Sunday, 15 February 2009

Principles and Pleasures

Something I said in a comment thread, wrt the endless "Examine your desires" refrains:

I'm not saying "go wildly against your principles if it brings you momentary pleasure." I am saying "hey, if you're kinky and kink is against your principles because you analyze consensual hierarchy and nonconsensual hierarchy similarly... why not think about why there's no room for you to do what you want, rather than stressing your anti-hierarchy principles?"

I mean, for all they say people like us "don't examine" it strikes me that they have a real blind spot with regards to "examining" how they can fight the good fight AND enjoy life. Why is the question always "must I jettison this pleasure (or indulge it guiltily when I can no longer resist its pull)?" and not "how can my pleasure and my principles coexist?"

I really do think one thing that oft goes unexamined is our cultural history of mistrusting pleasure... especially sexual pleasure. US-ians, at least, are the ideological descendants of Puritans as much as we are anything else.

By that I don't mean that "radical feminists" of a certain stripe are prudish and that's that.

By it I mean we all are programmed as much to mistrust desire and pleasure as we are to believe in the patriarchy.

14 comments:

Dw3t-Hthr said...

This is one of the things that I was thinking a great deal about when I wrote "Examining Desire". I'll just quote from that because, as mentioned, I've said just about everything I want to say before ....

Examining sexuality in the light of ideology seems to me to consistently come up with pernicious results. Mostly because it's generally framed not as "What sex do I want to have?" but "What sex should I want to have?"

When asking the question "What sex do I want to have?" all this stuff reasonably goes into the pot -- what is actually desired, what is acceptable to one's sensibilities to act upon, and so on. And this is quiet, personal stuff that has to do with one's own consent and desire to consent, one's recognition of the differences between fantasy and reality, and is only the business of anyone else if they're expected to participate. At which point they get to decide if that particular thing is sex they want to have for whatever reason they choose to do -- which may or may not include ideology at all, and they don't have to say why.

"What sex should I want?" goes into all kinds of ugly directions pretty much immediately -- slut-shaming kicks in on any female desire for sex at all, internalised homophobia chews up anyone with queer attractions and spits them out, anyone remotely pervy winds up wrestling with the possibility that they're some kind of monster, huge swaths of fantasy sexuality get shrinkwrapped and sanitised for your protection in the name of Practice Safer Wanking, and shame and guilt over sexuality are the rule, not the exception. It engages the prurient parts of ideologies, the invasive attention that expects someone's political to be everyone's personal, the creepy social stalker that wants to grope inside people's underwear before letting them get married.

Swapping from the default sex-negative culture's ideological perspective on acceptable sex to a different ideological perspective on acceptable sex doesn't fix the problem. It doesn't even change the problem. It just comes up with a new way of examining sexuality in order to determine who's having the wrong sex. To which the answer is, unsurprisingly: usually women, usually the people who aren't having mainstream sex for reasons of number, gender, or activity, usually the people whose sexuality is unacceptable to the dominant paradigm already. And the fact that these new ideologies pretty much paint the same people as unacceptable as the things they're supposedly critiquing ... goes unexamined.

Clarisse Thorn said...

I often think about the US anti-pleasure stance and wonder if it is unique to the US.

Do you ever wonder if it's true that decadent, pleasure-loving societies actually do collapse more easily, or actually are more vulnerable to society-killing forces? This is one of the Right's big arguments ("Remember Sodom and Gomorrah!") and for all that I consider it absurd and overblown ... well, it just has a creepy amount of resonance. Probably societally-instilled resonance. But resonance nonetheless.

I guess my point is that it seems to me that most humans, most human societies, have this anti-pleasure thing going on. And in my anxious moments, I wonder if that really is because it serves some useful function.

Iamcuriousblue said...

It isn't just a US thing, though. In fact, looking at both legal policy and the kind of stuff I see written around the blogosphere would suggest that, on average, Americans are downright libertine compared to the British. But of course that's a gross generalization, as is any generalization based on nationality.

Goose said...

