The Problem With Sex Scenes

CONTENT WARNING: Discusses sex and the erotic, and mentions rape, peripherally.

I've recently read several books with very vivid sex scenes: Summit Avenue, which is by the way, a BEAUTIFUL book, and Memoirs of a Beatnik, which quite possibly is the most sex-soaked book I've ever read in my life (No, I've never read the Marquis de Sade, and Sacher-Masoch did a lot more TALKING about sex then actually having it, in what little I read). This has me thinking about the sex scene as an art form - I don't read a lot of modern lit, so this is probably simply because my normal books don't HAVE a lot of explicit sex in them (though I have often thought it'd be really interesting to see how, say, Charlotte Bronte or Elizabeth Barrett Browning would write a sex scene). As such, the things I say here are probably kind of naive and obvious. I apologize.

To summarize my feelings, it is interesting to me that, when one hears the words 'good sex scene', one assumes that this means the scene referenced must be erotic. I don't know, I guess that sounds silly. But let me say it a different way: If I say the words 'good wedding scene', that could be something solemn, something funny, something sad even. We accept that 'wedding' is a very complex topic, that it is a canvas to express something larger, rather than simply to express the idea of the ideal wedding. The title 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' is intriguing, quite simply, because one expects that if there are four of them, that each will be wildly different in emotional tenor. 'Four Sex Scenes and a Funeral' has a different effect (and what a movie that would be...).

I think this, in part, has to do with the relative youngness of the respectable literary sex scene. I know that is an arguable statement, but I would submit that while sex has been written about explicitly likely since the dawn of writing, it has not been always, particularly in the western world, accepted as a part of the palette of the general audience storyteller. If Wuthering Heights were written now, it would be more explicit, I would venture to say, and if most books today were written a hundred years ago, they would be less. Sex Scenes written before the modern era, in fact, seem to revel in their prurience. Even in 1969 when Memoirs of a Beatnik was written, the very explicit sex scenes feel defiant, and rebellious, the author thumbs her nose at the literary establishment every time she says describes a man's penis. Of course, at times now, this can seem a little tiresome, a little bit like the author is being self-indulgent even, but this is the lens of time in large part: a woman writing an explicit description of losing her virginity or having sex with other girls at college in 1969 was a truly rebellious act. And so di Prima quite frankly tries to make the scenes as erotic as possible, to grab the reader and say 'yes, sex is, in fact awesome, and it's awesome whether or not you are a nice nuclear family doing it quietly in your two twin beds pushed together, it's awesome in a hovel of a garrett in New York, or in a field in Connecticut, it's awesome when it's happy and it's awesome when it's sad.' The statement 'sex is kinda awesome' is no longer an entirely controversial one (though there is conversation to be had there) - one can imagine it on a t-shirt, in fact. Sex feels nice, we have, as a culture, come to terms and accepted that.

But, then, I think to an extent, this is still what we've been trained to expect of a sex scene. I speak only anecdotally, here, and I do not know if this is universally applicable, but I would suggest that most children's first emotional exposure to sex (a clinical, academic exposure perhaps preceding it, if they are taught the birds and bees lesson), is usually a prurient one: it's sneaking a book off your parent's shelf, or making out with your significant other and having it go too far, or hearing a dirty joke, or seeing a pornographic movie or picture. Sex is something that we have taught our children must be ignored or sniggered over. So, when those children grow up and become the target market for a movie, a novel, whatever, when they see a sex scene coming, they expect it to titillate and excite. And so, to a certain extent, I think this is how sex scenes end up being written. There is a tendency to describe bodies, instead of minds, sensations instead of emotions, there is a tendency to fantasize (in one direction or another, not always positive), a tendency to glamourize.

And this is not to say that a truly erotic sex scene is not a powerful and worthy thing. Sexual longing and release are very powerful, real parts of the human experience, and at least somewhat close to universal ones. But, at the same time, I think that we discourage the exploration of other parts of what sex is to us, more specifically even, what consensual sex is. A teenager masturbating can be sexually powerful for them, or it can be sort of embarrasingly funny, and these two ideas are expressed pretty widely in films, for instance, but it can also be a lot of other things, solemn and self-searching, angry, self-absorbed, deluded. Masturbation can be very poignantly lonely, or it can be very poignantly comforting. A sex scene between two consenting adults can be very sexy or very awkward, it can also be very upsetting without ever being a rape or a power game, or it can be very exhausting, or very chummy and friendly, or it can be very horrifying, or introspective, or distracted, or sad, or triumphant, or disappointing, or any number of other things. I have had more scenes in my life that fit the outliers (positive and negative), personally, than fit the standard story of no-strings erotic or hilarious. Sex's resonance is not simply that it gives you something snigger over, and it's not just that it feels nice.

