Some Pollyannaism in a Debbie Downer Year – Books

This is a series of posts looking for enjoyment and pleasures in a time when both are in short supply. The first one was about music.

Yesterday was hard. The blunt fact of Neal’s and my living situation hit us again, as it does, despite our attempts not to think about it—viz. we are a couple in our 40s living in a cramped 500sqft 1-bedroom at the whims and mercy of our landlords who, while mostly okay, would like nothing more than to get us out of this rent-controlled unit we’ve been in for 7 years so they could start making even more money. To move into something larger, we’ll have to either leave the city and spend money on a commute, or pay around $3,500 a month, and given that Neal was among the people his company laid off this summer for COVID reasons, it doesn’t look like that’s happening soon.

So the prominent feeling of the home we’ve been mostly trapped inside since March is that we’re trapped.

I spent my whole childhood and adolescence dreaming of living in a big city. People continually tell me, a tenured MFA Program director in a big city, that I have a dream job. Yesterday felt like every dream is a nightmare if you see past all its bullshit.

But wait, I promised Pollyannaism, and what does this have to do with books?

At some point during yesterday’s nightmare, I considered the ways higher ed either bred insecurity in me, or capitalized on my insecurities (or most likely I entered into and engaged with higher ed out of insecurity), presenting insecurity as the foundation for an intellect—such that if I wasn’t the first person in the room to name the precise form of artifice behind, say, the stylized tableau depicted on that box of lemon cookies over there, then I was then clearly an idiot with nothing to show for myself.

In other words, I usually see the world as an ongoing grift, a series of people and mass-produced objects trying to lie to me about what’s real, and the only way I know not to get screwed is to be smarter than them.[*] Critical Thinking is what I call this tool I use, and it starts with the question, What is this thing I’m looking at trying to get over on me?

I love lies, it should be said. I’m usually happiest when art is delivering me good, new lies I’ve never seen before. But given the overwhelming presence of lies in the world over truths, my thinking about thinking should feel good and healthy. But often it doesn’t. Often it feels like another trap, this home I’ve made for myself that I no longer fit inside. How, exactly, did this happen, and how to think instead about thinking?

Enter Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty. Picking up this book helped me to think again, in a time when I’ve been overflooded with feeling. I prefer thinking over feeling. I find feeling confusing and unsettling. I don’t know what to do with myself when I feel.

I know: thinking isn’t the antidote to feeling anymore than exercise is the antidote to sleep. Thinking and feeling are in relation to each other, and the good life seems to call for the right balance of both. But lately I’ve been on a feeling binge, and those feelings have been mostly doomy.

Nelson’s project here is to consider forms of art (visual, literary, performance, cinematic) that take either cruelty as their subject, or that enact a cruelty on their audiences. She is disinterested in explaining-away what cruelty may signify. Cruelty and violence for Nelson are not slaps in the face art gives us to “wake us up” or “bring us back to our true nature”. She’s got pages effectively calling bullshit on artists who have historically felt they needed to brutalize their audiences toward truth. A welcome counterexample she returns to once or twice is Cage’s 4’33”, which she says excels as art and as bringer of truth by providing the space audiences need to be delivered.

That said, the book is not a critique of the uses of cruelty or violence, either. Nelson loves a lot of violent works that depict the most brutal cruelties—Paul McCarthy, Mary Gaitskill, Francis Bacon, Marina Abramovic, and Brian Evenson are touchpoints. If there’s anything she is aiming to wake people up about, it’s that art doesn’t affect us the way we often assume it does. Violent art neither begets violence nor, via Aristotle’s catharsis theory, calms our violent urges.

So what does it do instead?

Before I get there, I want to go back to Mary Gaitskill, because it’s Nelson’s reading of the former’s debut story collection, and then her novel Veronica, that brought me to some new ideas about thinking. There are some pages of summary about Gaitskill’s books, which maybe you’ve read (I read Veronica the first semester of my master’s program back in 2003), but the long and short of it is that, in the stories, “the principle task of intelligence … is to slice through the veil of cant and cliché,” whereas Veronica explores additional forms of intelligence that emphasize what Nelson calls “blur”—i.e. accepting that the truth rarely comes as a crystal beacon:

