Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Twenty-Eight: Presentation

There's a current saying that runs, "Sexual orientation is who you want to go to bed with; gender orientation is who you want to go to bed as."

I like the saying. It gives me space to work.

Of course the initial answers here are obvious. I want to go to bed with lovely young girls who meet certain  preferences. I want to go to bed with them as a gentleman of a certain age. All very hetero, really.  There may be silk scarves and blindfolds and masks and candle wax and riding whips--- may be ---but so much of it is very vanilla.

Of course, there are other levels to analyse. As a gentleman of a certain age... There are a number of things inside that phrase. There's the act of presentation, of letting a young companion know that any affair with me involves that presentation of self. There's "gentleman", too. Not a word used much these days, but one that means a lot to me. It's a word I was brought up to believe in, and it's a presentation that's essential to what I hope to be and what I've always tried to be. It has its own assumptions about class and gender, place and generation. I'm aware of all those things, but I'll stay with the word and the ideas behind it.

"Of a certain age"--- there's that, too. I can hardly avoid it, after all. I'm not twenty-five, and I'll never be mistaken for twenty-five. But d'un certain age has implications that aren't just about age.  It implies a particular age range, but it also implies something about how one presents that age. It connects to "roué", to the assumptions behind that word.  "Of a certain age"...but not I hope merely old. It should imply experience, a past, stories, a life.

A few nights ago, a very lovely young companion of twenty-two looked at me over her glass and explained that she and I were both from the same region, and we appreciated the idea of being a gentleman.  She explained, too, that knowing that I was older--- and the actual number was irrelevant ---meant that I had interests and experiences and attitudes that were worth exploring. I knew, she said, how to be a gentleman, and I'd learned it back when it meant something.  After all, she said, it was only a gentleman who could ask her to yield herself up.

Did I kiss her and agree? Of course.  This is what I am: a gentleman of a certain age. This is how I present myself. This is the self that I've constructed, and the one that fits me, that I'm comfortable with. When I'm involved with someone,  I present myself as a version of something I believe in, something that allows me to be part of the narratives I live through.

This is what I am. This is how I present myself. This is how I live.  I can't be anything else.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Twenty-Seven: Performativity

There's a great deal of contemporary sexual theory that holds that gender is performance, that one does gender rather than being or having a gender. Gender is defined as a series of reiterated performances that mask the instability of all ideas of gender--- "a copy for which there is no original". I do read things by authors who position themselves in various niche sexual worlds where they talk about how they do gender for a given night, a given lover, a given fetish, a given game.

I do know that on a given day, dressing to go out into public, whether to an office or to someplace where I might find myself flirting with a lovely girl, I stand there in the mirror and prepare for a performance. I do think of it sometimes as an arming ritual. I'll be tying a necktie in the mirror or putting on a jacket and I'll imagine myself being fitted into armour or a matador's costume. I'll imagine being fitted into ritual garb, whether that's a breastplate and helmet or a bishop's robes. Going out in public is assuming a role, taking up a character.

In gender theory terms, I'm taking up a particular variant of being male. I'm taking up a role that is carefully constructed. What's being created there in the mirror is a character, and one with specific semiotics. When I go out into public, I am performing a role. I want to be read, I suppose. I want my performance to say that I'm of a certain class and background, to suggest my affinity for certain places and roles. I've never been a peacock male; that's not what my character would do. I'm presenting myself as educated, as someone of a certain age who still defines himself as sexual, as someone who has a trace of anglophilia and a hint of darkness. I don't do male peacocking, mind you. The goal is understatement, and the sense of security that goes with it. But I am always in character when I go out anywhere. I may tweak things a bit for different venues, but the presentation is always the same.

I also see certain writers about sexual issues and sexual politics talk about how one does sex--- not in the sense of techniques and positions, but in the sense of negotiation and presentation. There's a hint of suspicion in how that idea is invoked, a hint that to do sex is somehow to be inauthentic and attempting to put something over on a particular partner or potential partner (inevitably, a male attempting to somehow defraud a female).

I'll be upfront about it. I do see sex as something one does, as its own set of performances. Though they have their originals--- scenes and lines in books and films. I ask myself, inevitably, whether the kind of character I'd be in a favourite book or film would do something; I ask myself whether I've done all the things my character would do. And, yes, I measure myself against the things characters in books and films do. My goal is always to give pleasure to a young companion, but whatever I do, I'm doing in character, and I want her to construct her own character, her own scenarios as well.

