As teenage surfers, I recall that it seemed important to us, in our philosophical moments, to compare surfing and sex, wondering which is better, as though one has to choose between them. Three decades of surfing later, now a professional philosopher, I have returned to consider the question in my recent book, Surfing with Sartre. I’m still comfortable with my teenage answer.
You don’t have to choose between surfing and sex, if you play your cards right. Yet, if you have to focus more of your energies on one rather than the other (because life gets complicated), surfing is worthier. If I really had to give up one, but only one, forever, I’d give up sex.
Yes, surfing is that good. It’s totally wonderful, at least when you’re good enough at it and the waves are pumping.
How so? How are sex and surfing even comparable? We teenagers noted certain structural isomorphisms, especially when it comes to the “tube ride,” the act of riding inside the tube of a wave. You insert yourself inside of the tube when the wave offers the opportunity. You’re sliding along, perhaps “pumping” for speed, and then exiting, in some cases while the wave “spits.” I suppose the surfboard even has something of a phallic shape.
What really motivates the comparison, though, is that surfing and sex are both joyous and climactic and enthralling when they happen. They’re something wonderful enough to wait for or chase as a peak of human experience.
Yet if surfing is better than sex, it surely can’t be just that it is more intensely pleasurable than an orgasm, as though anything could be more intensely pleasurable than an orgasm. (Doesn’t a heroin high mainly prolong something like the same mental state?) Yes, surfing is really, really fun, but it is wonderful precisely because it is about much more than having a pleasurable state of mind. It draws you out of yourself.
Think of the minutes in the approach to climax and compare them to the minutes after the orgasm. What a difference a few minutes makes — definitely less focused, suddenly more prone to reflection. The transformation is so sudden, one might ask what explains it? Here it’s hard not to psychologize or neuro-psychologize: those must be some powerful chemicals juicing through the brain, which then just turn off, damming the floods of engrossing pleasure.
Surfing, by comparison, is wonderful not because of a brain-juiced adrenaline rush (though there’s that), but because of what all of the enjoyment is about, beyond one’s mere state of inner experience. It’s about the the way one is harmoniously related to what lies beyond — to the wave, to its next moment, and to the ocean that’s serving it up.
When it comes to surfing, I can step back and articulate what’s good about the activity aside from the pleasures it brings, in a way that expresses what’s engrossing in the throes of experience. No depiction is completely true to lived reality, but I think I can come up with a stable conception of its good that surfers will mainly agree with.
Surfing is about the sublime beauty of physically adapting to a shifting natural phenomenon. It’s all about being attuned to each moment of a constantly changing wave, and adapting spontaneously, with an apt shift in one’s weight, turn, rotation, or crouch. It’s about finding and staying in this dynamic adaptive relationship, and in that sense going with a flow.
That’s why it’s so fun, so joyous. Why do it? Not for pleasure or even self-indulgence, but just for its own sake. Because a sublimely beautiful act is eminently worthy of one’s limited time in life. That’s why you’re not really a hedonist for thinking that it’s worth taking time away from work for.
And why keep doing it, year after year, until one’s body gives out? Because there’s no better culmination of one’s human condition. Surfing brings a sense of harmonious fortune, of peace with one’s condition, a sense that, yeah, this is what life is ultimately for. If you’ve done it over decades, you can feel you’ve cheated death. Even if I kick off tomorrow, I am already blessed. The rest is gravy.
Aristotle compared ethical and athletic virtue. Both are an exercise of skill. They both bring their “proper pleasures,” but only when they’re done for reasons other than pleasure. Sex seems, well, more complicated. It’s more self-consciously about pleasure and figuring out what will induce a pleasurable mental state of increasing intensity. In asking about its value, the answer is more plainly about when or how to have the erotic kind of pleasure in one’s life.
Sex is in good measure a “knack,” as Plato called it, by which he meant a technique learned by repetition whose aim is simply to produce pleasure. You could have the knack for figuring out what works to produce pleasure in yourself or in your partner, and not just in one’s manipulative mechanics. One’s aim might be for any or all parties involved to get off. Pleasure is produced as an end in itself, perhaps with no further regard to what is good or just. Plato’s leading analogy is what he calls “rhetoric” in political speech. A speaker speaks in order to please his audience without regard for justice in the polity. (You could think here of Trump, and the way he creates something of an erotic experience with his supporters. He certainly has that knack.)
In sex, any technical process usually comes along with give and take, mutual seeing or showing, or, for many, playful domination or submission. And there are of course plenty of ways of celebrating what’s discovered among couples or communities, creating a kind of communion.
Like surfing, sex is open to being spiritualized or ritualized in ways that infuse the pleasures felt. I gather tantra is such a practice. And even ordinary sex is not just about pleasure, but also about expressing one’s animal self, being close with another, deepening a relationship, or just relieving stress.
But surfing is not simply or mainly about what will bring pleasure; rather, it is about what approach to surfing will bring speed, power, and flow, or good style. Surfers will say, “Woah, that was fun! Let’s do it again.” But the fun is enjoyment, the joy one takes in something else, beyond one’s inner state of experience, because of how one is related to what lies beyond.
In some of its best moods, sex is about people being mutually attuned and adapting to each other. But that’s sex at its best. When that fraught activity is going swimmingly, sex may be good because it’s akin to surfing, because of the ways that genuine attunement takes one beyond its pleasure.
Editor’s note: This is an original essay written by Aaron James for Powell’s, originally published here. Aaron James is the author of such notable works as the New York Times bestseller Assholes: A Theory and a new book titled Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning. Check back soon for an exclusive interview we shot with Aaron!