"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, September 4, 2023

Sexless Sex In A 'No Means No' World - Where Have All The Lovers Gone?

Men of a certain age have had their share of affairs, and those fortunate enough to have had an interlude with a younger woman feel particularly fortunate. It is not so much that they need or want their masculinity affirmed, but their lives. Most lead Thoreau’s ‘lives of quiet desperation’, lives of punctuality, duty, and responsibility; and they like the characters in Chekhov’s stories struggle to find freedom, independence, spiritual epiphany, or love. Most are disappointed and end their lives as they started them in a dull, repetitive, boring way.

The Coleman Silk character in Phillip Roth’s book The Human Stain is an older man who has until recently been the Dean of Students at a small liberal arts college in New England. His wife has died – at the hands of those who forced him out of his position, he believes – and he has lived alone. He surprisingly and quite unexpectedly begins an affair with a woman half his age. He had long ago given up any hope of sexual experience, for at his age men were supposed to have other things on their mind.

A much younger colleague of Silk’s warns him against continuing the affair. She is not from your milieu, the colleague says. She is uneducated, recently divorced from a psychotic Vietnam war veteran, and mother to two dead children killed in a fire for which she is at least partly responsible. 

Stay away, for God’s sake, says his colleague. Silk pauses, looks at him and says, “Granted, she's not my first love. Granted, she's not my great love. But she is sure as hell my last love. Doesn't that count for something?”

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Men like Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov, the main character in Chekhov’s story, The Lady with the Little Dog have had many lovers, love women, and have found sexual liaisons exciting, dangerously tempting, and irresistible. In fact for them there is nothing more exciting or tempting. A love affair at its most balanced is far more than sexual and is an expression of sexuality itself.

With men he was bored and ill at ease, cold and unable to talk, but when he was with women, he felt easy and knew what to talk about, and how to behave, and even when he was silent with them he felt quite comfortable. In his appearance as in his character, indeed in his whole nature, there was something attractive, indefinable, which drew women to him and charmed them; he knew it, and he, too, was drawn by some mysterious power to them.

D.H. Lawrence understood this perfectly and in Lady Chatterley’s Lover told the story of the sexual relationship between Connie Chatterley and Mellors, the gamekeeper. In Lawrence’s view, sexual desire and fulfillment know no social constraints or barriers. If the dynamics are right – an equipoise between dominance and submission – a sexual climax of almost spiritual importance can result.  

For all Lawrence’s romantic idealism, he, more than any other writer understood the absolute power and centrality of sexual relationships; and to ignore them would be to misinterpret all relationships.

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The most successful love affair in all of Shakespeare – and he was no fan of marriage or romance – was that between Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. Kate in the first act is indeed a shrew and a vixen, but in the course of the play she is ‘tamed’. Yet Shakespeare was not writing about abusive male patriarchy but mutual conquest.  Kate needed Petruchio’s confident sexuality and respect; and Petruchio finally found a woman with energy, wit, intelligence, and passion. Sex was the least of it.

Like other characters in Chekhov’s stories, Gurov sees himself as a man of particular insight and intelligence and one who can always clear the practical clutter and see unerringly. For him it is the companionship of women with all its secrecy and promise which enables him to see further and beyond.  He loved women, and wanted to be with them. He understood that diffidence, that particular male quality of ambivalent sexual interest, was irresistible to women. He found that even when his attention waned in an affair, women were even more attracted to him.

Gurov has no remorse or guilt about his repeated infidelities. His wife is solid, dependable, but predicable and unappealing; but he, gifted with natural sexual allure, confidence and social intelligence, need not, just because of marriage, be confined within its strictures.

The Huntsman is one of Chekhov’s first expressions of this theme – that there is such a thing as greatness, and while it may not be ennobling or admirable, it is what qualifies one person from all others; a genius from the rest. In a passage reminiscent of both Nikolai in A Boring Story and Korvin in The Black Monk, Yegor Vlasych explains this to his estranged wife. 

He has been gifted, and is a man able in all circumstances to surpass all others in talent, skill, and performance. This gift gives him the freedom to act as he pleases and to have as many lovers as he wants.  He understands that not only are women not put off by sexually adventuresome men; they are all the more attracted to them.  They see and appreciate the man’s universal appeal and his charm; and want to be prima inter pares.

Just like Anna in The Lady with the Little Dog, the huntsman’s wife is irrepressibly drawn to him. Neither woman can do otherwise in this Chekhovian scheme of things.

Chekhov understood that men will always pursue women, and this pursuit is part of the rewarding sexual dynamics of any relationship.  Women, despite current attempts at making men into obedient, patient, and dutiful servants to their needs, don’t want watered down men who read the new litany (‘May I, Should I, Can I’), who practice restraint, order, and sexual reserve.  They  want – and have always wanted – men like Gurov and the huntsman; men of sexual confidence who like them and want them.

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Miss Julie in Strindberg’s play of the same name, is a woman of a very different character, and one who is a hundred years before her time.  She, by her own description is half-woman, half-man, brought up by her mother to be androgynous.

