By Andreas Vesalius
During my teenage years, I experienced periods of intense disdain for my physicality. In becoming fully aware of my sexuality and my existence as a sexual being, I came to oppose such an existence. I envied the sexual unawareness of my prepubescent self. I began to believe my sexuality to be more a curse than a gift.
The new and seemingly un-scratchable itch of desire coupled with my reflexive bodily responses to visual and psychological stimuli fostered in me a sense of helplessness towards my body. Progressively, self-control devolved into self-loss as sexual innocence became sexual experience.
Growing up in a Christian home, I might be tempted to blame my upbringing for my bodily and sexual antipathies. If I was only sex-positive, divorcing my Puritan morality and fanning into flame these early sparks, then I would have felt warmth rather than a burn.
However, this was precisely the problem. Time and again I delighted myself in these desires. Yet the desires, far from providing warmth and illumination, left me feeling like a hapless child, striking flint and iron again and again without success, until I felt cut and raw. But still I went on, hoping that the next time might be different. Why did I continue? What drove me?
Looking back, I know, in part, what drove me: consumerism and marketing. I experienced sexuality through American advertising and internet pornography. The American machine had to be built, and my body with its sexuality represented a good to be extracted, purchased, and consumed by the leviathan of the liberal economy. The sexual liberation of my person represented my body’s freedom to become a market good. Lest the reader misunderstand, I am not speaking simply of sex work or prostitution, activities I never engaged in. I mean the internet pornography economy of banners, clicks, and hits with its opaque yet ubiquitous systems of reimbursement. A whole industry maximizes profits by bringing youth into this market early and maintaining them as producers and consumers through adulthood.
My disdain for my body resulted from the weight of this whorish system. My consent was laughable, the unwitnessed checking of a box to declare that I was at least 18 years of age (imagine this for cigarettes or alcohol). The gesture seems representative of the contradictions in our current societal thinking and actions surrounding sex.
We are to be sex-positive even as we become more and more aware of how sex often serves as a means of manipulation and oppression. And yet, when engaging as voyeuristic observers in the sex acts of others through a system of profit that actively shapes sexual expectation and experience, the sole means of consent imposed by our society is overcome with the movement of a finger. It’s the same as if we were to give a teenager a stern talking to about alcohol as Budweiser commercials run in the background, and then place him at the door of a room filled with euphoric peers, ample beer, and no restraint. “Now really, Bobby, don’t open the door – and definitely don’t drink.”
I believe in individual responsibility. Bobby could very well choose not to go through that door. And there are, I am sure, numerous individuals who, through self-control and parental wisdom, refrain from the decisions I made. But believing in the responsibility of the individual need not negate the responsibility of the community to the individual.
It does not seem to me that my resulting disdain towards my body was an accident of this internet economy of the body. Cultivating such dissatisfaction makes for a shrewdly calculated business model. The world of online sex provides more choices, more experiences, and more control—especially if you have the money—while treating both the producers of the content and its consumers as, not persons, only bodies. It is hard to imagine sex in the physical world being able to compete, particularly without breaking the law or destroying the lives of others. Thus, the disappointment with one’s own fully embodied sexual experience with a person brings the individual back to the internet with its immediacy and choices, all the while reinforcing the inadequacy of one’s own lived sexuality. This conveniently means more clicks, which equals more revenue.
When sex, and thus, the body, become economized in a consumerist culture, the purpose of the body (and sex) becomes centered on production, consumption, and the generation of profit. But problems arise. Our desires, experiences, and bodies, shaped by this market economy of human bodies, cannot find fulfillment and flourishing in the lived present. Such was my experience.
The man on the street addicted to heroin knows this problem well. The desire for his high and the experience of his high leaves him both wanting the drug more and wanting it less. He finds himself unable to serve two masters: the euphoric sense of self transiently brought by the drug and his body’s holistic wellbeing. He has become a consumer in the drug economy, and it has mastered him to the point of cultivating an abstracted self that acts in hatred against his body.
For some, the hatred wears down the body slowly as veins burst, teeth rot, hearts fail, and minds darken. For others, a final act of hatred is committed, often accidentally, through overdose leading to death. In such a case, we may be tempted to qualify the use of the word hate. Overdose victims are, after all, victims of their physiology. But even this reasoning betrays a dislike for the body. Physiology is simply another word for the body’s processes. And to say we are physiology’s victims is to identify the body as the oppressor. Is this not the language of hate?
In the similar economy of the body so pervasive in online sex, we consume others, and, in the process, find ourselves also being consumed. We barter our bodies, and the indignity of this leads to despair and self-loathing, similar to my own experience.
Yet we barter our bodily selves to sustain an abstracted self, and therein lies the rub. There is a part of the self that we consider our self more than the body, and we are willing to trade the body to sustain it. But this splitting of our persons sows a contempt of the body as something opposed to what we are meant to be. And this contempt, given time and continued cultivation, yields hatred.
Hatred of the body is more than a phenomenon of the internet sexual economy. It is a pervasive cultural theme. From the transgender person who seeks to reverse his or her given sex to the millennial over-achiever who pushes the body to its physical and mental breakpoint, we have turned on our bodies. We will consume our bodies and the bodies of others for the sake of feeling better about a self we cannot see.
