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.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Eighty-Four: Tango

A friend who writes a fairly well-known sex blog once chided me for liking ritual too much in terms of sex and encounters. I think she finds the whole idea of ritual vaguely dehumanizing, or at least something that's too cold. I've never felt that way. Ritual and formality have always been part of my love life. Mind you, I'm not especially talking about anything s/m there. I'm talking about something else altogether. I've always seen ritual as very much a social lubricant, a social buffer.

When I was in my teens, the whole process of dating was highly formal, highly ritualized. There were social rules that defined the mating dance, and they did make life easier. I've always liked procedures and protocols, and I do appreciate them for what they're designed to do: make things simpler and less awkward. Procedures and protocols are designed to get you from Point A to Points B and C simply, clearly, and without having to constantly re-invent the wheel.

I always think of the idea of the Mass here. There's the Mass, and there are highly formal procedures for how it proceeds. There's a goal for all the ritual, and that's the moment of transubstantiation, the moment when the bread and wine are suffused with the Real Presence. When the Mass begins, there's a defined goal, and everyone knows what it is. The ritual doesn't just stop midway through, and it doesn't suddenly turn into bingo night.

When I was young, dating had its own goal.  You went out with a girl, you did certain things--- a film, dinner, a concert ---and the end of the evening was about making out. Dating was a mating dance. You weren't expecting to find your soul mate; you weren't expecting to fall into a lifelong relationship. Dating was a series of steps that ended with making out. It provided a framework, and provided steps that moved you along through and past awkwardness and insecurity. My memory is that both parties understood what was happening, and that both parties thought that being able to make out--- to just experience excitement and pleasure ---was a goal worth reaching, and that they were there together so at the end of the evening there actually would be making out. My memory of those days is that girls at my high school knew where the best places to go parking were, knew where to go to be able to make out--- and that they weren't shy about giving boys directions.

Procedure and ritual carry you along step by step. Follow the procedure and you don't have to think about things--- you don't have to worry and overthink and obsessively analyze everything. That's very much a way of doing things that needs to be valued.  Know what the goal is, whether that's transubstantiation of the bread and wine or a lovely girl straddling you in a parked car and pulling off her top. Know the goal--- be part of a ritual, a set of procedures that will get you to the goal. These days, we all overthink and over-analyze. And we miss the charm of the steps toward the goal.

Both parties in the dating world were physical creatures back in my own lost youth.  Even if you didn't talk about it, everyone knew about making out and that it was worth doing.  When you asked a girl out in the halls at school, or when the girl accepted, everyone knew that you were attracted to one another, or at least found one another acceptable enough to be seen out with and acceptable enough for physical interaction. Dates themselves were designed to make everything...simple. Everyone understood why he or she was there. You went to some kind of activity, you went somewhere like a pizza place or a cafe afterwards, you made conversation, and then you went parking. No one had to agonize over what has happening or about what the other party was really thinking. There was much less pressure and anxiety than here in the new century. With even a bare minimum of politeness on both sides, the evening would go along well.

I miss dating. I really do. I miss the idea of the mating dance, of knowing that there's a framework for social encounters, that there's an understood goal. I miss a set of accepted steps designed to carry both parties along to the goal. The rituals of dating, like the rituals of politeness at a dinner party, are designed to keep you from having to re-invent the wheel, to keep you from having to constantly think and worry. I can't imagine why we don't see the value in those things.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Eighty-Three: Depth

I'm never sure what to make of places like Good Men Project or Thought Catalog. Both sites have occasional articles that are interesting or amusing, but both have lately begun to hammer away at the idea of physical beauty, and at the idea of physical desire as well. Both sites have featured articles attacking the very idea of physical beauty, and I have no idea what to make of the arguments.

I've seen warnings about physical beauty before in a religious context. That argument is simple enough. To look at earthly beauty, to look at fleshly beauty, is to lose focus on the divine. All flesh is grass, the argument goes. All beauty is transitory. Only the divine and the eternal are worth devotion. I'm not a believer in those arguments, but I do understand them. If you believe in the divine and the eternal (and I don't and never have), then everything earthly pales in comparison.

The arguments at GMP and Thought Catalog, though, take a different attitude. The arguments there are that beauty--- physical beauty ---is oppressive at heart. To value physical beauty, the argument runs, is to dismiss or ignore everything else about a person (a girl, always) and to somehow grant oppressive power to the male observer. There's the assertion that only inner states and qualities are "real", and that a person (again, a girl) should only be valued for inner qualities. One author at GMP a couple of weeks ago actually argued that it was an act of oppression to talk to a girl because she was physically attractive. Until and unless you knew about her "as a person", you shouldn't even consider speaking to her, let alone asking her out.