When [narrator] Alison recalls [her dead friend] Veronica’s story of being raped by a stranger in her apartment—a story Veronica ends by saying, “My rapist was very tender”—Alison has the following train of thought: “Smart people would say that [Veronica] spoke that way about that story because she was trying to take control over it, because she wanted to deny the pain of it, even make herself superior to it. This is probably true. Smart people would also say that sentimentality always indicates a lack of feeling. Maybe this is true, too. But I’m sure she truly thought the rapist was tender.” What impresses me here, especially in contrast to Gaitskill’s earlier work, is the space made by allowing there to be more than one way for “smart people” to respond, as well as the suggestion that while “smart people” might offer incisive, imposing diagnoses, they might also miss the boat entirely. That an intelligence focused solely on puncturing or mastery may end up deaf, dumb, and blind to other ways of knowing, of perceiving. Or that, at the very least, such an intelligence, with all its probing and psychoanalyzing, may miss the surface truth of what another is actually trying to communicate.

The feminist way to distill this is to pit vaginal thinking (or uterine, really, in that Nelson’s pointing not just to accommodating, but incubatory space) against phallic thinking—which I seem to unconsciously be doing, like when I paraphrased that Cage’s work “provid[es] the space audiences need to be delivered.” Nelson is very big on space, and she favors art that can provide a space for the varying, shifting responses audiences will have.[**] The best cruel art, Nelson shows, creates a space that allows for audiences to think for themselves, feel for themselves, and come to their own conclusions.

Space is distinct from alienation. It is fundamentally about volume, rather than about distance. Space also defies the vertical logic of revelation, which insists there is something beneath the surface of our every day—be it ultimate meaning, the face of God, our fundamental nature, a final terror, ecstasy, or judgment, or some combo of the above—that will be revealed when the veil is finally lifted. In lieu of this logic, space offers a horizontal spreading, the possibility of expansion into dimensions no one yet thoroughly understands.

In needing to be the smartest in the room, I’m rarely giving myself the space to think.

This is probably material for a post on its own, but it’s worth pointing out here how little space Twitter and social media in general give you. Picture it: you’re sitting on the toilet, phone in hand, trying to occupy your time. Maybe you’re in a good mood for a change. Then here’s a post that kicks you into feeling something you weren’t already feeling, and you weren’t prepared to feel. What is the effect of that disruption on your thinking about the subject of the post? This isn’t about letting people stay ignorant to the world’s abuses and cruelties, it’s about giving people space to consent and agree to think alongside you.

It’s one reason why I blog. Let’s come over here for a moment, whenever you’re ready to. And it’s one reason why I try to read the news just on Sundays. On Sundays I know I can be fully ready to face it.

The Art of Cruelty has risen to become my favorite of Nelson’s books. The Argonauts is still a wonder, a masterpiece, but while that book’s greatness was buoyed by its perfect synchronicity alongside developing public conversations about gender, The Art of Cruelty came out about 6 years before we needed it. (It was published in 2011.) It’s the book I’ve needed every year of this nightmare administration. We should be issuing it door-to-door.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Or “…than they are”? My intellect only goes so far.
  2. She taught a class with this book’s title, and talks here about encouraging her students to take stock of the array of feelings they had throughout their experience with a work of art, and not to privilege just the one they ended on.

Some Pollyannaism in a Debbie Downer Year – Musics

My last post was written from and about gloom, and those feelings are real and fill at least half of every day. What’s also real is that other parts of the day are still filled with joy, and it’s mostly owing to the internet: the art and music and movies I’m still allowed to access. (Also the people. Zoom is sometimes great.) Perhaps this is the silver lining of our country’s long decline—it will always be more profitable to a market oligarchy to let me pay for streaming art consumption than ban it because of the ideas it gives me.

Call me naive … please.

Herewith starts a series of posts to share what is new to me that I’ve loved these last few months. This post is on Spotify.

Back when everyone started talking about Spotify, they sold the All The Music In The World angle, as though having access to that was useful for people like me who suffer from choice paralysis. (They called me Dithering Dave at the Cribbage table back in grad school.) Nobody really did a good job selling Spotify’s more useful feature: its recommendation algorithm. It is very good. Unsettlingly good. Not only does my Discover Weekly playlist dig up songs I’ve forgotten I love, but it has either led me to explore, or introduced to me wholesale, some very good bands:

