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Misunderstanding Sex
Kyle Munkittrick   Jan 28, 2010   Pop Transhumanism  

If sex is messy and imperfect, we need to improve it, not get rid of it.

In his article titled Sexuality and Beyond, Ben Goertzel said:

As is now common knowledge, the power sex has over us is rooted in the power our DNA has over us. We are evolved to obsess over reproducing, over extending our DNA to future generations. Even though most humans in First World countries now use birth control for nearly all their sexual encounters, and many humans choose not to reproduce at all, we are still strikingly controlled by the mind-patterns ensuing from our DNA’s urge to persist itself.

But evolution has tangled sex up with all manner of other aspects of our psyches. As Freud, Reich and others pointed out so thoroughly, human motivation is deeply tied with our inner sexual energy. Eunuchs seem to generally lack aggressive, enthusiastic motivation even for things outside the realm of sex. But when my anti-sex futurist friend speaks of blotting out sexuality from his mind, he doesn’t want to blot out his passion and energy generically—he wants to focus it on things other than simulations or enactions of the reproductive act.

This mode of thinking remains one of the most infuriating and frustrating aspects of transhumanist thought: the atomization and compartmentalization of human behavior. Goertzel fallaciously uses eunuchs to equivocate biological sexual drive with general passion. Worse, he uses the sociobiological cliche, “all human innovation is a form of courtship display.” Paraphrasing his friend uncritically, Goertzel says:

When you really think about it, how much of modern human society is structured around sexuality. Marriage, kids, dating … buying nice clothes and making oneself up to impress the opposite sex … buying cars or houses or the latest cellphone to impress the opposite sex with one’s success … etc.

Ah yes. Thanks for that old trope. Goertzel’s portrayal of sex and sexuality is something along the lines of, “sex is fun, but it’s a distraction, and sexuality is necessary for passion, so we need to separate the passion from the distraction.” He couldn’t be more wrong.

My frustration here is not the categorization of sexuality as messy and imperfect (it is), but the reduction of it to mere biology. I have no doubt that Goertzel’s friend and his wife would take offense to my assumption that they got married because they viewed each other as the best reproductive option. Human bonds are complicated and sexuality is a small but important part of those bonds. imageSex isn’t a distraction, it’s a form of human enjoyment and bonding. Goertzel describes sex, at its best, as equivalent to “self-melting and reality-changing as meditation or psychedelics or any other extreme of human experience.” But somehow psychedelics aren’t a distraction we need to eliminate to seek the Singularity? What about all the other distractions? Should we eliminate them too?

If sex is messy and imperfect, we need to improve it, not get rid of it. If sexual drive is a distraction, we need to be able to (better) control it, not nullify it. Technology can make sexuality even better while minimizing the problems associated, many of which are the result of social conventions, cultural taboos, and the biological variety among humans.

Furthermore, how dare Goertzel or his friend somehow assert that the goal of transhumanism or the Singularity are so worth while that we give up things that are fundamentally valuable. I don’t care what decision calculus one uses, that sort of assertion borders on religious zealotry. The hypocrisy of Goertzel’s friend (advocating asceticism while not practicing it) smacks of the worst priests and prophets of the past. Goertzel’s “asexual alien” experiment is just an externalization of his value system in a fictitious proxy, used to justify his view point, not a legitimate thought experiment.

Sex is a biological behavior that, through the hugely complex process of evolution (both biological and cultural) has become a way for humans to bond, experience pleasure, and to alter their consciousness independent of the need to procreate. To elaborate on Emma Goldman: If I can’t have sex, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.

Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
Nicole Sallak Anderson is a Computer Science graduate from Purdue University. She developed encryption and network security software, which inspired the eHuman Trilogy—both eHuman Dawn and eHuman Deception are available at Amazon, the third installment is expected in early 2016. She is a member of the advisory board for the Lifeboat Foundation and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.


I like the article and fully agree with you although I think you could have gone easier on Goertzel. Fully agree with Emma Goldman’s remark. The way I see it, sex needs to be recognized as one of our most important legacy values, the most important one being love. Change is a dangerous road and we constantly risk losing ourselves, like we should have perfectly understood by now.

I also think there is nothing in Bens article which deserves Kyle’s over-reaction. You may wish to read the article again.

Ben asked a question, to which everyone can give their own answers. I gave mine (probably similar to yours) in the comment section.

This comment on my blog post seems not only peculiarly harsh, but systematically distortive….  Tsk tsk tsk.

A few points, among the many I could make…

The quote “all human innovation is a form of courtship display” is presented as if it comes from my own blog post, but it doesn’t.  I don’t promote such a simplistic view of sexual selection or creativity as that.  But still the connection between sexuality and innovation-in-general is real, even if Freud and some others have overblown it.

The implication is subtly made that I somehow want to take peoples’ sex lives away from them.  By no means.

As a human in my personal life, I enjoy sex and have no desire to give it up.  And I would be pissed off at anyone who tried to force me to give it up against my will.  But that wasn’t the point of my article.

I would like to have the option of temporarily eliminating my sex drive at will, and of re-sculpting it myself at will into all sorts of new and interesting forms….  I would like others to have these options (and others) as well.

If some people choose not to exercise these options, that is their problem!

Regarding “the atomization and compartmentalization of human behavior” in general—I know that human behaviors are all complexly entangled with each other, and I think this is often a problem.  It would be better if there were more modularization so that we could more easily tweak ourselves to match our desires.

About “Change is a dangerous road and we constantly risk losing ourselves,”—I don’t mind losing myself if it’s done via a route of my self gradually transforming into something larger and better.  I would like myself and others to have this sort of option.  I would not like to force anyone to take this option.

I hope this clarifies things a bit..

Ben Goertzel

@ Alexxarian, Giulio: The framing of Goertzel’s question and the entire debate stemmed from his introductory analysis of the removal of sex. This sentence in particular: “But when my anti-sex futurist friend speaks of blotting out sexuality from his mind, he doesn’t want to blot out his passion and energy generically:he wants to focus it on things other than simulations or enactions of the reproductive act.” I felt this was the central idea of the post and that the rest of the article’s musings were grounded in this statement, not a neutral point of something like “how does sexuality play into our quest for the Singularity?”

My reaction may have been aggressive, but it wasn’t out of line with the distortions in his framing. One of the most disingenuous rhetorical devices is an allegedly “neutral” tone or “I’m just asking questions,” a la Glenn Beck, when the opening framing of the debate goes largely unchallenged. Goertzel didn’t make this claim (he never said he was neutral), but to make it on his behalf is not a defense.

That said, I admit part of my reaction came from a tremendous respect for Goertzel and I felt let down, which may have added unnecessary emotional fuel to the fire. I’ll work on tempering my responses.

@ Ben Goertzel:
1. Agreed that I wasn’t clear enough on that paraphrasing. Your description of sexuality within the post was overly simplistic. The article is what I was critiquing.

2. I believe you don’t want to take it away without consent, but your final question framed the debate as human sexuality weighed against progress to the Singularity, creating an unnecessary either/or situation. If you want to control sexual urges (I agree we should) and argue in favor of it, excellent, but there are better ways of arguing that point.

3. I simply disagree with the modularization point. We’ll just leave that for another debate.

4. Agreed.

Apologies for the harshness of my reaction.

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