The last couple of weeks have seen articles at both sites attacking males for looking at women. To look with physical desire is always an act of oppression and barely-concealed violence. One author at Thought Catalog kept striking a horrified pose and asking, "Why do men look at that? Why do they think they can look at us like that?" that means "with obvious sexual desire".  I won't bother asking about female sexual desire; the article seems to assume that lust is only for males. Still, the answer to the question seems obvious enough: men look because they're experiencing physical desire. The article, let me clarify, isn't about anything the men have said or done. It's not about being touched or being followed. It's only about the like that look.  An approach, an action, cat-calls--- I can understand about being angry over those things. But being angry that desire exists, or that someone is thinking about you sexually?

Writers at GMP--- both male and female ---have written articles telling male readers that they should never look at a passing female figure. One male author, writing a "letter to my son" kind of article, actually specified three seconds as a limit. One female author really did tell male readers to always look down and never to make eye contact lest they convey some kind of sexualized message. All I can do is throw up my hands. When did we become that afraid of desire? When did we decide that sexual desire cancels out or overrides everything else about another person?

When did we decide that physical beauty should be rejected because it's "undeserved"? I never thought I'd see an article--- in Thought Catalog ---where a girl who's described as pretty apologizes to other girls (not to males, interestingly: to other girls) because guys at clubs buy her drinks. But it's there, and so are articles arguing that beauty has to be rejected as an ideal.

When did we become so afraid of desire that even the knowledge that it exists--- not actions, just the knowledge that lust is in the air, that it exists ---is regarded as a kind of assault?

Sex and desire exist beyond and outside of the rational and neatly packaged ideologies. Sex and desire have always been risky enough--- see the last three or four thousand years of literature. We've always known that, but we've never tried to pretend that it desire and lust just shouldn't exist at all. How did we come to that? And in a reasonably secular world, a world where there aren't jealous gods in heaven, how did we decide that beauty was a still a snare and a temptation, something to be rejected lest it blind us to the truly valuable? I know I keep asking that here, but...still: how did we come to this?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Eighty-Two: Holiday

Today, I'm told is something called International Tell A Girl She's Pretty Day, or so I'm reading at various places on the web.  Well, 9. September is a good day for that. Summer is ending, the afternoon light is turning a deep gold, and lovely young girls are still in summer dresses on downtown streets and wearing liminal season wear--- tiny shorts and hoodies ---at parties on the university green.

It is a good day for the holiday, and I like the idea of it. Beauty matters, and beauty deserves some admiration. And it's a thing that should make both parties feel just a bit better. Nod, smile, and tell a pretty girl that she is lovely. Be polite, of course--- always that. But do tell someone that she is pretty. A world without beauty, a world where you don't have the slight breathless moment when you see a pretty girl in late-summer sunlight, isn't worth living in.

Needless to say, the gender warriors are out today to attack the idea of International Tell A Girl She's Pretty Day. Their lives must be unimaginably grey and dull. They dislike the idea of physical beauty, and they dislike the idea of admiring beauty or complimenting it. They dislike the idea that there might be a slight hint of flirtation or sexual tension. They dislike desire altogether. They certainly become angry at the idea of the compliment offered up to a lovely stranger.  And such people get, well, the back o' my hand. We live in very different worlds, and I don't want them in mine.

I've been fortunate enough to have known some very lovely Young Companions, and to have had moments when beauty came into my life. However manufactured the holiday might be, I want to take a moment this evening and offer up a compliment to the lovely girls who've been part of my past and my life. Beautiful eyes, beautiful legs, smiles kind or knowing or faintly ironic. Each of them gets a ghostly kiss tonight and told that they are lovely indeed.

This afternoon I did smile at a lovely girl and tell her she was pretty. She was someone I've seen briefly at a downtown bar where I go--- she tends bar there on weekend afternoons. She turned out of a shopfront just as I passed by on my way to the plaza, and I smiled at her (dark-blonde, dark tan, tiny shorts, half-zipped lightweight hoodie) and told her she was very pretty indeed. She smiled back and thanked me and chatted for a few moments in passing. A small thing, but I'm glad she smiled and I'm glad I got to offer up a compliment to a girl who is deliciously alluring and who has always been nice to me at the bar.

Smile and do that--- make the holiday worth something. Tell a girl that you do see her as pretty, and that she has brightened your day just by being there. It's a small thing, but worthwhile. Beauty matters, and we should never be afraid to say so.