Friday, May 09, 2014


At a recent science fiction convention, I think I accidentally walked in on two-men-I've-never-met plying their romantic wiles on two young ladies, one of whom was a friend of mine.  The two men were from out of town, men who travel the convention circuit, hawking their creative wares, and while they did nothing unethical, I couldn't help but sense:  at least one of them was hoping that the evening might end without an old man sitting down with them at the table, turning the nice round number of four into the number five.

I can't even type about this except euphemistically.  One was looking for a convention hookup.

In discussing my intrusion with friends, we started processing all sorts of expectations about sexuality.  I have friends (male and female, though overwhelmingly male) who could imagine being someone-from-out-of-town, presenting at a conference for just two nights, who might expect that a sexual encounter could be found in the hotel bar.  Those friends might also walk into a bar on a Saturday night with the same expectations, and who will hit on more than one person of the opposite sex until they get the result they want.  I have immense affection and respect for these friends (because I cannot befriend someone whom I do not both love and respect), but this is a dimension of their personality I often just don't get.

My puzzlement over the appeal of casual sex, I think, I resolved partially in conversations with a Romanian friend more than a decade ago.  I was reading eastern European literature (think Milan Kundera, Unbearable Lightness of Being), in an attempt to come to understand her better, and I finally just asked her:  These books are filled with characters who seek vacuous sexual relationships.  Why is that?  I don't get it.

Her answer boiled down to:  You try living under communism, and tell me what you seek in life.

This answer helped me immensely, because it helped me understand that people's different expectations for sexual relationships vary so much, based on such a complex of variables in their background and their emotional needs.  I don't share their backgrounds, and I don't know their needs;  how can I understand their own expectations for sexual relationships?


So what are the dimensions of a Generation X kid like me, as I think through my own background and needs, and how they structure my own sense of sexuality?

I can more or less talk about them in chronological order.

1.  Catholicism, good old Catholicism.  I was an altar boy.  I was a lector (reading the scriptures) from middle school on.  I was a catechist, planning church retreats.  I read theology on weekends.  For a while, I was a Catholic, and while all of the structures of belief have fallen away, some of the social mores did not fall away.  I am not addressing strictures against pre-marital sex;  the idea that sex was somehow more appropriate after marriage never made sense to me.  After all, my mom was a single mom, and sex was part of her life.

I am talking about the judgement that my mother received as a single parent, that my sister endures today, still, even though we are relatively enlightened in 2014.  Single parents were/are considered wholly inadequate to the task of parenting, and their children were/are disadvantaged from the start.  That's impossible junk, it's clearly not true.  I turned out just fine, and not because there is anything special about me.  I see the superhuman efforts made by women like my mother and women I know today to raise incredible children.

But I also know that I am not that strong.  And I needed to make choices that would protect me from failing to be that strong.

2.  The AIDS crisis was still a crisis when I was a kid.  I knew only a handful of gay men (no lesbian women until I was in my twenties), only one of whom was HIV positive and would eventually die.  But all of them were freaked out, afraid of what this meant for them as a community, afraid of what sexuality had become for them as individuals.

Some acts of sexuality that might have been a sign of intimacy in the past had now become flags for a desire to hurt oneself;  sex without protection (outside a committed monogamous relationship) became less a sign of trust than a sign that you were no longer interested in living a long life.  I was never a member of this community, but I was a friend, and I experienced that transformation in my friends.

When Coil's cover of Soft Cell's cover of someone else's "Tainted Love" (linked above) was played for me, my feelings were crystalized: the playful, casual dimensions of human sexuality were, if not lost, at least not easy to recover, for me.

3.  The first two reflections were really about, I think the fear of the consequences of being too casual about sexuality.  A properly well-adjusted person might be able to work through those, and I hope I did, eventually.  But there is a more persistent dimension, one that I am still working through.

I'm a communication person, ostensibly, but really, I'm a language person.  I am most comfortable in the world when I work with language, which is a rich and polysemous but at least I think I know how to manage it.

An example.  For about three months, I have been using "winking" emoticons on Facebook.  Three people have asked me:  what do you mean by this "winking"?  So I ceased using the emoticon and replaced it with images of Clark Kent winking.  That substitution was clear as mud, so I finally started typing "the wink indicates a special filiation, like the special relationship Clark Kent had with the kids reading his comic, who knew he was Superman even when Lois and Jimmy didn't."

The only way I know how to communicate with anything like confidence or clarity is in language.  To communicate by gestures, by nonverbals, by images, these are things that often exceed my depth, though I work on them all the time as best I can.  Sexuality is, for me, also a dimension of communication, one that is wildly outside my ability to grasp, certainly to control.

