Friday, May 31, 2013

Seventy-Two: Polemics

There was a time in my far-away youth when I read essays and articles that were tagged as "sex-positive". All part of the Sex Wars and the Culture Wars of those years, of course. Those were the years when there were bitter polemics between those who thought pleasure and desire were tools of oppression and those who believed that pleasure and desire were valuable in themselves. I thought those long-ago wars had been settled, and that pleasure and delight had won. The voices of the enemy are still out there, though.

There's been a disturbing shift in definitions and attitudes out there among those who still describe themselves as "sex-positive". There's less and less assertion that pleasure is its own reward, or that experimentation and adventures are valuable all on their own. There are far too many soi-disant "sex-positive" authors and bloggers who seem to be devoting their time to finding reasons not to have sex or not to experiment and seek out adventures and new experiences. And I see that in parallel with writers (e.g., the British journalist Laurie Penny) arguing that beauty itself is irrelevant and probably oppressive and that seeking out pleasure and delight is always something that supports oppression and distracts from "real"issues. This of course goes along with the idea put forth by vile and loathsome writers like Hugo Schwyzer and Amanda Marcotte that no desire is acceptable and no pleasure can be anything other than shameful unless its "context" (i.e., its ideological background) is "correct".

Desire itself is no longer acceptable, really. It's regarded as dangerous, and not in the romanticized way that so many 20th-c. writers and artists described it. Desire must now be judged not on how it leads to pleasure or exalts beauty, but in terms of ideological "context".

In a DSM-5 world, a 12-step world, pleasure itself is suspect, and is seen as a sign or symptom of some underlying problem or pathology. To seek out pleasure or delight or experiences is seen as a sign of something disordered, some addiction or obsession.  Any delights can only be seen as "correct" if they fall within the right ideological context.

Beauty is irrelevant, pleasure is a distraction from the ideological context, delight is a mask for social oppression. "Sex-positive" writers now spend their time finding reasons for their readers not to have sex or seek out pleasure.  It seems that the new era is one where being a roué will be harder and harder, where being someone (and especially a gentleman of a certain age) who prefers young companions and who seeks out delights for their own sake and as adventures to be shared with partners will be increasingly seen as suspect.

It's too late for me, of course. I'm of an age where I won't--- can't ---give up the idea that beauty is to be admired. I can't give up the idea of paying tribute to beauty. I won't--- can't ---give up the idea that pleasure and delight is valuable whatever its ideological context, or  ever come to believe that one's preferences have to be judged in terms of ideological context.

I am a gentleman of a certain age, and I style myself as a roué. I may well be an anachronism in a world where even "sex-positive" writers no longer support the idea of having more and better sex in more and better ways with more and better partners, in an age where pleasure itself is suspect. But I will still be here--- as an aging roué, as an enemy of writers like the vile Amanda Marcotte or the loathsome Hugo Schwyzer. I will be here as someone with young companions at his side, as someone who believes in seductions and delights and adventures. I will still be here--- I'll always be here ---as someone who believes in beauty and in the value and power of beauty and delight.

There are times where one has to take a stand, and I think this is one. I believe in pleasure, in delight, in adventures and new experiences, in young companions as partners in games and rituals and discovery. "Context" only matters as a set for stories. I know who my friends are in these battles, and I know who the enemy is. I know those things, and I won't forget them.  Ever.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Seventy-One: Archaeology

There was a review article at Chronicle of Higher Education not so very long ago by Camille Paglia about academic treatment of BDSM. I dislike Paglia, and I want to be clear about that. She's the last person I'd choose to review books on BDSM, and in truth the article devolved into one of her usual rants against critical theory in general and against Foucault in particular. The only good thing about the article was that she included a patronising review of Staci Newmahr's "Playing on the Edge", and I'm having the library get a copy for me. "Playing on the Edge" is an account of the darker edges of BDSM by a writer who immersed herself in that world for a couple of years as both observer and participant. I'll be reading it for the darkness and the more highly-sexual passages--- reading it the way I'd read a novel. That at least came from Paglia's article.

