Category Archives: Longer posts

Desire 3: Love, sex and the body

I was thinking a little about the axiom: women use sex to get love, and men use love to get sex. I don’t agree with this, so immutable and tied, for it confines us to our bodies, and is inaccurate, yet it is one of those pieces of folk wisdom which many people can find evidence for, if they observe men they know and women they know in their own lives. One can always find evidence for such blanket statements if one looks for it, especially statements such as this one which depends for its truthfulness on information about the inner lives of others; such inner lives cannot be fully known, only guessed at through the observation of actions, and such observation is narrowed by one’s own preconceptions of the meaning of any action. In short, we tend to judge others most fully by the way we might act in such and such a situation: nevermind that the conception we have of our own intentions is less than fully understood, we remain under the impression that we understand ourselves, and without thinking, by extension we become convinced that we understand others. When gender is involved, so many people become convinced that an absolute binary of difference exists that they assume the other to be simply a reversal of themselves. Indeed, most myths about love celebrate and exaggerate that distance, the mirror. Lovers self-consciously play the part, for it is thrilling to interact with one’s shadow; it teaches us things about ourselves that we didn’t know.

And what of the body, sex and the emotions? Here’s what I think. Love and sex are separate. They may be experienced separately, or together. Sex, or the desire for sex, is a desire for a basic physiological fact: orgasm. The body seeks pleasure for its own sake. If desire is thought of as a basic drive, an intimate aspect of one’s presence, then there is no imperative to fulfil this ‘need’ with another person – physically, the body can be satisfied by itself. One might believe that physically the experience is better with another person – sex better than masturbation, in qualitative terms – but in purely physical terms, it is the same. If a person is starving, any food will suffice to stop the hunger pangs.

The desire to have sex with another person is sometimes assumed to be simply the urge to reproduce. I disagree. Correlation is not causation: the reproductive aspect of sex is more accurately described as a byproduct. Certainly this knowledge is not a secret and is, I believe, a strong factor in the many laws, cultural and religious taboos surrounding sex. If the reproductive urge was all there was to sex, then it would not be so feared, or so regulated.

However, the very fact that the human race has not died out or that most people would disagree with the statement that masturbation is sufficient reveals something. Sex is not just purely physical. Actually, it is both physical and something else. The experience of orgasm is not simply felt through the body. It involves the mind. If you conceptualise the body and mind as separate, then this means both must be involved in orgasm. If you conceptualise the body and mind as two aspects of one source (or perhaps, something which is felt as two distinct aspects by us but which is essentially the same) then this fact will be evident anyway. But I am talking about how such things (mind/body) are described in our language, and they are described distinctly, separately, most of the time.

Most people describe sex as better than masturbation because there is something unusual – to the subjective experience of our conscious minds – about the way we experience orgasm. The dissolution of the conscious self has a profound effect on us, we who are not used to experiencing that. It is not the default of consciousness. Mysticism, and certain esoteric practices seek this same dissolution, which is also the experience of the dissolution of time; still, it seems that the average human is not born to this mode of thought, but must go towards it. One may speculate about those people who cannot communicate to us their experience; the mad, the senile, the comatose, the dumb; persons who we describe, perhaps erroneously, as locked into their bodies, their bodies a kind of prison.

One effect this dissolution of the self has on some is the radical opening of a more whole consciousness. I don’t mean that this effect is necessarily lasting, though it might be for individuals. I mean that if you consider one of the effects of civilisation as the repression of emotions – the socialisation of children teaches them to control their emotions – then such emotions are not always ‘experienced’ in the way that we are capable of experiencing them. Love is one such emotion. By repressing our feelings towards fellow humans, the diffuse love one might feel for all humankind becomes focused, and the more repressed it is, the more powerful it becomes in terms of intensity. I think this is why the love we might feel for one other person may be experienced as the most powerful emotion of our lives. The traditional themes of love have tended to recognise how close it is to destruction, how fearful it can be in terms of its uncontrollability, and yet, how enduring it might be if some semblance of control can be exercised on it’s force. Those who have not experienced the love they sense they contain are often suspicious, and careful, and guarded; trusting no-one, lest another person loose the potential within them. This sense of love paints it as finite, when in fact it is not; one need not guard it, one cannot lose it. In fact, if allowed free rein, love can only widen and deepen, encompassing more – more time, more people. Love is not actions, love is not an intention, love is an emotion only, though its effects on people’s behaviour may be seen daily.

As I said, sex may be experienced without love. To love another person, one must become vulnerable; the dissolution of the self can make one vulnerable; in this state two people may become intimate, and then they may experience love. It is not, however, a given, whether one longs for it with all one’s heart or despises the thought of it and disparages it openly. It might happen though; just as you cannot guard love, neither can you totally guard against it, although many try. In the case of sex, people can try and use hate to guard against love, if they are really afraid of it. Hate and love act in similar ways; both require an object, and both focus the consciousness. There isn’t so much a ‘fine line’ between them, I think the reason this is a common saying is because they are used is place of one another sometimes – hate is used for love, when the love becomes too painful.

