Monday, September 29, 2014

One One Nine: Filters

A friend suggests that when out on a first date--- when engaged in what is very much an interview process with a potential bedmate ---one key way to determine whether it's worth the risk of discussing one's sexual interests or preferences is first to ask a couple of questions. My friend suggests that the first preliminary question should be: Do you have a Tumblr? If yes, then the next question must be What do you write about? If it's fashion or music or books, then fine.  If she says she writes about gender issues and social justice, then it's probably time to call for the check.  I think we can take this much as a given: no one who's keenly interested in gender issues or intersectionalist feminism wants to discuss sexual interests or tastes...and they certainly don't regard being out with you as a date, and a fortiori not as a social occasion that leads from going out to making out.

Do you have a Tumblr? Well, that's simple enough, and I may try that with my next Young Companion.  It strikes me as something that saves time and disappointment, and there's something to be said for efficiency. Also for saving oneself from being mocked or "called out"--- especially since "calling out" is likely to involve a public scene, and public displays of anger always terrify me.

We're still at the question of how one raises the issue of one's sexual interests and tastes. Yes--- it's an important thing for any relationship. At least in theory, a relationship or an evening moves from going out to making out, and it's no fun for either party if there aren't shared interests in bed. But while no one male should ever risk trying to talk about these things--- or admit to feeling any desires at all ---with someone who has a gender warrior Tumblr, there's always the issue of how to raise the issue.

If you're male, you obviously can't ask the girl, and you just as clearly can't offer up your own presentation speech without an explicit invitation. Or at least not these days. There was a time when I'd have looked at a lovely young first date over my glass and traced a finger along the back of her hand and told her that she had...say...lovely and quite kissable collarbones. Or asked which she liked better--- having her ankles kissed or her spine. Once upon a time, I'd have looked at my date and smiled and thought that the evening was going well, and that the odds were very in my favor for her to smile back and tell me a story or two that would sketch out things she liked.

I've lost a sense of how to do that. These days, I'm certainly not going to state my particular interests or preferences. I've lost my sense of timing, and I'm now deeply terrified of being mocked for those interests and having a savage and contemptuous critique of my tastes, skills, or interests broadcast by social media.

If you're reading this, do suggest your own thoughts on how to raise the issue of comparative sexual interests here in the age of the gender wars...and do offer up your own suggestions on why we're now more willing to mock or be horrified by any non-vanilla interests than we were twenty or thirty years ago.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

One One Eight: Interviews

Not so very long ago, Ms. Flox  raised the issue of discussing one's sexual interests on a date. Her own argument was that this was very much something one should do on a first date. After all, she wrote,  your interests and desires are a critical part of who you are. Discussing them up front allows a potential partner to know more about who you are and about what a relationship with you would be like.  It also, she says, opens up a process of negotiation and consent. A potential partner has an opportunity to discuss what you're looking for and explain how they feel about those things.

That's all of it very true. I can't disagree with Ms. Flox on this in principle. And yet...and yet...I'm not sure I can accept her thoughts on an emotional level. Or a tactical one. I'm finding it harder and harder to imagine discussing sexual interests on a date...or even in the bedroom. It's certainly something that's far riskier than it was back in my undergraduate days.

It may be that I've been reading too many websites like Jezebel and Gawker. I've been reading the comments at articles, too, and that's never a good thing. I need to pay more attention to the rule about never reading the comments. What I'm finding, though, is a world where you'd never, never risk discussing your interests and desires on a date. The "call-out culture" of the gender warriors is absolutely hostile to you doing anything like that. To raise the issue at all wouldn't be seen as presenting an important part of yourself, or as part of developing a relationship, or even as beginning a process of negotiating with a potential partner over what she'd like herself and what she'd be comfortable with.

I'm pretty clear that in the age of the gender wars, raising the issue at all would be regarded as aggression and condemned as assuming that sex would be part of a relationship or that the person across the table would have any interest in sex with you at all. Raising the issue or trying to discuss it would be seen as "sexualizing" both the situation and the person you're out with. It would be "called out" as creepy and pervy and an act of male privilege and aggression. I'm not going to risk being called out, and I'm not going to risk having a date suddenly launch into a politicized rant where I'm the villain.