I don't think of what I do as inauthentic. I am what I do. I am the character I create. I am a gentleman of a certain age and a certain background. But the things inside that description are things I've taken up as being what I really am. Sitting at a cafe, sitting at an office desk, talking down the bar, I'm always doing a character. Kissing a young companion, taking her into my arms, I'm hoping that both of us are inside a story with scenes we want to be part of. I'm asking myself what I'd be doing at a given moment if I were my own character in a novel or film. Be very clear: I am made up out of characters and scenes I've liked. Romance, seduction, life--- the narrative arc, the crafted scene. Those are the things I like, that I've created myself inside.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Twenty-Six: Transactions

I have been thinking about the idea of the economy of sex. There are writers who disapprove of the whole concept of "sexual economics", since they assume that looking at sex as a transaction with all the attendant microeconomic ideas of utility maximisation devalues female agency. And there are male writers of the less appealing "pick-up artist" and "men's rights activist" kind who seem to reduce sex to exactly an exchange of cash or its equivalents and who lament that "hot is the female rich" and are angered by their own belief that any attractive woman can have sex pretty much at will.

I do think microeconomics can be applied to sex. There are concepts there that make clear sense--- choice under uncertainty, transaction costs, and utility maximisation. Transaction costs here does not mean the direct cost of buying sex. But going out to meet a partner has its own costs in terms of resources that could be expended elsewhere. If you go out to meet a partner, or if you devote your time and attention to a lover and a love affair, there are costs. You don't have unlimited time, if nothing else. You've chosen to do this thing rather than another, to be with one person on a given night rather than another. The time you spend at a club or a party is time you don't have to be at a film or at home. The money you spent on subway fare or on drinks or on an outfit is money you don't have to spend elsewhere.  That's the "dismal science" part of economics, after all: every choice closes off other choices, every choice has its costs, even if they're only in terms of other choices foregone.  And everyone looks to maximise utility, yes--- even though "utility" can't be strictly defined by material things.

That does take me back to Marcel Mauss and the "The Gift" and the idea of symbolic exchange and reciprocity.  I remain a bit perplexed at the writers who dislike the idea of taking any kind of anthropological view of what happens in mating rituals.

And it takes me back to my own memories of dating when I was young.

Dating in those days and in that place was a highly ritualised activity. One called to ask a girl out--- never later than Wednesday for a Saturday night. And so much of the night was choreographed. I remember the way a girl always sat demurely against the passenger door as you left her parents' driveway and then, as you turned off her street, slid over next to you. In a bench seat car, you put your arm around her; in a car with bucket seats, you put a hand on her thigh. And of course there were clear steps for how far one was supposed to go sexually on a given date. Yes, it gave little scope to female agency, and it gave little scope to negotiation. I'll acknowledge that. There was this much to be said for the ritual, though: it did eliminate anxiety and uncertainty. Like any good system, it relieved one from having to worry, to think about what step to take (or not take) next. The system itself carried one along. There's a lot to be said for that, for reducing uncertainty and anxiety. There's a lot to be said for system, for not having to worry about the next step.

In that time and place, dating was very formalised, with clear rules. It contained and constrained sexuality, but it also offered a framework to both parties. The rules were clear enough, and there was an expectation on both sides that going out on a date was a mating ritual, that there would be some kind of physical contact. I know the arguments about the harshness and unfairness of some of those rules, and I don't dispute that. I have always appreciated the formalised nature of those nights, though. I liked the ritual aspect. The ritual kept one from feeling judged quite as much as might have happened in less formal circumstances. There is an argument that European ways, where groups of kids go out and get to know one another and pair off from the group, are better. More honest, less pressured, and more likely to allow two people to get to know one another. Still, though, I remember feeling somehow safe in those days. If a girl elected to go out with you, you'd been given a signal that you had some sexual value, even if only as someone to kiss in a parked car or at a film. Yes, as the boy, I was expected to pay for film tickets or dinner, but it never felt like I was buying the right to make out with a girl. There was a transaction, yes, but it was more ritual. The girl and I went through our formal steps, and we both enjoyed something physical. I really couldn't have imagined pushing through what the accepted limits for each date were. The system may not have given anyone a chance to establish what's now called "intimacy", but it allowed for physical contact and it gave mating and its travails a structure, a framework. You did things by the numbers, and both parties knew the rules. Am I saying that what I liked is that one didn't have to think about what one was doing? That's possible, and it's always one of the things that make rituals and systems appealing.

