The Antisexual Antiasceticism of Izydor Stolarz
Created 17 May 2021 • Last modified 19 Aug 2022
A short story in the style of Jorge Luis Borges, in which a fictionalized version of the author (yours truly, in this case) reviews the life and work of an imaginary iconoclastic writer.
30 Jun 2032
Among those who've read the best-known work of Izydor Stolarz, most will remember him as a knowledgeable if somewhat overenthusiastic sex guru. The few who've read further may remember him as a crackpot. But I remember him as Fenix, my friend, my onetime crush, and a visionary of a strange kind. In my most cynical moments, I think that I read him like a milquetoast neoliberal attending a lecture by Noam Chomsky, who smiles and nods at the smart person with big ideas but who has no intention of taking any of those ideas to heart. But I prefer to think that Fenix seized upon important underlying truths, in his typical intense and cantankerous way, and that in time I'll be able to better distinguish the real insights from the paranoia.
When I met Fenix on IRC in 2014 under that alias (plus the obligatory backtick or two), he'd already lost interest in StarCraft and moved onto League of Legends. His temper was a natural fit for the famously player-hostile League. He wasn't the best, but he tried his best, and he was never the worst member of his team so long as I was playing with him. Soon we developed a friendship based on mutual interests in philosophy and social science. His intelligence was obvious. He was barely 19 then, and he knew Hegel better than any of the professors I'd had in undergrad, when I was flirting with a minor in philosophy. Despite what's been insinuated about him, on the basis of his later work, there was nothing abnormal about Fenix's sexual adjustment—not yet, anyway. While I was sinking deeper into increasingly weird sex research (I was working on Empirical Sexual Attitudes around this time, when I was in graduate school, and I published my infamous paper "American political-party affiliation as a predictor of usage of an adultery website" a few years later), Fenix seemed to ably navigate the sexual contradictions of modern Catholic life.
Eventually Fenix began to drift towards a holy calling. The first time I came to see him in Poland, he was thinking about joining a Pauline monastery. He'd recently been dumped after a long and intense relationship with a wonderful girl who'd had enough of his angry outbursts, and his bookishness seemed appropriate for a monk, so this direction made a certain amount of sense to me. I was only sad he'd be retreating from the world. When I asked him how he felt about celibacy, he just shrugged. He didn't end up becoming a monk, and while he went into seminary soon after, he didn't ultimately graduate.
Fenix's eureka moment, such as it was, occurred during the pandemic. I remember one night on Discord in May 2020—I was still in a kind of shock about the virus—he'd obviously been drinking. Not one to typically divulge his sexual eccentricities at the drop of a hat (as I do), he suddenly confessed to me guiltily about the immense amount of porn he'd been consuming since the start of lockdowns. He felt a lot of guilt about it, even though it was such vanilla stuff. I think his biggest fantasy was being pegged. He was also torn up about masturbation, although he'd already mentioned that in passing years ago and he'd never seemed troubled about it before. I tried to reassure him and he lashed out at me, yelling something incoherent about how I wasn't paying attention to my own science.
We made up shortly after that, as we always did in those days, but a light bulb had gone off for Fenix that illuminated, with its peculiar light, the rest of his life. He quit seminary and spent the next decade in various programming jobs, being fired from each when his eccentricities became odious enough to his coworkers that his considerable brains and work ethic no longer sufficiently compensated for them. Of course, I'm not here to talk about Fenix's CRUD apps and e-commerce microservices, which only wasted his talents (and he knew it); I'm here to talk about the copious reading and writing with which he occupied his free time.
