Thursday, February 26, 2015

Manly Thor's Day special: Why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else's conscience?

Here are some lines from 1 Corinthians 10.
25Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, 26for "the earth and its fullness are the Lord's. 27If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28But if someone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—29I mean the other's conscience and not your own.  For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else's conscience?
The problem is that there is an apparent contradiction. First Paul tells us that if there is a danger of upsetting someone else by offending the dictates of their conscience—"then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I mean the other's conscience and not your own". He then immediately tells us what seems to be the opposite message—"For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else's conscience?"

That's from the NRSV. Here are the same lines from the RSV.
Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience For "the earth is the Lord's and everything in it." If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. (But if someone says to, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then out of consideration for the man who informed you, and for conscience's sake—I mean his conscience not yours—do not eat it.) For why should my liberty be determined by another man's scruples?
I don't know what grounds the editors of the RSV have for putting the one line in parentheses. Their doing so does not necessarily disagree with the choice of the NRSV editors not to. A comment doesn't have to be in parentheses to be parenthetical. By parenthetical, I mean that it is an aside. Paul is making his main point and then some qualification, exception or specification occurs to him so he breaks his stride long enough to slip it in.

I mention this because the apparent contradiction I noted above disappears if we take the first part as parenthetical.

One way to test whether something could be parenthetical is whether it can be dropped out and the text still make sense.

First a bit of context. Paul is speaking about meat that has been offered in sacrifice and then sold on the market in Corinth. We think of a burnt offering as taking meat and reducing it to ash but the actual sacrifices of antiquity were more like a giant community barbecue—smoke went up to heaven but most of the meat was quite edible and even yummy thank you. When, as was often the case, there was more meat than the people at this sacrifice/barbecue could eat, the excess was sold off at markets. And it was sold off cheap. Some Christians in Corinth thought it wrong to eat this meat. Others argued that since the idols this meat had been "sacrificed" to didn't even exist there was no reason we should curtail our choices because other people entertained bizarre illusions.

Okay, now let's go back and read it without the possibly parenthetical comment.
Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, for "the earth and its fullness are the Lord's. If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else's conscience?
That's pretty clear? Is it what Paul really meant?

Here, I think the answer is, "Yes ... but ...".

For Paul prefaces this paragraph with the following:
23"All things are lawful," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful," but not all things build up. 24Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.
In other words, don't insist on your rights if doing so will damage someone else's faith so as to alienate them from the church. If someone else seeing you eating this perfectly harmless meat is deeply upset because of their silly scruples, you may damage their faith.

Why am I so sure that their scruples are silly? Because Paul has told us so back in 1 Corinthians 8:
7It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.
Paul is telling us that we need to restrict our own rights for the sake of the Christian community. Ultimately, he tells us, these weak people's salvation depends on their being part of the church because the church is the Body of Christ. If you drive them out, you are committing a serious sin.

So, might we read this as the Letter of Saint Paul to the Libertarians? We might but we have to make a judgment in order to do so. We have to read the people who condemn liberty for the sake of conscience as having a weak understanding. That would be an interesting perspective. We would have to believe, for example, that Pope Francis doesn't understand economics and so he imagines that policies that will actually hurt the poor will help them. On the other hand, there are lots of people who buy into this nonsense so opposing Francis too directly might cause scandal by making it appear like Catholic Christians don't care about the poor so it might be best to not mock his economic delusions because, even though they are really based on a fear of idols that do not exist, to challenge him too directly might upset the weak.

A related question is what is the abuse of power and the moral status of what we do in private. Take Paul's example from above. You are a Corinthian Christian invited to a dinner by a nonbeliever and you don't raise any questions about the meat you are served and no one else does either. Can you just go ahead and chow down. Paul very clearly says yes.

Okay, but suppose there is a scandal later. In the short run, you can deflect any danger by saying that you didn't realize there was an issue. But, in Paul's context, you don't believe there is an issue. You only avoid scandal for the sake of others' weak consciences and not because there is anything wrong with eating this meat.

Now, let's suppose something else. Let's suppose that the rich and powerful members of the Corinthian Christian community could eat all the meat they wanted. They didn't need to buy meat that was cheap and therefore, might have been "sacrificed" to (nonexistent) idols. So we have poor people whose weak consciences might cause them to stumble and fall on one end of the spectrum and rich people who might just be willing to exploit this fact to cause the rest of us to go without meat because this "sacrificed" meat was all we could afford while they could buy the more expensive meat that had no such tainted associations. Would powerful people do that?

