<This post originally appeared on Thought Catalog>
“Tell me how you want to fuck and I’ll tell you who you are.”
There’s a belief that, in order to be our true selves, we have to be exactly that person at every level. Consistency above all else must be maintained, lest we prove ourselves to be hypocrites – and surely there is nothing more despicable than to be a hypocrite, no? It’s a mortal sin. It calls everything about you into question – how can we trust anything you have to say when you’ve shown that you can’t be true to yourself?
And in the minds of many, there is no place where we are more honest, the most truly ourselves than when we have our hands down our pants.
It’s the fervent belief that who we are, deep down inside, is most accurately reflected by our libidos. Not in how we fuck or who but in the way we want to. We have a curious and – in many ways, antagonistic – relationship with our sexual desires. Sex, in many ways, defines who we are. Sex is communion. Sex is intimacy. Orgasm is le petite mort, the no-mind state in which our conscious shuts down and our inner self is open, revealed to the world. And so it makes sense – in its way – to believe that our deepest, secret selves are revealed by what goes on between our ears when it’s just us and our genitals, where nobody else can see.
There is always this desire to make sweeping judgements about people based on what they masturbate to. When 50 Shades of Grey became a runaway best-seller, suddenly there was thought-piece after thought-piece about “what it means about women”1 Oh sure, women may say they want equality and “nice guys”, but when so many women are getting the screaming thigh-sweats over Christian Grey, clearly it means that they just want alpha males to dominate them – am I right bro? Right? Damn straight I am. Bro-fist.
Similarly, people are very quick to demonize men on the type of porn they watch. Do they watch bondage porn? They have issues with women. Transexual porn? They’re probably gay and in denial. Do they watch cartoon porn? They’re freaks (or worse if it’s furry porn). Are they watching women getting “raped” or “degraded”? They’re would-be sex-criminals themselves.
In phantasiae, veritas.
But is it true?
I can’t keep track of the number of people who tie themselves in knots over how their sexual desires don’t directly line up with who they are in their day to day lives. They are literally terrified about what it means that they get off on these taboo fantasies – things they would never dream of doing in the real world, yet gets their dicks hard and their vajeens wet. And if they indulge in these fantasies – bringing them from the privacy of mental space into meat space – does it mean that their non-sexual life is a lie?
When the staunch radical feminist is constantly aroused by the fantasy of being taken – not seduced, but overpowered – by a brutish, powerful man, is this her subconscious telling her where her true feelings lie? Is it an indication of what women really want? Or for that matter, what does it say about the mild-mannered, respectful man who believes whole-heartedly in enthusiastic consent when his ultimate desire is to throw a woman against the wall and have his way with her? Or when his fantasies always seem to revolve around blackmailing or coercing an underling – his secretary, his maid, a student – into having sex with him? Are these the manifestations of an unconscious anger against women? The subconscious acknowledgement that all men want to dominate and control women? Does the woman who gets off to watching simulated date rape have a mental illness that needs to be treated? Is the man who watches Belle Knox choking during fellatio to the point of tears on FacialAbuse.com waiting for his opportunity to use and abuse an unsuspecting co-ed?
And what if those fantasies get even darker? Age play, extreme dominance and humiliation like pony-play, torture or even eroticized cannibalism? What do these sexual desires say about someone? Are you simply lying to yourself about who you really are? What does it say when our sexual desires are so different that they disturb or scare us?
“Good” People Have “Good” Sex
We have an odd, and at times antagonistic, relationship when it comes to our sexual desires. We know that want, but we don’t want to acknowledge the fact that desire exists. To examine sexual desire is one of the greatest sins in America, especially when it goes against the dominant narrative that women don’t – or at least shouldn’t – want sex as much as men do. Teaching people how to talk about sex – navigating the worlds of consent and pleasure – makes the social conservatives get up in arms.
But if we do acknowledge sexual desire then it has to stay within strictly confined definitions. If we can’t pretend that sex is strictly about reproduction, then we have to at least pretend that the only “legitimate” forms of sex are tame; “vanilla” sex is the most we can tolerate. Anything diverging from the missionary position – especially in the context of a monogamous relationship – is horribly perverse and to be repressed at all costs. It’s a belief in society that’s become so ingrained that it’s become a trope: good people have good sex. The buffonish, perpetually horny men of pop-culture – your Sam Malones and Joey Tribbianis, your Stifflers, Jason Stackhouses, Dick Casablancas’ and Pucks – may want sex all the time but they want tame sex. Conventional sex.
Morally questionable characters on the other hand, tend to walk on the wilder side; they’re more likely to be kinky or have unusual requests – or to have “ironic” sexual indulgences. The hard-as-nails, controlling CEO moonlights as an adult baby. The alpha male bro likes to crossdress. Bondage is portrayed a something frightening and unusual that good people get tricked into – the better for us to laugh at them.