  • Amanaz – A Zambian band from the 1970s, who themselves introduced me to a subgenre: Zamrock, which is this mix of African and psychedelic musics. I love “I Am Very Far” but the big perfect hit is “Khala My Friend”.
  • Alex Chilton / Big Star – Many people know that Alex Chilton was only 16 when he sang “The Letter” but up until a few months ago I was not one of them. I never enjoyed Big Star’s first record, and I still might not. Ditto the second. But Third/Sister Lovers is a perfect, perfect record. It’s like the best Smog record before there was Bill Callahan.
  • Minutemen – My friend in middle school loved this band and I dismissed it all those years ago as punk noise (he also loved the Ramones and as much as I respect those folks I’ve never once wanted to, like, put on their record), and then Spotify suggested “History Lesson Part 2” and I was sold by the brotherly love between Mike Watt and Boon. Current fave is the two-disc Double Nickels on the Dime. (Plus Mike Watt can get it.)
  • Elton Motello, “Jet Boy Jet Girl” – English lyrics over the same backing track as Plastic Bertrand’s “Ca Plane Pour Moi”, which you’ve probably heard on a soundtrack somewhere. This one’s about running after a rich dude who fucks you when he wants but also lets you fly around on his jet: “He gives me head” is the refrain. It’s the party song I’ve been needing in my life for 2 decades.
  • Bill Fay – Long forgotten English 70s balladeering Cat Stevens type. I first loved “I Hear You Calling” (“All my time is lying / on the factory floor”) and then I fell hard for “Let All the Other Teddies Know”:

Months and months ago, my high school friends Chris and Beage and I tried resequencing records from our youth, which I blogged about here and here. I’ve since picked it up with college friends Beth and Steve. The idea is one of us creates a playlist challenge the others have two weeks to create. Steve just made us do Roxy Music mixes under 45 minutes exclusive of “Love is the Drug”. Before that Beth had us make mixes of songs about platonic friendship. Here’s my friend mix:

Here’s a comprehensive playlist I’m keeping of songs with just 2 chords:

Making playlists is a weak form of creativity, but it’s a form of it, and when the world’s this unsafe to step out into, I’ll take all the weak creativity I can get.

Next time: movies.

The Day the Sky Was Gone

Yesterday, I woke up around 8:30 thinking it was still the middle of the night. There was no light in the bedroom. Out in the living room, streetlights glared in through the slats in the blinds, but I could tell beyond them was some color I hadn’t seen before. It was this color:

You’ve by now seen some of the pictures. None of them do justice to the feeling of waking up to a world that looks like this. Probably in any other year I’d have found wonder in it, but instead, yesterday, I didn’t. It has already been weeks of needing to stay inside, not to avoid the risk of infecting the virus for which we don’t yet have a vaccine and of which we don’t yet know the longterm effects on the human body, but rather to avoid the smoke blowing in from the 43 fires currently burning in California as of this writing. Part of every day it’s unhealthy, and then the wind changes or something, I don’t know. You go online and see it’s “moderate” and you wonder whether you have the energy to go walk in the park.

I never do. If I don’t walk first thing in the morning, I end up beat down by another day like today.

Having been so beat down, beaten inside, stuck inside paranoid and spiteful at my fellow Americans for months—I didn’t see any wonder out my windows. The skies got darker around noon, not just in terms of the pale greyed peach that turned to a deep blood orange, but in terms of the world inside. We had all the lights on. It was nighttime at noon. I was emptied of all my capacity by this unnatural feeling, waking up to a deep orange landscape, unable to see anything else but flames and fire and destruction. I wanted to go back to sleep and I didn’t care when I woke up. I just wanted it to be later.

Throughout the morning, I had to shit in this canister. Our toilet worked fine, but weeks ago the Mayo Clinic sent me two canisters the size of Edy’s Ice Cream tubs, with biohazard bags and little styrofoam coolers to ship them back inside, on dry ice. I’d gone to them earlier this summer to get to the bottom (mind the pun) of some ongoing IBS issues, and after a CT scan showed I didn’t have Crohn’s Disease, they told me the next step was to eat a high-fat diet and collect everything that came out of me for two days, in order to measure the level of bile acids in my stool and deduce … well I’m not quite sure yet.

Whether to eat less fat, maybe? Don’t I already know to do that?

There’s a little device they’d rigged to prop the canister across the rim of the bowl and hold it over the water. There is nothing not humiliating about any of this. Imagine needing to take a comfortable shit in your own home but remembering that you had to sort of aim it into this plastic canister, pull the canister out of the bowl, with the live hot stench of what you’ve passed wafting through the room, twist a lid on it, and then stick it—as the Mayo Clinic suggested—in the freezer until you need it again.

