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Essay: The (se)x factor

Sebastian Partogi
Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Mon, November 13, 2017 | 09:29 am
Essay: The (se)x factor

Obsessive sexuality is often referenced in pop culture: from books such as Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train (2016) and the kinky 1987 film Fatal Attraction. (

“Girls you have to know when it’s time to turn the page/When you’re only wet because of the rain.” — “Northern Lad,” Tori Amos

I happened to get rained on recently when I was walking in Depok, West Java, on a trip, after my umbrella had gotten blown away by the strong winds that day, and I had this song lyric playing over and over again in my head.

Basically, what Amos is saying between the lines in her song lyrics is that, when your man (or woman) cannot provide you with sexual satisfaction (that is, when you only get wet because of the rain instead of from your partner), you might want to move on from the relationship.

I remember a tale about unfulfilled sexuality I heard from an acquaintance. She was referring to a book by Muriel Maufroy called Rumi’s Daughter ( 2004 ). The young Kimya gets married to her father’s spiritual mentor, who refuses to have sexual intercourse with her and provide her with physical affection because the latter believes that love is a transcendental thing that cannot be expressed physically (I’m sorry, but I cringe as I write this sentence). This leaves Kimya to experience constant sexual hunger pangs.

A similar theme is explored in Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2013 novel The Signature of All Things, in which a female botanist marries a man who will not touch her because he believes that a relationship should be focused on intellectual exchanges instead of sexual ones (again, I cringe at the snobbery).

A lot of single people yearn for a sexual partner. Many songs — “Icicle” by Tori Amos, “I Touch Myself” by Divinyls and “Dancing with myself” by Billy Idol, among other songs — celebrate the act of pleasuring oneself. The activity, unfortunately, is unable to quench the longing for a partner to do it with.

What is behind this lustful yearning? A number of evolutionary biology research studies have suggested that sexual activity, especially with a partner, must be pleasurable to give animals an incentive to pass on and preserve their genes. Pleasure soon turns to pain when it remains unfulfilled.

A friend told me, for instance, that she had neutered her female cat because she could not afford to have a male one in the house — which would ultimately mean having to deal with their kittens. Furthermore, she empathized with the cat’s incredible sense of pain when the latter was in heat during mating season, having no male cats to put out the female cat’s fire.

Talk about painful, I also recall watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel showing a male elephant running amok in a zoo, frantically destroying everything around him. “The elephant’s raging because he is in his mating season but cannot find a female partner to copulate with,” I recall the documentary’s unseen narrator saying.

Obsessive sexuality is often referenced in pop culture: from books such as Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train ( 2016 ) and the kinky 1987 film Fatal Attraction.

Bear with me as I write this: even terrorist attacks have a sexual lust dimension to them. In his 2003 book Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, writer Mark Juergensmeyer says most suicide bombers are male and aged between 17 and 20, having to deal with their raging hormones while being too poor to have sex with a prostitute, let alone marry a woman (think about the promise of “72 virgins” in heaven for the fallen warriors). This raging lust, interwoven with socio-economic marginalization, creates a domino effect when radical religious teachings exploit this vacuum.

Talk about average people who do not engage in such extreme acts, unfulfilled lust does consume a lot of people, searching for the big O. Furthermore, our culture still has a strong single-shaming tendency, where single people are deemed to be unattractive or possessing poor social skills.

For me, anyway, many people often react with disbelief when they learn I’m still a virgin at 28. They keep advising me to look for partners or even do a makeover to make myself look more attractive. A friend once vowed she would help me “break my eggs” before she headed off to the Netherlands.

This kind of obsession actually reaches beyond our hard-wired instinct to copulate to preserve our genes. Conventional marriage is no longer the norm, casual sex seems to have replaced it. We have somehow been misled by pop culture — music, literature, films — bombarding us with fantasies of how pleasurable sex can and should be. Many films and books have told us of how a broken person could mend and transform themselves through sex with a partner.

Furthermore, we are taught to believe that sex should always involve active engagement with a partner to make it complete. Gnostic Christian scholars insist Jesus must have done it with Mary Magdalene. How come a God who wants to experience life as a man does not involve himself in the most basic human act? So goes the argument of the authors of the 1982 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail. While I know they want to help Christians get rid of their sexual shame, their statement could make lots of single people, especially those who have not done it, insecure.

But, is it really that good? People can’t be put into boxes, and the fantasies presented to us in pop culture do not always live up to reality. My friend’s first intercourse, when she was 25, left her disappointed because she said it was very painful, despite the fact she was doing it with a man she thought she loved.

As for me, my female friend did offer me a chicken, who turned out to be a predatory male, for me to date. My first kiss was not as pleasurable as I had imagined it to be. I felt awful afterward to have let a stranger violate my personal space and let myself be reduced to an object of desire. A few days later, I caught influenza from him, which just made me more disgusted at my first experience.

I also became aware of how fragile the human body is, how we can contract illnesses through our vanity and often superficial lust.

Amos also wrote a song called “Cooling,” dedicated to a friend who passed away after contracting hepatitis from her lover. “And there’s your place in heaven worth giving up these kisses…,” Amos writes.

Our bodies turn out to mean more than just a container of lust. While it is hard not to host a pity party when we look at people who already have stable partners, we can actually use our energy for something more constructive. Creative works such as literature are also frequently inspired by destroyed passion. Your special one may or may not come to you in the end, like in most fairytales, but the most important thing is for you to keep engaging yourself in activities that you love and that could make other people happy.