Of course they would. I've done it myself. Have you ever wanted other people to stop doing something for reasons of your own convenience but framed your objection in moral terms that made it sound like something larger was at stake? Imagine, for example, the mother who tells her children to play quietly for the sake of others when what she really wants is to have a conversation with the other adults present without having to attend to the kids. It's a form of hypocrisy we're all prone to. Take that hypocrisy and mix it up with the political ambitions of the powerful and you have the potential for serious abuse.

Final question, is Paul quietly telling us to go ahead and do whatever we have a right to do but do it quietly so as to not raise scandal? I believe he is.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Fifty Shades finale: Throwback?

I listened to a Slate podcast on Fifty Shades this morning because someone told me that one of the participants made the same connection between the movie and Pamela. He does, but he misses the larger context.

First, the entire panel of Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens and Julia Turner agree that the movie is unrealistic and that it represents some kind of throwback to an utterly conventional love story. They object, although not very strenuously, to the film treating BDSM as a pathology. They all also enjoyed it. Even Stevens, who claims otherwise, obviously had a great time.

Anyway, Metcalf brings up Pamela "an old novel that no one would read" except that they had it assigned to then in a class on the English novel. He makes an interesting point about that the eponymous heoine of that novel very much not a social equal of Mr. B. the man she ends up being linked to romatically, and that Fifty Shades is similar in that it's very much a one-percenter fantasy that has brought the idealization of marriage back full circle to Pamela.

He makes the additional, interesting point that the actual power relationships between the characters don't necessarily "map onto" the social power relationships. What he means by that is that a really hot young woman can, by virtue of withholding sex, gain considerable power that her social or economic status would not give her. Not surprisingly, neither he nor his co-panelists expand on that point.

I'll come back to that in a future post. For now what interests me is what I see as the rather bizarre shared certainty of the three panellists that this situation wherein a young woman with sexual power uses that to pursue a man of much more powerful, on paper anyway, man.

Well, we don't have to go all the way back to the 18th century. Let's go back to 1998 and the first episode of Sex and the City, a series that can't be any worse written or acted than Fifty Shades. It starts with a parable that opens like this:
Once upon a time an English journalist came to New York. Elizabeth was attractive and bright and, right away, she hooked up with one of the city's typically eligible bachelors. Tim was 42, a well-liked and respected investment banker who made about 2 million a year.
Okay, he's not a billionaire at 27 like Christian Grey is supposed to be but he's hardly the boy at fifty-one-thirty-three Kensington Avenue. An English journalist, not a famous English journalist, just a journalist, hits town and her idea of an eligible bachelor is a guy who makes $2 million a year, which puts him well into the one percent. According to a couple of online sources I just checked, journalists in New York make less than $60k on average. Those sources may not be solid but even if the real salary was 200 or 300 percent of that, she's way, way, way down the socio-economic ladder from the man we're told is an eligible bachelor.

And the rest of the SATC plot bears a shocking resemblance to Pamela right down to the appallingly wooden acting of Chris Noth as "Mr. Big" playing the role for Carrie that "Mr. B" plays for Pamela.

And women loved it.

And why not? If it's all a fantasy anyway, why not make the guy very rich and very good-looking?

What needs explaining is why is it that rich and good looking but also emotionally unavailable, cold men who demand a lot from women are so unfailing attractive when they appear in stories like SATC, Fifty Shades and the champion of them all, Pride and Prejudice.

Except that it doesn't need explaining. What needs to be said is that there is a frightening sense of female entitlement hiding here.

We haven't gone full-circle anywhere because we're still at the same point we always were. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey: lessons for men

Having read Wuthering Heights more than once I can tell you that the scene where Heathcliff grabs Cathy and rips open her dress and feasts his eyes and hands on her breasts before throwing her on the fainting couch and giving her the best sex of her life isn't actually in the book.

It's not that Emily Bronte didn't think it. She and the vast majority of the women who've since read the novel all had the thought.

And it's a very important scene to the book even though, as I say, it's not actually in the book. If that scene weren't in the back of the minds of 99 percent of its readers, well, 99 percent of its readers wouldn't be its readers and Emily Bronte would be mostly forgotten today.

Emily probably didn't put the scene in for a number of reasons. 1. Because she knew that life doesn't work that way. 2. Because she had enough faith in her readers' to know that they'd think it through for themselves. 3. Because the mores of the time wouldn't have allowed her to even vaguely hint that Cathy had imagined having sex with Heathcliff. And more besides.