As for the rest of it...well, the only thing I dug out of her rant was that she was annoyed that the authors she was reviewing didn't think BDSM had a history. Okay, yes--- it does have a history. Everything, every set of ideas and beliefs, has its own archaeology...though that may be too much like Foucault for Paglia to admit. If you look at BDSM as a set of specialised sexualised activities, you can trace it back through all those Victorian brothels that dealt in flagellation and back through Sade into the eighteenth century. You can probably trace the idea of the whip as a sexual accessory back to Restoration libertines. Before that, though, I'd think it gets a bit iffy. I'm not sure that what we think of as BDSM really crops up in Tudor or Renaissance times.  Is there anything in Aretino? And medieval That's something different. If you're whipping yourself or being whipped to actually mortify the flesh for serious religious reasons, that's something altogether different. BDSM abstracts the idea of ritually mortifying the flesh--- this is why BDSM draws so heavily on Catholic imagery ---but empties out the religious content.  There's nothing ironic in medieval flagellants, and BDSM, even (or especially) in its most ritualised forms, is deeply ironic.

I've always been at least intellectually attracted to BDSM--- or to the idea of it. Blindfolds and riding crops and candle wax are accessories to stories, and they have a literary pedigree. They're markers for something, too. Like the double-diamond on ski slope warning signs, those things are markers for a certain kind of literary girl that she's doing sexual things that are beyond just the basic. Blindfolds and silk scarves and candle wax and riding whips are markers for advanced sex, for a kind of postgraduate-level sex. That's always something one can offer to a certain kind of young companion: not just sex, but the idea of sex that's more advanced, more complex, more literary than just fumblings in a backseat or in a residence hall bed.

I've said before that I came across BDSM by discovering books like "Story of O"  when I was very young. And there's no question that much of what I liked in literary BDSM was the idea of class.  Hidden chateaux, elegant townhouses, expensive fittings, beautiful people in distant cities. There's a traditional association of BDSM with wealth, after all. The men who could pay Victorian prostitutes in specialised brothels to whip them had to be at least upper middle-class; it takes money to afford the rent and upkeep at Roissy. Oh, I liked the idea of ritual and accoutrements; I liked the idea of the literary references. But what I think first intrigued me was the idea of beautiful people in expensive settings in distant places doing forbidden things that only made sense in that context. Roissy is a kind of literary idyll. Doing the same things in a tract home in Terre Haute is...well...part of a breaking crime story on cable news.

Paglia's review article never quite gets to the idea of a change in class markers for BDSM over the last thirty years or so, but it's there. In the age of FetLife and fairly open BDSM social organisations, in an era when BDSM clubs have "munches"--- potluck dinners, really ---there's been a kind of embourgeoisement of BDSM. I suspect that at FetLife  or other BDSM organisation dinners in Silicon Valley, people exchange business cards. There are BDSM workshops with credentialed facilitators. That's all so very American educated middle-class, so...respectable. Paglia argues in some kind of Golden Bough way that BDSM is about a kind of chthonic need for order and redemption and a contact with the animal self. But I think she's missing a sea-change in how BDSM presents itself, and what its class markers are.

I've always been a solitary type. I'm not sure my own attraction to BDSM could survive a potluck dinner or a workshop. A single young companion who shares a need to live inside books: that's more what I want for a partner for ritual games. It's always been ritual that I admire in so many things: the formal steps, the symbolic acts, the framework that carries you along step by step. And since I take no pleasure in things--- no physical pleasure, anyway ---that isn't mediated through books, I need a partner and a set of games that carry a literary pedigree.

So, then--- Interlibrary Loan is getting me a copy of "Playing on the Edge". With luck, it'll be like a very dark and powerful erotic tale with critical theory woven through it. Newmahr didn't go to gated chateaux outside Paris; I know that. But I'm hoping that her stories are stylish and dangerous and cleverly told.

There's a history to BDSM. An archaeology, in Foucault's terms. There's a literary heritage, too, and a set of aesthetics. I haven't much use for Camille Paglia, and I'd never trust her on aesthetics or style. I'm just as sure that I'd never quite find anything attractive in a version of BDSM that in that American middle-class way that has "facilitators" and workshops and justifies itself in psychological terms.  BDSM was always the intellectuals' fetish, Andrew Holleran once wrote, because it's something people come to through books. Whatever attraction I've had to it is about style and class markers and books. Whatever games I've played with lovely young companions, the point has always been about books and living inside books. I'm not sure at all that my attractions could survive in a word where the games were justified, or where they only about sex or the physical. And once companions can only and ever be girls who live through books and ideas rather than flesh and the concrete world around them.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Seventy: Reconnaissance

Desire enters at the eye. I've said that before, but it's something that bears repeating. Desire begins with what we see. Desire enters at the eye, and what we see becomes part of the stories we tell ourselves.

