Camille Paglia once wrote, “You have to accept the fact that part of the sizzle of sex comes from the danger of sex.” Because of that, second-wave feminists were fighting a losing battle in trying to paint sex as a wholly good, positive, non-scary, sunshine-and-rainbows thing in order to make it palatable to the naïve young coeds and sheltered housewives they hoped to liberate from the rigid traditional roles of Madonna and whore. Though their motives were commendable, no good can come from hiding the truth and infantilizing those one hopes to help; the dark, chthonian power of sex is so important to its function and appeal that the only way to disguise it was to indulge in an ever-escalating (and ultimately futile) series of myths and denials which paved the way for the anti-sexual, anti-humanistic tyrannies of neofeminism. Rape had to be absurdly presented as an asexual power exercise, which of course meant that BDSM had to be rejected because its very nature refuted the claim that power could be cleanly divorced from sex; the second-wavers also didn’t want women thinking too hard about how much of a turn-on being overpowered or restrained (by the right man under the right conditions) can be. Similarly, porn had to be demonized by creating arbitrary and fanciful distinctions between it and erotica, and because scary situations can arise in sex work it also had to be amputated from the mutilated, sanitized body of “good” sex. At first this was a tough sell to women who had enjoyed the taste of sexual freedom in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but once the feminist establishment succeeded in stoking the fires of rape paranoia, all that had to be done was to define all “unacceptable” sex as rape, and AIDS hysteria drove the last nails into the coffin.
If sex were that easily buried, however, the human race would have died off long ago. The efforts of the neofeminists and crypto-moralists to enforce a rigid sexual orthodoxy were as doomed to failure as those of Christianity (even when allied with the State since the late 19th century) had been. As the “light side” of sex was locked into ever-tighter bondage by the forces of law and middle-class mores, the “dark side” grew correspondingly stronger. The more sexless marriage became, the more popular whores grew; the more chaste the popular media, the more explicit the pornography. Beneath the orderly facade of Victorian Europe and America the buried majority of sexuality grew in the darkness, erupting forth in fusions of lust and horror ranging from the literary (Bram Stoker’s wildly-popular Dracula and its many imitators) to the grotesque (the lurid spectacles of Paris’ Grand Guignol theater) to the terrifyingly real (the sex-driven crimes of Jack the Ripper). It is no accident that erotic horror waned in popularity as sexual mores loosened in the 1920s, and vanished almost entirely by the end of the 1930s; contrast the tame sexuality of The Wolf Man (1941) with that of Dracula (1931) and other pre-code horror movies and you’ll see what I mean.
As the mass media grew in the 1960s and 1970s, they became harder to censor; the internet has made it nearly impossible. Because of this, the character of horror fiction has become less reliable as a means of examining the relationship between sex and fear; though a great deal of horror literature and art is still highly erotic, most 21st-century horror is now comparatively asexual and most erotica lacks any element of fright or violence (despite the claims of neofeminists). But at the same time, the deep relationship between fear and sex is still clearly visible if one only cares to look: the trappings of BDSM would be equally at home in a gothic horror setting, the rape fantasy is as popular as ever and the lurid fantasies of “sex trafficking” fetishists can be found in mainstream news outlets every day, forced up from the collective unconscious by the pressure of the return to Victorian levels of prudery. Nor does one always have to look outward to find the connection; I’m sure many of my readers have realized that the things that sexually excite them most are often related to things that frighten them. For example, some of you may recall my mentioning that I have a phobia of being trapped (including in traffic jams), and I think even the veriest psychological amateur could recognize that I have a tremendous aversion to authority. Yet at the same time, I’m turned on by bondage and themes of dominance and submission.
Why should this be? Is there some evolutionary reason that the emotions of fear and arousal should be so closely related that they’re often intermingled? Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa suggested that fear of death might stimulate a male to want to mate in order to pass on his genetic material one last time, but obviously that wouldn’t apply to females; yet the sex-fear link is at least as strong in us as in men (as evidenced by the enduring fascination of sexualized monsters such as vampires). My personal theory is that in women it’s a defense mechanism evolved to prevent trauma in forced-mating situations where a woman might very well be terrified, but needs to relax and go with the flow so as to minimize injury and maximize the possibility of conception; this idea is supported by the fact that when a woman has sex, the area of the brain stem which controls “fight or flight” response is activated and activity in the amygdala and hippocampus (which regulate fear and anxiety) is suppressed. This is, of course, exactly the opposite of a US politician’s astonishingly ignorant “theory” that biological mechanisms evolved for the convenience and peace of mind of individuals rather than for the continuation of the species.
There’s one final possibility, either an alternate explanation or another, additional factor. Human beings evolved to be risk-takers and novelty seekers; it is the driving force behind our curiosity, the exploratory urge which caused us to spread over the entire globe and our tendency to become bored and dissatisfied with unchanging routines. Most humans are always in search of new experiences, and many seek adventures and thrills even when those thrills are frightening. Horror movies, thrill rides and mind-altering substances give a controlled thrill, the exhilaration of an adrenaline rush without the danger of a real life-or-death situation. And since sex is another “safe” thrill, another stimulus which produces feelings of excitement without the need for “fight or flight”, it may be that the feelings are easily confused by the brain’s limbic system in much the same way as pain and pleasure are in some people. In other words, the intermixture of fear and sexual arousal, like that of pain and pleasure, may simply be an accident of our neurological wiring rather than something which had a specific survival function. But whichever explanation is correct, there is no denying that sex and fear are deeply intertwined, and that attempting to separate them by shame, social engineering or government edict will be just as spectacularly ineffectual as attempting to suppress other human drives, urges and behaviors by those same means.
(This essay previously appeared in The Honest Courtesan on October 29th, 2012; it has been slightly modified to fit the Cliterati format.)