I'm also not going to risk being laughed at. I don't know where the fear is coming from, but I'm becoming more and more reticent about admitting to any of the things I like or desire. At twenty or even thirty, I'd have talked about all those things with some kind of self-assurance. This is what I like, this is what I am, this is what I hope we can do together and both enjoy.  Once upon a time, I could say those things. I wasn't afraid that girls would laugh at me or turn away in disgust. I took it for granted that experimenting was part of sex, and that both parties would be willing to try out new things or at least accommodate someone's interests in return for reciprocity. No one's ever made a disgusted face in real life, and no one has ever burst into derisive laughter. But suddenly I'm aware that they could--- that they might.  That fear has come out of nowhere, or,'s come from reading the comments sections at web articles about dating and male sexuality. So much hostility there, and so much contempt for things a male might ask for or say that he likes.

Ms. Flox is right, I think, about what you desire and what you like sexually being a  key part of what you are and a key part of any relationship. But somehow it's become a very risky thing to admit to desires and particular interests, and certainly risky to admit that you see sex as part of a relationship--- that you see a date as part of a social ritual where sex is one of the ends.  The world here in the new century is a lot less open to desire than it was twenty years ago, and it's certainly more harsh and less forgiving.

I was never very good at job interviews, and I have this growing feeling that I can't do the kinds of interviewing that you do on a first date. I'm going to talk myself into a kind of paralysis about ever discussing what I like to do with partners or about ever admitting that I see being out with someone as involving desire and physical contact. The trick to things in the age of the gender wars isn't honesty or negotiation. It's silence and refusing to admit to anything ever.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

One One Seven: Angles

A couple of years ago there was the Goldman Sachs List. Do you remember that? It had its moment of notoriety on the web--- a list of things "Real Men" needed to know. I may have printed the list off just as a diversion one day at work. Memory says that some of the list was vaguely silly, but there were some things that were useful enough. Some fashion things made perfect sense, and so did some household directives. (Yes, you should have a bottle of very good whiskey somewhere; yes, you do need a small toolkit, even if you're as hopelessly unmechanical as I am)  There was one piece of advice that I'd have agreed with for most of my life: When in doubt, kiss her.

I've always thought that was good advice in any affair, or on any date, in any flirtation at a party or club. When in doubt, just...kiss her. Better to do it and be turned down than to hate yourself later for never having tried.  I suppose that nowadays we're to assume that all kisses are unwanted.

We're supposed to make other assumptions as well.  It's not just that you don't just kiss her, it's that you don't ask her out. The social default is now assumed to be that she doesn't want you to ask her out, and that she doesn't want to go out with you. Also that a date is not a mating ritual.

One of the things I've always liked best is sitting across a table from a lovely Young Companion and flirting over drinks and dinner. Eye contact, a chance to touch glasses, a chance to touch fingertips and hold hands--- all those things are there. Always across a table. It's just perfectly intimate. I've always disliked 1950s-style banquette seating, where you end up side-by-side with your date. I've been in "classic" French restaurants where that was done--- being seated side-by-side down the wall. No romance there. I want to be across from a lovely girl,  able to make eye contact, able to flirt face-to-face.

I suppose we're not supposed to want that any more, either.  Eye contact is...demanding attention, after all. That's become a grave sin in the era of the gender wars. Banquette seating may say that what you're on isn't a date, that it's just two people having dinner in the same location at the same time, and that the food is what matters, not flirtation---- so side-by-side is more in keeping with gender warriors' ideas. Still, banquette seating may be a micro-aggression. After all, it recalls the "Mad Men" era--- white male privilege and all that.

If you want to avoid being "called out" as"problematic", the best thing may be...right angles. Sit across the table from her, but turn at right angles. You can still drink; it'll be there at your left hand. But you aren't looking at her, and you can't be accused of either demanding attention or leering. The seating arrangement obviously doesn't suggest flirtation or seduction, so you can't be accused of "sexualising" the situation. You certainly can't kiss her from a right-angled position.

Right angles, then. Not that you should be asking anyone out in any case. But if you somehow find yourself sitting at a table with an attractive girl, sit across the table and turn your chair at right angles. (Not speaking helps, too)  It's a good way to avoid ever being "called out"  and becoming a casualty of the gender wars. Geometry is everything. That's worth remembering. Geometry is everything. I suppose it takes the place of when in doubt, kiss her.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

One One Six: PowerPoint

A friend in (of all places) Ghent was talking to me about Elizabeth McNeill's "Nine and a Half Weeks" the other day. You probably remember the film--- mid-Eighties, Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke, John Taylor of Duran Duran on soundtrack. You probably don't remember the book, though. It came out in something like 1978, and it was much darker and much more intense and obsessive and claustrophobic than the film. Much, much sexier, too. It's still in print--- it always did have a small underground following ---so you're encouraged to read it. I do hope you'll tell me your thoughts. I've always loved the book.