But back to the dissolution of the self. Since sex makes one feel vulnerable, and so does love, many people feel that one thing should follow the other, so it often does. In fact, the experience of both the mind and the body being vulnerable together is an extremely powerful one, and there are long traditions tying sex or love to mystic states as a result. Does it ‘bond’ people? I don’t know. It is a rather extraordinary experience to have with another human being, in fact it seems to speak of a sense that humans are not so distinct from each other as we imagine. If one follows this thought (indeed, many religions such as Buddhism, and many philosophies or works of art are embued with a deep sense of the human race as collective, or the same consciousness) then it makes me wonder if the differences between humans did not become so emphatically marked in our culture in order that we might experience love as this radical return to another part of ourselves. The other transformed into self, and self into other.

One could argue alternatively that since sex is assumed to make a body vulnerable, and vulnerability is believed to be a state in which love might gain a foothold in one’s consciousness, that in fact it is the very FEAR of love that causes it to become so associated with sex, or rather one’s sexual partner. Let me explain. If you are commonly a person that does not ‘love’ many people that you meet, as are most people, since we do not tend to love strangers, you are actually used to defending your consciousness against that possibility. By love I mean the vulnerable, open heart towards another that causes you to empathise with them, to feel as you imagine they feel, and thus to want to protect them from pain etc. Obviously, the way our society and culture functions kind of depends on this very guardedness towards others, this mistrust, if you like, this wariness of strangers. We learn that each must first of all protect the bodily self from harm, and in a world which regulates itself with violence (directly or ultimately) this is a lesson every human being learns in early childhood, and rarely or never forgets. So one cannot go around loving strangers, indeed the survival of our own body, we are told, depends on it; and in a world where everyone believes this, it becomes true. To open oneself, bodily, mentally or spiritually, may result in harm, and pain, and in a world which also teaches us to cause harm and pain to the vulnerable as a method of protection then it is the foolish child who does not learn that it is very dangerous to be open, even a little.

So most people are guarded against love, to a greater or lesser extent. But I think part of us desires to experience it. I don’t know why, maybe because we all want to feel fully alive, maybe there is no other reason than that a person with limbs may desire to stretch them and use them. We have a sort of calling to feel all that it is we suspect ourselves to be capable of feeling; the calling within us is so strong that we may experience a disassociation with any strong emotion, as if the emotion came from without, and we were ‘taken over’ by it.

The two lessons – vulnerability as danger, love as a powerful outside force – coalesce in the human mind to produce the effect of falling in love with the person you have sex with. For some people, the very experience of being vulnerable might be enough to convince them they are in love…they say they’ve ‘never felt’ this way before etc etc yet love is undefinable, and there is a lot of confusion over what one is supposed to feel. For many, the very fact they are questioning their own experience is enough to convince them that they are ‘in love’ – and in fact, this allowance on their behalf may well result in them opening their heart to love. They have been vulnerable in the presence of another, and they have not been harmed; what does it mean? Of course, there are also many people who will not allow themselves to be vulnerable in the presence of another…depending on the degree of recognition of the way orgasm acts upon the mind, they react differently to sex. If they recognise its power, but are very resistant to the idea of being vulnerable, then they must use another emotion to block the possibility etc. So we see, with some, the conflagration of sex with violence (because strength must be used to counter vulnerability) or of love with hate (because one cannot love what one finds contemptible. To find someone contemptible, you must first close your heart to them, and block off all possiblilty of empathy.)

It might sound like I am saying that it is either love and sex together, or some sort of faulty sex. I am not. I am saying there are many variations and possibilities between people who have sex, but it is never purely physical, unless one absolutely blocks off the idea of the other as human. This is NOT in itself a necessarily damaging act – to either party. In a benign sense, it is like a more sensual form of masturbation. I believe two lovers might agree on this act beforehand – it goes on all the time, and if both people wish to simply focus on their own physical pleasure, it can be mutually satisfying and enjoyable. One can objectify another person in this way, it does not have to be inherently degrading, though admittedly it is difficult to be temporary about it, i.e. have sex with someone you have imagined as a body only, and afterwards regard them once again as equally sentient.

It does seem though, that this sort of sex is the sort which makes many people angry, or has the potential to cause harm. If both people are not cognisant of the type of experience, then it may be said to be exploitative. There are all sorts of things which people do which they may claim is simply objectification of the other, but in fact is more akin to the methods discussed above for protecting the self from harm. A person may wish to simply experience sex as physical, but in fact be secretly terrified of vulnerability, and so experience confusion, feelings of violence etc. Humans are multifarious.

(This is part 3 of a series of thoughts on desire: part 1 here, and part 2 here.

Identity politics and the internet

I’ve been thinking about this recently, what with the whole “woman attacked for daring to be a woman” most-recent-ish example in blogland.

What’s in a word, what’s in a name, what’s in a label? Aren’t they almost always for other people, so that their identification of you might be a little easier? Strange, it seems, the effect of the internet on identity politics. The internet, virtual; famously anonymous; people can be who they want, etc etc. Yet with identity politics, people have been very certain to establish exactly what their credentials, and identities are; helpfully adding selected details re personality, interest groups, political affiliations etc to their profiles.