I had to do all the things a boy does to prove women are as good as men.  I had to wear boys’ clothes; I was taught to handle horses…My mother made me groom and harness and go out hunting; I even had to try to plough.  All the men on the estate were given women’s jobs, and the women the men’s; until the whole place went to rack and ruin and we were the laughing stock of the neighborhood.  I’d learned from my mother to hate and distrust men – you know how she loathed the whole male sex.  And I swore to her that I would never become the slave of any man

At the beginning of the play, Jean sees her ‘training’ her fiancĂ©, making him jump through hoops:

I came across the pair of them one evening in the stable-yard.  Miss Julie was doing what she called ‘training’ him.  Know what that was? Making him jump over her riding whip – the way you teach a dog…

Julie does not hate men – at most she is conflicted in her feelings about them – and is sexually attracted to Jean, a virile, confident, and self-assured man. Despite her upbringing, she falls for him, has sex with him, and wants to run away with him.  She is playing out the age-old female psychological conflict of domination-submission.  She is suspicious, distrustful, and dismissive of men in general, but wants to be taken by a sexually potent and ambitious man like Jean. She plays sexual ‘training’ games with him – “Kiss my shoe”, she says, “Do what I tell you” – but she is drawn to him.  She wonders why, but rightly concludes, “Why was I so attracted to you? The weak to the strong?”

JULIE: Menial, lackey! Stand up when I speak to you.

JEAN: Menial’s whore, lackey’s harlot, shut your mouth and get out of here…Do you think any servant girl would throw herself at a man [the way you have]? I haven’t.  Only animals and prostitutes.

JULIE, broken. Go on.  Hit me, trample on me – it’s all I deserve.  I’m rotten.  But help me! If there’s any way out at all, help me!

In this woke, post-historical generation, men are somewhat timorous about their sexual destiny.  Millennia of history, of kings, shoguns, emperors, Mandarins, and shahs – a male triumphant history – seem to have been ignored.  Men have bought the feminist creed.   Men, they say, are adjuncts to history, the rooster’s contribution, the seed of progeny but nothing more.

Which leaves the supposedly beleaguered, confused, American male whose sexual confidence has been derogated, eroded, and dismissed as retrograde and misogynistic.  He now defers rather than insists.  He demurs rather than pursues.  He is attentive to women’s every suggestion.  Coupling is a matter of civil and human rights, litigation or the fear thereof, and a conscientious commitment to righting the wrongs of the past.  Sexual satisfaction is a by-product, a half-hearted and disappointing one better returned to sender rather than kept and used.

Laura, the main character in Strindberg’s The Father, humiliates and finally destroys her husband who claims Victorian male rights over their child.  She has lain back for his little bit of creation, but no longer and never again.  He should roll over, move aside, be quiet, and die. Instead, she makes him mad with doubt about the paternity of their daughter, and drives him into an asylum.  Acquiring rights over their daughter is not enough.  Only his emasculation and ruin will compensate for his patriarchal demands, abusive behavior, and complete ignorance.  She is confident, willful, and vengeful.

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Savvy men, however, have never capitulated and have understood that human nature has not changed, and that sexual dynamics are the same as ever despite the social and cultural changes mediating them.  Men pursue women and women like that pursuit. Savvy men understand the necessary character and cast of that pursuit.  Women are drawn to an unmistakable sexual desire moderated by admiration.  Confident pursuit within this context implies completeness.  The man appreciates a woman’s beauty, her charms, wit, and indefinable allure.  He wants her not just sex with her.

These men never have to ask, ‘May I?’, for ‘This Way’ road signs are well-posted.

So, it is surprising that so many men have agreed to march to Miss Julie-type orders.  Feminists insist that men are retrograde, illiberal, and irremediable.  They are obsessed with guns, violence, and competition; and are evolutionary throwbacks.  Only women have evolved to a higher state of being; and are the only bulwark against male social anarchy.  Their caring, compassionate, collaborative, and participatory ethos has saved us all.

As paraphrased by Dana Antiochus, comedian and social commentator Bill Maher disagrees:

The inversion of nature that we have experienced as a culture, and the subversive aspect of flipping traditional roles, with its subsequent destruction of society, serves as a signal that we live in a dying system.  It has led to a pussified, sissy, pathetic, lovey-dovey/touchy-feely country of wimps, who put emotion over logic, feeling over reason, in our nurture-heavy/nature-deprived, culture

There is something compelling about the story of Buck, the canine hero of Jack London’s story The Call of the Wild. He is the epitome of animal determinism.  After years of being yoked to his human masters, tied and tethered in a society alien to his own, he finally escapes, and his male aggressiveness and dominance for so long stymied and subverted, emerge.  

He hears the call of the wild – an irresistible appeal to the basic, primitive, primordial nature of every animal being.  There is a completeness and perfection in the male character of Buck – he has no feminine side – and his will is male, one unmistakably virile, potent, and forceful.  London, writing in a pre-feminist, post-Victorian era, accepted male dominance as a given – a hardwired, deeply-rooted, ineluctable force of human nature and society, so the story of Buck was a cautionary tale.  He was not unmindful of Ibsen and Strindberg who had written only a few years before about men who are subjugated to raw female power. 

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Water seeks its own level.  it is only a matter of time before sex is recalibrated, adjusted for male and female genetic determinism; or nature-nurture in equilibrium.  Until then, canny Casanovas will continue to have a field day.

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