My friend in Belgium and I were discussing the idea of how the book would be received if someone published it today. Not well, I suspect. We've mainstreamed s/m imagery, and of course "50 Shades" sold some grotesque number of copies. But I think that we're far more afraid of some things now than we were in 1978. This is a DSM-V world, a gender wars world. We're far less willing to accept an affair that's about dancing into the fire with open eyes, far less willing to see the erotic attractions of obsession. We've stripped obsession and compulsion of any glamour--- even dark glamour.  We're a lot less likely to pursue dark fantasies now than in 1978. Maybe that's because those things, all the things in late-'70s Helmut Newton photos, aren't new and shocking anymore. All those things are just passé. Myself, I suspect it's that we over-think everything, that we apply critical analysis to everything, and that the Guardians of the Problematic are teaching us to see every sexual kink, every hint of lust and desire, as something political, as something that needs to be seen as an exercise in power and aggression, as something that needs to be analyzed and corrected and purified.

"Nine and a Half Weeks" is about sexual obsession, about a 30-ish executive who launches herself into an utterly compulsive, devastating, destructive s/m affair with a man she never names.  Who'd believe that now--- who'd be able to say that it's sexually exciting without falling foul of the gender warriors?

There are s/m devotees out there who've circled the wagons,  who've started using the language of identity politics to defend their kinks--- to defend their identity ---the way that transfolk and gay people and racial minorities have.  I don't think they can win, mind you. They're too late to the party. The gender warriors have staked out the field--- "kink" is seen and judged through the language of power and oppression. The s/m devotees, the FetLife crowd, are starting with a clear handicap in trying to appropriate identity language or in trying to reject judgment. In gender wars terms, kink is unacceptable. It's seen as complicit in oppression, and it's seen as inauthentic, as mere play--- something that's always suspect.

I do think it's a lot harder today to admit to a kink than it was in 1978. Having kinks, being able to talk about them, asking a lover to play one out with you...that's all much harder now. Maybe it's just that in 1978 that was all new and thrilling. I think, though, that it's also that it has become risky to admit to any kinks.

Some of that is social media--- the judgment and mockery that fills social media. To admit to anything that can lead to having your tastes and needs attacked or mocked on line--- risky indeed. And there's been a shift in attitudes about kink. If you're male--- and this is always about males ---it's far riskier now to sit on a bed with a new lover and tell her what you like and what you hope she'll do with you. Anger, horror, and mockery are more likely now than they were in 1978. Things that in 1978 might have been seen as something transgressive-exciting, as deliciously new to try, are now subjected to gender wars scrutiny. To be male and admit to particular sexual needs (to admit to desire at all, maybe) is to be seen as confessing to flaws and failures. And what kinks can't be made to seem morally corrupt and evil in gender wars terms? Think of how the term "fetishize" is deployed these days. Girls are encouraged not so much to be able to discuss their own kinks and needs and desires as to regard having those things as a failure in males--- a combination of weakness and aggression.

At some point in an affair, you do have to do a kind of presentation, to say that you like this, that you like doing these things. Both parties do, of course, but it is more dangerous for the male. I can't imagine ever mocking a lovely Young Companion for her tastes or desires.  I've always thought that being open to those things was a clear part of pleasing a lover, and I've always been open to trying things.  But when you do a bedside presentation as a male here in the age of the gender wars, you're risking being mocked and held in contempt for what you want. You're risking being told that you're morally and politically evil. It's not even about negotiation, about the two of you constructing exchanges for what you each enjoy.  It's about male desires being regarded with a presumption of vileness and being contemptible.