Humiliating. Repellent. Collecting your shit to hold onto, to keep around the house—it’s like waking up to an orange sky. There’s just lizard-brain pockets of neurons that fire in distress about everything being wrong about your life. Today the sky has warmed (if you can call it that) to a yellowed grey, the color of dirty school linoleum, and it’s the last day I need to collect my stool. I’ve got two canisters of shit in my house right now. Tomorrow I get to call FedEx to come fetch them.

Natural disasters, or extreme weather events, used to inspire awe. Growing up in Virginia, the winters we’d get big blizzards that shut school down for a week were, sure, awesome, to get all the time off, but also glorious. I loved nothing more than going out in the middle of the night to look at the lunary landscape it seemed we suddenly lived on, with the overcast sky pinkened by the suburban light bouncing off it. Storms in Nebraska were vast and enormous, with clouds like Frank Gehry buildings. Once, the first week I lived in that state, I looked up and say ribbons of lightning streak across the sky, almost networks of them. My jaw gaped.

Even the tornado that hit us in Alabama had a kind of wild beauty to it. (I’m sure I’d feel differently had it destroyed our house, rather than merely shattering some of the windows and ripping off a bit of the siding.) If there was anything unsettling about it, in addition to the people it killed, it was the complete transformation of the landscape in seconds. The tornado engined past our house in all of 30 seconds, and once we knew it was gone, we looked outside and everything was different.

That kind of destruction seems impossible but is real, and we’re at nature’s mercy in those moments. That’s what the tornado made me see.

What we keep living through in California is different. These are unnatural disasters. None of these fires is nature doing her thing. This is just the effects of ruin and neglect. Nobody in this town has air conditioning because for decades everyone has understood you don’t need air conditioning here. The first four years I lived here it got above 80 maybe twice, and for a couple days. Now we have 3 or 4 heat waves a year where the temperature is in the 90s, and nobody in this town has air conditioning.

The days of us not needing to worry about fatal heat waves, or toxic skies are gone. I don’t know whether they’ll come back. What little I pay attention to regarding the election in November indicates it’s still a toss-up, so what do we do: assume things will get worse?

I’m already past imagining what’s worse than this, but whenever I do it I start to see gas masks hanging by our front door. Guns in the streets. Whatever works have been going on in our policy choices, in our commitments as a country, have stopped working. The sky yesterday tells me nothing else.

That’s the post. I don’t have a rosy way to write myself out of this feeling.

Beyond Consent: Why It’s Time to Talk about Sexual Autonomy

When I was in middle school, I wanted to have sex with my P.E. teacher. I’ll call him Jim. He had a mullet and a year-round tan, and he listened to the same radio station I did: 99.1 WHFS, the freeform indie station few of my friends even knew about. He was nice to us non-athletes. I remember his lips, I remember the snug shorts he wore, and I remember the one time I caught the slimmest glimpse of his royal blue briefs as we all sat on the ground with our legs spread wide, stretching our hamstrings.

I was the 9 jillionth teen to have a crush on their teacher. My crush is not unusual. That I wanted to act on my crush and shower with Jim, touching each other everywhere, I had the fantasy dozens of times—probably also not unusual. But that I look back on this and think it would have been nice if that could have happened, that feels not just unusual but dangerous.

I’ve written so many wrong versions of this post. Maybe I’ll never get it right.

I was 13/14 in those years; Jim was probably in his 30s. I wasn’t gay. I’ve written about this dozens of times, but I was so fully in denial that it never occurred to me that my fantasies of getting naked with him meant something about who I was, and if it did occur to me, late at night, before falling asleep, I took it as an error in my coding. Something I’d work on correcting someday soon. But what’s important for this post are those ages. I was 13 when I was Jim’s student, and Jim was in his 30s.

Every year we had scoliosis testing, which that year entailed each of us boys sitting in the school locker room and waiting for Jim to shout our last names from his office. We all sat in our school clothes for this, hip-to-hip on the benches in front of the lockers. When my name was called I got up and walked into Jim’s office. He sat behind his desk, reclined in his chair a little, with a clipboard in his hand.

I knew already to take off my shirt.

I stood there, scrawny as a salamander, and watched Jim look me over. “Turn around and bend over,” he said, and I turned around and bent over, then slowly came back up. I knew he was eyeing my spine. I knew he wasn’t looking anywhere else, but I imagined he was. In the nighttime fantasy, this is when he tells me to close the door, and then he starts teaching me helpful things about my stupid body.