If you're a man, there are two equally important lessons to take from Wuthering Heights (and yes, I am implying that Fifty Shades of Grey is built on the same mythological foundations as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice; all of which trace their heritage back to Pamela). The first is that Catherine didn't give Mr. Edgar Linton the best sex of his life—she probably gave him utterly mediocre sex and didn't give him any more of even that than she felt was absolutely required of her—so you don't want to be Mr. Edgar Linton. The second is that Heathcliff is a vile creep and you don't want to be a vile creep either.

Do those two lessons contradict one another? A lot of men would say yes and start whining about nice guys always finishing last.  There is another way of thinking about it however. Ask yourself, rather, who is to blame. Is it your fault for not being more like Heathcliff or for not "manning up" and accepting that you're stuck being Mr. Linton? Or is it a woman's fault if she can only see men in binary terms?

Heathcliff and Christian Grey don't have a lot in common but they do have two things they share and that is that they're both vile creeps and they're both highly attractive to most women at some time in their lives and highly attractive to some women all their lives. You might object that Christian is different in that what's-her-name-oh-never-matter-who-cares succeeds in reforming him in the end. Well, except that he doesn't get reformed until the very end and the millions of women who read the series of novels read it for the 100s of pages in which he is a vile creep and not for the denouement in which he promises to be different or the various short passages along the way in which he promises to be different.

Don't hate women for being this way. Have you ever entertained the notion of having a woman who is less than a fully developed human being because you thought it would be easy and fun or because you were still too immature yourself to see that there is a problem with that? If you can honestly say "no" to that question you're delusional about yourself.

But the lesson remains. If you're at a party and a woman-over-the-age-of-19 tells you that Wuthering Heights is her all time favourite novel or that she really got into Fifty Shades of Grey she is telling you she never matured emotionally such that she divides men into two classes: vile creeps and easily manipulated wimps. You want to keep your distance from such a woman. There are lots of them in the world and they all end up unhappy and they all want to blame you for their unhappiness.

If you like the way she has matured sexually enough that you could ignore the fact that she is an emotional disaster, you could simply treat her as a prospect for short-term sex whom you avoid after you've had her. And, trust me, you wouldn't be the first or the last man to simply use her and move on. I'd recommend against it but, if you go ahead with it, I'd suggest you first tell her in an earnest voice that you've never read Wuthering Heights or Fifty Shades (and tell her this even if you already have read it), that it's something you've always thought of reading but, there are so many novels, could she please tell you why you really ought to read this one. Her answer will tell you everything you need to know about her. What you want to figure out is just how damaged she is because you don't want to get involved with someone who is really, really crazy for reasons that I hope are obvious. A little crazy can translate into some pretty wild sex in the short term, a lot crazy will unfailingly translate into a lot of crazy and pretty much nothing else, and most likely little or no sex. I'd also suggest you take advantage of her long answer to your question to glance over her shoulder just in case there are some better prospects in the room because there almost certainly will be some.

I'd recommend not doing any of that. What I'd recommend is telling her that you don't read many novels but love action movies and that you treat the hero of your favourite action movie as your personal role model. Then sit back and watch her try to think of a way to politely break off the conversation without hurting your feelings.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey: lessons for women

I can see two lessons, although there are almost certainly more.

The first lesson: "I am Heathcliff."

For those who haven't read Wuthering Heights, Cathy says that. If you take it literally, you have  mature understanding of what the novel is about.

Emily Bronte is a much better writer than E.L. James. I suspect you already knew that. But you shouldn't imagine that her being a much better writer makes Wuthering Heights any less of a fantasy tale. There is far more wish fulfillment in the book than psychological insight.

Wish fulfillment? Well, yes, because Cathy gets a thrill out of imagining all the sexual passion (which sexual passion is "sublimated" as hate and destruction in the novel) she is capable of. I know, she's dead for a lot of it, but that's the way fantasy works. Think of the five-year-old who, angry at their mother, imagines their own death and "how sorry mommy would be then". Cathy is that five-year-old writ large, which is why it's great to devour the book when you're 17 and not so great to still be passionately reading it at as an adult. (And it should tell just how unfeminist this novel is, despite claims to the contrary, that Emily Bronte and her readers have to project all this passion onto a man before they can believe in it.)

But, here's the thing, in order to have a fantasy, you have to play both parts. Heathcliff isn't the perfect soul mate for Cathy because he doesn't exist. She projects him onto the world. That's what makes Emily Bronte such a great writer. She wasn't such a great human being but she really knew how to write. The same goes for Charlotte. Heathcliff isn't a man and neither is Mr. Rochester. They are both placeholders onto which women's emotions can be projected.

It's okay to do that, provided you know that is what you are doing.

