Sex Through the Screen: Where our Intimacy Wanes
When it comes to expressing desire, words can betray us. They betray us by swapping out the ephemeral glitter of our fantasy for a tentative birth into substance. It is vulnerable, like a newly-hatched sea turtle far from the surf. Circling above are predatory birds – reality – ready to dive and swipe that fantasy from existence. There is no natural defense against this reality; the mother (no one can fathom why she is programmed to put her children so far back from the line of safety) is long gone, and has entrusted the success of her progeny to chance. That’s a lot of pressure between us and the waves, and words put us in a minefield of faux pas and gaffes that frankly, are the broken, unwholesome children of the avoidance of rejection. They make us think twice about saying anything at all.
Just how album cover art rarely matches the content of the music (the aging photoshopped-baby-or-adolescent-picture wave pioneered by Nas has been ridden nigh unto death and needs to retire), what people seem to be really searching for is not what they advertise. The size of the world changes with a person’s ability to engage with it. On both ends, it’s a small world, both in isolation and in community. On the high seas of community, enter sex: cast as a wide net it is sure to get, in addition to the inevitable flotsam populating its sea, one hopes, the (real) treasure one is searching for. Alas, here comes reality again; the betrayal by words we meant to escape migrates to this plane, only now there is payoff for hauling in an empty net. Or maybe not completely empty: enter the message in the bottle.
We get the message, every second of every day via our handlers, the servants-turned-masters of our attention. The laptop; the desktop; the tablet; the cell phone, which in turn are all extensions of the television and movie screen. These screens set the stage to present the pantomime of the ultimate expression of what we think is intimacy – what we watch day in and day out to corroborate the steady, but failed, course we’re on. Actors try very hard to pull off the right affectations, to make us believe they are present, in it, sharing intimacy. When that does not work, or even if it does, something is still off, not right about that. Our sensibilities, though engaged, are not satisfied, and so we turn to the less dramatically-inclined, but more explicitly experienced: the porn star.
What is it about pornography, and how it beckon us with the siren call of facsimile intimacy, but crashes us on the rocks of our own isolated sexual expression? No, we don’t drown; it needs us to be lured back, again and again, to submerge, to be held down long enough to feel the rush of danger, depth (death; le petit mort), then released to paddle to the surface, with a close call and a promise. I will do that again. Pornography no longer excludes, if it ever did; the screen has a way of simulating the wonder of being desired in ways that reality omits to even try. Each scene carries within it a representation of every conceivable (able) body type that exists – and codes them. Virgin, goth, twink, PAWG, fairy, spinner, MILF, BBW, bull, BBC, tiny. This lexicon is public, but it is privately utilized to identify the attributes of these types, an “informing” on real life. Men and women are invisibly branded – the (virtual) reality of their body types and the sexual potential embedded within each. A first-person camera view, POV for short, rechristens the viewer as the screen itself, and puts him/her in the front row of the rollercoaster in order to achieve the facsimile experience in lieu of a vicarious one. It does its convincing best to surreptitiously remove the “auto” from autoeroticism. A fine tactic; it’s not a trap so much as it is a false affirmation of an expression – and freedom – that you don’t have.
No matter which scene one watches it is a past event of someone else’s idea of freedom, broken into two basic camps. Homegrown pornography, filmed by amateur couples or maverick exhibitionists, carries a different tone from the professional arena. Wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, fuck buddies or strangers all place cameras into their private lives, display – aside from their intention to capitalize on an earning opportunity – and act with the intention to offer leadership; to show the world their interpretation of intimacy. Everyone, by virtue of this crowded market, thinks their way is best, and so the personas and body types – if not content – vary. Some of the more prominent ones maintain anonymity by showing only choice body parts, the “working ends”, a hyper focus on the function of their role within the screen.
