question the nature of Being. For Merleau-Ponty, to Be is not merely to regard the world from a separate, distinct position while remaining unaffected by that which is being regarded. 


Rather, Being is a sensitive state determined both by the subjective individual and by the dynamic, complex environment in which he or she is situated; by the objects in his world. Merleau-Ponty found it impossible to draw a distinction between subjectivity – or the individual subject, the being – and the experience of Being, the stage on which living experience is set – or, to put it another way, all of the objects which exist outside of, and beyond, ourselves. 


Merleau-Ponty writes, "Each part of the whole is sensitive to what happens in all the others, and 'knows them dynamically'…the sensible gives back to me what I lent to it, but this is only what I took from it in the first place. It is directed and has significance beyond itself." 


This is a good definition for the concept of "living experience" which Merleau-Ponty first originated. For a simple example, let us assume that I am looking at an apple and noticing that it is red. Descartes would say that is a result of the apple containing the property of "red," and my cognitive faculties having the ability to notice and classify that property. Merleau-Ponty would instead say that as I am noticing the redness of the apple, it is the redness of the apple which is presenting itself to my eyes and upon my brain. The apple is not sitting there passively, having no part in my experience; rather, it is having an equal effect upon my subjective experience as my subjective experience is having upon it. 


There is a more specific example that clearly illustrates this reciprocity, or "crossing over" of the subjective and the objective. Picture a blind man who has been without sight for quite some time, and manages to function in society with the use of a cane. This individual has relied for so long upon the cane to "see" his environment that it has come to serve as an extension to his body. It is through the cane that he is able to maneuver city streets and suburban shopping malls; many years of practice have honed this aid to the point that it is a useful part of his physical body. This is a clear case, then, of the reciprocity of Subject and Object. The cane, an object, is obviously something tangible and of the world; in the traditional view, it is merely something to be sensed and observed by the human subject. However, from a phenomenological sense, it is far more complex than that. It has become something indistinct from the human subject, something physical that nonetheless cannot be distinguished from his perspective of the world…his subjectivity.


Wow. Ok. Still with me?  


You are?  


I am so glad  you decided to stick around, because this  is where the sex comes in.  


Finally, I hear you saying. What does any of this have to do with sex? 


Just wait. You’ll be glad you held on to the bitter end.


Sex, after all, is hardly an isolated incident between two individuals. Rather, it is something dynamic and complex which is as dependent upon the environment in which it is situated as it is upon the horny participants. When I have sex, it's hardly the case that I'm identifying myself as the subject and everything else (including my partner) as the object; in fact, I find it next to impossible to view myself as a single, distinct entity, unaffected by living experience in that moment, during sexual intercourse.


Yeah, I know I didn’t warn you we were going to be talking about my  sex life. But I would never make assumptions about anyone else’s, and I know mine better than I could ever understand another’s, so at least  there’s some authenticity to laying my activities between the sheets bare for all of you to read.  


Under the traditional ontology, I am the perceiver and all that which is having an effect upon me is the perceived…i.e, that which I am perceiving. I find this an incredibly limiting way of interpreting the experience, however. From my perspective, I am no more separate from the world of physical stimuli that I am experiencing than I am separate from my partner's genitalia during sex. Occasionally I am dominant, and occasionally HE is dominant, and occasionally there is a perfectly divided sexual workload between the pair of us. It is not the case that I am the subject and this sexual experience is the object of my first-person perceptions; rather, it seems that the experience itself is the sum total of the participants, the actions, and the external, objective stimuli.


Merleau Ponty also writes, "It cannot be held that one acts while the other suffers the action, or that one confers significance on the other." If this doesn't sound like the ideal quote to begin a discussion of phenomenological sex, then I don't know what would be. (Trust the masochist to associate sex with the suffering of actions.) Taken literally, however, this quote serves to illustrate my point in its entirety: During the act of sex, it is hardly the case that only one partner at a time is acting upon the other, while remaining separate and distinct from the effects of that act. Even during an act of oral sex, there is not one static recipient who has no effect upon the primary subject; nor is the acting subject unaffected by the recipient upon whom he is focusing…or licking, if we want to get banal about it. 


