by Jason Stotts
I just got done talking with my friend Patrick about Merleau-Ponty and a chapter in one of his books (I don’t know which, strangely) called “The Body as a Sexed Being.” One of Patrick’s specialties is in phenomenology and it’s exceedingly good that it was, because I’m not sure I would have understand any of it without him.
What I wanted to talk about here, though, was the idea of “erotic comprehension.” I don’t want to talk about it in terms of Merleau-Ponty, I only mention this because this is his term. However, what is more natural than a philosopher co-opting terms he likes from others?
Anyway, I find the idea of “erotic comprehension” to be fascinating. Consider this question: how do we know we are in a “sexual situation”? We don’t usually just declare this to a sexual partner. There is no international hand signal that we give to show we’re about to have sex. But, nevertheless, we do know when it happens. I think that we can call this knowing “erotic comprehension” and it comes from the activation of triggers set by our sexual schema.
Our sexual schema is that totality of our past beliefs about sex, including the beliefs we’ve internalized from others and the culture, our own past experiences, our beliefs about what sex should be, and our fantasies. This totality rests as a sub-conscious schema regarding sex. Part of this schema is our “triggers” for how we know we’re in a sexual situation and this is usually from our own sexual past.
Let me concretize this to try to make it clearer. Imagine that you enter a room and see an attractive person. This person smiles at you and starts to undress, revealing their body to you. Now, imagine you’ve been on vacation to a nudist retreat and you’ve been naked for a week and the magic of nudity has inexorably worn off so that every body you see isn’t sexual (this happens). Imagine you now see this same person naked. Would you expect sex? No, you wouldn’t. The sexual triggers are missing. In the first case, there were lots of triggers: you were alone together, the person was attractive to you, they smiled at you, they started to undress, and they revealed their body to you. In the second case, none of these triggers exist. Unless, of course, the second example happened to you after the first and then your first interaction could itself be a trigger for the second interaction.
Consider if your schema didn’t find the person attractive, then there would have been no trigger. If they person had instead yelled that you were intruding, there would have been no trigger. The triggers come from our sexual schema and where this isn’t congruence to our sexual schema, there will be no triggering event.
What is so interesting about the idea of erotic comprehension is that this is something that must be learned and is not innate. We don’t, innately, know when we’re in a sexual situation and if we’re inexperienced we might not pick up on the cues given off by the other person, if they aren’t in our sexual schema. Of course, learning the cues affects our sexual schema for subsequent interactions; we learn and develop as we gain experience.
I’m not sure entirely how I might use the ideas of sexual schema and erotic comprehension, but I think that they will prove useful at some point and it’s interesting to give names to these phenomena.