I remember just wanting to hold him, and feel him hold me. I wanted to be given access to a grown man’s body, to be encouraged to explore it, and to be told this desire that burned through me every day wasn’t going to destroy my life. That’s all I wanted. Why couldn’t I have it?

Well first there’s age of consent laws, which aim to protect young people from the desires of some adults, which is to say they aim to protect what we value as the innocence of the people we deem to be children. (The sexual desires of those children, if they exist, are mostly irrelevant in the eyes of the law.) To be fair, AoC laws have also given girls more (but not much more) personal growth and agency before another man (historically) could ruin her life with marriage and children. (I’m showing my biases here, I know.)

Like many laws, AoC laws are arbitrary; we need as a society to decide when people are able to make rational and healthy decisions. Most (but not all) states have set this moment at one’s 18th birthday. Is this when it happens, that rational understanding? Did I know I was gay and feel ready for sex at 18? No. Maybe you were?

Maybe you even reached this date much sooner. Those of us unready to make our own healthy decisions (regarding sex or drinking or voting or whatever) at age 18, or 19 or 22, understand that we need to give up continued protections from the state for those of us who are ready. Which is to say: if you think 18 is too young an age to consent to sex with another adult, you are in the minority. And if you think that we should consider raising the age of consent, I think you might be hurting queer kids.

Earlier versions of this post had a lot more to say about Age of Consent laws that I’ll drop instead in a footnote.[1] I began those versions ready to argue, ready to put forward an unpopular opinion that I felt everyone would get on board with if they could just think rationally about sex for once, but more and more I see that I have trouble thinking rationally, and I think it’s more useful here to just say what I felt and wanted. I’m less interested in arguing than in figuring out what would have been so bad about having sex with my teacher.

Consider how we think about underage kids having sex (with each other). Talk to any teen girl and she’ll tell you that the slut/stud double-standard is still alive: when a straight boy has sex he’s scored, when a straight girl has sex she’s a little ruined. This is thankfully changing every day, as girls are taught (though not in schools) that sex is theirs to own and explore.

What about when a gay kid has sex? They’re neither studs nor sluts. They used to be perverts, but now they’re heroes.

Queerness is more of an identity, or a set of commitments and allegiances, than it is a history of lived behavior (behold Jameela Jamil), but gayness, i.e. homosexuality, is nothing separate from the sex it wants. So when a gay kid has consensual same-sex sex, it’s always a triumph—even if the sex is rotten, and even if the gay kid regrets it afterward. The triumph lies in their courage to say yes to and go after everything (a) their body is telling them to get but (b) their society tells them it’s wrong to even want. More than coming out of any closet, that first-sex moment where (a) triumphs over (b) is like a queer’s bat mitzvah.

I bat mitzvah’d at 26. I would have loved to find my triumph earlier, but I didn’t have anyone to help me, and I didn’t have the courage to act on my own. I didn’t know a single gay person who saw me. If Jim showed interest, it’s hard for me to accept that showing me how and why to have gay sex would have somehow hurt me in my becoming.

A lot of things have changed for gay people in 30 years, online porn being one of them. Used to be gay boys had to be “brought out”—almost always by older people. Read the early novels of gay U.S. fiction and much is made of this feeling of getting initiated into a secret club. I know how this sounds. I don’t have the personal stories to illustrate how it wasn’t necessarily abusive, but trust me that I’ve heard from enough gay friends about the underage sex they had with older men to know it doesn’t innately hurt a person.

Today, what a gay person is, what gay sex can entail, and why gayness isn’t a flaw are all common knowledge among U.S. teens. Gay kids are coming out before I even knew what I wanted to be growing up. When they can find depictions of gay sex online, and when they can come together in queer student organizations to see and affirm each other, what use do they have of queers of an older generation? The idea of having your first sexual experience with such a man must seem at best useless, and at worst predatory.

Or maybe it’s hot, still, for some of them? I’m myself a teacher (of adults), so I’m very wary of how to write about this. I know I have zero interest in sex with younger men (behold my browser history’s glut of daddy & bear links as evidence), but I also know I was once a younger man, I was even once a boy, who really wanted sex with an older man. I know I keep asking the same question again and again, but what to do about such real desires?

