Monday, September 30, 2013

Eighty-Five: Options

Last year, there at her own blog, an acquaintance wrote a piece attacking something Alain de Botton wrote about sex. She was angry at de Botton for taking a Freudian view of sexual tastes and preferences. De Botton had argued that all sexual tastes and habits are a product of the past, that they reflected something longed-for or denied in childhood, or at least reflected memories of childhood. My acquaintance was angry--- not just about the invocation of Freud ---but about the idea that any sexual taste had an origin deep in the past.  It wasn't, she wrote, that one had a fetish or liked some particular thing because one was "weird", but because there was some memory from childhood that led to the strange taste. She saw the idea of sexual tastes having a history or a genealogy as  some kind of way to avoid responsibility. I read that and felt surprised and disappointed by her attitude. "Responsibility" these days means "blame" or "guilt". Using "weird" like that--- in a derogatory sense ---wasn't something I'd ever thought she'd do. After all, she'd always seemed to be in favor of exploration and adventure. There she was, though--- dismissing a broad swathe of sexual tastes as "weird" and something that didn't have a history or a past--- just something that should involve blame and guilt.

I can't say I know what led to her attack, and she didn't specify what tastes she was thinking of in particular. I wish I did know the details, of course. Everything does have a history, after all. Every idea has a genealogy. I was taught long ago to think like that, and to always look for what came before, to go back toward origins. I'd love to have been able to find out just which tastes she had in mind and then link them to her own past and backstories.

I've always been an admirer of Freud and his thought. I like the archaeology in Freudian analysis, the careful scraping down layer by layer, the delving down into the past.  That means far more to me than blaming everything (and, see--- we're already using "blame" here) on neurochemistry or genetics, let alone on an idea of choice that seems to have the ghosts of ideology hovering round somewhere.

How do people come by their sexual tastes? What does it mean to have a preference? Those questions have a history, and I'm always intrigued by tales of discovery. Sometimes, though, I wonder if there are other issues besides history--- if there's not a question of branding that's involved. I agree with Alain de Botton, of course. All our sexual tastes come from the past, from things remembered and things lost or things denied. All those things shape the way we see the world and the way we feel our longings. I do agree with Edmund White about that, about how our desires define us.

I've said it before, of course. My own interest in s/m, or at least in a very specific version of s/m, comes out of my own past. I know that I see s/m as being as much about class as about sex, and what attracts me to it are the class markers--- hidden chateaux, rituals that involve expensive accoutrements and lots of historical references and high-end fashion touches. When I was a boy, growing up in a series of small towns far from the places and times I read about, s/m seemed like an escape into a world of wealth an style and elegance. There was a brand involved, a statement being made.

The branding issue is always there, of course. A particular sexual taste, a particular fetish, is always a brand. You do make a statement about what you are when you state your own desires. I'd thought for  a bit that my friend might be using "weird" in a way that was about branding and aesthetics, but I think that she was taking a moralizing view of the word. I think that she was using "weird" to dismiss people's tastes as morally flawed, as a moral choice. She'd have been on safer ground talking about branding and aesthetics.

Certainly there are some fetishes that seem destined to get you laughed at. The whole Big Baby fetish is likely to be treated as risible anywhere.  Ditto enemas and scat, of course. Ditto cuckold fetish, too. A foot fetish may not be uncommon, but it's usually regarded as, well, silly. Certainly some writers--- e.g., the Bad Girl columnist Cat Marnell ---use that preference as a way to mock men, and especially older men. Cat Marnell has, I think, used that idea in at least two or three of her old Amphetamine Logic columns--- sneering at "old rich guys" who want to "jerk off on the bare feet of bottle service girls" at expensive clubs. FemDom will get anyone male laughed at, though I want to be careful about noting the politics of both enjoying and mocking FemDom.

High-end s/m still has class markers about wealth, power, and things European. It still links to fashion photography, which is about style and elegance...and wealth and power enough to engage in things that are dark and daring but still stylish. If you have a particular sexual taste, you're better off if it's high-end s/m.

Sexual tastes and fetishes and preferences all have a genealogy, and you can read back through them into someone's history. But they're a brand choice as well: about presentation as much as pleasure. It's not so much that the question of "weird" is on the table, but that the issue of presentation and social ranking is. I won't follow my friend into using "weird" as a moral thing, but you are well-advised to think of sexual presentation as a branding issue, as an issue of how you want to use your tastes to reveal your own history.

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