Simmel on Sexuality

Fragmentary Remarks on Pornography and Celibacy

Essay, 2011
10 Pages, Grade: Distinction


Simmel was following his own research agenda, which he sketched in his ‘Problem of Sociology’ (Simmel, 1971a). For him, the aim of sociology was to study “the objective reality of sociation” (35), essentially those processes of interaction, which he differentiated into “social form” and “content” (24). During his career, Simmel himself investigated many of those forms[1], but excluded sexuality from his writing. Although it is possible to trace thoughts about sexuality within his accounts, none of his essays was tackling this form of human interaction explicitly. In the course of this essay, it will nevertheless be attempted to describe the form of sexuality in Simmelian terms being a reciprocal interaction characterised by the duality of love and lust. After the investigation of sexuality as a ‘pure form’ in terms of the categories introduced above, two exemplary ‘contents’ will be looked at following Simmel’s own fragmentary style. Choosing pornography and celibacy[2] as contrasting and extreme examples, one might be able to test the validity of the account given beforehand and examine the relicts of sexuality per se in far-removed contents. However, first of all, a Simmelian analysis of sexuality as such will be given in the following first paragraphs.

Sexuality can be seen as the expression of the ‘ur-difference’ between man and woman, the form of unity that can be associated with the highest degree of closeness between the two poles. The act of sexuality, marks the moment wherein this ur-difference is resolved and the participants come closest to unity. As such, sexuality is ‘loaded’ with the contrast between the two sexes and its solution as the most striking duality. It seems to be necessary, however, to search for another line of thought and depict a seemingly more subtle difference to describe this form that Simmel calls the “sensual act” (1971c: 121). The next paragraph tries to give such an account.

Sexuality can be seen as a process of interaction. In the most obvious observation, sexuality is the interaction of two bodies. As will be described below, it might involve not only bodies (‘lust’) but also souls (‘love’). These are to be united in a reciprocal process, in a form of ‘exchange’. For Simmel, “every interaction is properly viewed as a kind of exchange. This is true for every conversation, every love” (Simmel, 1971d:43) – and thus also for sexuality. There several possible answers to the question what the object of exchange is. As will be argued in the following, sexuality might be described as the exchange of lust and love respectively. In the same instance, the dualism of love and lust can be seen as one possible way to emancipate sexuality from the ‘ur-difference’ described above.[3] ‘Love’ as the expression of emotional desire and unity, as associated with the soul in contrast to ‘lust’ understood as bodily and sensual desire and pleasure. Both are driving forces for sexuality, both ‘make you want it’ on the one hand, but are epitomes of sexuality on the other. Sexuality in its purest form can be seen as a means to reach the unity of body and soul, love and lust. Sexuality resolves the opposition. It is characterised by both parts of the duality, can be influenced at one instance by love and in the other by lust, but as a concept stands ‘in-between’. After this initial clarification, the following paragraphs will be denoted to describe the two levels of dualities that seem to be of importance in describing sexuality in this way.[4] The argumentation will shed light on the dualisms that might be seen as internal to love and lust respectively.

Love as one part of the ‘sexuality-duality’ can be seen as the emotional side of it. It is driven by feelings and emotions rather than bodily drives and desires. “People may have sex neither for physical pleasure nor to procreate but rather to please a partner, bind a relationship, fulfil conjugal duties and so forth” (Bell/Sobo, 2001: 4). Sexuality in terms of love has when seen in this sense an emotionally reciprocal character. One has sex to ‘fulfil duties’, to ‘please’, in order words to give something and receive something in turn. A relationship between ‘souls’ so to speak might develop. Love furthermore underlies its own – so to speak a second order – duality as Simmel himself described (Simmel, 1984a). The following shall therefore only give a very brief summary of this account before the bodily side of sexuality will be described afterwards. For Simmel, love is essentially the force that forms a unity of “sensuality and sentiment” (Simmel, 1984a: 156). It is “the inner mode of being […] that we call love” (ibid.: 157). Love is distinct from all other factors in its degree of closeness: the distance is much smaller between the beloved and the lover, it is “complete intimacy” (ibid.: 155) that dominates the relationship. In the end, love does not “nullify the being-for-itself or either the I or the Thou” (ibid.: 155). Only distance is extinguished. This account of love as the most intimate condition between sentiment and sensuality already includes the allusion of ‘body’ as part of sensuality – as understood in this argument always in the realm of the soul, however. Lust is what introduces the bodily drive into sexuality as will be described in the following.