One path is to look at this from a consent framework, which would argue I at 13 could not consent to sex with my teacher. I’m talking about consent as it’s been delineated in university Title IX offices—which offices are tasked with fixing the longstanding inequities between men and women on college campuses, and specifically the discrimination against women or exclusion practiced toward them.

What makes consent so attractive (and as I hope to show ultimately limiting) is how it seems (via the law, or alongside the law) to seek out the one true way, or some catch-all concept of what sex is and what consent entails, that will, once we all get on board, stop rape and abuse, and even stop regretted sex.

In other words: once we fix sex and get it right (via the consent paradigm), then people will be sexually safe, healthy, and free.

College consent paradigms are important steps that (most) schools have taken to try to stop college men from sexually assaulting women. Consent paradigms—i.e., any two (or more) bodies engaging each other for pleasure must both agree to do so before any one body can get pleasure[2]—commit us all to using consent to correct or combat gender inequality and unfair power dynamics within a patriarchy. They are, then, useful when heterosexuals negotiate sex.

When gays have sex, that gender imbalance is gone, and with it go all the ideas about vulnerability and care that we bring to what the “two genders” signify in opposition. What remains, however, are the concerns about professional power imbalances and quid-pro-quo. Because Jim was my teacher, the paradigm goes, any sex between us would ruin or at least taint my learning, or the ongoing teacher-student relationship. At worst, it would force me to provide sex if I wanted a certain grade.

In this and other ways, the consent paradigm sees sex as unruly and contaminating. But is this true of sex, by its nature, or is it true of our relationships to sex?[3] Regardless, the consent paradigm would carefully explain how the sexual desires I had weren’t wrong, but that acting on them would be, because of how they would damage my non-sexual relationship with my teacher.

Personally, I don’t buy it, for all the reasons about gay sex and triumph I get at above. Who better to show me how to listen to my desires and use them to open my body up to my self than my physical education teacher? Um, maybe an experienced gay boy your own age? you might be thinking, and fine. Okay. But what I want to point out here is that the consent paradigm doesn’t give me the tools to (a) accept the sexual desire I had, and then (b) look into myself to know whether to act on it. Consent just says it’s wrong, or that I don’t yet have such capabilities. It has its reasons and its reasoning, but all of that is formed by the law and dictated to me. I am told to just accept it, for the safety of others.

What if we reversed the fixing-sex paradigm framed above: once we finally start talking as a society about what sex is (and is not, and what bodies are for and not for, and why every person deserves and should insist on their own sexual autonomy), then people will be better defended against rape, abuse, ruin, etc.

But what’s sexual autonomy exactly? Well, we can start with its dictionary definition of “freedom from external control or influence”—it’s about people acting as self-governing agents. Here’s theorist Joseph Fischel on the concept, from his very useful Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent:

[S]exual autonomy need not assume that we all come to the table—or bed—as unencumbered free agents. Instead, it can attempt to recognize differentiated relations of dependence, and to theorize acceptable and unacceptable forms of interference in the realm of sexual decision making, without prescribing what good sex should look like. The autonomy here is not an ontological truth of the human, but a guiding, revisable principle that recognizes available choices and checks certain constrictions on those choices. To that end, “sexual autonomy” is understood to be an aspiration, not an a priori. It is not a synonym for freedom, let alone justice, but a guiding principle for theorizing and regulating young sex and the young sexual subject.

Autonomy wants to preserve individual choice and agency as much as consent does, but it wants to begin from the sexual agent’s sense of knowing who they are and what they want (and don’t want). It wants them to feel informed about, and able to weigh the benefits of, the consequences of saying yes to any sex act. And in cultivating one’s aspirational autonomy, the autonomy paradigm distrusts the long-term effectiveness of one’s agency being regulated by outside authorities.

Which brings us back to my P.E. teacher, because what about his autonomy? Jim wasn’t gay,[4] and he never showed any interest. He may have once seen me looking up his shorts when we stretched, but then he looked away. And even though I didn’t feel it then, he may have felt (as I do now) that having sex with a student would get in the way of that student’s care and education. All that is ultimately why our having sex would be a bad idea: it would make any sex we had one-directional. Even if he consented to the sex I wanted (as a favor, say, in this impossible scenario), it would deny him sexual autonomy.

It wouldn’t be coercion, but it would impinge upon our both having equal agency and equal opportunity to choose only the sex we’re interested in having, and to come away from that sex feeling at peace with those choices. And my first time—as important or as unimportant as I considered it—would be with a man who didn’t want it. And what would sex mean to me after that?