Now on one level, this is because most people, writing blogs about a particular topic for example, are keen to speak to others who understand that of which they speak. This is crucial for things like fandom, finding others who share your interests etc. If you want to discuss the finer points of post 1977 punk groups emerging from the Estonian music scene, in English, then perhaps it helps to find friends and like-minded folk who are happy to discuss such things. Indeed, the internet is a valuable resource for people who previously have felt isolated or alone in their obsession/interest/whatever. Notoriously, the internet can connect two people with the most seemingly random fetish, although this is often a happy pairing or more, the media tends to only report on the shock! Scandal! aspects, like the famous cannibal case in Germany. I have a friend who argues that the internet ‘creates’ more paedophiles – or at least encourages people with taboo fantasies to feel somehow ‘supported’ in their actions when carrying those fantasies out in the real world. I disagree – I don’t think that one can ‘accidentally’ become a paedophile through the internet, or that the existence of other ‘supporters’ is necessarily a major factor in people’s minds when committing acts. It’s an interesting argument, though, since people can influence each other for bad and good – whether bad influences actually intensify each other to create more scope for bad acts I’m not sure. There’s an argument which goes, the evil of the Third Reich was so huge and hugely impacting due to the ‘chemistry’ that occurred between Hitler, Himmler, Goebbals and a few others – each man had evil in their heart, but the largeness of the evil that resulted was due to them knowing and redoubling the energy of that evil, through the interaction that occurred between the three of them.

I wonder about all of this, and the extent or influence such interaction has, and the way the virtuality of the internet mediates and affects that influence.

It’s a micro- (or should that be macro-?) cosm of the world, and just as people feel freer to express their opinion, especially if anonymous, so they feel freer sometimes to express their rage and hatred towards others. Or rather, towards the IDEA they have of those ‘others’ who have a virtual presence…

I also wonder about the way this ‘virtual’ world works to exclude certain people – the obvious exclusion of the poor, the illiterate, people who have no access to the web as well as less obvious things like the fact that the original language of the net is English, most things seemed designed for the already ‘savvy’ and the younger, more technologically educated and so on. So to say it is an exact mirror, or –cosm would be very incorrect; the third world especially, is vastly vastly underrepresented and actual, real-life ‘global’ perspectivism is elided.

But back to the issue of identification. Since it’s been much in the news etc re: woman bloggers, it’s a good time to address the issue of identification. Now, a lot of feminists have pointed out that there is a problem with women who don’t want to be called ‘feminist’ yet acknowledge that they believe in gender equality and in fact, benefit from the effects of the feminist movement. Since feminists hold equality to be their ideal, and the ideal of what feminism stands for, understandably they find it annoying that women don’t identify as such. It’s kind of a semantic issue as well, as feminism is often mis-represented in the media as being about hating men or whatever. I won’t get into the whole argument here. I just want to make the point that for ME, the idea of feminism being that women and men should be equal, and the professed goal of, say, men’s rights that men and women should be equal, seems to be subsumed into the idea of human rights – that all humans should be equal and so on. The differences come not from the goals, but from the identification of the problems impeding those goals, and the solutions offered…

I am very wary of saying that I *am* any “ism”. I don’t know why this is, but all my life I’ve held that the overarching thing is to ‘question, question, question.” Never just accept on faith what other people tell you to be true. Examine the evidence, go with your experience, even your feelings, but always question. This is not to say that one shouldn’t listen – as long as it’s with an open mind. (This tendency …possible contributing cause to me being bisexual vol. XVII no. 734).

However with something like feminism, I have to look at the historical evidence. Have you ever asked yourself or been asked by someone, “If you could have lived in any era during history, when would it be?” It’s fascinating question. My thoughts on this go something like: well, am I going to answer that question as myself? As in, would I be ‘me’ as I am now, physically, just born in a different time and place? Because, quite honestly, if I think about it the fact that I am female always comes into play! As a woman, I don’t think I can answer by saying any time apart from the present one. As much as I might have liked to live during certain fascinating or romantically viewed time periods – let’s face it, if I was anything other than a rich white man during most of them I would have probably ended up as a slave, a chattel, or at best, the wife of a rich white man!!! (I mean, there’s people who argue that things haven’t changed all that much now…) There might have been other times when it would have been good to be a woman, but I’m really not aware of them, what with history books being all coy on that subject and all.

So the reason for positive changes during MY lifetime, anyway… often, if not always, has those people to thank who promoted feminism in the past, who promoted the idea of equality. For me, directly, it was feminism, because I am a woman. For me also, it was those who argued AGAINST racial stereotypes and all sorts of profiling, which led to the eventual fact that I could live my whole life in England without ever encountering any real sort of barrier through racial prejudice. I could not say the same for my parents, who had a bit of it, or my grandparents, who had a lot of it. Our race? Irish. If you read that and thought, “but that’s White so what racial prejudice are you on about? Then my point is kind of proved. Irish used to mean ‘non-white’ or rather ‘non-english’ and this was terribly important to certain people who believed in innate racial differences between the English and the Irish, beliefs which were used in the service of colonisation and exploitation, the eradication of a language and the starvation of a people. The racial scale that was used then has shifted, so now skin colour is the more ‘important’ barometer in the categorisation of races – the scale shifts to whatever it is most convenient at the time. Irish people are now ‘white’, whereas they used to be something else.

Thinking about these historical shifts makes me wonder about myself. Truthfully, I would choose my own life from all the other times in history for the very selfish reason that until this moment in history, I have never been as priviledged as I am now. Yes, I might not be as priviledged as someone richer or male, but I most certainly am priviledged, as is attested by the fact that I can even write that sentence, in English, on the internet.

But this also makes me think about those other people, who, through the accident of fate, are born into bodies and situations which means they are still being excluded. You might well ask: who, exactly, am I talking about? What are they being excluded from? Isn’t it human nature to form cliques?