There's an argument out there about whether it's true that males are the visual sex, the sex that wants to see more than know. That's not an argument about brain wiring, of course--- or not really. It's an argument about why males want to look at the female body, an argument about porn, about power and the Male Gaze, and about something else as well. There are female writers who argue that women are no less visual than men, that female sexuality responds to the eye at least as much as males. That's an argument about why men should recognise that, yes, they're being rejected because of their looks and bodies and why they shouldn't think that women don't look at bodies the same way men do. It's part of the envenomed argument out there in the blog world about "friendzoning" and "Nice Guys". That's an argument that's depressing enough for anyone male to hear, and of course it's one that leaves me well aware that I can't live up to any possible standards of male attractiveness. It's an argument that induces anger and bitterness on all sides within moments, and it's one that I want to stay away from.

What I do know is that I can lose myself in what I see. I have sat on subways long past my stop just to look at a pair of long, slender legs in a summer dress. I've seen lovely girls in short shorts crossing the campus quad and realised ten minutes later that I'd followed along halfway across campus. I've looked up and found myself in some classroom building I'd never seen before or at a subway stop on the other side of the city. I'd never have spoken to the girls--- I'm not sure I'd have known what to say. I certainly tried--- I hope I tried successfully ---to look without being obvious or even noticed. Be very clear: I couldn't have spoken to the girls, and I'd have been nonplussed if any of them had ever spoken to me.  I didn't want to pick anyone up, or make anyone an offer. I was losing myself in what I saw, in the idea of physical beauty, in the stories I'd be creating about the girls. Be clear, too: I wasn't telling stories in my head about having sex with them.  The stories were more about the girls in something like fashion photography, about them posed at cafe tables or on street corners or the library steps. It was all far more Stockholm Street Style or Babes At The Museum than overtly sexual. Nonetheless...I would lose myself in looking at beauty, even if I knew I'd never approach any of the girls.

It's something one does in spring and summer--- drift through urban streets amidst passing beauty. There are rules about it, of course. One looks briefly in passing. No eye contact, or at most a half-second glance over one's sunglasses. No holding eye contact. One never speaks, never tries to actually approach anyone. Keep moving, of course, threading your way forward through crowds. I can laugh about losing myself  over a girl on a street or in a museum, but it has happened. A complete dissociation from whatever I was originally doing  and just sighing over a lovely figure passing by.

There is a tribute one pays grace and beauty and style and youth. One does lose oneself in passing beauty. It has to remain abstract, though. Never speak, never call attention to yourself as an observer. There's a long and ultimately meaningless argument as to whether lovely girls on summer streets dress to be noticed, to assert their own beauty and allure. Whatever the answer to that may be, one never speaks, one never holds a gaze. Admire in passing, but it has to be only in passing.

Pay tribute to youth and beauty and grace and style. Let desire enter at the eye, and create a world of stories from what you see. Remember, though, that losing oneself in beauty is about admiration and tribute, not about flesh itself.  Desire enters at the eye, and we create stories based on what we've seen, on how we fit what we see into dreams and tales. Holding the glance, speaking, being seen too obviously to look--- no. Never those things.

We move through a world where beauty and grace pass by--- other ships on the horizon, ghostly islands seen once at a distance. There's only the briefest time to look. Look--- and then dream.  You'll never exchange signals or try to land--- accept that. Understand that it's necessary that you pass by in silence. What enters at the eye is turned into memories and stories. But don't ruin the ghostliness, the abstract admiration, the melancholy of passing on. Don't lose those things.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Sixty-Nine: Tribute

There's a novel I read long ago--- Christopher Coe's "I Look Divine" ---that has one of the better literary lines I've come across. The narrator has just upbraided his younger, strikingly handsome brother for accepting expensive gifts from wealthy older men. His brother waves a dismissive hand and says, "My dear, you're confusing trade with tribute." I've always loved that line, and always felt a bit sad after reading it.