Villains, meanwhile aren’t just devious, they’re deviant. You know the villain is evil because he has a copy of 500 Days of Sodom or The Story of O on his bookshelves. They aren’t just dominant, they’re a sadist. They don’t have lovers, they have slaves and victims that they inflict themselves on.
Even people we’re supposed to like (or lust after) with aberrant sexual practices can’t just have a kink. Christian Grey doesn’t have his Red Room of Pain because he’s a dom and that’s just how he rolls; he’s damaged goods who’s only into bondage because he was sexually abused by an older woman. Only through being healed by Anastasia Steele’s magic vagina can he learn to give up the fucking, the whips and the chains in exchange for plain vanilla lovemaking happily ever after.
Of course, this would be less of an issue if the belief that sexual desire as moral barometer wasn’t treated as immutable fact. People who indulge in kink or non-standard sexual practices find their sex-lives used against them in divorce proceedings. Women who share racy photos of themselves with their lovers risk damaging their careers if those photos surface out in the wild – punished for sharing intimacy with someone in a manner that society deems irreparably aberrant.
And if those desires seem to contradict their public persona… well, then everything about them becomes suspect. Conservatives, of course, will get heated up over any form of sexual expression, but progressives have their own inconstancies to face up to. Clarisse Thorn and Jessica Wakeman, for example, have written about trying to reconcile being a feminist and a sexual submissive. Many feminist viewpoints see BDSM as being contrary to feminism – women are “led” to being a submissive by the dominant sexual power structure and have convinced themselves that they like it and that the violence of S&M only further validates mistreatment of women.
Of course, sometimes those desires just scare us. Men who want rough sex or admit to darker fantasies – fantasies of degradation or even violation – live in fear that this is who they “really” are deep down inside and try to repress their dark side.
But what does it all really mean?
If Only You Knew The Power of the Dark Side
Well… it means you’re human, really. Despite our insistence that good people are of uniform and unwavering consistency in thought and deed and belief, people are complex and contradictory. We all have aspects to ourselves that we don’t like, sides of our personalities that we prefer to ignore or pretend doesn’t exist.
In Jungian psychology, this is known as “the shadow” or the “shadow self”. The shadow self is the unconscious parts of one’s personality that the conscious side does not acknowledge as part of one’s identity. It’s easy to see our shadow self as “dark” or negative; after all, it’s the parts of us that we’ve deemed unacceptable. However, in many ways it’s more accurate to say it’s our primitive or unenlightened side; it’s the aspects of ourselves that we have rejected or find unreasonable. Our uncontrolled lusts, unleavened by restraint or morality, or uncontrolled impulses like anger or greed or selfishness are all part of our shadow-selves.
But our shadow doesn’t necessarily mean “evil” or the “darkness of the soul”; rather, everybody’s shadow self is more the parts of themselves that they dislike or attempt to edit out. Our shadow-selves are the parts of us that we wish didn’t exist, for a multitude of reasons. We may repress those sides because of religious instruction or social opprobrium. Someone who’s been shamed by his parents or his lovers may try to stamp out parts of themselves as a way of appeasing others. Or their shadow-selves may be the sides that they fear.
Thus, someone who is obsessed with being alpha, for example, would have a shadow self that is their vulnerable or submissive side. Someone who needs to be in control would find that their shadow is the part of them that has given up or the fear of what would happen if they did lose control for just a moment. Meanwhile, a good man may well fear the lustful side of himself that eschews restraint and just wants to take what it wants. Someone who believes in respect and equality may try to quash a thrill that comes from degradation and humiliation of people he sees as having disrespected or insulted him.
Of course, in denying our shadow-selves, they become the aspects that we most resent or disdain in others; the lady doth protest too much indeed. Ironically enough, trying to repress our shadow-selves only makes them more present in our lives. Attempting to excise it from our psyche, pushing it down and denying its existence paradoxically makes us even more aware of it and gives it more power… and the very nature of the taboo makes it that much more perversely desirable.
The Eroticization of The Taboo
It’s the nature of the human psyche to find the taboo thrilling, even erotic. Even the things that we actively fear can stimulate our desires in ways that we don’t expect.
Consider the rape fantasy – defined here as the fantasies of an individual using physical force, threats or coercion to compel someone into sexual activity. This is, shockingly, one of the most common sexual fantasies in women – depending on the study, up to 60% of women use rape fantasies as part of their sexual lives. In fact, because of the taboo nature of the fantasy, odds are good that this estimate is actually low. On the surface, this seems like pure madness. Rape represents one of the most horrifying and very real threats that a woman faces in her lifetime, and yet for many, many women it forms a cornerstone of their erotic imagination. These women don’t simply find that it’s popped into their heads and then wonder “where the hell did that come from”; they deliberately use those fantasies to arouse themselves and to get themselves off, alone and with partners.