To be really good at relating to men, especially at relating to men sexually, you have to be able to imagine what it's like to be him having sex with you. Okay, you fantasize about a man doing things to you. Now try to put yourself into the head of that man. What's his motivation? What attracts him to you and why does he want to relate to you sexually in this way and how does that fit into the rest of his life? If the only answer you can come up with is "because he's a psycho-creep like Heathcliff or Christian Grey", we have a problem.

The second lesson: is like unto the first

I overheard a man flirting with my wife a couple of years ago. We were at a book reading and she was standing in line to have her copy of the book signed. The man in front of her in line, started a conversation. They talked about the book they were holding for a while (it was about FDR) and then he introduced Fifty Shades into the conversation. He did that because he'd liked the way the conversation had gone so far and was looking for a little risqué fun. Here is how he did it with some comments from me in square brackets.

"I'm rather ashamed of what I'm reading now."

[No, he isn't ashamed at all. When men are really ashamed of something, they try to hide it. He brought it up this way because he's hoping she will be intrigued and her willingness to be intrigued is something he wants to know about. She didn't slam the door shut so he kept going.]

"It has something to do with the colour grey."

[The point of this silly, parabolic way of approaching the subject was to find out how much my wife knew and what she thought of what she knew. If she knows enough about the book to figure out what he is talking about from this vague hint and if she is intrigued enough to encourage a man she doesn't know continue talk about a book that features kinky sex, they both can have some fun with this. She giggled approvingly so he continued but not in the way you'd guess.]

"My wife has me reading it. She says I could learn a lot from it."

[He has just dissed his wife. He is discussing something about her that he should have kept private with another woman and he is doing so in a way that will make this other woman think less of his wife.]

He wasn't actually proposing to my wife that, should he decide to take up the kinky suggestions that his wife meant him to take up, he would rather do it with her than with his wife but that is what he was thinking and he didn't mind the thought that she might figure that out but he did it in a mild enough way that he still had plausible deniability vis-a-vis both my wife and his.

But let's leave that aside. What's the lesson? It's this: if you want to have a more fulfilling and adventurous sex life, you should focus your efforts on being the sort of woman whom an actual man would want to have a wild sexual affair with. But you won't be able to do that if you hate yourself and the problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it's aimed at women who don't like themselves very much.

And you can see this in the character of our heroine old what's-her-name-oh-never-matter-who-cares. She's this mousy, boring little thing whom no one but a damaged creep who can't hold himself back from would ever have anything to do with. This isn't an imagined type. I've known several women (and men) who ranged from pretty good looking to quite beautiful who never managed to connect with anyone. In the movie she's actually played by a confident woman who merely acts at being those things and then later acts at being a woman transformed by the experience.

The problem with Cathy saying "I am Heathcliff" is not that she projects her fantasies onto a man but that she impoverishes herself by taking all her passion and drive away from herself and giving it to someone else. She'd be much better off if she developed and nurtured this side of herself but she isn't going to do that because she hates herself. If you pin her down on the subject, she'll say that no one would take her seriously if she did but there are men who would love nothing more than to take her seriously in that role and she may even already be married to one of them but it will never happen because she hates herself and expresses this self-hatred by deciding that no one would ever take her seriously as an exciting lover. (Except maybe some psych creep like Heathcliff or Christian Grey.)

There are, of course, women more interesting and sexier than her. Lots of them and if she goes about looking for such women she'll fund them. Even Dakota Johnson could do that if that is what she set about doing it. But why do that? Wouldn't it be better to have to have enough self compassion to forgive yourself for not being everything you can be and enough discipline to become the woman you are capable of being?

On the other hand, it would be a lot easier to just read the book and go to the movie.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fifty shades: Because it gets them off. That's why!

There is a basic fact about the book and movie that you have to start with. If you don't start here, everything you say about it will be nonsense. What's that? That the roughly 100 million women who bought this book did so in order to get fantasy material to use when they stimulate themselves sexually, or when someone stimulates them.

And there is, if you'll pardon the expression, the rub. Because roughly 100 million women are turned on enough by the idea of being submissive that they went out and bought this book. Submissive!

100 Million! I'm repeating this over and over again for a reason. Think about that for a while. That's a big, big, big number.

That isn't every woman. It's not even close to it. But it's a lot of women.

