Saturday, August 13, 2005

How to be a sexual retard. I have just read The Ice Storm by Rick Moody, which as you may know, was turned into a 1997 film with a hobbit in. My obsession with books that have been turned into films is notorious, and shamefully apparent when you look at my bookshelf, so I won't get into the film, which I haven't seen. But I was thinking about this yesterday - we can divide hip-mainstream films into BG and AG (Before and After Gyllenhaal). In BG films, wide-eyed, fucked-up yoofs were played by the likes of Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Ethan Hawke, Christina Ricci, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Elijah Wood.

Donnie Darko
(2001) is the definitive AG film, and since then a new generation of indie malcontents has emerged, led by the siblings Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Kirsten Dunst, etc. Many of them were child actors who appeared in BG films, and many BG actors now co-star with AG actors, so this theory is nowhere near watertight. But it seemed that way yesterday when I was waiting for the tram.

Anyway. The Ice Storm would be a great book club book, because it's so textually and thematically rich, and the characters are wonderfully ambivalent. And the writing is so pithy, so good at capturing the absurdly poignant with linguistic economy. But what struck me, most of all, was that it's a book about sexual humiliation. It disrupts the 'rite-of-passage' mythology that people must endure periods of adolescent sexual ignorance, embarrassment and inadequacy before they become adults who are 'good in bed'. Or as good as they're going to be, anyway. By the time you're my age (this said desperately, birthday two days away).

It struck me that there were so many scenes of male masturbation in all its chaotic, compulsive stickiness. Despite the supposed sexual liberation of the 1970s, it's furtive and ashamed. Ben Hood, the father, uses his mistress's garter belt "as a dressing gown for his hard-on - in flagrant violation of the precepts of autoerotics as he had explained them to his son".
He had tried to explain self-abuse to his son once, and this was one of the conversations that did not go well. He sat the boy down in the bedroom one day and asked him not to do it in the shower, because it wasted water and electricity and because everyone would expect it of him anyway, and not to do it onto the linen, and not to do it with his sister's undergarments or any clothes belonging to his mother, and not to do it with the dog. The best time was when he was certain no one else was in the house. The best place was in the john, where it would cause no trouble and mix with the other sad waste products of America. If he became concerned about any sign of perversion in his habits, he should feel free to come forward and discuss it. Together they could consult a medical textbook.

At the close of this monologue, Paul looked as though he had just learned of his family's financial ruin.
One of the book's themes is the parental hypocrisy that fucks up the kids. Later in the book, Paul rubs himself against the sleeping ass of his friend Libbets, who had earlier rejected his advances: "His dick was making its own decisions, ones that involved chiefly sorrow and shame." It's a comic moment as Paul frantically scrubs at the evidence with a towel, trying not to wake Libbets as she rolls sleepily closer and closer to the wet spot.

Once I was in the Baillieu looking for some cultural studies book in the 306s. Do you ever have these moments? Crouching down, the title of this book jumped out at me and I had to pull it off the shelf. I sat on one of those strangely bouncy steps they have to help you reach high shelves, and flicked through the book. It was a sociological study, analysing interviews with adults about their recollections of childhood sexual behaviour. In a culture paranoid about pedophilia, the study of childhood sexuality is unpopular both inside and outside the academy, and there aren't many books like this one, wrote the author in the introduction.

I didn't read very much of the book and hastily put it back on the shelf when someone else came down the aisle, but it seems to me as though there are methodological problems with its approach. In the light of their later sexual experience, people would inevitably describe their experiences as 'formative'. Phrases like, "Of course I didn't know it then, but I now recognise it was..." But getting responses of the same candour from children and adolescents would be even more problematic. Imagine getting that one past the ethics board!

Reading The Ice Storm reminded me of the arbitrariness of this normative sexual teleology. It was a strangely reassuring book, because the adult sexual couplings were just as humiliating and unsatisfactory as the teenage ones. It's not a coincidence that the Hood parents' adulterous encounters both take place in cars, the traditional space of teenage sexual experimentation. (I am just waiting for Glen to jump in here and talk about panel vans!) The novel makes this explicit:
Elena had never made love in a car before. It was one of those rites of passage that she had read about in books. She hadn't known about rock and roll, she hadn't known about racial strife, and she hadn't known about heavy petting in cars. The logistics of it were demanding, she was finding out.
Both encounters are bad. One sentence stands out from Ben's: "She sat on his impoverished penis." And from Elena's: "It was urgent and painless and soon it was over. [...] In less time than it takes to defrost a windshield."

D'you know, a week or so ago one of my friends was telling me about a sexual encounter she really regretted. "Did you enjoy yourself?" I asked. As though that would somehow have made it less regrettable. Afterwards, I wondered why we have come to value the technical enjoyment of sex so much. Is it the Cosmo mentality: the need to be 'good' at it? Is it the pizza mentality: the 'right' to orgasm?

A few weeks back at work I was editing Caz's PR column and decided to take the Sunsilk Hair Survey that she criticises so well. This ridiculous survey does not exist in the world of qualitative research, but rather in the Cosmo Quiz World of options A through D that never quite fit anyone. One of the questions was: "When was the last time you had great sex?" And one of the answers was: "I've never had great sex." Doesn't it feel like a personal failing to tick that box? What? No great sex? What's wrong with you?

Now it's time to put on some toenail polish, go out, and get pissed. Mel's Epic Birthday Week has begun!

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