I'm someone who likes the rituals of romance and the proofs of love. I've always had doubts about my value on the market. I style myself as a roué, and as a gentleman of a certain age (and one raised in the deepest part of the American South) I'm expected to pay court to lovely young companions.  There are gestures one makes, and recognised gifts that one offers up to a girl during an affair. One does pay tribute to youth and beauty and grace. The gifts and gestures are as carefully measured as some medieval land lease where the lessee is required to bring the lessor a brace of swans or a fresh-caught pike on a chosen saint's day. Or as carefully measured as sacrificial gifts at some early Roman temple. Take your pick on that. The point is the symbolism, the formality and ritual nature of the gift. Not the emerald necklace, let alone an envelope of cash. More like the single rose and the bottle of champagne with the classic label, or the midnight rooftop garden dinner. It's not the gift itself, but the idea of the gift, the formal offer of tribute and romance.  What matters is the formal offer, the knowledge that the gift is part of something structured and formal rather than simply a gift. The glass of champagne or the dinner aren't about having a drink together or having dinner together, they're about investing those things with something more abstract and formal, about making them part of a ritual.

I'm a believer in things like Valentine's and New Year's Eve. I do believe in nights designated as formal  nights for romance. One can be in love on any day; one can go out with a lover on any night. Valentine's, though, has the virtues of the artificial. It's been set aside for something symbolic. Gifts brought to a lover on 14 February are invested with a special aura. One gives a beautiful companion a gift on 14 February as a tribute to desire. Sex on 14 February is like sex on the night of 31 December: it's something ritual and symbolic, attached to literary and film conventions.

Now I do sometimes feel sad when I think about those nights, and about the symbolic exchanges. I don't mind paying tribute to beauty and youth and desire and grace. Beauty and grace deserve tribute and deference--- I believe that very deeply.  I sigh, though, over the idea that my own time has long since gone. I'm not Christopher Coe's character. It's not for males, and certainly not males of a certain age, to receive tribute. No formal gifts, no symbols of desire. There's a holiday created in the early years of the new century that tries to give males a night--- Steak & Blow Job Day in March, when girls are supposed to offer those two things to males as a ritual gift. It's a nice enough idea, but it's never caught on.  Still and all, it's the only attempt I know of to create a night where one can be male and be offered up formal symbols of desire.

One can say "I love you" on any night. One can have sex on any night. One can open a bottle of Veuve on any night. This isn't about the content; this is always and ever about form. There should be ritual nights where one is courted, where one can wait and be paid court to.  There's no male equivalent of Valentine's Day--- Steak & Blow Job Day doesn't have the same social value. There's no formal day where a lovely girl will offer up ritual gifts to show her own desire. That's sad, really. Whatever you may be as a male, there's no symbolic moment where you can be told formally and in ritual acts that you're desired.

There's a time in one's life when it gets harder and harder to believe that you do have value as a male, that you have any value at sex or romance. I've always needed the proofs and symbols of sex and love more than the things themselves. Perhaps it's only the season, since those liminal weeks between spring and summer alway leave me unhappy at the encroaching heat. Nonetheless, I do feel particularly depressed this year. I could use something very formal and ritual, something almost Etruscan in its pure formality. I'd like to think that there's some ritual that would at least be a simulacrum of tribute, or at least a statement of value.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Sixty-Eight: Pattern Language

I was thinking last weekend about rituals that may have fallen out of fashion. I was thinking about the whole ritual of dating, of what the current social rules are for being out with someone.

I wonder if we're less honest now than we were a generation or two ago, if we've gone back to the days  of the 1950s, if we have to insist once again that the reason behind asking someone out doesn't include sex, or at least include the idea of flirtation and seduction. It's somehow regarded as offensive again to think of asking someone out as the first step in a dance that leads to the bedroom.

When I was very young, there was an assumption that dating was about finding someone attractive. Asking someone out or accepting an invitation--- those things were statements about who you found attractive and desirable. Going to a film or a dance or to dinner could be part of a date, but it was accepted that those things were a prelude to making out. The ritual of the date was very mannered, very formal. If you were male, you made the first overt move, made the phone call or asked someone in the halls at school. The girl needn't be utterly passive, of course. There were all sorts of ways to signal that she was receptive to the invitation. These days I'll compare it all to eighteenth-century diplomacy, which is a comparison I wish I had time to expand on. I like the comparison, though, and it makes sense to me.

