The Celibacy Sydrome (Reflections on Japan and Our Posthuman Future)

Most of the highly industrious, post-industrial, and prosperous parts of the world have a "birth dearth," a birth rate significantly below the rate of replacement.  Japan, of course, has one of the lowest rates.  Its population has been decreasing for a decade, and everyone believes that trend will continue or even accelerate.  Japan, some say, faces extinction.


 The Japanese government has tried to scare people into thinking about the various political and economic implications—those catastrophic effects for national security in the broad sense—of this shrinkage.

But there are more positive ways of viewing it:  The population of the world is ecologically unsustainable.  The fewer the number of human footprints, the lighter the carbon footprint.  Nature cheers as we take up less space and consume fewer resources.

Not only that:  One of the great free techno-achievements of our time has been the separation of sexual enjoyment from reproductive necessity. We no longer think of women as reproductive machines for the state or the species.  They are free to determine their own destiny, to be moms or not as they please.  By thinking of sexual enjoyment as good for its own sake, we have liberated human eros in all its manifold possibilities.  Freed from the repression of nature and religious dogma, the techno-progressive narrative goes, we revel in more sexual fulfillment that ever.

Those who celebrate that narrative of erotic progress should pause for a moment and consider what's going on in Japan today.

According to this report, the Japanese young are plagued by a "celibacy syndrome," "a flight from human intimacy," which includes "increasing numbers" who "can't be bothered with sex."  Almost half of the young women just have no interest—if they don't despise—having sex with another person.  And all that despite the fact that the Japanese, basically not a religious people, have separated sex from reproduction for a long time.  Having even a merely sexual relationship with another person, for many, has become just too much trouble.

Now the article goes on to explore reasons specific to Japanese culture and public policy  for the nation's extreme case of the celibacy syndrome.  It's much harder there than in our country for a woman to have both a career and a family.  And it's harder for Japanese women than ours to have casual sex without being judged.  It would be easy to say that the Japanese would be more oriented toward sexual enjoyment and intimate relationships if they loosened up in characteristically Western or egalitarian ways. 

Still, we can't help but notice that Japanese, like us, spend more time than ever in the virtual worlds displayed on screens. That's the direction in which a lot of erotic longing and even sexual activity seems to have gone to.  It's easier than ever to get by, it seems, without the touch of another being with real skin.

The Japanese, as I've noticed before, lead the world in developing robots to care for the elderly.  With a growing number of old people and hardly any babies, that Japanese market for caring machines is bound to continue to explode.

Someone could also say, maybe a Darwinian, that if the natural function of sex—generating replacements to improve the species—withered away as a result of free human behavior, then sex itself would too soon enough.  The Christians say there would be no sex in heaven because there would be no more need for replacements (although we'd still have the relevant parts).

There's no transhumanist consensus on what happens to sex when we are freed from all the limits of our embodiment.  There would certainly be no need for it, and it's unclear exactly how we would do it.

I'm not saying that we're incapable of experiencing sex as enjoyable and relational while having no intention at all to reproduce right now.  But techno-progressive trends really are both ambivalent and negative from an erotic point of view.

The Japanese seem to have become the least erotic people ever.  Maybe we're going down that road too.  Or maybe not.  Human nature seems to be more plastic that the evolutionary psychologists believe.

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