Is Sex a Sixth Sense?
Historical debates about sex reveal our own assumptions about sensation.
Posted Jun 09, 2020
“The number of senses is not fewer than six.”
It was a bold statement delivered by a bold man. Jean-Anthelme Brillat Savarin had seen some things over the course of his life. He was a lawyer. A violin teacher. A member of the French National Assembly. An emigrant to America at the height of the French Revolution. An expert on duels. A food writer.
And on the first page of the first chapter of his masterwork, The Physiology of Taste (1825), Brillat-Savarin drew a line in the sand.
There were six senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and physical desire.
This wasn’t an uncontroversial claim, but it also wasn’t unprecedented. Throughout the 18th century, philosophers and naturalists debated whether sex should be added to the sensory roster.
Clearly, Brillat-Savarin’s opinion didn’t win out. No one nowadays would argue that sex is a sixth sense (although, it would make kindergarten education much more interesting). So, it’s worth asking why sex was up for debate, what criteria people used to decide, and why we don’t have a “sexth” sense today.
What’s a Sense?
Before we can evaluate whether sex is a sense, we have to answer an important question: What’s a sense in the first place?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sense as “any of the faculties by which external or internal stimuli are perceived.” Or, more directly, the senses are a person’s link to the outside world.
That definition aligns closely with the way 18th- and 19th-century writers understood the senses. But they added a crucial component. Biologically speaking, they saw the senses as nature’s way of preserving the organism.
In the words of the philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, “Nature gave us organs to alert us, through pleasure, to those things we should seek out and through pain those that we should flee.” For example, fire will burn us, so the heat on our skin keeps us away; colorful fruits might nourish us, so sight draws us closer.
Because humans are intelligent beings, we can override those natural instincts and jump out of planes or eat poisonous pufferfish. But in our natural state, pleasure was an indicator of things that kept us alive, while pain forced us away from danger.
The Argument for the Sexth Sense
If 18th-century writers believed humans used their senses to feel pleasure and preserve themselves, it’s not hard to understand how sex became a sensory contender. What’s more pleasurable and better for the propagation of the species than sex? Or, at least, that was the way George-Louis Lerclerc, Comte de Buffon, understood the matter.
In his epic, 36 volume Natural History, Buffon included a passage written from the perspective of a newly created man. The man pursued beautiful fruit, sweet scents, and delicious flavors. Finally, he was introduced to a female companion, and the Adam-like character mused, “I would like to give her all my being; this lively desire will complete my existence. I feel born within me a sixth sense.”
From an 18th-century medical perspective, sex and other forms of sensation weren’t all that distinct. Descriptions of the physical response to sensory pleasure sounded a lot like sexual arousal.
Dr. Victor de Sèze explained that all pleasurable sensations—everything from licking an ice cream cone to listening to your favorite song—caused “an erection in the organ that enjoys it, a type of intumescence of all fibers.” Pain, on the other hand, would cause a person’s body to shrink away, “as if in offering less surface, it could try to escape the sensation.” (Think jumping into a cold pool.)
From this point of view, there was no difference between a hungry burst of saliva and the tingly, excited feeling that comes from sex. They were both indicators of sensory pleasure.
Arguments Against the Sexth Sense
While some writers were thoroughly convinced, others weren’t so sure.
Immanuel Kant waffled back and forth on the matter, while Voltaire argued that sex was a composite of sensations, not a sense in its own right. Touch, taste, sight, smell, and hearing all collaborated to produce exquisite pleasure. So, sex might have fit the “preservational” bill, but it didn’t qualify as an independent faculty.
The philosopher Edmund Burke had a different reason for rejecting sex’s sensory status. According to Burke, every sense is capable of causing humans both pleasure and pain. Sex created “the highest pleasure of sense,” he argued, but it didn’t cause pain. Moreover, while sex contributes to the preservation of the human species, he argued, it didn’t necessarily contribute to an individual’s longevity.
Many others who were against adding a sixth sense simply ignored the matter and asserted that humans are limited to the usual five. Over time, the idea of sex as a sixth sense became a fringe position, and more and more writers acted as if the matter were settled.
An Emerging Consensus
One thing these debates reveal is that, regardless of what side philosophers fell on, there was an emerging consensus about what constituted a sense in the first place. Senses were the bridge between a person’s inner and outer worlds, and they were nature’s way of protecting, encouraging, and supporting humans.
Sex was one of the cases that helped refine that definition. While it may not be part of our modern-day roster, it nevertheless helped solidify our modern concept of a sense.
Still, as solid as the canonical five senses may seem, we’re not all agreed today, either. For example, some neurobiologists recognize up to 33 senses, including proprioception and thermoception. The eco-psychologist Michael J. Cohen has even identified up to 53 different senses.
With all those extra sensory options, maybe sex should be a contender again, after all…
Brillat-Savarin, Jean-Anthelme. The Physiology of Taste, or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. 1925; reprint, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002.
Buffon, George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de. “Des sense n général.” In Oeuvres complètes de Buffon. Volume 3. Edited by H.R. Duthilloeul. Douai: Tarlier, 1822.
Burke, Edmund. “On the Sublime and Beautiful.” The Harvard Classics: Edmund Burke. Volume 24. Edited by Charles W. Eliot. New York: P.F. Collier and Son, 1909.
Cohen, Michael J. "Counselling with Nature: Catalyzing Sensory Moments that Let Earth Nurture." Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 6:1, 39-52. Doi: 10.1080/09515079308254491
Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de. Traité des sensations. Oeuvres complètes de Condillac. Volume 3. Paris: Gratiot, Houel, Guillaume, Pougin & Gide, 1798.
Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. Edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project, Autumn 2017 Edition. Edited by Robert Morrissey. s.v. “Sens.”
Howes, David. The Sixth Sense Reader. Oxford: Berg, 2009.
Sèze, Paul-Victor de. Recherches phisiologiques et philosophique sur la sensibilité ou la vie animale. Paris: Prault, 1786.
Voltaire. Philosophical Dictionary. Edited and translated by Theodore Besterman. New York: Penguin, 2004.