Who am I talking about: nearly everyone experiences some form of exclusion in their life. In different situations, people may be included or excluded from a group based on their perceived characteristics. This judgement is almost always made in reference to the excluded person being categorised as a member of another ‘group’ – a group that is seen as Other to the first, exclusionary group. Sometimes this is gender, sometimes this is race, sometimes it is sexuality, – all these things, the aspects of the body. Sometimes it is aspects of the person’s culture, their beliefs, religion and so on; aspects of their person. It is often less crudely about one aspect of a person and rather more about the way an individual may stand at an intersection of two or more of the aspects described. These are usually underlying. One can also say this works globally, with the first world and its relation to the rest of the peoples on earth.

What are they being excluded from: essentially, human worth. Recognition of them as a full human being, as infinite and various as any included member. From this follows all exclusions from: culture, history, material goods, care for the body and for the mind, sympathy, empathy and respect.

Isn’t it human nature to form cliques? Whether it is an inherent genetic trait or a learnt behaviour, the fact remains that it is not something which we, as a people, need in order for our species to survive. That is a massive lie which is told by those who hold power. The lie creates it’s own truth, and the situation resulting means that if power is reluctantly ceded by the powerful, those who gain power from them have often used it to perpetuate the lie under a different banner… Yet one has to remain optimistic in the fact that this is NOT inevitable, just likely…you will have to decide what is more important in the endeavour to live – safety, or truth? Also, if you conceptualise all power AS something to be ceded you acknowledge the fact that there is only one source of power. This is probably erroneous and in itself, creates an intensification of power. What do I mean? Well, if you take the issue of race and culture, you can imagine culture as this ‘thing’ – the history of western civilisation, for example, which includes all knowledge about the branches of human endeavour that the west has seen fit to remember. The majority, and in fact the pinnacle of knowledge, is attributed to individuals who are overwhelmingly white, male etc. If one says this ‘is’ culture, objectively, and it’s hard not to when you’re raised in the west, then one can conceive of a culture which may be threatened by the Other (non-white, non-western and so on) – or one can conceive of an attempt to make that culture more inclusive, by widening the net to include contributions from the Other. Yet the original conception of the culture remains the same – the way we think of its origin, its power. This way of thinking affects everything you do because it conceives human interaction as ‘give and take’. Is human interaction necessarily ‘give and take’? I don’’t know; but I do know we live in a capitalist world, where we are encouraged to see things like that, and value everything in terms of worth. One might consider capitalism to be the best of all systems, or the one best suited to human lives, but one must recognise that it is not the only system we can conceive of, and thus might not necessarily be a priori reflective of all that we are.

For my own description of the workings of power, see the post below: A Nightclub called Exclusion.

A Nightclub called Exclusion

It’s always easy for the people who made it through the door, past the bouncers, to slip their coats off and survey the dancefloor inside. Who wants to think about the people left outside? Let’s enjoy ourselves and dance! Life’s unfair – we should just count ourselves lucky to be allowed in and make the most of what we have. Some would say, that the people left outside were just unlucky – they came too late to the party, the dancefloor was already crowded, the bouncers can’t let everybody in otherwise the nightclub would become a fire hazard. Others might say: well, maybe, there’s a reason some people weren’t let in – maybe they were dressed wrongly, or the bouncers knew them as troublemakers…whatever, the bouncers know their jobs, and I’m sure the reasons are for the good of everybody already inside. Besides, it’s just NO FUN being part of a club that lets anyone in, right?

But history itself says: in fact, the rules on being let in are entirely arbitary as far as dress is concerned. The decisions of the Club are made based on what the Club considers to be in its own best interests. You, person dancing away on the dancefloor, may feel that we provide the backdrop and the company for your personal benefit: in fact it is as a business we operate, and as a business we want to exploit you for our own, continued survival.

We, the owners of the Club, know full well that dancing may be done anywhere, and that, truly, music is free, but it is not in our interests to promote that idea; in fact we will squash any mention of it whersoever it occurs. We want you to believe that those things do not ‘count’ unless they occur within our walls, and in order to persuade you to do this we use the usual tricks – official photographers, dazzling reviews, beautiful PRs, fashionable bands etc. We know full well that the ‘experience’ of dancing may well be as or more enjoyable on the outside, particularly if the dancer is (horrors!) unaware or unsympathetic to the idea of our dancefloor as the Only One In Town. We can’t actually make the subjective experience of dancing any different, so, instead, we will work with two main aims – 1. To ensure that the immortality of reputation is ours to bestow; that is, the promise that your dance and dancing will be remembered only if you choose to impress and express on our dancefloor and 2. To undermine your subjective experiences so that you come to believe that there IS only one choice…

The inside/outside nature of the Club is in fact created. The Club encourages all within it to view themselves as the luckiest of the dancers. In fact, to that end, it allows a glass window so that all within may view the envious faces pressed against the window. Of course, any actual violence on the part of the bouncers is always shielded from the Club patrons; it spoils the atmosphere of the party somewhat and is in the worst possible taste. Whispers occur as to its practise, but the official line is: those people were troublemakers wanted to STOP the party and ruin it for everyone, violence was the only solution, they were jealous of everyone inside, they were the ones that attacked the bouncers – crazy! –People are slightly fearful, and glad that the bouncers are there to protect them, and the Club. Yes, outside and waiting in line, those bouncers seemed cruel, scary and prone to violence themselves, but now the people are inside with a few drinks inside them and a warm fuzzy feeling, why! The bouncers are actually diamonds in the rough, no, really, they are the best of men, they are selflessly serving the people! Thank goodness they are there – how frightening to think that one might otherwise have to face those violent crazies who want to come in and harm us, the people!