I'm not at all sure that dating like that exists any longer in the States, even in the region where I grew up. But I still have that love for formalised sex, for ritualised seduction and affairs. Those are transactions, but not in the monetary sense. But they are set up as interactive moves, as exchanges of symbols and symbolic actions.  I like them for exactly that. I like the formality and the sense of narrative arc.

I may have gotten away from talking about either the economics of sex or Marcel Mauss. But let's discuss this--- the idea of seduction and flirting as a set of formal, ritual, symbolic exchanges. Tell me your thoughts, if you're reading this.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Twenty-Five: Grisettes

A British journalist I've chatted with once published an article not long ago about the websites that offer to bring together "sugar babies" with "sugar daddies". The article itself isn't bad at all, and she does ask a number of interesting questions. One thing that I wish she'd addressed, though, is the question of how one distinguishes a "sugar baby" from the classic idea of a mistress. 

How do we distinguish between "sugar baby" and the traditional--- meaning the 18th and 19th.-century --idea of the mistress? What differentiates one from the other? Is it that a "sugar baby" is simply given gifts, while the traditional mistress is "in keeping"--- living somewhere supplied by her patron, all (or at least most) of her expenses paid? Is it the level of the arrangement--- the mistress expected either to be on call or to abide by a carefully-crafted schedule for meetings, while the "sugar baby" is more able to set her own schedule? I do think there's a level of display that's expected with a "sugar baby" that isn't expected from a girl taken "into keeping" in Paris or London in an earlier age. A "sugar baby" is given gifts by her "sugar daddy" and she's taken out to be shown off, even if that's somewhere where friends of his wife or his business colleagues aren't likely to find them. I might argue that display is a key function of the "sugar baby", that she's there precisely to be shown off in her new dresses and jewels. The classic mistress was kept more discreetly. What's the old phrase--- "the somebodies whom nobody knows"? The semiotics here interest me. There's a difference between a mistress and a "sugar baby" that says something about display and how wealth is to be seen in the modern day.

There may also be a question of class here. In French or English or even Russian novels, the mistress is the ex-governess, the ballerina, the actress, the grisette. While there are fallen gentlewomen who appear once in a while, the mistress is usually from a lower social class than her keeper. The "sugar baby", though, is something different. The idea of the websites is that the girls are presented as university girls, as students who need financial support to finish a degree and are willing to accept gifts from a "sugar daddy" and offer up sexual favours. The girls may be impoverished at twenty, but the idea is that they are from a class that goes to university and can expect to be financially successful on their own in a few years. The "sugar daddy" who visits the websites isn't taking a shopgirl into keeping. He's making an arrangement with someone who comes from his own social class, and it's the middle and upper-middle class status of the girls that's a selling point.

I've never taken a mistress. I've never taken a girl into keeping or been anyone's "sugar daddy". Genteel poverty hasn't allowed for that. I suppose I'd rather take a mistress than a "sugar baby".  If I had the money, I'd prefer to take a girl as a mistress in the 18th-c. kind of arrangement. It's a more literary thing to do, and whatever I may do in the realms of sex and romance, there has to be a literary reference. It'll never be any other way. Though I will note that I'd want the girl to be someone who'd otherwise be the "sugar baby" type, the undergraduate girl with the bookshelves filled with critical theory and high lit. I wouldn't be comfortable with someone who didn't have the right academic (and, yes, class) markers. 

The article noted that so many of the men presenting themselves as "sugar daddies" were in IT that the question really had to be asked: why were IT or tech types so prevalent? I might suspect that the men who'd made serious money in those fields had devoted their twenties to staring relentlessly at computer screens and had never learned social skills. A "sugar daddy" arrangement would allow them to have a social trophy and be with someone who wouldn't mock them for geekery. Or is that only dealing in stereotypes? It's certainly dealing in stereotypes to speculate that MBA and finance types might prefer escorts to "sugar babies" as more efficient and less likely to make any emotional demands. But am I wrong? If you're reading this, do comment. I'd like to hear what you think.

I think I will be acquiring a copy of Marcel Mauss' "The Gift" and David Graeber's "Debt" as reading for a next note here. I find articles out on the web that discuss the idea of "sexual economics" or an "economy of sex", though usually in terms of attacking the idea. I'll have to think about that. I hope you'll comment on that, too. It's a discussion I'd like to have.