I understand that there are authors, directors, screenwriters, actors, etc that go to express this (the song 'First Orgasm' by Amanda Palmer is an interesting example), and I also don't want to suggest that the world just needs more sex scenes - I don't mean to suggest that sex is the ONLY reservoir of emotional resonance. Thank god, it isn't, or we couldn't ever be friends without nudity ensuing. And I think we are much better at, for instance, exploring the intricacies of the buildup to sex, the long courting period (I know Amanda hated it, but I found Fingersmith to be an excellent example of this, or the above-mentioned Summit Avenue, for a wonderfully sentimentalist take on it). I think the responsibility lies on us, as readers, honestly, to make a dialogue about sex scenes that goes past joking or discussing the erotic (both of these being fine in their place, but we need to do MORE than that, you know?). I've had haunting, powerful conversations with people about other scenes in books, but sex scenes, we shy away from - or we say, simply, there was a 'really great sex scene', which the reader, generally, interprets to mean 'it was very erotic.' Of course, this is difficult, because I know that there are people who, with very good reason DON'T feel comfortable discussing a sex scene. But, we overcome that in other places - warnings about spoilers come to mind, or warning at the beginning of the review that we're discussing rape, so that we don't traumatize someone who has been a victim in the past. But, you know, I think it would be possible to have a really fascinating, enlightening conversation about, again, say, the sex scene in Fingersmith, or those in the film Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, or the sexual scenes in Tender Morsels (and not just the rape ones, either).

Anyway, just a thought. Perhaps I'm just naive.

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The Pros of Millenialism

As someone who probably talks too often of having wrestled with God (unlike Jacob, God did not grab the small of my thigh, and I didn't take him down), there is an (admittedly somewhat natural) assumption when people speak with me that there are things that I will not like to hear about. And honestly, this is very, very sad for me (if nothing else, it makes me a little sorry that I must throw off an air of snubbiness, or a lack of understanding, or aggression, or something).

When I started school, a very long time ago, I originally went in order to study religion, mythology, folklore, because the WAY people grapple with the ineffables of the universe is beautiful to me - in all the many incarnations of it. I am aware the reticence on the part of the speaker is my fault:

  1. I have my biases, and I can be very rude and snarky. 
  2. I have a tendency to feel uncomfortable in a situation where people don't think well of me, so I'll say some very stupid things to get approval of the people around me. 
  3. I have a problem with latching onto the idea of a story in a situation, and not being able to accept things that contradict it. 

I know these things, and I promise, I'm suitably ashamed of them. I do my best to fight them, but I know they make me less than a trustworthy person to talk about the affairs of heart and soul. I get that.

But like I said, I think a lot of things that I may not believe can be beautiful, I think the way someone else may believe these things is intricate and beautiful.

I grew up in a faith with a strong millenialist piece - I was a Mormon as a child, and the very name of the church reflects it's sense of history: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Growing up, the idea that history was reaching it's pinnacle, that we lived in the fulness of times, was ingrained in every lesson we were taught. Each week, we would sing hymns, some the same old songs most Protestant faiths have sung (Rock of Ages, for instance), intermixed with Mormon hymns, which seemed to all speak to the coming day of glory when Christ Jesus would return to the earth:

How Blessed the day when the lamb and the lion,
Shall lie down together without any ire,
And Ephraim be crowned with his blessing in heaven,
And Jesus descend in his chariot of fire

These lessons, growing up, were not impersonal theology, they weren't the sort of things one learned if one was interested. They were the bread and butter of everyday activity. Mormon boys should be missionaries when they are 19, because the end of the world is at hand, and God calls forth these boys as an army to spread his gospel to as much of the world as possible before his second coming, for instance. We needed to live exemplary lives, because the world was drawing to it's close, when god is sending his greatest souls, and Satan is setting his worst traps. We sang, forever, of being part of the Army of God: "Onward Christian soldiers," "We are as the Army of Helaman," "Holding aloft, our colors, we march to the glorious dawn."

And there was something glorious, and stirring and powerful in all this, - Religion is not just a search for understanding, it's also a search for relevance. There is something in life, at least for me, that strikes one with a feeling of extraordinary smallness, something that makes you realize how insignificant your actions are in one sense. Millenialism reminds you, that what you do is urgent, by placing a timeline on it. There is no someone else who will come later and do what you leave undone, because there is no time for someone else to come. Christ has saved you, one of his chosen souls, for these last days, because he can depend on you. And that's something you can hear, that can make you feel valuable in spite of any evidence to the contrary. I remember, very strongly in my life really WANTING to believe this.