And in fact this is true. The bouncers DO protect the people. The people inside the Club. Any irrational, violent tendencies are reserved for those bastards outside.

And what OF the people outside? The ones who, on the night in question, were not quite of the right sort? Did they really just come late to the party? Was it a matter of numbers? Were the clothes they were wearing too reminiscent of last year’s fashion, or a little too outré – a bit too ahead of the fashion pack – to be in good taste? After all, maybe they can’t even dance at all! Who’s ever seen them dance, or read a review of their dancing in the papers? Why do they even come, why do they even look through the windows, surely it must be torture to know they don’t have a chance of getting in? Haha, the fools!

But the Club isn’t stupid. In fact, it knows that those faces pressed against the glass, hungry faces, hungry eyes watching every move of the dancers on the dancefloor, are the very clue and reason for its continued success. Without that necessary audience, the dancers might falter in their steps (some do, anyway, put off by the constant gaze of attention). Without the long queue stretching outside, those inside might start to talk about the way the Club seems to be losing its cachet…maybe even ponder aloud to others the possibility of finding a new or better, more exclusive Club…

So the Club does all it can to keep the waiters waiting. Now and then, a bouncer will randomly stroll up and down the line, choosing someone in an apparently unguessable fashion to be pulled out the line and ushered past the rope into the club. Whispers, rumours pass up and down the line: soon it will be our turn, soon the very fact that now and again people from inside leave the Club to go home means that some of us have a chance of getting in if we wait long enough! (Indeed, they DO have a chance – if the Club decides that previously unfashionable puffball skirts are ‘in’ this evening, then puffball wearers will get lucky!)

And who ‘runs’ the Club? Who indeed? The truth is, it’s hard to know. Maybe it is those who have been dancing the longest. The people with reputations. The people with the most to lose.

Maybe there is no one running the Club. Maybe no-one wants to go and find out, in case it’s empty air.

You can imagine the effects this practice has on different individuals. Some inside have been inside for so long they forget there is an outside. They doubt its existence. They can’t imagine it. Some can’t forget it. Some try their best to leave, to disappear. Some are forcibly ejected from the back way – either to vanish without trace, or to attempt to rejoin the endless queue.

Some outside are happy to wait. Some aren’t, and try everything they can to get inside, or rage against the nightclub itself, try to kill the bouncers, try to bomb the Club. They hate the people that are inside for their dancing. It enrages them to see the happy unconcerned faces inside. Or: they hate the bouncers, the cruel arbiters of fate. They refuse to be chosen from the line. Or: they hate the Club itself, and vow to tear it down.

Some lose interest, or wander away, or start to form small dancing groups of their own. Maybe they even plan to build other nightclubs, away from this one. These small experiments are viewed with unspeaking gimlet eyes by the bouncers, who know that the Club cares nothing for insignificant alternatives. As long as the outside dancing isn’t admired through the window by those inside, in which case it will be moved or stopped. The Club is only really bothered if they become aware that another nightclub is gaining in popularity, fearing a loss of their own profits. They fear that the line might dwindle, or people be tempted elsewhere. In such cases, they move in, and employ various tactics to either gain ownership or destroy any rival nightclub. Maybe they’ll silence the music there, or stop the dancing, or infiltrate the club and create scenes inside to discomfit the patrons, scare them away. Or, maybe they’ll simply move in and buy out the management there, and turn the other club into a smaller version of their own. Who knows? Either way, the Club is able to promote itself, eternally, as the Only One in Town…

Desire (part 2 of a series of posts)

Warning: Long Post Ahead…!

For the first post on this topic – in which I looked at a conservative Christian view of desire – see here. Since I wrote that post, I’ve read some other blogs which discussed The Modesty Project (and the associated modesty movement in the US) from a feminist point of view.

I’ve been thinking about something humbition said in his comment: “we are fascinated by the idea that some people have desire that is wrong and can never be put right.” Christianity certainly has an ‘inclusive’ idea of what wrong desire is, but it is not the only religion or historical movement that has attempted to define what is good and what is bad when it comes to our sexual drive. Indeed, as long as there has been ‘civilisation’ there has been some attempt to define this. Ideas about a free sexual society have, historically, tended to arouse anxiety and anger amongst those who claim that the definition and regulation of desire is essential to an ordered lifestyle. Most arguments centre around what constitutes ‘correct’ desire, whether it is correct for oneself or correct for society: the anxiety is often focused on what is ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy.’ Egalitarian approaches have often voiced it as: healthy desire is desire which does not hurt another. There are some problems with this view, but before I look at those, I want to follow up by finishing off some of the thoughts I had previously.

Since in my first post, I demonstrated why the Christian view of desire is important to non-Christians, and informs and influences common western notions on the topic both explicitly and implicitly, in this post I’m going to continue looking at what The Modesty Project tells us about the nature of ‘desire’ and the problems I have with it.

The Modesty Project focuses on types of clothing, although it touches on related issues such as posture, movement etc. Desirous thoughts (which are a sin) are triggered by ‘stumbling blocks’ – the survey seems to suggest that a ‘stumbling block’ is a visual cue that a man feels he is receiving from a woman whenever she dresses immodestly. Certainly the comments indicate that the subjective experiences of sinful desire are visual in nature. So we can see that:

1. This frames Desire as almost purely visual. What about the other senses?

Or should I say – because this is how it is pretty much presented in the survey – MEN are described as purely visual creatures when it comes to desire. This is such a tired old trope, it seems so strange that lots of people seem to take it as real. The many blind men who have no libido are proof after all.

