Sex is one of the insoluble mysteries of life: I’ve learned that from reading Neil Strauss’ The Game*, a book that a couple of years ago raised more than a few eyebrows. It details the exploits of a group of men who make it their life’s mission to seduce as many women as possible, with predictable results. These men offer seminars, opening gambits, styles and mannerisms, all geared towards having sex. With my psychologist’s hat on, it’s really rather obvious why: the attention-starved teenage boy becomes the attention-starved adult male. Men, as a gender, do not really evolve. The legendary comedian Dylan Moran (and if you haven’t heard of him, I’ll offer you this video and advise you to buy his DVDs) once observed that a woman’s psychosexual development is a series of opera masks falling to the floor: daughter, sister, teen, woman, mother, grandmother. Men, on the other hand, he notes, “are born with one finger up their nose, and one hand on their penis, and they get taller”. He’s right. Men don’t grow up. They just attain stuff. A man’s world is defined by accomplishments and attainments – what else can explain the car-as-penis metaphor? what else explains the ownership of houses? What else explains guns and sharp suits, Fortune 500 companies and Platinum-selling albums?
As an outsider (or, as Camus would have it, l’etranger, and I do mean that in every sense) sex presents an even greater mystery. I like sex, don’t get me wrong – I like the whole gamut, from initial attraction to “closing the deal” as the nauseating self-styled “artists” of The Game would have it. I like that everybody is a seething bag of neuroses and repressions. I like that we live in a sexually open (ish) society. I like a lot of things about sex. But the elementary nature of sex is problematic. I’ve often expressed an envy of homosexual relationships that’s drawn raised eyebrows. My reasoning is this: men and women are fundamentally different. That we have made it this far is astonishing. We speak two different languages, and so much of the grief of human existence is attributable to the fact that we come from two very different places (pun intended). At least if you’re gay you’re on the same wavelength with your partner (I assume). Human sexuality, and sexual frustration, is the root cause of all the glory and horror of mankind.
As an outsider, again, I’m not much in the dating pool as it were, although every so often I’ll dip a toe in to test the temperature. As a man I don’t seek validation from sexual conquest, and as a person of lower-than-average empathy I derive very little from relationships, be they long- or short-term. In my late teens and early twenties I flirted with a whole bunch of different ideas, including asexuality and bisexuality, before concluding that I am robustly heterosexual with very little motivation. My interest in sex is largely that of a lay-person or an amused, cynical observer. Here are a few field notes I’ve made in my brief time that I’d like to provide you, for your peace of mind.
There Is Nothing So Strange That Somebody Hasn’t Jacked Off To It
One of the prize books in my collection is a rare and little-known study of the vast expanse of human sexuality. The Psychopathia Sexualis is a seminal (pun intended) work of psychology by the psychiatrist Richard Krafft-Ebing dating from before the advent of Freudian analysis. In Many Ways Krafft-Ebing was miles ahead of his contemporaries – in fact, he was miles ahead of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Krafft-Ebing is worth remembering for two reasons : it was he who first speculated that homosexuality wasn’t a deviancy or a choice, as Freud had it, but a systematic difference in the brain structure of the gay (modern psychosexuality is just catching up with this) originating in the womb. For Krafft-Ebing, sexuality wasn’t a choice but a gender assigned during gestation. The other thing Krafft-Ebing did is he gave the world the “fetish”.
Fetishism, or rather paraphilia (to give it the technical term) is a low-level attraction to a specific object, behaviour or mannerism that stimulates desire. The word comes from Krafft-Ebing relating it to the totems and wooden idols of non-christian peoples: for them, the idol or totem became a god, and was imbued with the essence of a god. Likewise for the fetishist, the object becomes imbued with the essence of sexuality. How fetishism arises is not really understood, but it can have a number of triggers and it doesn’t have to relate to specifically sexual object: so you get foot fetishists and artificial fetishists, model train fetishists and transvestites, and everything in between. In our modern, internet-capable world we’re more aware of fetishists thanks in part to the notorious Rule 34 – a totem itself of all the taboos that the internet offers. There are people out there with squid pornography and animal fantasists, people attracted to crap, people who are erotically charged by credit cards and people who just like to watch women smoke. The internet allows us to view the world of others and see that the symbols we imbue with sexuality (that seem normal for us) can seem weird for another. In a sense this is healthy: the more we recognise that we, the normal, deviate from the norm, the more accepting we will be of the fuzziness and vagaries of the human condition. That’s not to say that there isn’t a dark side – I’m think of snuff films and paedophilia, to name two – to all of this openness, but unfortunately there is always a dark side. Most fetishists, as befitting their custom, do not cause harm to anybody. The internet is a tool for general enlightenment.
After all, the strangest fetish is the one where people live contented suburban lives with two kids and a mortgage. That’s just weird. Compared to that, boots and barbie dolls and hardcore bondage seem pretty normal. Dammit, I bet there’s a group of people out there who jack off to videos of nudibranchs, just because it’s pronounced “nudey-brank”, and think that’s the most normal thing in the world.