I find it harder and harder to imagine telling a Young Companion what I like. We're defined by our desires; that's always been clear.  It's a vulnerable thing to admit to desires--- even to admit to desire itself. "Nine and a Half Weeks" is an example--- desires that would have been treated as wickedly exciting in 1978 are treated as politically and psychologically and socially unacceptable today. How many educated, well-brought-up, attractive professional women of 30 would admit to wanting to do what McNeill did, to wanting those experiences for their own sake? Wouldn't they be risking the wrath of the gender warriors and the moralizers? But I will insist that it's worse for males. I have less and less idea what the Arbitrary Social Rules allow me to feel or admit to.  I have less and less confidence in my ability to tell a lovely Young Companion what I'm interested in. There's the fear of having her recoil in horror or contempt and tell me how and why I embody male evil, and certainly the fear of having her rant about it all on social media. This is why I give the back of my hand to all those adjurations to "communicate"--- more risks, more dangers every year in such things. Be clear--- it's not about rejection. It's not that. It's about contempt and derision, about being told that one is morally evil. Funny thing, now.  1978 was a time when so many groups were still marginalized, excluded, reviled.  But it was easier then to tell a potential lover what you liked and have her shrug and grin and say that it all sounded interesting and worth trying, easier to think that she'd think that sex was about trying new things.

One One Five: Approaches

The gender wars always bring out the worst in people--- or at least in people who comment at blogs. The other morning I ran across another article at about cat-calling. The focus was on how even presumed compliments from males in public made women feel threatened and uneasy.  The comments, though, veered off very quickly into rants about how horrible it was that males might actually open a conversation in public, even about something innocuous.

Now--- one ranter did make an interesting point. Someone had asked her once about a book she was reading, and she went on and on about how aggressive and oppressive that was, since any male attention is by definition a "micro-aggression", and then offered up as proof the idea that no one male would ever have asked another about something like that. That's a point worth exploring a bit, since there's some truth in it.  Males--- straight males ---have very, very limited  places where they can engage in any conversation with one another. Commenting down the bar about a sports game is allowed under the Arbitrary Social Rules, and it's allowed to ask someone else at a café table or on a commuter train to borrow a section of a newspaper--- but those two things are about all I can think of. And, yes, it's obvious where that comes from. It's fear of being thought gay, the fear of being thought to be cruising someone.

Does that imply that any attempt to speak with a girl is always cruising--- a cold approach, something sexual? All I can say is that it's not always that--- though when I'm talking to a lovely girl, there's always at least a hint of flirtation, no matter how pro forma.  I was brought up in very old-school politeness that looks a lot like flirting these days, and the character I've always tried to become very much believes in that kind of courtesy--- courtesy in a rather eighteenth-century sense.  That's not a cold approach, or not always. But I do want to convey that the girl to whom I'm talking is interesting, and that I appreciate her conversation, appreciate her willingness to talk to me. I'd like her to come away from the conversation feeling that someone was at least a bit charmed by her.

[I've said before that I'm taken aback by the anger that blog commenters have for anyone (male) asking a girl about a book she's reading. I'm private and solitary, and I don't want to feel like I'm intruding on anyone. Still, I hate the idea that you can't ask someone about a book--- again, I'd always thought of readers as a kind of freemasonry, as a group who are always looking for recommendations on new books and critiques of books others have read. Even if I don't want to spend a whole afternoon talking with someone, I'm pretty much always ready to answer a question about whatever I'm reading. ]

The ranters at the Jezebel article were rage-filled that anyone would talk to them in public, rage-filled that anyone might try to open a conversation. No one likes a pest, and people are often busy with things--- take that as a given.  Sometimes, though, I wonder if three-quarters of blog commenters everywhere are just violently opposed to any kind of social interaction. A friend offered two thoughts--- that all these people are somewhere on the autism spectrum or are all young enough not to recall a time before laptops and smartphones and iPads--- a time when people weren't always absorbed in their own worlds, when people had less choice about in-the-flesh conversations. I have no way to comment on the first idea--- that's something I don't know a thing about. The second thing, though...hmmm. Maybe. I can see how that could be part of things.  It's something I need to ask Millennial friends about--- or ask someone like my friend Ms. Flox.  The keynote in the rants is that any conversation, any opening question or greeting, is a demand for attention, and that having to take notice of someone else is always oppressive, always a threat.

I'm someone who moves through streets very quietly; I'm someone who tries to take up as little social and physical space as possible.  But I'm disheartened by the kind of worlds the ranters seem to envision--- isolated, armoured, atomized. It's a world where no one (meaning no one male) speaks first, where there's no socially acceptable way to speak first. It's not just that the ranters' world has no place for flirtation, it's that almost every contact becomes all about power and aggression.  The rants don't even seem to be talking about a world where physical safety for girls is better--- they seem to be about a world where no one speaks to anyone in public, where there are fewer and fewer ways to initiate any social contact, where there are fewer and fewer acceptable reasons to initiate any social contact.

That's not a world where I want to live--- it's not even a world where I could live.