If we're going to write about this phenomenon at all, and we don't have to, we need to start with that fact. That's what is important. It's also the fact that most people who write about the movie are doing everything they can to avoid acknowledging. For example, I love Mollie Hemingway, I read her stuff all the time and generally agree with her about seventy percent of the time. But she is spouting pure, undiluted nonsense when she says,"Fifty Shades of Grey is for women frustrated by the consequences of feminism and a sexual revolution that didn't turn out like we expected." Not it's not. It's for women who want to get aroused and have orgasms and it worked for millions upon millions of them.

This isn't a backlash against feminism. This isn't a reaction against all the weak and unsatisfactory young men out there. It's a masturbation thing! It tells us that one heck of a lot of women get their rocks off while imagining that they are being dominated.

And it's not about women not wanting to make the decisions about sex, or men being too proud and having easily bruised egos so that they won't take suggestions about sex.  The hero of this book is a nightmare (albeit a very wealthy nightmare). When looking for helpful material to assist them in fantasizing while masturbating, approximately 100 million women chose this.

Maybe you're thinking that's just because no one has given them any other options. Maybe you're thinking that if someone cranked out a book, it obviously doesn't have to literature, about a sexually dominant woman, that might also sell 100 million copies. Hey, go right ahead. It's your chance to get rich. Go right ahead. We'll see how you do.

So don't waste our time telling us it's badly written, or that it's a poorly made movie, or that it's not realistic. Deep Throat wasn't well-written, well-directed, or realistic either. No porn book or film—either softcore or hardcore—in the history of the world has been good art. You don't read or study porn. You use porn. Just as good soap is the stuff that actually removes dirt, good porn is the stuff that gets the user sexually aroused. No matter what you or I or anybody else wishes were actually the case, Fifty Shades of Grey worked and is working for a lot of women. Deal with it.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey: Passive aggressive?

I'm thinking of spending a whole week on the theme of Fifty Shades of Grey. Not the actual thing as I haven't and and will not read the book and will not be seeing the film. See if you can figure out the connection here.

My father put up with a lot of crap he shouldn't have put up with. You could read that as criticism of the people who subjected him to the crap he shouldn't put up with or you could read it as criticism of him for putting up with the crap instead of just saying "No!" to it. You could go either way and I leave it up to you to decide.

Here's the thing: because he put up with this stuff he shouldn't have put up with, he'd sometimes explode in rage when he couldn't take it anymore. I'm like that. It's nothing I like about myself. In fact, I hate myself for doing it. But it's a mixed feeling. I feel justified in my anger but I also feel that if I'd stood up for myself much earlier I would have been able to react rationally instead of blowing up.

I hate myself for blowing up. But I keep doing it. 

I used to think that was what passive-aggressive meant: you passively accepted shit you shouldn't accept until one day you just lose it and become aggressive.  That isn't what passive aggressive means. Now I think of passively accepting crap until you can't take it anymore as, "that thing that men do". Because it is. It's not just me.

Passive-aggressive actually means agreeing to something and then quietly undermining it by inaction and subterfuge. You might also call it, "that thing that women do". Not all women and certainly not only women do it but a lot of women do. And it's easy to see why. It makes sense. Historically, women were usually not given much power and being  passive-aggressive was often the only way they had to resist what they didn't like. (That's still true for a lot of young women and children with parents who just don't get it.)

You cannot, as I hope is clear, generalize too much. There are women who specialize in the first and men who specialize in the second.

If you feel like you're strong, you'll tend to use the male option. Imagine Gulliver seeing what the Lilliputians are up to and thinking he'll put up with this and managing to do so until he realizes that his liberty and safety are at risk so he explodes. When he does he either kills or maims Lilliputians. If he'd just stopped them right at the outset, he could have avoided hurting anybody but he cooperates because that's what you're supposed to do. That was how the Romans ended up with an empire. At first, they tried to cooperate and the neighbours just wouldn't stop scheming against  them so the Romans stomped them but good beginning with Carthage. A lot of the reputation the Romans now have for being violent oppressors stems from their having first tried to cooperate and then exploding. If they'd just conquered other peoples in the first place they'd probably be better-remembered today.

If, on the other hand, you feel weak you'll use passive-aggressive strategies in the classic sense. A lot of women use this even against people who haven't done anything in particular to hurt them. I think a lot of women who were repeatedly and unfairly criticized and demeaned by their parents later take it out on their husbands with passive aggressive tactics. Harriet Westbrook being exhibit A in this.

Real classic-aggressive strategies can work, however, and we shouldn't forget that. This was how the Irish finally won something like independence.

All that said, men mostly do the first and women mostly do the second.

More on Fifty Shades tomorrow.

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. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Anxiety, insecurity and the importance of being studiously uncool

A post under development: This is a blogging experiment. This long post will sit here at the top for a while. I will visit it and make improvements from time to time. If it works, I'll keep blogging this way some or all of the time.

