empowering masochism is some low-expectations bullshit

Slate has an interesting review of two books I’ll probably never read myself: Slutever: Dispatches From a Sexually Autonomous Woman in a Post-Shame World and Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction.

“Society’s experiencing growing pains when it comes to female sexual autonomy,” writes Karley Sciortino in her new memoir Slutever: Dispatches From a Sexually Autonomous Woman in a Post-Shame World. Sciortino, 31, who’s been writing a sex blog since her teens, isn’t wrong about those growing pains. There ought to be no conflict between the Sherman’s March that the #MeToo movement is currently making through the ranks of skeevy, abusive, powerful men and the liberation Sciortino preaches. Yet Slutever, an engagingly devil-may-care account of Sciortino’s many erotic escapades, feels a shade off trend politically. The self-determination to say “Yes” without shame is the flip side of the freedom to say “No,” yet the public conversation seems only able to focus on one at a time.

Even Monica Lewinsky is starting to admit how much sex-positive ideology was an impediment to understanding her situation.

The first clues that something is wrong are in the title. It screams “neoliberal bullshit story.” “Sexually autonomous” is a nonsensical concept. Sex is profoundly intersubjective. No matter whether you think you’re Master or not, sex depends on another person. I cannot will myself to have a sex life, alone in my apartment and regardless of what other people want (after a life full of neoliberal propaganda). It doesn’t work like that. If you have a feeling of autonomy during sex, it’s because you’re discounting the other person in some way. If they’re an object, you’re the only person in the room. Freedom and autonomy!

Can we really say we’re enjoying the post-shame world? It’s epitomized by George Bush, Donald Trump, and the Republican Party.

Complicating matters are the more ambiguous narratives the #MeToo revolution has brought to light, like Babe.net’s much-deplored story on an alienating sexual encounter a young woman had with comedian Aziz Ansari. Such incidents—more bad sex than outright harassment or assault—demonstrate how sex is, as a Freudian literary theorist might put it, the ultimate overdetermined text. Sex acts in and of themselves have no meaning—which is not to say that people don’t find meaning in them, only that those meanings are always of our own making and can vary wildly from one person to the next. We really drive ourselves nuts when we insist that the significance of blowjobs or anal intercourse or strap-ons or whatever can or should be fixed and universal.

This is true, except that the phrase “of our own making” is only true if “we” means humanity in general. Individual people don’t invent the narratives around sex. I didn’t invent the concept of “healthy relationship”, and she didn’t invent the concept of BDSM.

We really drive ourselves stupid if we insist that the prevailing cultural symbolism about sex doesn’t matter, only our (psychologically defended) internal feelings. The author’s “empowerment” didn’t do shit for the woman raped by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF. NY Post headline: Dominique Strauss-Kahn ‘refused to pay’ hooker maid for sex (I think I first read that point at Feminist Current but I didn’t find it in 30 seconds of looking for it). That accusation has a negative effect on her life, regardless of how proud of herself an unrepresentative sex worker claims to be. It certainly matters that the point of anal sex with women is that it’s painful and degrading. Not once did I hear a positive rumor about someone known to take it up the ass. It was always a story meant to make someone look bad: the slightly overweight cheerleader who shit on a bro’s dick, the Catholic who wanted to remain technically a virgin.

Social constructionism is not the same thing as solipsism.

Take another just-published memoir, Erica Garza’s Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction. It opens with a scene meant to represent a particularly low point: A man Garza doesn’t much care about comes by, as he often has, for a hookup. When they’re done, he departs after a few token conversational exchanges, a pretense of the intimacy that neither one feels. Alone, Garza masturbates to a porn clip and to “the thought of what a miserable slut I am to allow a guy like Clay to use me for sex.” The encounter, not at all unusual for Garza at the time, gives her a feeling of “immediate emptiness.” Even the sex does little for her; she describes staring at the ceiling and thinking about spackling as he pumps away at her. What really gets her going is the memory of how much she’s degraded herself, “an elaborate mix of shame and sexual excitement I had come to depend on since I was 12 years old.”

This is a terribly sad way for someone’s sexuality to end up, and it takes deliberate coldness to write about it so dismissively. The reviewer’s side is clear. What’s really going on is that having higher aspirations for sex is shamed. Note the hypocritical use of slut shaming itself: “not at all unusual for Garza at the time.” She could’ve also written that Garza’s sex life at the time was a bleak emotional wasteland, and it would’ve conveyed the same thing in a much different light.

It’s actually true that it sucks to be used for sex, particularly when a part of you is seeking redemption from another human being. Sex doesn’t have to be pleasure blended with degradation, but that’s the prevailing custom. A person could go their entire life without experiencing the option of truly affectionate sex. For all their “kinky fantasies,” these people have no imagination.

