May 25, 2013
Cristina Nehring on the New Erotic Fundamentalism
Posted on Aug 21, 2009
They would never try, for they know what some of their heterosexual peers have forgotten: that commitment is based not on the violent prohibition of competing contact; it is based not on the erasure of temptation and the criminalization of kindness but on something altogether different. It is based also on love and will, courtship and responsibility. It is also based on the continued quality of the relationship. And my neighbors’ enterprising friendliness not only enriches their community (one of the reasons I live in the Marais is its infectious conviviality), but dramatically enhances the quality of their own relationship. It does so by providing ever fresh material for exchange, and a reminder that both are independent agents—attractive, responsive and not to be taken entirely for granted. Trusted? Yes. Assumed as the other’s birthright? No. In my mind, that is a good thing. The rest of us could do worse than to learn from it.
What happens, though, if there really is an act of infidelity? Full-service physical infidelity, not “emotional infidelity”? The South Carolina-Argentina saga ended, after all, with some days of actual togetherness between the principals—though not as many as one might imagine from the pornographic spite-fest engaged in by columnists and bloggers as a result. In nine years of writing letters—letters rich with biblical quotation, literary discussion, offers of aid to each other’s children, tenderness and hand-wringing about tenderness—Sanford and Shapur managed to see each other for some portion of six days before meeting in the company of Sanford’s spiritual adviser in a New York church with the express purpose of breaking up. Whatever one’s moral judgments of the matter, it is extremely difficult to present this relationship as a sexual orgy.
But that is exactly how it is glossed in the American media. Sanford is a “travelling penis.” His purpose in life was “hot Argentinian f-cking.” It is worth mentioning that the hours he took off to visit Shapur on the famous “state-funded trip” to South America in 2008 came not out of any political activity he was pursuing at the time but out of dove hunting. The people of South Carolina lost nothing at all—but the birds of Brazil got a brief break from the carnage.
It is an existential irony that when an American politician takes time off to kill, his constituents are all applause or indifference. But when he takes time off from killing to love, they are aghast and begin to worry whether it might have cost them anything. Nobody cared that former Vice President Dick Cheney took time out from overseeing the killing of Iraqis in order to frequently kill ducks—not even when he shot a fellow American by mistake in the process—but when a small-state governor has dinner with a South American divorcée, now that’s a scandal.
One of the most tragic aspects of this sort of journalistic lynching is the extreme reductionism about human relationships that it reflects and perpetuates. An interaction that—for all the damage it may have done—probably clocked thousands of hours of letter-writing for each second of kissing, is glossed, simply and confidently, as a “booty call”—an opportunistic groping after “free sex.” Is it not obvious to us that opportunism has a different face? It does not write reams of prose to a person on the other side of the globe and risk public ruin for a few minutes of gratification more reliably obtained in a toilet stall with a magazine—or with a willing groupie on your staff at lunchtime. Women in general are far too much trouble, said poet Philip Larkin to a friend. In the very best of cases you have to take them to a movie and express interest in their career goals and take their phone calls for some time afterward. Larkin himself “would rather stay home with my hand.”
So would others. So would others some of the time. But even Larkin—as his poems occasionally showed—had other aspirations at other moments. Most of us do—or we would not go to the trouble we do to mess up our lives. There would be no allure to the distant bad girl, no myth of the irresistible bad boy, no attraction to hard-to-get mates. As regrettable as we sometimes think such phenomena are, they are also, in a way, reassuring. They demonstrate clearly what we might otherwise forget: that human beings are motivated by more than “free sex.” They long for more than easy gratification. For worse or better, they actually like to work for relationships; to spend time, effort, imagination and—yes—idealism on them.
I wager the following: Even sex is not about sex. Even sex, in many cases, is as much about seizing and offering tangible proof of affection and esteem as it is about the procurement of pleasurable spasms. Those spasms are easy to come by if they are what you’re after. But few of us seek them where they are most easily accessible. Most of us stray farther and wider than ever the desire for physical pleasure would sanction. For all of our cynical posturing and occasional self-incrimination we are a hell of a lot more romantic than we say we are. We are a hell of a lot more interested in intimacy and earned closeness than we are asked to believe by the New Erotic Fundamentalists.
The New Erotic Fundamentalists would call Tristan himself a pig. They would call Isolde a slut who couldn’t find her dildo in time to avert political catastrophe. They would call Romeo—who flouted family to embrace his soul mate—a self-indulgent sop with “pants on fire.” Ultimately, the new erotic fundamentalism stems from a failure of the imagination. It leads, moreover, to a failure of reality—to a turning back of the clock on social progress and gender liberation and human trust. It leads us into a land where university professors cannot close the door during office hours; employers and employees cannot pay each other a heartfelt compliment, and married people cannot joke, work, sympathize or commiserate with members of the opposite sex. It brings us back to burqas and barriers, scarlet letters and scaffolds.
There is still time to turn back. The price, admittedly, is perfect safety. But the prize is freedom, equality and the possibility of love. It’s our choice.
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