The professionals, with their surgically-altered body perfection (the men, too. What, you think they all came to the table sporting Rubirosan endowments naturally? Well, then, I’ve got a sweet deal on BET Awards tickets, hosted this year at a Klan lodge for half-price that I’d like to sell you), compounding paychecks and notoriety are another matter. Their production budget allows for more immersive/expansive interpretations in all manner of unisex situations: the office exec dominating the secretary; the curious teen student being broken in by – or breaking – the “lucky” predatory elder; the service provider seduced by a client. The latest fast-catching trend, faux-cest, where everyone’s step-sister/brother/father/mother is working overtime to reject social norms by implying we’d all rather just keep it all in-house. Of course, I’d be remiss if I failed to include a staple of the American adult fantasy pantheon, and tellingly, the passive-aggressive rebellion – essentially the white woman’s middle finger – against oppressive white male patriarchy: the black cuckold fantasy. This obsession (generations-old practice; heritage) goes deeper than mere phallus size preference. It has been the silent scream echoed through our country’s history against the curse of the pedestal the American white female has suffered to sit on for centuries while her male counterpart had free rein of his carnal desires. To the sheepish resignation of the country, these fantasies broadly hint at a complex disdain this genre and its variations expresses – for the position they (continue to) occupy and for all the men, black and white, involved. But that is a conversation for another time. We know these situations are controlled by direction behind the camera, contracts, etc. Our fantasies are nagged, thwarted by the reality these things could not really happen, but absolutely does all the time in the minds of society in general. Art imitates life, even the fake life. These scenes do not come from the Ether, or from some producer’s imagination, but from the place where the masses believe, or are led to believe intimacy, no matter how it is dressed up, it to originate: the genitals.
Sixth grade: I remember standing with one of my classmates on the corner across the street from the Catholic school we attended. His eyes were locked on mine with a dopey, knowing grin on his face. He had asked me a question, was eagerly awaiting my response. I had missed what he said. “What?” I asked, pulled into the riptide of his emotions. From his infectious energy I could feel it was going to be worth my while. Undaunted, an insiders’ self-important excitement twitching the corners of his mouth, he asked again. “Do you—?” It sounded to my ears like, master me. Even after the third time he repeated it, that’s what I heard. Well, I took it and ran with it. Over the next few days I ambushed any classmate I could, thrusting that question into their consciousness, spreading the confusion that I first had. It wasn’t until the end of that week that I had gotten the phrase right.
Do you masturbate?
Ohhhhhh…for us, the answer was of the least importance. What was important to eleven year-old boys was the question, which pushed us, or so children always think, that much closer to the coveted private realm of the adult. We had stolen, like Prometheus, something vital, and had given it to our kind: a word, and then a language. Language is necessary to make sense of one’s world, and things with names become things that are real. Pieces began to lock in place, and informed my senses in a language I slowly began to understand, of the burgeoning ache of sexual desires.
In movies, this ache is usually put to the side for more important things; saving the world, fighting wars, winning courtroom battles, protecting the chosen one, finding oneself. Even though we can predict the characters who will hook up, they don’t act on these impulses right away; their first instinct is repression, denial. This informs us, the public, the role it plays in reflecting society’s ideas of it: a distraction, a nagging fantasy which intrudes upon a productive day like a persistent, petulant child. Then, when catered to, put in its proper place; a furtive, expectant imperative that will rise again to be handled (off-screen, of course. There is only enough time and money in the budget for ONE deviation. If you’re looking for more, then you’re watching the wrong movie). But what they spent a great portion of the plot denying was the need to connect, and that thwarted intention merely boiled over into something else. That is why storylines in pornography do not gel. If anyone can suspend the belief that a person really wants the partner of their choice (and I mean that in candidly loose terms; in many porn scenes, it is the act of being aggressively desired which catalyzes the “intimacy” that follows rather than actual choice) to be that forward in a place of business, then the consent element, for many reasons, has proven to be the crux of why pornography is considered an embarrassing addiction to many.
