Do I have to? Do I need to? Do I want to? I’m reminded of a line that my (then) seven-year old son once came out with, when I asked him if he really needed that extra piece of chocolate. “I want to need it”.
I have a feeling we’re all a bit like that where sex is concerned. Possibly chocolate too, but I want to focus on the sex. Or rather, stop focusing on sex for a while, because that, it seems to me, is a large part of the problem, the overemphasis, the privileging of sex to the point of monomania, a mad feudal mentality in which sex is the great overlord with a tyrannical droit de seigneur.
I was reminded of this recently by my friend Jenessa Abrams, a twentysomething New Yorker. Her “first love” had a habit of requiring her to go down on him, using the trigger phrase, “I’m ready now”. Her younger self kind of rolled along with all this in a hazy teenage honeymoon period, but her slightly older self sees that not only was he well out of order, but also that she doesn’t have to, doesn’t want to, and sure as hell doesn’t need to, make herself into “a tool” any more. (You can read her deeply felt “What I’ll tell my children on being fuckable under the regime of President-elect”, on rumpus.net.)
Maybe, you might say, she has just gone off oral. But I think it’s more than that. She’s fallen out of love with an entire narrative, a whole hyper-sexualised culture, a global conspiracy which broadcasts “I’m ready now” at mind-blowing volume.
Personally, I blame the Sixties. I speak, of course, of the 1760s. That decade in which the world was turned upside down. In 1768 Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, the French navigator, made land in Tahiti. Followed by our very own Captain James Cook. The traveller’s tale that emerged and took hold in the northern hemisphere was that the southern hemisphere was a sexual paradise. French sailors in particular were bowled over that Tahitian women actually wanted to go down on them. After months or years at sea, they were definitely ready. Now. Blissful hospitality ruled. If you read the original reports, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. Inevitably, there were a few dead bodies along the way (including Cook himself, in Hawaii, who suffered the very fate that his name seemed to suggest – so much for the aloha spirit). Meanwhile a proto-porn movie, involving grass skirts, surfing, and free breadfruit dangling from trees, was already playing on a loop in the European imagination.
Liberation game: anthropologist Margaret Mead in Samoa, c.1926. Her theories on cultural norms did much to influence the Sixties sexual revolution
A century later, the painter Paul Gauguin would follow Bougainville to Tahiti and beyond in search of a state of pleasure that continued to elude him but created great art out of disappointment. But more importantly the notion of a sexual renaissance, or possibly just naissance, took root in the northern hemisphere. Women, in particular, so argued Margaret Mead in her classic Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) were free, or should be, to satisfy their own manifold desires in America or Europe, just as they appeared to be in the South Pacific.
It turns out that the 19th century was not the golden age of repression, as per the classic idea of buttoned-up Victorian England, all stiff upper-lip and sports fields and hymns. The fantasy of palm trees and sultry breezes blew north. The great utopian dreamer, Charles Fourier, inspired by Tahiti, prophesied the rise of the “phalanstery” in the imminent Age of Harmony, in which there would be public orgies, inexhaustible liaisons, and a handy sexual AA call-out service for anyone who was still feeling short-changed. A few phalansteries were actually built in the US, even though a lot was lost in translation (especially in the one in Dallas). The point was to satisfy, or satiate, all unsatisfied passions. No one had ever really tried to satisfy them before, not seriously. And all crime arose, Fourier argued, out of frustrated desires. Desire was therefore not just a right, it was a duty. The decent citizen was really obliged to be inordinately passionate and let it all out, whether you liked it or not. As Rousseau would say (in his Social Contract), you would have to be “forced to be free”, for your own good.
I think Fourier was right and we are now living in an immense phalanstery in which sex has become compulsory. When God died, sex rushed in to fill the void. Especially, I’ve noticed, in the evangelical pages of Cosmopolitan. Freud, who was a great fan of the voyages of discovery, mapped the hallucinatory 18th-century world geography on to his vision of the human psyche, in which the savage and sensuous southern-hemisphere id was barely held in check by the chilly northern ego. The point, as Wilhelm Reich (author of The Function of the Orgasm) and Warren Beatty (legendary Hollywood lover boy) and others have asserted, was to liberate yourself from all constraints and maximise satisfaction. All the time. As a consequence we have become perversely conscious of our unconscious. The rampant libido has been promoted to the status of superego de nos jours.
‘Two Tahitian Women’ by Paul Gauguin, who travelled to the island in the 1890s in search of pleasure that continued to elude
The odd thing is that all this was already contained in all our great monotheisms. Lo, it is written, the God of love really expects you to perform, on order. The marriage vows call upon the betrothed to love, cherish and obey the command, “I’m ready now”. I was reminded of this recently by the experience of one abused or possibly disabused wife whose other half had taken it into his head that she would like to have him masturbating over her. Every day. Possibly more than once, I’m not sure. Unless he just didn’t care whether she liked it or not.
The UK’s favourite sex positions
I’m not a massive fan of sloe-eyed houris either, to be fair, who are said to populate the gardens and palaces of the Islamic Jannah. I wouldn’t mind except that in our impatience for rapture we are apt in our premature way to try to make heaven on earth and, via Tinder or Grindr, reconceive approximately half the population as Playboy-style sex bunnies. I have to confess to a soft spot for Christoph Luxenberg’s The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, in which he demonstrates that, etymologically, houris do not exist. There are no houris in heaven, only hûr, or bunches of particularly juicy, voluptuous grapes. You never want for grapes in heaven. Which is good to know. “The fruits of paradise”, oddly enough, really were fruits.
20th century fox: Brigitte Bardot, living embodiment and apostle of sexual liberation
When I went on a road trip to St Tropez with my best friend Griffo, with a view to a close encounter with Brigitte Bardot, living embodiment and apostle of sexual liberation, approximately 200 years after Bougainville, we were playing out the same old story. If I stress the fact that this was the late Sixties, and we were very young, it is for a reason. I realise now that, since around the time of the Garden of Eden, we have been forever re-enacting the process of puberty and mistaking a bio-chemical event for some kind of liberation or enlightenment. Or “sentimental education”. The whole of history is a fractured iteration of that endlessly repeated transition from zero to hero. Not totally zero, and not quite hero either, as Freud would be the first to point out, but then since we think in binaries, you’re either ready now, or you’re just unready.
Not that evolutionary theory has been all that helpful on this account. All the selfish gene has on its tiny mind is reproduction. I guess there must be a selfish little blow-job-obsessed gene too. So whatever happened to sexual liberation? Is it nothing but coercion by another name? When did the dream become such a nightmare? Isaiah Berlin’s great essay on Two Concepts of Liberty clarifies the problem succinctly. Positive liberty – the “freedom to”, let’s say, masturbate on your wife – is always liable to collapse into tyranny. Negative liberty – “freedom from” – at least preserves the right to say give me a break, bozo. I’m not ready.
Sex is so weird and complicated, it’s like the inside of your knee (for anyone who has had the opportunity to inspect this part of the anatomy). It’s such a mess in there, and there is so much to go wrong, it’s hard to figure out how it ever works. It just does, occasionally. But, even assuming your knee is working OK, there is no obligation to go around jogging fanatically. And there is no entitlement to someone else flexing your knee for you, either.
I feel that the erotic has had a good run for its money for the past few centuries. Or millennia. Maybe it’s finally time to make room for the zerotic.
Andy Martin is the author of ‘Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me’ (Bantam Press, RRP £18.99). He also teaches at Cambridge University. @andymartinink