Somewhere, I can remember, I read someone who characterized anxiety as the thing you feel when you don't have the courage to have an actual emotion. I think that's a deep and true observation.

By way of contrast consider resentment. It is one of the lower emotions. No one admires resentment. But it also makes a certain amount of sense. If someone you can't retaliate against, say your boss or your girlfriend, humiliates you, you resent it. It's all you can do. Yes, you have to move on and yes it will only do you harm to nurture and maintain that resentment. The correct response is to get over it and quietly begin looking for a new job or a new girlfriend.

But resentment is often the right emotion to have. It is a rational response to the world in that it identifies the cause of your suffering. You might identify the wrong target—for much of my adolescence I resented my father because I, like most boys, had a hard time being honestly critical of my mother. But resentment, like all emotions, can also be absolutely right and justified. Most times it is. The problem is that we feel resentment rather than anger because we are incapable, or at least feel we are incapable, of challenging the person or persons whom we resent.

Not so with anxiety or insecurity. Those feelings, they don't rise to the level of an emotion, have no target. They are vague, but often intense, fears of we know-not-what.

A few years ago, I had an experience where I got to see into the anxiety of others. I got to see the sort of sexual anxiety that plagues many women. Not surprisingly, the experience left me a little smug. But it also gave me insight into my own anxieties and a sense of how they worked on me. It was a life-changing moment. Like all such moments, I'd been building up to it for years and it took several years after that to put what I'd learned into practice. It would be to credit too much to say that everything changed in a flash. It would be fair to say, however, that a basic truth that I had long been working on was suddenly revealed. It was a moral epiphany.

In those days, we had an unfixed male dog. Unfixed because the breeder had reserved the right to later breed him. There was one other such dog in the neighbourhood and I and the dog were walking up the street on which this other dog lived. We made slow progress. My dog had to find every spot this other dog had marked and then replace that marking with his own urine. This required him to methodically sniff over the entire area pee on the identified spots and then return to sniff again to make sure he had obliterated all trace of his rival.

Going so slowly, I had the time to catch all of an interesting human drama that took place ahead of me. A man was waiting in a parked BMW sports car. The woman he was waiting for came out of a house and down to the car. She was something else. You could tell because she was dressed in her club clothes. She'd put on ankle boots and a light cropped jacket  that were meant to get her from the house to the car and from the car to the club and weren't any good for any more than that. She was beautiful and very fit, you could see that she spent a lot of time in the gym. She was also Japanese. I wouldn't normally bring that up but, as you will see, it's important to the story.

The guy got out of the car and held the door for her. He didn't kiss her. They were going out on a date but they were not yet a couple. There was something charming and innocent about it all.

And then it all went wrong. The guy got back behind the wheel and promptly got stuck in the snow bank. I think he knew better than to do what he tried to do but he felt so much anxiety because he was taking this amazing woman out on a date and now this car, this expensive car, which he saw as an extension of his manhood, was stuck in the snow. He pinned the gas pedal, down, put the steering wheel way over and polished up the ice real good.

My dog and I meandered towards them. I could see this guy getting more and more frustrated. It was sort of funny only I knew how he felt. I'd never been in exactly his situation but I knew, I imagine most guys do, what it felt like to go from everything going well in a situation where you feel lots of anxiety and insecurity to having it all fall apart.

Seeing him losing it, the woman got out and went back to push the car. She was strong enough, I suspect stronger than most petite women but she was still petite. And she wasn't dressed for it. So I tied my dog to a post and suggested that she let me do the pushing and spare her clothes. I went around the side and, as gently as I could, suggested the guy straighten out the front wheels. I felt for him; I could see that flash of self-hatred we all get when someone has to remind us of something we already knew and stupidly forgot. I braced my self between the car and the snowbank and pushed it out.

The woman had that gift that some, but not all, women have of being able to turn her smile onto full wattage and she bathed me in that warmth and thanked me in polite but formal terms. She was speaking to a man 25 years older then her and she addressed me the way school kids used to talk to teachers and, I suspect, the way a lot of Japanese children still do. English was clearly her second language but she spoke it well, albeit in that very formal way that second-language speakers do. It was very pleasant to be on the receiving end of. I would have enjoyed prolonging it, and her politeness wouldn't allow her to just turn and run but I could see her looking nervously behind her and could tell she was concerned for the feelings of the man who was not a stranger old enough to be her father but her date so I did my best to match her politeness and formality and let her go her way.

And they drove off.

