If the philosopher’s premise is that everything has meaning, then there is no such thing as meaningless sex. This is true, observes the philosopher Damon Young, even if many of his fellows treat sex “as something a bit stupid”. In On Getting Off, Young sets the record straight with wit and verve as well as cultural breadth and intellectual rigour. The book, subtitled Sex and Philosophy, is a spicy examination of the frequently ambivalent, ambiguous and even incongruous “tangle” of eros, libido and romance that we call sex. The “webs of significance” around sex, he notes, are “sticky”.
Young introduces the ideas of the great male philosophers, theologians and “pearl-clutching scholars” who have shaped humanity’s traditional views of sex and sexuality – and the great feminist and queer thinkers who have dissected and critiqued them. He weaves in references to mythology, science and literature, along with surprising facts, including how stallions wank. He likes using words such as “wank” and “fuck”; the down-to-earth Australianness of this erudite little tome is one of its many delights.
While exploring themes such as humour, fantasy and nakedness, Young also takes us on some very personal journeys. In one, written like a thriller (Young is also a fiction writer), he describes being confronted by a lover’s demand to choke her during sex. He freezes the moment as he looks at the ontological implications of sadomasochism, surveying notions of pornography, elements of neuroscience and the writings of James Baldwin and Anaïs Nin along the way. Believe me: the pages fly.
Young’s cultural and other references are fabulously diverse. They include a consideration of the broader meanings of the word for “buttocks” used by the Yoruba people of West Africa and a Mesopotamian myth that the “trickster god” Enki masturbated the Tigris and Euphrates rivers into being. His concluding chapter teases out multiple perspectives for viewing a work of 19th-century Indian erotic art. I’d have welcomed more attention to the rich erotic traditions and thought of East Asian cultures, and would have appreciated his thoughts on vagina dentata, given his eloquence on the subject of succubi. These are small quibbles about a book that even keeps you reading right through the annotated bibliography. (Full disclosure: in it, he describes my 1995 novel Eat Me as “shameless horny fun”.)
The author’s greatest accomplishment is to reveal the eroticism of philosophy itself: as he puts it, we think “through the same flesh we fuck with”.
Scribe, 288pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 5, 2020 as "Damon Young, On Getting Off".
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