In contrast to love, lust, is what Simmel calls “degraded” (Simmel, 1984b: 156). The term is used here to address the ‘bodily sphere’ of love, that is normally happening in “typical coincidence […] with the awakening of love” (Simmel, 1984a: 166). Often associated with the “propagation of the species” (Simmel, 1984a:165), the lustful part of sexuality in general often goes hand in hand with a ‘bodily reciprocity’, the exchanging of ‘juices’ (see Khandelwal, 2001). The bodies taking part in the act of ‘lustful sexuality’ get ‘involved’ into each other, they form a unity as was claimed above. Lust might in this way be seen as a reciprocal process similar to sexuality per se – in this instance confined to the body-level. Just as love, lust might be described by itw own second order duality as this essay will argue in the following. It might according to Hawkes (1996: 6) be seen as “on the one hand a source of fear and embarrassment; on the other, a source of infinite happiness and fulfilment”. In other words, lust lies between desire and pleasure. It is first of all a “fundamental human characteristic” (ibid.: 6) supporting the “preservation of the species” (Simmel, 1984a: 166). But is on the other hand subject to “repression” (Foucault, 1998)[5] and regulation - a “problem” (Comfort, 1963: 54).[6] This can again be expressed in terms of spatial relationships. Pleasure conotated in the purely positive way depicted above might be seen as closeness whereas desire wishing this closeness to come true, remains essentially distant. The arousal of desire in the instance of a flirtation (Simmel, 1984b) for example is positioned in this in-betweenness, in between closeness and distance. The flirtation ends with a decision – pleasureful closeness or distance leading to disappointment. Lust might therefore be situated as the complex unity of the in-between of desire and the ‘nullified distance’ of pleasure.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: Duality-Tree (basic structure)

One might argue in conclusion, that one possible defining duality for sexuality is the one between love and lust, that however both parts of this duality are in themselves paradoxically split. This makes the form of sexuality particularly complicated and multi-layered creating the urgent necessity to introduce ‘contents’ into the description. Therefore, in the following paragraphs, this paper wants to translate the above depiction of the form of sexuality towards two of its most contrary contents[7], namely ‘celibacy’ and ‘pornography’ analysing notions of distance and reciprocity, the placement in the ‘sexuality-duality’ and possible dualities characteristic for the specific content.

“Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as slightly disgusting minor operation, like heaving an enema. […] There were even organisations such as the Junior Anti-Sex League which advocated complete celibacy for both sexes. […] The party was trying to kill the sex instinct, or, if it could not be killed, then distort it and dirty it” (Orwell, 2000: 75/76). Celibacy [8] as described by Orwell in his famous vision of the future can be understood as the ‘absence of sexuality’, the “abstention from all sexuality” (Bell/Sobo, 2001:11). It is one end of the continuum of attitudes towards sexuality. In this way, celibacy can be seen as the hyperbolized expression of the ‘repressive attitude’ towards sexuality in society, which Freud describes (see Hawkes, 1996: 25ff). As in pornography, the reciprocal character inherent to sexuality is negated – the commodity of sexuality ‘refuses to go to the market’ in case of celibacy, as Irigaray (1985: 196) expresses it. Following the system of dualisms used to give a Simmelian account of sexuality, it is thus possible to classify celibacy. It excludes lust from the picture, is literally ‘repressive’ in this instance and focuses completely on soul. This exclusion of lust and sexual pleasure can be understood in terms of another duality (Phillimore, 2001: 29). On the one hand, celibacy is a form of self-denial. It is always described as the “denial of sexual desire” (Bell/Sobo, 2001:12) and in this sense the denial of a crucial part of mankind leading essentially to its continued existence. This self-denial is part of a ‘honour-gaining process’ because as Simmel claims highest honour can be obtained with actions that “manifest the most depth, the most exertion, the most persistent concentration of the whole being – which is to say the most self-denial, sacrifice of all that is subsidiary” (Simmel, 1971d: 53). This leads to the second part of the duality forming celibacy, namely self-refinement. On the other hand, celibacy can be seen as a means of self-improvement. Whether religiously or profanely chosen or imposed, celibacy indicates “values and attitudes”, “purity” sometimes even a “sacred status” (Bell/Sobo, 2001: 8,9,10). The self is ‘energized’ by celibacy. Recapitulating the above account of celibacy, it might thus be understood as a Simmelian content of sexuality that lacks its reciprocal characters and is in itself defined by the duality between self-denial and self-refinement.

