Friday, February 13, 2015

The advice they give: on a Valentine theme

Discovery is a big part of what makes life and love so wonderful. You discover that things you thought were sentimental tripe are actually wonderful when shared with another person. You discover that you can do things you thought you'd never have the nerve to do when you're in love. And, speaking specifically of sex now, you discover that things you thought of as too weird for you can, in certain circumstances, send you to the moon.

Or you don't. A lot of people fail.

But you can succeed and discover that things you dreamed about but thought never could come true can come true. Not all of them but some. It starts with a dream. If the spark goes out, it can restart with a dream.

Which brings me to the perennial topic of sexual fantasy and the current topic of Fifty Shades of Grey which is hitting the theatres just in time for Valentine's Day). Amanda Hess liked it:
... as the movie’s attitude toward itself ping-pongs between deprecation and indulgence, it allows the audience to feel superior to the source material while experiencing the guilty pleasure of discovering that maybe they actually really like this stuff. The book only did the latter.
Notice how much Hess gives away with what she intends as a slight. By saying, "The book only did the latter", she's admitting that it got her hot.

Which is what it's supposed to do! To say that the movie is ridiculous but fun is to admit that it works as softcore porn. No one defending the softcore porn film Emmanuelle in the 1970s needed to pretend it was great art. What Emmanuelle was for men, Fifty Shades seems to be poised to become for women. (Fifty-six years later! You may or may not agree with "feminism" in general, whatever that means, but it's telling that it took this long for women to catch up.)

Hess looks calm and rational, however, when compared to Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon who is upset that the movie misrepresents practices in the BDSM community. Pause. Sorry, I can't type "BDSM community" without giggling. It's not the "BDSM" but the "community" that is funny. I was a member of the snow-shovelling community yesterday.  Anyway, Clark-Flory's issue is that the movie portrays coercive sex. Of course it does, it's a fantasy about coercive sex not a documentary about BDSM!

Here's the thing that gets under the skin of members of both the "BDSM community" and sex journalists: a rank amateur sat down and wrote out her sex fantasies and then put it on the Internet as a way to get off and got more public attention than they, the supposed pros, could manage.

It's worth dwelling on that a moment. E.L. James, she has a real name but it isn't necessary for my point, sat down to write some Twilight fanfiction. As she got into her stride, she slipped some sex in. She did this online. The turn on was not just having the fantasy but knowing that other people were going to read it. Turns out, other people liked reading it. And the rest is history.

It's not about the BDSM community, it's "about" the people-secretly-sharing-their-fantasies community. What people in the BDSM community do or don't do in real life doesn't matter. No one cares about them. Perhaps that hurts their feelings but I don't care and you probably don't either.

Clark-Flory gets most upset about the contract that the protagonists sign. This contract is inspired by things actual BDSM people do but it serves a different purpose. For people who actually do this stuff, instead of just fantasizing about it, the contract is something that exists outside the fantasy. It's a bunch of rules. For E.L. James, the contract was part of the fantasy. 
Indeed, Anastasia makes clear on countless occasions that she wants to have a “normal” relationship where they go on dates and sleep in the same bed, something he refuses to do; and Christian repeatedly tells her that the only way to be with him is to sign the contract agreeing to things she doesn’t want to do. She gets so freaked out by a Web search for “submission,” and the resulting images of women tied up in rope, that she fires off an email to Christian reading, “It’s been nice knowing you,” as in, “I’m super freaked out by all of this and want nothing to do with it.” He responds by showing up at her apartment uninvited.
This shouldn't be hard to figure out. E.L. James was looking around at stuff about BDSM online and thought, "I could never do that." But then she closed her eyes and thought, "What if someone forced me into and I had no choice and ...". That's how fantasies work. The thrill is in mentally rehearsing some scenario and then, as you get more and more aroused, you surprise yourself by suddenly allowing the scenario to go places you hadn't expected and boom.

Imagine, if you would, two women. One has a a lover across town and rides the bus to see him. The other is lying in her bed with her laptop at home typing out a story in which she is on a cross-town bus wearing some racy lingerie that she does not actually own but has only seen in an online ad she was just looking at and imagines that all the men on the bus somehow know and they're moving in on her and soon it will be too late for her to get up and get away and ... . Notice how different a role the bus plays in the two scenarios. For one, the bus was a way of getting somewhere. For the other, it was a plot device. The contract in the novel and movie is just a plot device. It's not meant to have any practical impact on anyone's life.

Now, imagine that Tracy Clark-Flory sees this story I've just made up about the bus and says that bus drivers and gangbang experts say that this story this woman has typed out is a very poor guide for those who actually want to have group sex because doing it with a bunch of anonymous men on a bus is not the way it's actually done, pointing out, among other things, that you can't be sure that these men on the bus can be trusted not to hurt you. Her advice is completely useless but not because she has the facts wrong.