Oh this is a good little article. After reading so many of your posts, and the posts you've linked to (and the hundreds of comments) I'm overwhelmed with thinking about class, race, and choice. Very interesting stuff, but thanks for pointing out the non-trust of pleasure. I think that goes unmentioned a whole bunch.

Trinity said...

Thanks, Goose.

Clarisse:

I don't think indiscriminate pursuit of pleasure is wise, but I think the endless navel-gazing isn't the only alternative. Why don't we talk more about the wise pursuit of pleasure?

Clarisse Thorn said...

We definitely should, of course. Have I mentioned that one of my new projects is the creation of a workshop for undergraduates on how to communicate about sexual consent and learn about your own needs? I wrote four themes at the top of my outline file:

* People are different
* Examine your assumptions
* Your sexual needs are important
* Talking about sex makes sex better for everyone

I present it for the first time Thursday, February 26. Wish me luck.

I think the sex-positive movement sort of tries to address this, but unfortunately it so often jettisons principled discourse in favor of, yes, the indiscriminate pursuit of pleasure ... another part of why we're stereotyped as "the sexy feminists", the message gets simplified into "stripping is now an unreservedly feminist act yay!" etc etc etc.

I have a problem with the way so many wise nuances are lost in sex-positive messages. But I think that this may actually be a problem with how nuances are lost in so many attempts to create and publicize important messages. How do you sell a nuanced message? How many nuances can I work in, before the whole message becomes too unclear for a wide audience? I'm trying to figure it out.

I have blogged about things like the problems I experienced in my own liberal, rather sex-positive sex education [ http://clarissethorn.wordpress.com/2009/01/19/liberal-sex-positive-sex-education-whats-missing/ ] ... I think several of those problems can be summarized as "heart in the right place, but not enough wisdom or nuance".

Maybe what I'm trying to say can be distilled into bullet points:

* The sex-positive movement should consider one of its major focuses to be "ethical training of pleasurable impulses". I think that alt sexuality communities (poly and BDSM being the ones that I'm most familiar with) are doing a pretty good job of this.

* I think that if we're trying to create a sell a large-scale sex-positive message, then it would be useful to try and figure out how to articulate some version of what you posted here. But I fear that it is too nuanced to get across, and that wisdom and restraint are harder to market than sexy girls unashamedly getting it on.

My bullet points turned into new paragraphs. Sigh.

... Okay, maybe it will help if I frame a response to your actual question:

Some people consider the social forces telling us "pleasure is the enemy" to be good ones, and that's why they aren't advocating how to do it wisely.

And some people consider "pleasure is the enemy" forces to be bad ones, and they don't want to seem aligned with those forces, so they run to the other end of the spectrum and refuse to consider wisdom that might inhibit their hedonism.

And some people are trying to advocate the wise pursuit of pleasure, but they are in small ghettoized sexual subcultures and therefore aren't being listened to ... or perhaps their message is being lost because too much nuance = not enough marketability.

Sorry for the incredibly long and rambling comment, but I hope I got something useful across.

Jennifer said...

Do you ever wonder if it's true that decadent, pleasure-loving societies actually do collapse more easily, or actually are more vulnerable to society-killing forces?

This reminded me of a lovely quote from Cindy Patton - not sure how relevant it is to the overall theme here, but here it is anyway:

"To plan for sex or consider how one might engage in it is cultural treason against the idea that sex is unspeakable.
"... one shouldn't even talk about it because to talk about it will make people think about it, and thinking about it will make people want to do it. Eventually, all of civilisation will come crashing down around copulating masses.
"Most people, after an intense period of sexual exploration (or many such periods throughout their lives), discover that life gets boring if all they do is have sex."

isn't that a great phrase - "All of civilisation will come crashing down around copulating masses"! - the meme in a nutshell there.

"Remember Sodom and Gomorrah!"

But as I understand it (and contrary to prevailing wisdom of course) the sexuality/homosexuality component of the Sodom story is mostly a later Christian interpretation/myth, and the story was originally told as an illustration of failure in hospitality. I forget the details, but there's a whole book about it by Michael Carden which explains the cultural background & Biblical context etc. Here's a link. It's interesting stuff.

b.t.w. hello all, I don't comment here often but I do really like this blog :-)

Gaina said...