I need to get at a more pressing problem to this whole thought experiment: how could I possibly have had enough of an understanding of my own sexual autonomy at age 13 to gauge the suitability of showering and more with my P.E. teacher? What I’m doing here is imagining actions and choices a deeply closeted kid would be making with the wisdom and understanding re sex I’ve only recently come to.

The real answer to why Jim and I couldn’t have had sex is that I didn’t know how or why to have it (and how and why not to).

You might believe that knowing all this takes time and the onset of adulthood, but I think more importantly it takes education and commitments, which the U.S. still has little of.[5] As kind as Jim was, the thing I learned most from Physical Education, in all the years I took it, was to be ashamed of my body, poorly performing at all the sports they just kept shuffling us through. Not a word about nutrition, or why exercise is important for everyone. Anything regarding sex was kept to the biological reproductive functions, plus your standard STIs, their symptoms, and their means of transmission.

And that was good sex ed. I got lucky, comparatively. But I’m keenly aware that it took my committing to write a book about sex and shame for me to finally learn—in my forties, for crying out loud—what sex is, and what my body is.

My claim here isn’t that sex is unruly, and thus can’t (our shouldn’t) be tamed by law. Nor is it that sex is always liberating, and needs to be kept free from limitations. Sex is a handshake. It’s Settlers of Catan. It’s a glass of wine with your friend. It’s table tennis, squash. It’s never anything outside of the other person(s) you’re having it with, never something abstract or pure that can exclude the fact of those people.

Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s lousy. Nobody should ever be forced to play, or feel coerced into being a good sport. But nor should your sexuality be presented to you as something you need to protect from harm or theft. Sex is yours to give and accept from others, whenever you know it’s best for you to do so.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. A lot of my thinking/tweeting about consent lately was spurred on by the news of how the Dem establishment in Massachusetts—out of fear of the surging campaign of Alex Morse, a progressive candidate for MA’s D-01 representative—released a statement that Morse had used his role as mayor of Holyoke and political leader to meet college students for dates and sex. Now: Morse has fully admitted to dating college students, none of which were his own students, and to having consensual sex with some of them. These college students were all legal adults, and legal adults are able to consent to sex with people. <– This is a statement that more and more people are arguing is not just factually wrong, but dangerous to college students’ vulnerable status. Also, Morse is gay. Some younger queers on Twitter—as well as the MA College Democrats, who released their statement about Morse and his history (and who were either paid in some form to do so in order to hurt Morse’s chances [which backfired, and he’s now getting more support from voters], or volunteered to do so for one of their member’s professional gain)—began talking about how 18-year-olds aren’t fully adults, or don’t yet have fully-developed prefrontal cortices, or how age of consent laws can’t on their own allow for consent. Queers who know more about sex understood that what the College Democrats were trying to do was to lay a narrative of predation and grooming, one taken from the chiefly heterosexual #MeToo movement, on to queer sexual relationships, which in the end amounted to age-old homophobia equating gay men with pedophiles. But what I and others saw, (and what I’ve written about in other forms before here: What (and Who) Pride is For), is how growing awareness of sexual consent laws and paradigms have led young queers, young people in general, to embrace their youth as something to protect against one reality of the adult world, which is that people are going to want to have sex with you, and they will approach you from that desire. They sound far better informed on the nature of consent than they are on the nature of sex, and I think it’s a shame.
  2. This is my clunky language, but N.B. here that nowhere on my school’s Title IX office’s page on Consent does it say anything about both actors receiving pleasure, which means that a woman consenting to go down on a man and then watching him go home afterward still constitutes a fully sanctioned consensual sexual encounter, even if she might be wondering why she didn’t get to come. Which brings us (soon) to sexual autonomy.
  3. This notion connects back to what I said about what AoC laws do and ask of us all: I may, in this long hypothetical, have been at age 14 in the minority in being able to have sex with my teacher without trying to win favor or worrying about punishment from him, but not everyone can cleave sex from emotions and commitments. For those who can’t, consent laws protect them from harm, and the rest of us should accept this trade-off.
  4. …most likely, and if he was don’t tell me because then not getting to fuck him would just hurt more.
  5. In the Netherlands by contrast, which begins comprehensive sexuality education in kindergarten, teens wait longer than U.S. teens to have sex, and far more of them report enjoying their first time. More here.