Is this a good place to remind everyone that the Puritans were "sex positive"? They really were. Long before anyone else, the puritans recognized that sex was not just a way to have children or a need to be satisfied but a way of making married relationships stronger. Being puritans, they then proceeded to take a good idea and make it into an excuse to run other people's lives: there are records of puritan courts sentencing people to be put in stocks and humiliated in front of the entire town for not meeting their spouse's sexual needs!

Let me introduce you to Tracy Clark-Flory, the puritan.
This is how I find myself for the first time ever agreeing with conservative Christian organizations about something relating to sex. The president of the homophobic, anti-porn American Family Association told the Associated Press of the movie, “This is not a healthy thing to mainstream.” He’s right — not because BDSM is unhealthy, but because the movie’s representation of BDSM is unhealthy. You know someone is doing something horribly wrong when a hateful Christian organization and a liberal, atheist sex writer from Salon find a common ground.
Actually, what you know when you see this is that people on the extremes of any debate tend to have far more in common than they realize. Both groups get far more of a thrill out of having the power to make you do what they want than in actually doing anything useful.

Anyway, back to that contract. It's not a contract that an actual man interested in dominant sex proposed to an actual woman. It's what a woman fantasized about for herself. As a consequence, it's a combination of wish fulfillment and aspiration, as all fantasies tend to be.

Consider the wish fulfillment part to. Let's imagine Sara who is pretty new to sex. In fact, she's a virgin. She's thinking it would be great if her boyfriend pinned her arms down while they were kissing. Now, she could just ask him and he might say yes and do it. On the other hand, he might wrinkle up his nose and worry about whether this good for her but agree if that is what Sara really wants. Imagine you're Sara in that second scenario. Are you feeling turned on? No, what Sara wants is for her boyfriend to pin her arms down because the idea of doing that turns him on and that, in turn, will turn her on all the more and if I need to explain this to you, there is no hope for you.

Luckily, most secret desires are complementary. Sara's next boyfriend may be more compatible. (And they're is going to be a second boyfriend for reasons, again, that I hope I don't have to explain to anyone.) In the abstract, the sort of subtle hints that lead couples to figure this stuff out can seem impossible and thus the common advice to tell your partner your needs but the truth is that people figure it out in real life. Or they break up.

For the aspirational part, we can go back to the contract in the book. I haven't read it and I'm not going to but Clark-Flory gives us a pretty good idea of what is in it.
For one, the kink contract that Christian gives to Anastasia features not just stipulations about [kinky stuff you may not want to read about here] but requirements about what she can eat, how much she can drink and how she behaves at all times. Now, such contracts are not unheard of in the BDSM community — but nor are they standard, and certainly not with someone as inexperienced as Anastasia.
Again, I remind you that this contract is created by E.L. James. It's not something that some man imposed on her but something she is imagining imposing on herself. Hiding behind this is something we all do: we all make sure we are on our best behaviour as we get into a relationship. I'm just guessing, but I bet that James, like most women and men, wishes that she was in better shape, that she was more in control of her behaviour.

Here's a project for anyone who just needs a project. Yes, I'm going to do it. No, I don't expect you to do it unless you really want to. No, I won't share any of it (the first rule of fight club is ...).

I'm making a few rules.

  1. Instead of making Valentine's day a celebration of what you already have, treat it as a new beginning. Treat it as the day you set out to become a great lover. 
  2. Don't settle for some cheesy sex fantasy like Fifty Shades, imagine a great love story, something that would make a classic novel. 
  3. But do start off by doing what E.L. James does. That is, don't think of some real person and set out to be what they want you to be. Imagine a fantasy lover. Who and what do you have to become to be their lover? 
  4. Make them the sort of person you would like to have had a great love affair with. 
  5. Think anticipatory past tense. When it's over, you want to be able to look back and think how wonderful this was. Whatever twinges of pain and regret you might feel that it's over are no match for the feelings of having really lived your life. 
  6. Don't make it about the sex. That's too easy. And it's porn. The hard part is the romance. It's sexual in that you will attract this person sexually and the feeling of succeeding at this will make you feel good. But the actual mechanics of the sex should matter a whole lot less than the flirting and anticipation, the places you would go, the things you would do ... . All of these things should point at sex and they should point at a particular kind of sex. And that should be the kind of sex you want. But, if you do it right, there should be no need to actually write out the details. If you do it right, that should be almost redundant.
  7. Don't make it about anyone who actually exists. In particular, do not make it about anyone you actually love or might love. 
  8. Make it some romantic hero or heroine. Go over the top. Give them a romantic name. This is an exercise in learning about yourself and not about the practical business of forming a relationship. You want a lover you can project your hopes and dreams onto. Someone you'll struggle to live up to. 
  9. Surprise yourself. Let the scenario go places you didn't expect.
  10. Cheat. If you end up somewhere you don't like, rewind the tape a bit and try something different.
  11. Don't ever tell anyone anything about it. 

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