I'm always in favour of rituals and formality. These days, my young companions will meet me out at a favourite coffeeshop or bar, or come by my rooms. We may walk together through neighbourhoods we like, or emerge downtown for drinks and dinner, but it's not dating in the classic sense. Making that first move was terrifying sometimes, but if the girl accepted your invitation, you knew exactly what to do next, step by step. It was taken as a given that if a girl went out with you, then she liked you enough to at least make out for a while at the end of the evening. There were carefully calibrated levels of what was likely to happen on a first or second or third date: kisses and caresses,  top on or off, front seat or back. But there wasn't any question that there would be at least some making out. That was the point of it all, of course. Everyone understood in his or her bones that dating was about desire. You didn't have to talk about it or agonise over it. There at the heart of things was physical desire. That much was clearly understood.

The rules of the game called for the girl to get in to your car (and, yes, you opened the door for her: this was in the American South) and sit against the passenger door until you'd left her parents' driveway and driven down to the end of the street. Then she'd slide over against you so you could put an arm around her or put a hand on her leg. All these years later I recall the first night a girl did that with me. We were talking about something utterly unconnected--- what was on the radio, what film we were going to see ---and she just slid across the car and pressed herself against me. She never said anything about it--- she just did it while talking of other things. I was thrilled, of course. She'd agreed to go out with me, and she'd worn something short and summery. I understood that there would be kissing later, or at least understood it in some abstract sense. I knew about the car seat rule, but it was still a thrill when she actually did that. I'd seen her at school, spoken to her two or three brief times. Having her accept my invitation, having her slide against me--- I did feel valued, and I felt like the desire I felt for her wasn't something I had to hide or be ashamed of.

There was kissing later that night, with her leaning back across me. We'd seen some film at a little uptown cinema, then parked my parents' car by a lake in a park. I remember her as having shoulder-length light-auburn hair and grey eyes, with a light spray of freckles across her nose. There was kissing, and her  top was pushed up a bit, though not all the way. (No, no navel ring. This was long, long, before body piercing. She was very slender, though, and tallish for the day. My tastes haven't changed.) We talked a bit during the evening, though not of anything deep.  We stayed in that parked car 'til midnight, and I drove her home and walked her to her door. We went out a few more times, and there was always that spot by the lake in the park. We went fairly far. She was more experienced than I was, and I was happy to follow her lead at some things. The ritual of the date let us each have a partner and gave us a set of markers for moving the evening toward making out. We were both Southern-born, and we'd been taught how to be polite and make conversation. There wasn't any real awkwardness about what we were doing. See a film, go someplace for pizza, try to acquire a couple of illicit beers, go parking. It was all pleasant enough, and we both understood what the purpose of the date was.

I'm not sure that you're allowed to have dates like that these days. I have no idea what high school rituals are like, of course, but there's a whole social mood that does regard the idea of dating as problematic. Some of that is dislike of the presumed passivity dating imposes on girls--- having to wait 'til asked. A lot of it is just a dislike of the idea that dating is a mating dance, that a very basic physical desire underlies the whole reason for a couple being out. We're not supposed to admit that these days. Asking a girl out simply because you find her hot is ideologically suspect.  Sex is no longer regarded as an acceptable key reason for asking someone out.  Doing so is regarded as somehow demeaning or degrading the person asked, though that's not a position I've ever understood.

There are fewer and fewer rituals designed to  make the mating dance easier for both parties. It's less and less acceptable to think of male-female interactions as a mating dance. That's sad, of course. Ritual and formality are there for a reason. They remove the need to agonise over decisions; they remove the constant need to worry. You can let the ritual carry you along, let the steps of the dance take you. I like that, of course. You decide to join the dance and then all you have to do is follow the steps. I like that. It's honest, mind you.  It admits that sex is a valid reason for things, and that there's nothing wrong with the idea of a mating dance. Pleasure and desire are fraught; that's the human condition. The rituals exist to make those things easier to reach and enjoy.

Despite what the current moral arbiters say, the rituals are honest. They allow you to admit what you want and they exist to help both parties get there with some grace and with less anxiety. I think the language of the rituals is something we need to value, and we need to once again be honest about what the dance does.