An embarrassing, competitive addiction; Chris Rock’s stand-up special Tamborine was far less a comedic legend’s (twenty million-dollar) exhibition and more a prophetic survivor – who had taken the long route to healing after experiencing massive trauma – warning away would-be sufferers from a similar fate. His wild-eyed admonitions and semi-rehabilitated, black elder aura blunted the edge to many of his jokes (which in this context were not really jokes, but the painful aerial maneuvers of a demoralized kamikaze pilot low on fuel), particularly the admission his failed marriage and subsequent divorce were the result of his pornography addiction and cheating. While he was not clear on which paved the way to the other, the point: I can completely understand why a married or otherwise committed heterosexual man would become addicted to the one-sided paracosm that is pornography. The screen creates a fine-line compromise between satisfaction and infidelity, and before long this compromise is what becomes the competition. It is an avatar, a foil, a placeholder into which the imaginer can port in order to experience how it must have felt (or should feel?) having his way with the woman who – liberated, brave self-expressed mistress of her own destiny that she is – knelt before the altar of consent to invoke the god of “intimacy”. The woman one shares his life with plays second fiddle.
The paradox of coveting secular satisfaction within an institution which promises satisfaction of the body – all you have to do is utter those timeless vows! – is not really a confusing one. Fantasy does not long remain a fantasy; when exposed to air, it oxidizes and becomes reality. Many people, surprised and not uncommonly bitter in the end, find that to be worthy of and maintain a fantasy, there is a price to be paid: one must either show up or disguise as one, an ad infinitum exchange for an exchange. As with the best and the worst of us, this is a test of endurance Chris Rock failed, even for all his fame and money, on both counts – via the screen and via the arms of other women. Outside of a porn valley studio, simply being aggressive at the right place and time is not enough. There are chores – taking the garbage out, minding the kids, paying the bills. The genitals – that “portal of intimacy” that can take a backseat to any of the myriad happenstances which buttress longterm social stability – will just have to wait.
The sucker punch before the knockout is the early phase of a relationship; the constant rutting common to new commitments, where ignorance conflated with mystery obscures the panicked frustration resulting from throwing one’s lot in with a stranger. This anxious expression of lust (our placebo for this affliction) which we count as intimacy is used to establish the contours of a reality that begins to grow and take shape out of one’s control; incompatible personality traits, weight gain, body odor, bad breath, fluctuating socioeconomic standing, and the constant comparison of one’s partners against the unwitting potential of strangers. The screen is immune to many of those vicissitudes because it already embodies them. It has swallowed them whole.
I was long familiar with the agitprop fixture of the stork and his job (interestingly, never a female stork) of delivering babies to expectant human mothers. He just didn’t educate me well enough, or at all, to the function of just how the baby came to exist, or to be in his care in the first place. He wasn’t the only one who didn’t report to work on that account. The reality of sex was the Bermuda triangle, in a way; conversation disappeared at its border, and was denied an existence through the closed lips of my parents. In my formative years, movies, for the most part, were left the job of informing my reality of sex via their caricatures of it:
Desperado: sex as artistic catharsis, aka cowboy spur down the booty cheek; contrast with protagonist’s evil drug lord brother, a morose killer with everything to lose, numbed to the joy a woman did her best to give him (punctuates her failure with cigar smoke exhaled into her mouth)!
Backdraft: sex as expressive, poignant motif atop a firetruck; symmetrical, thematic release!
House Party: sex as the sacred, on-pain-of-death privilege of the alpha male; any interlopers to that privilege are dealt with! With a shotgun!
Predator 2: sex as extension of ill-gotten gains which you can never keep; you’re killed before you can climax!
Cabin Boy: sex as long-overdue pity circumstance; you may get lucky if she feels sorry enough – for you!
All these movies pointed the way to the bone (ha!)-strewn graveyard, the place distracted adults go when they need respite from the plot in order to address their frustrations with productivity. The sounds emanating from that graveyard harmonized with my mother’s terse explanation of its mechanics and subsequent result – a woefully inadequate, under-representing blurb (most likely intended to dissuade me from asking any further questions) that would make any Southern pro-life feminist worth her slogan buttons groan in shame – foreshadowed the morbid, comically violent bitterness she expressed years later when one day, at fifteen years-old, I came home with a hickey on my neck. For the price of that experience, I had to stay at my grandmother’s house for a while until she calmed down.
