Sexual Desire: Disorder and Excess?

“We cannot reduce sexual desire to that which is agreeable and beneficent. There is in it an element of disorder and excess which goes as far as to endanger the life of whoever indulges in it.”
Georges Bataille, Literature and Evil 1

In the past, when accounts of explicit sexual desire were prohibited and, by necessity, written, distributed and consumed in secret, social values and both physical and social consequences constantly acted as a reality check on any fantasy of sexual excess. While fiction may have represented sexual desire as wholly agreeable and beneficent, the world around the reader was full of warnings (e.g. social condemnation, loss of status, unwanted pregnancy, venereal disease, etc.) to the contrary – especially, but not exclusively for women.

Today, pornography is ubiquitous and does present sexual desire as wholly agreeable and wholly beneficent. Not in contravention or transgression of predominant cultural norms, but in agreement with them. This is especially true anywhere in our culture where sex and commerce overlap. In the promotion of products, services and marketable personas, in the sales of erotic media or sex aides. One begins to wonder if the only reason sex work itself is still widely condemned in the public sphere today is simply because neither governments nor major corporations have found a way to make a profit from it.

Two parts of Bataille’s statement are worth examining. The first is whether, as Bataille contends, sexual desire does contain this element of self-destructive disorder and excess, or whether this was simply a consequence of a culture’s resistance to openly discussing sexual desire. The second is his assertion that, in presenting sexual desire as agreeable and beneficent, we reduce it to something less than what it is.

What do you think?


  1. Bataille, Georges. Literature and Evil. Trans. Alastair Hamilton. London: Penguin Books, 2012. Print.p. 102

2 Thoughts on “Sexual Desire: Disorder and Excess?

  1. i think it depends. (how’s that for a hedged answer?)

    most (all? i’m yet to come across one that doesn’t) spiritual traditions discipline sexuality in some way or another: they limit the sphere of it’s appropriate exercise; ascetics deny themselves to cultivate the mind, the tantric traditions do the other. Leave aside the crooked path or cowley inspired traditions. I talk here of sexual discipline not for social control, but as a means of cultivation of a higher self.

    There is a power is sex and desire and lust, and uncontrolled, it is disorder, consumptive, destructive. It is possible to lose ones self, entirely. But is that bad? It’s only bad if a cultivated sense is bad. to lose ones self in desire is only bad if one doesn’t want to lose ones self.

    a bad analogy: steve irwin the crocodile hunter died doing something he loved. what’s the tragedy? we’re all going to die; he died embracing life completely.

    Do we reduce it to something less than it is? I think to present is as entirely agreeable is to present it as less than it can, though not necessarily will for any given person, be. for some, it might be the flame that rekindles a dull and hollow life; or the reinvigoration of possibility.

    Perhaps it requires knowing your characters: the author sells short the reader and their characters if they write the particular story of desire incorrectly.

    • I think you’ve grasped the paradox of it brilliantly, and the Steve Irwin analogy is an excellent one. Yes, his death is a tragedy to his family AND YET there is a radical ethical element to affirming that it is wondrous to be able to work doing something that so impassioned you and, because as you noted, we all must die sometime, is that not a fitting way to go?

      It seems our contemporary society has a resistance for the non-binary. And this is a profoundly non-binary matter.

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