Ace of Desires

A stylized phallus stands erect in fiery colors, emerging from a dark background.

The capacity for arousal is at the root of sexuality. Even with all the relational, emotional, and psychological ramifications of sex, at its core it reduces to a deep mystery of physiology and mind. Sexual urges often seem to come up from some primal level of our being, outside the boundaries of conscious choice. It seems that the most we can do is shape them (somewhat) in the direction we prefer, or choose whether or not to act on them.

The sexual need is often compared with other physical needs, such as food or sleep. One soon encounters limits to these analogies though. It is possible to live celibate, but of course impossible to go without food or sleep for more than a few days. Hunger and sleepiness increase gradually until they are satisfied, whereas sexual desire ebbs and flows. Furthermore, with sex there is a certain pleasure and excitement in the process of arousal itself; it is not like hunger or sleepiness, merely an unpleasant feeling we seek to dispel by satisfying the corresponding need.

Sexual arousal seems to activate our minds and bodies for its own sake; it is an end in itself. It draws our will out of the background of routine and gives it a mission, albeit a short-term one that we may very well choose to deflect or set aside. It is a fundamental metaphor for Will seeking expression and satisfaction in the world. The erect penis strains upward and outward, a kind of reaching that is more primal, more visceral, than that of an extended hand. We tend to speak of Will in terms of premeditated choice and rational action, but sexual arousal reminds us that Will is more basic than the mental machinations of decision-making. It is the Self struggling to penetrate and claim the Void.

The primal nature of the sexual urge, its power, and its speed, make fire a natural metaphor for desire and lust. The spark of ignition, the heat, the volatility and loss control, and the rapid dissipation of energy when the flames have run their course, all have parallels in patterns of sexual energy.

Much of this deck is concerned with the complexities of establishing and maintaining intimacy in all the many dimensions of interpersonal interaction. Often the challenge is to move beyond one's own instinctual responses and connect authentically with the other. That selfishness thwarts intimacy is so obvious as to be cliche.

The irony, though, is that there is an irreducible selfishness in sexual arousal. The urge seeks its own gratification; in its primal depths it seeks only that. It is miraculous indeed that human beings are creations of such subtlety that we can reshape such a basic, self-focused desire into something that can connect people, bond them, and send us into a dance of reciprocating pleasures. To do that, however, we must acknowledge and embrace the primal, focused, even self-absorbed nature of sexual desire. On some level, masturbation is sexuality in its purest form. In self-arousal and self-gratification, we learn how to manipulate and focus sexual energy, and become familiar with how it moves through us. Even as we move out of the puritanical era, many people remain ashamed or uncomfortable with masturbation, perhaps because we are afraid of seeing sex as an independent force, answering only to itself. We still look to love to legitimize sex, reluctant to embrace the reality that all of us are sexual beings, regardless of what emotional relationships we may or may not be engaged in.

Even when one is consciously attending to a partner's needs rather than one's own, the primal fires of arousal burn and give their mysterious energy. If we extinguish those fires from a misguided embarrassment or discomfort with our own identity as sexual beings pursuing the gratification of our urges, we lose touch with the eros, the universal creative force that moves through us all and charges our world with vitality and passion.