Now you might well think that no one present could have been more unhappy than this young man. You'd be wrong about that.

At some point my liberal, feminist fried S had come along with her dog and she had stood watching the last part of this play out while the two dogs sniffed one another over. When I turned to  talk to her, she was a blustering mass of insecurity. She kept repeating things the woman had said over and over again in a mocking tone. She seemed to feel that I should be deeply embarrassed to have received this few seconds of positive attention from a young woman.

I walked home and promptly forgot about it.

The next afternoon I went to the dog park and S was there along with a number of other dog walkers. The second she saw me, she was again reduced to a blustering mass of insecurities. She immediately launched into the tale of what had happened in the same mocking tone she'd used the night before as if I had something to be ashamed of. That I wasn't ashamed clearly made it worse.

And then S added a detail to the story that only existed in her imagination. She reported in mocking tones to all the other women present that the woman, whom neither of us had identified as Japanese, had supposedly said, "You certainly are strong sir." Sometime since the night before, S had transformed an articulate, well-spoken and poised young woman into a crude, racist stereotype.

It gets worse.

All the other women, who'd been listening somewhat dubiously up until then, started to join S in laughing and mocking this woman. As long as she was only, as S had made very clear to them, a hot college girl dressed up to go out, they'd had no problems with her. There are plenty such women in this neighbourhood as we are located near a campus. The second she was identified as oriental, and so identified by crude caricature, they all got threatened.

I understand the fear. Some, but not all or even the majority, young Japanese women put a lot of effort into being women. Some, but not all, Western women don't and consider it a point of pride that they don't. Right up to the moment they encounter a very fit and attractive young Oriental woman who puts a lot of effort into being neat and feminine. Then they, like the young man whose car is stuck in the snow, they are reduced to helpless rage. The problem is that their feminism, like the sports car, is an outward expression of a sense of self worth they don't really believe in.

What they feel is anxiety and insecurity and it cannot rise to the level of an emotion because it can't be directed at a specific target. Emotions have to be targeted or else they cannot exist. To be in love is to love someone. Love cannot not exist otherwise. Likewise to be jealous is to be jealous of some person or situation and so on through every real emotion. To suffer anxiety or insecurity is just to have a feeling of foreboding that some undefined threat is out there somewhere; you don't know what, you don't know where from, but you just feel it.

What prevented S from seeing that she was insecure was her feminism and liberalism. She couldn't blame the woman directly for failing to be sisterly and be as uncaring about being feminine as S was because feminists never blame the woman. That was amplified  by the fact that the woman was of another race. S tried to transfer her shame to me, it was her only choice, but she could hardly make that stick as all I had done was to silently enjoy some polite attention I had received. I'd had my back to S throughout the encounter, in any case, so anything she thought she saw was her own projection and it was that projection that was full of anxiety and insecurity.

Why? Because appearance really matters to S. You can be sure of that even if you don't know her as well as I do because study after study has shown that, from age nine up, women of all cultures evaluate their self worth in terms of appearance. Not surprisingly, this can be a tremendous burden. Burden or not, it's unavoidable. We could wish it otherwise but all women evaluate themselves in these terms. If it was just in the west, we could dismiss it as a perversity of the culture but it's everywhere.

But there is something that is peculiar  to the west and that is the desire to solve the problem by being cool about it: that is the desire to make the problem go away by putting some ironic distance between yourself and the thing that defines you. That is what stops us from being able to cultivate a proper emotional response to the things that challenge us.

The most pronounced form of this irony is the desire to deny our sexuality by reducing it to "gender". Faced with the challenge of being good at being a woman or being good at being a man, we prefer to act as if we have infinite variety of choices to be what we want. We don't. You are a woman or you are a man or , extremely unlikely, you might be a hermaphrodite. (Ironically, while many in the west have tried to blur or minimize basic genetic differences between men and women, the definition of what it is to be hermaphrodite has gotten more and more specific and exclusive in recent years.) Whichever genetic group you fall into, your only real choice is to be as good at being a woman or a man as you can. We can have an argument about what makes a good woman or what makes a good man and there is a wide variety of possibilities within those two categories, but there are no real choices outside them.

Faced with the issue, many women like S have chosen to be feminine on their own terms and when they feel like it instead of making it a life-long moral project to become the best woman they can be. That sounds daunting, and it is, but it shouldn't be threatening. To be the best woman you can be is to judge yourself against yourself and that is liberating. To refuse to do so, is to surrender to the opinions of others and to live a life where you are always subject to the judgments others are making of you or, worse, the ones you imagine they might be making. All the brave bluster of the independence S imagines she has from what she believes to be merely cultural norms of womanhood vanished when she saw that beautiful Japanese woman.