How about HUMANS as visual creatures? Except, we are creatures of all senses, working together; visual clues tend to be the fastest to process (neuroscience theorises right now) but are not dominant in affecting the brain, as far as I understand it. I believe there are different theories regarding the senses and sexual attraction – pheromones etc. My point being – these are THEORIES. There is SOME evidence for all of them, and no conclusive evidence, as far as I am aware, that one and only one sense creates sexual desire. We’re all (most of us) visual. We’re not ONLY visual.

Even if it were to be proved, beyond doubt, that men were more visual, then what about women? In such a biologically determined, heterocentric universe where we are prisoners to our differently-wired libidos, then what causes a woman’s desire? Hearing? Touch? Smell? If women are less predominantly visual, then that suggests a couple of possibilities. One of which is that women are predominantly aroused by another sense – so where are the edicts encouraging the Christian brothers to stop speaking immodestly, or to refrain from wearing a particularly stimulating fragrance or even – according to SOME biologists – sweating in an immodest manner around women? Whatever it is that’s supposed to cause women’s desires, I don’t see anything about curing men’s behaviour.

Oh wait – there is another possiblility. Women’s desires work similarly to men’s but are not so strong, easier to control…or women don’t actually have SEXUAL desires. Just the desire to have kids. Or get married. Or something. Those lesbians, queer and childfree women must be, well, wired a little differently. From actual women. I am saying nothing about the so-called science behind the quasi-evo-psych assumptions, or the ‘common-sense’ assumptions, or even the religious assumptions here. Any scientific theory which claims to tell me how men and women are different, naturally, is bullshit as soon as it assumes two categories. Gender is a continuum. And SO is biological sex. As you can tell, gender essentialist I am not.

2. As this survey kind of points out, it’s not ‘seeing’ something that’s the problem. It’s seeing something which causes you to ‘imagine what’s underneath.’ So, although the ‘trigger’ for desire is visual, the actual experience of desire is, in fact, mental and imaginative.

So…imagination is the problem. Not seeing – not the first look – the visualisation, the second look. This is where I have a problem with the whole ‘don’t trigger my desire’ thing. Nobody can control or stop you visualising but you. In Victorian times, ankles were considered immodest, to the point where table legs were thought so vulgar they needed cloth coverings. Take the modesty argument to it’s conclusion and it will result in some sort of burkha, if not complete restriction of movement for certain people, usually women. It’s an argument that makes no sense. If the sight of a forbidden area causes a man to have ‘immodest’ thoughts, then that woman should cover up, in order to ‘help’ him not have those thoughts. I can see the logic. It’s like an alcoholic asking that people are sensitive and not drink alcohol around him. Oh wait – it’s actually not. Because it’s more like an alcoholic asking everyone else in the world to stop drinking, now and forever, to close all the pubs and ban the drinking of alcohol altogether for all time, because it might be a little bit more difficult for him not to drink, especially if he knows that everyone else is drinking and having fun and it’s all just to spite HIM.

This sort of request is not reasonable. Not only that – it isn’t very feasible. Even with this survey’s narrow sample, there isn’t full agreement on exactly what constitutes immodest dress. Even the woman’s posture – innocently lying on the floor, ‘even when with her friends’ – i.e. the survey has made it explicit that she is NOT DOING IT FOR YOUR attention – some % think this is immodest. The question ‘what do you think of women who flaunt their attractiveness’ – all replied either pity, anger or hate. Not one pointed out that maybe, the purpose of a woman’s dress was nothing to do with them.

But back to ‘seeing’. What about nudists? Why aren’t they rampant sex maniacs? There’s an argument that desire is actually inflamed by the obstacles to it’s satisfaction. That ‘what’s hidden’ has more power than what is exposed. I don’t actually buy into this paradigm – it posits desire as a need or want to possess, consume; and while it may be that partially, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It’s one of many narratives of desire. With this one we’re back to a Victorian sensibility of titillation again. Whatever it is that is forbidden will become that which is desired – in a Foucauldian sense, the transgression is what excites us.

In some way the Christian ideology behind the Modesty Project acknowledges this – that the area, for example, of the breasts is created as sacred (for the husband) and it’s sacredness is due to it’s exclusivity and preservation. Naomi Wolf wrote on this type of desire narrative. I think it becomes true, to some extent, purely because it is a culturally created narrative. We can choose to believe in it, if we want, and it will excite us.

But it isn’t the truth. It might be ‘a’ truth. There are other societies, where showing the breasts is routine. Other areas – the tops of the thighs, the genitals usually, become sacred instead. Erogenous zones become that which a society agrees on; same with taboos. But, maybe, if you believe that the breasts truly are a sacred, sexual part of a woman’s body and should be covered due to the extreme reaction they might provoke in a man, you could argue that in other societies where they are not covered, men have simply seen so many breasts they become ‘devalued’. They lose their power. I return to this: are nudists doomed to never experience desire? Are they desexualised, desensitised through the traditional paradigm of over exposure?