Pornography in contrast is only lust, only body, only desire. Placing it in the ‘sexuality-duality’ depicted above, it excludes soul and is focused on the ‘body’ side of desire, but not pleasure as will be shown below. It can be defined as “obscene representations” leading to “sexual arousal” (Cowie, 1993: 132). The “graphic depiction of vile whores” which is the original translation of porne graphos, includes print media (books and magazines) as well as film and image on screen (TV or computer) (Dworkin, 1991: 199). In effect all of those genres can be seen through a similar lens as will be attempted in the following paragraph with another duality. To describe pornography using another duality it seems intriguing to apply the paradox between mediated distance and absolute closeness. In terms of distance, Simmel depicts the ‘fear of getting to close’ (“die Furcht, in allzu nahe Berührung mit den Objekten zu kommen” (Simmel: 1989: 660f)) as a primary human motive. One doesn’t want to come too close, get too acquainted with things, which might be the driving force behind pornography: you are not in direct contact with your opposite, only read about it or watch it. You can not touch it – it is only ‘visual’ and not involved in a reciprocal relationship.[9] In effect, pornography always remains distant, it is always desire not pleasure (as also Baudrillard acknowledges, 2003:28). “It is about women as men want them to be and about our own sexual selves as we would like them to be” (Kimmel, 1989: xi) There is a ‘want’ in pornography that keeps this distance that is not to be reduced and possibly even leads to the disconnection between emotion from sexual expression (Holbrook, 1972) and the alienation of men from their bodies (Brod, 1989). The ‘obscene’ in Baudrillard’s theory seems a possible means to define the other side of the duality, the closeness. Pornography is for Baudrillards the essence of obscenity, “the total visibility of things” (Baudrillard, 2003: 29). “Things are there immediately, without distance and without charme. And without genuine pleasure" (Baudrillard, 2003: 28; see also Williams, 1993: 233). Every concealment is lost – total consent reached. A vulgar openness characterises pornography that does not lead to ‘genuine pleasure’ – desire might thus be seen as the defining feature of the ‘sexuality-duality’; pornography always keeps a distance (‘desire’), whereas pleasure might be associated with ‘meta-visual’ closeness. Similar to celibacy, pornography can thus be seen as a non-reciprocal content of sexuality based on the paradox duality between complete transparency and insurmountable distance.


[1] See Levine (1965: 99f) for a comprehensive list of forms covered in Simmel’s own writing.

[2] It is important to note, that in this essay celibacy is not used to describe the sexual abstinence of clergymen in particular OR the state of being unmarried, but a state of sexual abstinence in general.

[3] It might be noted that this duality is of fairly recent origin, since the societal discourse on the link between love and sexuality can be seen as a product of the ‘Troubadour culture’ in the twelth Century (Gramick, 1984: 96). A similar duality is used by Foucault to describe the two sides of love. He calls the bodily desire aphrodisia, whereas the emotional side involving ‘virtue, friendship and modesty’ is to be called eros (Foucault, 1990: 189ff).

[4] There are, however, many other ways and dualities to describe the form of ‘sexuality’ (see Hawkes, 1996: 5), but in this essay the set of dualisms was chosen as the most suitable in Simmelian terms as well as the most suitable for the following discussion of two contents as will be described below.

[5] Although debates on sexuality might have been essentially ‘repressive’ Foucault’s (1998) analyses comes to the conclusion, that society’s attitude towards sex was not. The discourse on sex even increased.

[7] A ‘content’ in the Simmelian sense is “everything that is present in individuals", a "drive, interest, psychic state, movement - everything that is present in them in such a way as to engender or mediate effects upon others or to receive such effects" (Simmel, 1971b: 24).

[8] The analysis tries to focus on the ‘abstract notion’ of celibacy as far as possible and neither on the people attached to this ‘system of belief’ nor specific expressions. This process tries to pay tribute to Simmel’s ‘ideal forms’ and translates this towards ‘ideal contents’.

[9] Here a question comes up that concerns ‘interactive pornography’ – paying for a webcam show and being able to give the performer direction certainly involves a certain form of reciprocity. Nevertheless, this reciprocity might be rather ‘one-sided’, more a power relations (mediated through money) than a proper reciprocity. So one might argue that even in today’s interactive pornography, reciprocity is no defining feature.

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Simmel on Sexuality
Fragmentary Remarks on Pornography and Celibacy
London School of Economics
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simmel, sexuality, fragmentary, remarks, pornography, celibacy
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Johannes Lenhard (Author), 2011, Simmel on Sexuality, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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