Sex and religion
Fenix's exact claims about human sexuality changed several times. What was constant was his underlying conviction that sexuality was a source of great evil. His first clear expression of this idea was a long essay in Latin, "On Original Sin" (2021), which examines an exhaustive set of key Catholic texts on the relationship between human sexuality and morals. He argues that while various worthies of the church were right to be so concerned with sexual sin—he's scornful of modern advocates of the idea that sexual morality is overemphasized in modern Christianity—they had erred in trying to distinguish good from bad forms of sexual expression. Sex was not God's gift to man that had been corrupted by man; it was a "cosmic punishment" (translation mine), part of the curse that man had brought upon himself through the Fall. The pain bestowed upon Eve in childbirth was only one facet of the suffering of which sexuality was intended, by God, to be an engine. Noticing the honor and praise of suffering as a major theme of Catholicism, Fenix states perhaps yet more heretically that monks should indulge rather than resist their sexual appetites, so as to better suffer and therefore share in the Passion. There follows several paragraphs describing the echo of crucifixion in sexual intercourse, and I won't repeat these in any more detail, since I wouldn't wish the reading of them on my worst enemy. If nothing else, one must admire Fenix's commitment to familiarizing the reader with suffering. Fenix concludes weakly by belaboring the connection to BDSM (his coinage of Latin terms for modern concepts is a rare glimmer of his playful side) and repeating the old myths of Jesus's homosexuality (he was always oddly credible about the Secret Gospel of Mark).
An inherent tension in this piece is, of course, how on the one hand Fenix believes sex to be evil, and on the other he encourages its practice as a virtue. To my increasing perplexity, he ended up doubling down on both counts. We can see his views evolving on the former from the many long book reviews he left during this period (2020–2026) on Goodreads and Amazon. He was intensely critical of a seemingly arbitrarily selected set of books—Stranger in a Strange Land, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Philip Pullman's Dark Materials series, and a sentimental autobiography of Oliver Sacks—because of how they "whitewashed and glorified sex as some kind of beautiful magical force for goodness that can save us from the worst of ourselves, as it if wasn't itself the worst of ourselves", to quote his description of Michael Smith's cult. He was most admiring of C. S. Lewis, even after he'd completely renounced religion. I still have his copy of Mere Christianity with extensive marginalia in Polish.
Fenix came to be against religion because, he said, the problems with Christianity he'd identified in "On Original Sin" were evident in some form in all faiths. He felt Judaism was right to reject castration and celibacy ("Self-denial is self-deception", an aphorism of which he was proud), but the underlying idea that sexuality was a blessing, as best demonstrated by the weekly bedroom rituals of certain denominations, was utterly backwards. As for Buddhism, he couldn't seem to decide whether he was more contemptuous of celibate monks or of tantric sex-ritual-practicing monks who "insanely believe that enlightenment will come through the strategic blotting of the intellect". Near the end of his life, he began to read and talk to me about Gnostic Christianity a fair bit; sadly, we'll never known what would have come of that.
The Flesh Is Weak and Fig Leaves
I began to see my own scientific proclivities rubbing off on Fenix's next major work, The Flesh Is Weak (2024), which he wrote in English for a general audience. In a review of a large amount of theory and empirical work in psychology, as well as historical incidents, philosophy, and feminist treatises (chiefly Firestone and Brownmiller), The Flesh argues that human sexuality has remarkable destructive capacity and its various features are responsible for a startling amount of human misery, whether reckoned in the numbers of economics or public health or the subjective accounts of its victims. This book is Fenix at his most studious and his most lucid. I think a lot of his argument is convincing, and the world would be a better place if The Flesh Is Weak was a widely read classic text instead of a badly formatted Google Doc with 800 views. Does Fenix go too far in saying that human sexuality is the ultimate root of human evil? I have enough social psychology under my belt to feel confident in saying that yes, he does. Even then, a charitable reader, without exposure to Fenix's worst excesses, could chalk up that kind of claim to the tendency of all authors to think that their theory of one very specific subject can actually explain everything if you think about it hard enough. Writing a book is too often all-consuming.