No. In some strange way, desire becomes what we believe it to be. If we believe that seeing a woman’s breasts will inflame us, then it will. If we believe that we can become desensitised through ‘immodesty’ displays, then we will, if we believe that a woman can lose her ‘value’ through her actions sexually then we will cease to desire her for it.

And if, we believe that we are lustful, sinful monsters then maybe we allow ourselves to become so.

The Modesty Survey sends out the old, old message: women are culpable for the sin of men’s desires. (Actually, it sends out the message that teenage girls are responsible.) It purports to be a humble document, seeking to aid these young people in their spiritual celibacy and avoidance of lust. Most of the boys and men interviewed do acknowledge that ultimately, their success or failure at conquering this lust is their own burden. But the way the survey is set up – as questions ‘posed by Christian girls’ – and as results directed as advice towards Christian girls – reads as control.

One of the endorsements for the Modesty project comes from Nancy Leigh DeMoss, who writes on the site:

“The principle of ownership means that my body does not belong to me. It’s not mine. Now, in the last thirty years we’ve had a huge emphasis on a woman’s right to her own body. It’s your body, you do what you want to with it.

Some girls have taken that philosophy to the extreme and have abused their bodies with eating disorders, with substance abuse, with drugs and alcohol. It’s my body; I can wreck it. I can trash it. You know, how sad to think how cheaply some girls consider their bodies.

But to recognize the principle of ownership is to recognize that my body is not my own. It’s not mine; it doesn’t belong to me (1 Cor. 6:19).

You know what, it doesn’t make God happy when you and I take these bodies He’s given us and give them to somebody that they don’t belong to. An immodestly dressed woman is giving away something that doesn’t belong to her. This principle of ownership means that you and I are not free to dress in any way we please.” (Bolding mine).

As far as I understand it, the Corinthians quote is not gender-specific. It speaks to humanity. So why does it always seem to be girls and women who are targeted for these advisory talks?

I don’t actually have a problem with people who are religious, who believe in the bible as a tool for ethical living or as a real message from God. Life is hard and sometimes, I wonder whether spiritual direction isn’t needed in order for us to become better to one another.

But I do have a problem when I see what I believe to be to misuse of religion in order to dominate and control others. At it’s most benign, this is a misguided attempt to help others: it is people translating religious texts, interpreting the spiritual message in judgement, on what they regard as the sinful lives (or sinful clothing) of women. At it’s worst this tendency is responsible for much bigotry, shaming and hatred.

Desire (part 1 of a series of posts)

Desire (De*sire”) (?), v. t.
imp. & p. p. Desired (?); p. pr. & vb. n. Desiring.]
[F. désirer, L. desiderare, origin uncertain, perh. fr. de- + sidus star, constellation, and hence orig., to turn the eyes from the stars.

I’ve been thinking about desire. What exactly is desire? What is sexual desire? Is it a need, a want, a lack, a drive, an instinct, an appetite, some combination of all of these?

It seems to me that throughout history, there have been almost as many theories regarding the origin of sexual desire as there have been individual desires (to say nothing of sexual orientation).

There are philosophical theories, religious theories, medical theories, genetic theories, biological theories, cultural theories and theories based entirely on other theories; but the jury is still out.

One of the things that most theories of desire seem to have in common, however, is that straight male desire is still the frame through which all other desires are seen. In other words, historically men’s desire for women has been the main subject under investigation, the ‘norm’, and other sorts of desires have been considered in terms of measuring the distance between them and the ‘norm.’

Some of the most pervasive theories in Western culture are those which derive from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. With most religions, the theory doesn’t tend to be speculative so much as proscriptive. Christianity often frames desire as ‘lust’, which is a sin, and this has had a massive cultural effect, particularly in the West. It’s sometimes tempting for secularists to dismiss the influence of Christianity on their lives, but these ideas – whether directly linked to religion or not – affect everyone, whether it be as cultural memes in advertising, so-called folk wisdom, even concepts embedded in the language (see this sentence itself: notice the word tempting and how it is used!)

So it wasn’t exactly a surprise to read this the other day.

The Modesty Project is a survey that has been organised ostensibly by Christian teens in America; it describes itself as:

“an exciting, anonymous discussion between Christian guys and girls who care about modesty. Hundreds of Christian girls contributed to the 148-question survey and over 1,600 Christian guys submitted 150,000+ answers, including 25,000 text responses, over a 20-day period in January 2007.”

The results were released on Valentines Day this year. In the advert circulated inviting those groups concerned to take part, it asked Christian girls to submit questions about what modest clothing should be. Christian boys were asked to respond by agreeing or disagreeing to statements; the ‘call-up’ used the unfortunate phrasing:

“This is an opportunity for you to serve your sisters in Christ. Many girls are without fathers or brothers to advise them in this area. They need input from godly men regarding what is appropriate and what is not. It is not unlikely that this survey will go on to be widely read and carefully referenced. On the other hand, as Christian young men in a highly sexualized society, this is an opportunity for us to educate Christian women regarding our inner-battle so that they won’t unwittingly contribute to our struggle. If you have ever wanted to tell a girl to go put on a sweater, this is your chance to do so anonymously.”

Before the survey was even begun, the framing of desire within this context was obvious. In terms of seeing it as a ‘sin’ for unmarried people: women have the responsibility to cover up; men have the responsibilty not to look.
Interestingly, the survey, read as a whole, creates a sort of cognitive dissonance. OK, so it points out it should be used as a ‘resource’ rather than as ‘rules’ – but presumably it is aimed at those young women who are seeking some sort of guidance in the area of dress.