There Is Nothing So Normal That Somebody Hasn’t Banned It
Did you know that love, as we conceive of it, is a modern invention? According to David McCandless’ book Information is Beautiful, love is a relatively new paradigm, originating as a result of the sixties revolution. Before that people were expected to fall in love after they got married (in short, after they started having sex and spending time with one another), which is pretty hard lines on any young couple. Marriage was a necessary step on the road to babies, and babies were what kept the wheel turning.
Does that sound absurd, or true, or a sweeping statement? It’s a little of all three. After all, love is a very complex and deeply-rooted emotion, arising from the mammalian need to pair-bond because that produces the strongest offspring. The critical distinction is that provision did not exist for love before the Twentieth Century. It wasn’t important. It was a by-product of more serious business. Although the Victorian era wasn’t quite, as is generally believed, an era of sexual repression, people thought about things differently. And their attitude to sex was completely different to ours.
Sex and its lame-duck half-brother, masturbation, were regarded as the ultimate evil in many cultures, not least the enlightened west. The reason why is unbelievably complicated (I’ve just read more than thirty pages of theses on western sexual development and am frankly none-the-wiser) but, as far as I can work out, all Abrahamic religions place great emphasis on those below-the-wait secretions as belonging to Him Upstairs. You don’t just waste what god gives you – it’s disrespectful. The other reason, which I found really amusing, was that mid-Victorian physicians were convinced you could suddenly run out: to be blunt, you could wank yourself dry. That meant no babies, ever ever.
So people just kept it in. A whole pseudo-medical system developed out of preventing what is, at best, a mildly-amusing pasttime. Did you know that Graham Crackers and Cornflakes were born out of the idea that bland, plain food would quell libidinous or onanistic thoughts? I want you to drop that into your next dinner party conversation.
Premarital sex and homosexual sex were banned out of a feeling that the law was a strong enough disincentive. As it turns out, they weren’t. The end result of all sex-life legislation is that it gets overturned. There’s a simple reason for this: human desire, the desire of one person for another, is the strongest force in the natural world. There are evolutionary anthropologists who argue that everything mankind has done in the pursuit of civilization has in fact been motivated by sex. I am very much starting to agree with them.
Everybody Wants To Do It All The Time
To return for a moment to The Game, or to the previously mentioned Nice Guy Syndrome, many men believe that women withhold sex as part of a vicious power play. They believe that women are frigid because they don’t screw on a first date. They will think they’ve been friend-zoned by a girl they’ve been hanging out with. Men are idiots.
As far as I can make out, men and women actually have roughly-equivalent strengths of desire. A friend of mine who works in the police once told me that on every occasion he had had to search a woman’s bedroom (with a warrant, I hasten to add – he wasn’t a pervert) there had been a vibrating marital aid of some sort in the bedside cabinet. I believe him. Women can, and must, have and equally strong sex drive as men (or we wouldn’t be here at all), but they have different triggers. Men are visual, imagination-driven creatures. Two breasts drawn on a toilet wall are enough to provoke some kind of libidinous reaction from most men. I’ll prove it: HEY GUYS! WHAT DOES THIS LOOK LIKE? (oYo).
On the other hand, women are complex systems of desire and fear and neuroses and complexities. They are attracted to outgoing, energetic, successful men, and there’s a rather obvious reason for this too: we are geared as a species to have sex, but only one of the genders has to go through the messy, destructive process of having babies. Women encounter long-term consequences to sex. Men, on the other hand, don’t (remember that human behaviour was written millions of years before STDs appeared). That explains, at a stroke, why some women are so reticent to put out. Men and women are different in their outlook on desirability, connections, behaviour and sexuality. Is it any wonder I envy the gay?
Everybody’s Struggling With Their Desire
Add to the imperfect mechanism of sexuality the heaping, steaming pile of neuroses you and I carry around day-to-day and it’s surprising human beings have made it this far. You have daddy issues, I am profoundly self-centered. You get off on being choked, I can’t bear to be touched. People are just crazy disguised with the mascara of normality.
I am a little surprised by the reaction to Rihanna getting back together with Chris Brown, the “man” who beat the shit out of a beautiful woman with low self esteem. Feminists and women’s writers lambasted her for being a weak-willed woman, an abuse-attractor, and a few thousand other things too unfriendly to repeat. Yet any one of those “writers” (or prose-vomiters, if we’ll be honest) will tell you that you never fall in love with the person you should love or want to love. Your daughter never brings home the straight-A student who’s going to Cambridge. She brings home the angry, confused guy who plays guitar in a garage with his “band”. Desire is a weird thing.
But it all comes out in the wash, and for better or worse nearly everybody ends up pair-bonded. Rihanna and people like her go through the mill, sure, but I have enough faith in the fundamental decency of people (or, if not “fundamental decency” then lack of malice) to assume that most people end up with somebody they deserve. Hopefully in Chris Brown’s case that’ll be a nine-foot amazon psycho hose beast who mercilessly pegs him until he vomits blood. I am not a nice person.
The long and short of it is: people are fucking weird, and weirdest when they’re fucking. Goodnight.
* I didn’t buy it, I found it. And I DID NOT BUY IT TO LEARN HOW TO PICK UP WOMEN OKAY.