(originally published on December 13, 2011)
On Sunday I stumbled across an old issue of The Atlantic. It was not mine, and I had not read it before. I dropped out of the family conversation for a full hour and read “The Hazards of Duke” by Caitlin Flanagan and “Hard Core” by Natasha Vargas-Cooper. The first discussed the now notorious case of Karen Owen, whose PowerPoint presentation about her sexual pursuits at Duke University went viral in the fall of 2010, crosschecked with contemporary feminism and gender equality issues. The second article was a fairly vanilla overview of the forms and distribution of [mostly] heterosexual pornography in the past few decades, but with an incisive look into the nature and history of male and female desire. Both articles engaged with the place of aggression in heterosexual male desire, and the looming conclusion that sexual equality seems to be a utopia.
I have my agreements and disagreements with their arguments. I have provided the links and anyone is free to go over and leave their comments on the websites. What I want to write about is what these articles did to me. Because while I was reading them, page by page I felt that they were changing me, taking me from the phenomena in question to my own thoughts on love and sex and the beautiful mess that surrounds them. This is probably the most explicit and abstract, personal and political that I have ever been on this blog. As you read, please bear in mind that I dislike and avoid essentialism and generalizations: if any of my thoughts sound like either, the reason is probably that I was veering between social realities and anthropological observation, but that I finally descended into archetype. Also, I beg of my male readers to leave their egos aside, because I am not out to get them. I love men and I love talking about men, which I think I have made clear multiple times, but I need you to forget that you are men as you read this. Even if you do not agree with me, all I ask is a tiny leap of faith into a minoritarian point of view. Think yin and yang with me, please?
To cut straight to the chase, I choose to have no opinion about Karen Owen and her life. Who the fuck am I to say whether she should or should not have screwed thirteen boys and talked about it? I refuse to judge her either way, and I do not understand people who think they know better. But the one question that “The Hazards of Duke” left me with was, did she ever stand a chance?
Was there ever a way for her to have a sex life and not be considered to have been used, given the context and rules of discourse at hand? Was there ever room for her own excitement and pleasure, for the freedom of hitting sexual jackpots as well as making mistakes, that would have rendered her impervious to tongues like Caitlin Flanagan’s, who seems to think she is one of those people who know better, and who can see Karen Owen as nothing but an attention whore? Even if she enjoyed the sex, Flanagan [and a great many other people, too] thinks that the lacrosse boys still “used” her. Even if she says she had fun, she still did it on boys’ terms, it seems. Or, to use the example from Vargas-Cooper’s article, even if Jenna Jameson now holds the money, power and glory of the enterprise that is she, she is still serving male heterosexual desire.
You see where I am going with this? The argument very quickly becomes that of if you have sex at all, you play by the rules of male desire. You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
Did female desire ever really stand a chance? Does it?
For a minute, I was mentally transported into the sex and gender identities course that I assisted in teaching to two generations at a university a few years ago. The prof was a feminist and LGBTQ rights activist, and probably the best pedagogue those little ingrates could have wished for. As her TA, she entrusted me with designing a seminar that would get the kids to think about masculinity. Easy-peasy, no?
Not by a long shot. Because like any dominant, masculinity bears no questioning, no defining or God forbid, re-defining. The students were able to deconstruct the binary opposition of man-woman [male-female] by realizing that ‘woman’ was defined as ‘the opposite/negative of man,’ which in turn meant that, even though it is considered primary in this opposition, ‘man’ could only be defined through ‘woman.’ But they stopped short of the remaining gesture of Derrida’s double écriture, that of dispensing with the oppositional logic and moving beyond it. They remained huddled like puppies beneath the silent monolith of masculinity, that construct that took on the role of law, the legitimizing act that could anoint, but bore no questioning. The rules of its own discourse could not be applied to it. Derrida 101.
Their puppy eyes widened a little when I showed them The Men’s Story Project. They saw stories, interviews, performances by fathers, artists, public office holders, BFFs who happened to be gay men, cross-dressers, victims of abuse, FTMs… and they realized that these men were no less men than the monolithic construct that had been governing their perception of gender identities thusfar. Without the threat of the castrating father, we could finally begin to speak of masculinity.
Why is it that we still have a dominant discourse at all, and one that does not allow for female desire? Or let me put the question differently: why is it that any emergence of emancipatory female desire needs to be immediately wrapped up in the discourse of male desire, before its lungs have even inhaled its first independent breath? Why do we still need to desire in accordance with the law? Control comes to mind, of course, but I am no longer happy with that response, because it is fucking boring. Mainstream desire, the way it is constructed, reproduced and perpetuated at the moment, is just mothereffing boring. Yawn.
So you can imagine what this thinking did to me personally, in the light of my marriage, as well as my other liaisons. No longer a scholar or a reader, I looked into each of these men’s eyes and asked again, Did my desire ever stand a chance? And I do not mean Did I matter to you? Did you love me? Did you care?, but Was there ever a way that my desire could have existed apart from being defined by yours?
All I got were empty stares.
I am not talking about the criminals, abusers, emotional vampires or cripples, socio- or psycho-paths here. Or about the men that were simply raised not to know better and cannot help it. I am talking about the good ones, the enlightened ones. Those who possess the freedom of mind [perhaps even education, but that is less important], the sensitivity, and even the willingness to see women as their partners, who are committed to fulfilling relationships, the sexually generous ones, the emotionally available ones… When push comes to shove, and I am adding family, friends, and a lot of reading to my personal experience here, chances are they will choose their desire over their woman’s. In a way so archetypal that it borders on stereotype.