At eight or nine, alone with my father in the car as he drove me somewhere, he imparted the sage counsel to let nature take its course, but with a caveat: “This,” he said, pointing to his temple, “will get you further than this.” His finger left his temple and I followed with my eyes where it went, which was squarely to his crotch. I looked back up at him. His finger tapped his zipper. “This will only get you into trouble. Don’t be like me,” he added for good measure. I got the point. “This” was trouble. “This” wasn’t. The admonishment omitted instructions on how to navigate a path they, my parents, in retrospect, knew very little about themselves. Neither of them told me that Nature indeed does take its course; a course that suffers no corrections once embarked upon, and that if certain things were not in place before one embarked upon this course (a sense of self foremost amongst them) well, then, you became a rudderless, hodgepodge tapestry of those experiences. And I don’t care what anybody says – there is nothing alluring, “complex”, or gratifying about contemplating a piece of art that is trying to say too many things at once.
Perhaps a year later, or sooner, while sitting in front of the television at his place, bored, I had an idea. A collection of VHS tapes lay arranged in a compartment underneath the TV. Interested to watch something else, a movie perhaps, I perused them. In the rows of black rectangles a red tape caught my eye. Its bright, fire/blood color promised something interesting. I looked at the label; there was none. I popped it into the VCR, waited, and it started playing.
I got the point. With that experience, flesh – mine, and the flesh of those I was compelled to objectify (a habit that became increasingly easier as time went on) – became something else.
“Don’t be like me.”
The hinges to Pandora’s Box became warped, and the lid lost its function to
75 million visitors a day on PornHub alone – to say nothing of the other sites on the web – sums up the expertise of the average, tempered soul; there is a collective ignorance concerning the right body part – the wellspring – from which intimacy comes. I think the pathway of the genitals and the out-of-proportion, hyper-concern with them is probably born from the dogmatic, Christian paradigm which haunts the outer edges of the American consciousness (is it really a coincidence it’s called missionary? Doggy-style? Not merely because being on all fours resembles the stance of a canine, but because while dogs have in abundance a conditioned loyalty, they are bereft of shame). Freud posits an interesting theory that traces this back to an ancient, parricidal blood-guilt which eventually transposed with religion (nearly all faiths are patriarchal in execution and in practice). The patriarchal horde – a model in which we see default in lower beasts – where the alpha male-father figure is absolute ruler of the clan with a monopoly on the females, was abolished when the sons rose as one and slew him, transforming the social hierarchy into a fraternal clan. This “sin”, recognized as such through the passage of time, was atoned for by rejecting the spoils the father solely enjoyed, primarily the harem of females while undisputed despot. This can explain why the vow of celibacy – as it relates to the danger of sexual freedom of the masses and the exclusion of women in the pulpit – is a requirement in religious orders and imposed secondhand as (a moral) de rigueur on the general populace. In its place, to honor this ancient covenant, we see some of the disastrous effects this has had on most religious institutions. A conversation for another time.
Sex is a natural act. What is unnatural is the thought we’re compelled to pay forward, which is the genitals concern and contain everything we need to know about sex. We find that this is a recipe for disaster because our genitals do not contain knowledge of any sort independently of us. We see when left to its own devices (for one, the exposé on the Amish colonies); sex for its own sake in the name of release, becomes a stunted, wasteful, reptilian transaction that randomizes quality. The genitals can only reflect the will, the character and mentality of the owner (in that case, I consider myself, and mine, merely half-tamed. I am fine with that), not the other way around.
Sex is a necessary, particular, tremendous transference/exchange of energy – a gamut of mental, emotional and spiritual – that cannot be likened to any other experience on earth. Nevertheless, we, through our conflation with the experience of intimacy try unsuccessfully, and fall far short of the mark. Rather than the gateway, it is the scalped ticket to the arena entrance, which in reality exists first in the mind, and then connected to the body. Decide for yourself and recall the act with someone you loved versus the one you didn’t. Sex is the mechanism that is used to explore that intimacy; whether auto-discovered or communal, the diminishing returns of the journey often require repeat expeditions to justify it.
The choice is always up to us – cast the net as it pleases you. As you do, consider that what you haul into your boat will probably not be the treasure you seek, because it is not in the depths below. It is higher, on the horizon on the level of one’s sight.