A few weeks ago, one of the student organizations on campus organized a "You Moustache (Must Ask) for Consent" week, which included pasting post-it notes of moustaches in unusual places around campus.  I love these kind of campaigns, because only in universities can a post-it note on an elevator control panel become a place for political communication and a kind of playful re-enchantment of public space.

Consent is an important, integral part of my understanding of sexuality, a knee-jerk response, maybe, to attending an all-male high school where women were discussed as objects in spaces where they had no voice and no agency, and probably a result of taking courses in feminism which impacted me deeply.

But at the same time, I will admit:  I don't always know what it means to understand consent speaking not just as consent to a physical act, but to the communicative act.  Sexuality as a communicative act is deeply polysemous, and that polysemy places it outside my comfort zone (as a language guy).

I find it a thousand times easier to imagine consent in this scenario:
"Would you object if I read to you a series of poems which I believe will bring you joy?  I would love it if you might read to me a series of poems that you think might bring me joy.  Perhaps, as the time progresses, I will cease reading you my favorite poems, and I will start improvising new ones.  Some will be terribly derivative, knockoffs of William Carlos Williams, Russell Edson, and John Berger.  (The ones in the style of Russell Edson may ruin the mood, but be patient, please.)  There will be some 15-line attempts at sonnets, some haiku with too many syllables in the last line.  In the end, though I claim to be someone interested in language, I am a terrible poet.  But my poems will be genuine attempts to respond to the poetry you have shared with me.  At some points, the only possible response from me might be silence;  so often, for me with poetry (which sometimes is a form of language that escapes me, too), all I can do to respond is think.  If you are amenable to this arrangement, let me pull out my copy of Asphodel: There is something/ something urgent/ I have to say to you/ and you alone/ but it must wait/ while I drink in/ the joy of your approach[...]/ And so/ with fear in my heart/ I drag it out/ and keep on talking/ for I dare not stop."
Poetry is a deeply polysemous use of language.  (Every time I meet someone who thinks that Frost's "road less travelled" poem is a positive exhortation on individuality instead of a lamentation, I know, poetry is deeply polysemous.)  And that polysemy is both a source of joy and anxiety in me.  (As my friends know, the list of things that make me anxious is immense.)  But the polysemy of acts of sexuality are a thousand times more complicated (to me) than the polysemy of poetry.  Imagine what that does to both the joy and the anxiety.


So what does this mean?  Before watching Amazing Spiderman II, I was talking about bar culture, casual hookups, and hitting on members of your preferred gender with two friends.  I said something that surprised me to articulate it in this way, though I know it to be true:  I've never entered a room with an expectation or even a desire for "hooking up," for hitting on someone like this, and in fact, I do pretty well avoiding these kinds of contexts altogether, or any contexts that look remotely like those contexts, lest my brain explode.

The same night I was at the convention and became a fifth wheel, I set out to have dinner with two friends, one male, one female.  (The nice thing about a convention in the Cities -- I get to see nearly a dozen friends from Duluth, from Minneapolis St Paul, and from the rest of Minnesota -- see you all at SpringCon in a few weeks, too.)  I made plans to meet the female first, because I needed to walk to her convention hotel to meet her first (because you never let a lady walk alone in a city -- my grandfather's rules run through my dna).  In doing so, I set off a button in her, I think:  she replied, maybe with a little anxiety in her voice over the phone:  "is it just the two of us?"  No, I reassured her.  We are meeting [the guy].  But part of me wanted to say:  No, it is not just the two of us.  That looks a little too much like the kind of encounter that I can't manage, can't control, can't even wrap my head around comfortably.  I need the group of three for perhaps the same reason the dude at the start of this blog post was disappointed when a fifth person showed up -- because it shifts the dynamic to unquestionably one of a group of friends.  If there were a chance it would just be the two of us, I would be using this phone call to tell you to grab dinner on your own in your hotel restaurant or with someone else.

(Or, maybe I misread her question, and all I am really recounting here is the story of my own anxieties wallpapering over reality.  That happens a lot, too.)

Anyway.  These are the limits within which my brain, my body and my heart operate, lately.


This post took so freaking long to write.  I could have written a draft chapter of the book project I am working on with Jamie in the time it took me to write about this, because every time I reread it, I realized a section or segment where I was being inauthentic, where I was being euphemistic, where I was not being entirely clear because I wasn't being entirely honest with myself or my articulation.

But I really like the passage about reading poetry, so I think I can stop now.