Our bodies and animality are threatening reminders that we are physical creatures who will die. To manage our terror of death we have to be much more than that; and a fundamental function of cultural worldviews is to prevent our bodies from undermining our pretentions of meaning and significance.
Why be ambivalent about something so pleasurable? According to Ernest Becker, it is because “sex is of the body, and the body is of death.”
Sex in the service of reproduction…makes us anywhere from dimly to painfully aware that we are transient ambulatory gene repositories taking a short lap around the track of life before passing the baton to the next generation and joining the ranks of innumerable iterations of the unknown and unliving.
Thinking about death had no effect on participants’ impressions of the romantic aspects of sex. However, they found the physical aspects of sex less appealing after a death reminder.
Ernest Becker was right then when he proclaimed that “sex and death are twins.” Thinking about death makes the physical aspects of sex unappealing, and considering the physical aspects of sex nudges death thoughts closer to consciousness.
And research confirms that pondering more meaningful, romantic aspects of sex, like “expressing love for my partner,” is not linked to, and actually protects people from, concerns about death and their physicality.
When the young men were reminded of both death and their own lust, they recommended especially light sentences for an abusive boyfriend.
Terror of death is thus at the heart of human estrangement from our animal nature.