There is something in that urgency, that compression of time, that can give a clarity and direction to life. The reason, at least to me, that many people could believe in the Mormon church that there was a prophet, and believe that the laws he gave were from God, and worth following, was because the compression of history into it's final moments gives a feeling of perspective. To many of the Mormons I knew who were most faithful, it was easy for them to empathize with history, to feel for Moses, or Daniel, or Jesus, or Martin Luther, or the Founding Fathers more directly than many of us can feel for someone that far from us. Millenialism, because it forces the viewer to broader and broader spectrums, CAN make someone very sympathetic, very compassionate.

It doesn't, always, of course. As with any powerful idea, it can be turned to good or evil, and Millenialism is very easy to twist into cruel, hateful dogmatism - after all, it is just easy to compress history into a story of a hateful god as a loving one, I'm afraid, and I have found, souls tend to live the way they imagine their gods (whether this be cause or effect being a discussion I'm not smart enough to have).

And here's the part where you'll laugh at me, I had this idea finally congeal into something recognizable, a few weeks ago while listening to Queen and David Bowie singing 'Under Pressure' (Hey! You can't judge me!). And the reason is this: because the idea of millenialism, the song reminded me, is not something that is limited to the religious. Secularly, Millenialism is a huge part of our culture, and has been for years. The lyrics of Under Pressure are not particularly unique:

'Cause love's such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
Under pressure

"Edge of the night", "Our last dance", and even the title itself, stirs up in my mind the same feelings I got when I imagined history when I was trying to be a Mormon, this sort of defiant teetering along the edge of the chasm of the end of history. Mankind, particularly I think since the World Wars and even more so since the Atomic Age, has this terrifying, invigorating sense that, actually and truthfully, we really have arrived at the end of history, in some sense. Our history has reached a point of extinction, of course for the gloomy reasons (nuclear weapons, global warming, engineered diseases, etc). But, also, in the same way that the Apocalypse promises the Millenium, there is the vague sense (and a powerful and meaningful one, I think), that there really is the hope of a future grandeur. Really, think of it! We live on the edge of the future! We can grow (mechanical) wings and fly, we can literally move mountains, we live in a greater perpetual level of cooperation and interconnection, in spite of everything else, than the world has ever seen! Think of it, for just a moment, 50 years ago, when my mother was alive, blacks rode on the back of the bus. Heck, 10 years ago, a man could be ARRESTED in Texas for having sex with his boyfriend. 20 years ago, I would never know any of you, and 10 years, I PROBABLY would never have known you. The world is bubbling into the grand struggle for the greatest dreams humanity has ever had, a struggle that really IS very much one between, if not the load words 'good' and 'evil', with their feeling of exclusion, at least between progress and destruction, between the eyes that look forward and the annhihalation of the void.

And of course, this is all nonsense in another sense. In another sense, we all ALWAYS think of ourselves as being that moment. In the year 1000, people believed the millenium was coming, too. In the 50's, people thought they'd be flying rocket cars by the time they died. The world is forever coming to it's end, and forever being born. But, that's not just part of the human mental disease. It's not a weakness - that sense of urgency is, in one way, a gift, it's the root of the urge to go forward, to leap forever into the void. Yes, when we leap into the dark, the lights turn on and we find the new road is the same as the old. But without that millenial urge, that sense of the finality of life, we'd never be able to leap into it, it would be too terrifying and hopeless. Without the sense of future, the world is just what the news always say: an endless progression of crime reports, wicked leaders, greedy corporations, murder, mayhem, the threat of destruction of ourselves, of the very world itself. The sense of apocalypse is unavoidable - the sense of a millenium, that is a choice.

About a year ago, we had some friends over, and we were talking about Mormonism, and I told them, I still have an affection for it in part of me, and when they asked me why, I said, Mormonism tells you there is something worth dying for, and there is nothing worth living for that isn't worth dying for. I wonder, still, if that's true. Of course, the problem is that if something is worth dying for, to some it is worth killing for, or hating for, or mocking for, or, if there is such a thing, sinning for. And that's the great balancing act of life, I guess - do we risk greatness, or settle for fineness? Do we fight for what we think is justice, knowing our own minds to be imperfect, unjust? That's the call of the Millenialist streak in us, whether we believe in God, or not, it's that streak that whispers to us that this day, this hour, this moment, is the very last of it's kind, this instant is the last chance to do what we might do this instant, and that this isn't a curse, it's a blessing.

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The Sound of Drowning

I read a fascinating article, today, on drowning. I highly recommend it both for the fascination of it, and for the fact that, if you are ever near the water, it is decidedly useful information to know (which, in a story about bad things that can happen to your kids, is a rarity, being far more often drowned out by 'you should be frightened' and 'we are heroic for telling you so'. Sorry, don't mean to snark my bias).