When pushed into a corner, when faced with a decision, when challenged to a risk – and I am talking about the absolutely deepest areas and aspects of relationships here, not your everyday life choices – men have the right to simply slip into the privilege given them by the monolithic discourse. If they choose themselves, they do not have to account for it. Whether they choose to avail themselves of this privilege is another matter, and while not all men will do this, I am stunned by the number, as well as the character, of those who do.
As I read on, I was somehow divested of my self, too. “The manner in which one physically, and emotionally, contorts oneself for sex simply takes sex outside the realm of ordinary human experiences and places it in the extreme, often beyond our control,” says Vargas-Cooper. Digging deeper into the archetypes, all of a sudden I was Lilith, a naked hour-glass figure with a tattoo of a cat on her ass, taken back to her first home in the Garden of Eden, looking at the joke of my first husband, Adam, with my arms crossed and a fish-hook in my eyebrow.
Do you really understand desire, Adam? Do you?
Empty stare from a pre-pubescent boy. He is fiddling with his fig-leaf. Fuck, I'm so glad I was expelled from this shit-hole.
Because you see, Adam, desire is really darkness. You, as well as Eve, might think that darkness only resides in casual encounters, those raw and dirty states of existence where we do not even look for love, but that is not true. True love is darkness. Beneath the ‘I love yous,’ beneath your deepest communication, your warmest hearts, beneath the most profound human connection, there is darkness. Not evil, not bad, not destructive [I am trying to dispense with oppositions here], not at all. Just. Dark. Mind-bogglingly beautiful. And supposed to be there.
Why darkness? Because there is nothing pretty in I would die for you. Because ultimate devotion is a threat to the self. Because sharing yourself is disintegration, solemn, serious, and demonic. How far are you willing to go? Any level is legitimate, and acceptable, as long as you and your partner are compatible. But this is where men decide to use their jail-free card and bail out. This is where desire stops for them.
I am not saying all women share this view of desire, or that all of them want to go deeper than their men. You know me better than that. What I am saying is that, if the archetypal male has the privilege of dominant discourse on his side, the archetypal female has the experience of the minoritarian point of view. And I say ‘point of view’ rather than discourse precisely to point out the difference between them – the minoritarian sphere is not codified; it is open to whatever one makes of it.
And the minoritarian sexual experience of the archetypal heterosexual woman includes precisely the physical and emotional contortions that Vargas-Cooper mentions. Your average heterosexual act of love-making demands adjustments of the female body in a way your average heterosexual male never gets to experience. The simple physicality of this gorgeously pleasurable act involves discomfort, and a situation of a very elementary… well, danger. Of course there are exceptions, but just have a look at the physics of it, the impersonal relation of two bodies in space engaging in some kind of contact: one of them is [usually] bigger, and stronger, and carries the potential energy of destruction. Why would the smaller, weaker, potentially breakable one even want to render itself permeable to the first one? And yet it does. And yet we enjoy it immensely.
The leaps from the laws of the universe to what goes on in the bodies and minds of humans are staggering. Again, not all women [perhaps not even many] happen to introduce this level of self-consciousness into the bedroom [which makes me a weirdo once again but who’s counting], but awareness has nothing to do with it. Through no fault, or accomplishment, of their own, women’s experience renders them closer to the darkness of desire. The connection between pleasure and pain, negotiating discomfort with ecstasy – these are a given in the female experience. Without willingness to take on the minoritarian point of view, your average heterosexual male will not know the pleasure that comes from pain, or the pain that comes from pleasure. The archetypal male does not experience discomfort. He inflicts it. Men let go, but do not give in.
And this is why your married heterosexual women watch gay porn. Because these men understand the darkness of desire better than their husbands do. Because they are familiar with the physical contortions, the leaps of faith, the game of trust and surrender, and the risk of getting hurt… and the overwhelming pleasure that can be derived from it all. This is also where the heterosexual male privilege raises its ugly head again in the form of misogyny and homophobia, exemplified by that overused line from the Bible, Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as those who lie with a female; it is an abomination.” As I once heard in a documentary I wish I could remember and quote, but unfortunately have to paraphrase, could the ‘abomination’ lie in this simple fact that there are men out there that do not mind being treated as women are treated? And that being treated as a woman is apparently something abominable? Why would you not want to treat your men as you treat your women, unless women were seen as subhuman? Could homophobia really stem from misogyny?
And I will tell you, Adam, why your girls fall for bad guys. Because bad boys know darkness. And it is easy to mistake their darkness for familiarity with the nature of desire. Because we hope that their sexual prowess, the excitement they bring, the extremes they are willing to go to are not destructive but somehow, pretty please, conducive to love. We hope that they might also know how to love. Usually, they don't.
And I will tell you why good guys finish last. Because they know love, but are afraid of the dark. They will give their all and do anything, they will pour their hearts out in affection and attention, and they will be truly willing to lose themselves in their love, honestly and unconditionally, until they reach that wall of darkness. It will break their hearts, and ours, that their devotion is not capable of more, but their journey finishes just within sight of the Promise Land.
What might redeem these poorly targeted forms of desire? Warriors, both male and female, however you imagine them, whatever you want them to look like or act like. It isn’t about what you do, really, it’s about what’s in your mind. Those willing to relinquish the blindness of privilege and take a long hard look at the scary of love and desire. Those that relinquish the blindness of the subaltern and dare to dream beyond the borderlines of discourse. Those willing to step outside of themselves and become the other. Fortunately for me personally, and I dare say for this world – with a elvish grin on my face, I happen to know they exist.