Here’s some of the answers to the statement “Girls should always wear clothes that show little body definition” (41% disagreed):

“Always” is an awkward word. A dress that makes a girl look like a girl is feminine. A dress that makes her look like she is for sale is immodest. And a girl should wear what her husband/father wishes. ” (40-49)

“No. God made the human body in such a way that, while certain aspects of the body don’t need to have unnecessary attention drawn to them, it is not a shameful thing. Thus, it is not necessary for women to actually hide the body that God has given them, even if they need not accent it.”(19)

“Here’s my personal rule: If I can’t tell she’s a woman, she’s gone too far. It’s perfectly fine that I can tell she has breasts, for instance, but that doesn’t mean I want to know their exact shape. However, if God wanted every woman to be shapeless, he wouldn’t have bothered giving them shapes in the first place.” (40-49)

“Clothing with a body definition helps girls to stay feminine. God created guys to appreciate feminine beauty.” (19)


OK – so these answers are telling me ‘the female form is a thing of beauty, created by God, and should not be hidden, or at least not entirely…

But then there’s the question “How do you feel about girls who purposely flaunt their bodies?” (I want to ask: what is the exact definition of ‘purposely’?)

Age 23: “It is hard for me to respect them. I love them, and pray that God might save them, if they are lost, and sanctify those whom He has called, but I do have a sense of dislike toward them because of how hard they make life for me.”


Age 21: “Ladies, this is where you can get confused. Many women would think guys are ‘all about’ women who flaunt their bodies. I am here to attempt to speak for us Christian men fighting the fight for purity. Women like this disgust and frustrate me. They take advantage of something that God intended to be beautiful. They lure men away from that which they truly love. They make men like me fight and struggle, and cause many to fall. THESE WOMEN SHOULD NOT BE ADORED OR FOLLOWED!”

Age 22: “Saddened; disappointed; sometimes angered. They’re distracting good men, dishonoring God and marriage, and offering themselves cheaply–which makes me desire even more strongly a girl who is modest, who is valuable.”


The message I understand here is: the female form is a thing of temptation and sin, a ‘stumbling block’ and should be covered. Or at least all parts of it that seem, ahem, female.

So what DO they think is the difference between attractiveness and immodesty?

Age 23: “To lust after a girl is sin only because it is outside of God’s design. That same “desire” is entirely appropriate in the bounds of marriage. The key question is, what is the purpose of a girl’s physical attractiveness? If it is seen as a means to lure the heart of every man she meets on the street, it will lead to immodesty. If it is seen as a gift from God to fulfill her role as helpmeet to her husband through marital affection, she will dress and behave with modesty. Men will then instinctively treat her with respect, because her physical attractiveness will not distract from her inward character. In fact, she makes herself far more attractive to the kind of guy she really wants to marry, one who seeking a girl who has the inward beauty of a pure heart. In that man’s eyes, such a girl is surpassingly beautiful.”

Have you noticed a common theme running through the brief quotations I’ve examined? Yes; it is the purpose of a woman’s attractiveness, as in the above quote. Reading through the survey, there are very few who question the entitlement inherent in the view that women’s attractiveness is put there, on earth, purely as a test for them. I don’t see this as simply a result of the self-selection bias involved in the sample. Rather, it illuminates the way the whole question is framed, and the way in which desire is traditionally framed in Christianity. It’s relevant to non-Christians because it has had such an effect on the way sexuality is presented in our culture, especially women’s sexuality. The interesting point it raises, and the reason perhaps, that so many Christian girls (and not just Christian girls) are ‘confused’ about this question, is that it cannot be answered. Simply, if the judge of a girl’s modesty or immodesty is a Christian man (since the test of immodesty is whether that man’s eyes will be drawn in lust to the girl’s body) then how, short of reading the mind of every man she meets, is a girl to judge this?

“I am talking about the overall effect. There is a difference between a guy noticing that a girl looks particularly nice in a certain skirt and finding that every time he looks at her his eyes are drawn to her skirt.”

Clear? No? how about:

“Your body is like a car that God has given you to drive through this life. Immodesty is when all your do is prepare the paint job on your car and neglect your engine (which is what will get you through). Then when someone gets in your car, they will end up stranded and lonely. Attractive, on the other hand, is when you hire (allow) the Great Mechanic (can you tell I like cars?) to improve your engine. Then when someone gets into your car (i.e. marriage) they will have a blast and will be carried through the good times, as well as the bad. That is the difference!”

No? well maybe:

“Something that is immodest is something that is designed to arouse lust within me. Attractiveness is a far more mysterious quality, a mixture of spirituality, personality and physical beauty.”

Clear yet?

It seems sad to me, reading the responses from men about ‘what is my responsibility’ – some, even most of them, seem genuine in their desire to live a good life, to want a good life (holy life) for others. Their words speak of a desperate sense of sin, and weariness from the ‘fight’.

Many say it is their own responsiblility, primarily, not to ‘look’ and lust. Some do point out that women, ultimately, cannot be held responsible for men sinning in their minds before God.

But the Christain narrative of desire that is illustrated here seems wrong to me. To teach men that they are the bearers of a terrible burden, that lust is a powerful and destructive force; I wonder in some way if this teaching CREATES suffering, in that it gives power where power is not?

To explain why I wonder that, in part 2 I will be looking at the nature of desire and the principle of ownership.