Schopenhauer famously had no interest in living up to the dicta of his own philosophy. Quite the opposite for Fenix, and his intensity about it was fundamentally sad. He spent a lot of time pursuing any women who would have sex with him, on top of his old habits. He tried sex with men and a variety of kinks from the familiar to the weird, but found he was most sexually excited by the mundane. He hated all of it—he resented every grunt of pleasure, every orgasm—but was unmoved by my pleas that he didn't have to do these things to himself. "The taint is on me whether I like or not," he said, "and pretending to be any purer would be a mockery." His biggest regret seemed to be his disinterest in the most taboo and ethically questionable acts. I think he believed that his lack of pedophilia, for example, was proof that on some level he was still mired in denial of the wretchedness of humankind. Still, he was wretched enough. He rebuffed any romantic interest by the women with which he was involved, and treated them with a degree of callousness that made me recoil. He also had many unkind things to say about my celibacy, which I'd been consistent about since years before we'd met. I think he felt my own virginity was made even less excusable by my bisexuality and my various deviant fantasies. Our friendship never really healed from that rift, his contempt for a man who thought himself better than he really was. The feelings I'd had for him on and off were by this point gone.
Fenix's drift towards the paranoid is more evident in his next book. In Fig Leaves (2026), which is framed more as pure social commentary than the science-supplemented Flesh Is Weak, Fenix argues that each culture, if not each person, creates a mythology that distinguishes "good sex" from "bad sex". The division arises from tension between our awareness of the evil of sex and its compromise of our intellect. He contemptuously rejects Freud's theory of sexual repression, as well as Jamie Goldenberg's theory of erotophobia motivated by the fear of death. He claims that the trappings of marriage, romantic love, divine approval, and even consent-focused sex-positive feminism are mere "fig leaves" providing supposedly sanctifying conditions under which sex can take place. He calls out by name several web forums—AVEN and some kind of Russian site—that he had previously joined, posted on profusely for a short period, made a scene on, and gotten banned from (classic Fenix). He rants about the dishonesty of the word "asexuality" and how frequently self-described asexuals remain subject to some identifiably sexual emotion, drawing an analogy with the unreliable and incomplete effects of castration in humans as well as animals. For a clear-eyed view of sexuality, Fenix says, we should focus on whatever manifestation is most taboo (such as rape or bestiality), and therefore least obscured by fig leaves. This book is notable for Fenix's first spirited defense of the Marquis de Sade, who, we are told, is among the few people in history to grasp and explicate the fundamental equivalence of sex and evil. de Sade was Fenix's richest source of quotations in all his later work.
Fame and death
With the necessary background, I can now discuss Fenix's best-known work and his last completed project, Hot as Hell: The Curious Human's Guide to Sex on the Wild Side (2030). I can't help but smile to remember the disgust in his voice as he told me the title he'd settled on. From what I've seen, there are a few ways readers interpret this book. Most of the laudatory reviews, and nearly all the critical ones, take Hot as Hell at face value as a sex manual. It is praised for a combination of accessibility to the kink-uninitiated and the author's obvious depth and breadth of knowledge, even if some of the weirder activities suggested in the book verge on unprintability. Cleverer reviewers read Hot as Hell as satire. It's not hard to tell that its utter silence on contraceptives, abuse, safewords, cheating and trust, venereal disease, and just plain bad sex is no accident.
The truth is that Hot as Hell isn't satire. It's a sex manual, just a particularly malicious one. The word that Fenix used to describe it to me was "accelerationist", a word I was surprised to hear from a man who'd always acted as if politics were beneath him. After years of feeling his work was unappreciated and misunderstood, as he observed ostensible setbacks such as the legalization of polygamy in Denmark in 2029, he'd decided that humanity would only come to realize its stain when it was confronted with it as intensely as possible. He wrote various rambling essays he never finished about a future "turning point" in which the depravity of sex would become too obvious to ignore, and only then would the collective brains of humanity be put to its abolition, to freeing humankind of its ancestral curse. He was vague about how this revolution would take place and how it would differ from the asceticism he despised, but it would apparently involve technology. He spoke of its inevitability—the only uncertain part was when it would happen—and this brought me some comfort, on his behalf, because it was the only time I saw him express hope.
Maybe that one spark of hope was a sign of the recovery that was on his way, but I never found out. Stolarz died early this year in a car crash outside Kraków. Both he and his passenger, a young woman to whom he had no prior connection, were drunk, and their bodies were in an undignified position. He was 37. It drives me crazy that Fenix died at such a young age, and we'll never knew who he would've become given time. But I'm relieved that, finally, his suffering is over.