During sex, we interact with one another, not as Subject and Object, but as equal, reciprocal partners, with moaning, arching, biting, clenching, or any other manner of expressing pleasure and pain. We affect the environment even as the environment affects us: The creaking of the bed adding to the intensity of sexual desire, the knocks on the walls from neighbors in response to coital moans, handcuffs, lubricant, condoms, the stares of voyeurs as an erotic addition to exhibitionist sex, the various and sundry interruptions which nonetheless add to the intimacy of the act (and I'm sure that anyone who has attempted to have sex in the presence of a new puppy or kitten can empathize with this point).


The quality of sex is not only determined by the actions of the partners, but equally as much so by the dynamic, complex environment in which it is taking place. It is this interaction between the man, the woman, the lube, the bed, the headboard, the orgasms, and the endorphins that constitutes living experience – that is, our perception of the world even as our lives are taking place upon it.


I mentioned earlier that I hadn’t thought about any of this, about Merleau-Ponty or Phenomenology, until I stumbled across an opportunity to do so.  And that opportunity, readers, came in the form of joint tax returns and a new last name and having someone finish your sentences and the notion of the son I now have floating in the ether.


I got married.


People who tell you that sex falls off after you’re married…well, I view those people in the same way I view individuals who claim, “No, my tattoo didn’t really  hurt.” My friend, I have a dozen, and each one felt like a thousand tiny swords slicing through my skin, for hours.  


But I digress.


My sex life as a married lady is just fine, thank you. Just ask me about the night before our wedding, in the hotel.


Actually, don’t ask. My mother might be reading this.


Anyway, my life previous to marriage was a barren philosophical desert with the most unfulfilling sexual shenanigans. And then we read some vows, I wore a pretty dress, and suddenly, my sex life was robust; enviable, even. That was eight years ago, and trust me when I say it has not fallen off. Rather, as we’ve grown individually and as a couple, we’ve come to intimately understand one another intimately. We each know how to turn the other on, their favorite positions, when to stop and start and switch and come. My husband is my codependabilibuddy, and he knows the inner workings of my mind better than anyone.


Thus, my interest in Phenomenology was reawakened.  Do you see? My husband is a part of me, entwined in my body and my brain, that affects me as I affect him. Mid-coitus, the distinction between our two bodies, our movements and thoughts, is diminished even further. Picture the M.C. Escher drawing of the hands sketching one another even as they are born from the paper. That is not a bifurcation between Subject and Object; this is living experience. In the flesh, so to speak.


I started having mind-blowing sex, and I was surprised to find myself thinking phenomenologically after such a long hiatus.  And with that, THE MOST AMAZING THING HAPPENED: The sex got better. Thinking in this manner made me all the more aware of how my body felt, how my brain felt, how my husband’s body felt, the sheets, the air conditioner, the cat on the bedside table (affectionately nicknamed “Post-coital Kitty” because of her habit of joining us on the bed after we were done). And it all felt amazing. I was better attuned to my needs, to his needs, what should be said and what needs to remain unspoken.  


And this has been the pattern, for eight years and counting. There’s a toddler now; the cat has passed. My appetite for good, hard, sweaty sex has remained a constant, as has my near-psychic connection with my better half. Every time we kiss, even when we hug, and especially when we have sex, I am reminded daily that I am augmented by my husband, both in bed and out of it. There is certainly no part of me that remains objective in relation to him; he has become part of my subjective.




I would like to express my sincere thanks for stopping by. Hopefully, you’ve learned a little something about Phenomenology with which to impress your friends. (Word of warning:  Don’t call it Phrenology the first few times, like I did. And it’s best not to correct friends who respond to your use of phenomenological as an adjective with the sentiment, “You’re right, it IS phenomenal!”  Just let that one go.)


What’s more, though, I hope the next time you’re gettin’ busy with your partner, you spare a thought about how much they are a part of you; how you are not isolated from what is happening, trapped by your own subjectivity, but rather in an engaged and active relationship, the two halves greater than the sum of their parts.  


 And…I’m spent. Godspeed. I wish you good sex and hundreds of babies and fulfilling lives, each and every one of you. Stay tuned for the next essay – my humble thoughts on why Nietzsche was so goddamn frightened of women.  


Thanks again.



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Sex, Sex Ed, Sexuality, Philosophy, Feminism