A big part of that fear was that the woman was not only fit, well-dressed and feminine but also petite and exotic. S is a normal sized white woman. She has no trouble with her weight and she is more attractive physically than most. She is not petite however and she is not exotic, although she would be if she moved to Japan. If she did that, she'd make Japanese women feel insecure because they could not match this tall, blonde woman. Other people will always be different from us and will always have different strengths and weaknesses. None of that, however, explains why S and the other women had the extreme, almost paranoid, reaction they did have.

What does explain it is that, in the name of freedom, people in the west have given up the only variable we actually have control of. We can disguise other weaknesses, and a huge amount of money is made by selling women clothing and make up that will, they believe, hide their flaws. And that works. To a point. But the most basic choice—to be a good woman or to be a good man—we deny ourselves by refusing to be women and men in the first place. Driven by anxiety and insecurity, we spend our entire life running from fears we are unwilling to be honest enough to label instead of running towards virtues we could be developing.
"Working out to look great may be shallow, but so is wearing makeup, taking selfies, and grooming of any sort. Pick your shallow." Dani Shugart

As a man ...

I've been easy on the guy at the wheel of the car for the simple reason that I know too well what it feels like to be him. Too often, I've gone from feeling masterful to failure and responding by pushing the the accelerator, volume pedal or whatever is hand all the way to the floor even though this only can reduce me to an impotent child.  That happens because the feeling of being masterful was a fraud right from the beginning.

That BMW sports car was a crazy choice for the Canadian winter. It would make a limited kind of sense to have such a car and put it away in storage for the winter, assuming you could afford such a thing, but, otherwise, grow up and drive the sort of sensible car an adult man would drive. If you need a sports car to be a man, you aren't. And yes, I know, it works: there are lots of women who will be fooled by the sports car. But here's the thing, you'll only be getting them by fooling them; you'll always be a fraud and you'll know you're a fraud.

Being masterful, and a man should be masterful, means knowing how to deal with failures and setbacks. To think that nothing should go wrong and that life owes it to you to never go wrong is to act like a child and not a man. That's why the pedal goes down and the feeling of helplessness goes up. If we spend all our time both denying and dreading failure, we will be utterly unable to deal with it when it comes, as it always will.

What he should have done, was to laugh at himself, apologize for the inconvenience and that asked the woman if she would mind getting behind the wheel while he pushes the car out. Any man of my father's generation who wasn't a pimp would have known that without thinking about it. Pushing cars out of snowbanks is a manly responsibility. Men are supposed to be strong. (In this case, it may have been that she was nearly as strong as him but that only shows what a poor job he had been doing of being a man all along.)

I could go on and on ... . I know this guy because I've made the same sort of mistakes myself once upon a time.

But there is something else. One of the big reasons we men stay trapped in our unmanly state is that we fear women. We spend too much time seeing them as the gatekeepers for sex, which we have convinced ourselves we cannot live without. We believe a lot of foolish nonsense about women being morally superior to men, especially about sex. We buy into crap about men being afraid to ask for directions instead of acknowledging that we tend to be, on average, better than women are at navigation.

As a consequence, we regard it as unreasonable to want, not expect or demand but merely think such a thing is desirable, a woman to be womanly. Scared of her, we settle for any woman willing to accept us and give us sex. If she is unwilling to value and cultivate her sexuality after we have committed to her, we act as if we have no right to complain. And we keep this up until the day it comes pouring out in a whiny rage. That, however, is not satisfying because we don't feel we have the right to complain and, in any case, we express our dissatisfaction in such a childish way that we completely undermine ourselves.

That is why seeing S and the other feminist women at the dog park react the way they did was so liberating. I'd spent years feeling guilty for wanting women to be womanly. To see that their confidence was all a facade that collapsed instantly when confronted with the slightest challenge was to see that they were no better than me. And to further see that they were challenged not by any real threat but an imagined one based on a racist stereotype that they harboured (a racist stereotype I'd too often heard women accuse men who said aloud that they found an Asian woman attractive of having) was what sealed it. As I said at the top, this epiphany was a long time coming. I'd been feeling it for a while, all I needed was something to sharpen the image such that I couldn't miss it. The liberating thing was to see, after years of feminist berating, that women are just as bad as men are at all the things men are bad at. The solution, therefore, is not and cannot be feminism. The solution is to grow up and face that we are men and that we should be as good as we can be at being manly men while expecting them to be as good as they can be at being womanly women.