One irony of the growing hatred of the body is that it is often, though not only, facilitated by those who purport to most value the individual. The radical disembodied individualism of transgenderism, euthanasia, and abortion presumes to support the freedom of a person to decide what is best for one’s self.
But such an individualism can only exist in a world where the body is viewed as a capricious avatar divorced from any fundamental identification with the nature of the individual and the self. The body must be viewed not as me but as an other imposed on me. Indeed, this is the primary way that euthanasia can be rationalized as a heroic act of the self.
However, it is precisely this vision of the self apart from the body that allows for economies of the body to exist. In order for the body to be consumed as a good by someone else, or even by an abstracted self, it must be viewed as no more fundamentally a piece of self than any other material good. It is a tragedy that entire disciplines of modern medicine depend on such beliefs.
Such views, however, facilitate a system that is inherently prone to (perhaps even built on) oppression. Successful participation in any economy is contingent on knowledge, relationships, and money. Economies are arenas of competition that have losers and winners. And what does it mean to lose when the body is the commodity? Those who lose must lose their bodies. Is it still slavery when you sell your flesh bit by bit, when you trade in your body piecemeal for another form of equity, whether that equity is cash, power, or time?
We see such slavishness in the way Victor Hugo captures the connectedness between economies of the body and the degradation of the self in Les Miserables. While there are many examples that could be pulled from the narrative, perhaps the most striking is the example of Fantine. Bereft of her job in Jean Valjean’s factory, she is pressured to participate in the economy of the body, selling first her hair, then her teeth, then her sexual organs.
Each trade, far from liberating Fantine’s inner self, only leads her whole person further into captivity. Eventually, as her body is consumed, her person is increasingly lost, until she ends in death. The image of her humanity is erased, much as Jean Valjean’s became erased and replaced with a number.
The necessary response to this hatred of the body begins with a re-integration of the person. If hatred of the body is the consequence of the split self, then only a self made whole can begin to see the body as something to be loved for what it is in itself. This is not to deny that there is a certain weight or heaviness to an embodied existence.
Indeed, such a weight is essential. It is like gravity, which through weighing us down also orients us. A world without gravity is a world without an up and a down. A world without the embodied self is one where we have no feet to stand on that we might view the world right-side up. Of course, even a man who does not believe in gravity benefits from its existence, as does the person who fails to believe in the integrated self. But when a person is persuaded to act specifically on a belief in the non-existence of gravity, he or she does so with great peril. The same is true of the person who rejects the embodied self for an abstracted one.
Such a work of re-integration requires a robust theology of what it means to be human, one that values the spiritual because of the meaning of the physical. Too often we have reversed the order, seeking to value the material because of the immaterial. This reversal, however, is inherently disintegrative through its promotion of a non-bodily me that gives meaning and value to the bodily me.
We see the order rightly portrayed when Christ heals the paralytic man who has been lowered through the roof by his friends. In speaking to the man, “Your sins are forgiven,” he offends the religious onlookers, causing them to question in their hearts. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Christ responds with a question of his own: “Which is easier to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?” We are left in suspense. Which one is Jesus going to say? “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” Christ enacts a physical reality to give meaning to a spiritual one. The spiritual takes on meaning because Christ has healed the man’s body. Indeed, in this view, all of Christ’s miracles of healing suddenly give meaning to a spiritual reality we might not have otherwise considered. In his healings, he was not simply going around touching bodies, he was restoring people to God. But such a restoration becomes known and valued precisely because he did touch bodies, restoring them.
To take another Scriptural example, the value and reality of Christ warming and filling our souls is known in the believers’ acts of warming and filling bodies. Indeed, it was a priest who, in feeding and providing for Jean Valjean, claimed him for Christ. The simple acts of the priest transformed Jean Valjean’s person, rescuing him from the economy of the body that would have otherwise consumed him through the labor his body could bring.
In my own case, the bodily disdain that I experienced in my youth has given way as I have learned to accept the body as a book from God, which, when read under Scripture, helps inform me of who I am and who I was meant to be. This is as true of my gender as it is of my emotions as it is of the feeling of hunger. Without my body with its sexual passions, how would I know that I long to be known? The desire for touch and the pleasure of its feeling have taught me this.
Every emotion is known to me through my body. How would I know joy without a beating heart, breathing fast, and sweaty palms? Would I know the depths of sadness without the sensation of warm tears running down my face, the feeling of congestion that makes it hard to breathe, and the slow and heavy rise and fall of my chest? All these things are felt in the body, and the body makes them known to me. If I were to lose my body, I would lose myself. If I were to dismember my body, I would be the less. Perhaps others wound their bodies, not to make themselves whole, but because they know their person to be wounded.
My body contains myself. In it are written the memories of me, sometimes in the neural networks of my brain and sometimes in the scars of my skin and the aching of a joint. I have learned that to hate my body is to hate me, to economize bodies is to destroy persons, and to tend bodies is to tend souls.
Andreas Vesalius is a medical professional.