But what was interesting to me was the concept (which I had learned before, but never so vividly) - that drowning, a kind of death that (at least for many people) is inescapably connected with panic, is, more or less, silent. The silence is, in fact, one of the best signs that something is wrong. Which of course, made me consider, the deeper implications of that, the metaphorical parallels. People who are going to commit suicide withdraw sometimes, people who are being abused can become uncommunicative, people who have been traumatised can do the same (this is not a professional statement, I know that people react in very different ways, and may do just the opposite, so forgive me the generalization). But silence, generally, is a sign that something is wrong.

That's interesting to me, because what we, as humans, do (or at least *I* as a human do) is to begin to be afraid of that silence. In a joking way you hear this from parents all the time - 'Those kids are too quiet, they must be up to something.' But in a more serious way, someone who is silent makes other people uncomfortable, makes them want to fix things, to make them not silent. This is good, on the one hand, of course, because it's an instinct that, when our children suddenly stop talking, makes us probe to see what's wrong, to try to offer help. On the other hand, we sometimes confuse things, and become afraid of the silence, in and of itself, instead of the lurking horror of the silence.

The drowning article illustrates this, to me, perfectly: the silence is a sign of distress, but it is also a natural reaction, and one that developed because it is the best way for an individual to try not to drown - they stick the arms out and push themselves up, instead of flailing wildly, they take deep gulping breaths instead of wasting their oxygen screaming, etc. The silence is a coping mechanism, a response where the body takes over because it knows the brain has gone (quite literally in this case) beyond it's depth.

Silence, in a psychological situation, then seems to serve the same purpose, for me. If I am miserable, I grow more and more silent. I've seen this same silence in others, and I know it can be unnerving, threatening even. It makes you uncomfortable. It leaves you in a difficult place. But the problem, for those of us who are the 'lifeguards' (because we all need to be each others lifeguards), is to know how draw the person into shore, without panicking them, or having them pull us down with them - by the time silence comes, reason has been compromised, after all. It has to be, because the silence is a deeper, more bodily response than the very human, reasonable search for daily validation and help that accompanies frustration and problems, normally. Silence comes, instead, when we approach a profundity so deep that we know that to move, to twitch, even to speak is to risk teetering into it. There is a slow work of moving the self, quietly, quietly, back toward a firmer ground, to seek a better crossing than the one that's almost swallowed us. And sometimes, that moving is beyond us, sometimes we are truly drowning, we are, in fact, beyond our depth and struggling to bob up just long enough for a lifeguard to snatch us from the water.

But, in that case, there is two things to remember. First of all, the silence itself is not the true source of our horror. The silence is the sign of a human response, of a living self trying to cling on until reason can be refound. Treating the silence, itself, gets the sort of strained, vague responses that probably everyone has gotten from someone when they know something is wrong: "Oh no, I'm fine, just tired," "Don't worry about it, just a headache," "I'm sure it'll pass." This isn't evasiveness on the part of the drowning person, it's the confused, teetering effort to do nothing too drastic or severe, for fear of losing balance. After all, they don't know if you are looking to find the source of the silence, or looking to just end the silence.

The second thing to remember is that the profundity is real, even if invisible, and terribly, terribly deep, and that with two people, one of them drowning, there is only one person who has the chance of a full access to their faculties. Just as a drowning victim can pull a lifeguard down with them in their panic, and kill them both, a silence disturbed can hurt both parties. On the one hand, this is why it's good to pull in professional lifeguards sometimes (psychologists, psychiatrists, a suicide help line, a teacher at school, a social worker, etc). On the other, it is also a little reminder of the awesome, humbling power that some of us DO have, to draw people up from the depths. The ability to draw someone in from that brink, or at least to give them a life ring long enough to find a lifeguard is an awesome one, one that we forget.

Finally, and perhaps a bit more troublingly, the thing this story made me realize was the great, and terrible beauty of nature itself - not just the sea, though the crushing, silent force of the sea is certainly great and terrilby, but of us, of our human frames, so great, silent, and terrible, able to save us in ways we cannot expect, and destroy us with the same innate force. When Emily Dickinson said her life was like a loaded gun, this is what it means to me - we are each of us a coiled spring of great, terrible force, force that can save and destroy, ourselves or others. A force like that should be nurtured, trained, applauded, kept sacred - and treated with a healthy dose of sober respect.

As a final note, please do not think I mean this as a subtle commentary on anyone who has dropped me a line or said hello over the last little while when I haven't been very talky. Rest assured, I'm not feeling totally silent, just kind of agoraphobic, and the big, big room of the internet is just a bit intimidating right now. Thank you very much for everyone who DID drop me a line. If I were Emily Dickinson, I would have sent you each a cake or a flower, and a poem. I can't bake very well, and I have a black thumb, and my poems are grouchy and far between, so I virtual hug will have to do.

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