Similarly, many men are aroused by negative emotions – not just being the dominant or the rapist, but through feelings of shame. Sometimes it’s the shame of transgression – a fantasy about incest, for example – that may tweak their limbic system and leave them harder than Russian calculus. Other times it may be humiliation of being degraded and insulted – called a sissyboy or fag, being scolded like a child or laughed at for being unable to measure up as a man. It could be through the fantasy of being forced to sexually service someone they deem undesirable – a gay man forced to blow an anti-gay bigot, a Jew being forced to submit to a Nazi. He may be forced to beg, to lick someone’s boots, or to be literally objectified and forced to act as a stool or a table for his partner. He may be metaphorically emasculated – forced to crossdress or to be penetrated anally.
Why would these intensely negative emotions and experiences stir people’s erotic imaginations so much?
One reason is that the terrifying and the erotic are very closely intertwined. The physical symptoms of fear are almost entirely identical to the physical symptoms of arousal, phobos and eros intertwining and affecting the intertwining circuits of the brain. One of the effects of this crosswiring means that our brains frequently will process fear via our erotic imaginations – taking the terrifying and making it electrifying.
The intensity of the emotion involved in transgressing the taboo can also fire up our parasympathetic and sympathetic systems – two parts of the autonomic network of our nervous system that work together to regulate the function of our hearts and glands. Arousing the parasympathetic system – causing our heart rates to rise, our bodies to sweat and our adrenaline to pump – arouses us sexually as well. The parasympathetic system then triggers the sympathetic system which controls orgasm and ejaculation. Incredibly intense emotional sensations – feelings of fear, of humiliation or danger – flood our parasympathetic system and open the sympathetic circuitry, bringing us to the breaking point.
And then there’s the fact that taboo is about power – who has it and who doesn’t. And power is hot. Power exchange – the give and take of who has power over someone and who doesn’t – forms a key part of countless forms of sexual expression.
Part of the thrill of the rape fantasy for many people, men and women, isn’t the violence, it’s the power. For the person who fantasizes about being the rapist, it’s obvious – they’re overpowering another person, inflicting their will on them. For the person fantasizing about being raped, it’s often a fantasy of submission, of being forced to give up control to someone else. But at the same time, they’re also empowered, driving their imagined attacker so crazed with lust that they can’t help themselves; they become overpowered themselves, forced to violate law and morality in order to get to this symbol of ultimate desire.
Being willing to transgress – to violate deeply held taboos – is another form of power transfer. It is a self-conscious rejection of what has been forbidden, placing oneself outside the system of rules and laws; in doing so he or she is claiming power. But at the same time, the fear of punishment and the mortification of being caught – and the attendant emotional rush – gives up that power, validating the other’s right to punish them and express power over them.
Is it logical? No, not really. But then, sex and sexual desire almost never is.
Sexual Desires Are Not Politically Correct
As much as we like to consider ourselves rational creatures, humans at their core are a bundle of contradictions. Who we are is frequently at odds with who we see ourselves as. And as much as we value consistency and constancy, we are too intricate, too prone to internal conflict and mismatch to be uniform in thought and word and deed.
But contradicting ourselves doesn’t mean that we’re liars and hypocrites; it simply means that, in the words of Whitman, we are complex; we contain multitudes. It’s in the rush to ascribe moral and meaning to everything that we end up making things harder and more confusing for ourselves. By attempting to ascribe morality to emotion and correctness to desire, we force ourselves into hypocrisy; we’re attempting to create a universal standard to things that, at their core, defy easy categorization. Nothing happens in a vacuum after all; the same forces that decry kink or fetish as perversion and an indicator of mental disease or emotional defect open themselves up to accusations that their own desires are the product of a society that arbitrarily denies sexual agency and forces them into limited sexual roles.
At its core, sexual desire is simply that: desire. It’s not merely the urge to spread one’s seed, no matter what evo-psych proponents like to claim. It doesn’t convey secret truths about a person’s deepest core and identity. A powerful woman who gets her rocks off through being dominated isn’t secretly revealing that she desires to give up her power, she’s embracing it by choosing what she wants – and what she wants is to be so desirable that her partner needs to control her. A man who harbors aggressive fantasies isn’t secretly longing to be violent or to degrade others; the power of violation of the taboo is the erotic appeal. To be sure: there are people whose dark sexual desires stem from a real desire to cause non-consensual pain or harm to others. But desire itself is morally neutral. Morality is defined by the act, not by the feeling.
Of course, simply acknowledging that the desires exist – even trying to understand why they exist – is only part of the struggle. It’s in making peace with your shadow self, being able to embrace and acknowledge the dark and unpleasant sides of yourself that you find freedom and comfort. Accepting that you have these desires doesn’t make you sinful or wrong; it empowers you. And by empowering yourself, you’re better able to address those desires, even the dark, disturbing ones, in ways that are safe, sane consensual.
- Especially when the real question is “why do so many people seem to be responding to objectively shitty writing?” [↩]