I agree with 'iamcuriousblue' to an extent - England is a country of curious extremes just now.

While we're thankfully becoming more liberal (though not liberal enough for my tastes) the conservative dinosaurs and 'moral police' are becoming ever more rabid. I hope this is a sign they are in their death throes and soon we'll be keeping our noise out of each others' business and bedrooms.

America, however does have some incredibly odd censorship of their media - words that mean nothing here get blanked out to the extent that american songs played on the radio here have tons of 'dead air' in them to block out words that are generally no offensive here (like putting the word 'god' in the wrong context).

I've even seen Americans write 'G*d' in online posts instead of 'God' as if to use that word on the internet is some kind of blasphemy.

It strikes me that the right make so much noise because they are incredibly childish and insecure - they see the world in a very shallow - and yes, unintelligent - way and their answer when asked what's so wrong with certain things just seems to be 'because...because it is!'. A 'principle' that defies logic.

They can't seem to cope with the fact that the universe won't implode just because people like to smoke the occasional joint, have sex for fun or even money.

I don't buy that pleasure-based societies do collapse, I'm inclined view that as the 'moral minority' telling a few porkies to encourage people to fall into line. I wish I could find my source again to quote it here, but there is archaeological evidence that pleasure-loving societies remained far more peaceful for much longer periods that more restrictive ones.

Trinity said...

"(like putting the word 'god' in the wrong context).

I've even seen Americans write 'G*d' in online posts instead of 'God' as if to use that word on the internet is some kind of blasphemy."

That's bizarre -- are you sure it's US censorship that's leading to this? I have never heard of that.

I have seen Jewish people voluntarily spell "God" "G-d" for religious reasons, something about not being supposed to spell out God's name, but I've never seen them suggest it should be censored. Where are you getting all this exactly?

Gaina said...

Trinity Said:"(like putting the word 'god' in the wrong context).

I've even seen Americans write 'G*d' in online posts instead of 'God' as if to use that word on the internet is some kind of blasphemy."

That's bizarre -- are you sure it's US censorship that's leading to this? I have never heard of that.

I have seen Jewish people voluntarily spell "God" "G-d" for religious reasons, something about not being supposed to spell out God's name, but I've never seen them suggest it should be censored. Where are you getting all this exactly?


Hi Trinity :)

Maybe I should have said that I'm speaking as a person observing america from the outside so I'm as prone to misunderstading things as an American viewing British society from the outside might be:).

Anyhoo..

I comes from a combination of experiences, from - as I say - listening to 'American edits' of songs and watching the accompanying music video's over here, and also actually having conversations with Americans in my 12 years online, who I guess you'd say are 'self-censoring' their use of the word God.

Thanks for pointing out the Jewish connection with the 'G-d' thing. I hadn't thought of that :).

Iamcuriousblue said...

"America, however does have some incredibly odd censorship of their media - words that mean nothing here get blanked out to the extent that american songs played on the radio here have tons of 'dead air' in them to block out words that are generally no offensive here (like putting the word 'god' in the wrong context)."

Its definitely true that the US has some odd rules around broadcast media – prohibition of "the seven dirty words", no nudity (I remember the whole to-do about Janet Jackson's slight breast-bearing; then again, I've seen some nudity occasionally shown on PBS), the MPAA ratings system (with all of its biases) on movies shown in theaters, etc. OTOH, cable TV is absolutely wide open – premium channels show hardcore porn, and even widely viewed channels like HBO and Showtime have a lot of softcore content.

Partly, its a clash between very old and dated laws governing traditional broadcast media versus new media being almost totally deregulated. And partly its because the US has a long tradition of formal and informal "time and place" rules about what's OK. Much of which boils down to "not in front of the children".

Other countries have their own tradoffs – I look across the border to Canada and see that, in a lot of ways, their television and cinematic mainstream are, for some things anyway, a lot more open than ours, but on the other hand, they retain anachronisms like Provincial censorship boards.

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