This is our truth, tell us yours
In the middle of the twentieth century many psychologists.therapists and other theorists “discovered” eastern philosophy. I use discovered in the sense that Captain Cook discovered Australia, it had always been there, and millions didn’t know that it needed a white man to name it to give validity. One such theorist was Maslow, who produced his eponymous Hierarchy of Needs.
The top of the pyramid is self actualisation, a concept based on the Buddhist belief of nirvana, a transcendence above the mundane. At the bottom are those basic needs which might be called essential for survival, food, shelter, and sex. One might argue that sex is not an essential, but I think Maslow considered the basic needs animalistic ones, and the point of being on the earth, from a purely biological viewpoint is to procreate. We really are just self replicating coils of DNA, and the rest is simply what fills the space between womb and tomb.
The pyramid shows very clearly how it is rooted in a particular time and place. Maslow considered career success to be important, a sign of status, unsurprising from a patriarchal white male within a society which has always placed value on certain indicators of success. I wonder what he would have made of a friend I made in India, who when his family were annoying him used to threaten to buy a camel and ride off into the wilds of Rajasthan. Was he a success because he was respected in his town, a father and grandfather, married to a princess? He personally believed the most important thing he did was once a month, when he chanted a mantra reputed to cure liver disease over any sick person who came to his home. Was this “acceptance of facts” in the sense Maslow meant it?
So, any hierarchical sense of caring about this, or believing that is somehow superior carries the danger of simply saying our culture norms are the ones to live by. It’s an attitude I often encounter with atheists, when they mock people of faith as mentally ill for believing something they do not. Difference does not have to mean better or worse, but so often it does.
Having said all this in criticism Maslows hierarchy can be incredibly useful. If, for example, one wishes to consider why certain groups in society rarely seem to excel, it is always worth asking whether their basic needs are being met. When looking at how abused children develop, indeed all children, it is accepted that if the bottom of the pyramid is not sound there will be no movement up it except in exceptional circumstances. Want to know why so many kids on sink estates drop out of formal education? Look to Maslows pyramid, how can someone be expected to care about career and public approval when they are not sure their needs of food, shelter and safety will be met?
Given this I am fascinated that only one thing appears twice on the pyramid, that of course is sex. Is it the case that there is a quantitative difference between the basic need for reproduction, and what this particular example calls “sexual intimacy”? Can this difference be discussed without slut shaming or reverting to mono norms of placing sex in a sacred box marked only for monogamous couples?
I believe it can. In essence Maslows’ pyramid is a move towards self awareness. We are born with nothing but needs, the needs to feed, sleep, shit, piss, be protected from the elements, reproduce ourselves. As we grow and develop we, hopefully, gain an awareness of the existence of others. Our place in the world becomes apparent, we develop wants as well as needs. Anyone who has weaned a baby will have seen how the process of preference and individuation takes place. The 9 month old who loves asparagus and kale making a liar of the 3 year old who demands a diet of baked beans and white bread. As this process continues we discover sexuality and desire, reproduction may be a need, but we desire the redhead we notice on the bus, even as we know no baby will ever be made.
The move towards self awareness is seen as a positive in all things, yet rarely applied to sex. This, I think goes back to the mystical rip off people like Rogers and Maslow were performing, Without saying so overtly they seemed to believe the goal was the aesthete, the celibate (male) hermit who had risen above such things. However sex with self awareness does exist. It is not the sexual intimacy used in the diagram, but sex with the understanding, and awareness of what the sex actually is, what it is for, what it is meant to bring, both to you and to others involved. I have written before of the meta awareness a sex worker often has to bring to sex. I am blessed however, in a way I sometimes struggle to comprehend, in having met my fellow traveller here who also believes in sex which is fully self aware. If you know fully why you want sex with a particular person, then sex with that person is fully entered into (if you will excuse the pun.) It becomes, to paraphrase, a want, not based on need, and especially not a need to be loved, but sex for its own, glorious, orgasmic sake. Perhaps that, in essence is all the writing Carter and I have done summed up, our exploration of grown up BDSM. Two people who in the moments they are together are fully aware of themselves, the cane raised for its own sake, not punishment or role play but because in that moment it is the only thing that exists, that can be done.