Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Instead of sitting me down for The Talk, my parents left a lot of books for young people around -- the kind with diagrams of plumbing and information so tactful that it was inscrutable.  But they did succeed in establishing that books and sex went together.  A book on the shelf that they had evidently never read or had forgotten was there was “Boccaccio’s Tales” which make Chaucer look like family fare.  I read it carefully.  Sometimes I couldn't "get it."

My father was also curious about sex, so he kept his underwear drawer stocked with the landmark academic books on the subject.  Just approaching puberty, I read them -- I’m not entirely sure he didn’t know I was doing that.  The first I read was Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams” which made me blush every time I looked at anything perpendicular, and the second was Kraff-Ebing, which was about what we call today “kink.”  Then there was Kinsey and finally Masters and Johnson.  To put this in context, to my mind this was not different from reading the Revised Standard Version of the Bible which came out about the same time and which I found equally shocking.

In the last few days there has been another of my occasional media convergences: Netflix sent the movie called “The Sessions” which is about a sex surrogate initiating a man in an iron lung.  The next day I watched a video of a speech by Ogi Ogas about the contents of his book “A Billion Wicked Thoughts,” which was obviously entitled by a publisher trying to capitalize on “Fifty Shades of Gray.”  Ogi Ogas and his fellow author, Sai Gaddam, are neuroscientists who research brain function, in part by analyzing porn preferences on the Internet.  (Yes, they ARE watching you!)  www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-A8GvUehq4  or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPJQbB2o8Es   The second vid is the more frank because the lecture is in Canada, which is less uptight than in the USA.  It also includes both researchers and was taped a year later, so is a little more perfected as a talk.

The bottom line (sorry) is that humans are adaptable mammals and those strategies that lead to survival (both individual and demographic) are the ones that survive, often becoming built-in to the body.  Mostly this has to do with conceiving babies but also in large part with successfully raising them to adulthood.  So healthy young women (the “dry herd”, we undiplomatically say around here) are sexy, but desirable men are experienced (older), strong, competent, alpha men.  Sexy women are about healthy bodies; sexy men are about the ability to provide for and protect families.

The single most startling fact that came out of this study is that the four body parts that in both genders provoke sexual desire are breasts/chests, butts, feet and penises.  In both genders, in all societies.  Even het men are fascinated and attracted by penises.  (At last an explanation of why most chicken hawks are heterosexual men: it’s about non-threatening penises!)  The most unsurprising fact was that men care about bodies, but women care about emotional context, the story.  This explains why gay men do not change their sexual preference throughout their lives, but women seem able to move back and forth.  What attracts the heterosexual women to a man is a flaw in his armor: a story that is an entry point for intimacy because she can heal it.  She thinks.

The Sessions” tells a story -- it’s a chick flick based on reality -- about a woman who works as a sex surrogate, a medicalized sex worker of the kind brought to consciousness by Masters and Johnson.  This woman is adult, happily married, has a teenaged son, and has had training.  She keeps a journal and writes reports.  The man in the story is gifted (a poet), appealing, and paralyzed by polio to the point of having to live mostly in an iron lung.  He longs to know what “being a man” is about and since his sensitivity and reflexes are intact, he is able to have sex -- with help.  He is also highly moral and engages the therapist with the support of his priest, who is the equivalent to the woman’s journal.

The poet and the surrogate cannot help loving each other, which shows a kind of moral ideal, since sex without love can be commercialized and vulnerable to corruption by violence and stigma -- but they both pay an emotional price since the relationship cannot be carried through.  There is a context of hired caretakers: one woman is rough and resentful; one woman falls in love but will not let it continue; and one woman is capable of keeping her own private relationship strong while not rejecting or criticizing the man.  One caretaker is a man, sympathetic.  The person who has the hardest time may be the priest, though the woman’s husband loses his cool. The priest has the burden of explaining why it is good to love each other and each other’s bodies, even if  getting married and having babies won’t happen.

So considering these two sources of thought and image about humans, one an indie film and one a scientific or at least statistical study, is enormously enlightening. The most interesting kind of porn for me to think about is “slash” porn, which I thought at first was about knifing people.  Instead it is about the typographical mark that joins two words.  Slash porn is about the “other,” particularly when the “other” is different in interesting ways (like sidekick Westerns.)  The first ones I ever heard of, before I heard the term “slash,” was lesbian Kirk/Spock erotica, maybe to address the problem of relationships in which one person is all body and the other is all mind.  

The two researchers say that the most basic “slash” in both genders is dominance/submission and that the two forces are actually embodied in the brain by two different “centers”.  BOTH men and women have BOTH centers but tend to favor one over the other, sort of like being right-handed.  Men tend towards dominance, women towards submission.  The culture defines what actually “is” dominance or submission.  The researchers did not discuss how the two roles could be mixed, switched back and forth, or rationally negotiated.  Nor did they talk about the difficulties of a person who doesn’t match the culture’s definitions, e.g. the stiff-necked woman, the spineless man.  

At an extreme the result is BDSM: Bondage, domination, sadism, masochism -- concepts taken to be sophisticated except when they are acted out at the expense of children.  Adult/child is a third rail issue in Western society, which means that it is both seductive and despised, and therefore a gold mine if properly commodified as in human trafficking.  Of course, secular/priest and white/Indian are also good potentials for slash fiction and have always been exploited on French postcards.  The kinds of slash explained on Wikipedia are as various as anything else with a cultural component.

People began studying sex about the same time they invented anthropology.  Meadville/Lombard Theological School had a huge collection bequeathed by a sexologist.  (I don’t know whether they dumped it in their recent transition.)  As is my family’s tradition, I read a lot of those books but they were sort of empty: guessing, rumors, irrelevance, stereotypes, sensationalism and very little analysis.  Ogas’ and Gaddam’s method of using internet data plus brain neurology to analyze what goes on at last begins to suggest ways we can create a better world.  But also how we can escape the iron lung of prudery and not-knowing.  Following up on these ideas is fascinating and revelatory.

Oh, and the "slash" in Meadville/Lombard?  Two schools merged and neither one would give up its name.  Actually, Meadville was a theological school, but Lombard, which was Carl Sandburg's alma mater, was only partly theological and included a farrier school -- that's horseshoeing.  There are surely dominance/submission issues here.

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