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.