Formerly sin was made clear to us through religion. It was simple. To paraphrase a recent take: if you aren’t behaving in a manner the church would have disapproved of 500 years ago, are you even living?

In the absence of a religious context, we’ve had to reevaluate what we condemn as sinful, along with how we punish those who choose to transgress. Now, we look to productivity as a way to quantify virtue. ‘A work ethic’ is the concept that our usefulness/outputs – and a back-breaking commitment to it/them – have inherent moral value, that grinding yourself to the bone will, in some way, transform you into a better person.

By this logic, not being productive is shameful – the new sin. Rest is a waste of time. The unmoving body is in a state of disgrace, and projected anxieties about ‘unproductivity’ are never more obvious than in the faux concern of fatphobia. If we’re taught to seek salvation through material, physical or even spiritual gain, then an action that produces nothing leads to what – damnation? 

When we talk about sex, it’s easy to concentrate on what we take from it. Memories. Knowledge. Self-discovery. Understanding. It’s that utilitarian impulse again, telling us our time is only well-spent if we can filter it for meaning later. I reject that. Sometimes, surely, you just want to fuck? 

In his 1949 work, The Accursed Share, George Bataille expands on the indulgent, non-recuperable element of the erotic. He discusses the “draining away, a pure and simple loss, which occurs in any case,” when we engage in a “squandering of energy” that has no apparent utility beyond the pleasure experienced in the moment of expenditure. Bataille argues that in life our spirits are essentially restless, grappling for escape from the prison of our physical bodies. In this context, sex at its most destrutive, excessive, and exuberant is the nearest we can hope to get to ecstacy, freedom and – dare we say it – salvation. 

As Bataille goes on to say, “erotic experience, at least at first glance, is subordinated to the event,” but by embracing sex as a pure, pleasure-inducing, non-reciprocal loss, we can transcend this subordination and gain sovereignty over this constant, exhausting drive towards self-actualisation. 

“I need to be productive tomorrow,” my friends and I will sometimes cry before we turn in for the night, cut the last dance short or refuse another martini. Somewhere along the line, we became wedded to the myth of a “productive tomorrow” – this constant unfolding series of days-to-be, a deferred hope that the oncoming hours will be dense with achievement; that this day – this tomorrow – will be the one in which we wrestle with the languid, impulsive, ‘bad’ sides of our nature, defeat them and win. But for what?

On a wider scale, we look to the framework of time to guide us too: the new year, the new decade, the new century as markers for new beginnings, every milestone heavy with the weighty potential of what we could be if we simply put in more effort. On your marks, get set, go. But I’m far more intrigued by the point we’d arrive at if we just stopped for a moment, held our breaths together, paused. 

We’re so conditioned to associate virtue with measurable gain, it’s unsettling and unfamiliar to have to cleave ourselves from productivity. In this atmosphere of high-stakes competition and endless to-do lists, what does it mean to create a purely pleasure-driven space? To channel an excessive share of energy into something blissfully unproductive, rewarded cyclically, by what’s generated in that moment – and only that moment? Concentration, focus, orientation, even pressure. All those states we associate with effort and virtue can also be applied to a purely pleasure-centric space. Produce nothing. Listen to impulses. Digress into pure gratification. Take no interest in what exists before or after our orgasm. 

Just because we devote ourselves to an action with no end product, that doesn’t mean we’re caught in an unsatisfying cul-de-sac, treading water and wasting time. No, when our bodies commit to pleasure for its own sake, we’re crossing a fault line, dancing towards an epiphany. We’re turning our heads to look to what is most edifying in life. I’d argue that’s the least sinful thing of all. 

With this in mind, let’s hope the ‘20s usher in a decade of celebration – sinning gracefully, luxuriously, excessively. Though we may not be completely free of sin, we are released from the obligation to apologise for not constantly putting ourselves to good use.   

2020 — Louisa Knight