Garza’s description of that mix makes it tempting to quip that Getting Off could be summarized in two words: raised Catholic. But so could the not-at-all ashamed Slutever: Both Garza and Sciortino grew up in ethnically homogenous Catholic communities (Garza in an upscale Latino enclave in Southern California, Sciortino in a more working-class, predominantly Italian American town in upstate New York). Both became fascinated by sex and pornography as girls. Both are bisexual, and both have gang-bang fantasies. In many instances, Garza and Sciortino relate strikingly similar experiences or relationships, yet each woman interprets these events in a radically different way.

This is an important detail, probably not apparent to people who weren’t raised in religious households (i.e., the target audience of the review). I grew up Jehovah’s Witness, so I know these bad feelings very well.

The review doesn’t consider an obvious question: is Sciortino full of shit about not being ashamed? She’s been writing a sex blog her entire sex life. She has a public image to maintain. Complex feelings inconsistent with that image will be suppressed, and certainly not included in her book. This is one of my favorite masochism quotes, from Johnson’s Character Styles:

There is a remembrance, albeit often unconscious, of the will being broken yet surviving and an undying commitment to resist the defeat and preserve the will, even if that is done secretly, spitefully, and with much suffering.

To identify with the masochist, it is often useful to remember any time when you have been unfairly beaten and there was no means of retaliation. The persistent and impotent rage you may have experienced at the time corresponds to the unconscious, and sometimes semi-conscious rage the masochistic person harbors. “I don’t get angry, I get even,” is a phrase that captures the underlying phenomenology of the masochistic person. The problem for this person, however, was that the power differential was so great that there was no way to get even save one–self-defeat, which by displaying itself, perversely preserves pride. The only way to defeat the other was by learning to enjoy one’s defeat, displaying it to the world, and defying any attempts to alter it. The patterns of the masochist may be instructively compared with the kind of passive resistance that exists in response to the most totalitarian and sadistic political regimes. During the Nazis’ domination of Europe, for example, any obvious acts of resistance could be punished by retribution against the civilian population, including mass executions. Thus, any acts of sabotage had to appear absolutely accidental and deniable. Similarly, self-sabotage, which is unconsciously driven, becomes the most deniable act of aggression. The pleasure in such degradation of the self is securely hidden.

I’ve done a lot of therapy. The more I do, and the better I feel, the less masochistic my behavior patterns. Given that my masochistic impulses came from patterns of mistreatment that happen to women, and are intended to emasculate, I find it totally implausible that a Catholic who likes to fuck Dominant Guys has arrived at her masochism through completely different psychological processes. I hurt myself during enjoyment more than most people (skateboarding). I understand the mindset very well, and it isn’t actually the best option in life. Dare to imagine the possibility of having sex affectionately, as a subject. It’s very difficult to imagine this because it means someone actually liking you and your horrible personality.

Sciortino, living in New York and dating a depressive musician, became involved on the side with a louche older man whose “casual pervertedness” and mild sadism she found thrilling.
He “loaned” her out to a friend visiting from out of town and once sent her a text that read, “Be home at 8. Tired but would be good to beat u.” (“I treasured it like a love letter,” she adds.) He rebuffed all attempts to make their relationship more established, telling her, “Maybe, if you get famous, I’ll consider impregnating you.” Sciortino doesn’t regard any of these incidents as abusive. To the contrary, she views this man as both a playmate and a mentor, “the first person to make me feel like my sex life wasn’t something to be ashamed of but rather part of what made me interesting—like my sluttiness was a sign of my curiosity about life.” The details of these interactions may sound appalling, but in the context of their ironic, theatrical, kinky, debauched relationship, they liberated Sciortino, for whom her lover is “the sort of guy who just didn’t judge you, and who wanted you to be the most powerful version of yourself possible.”

You know what’s not being admitted here? The sadism directed towards the “depressive musician” boyfriend. Does she actually feel powerful with a guy who “rebuffs all attempts to make their relationship more established?” Or does she feel powerful when she’s getting undressed with her boyfriend and he sees the bruises and tries not to show the hurt but she can tell and it helps her get off when he’s going down on her? I think the second scenario is a LOT more plausible.

You can’t make such a big deal about how the meaning of sex is a cultural construction and then pretend distinctions like boyfriend sex vs. cheating sex don’t radically affect the experience, particularly since we’re talking about shame. When my wife was fucking someone else, I knew damned well that the fact that they were getting away with something made it more hot, and that the guy was getting off on feeling better than me. There was definitely sadism involved, directed at me. Maybe that’s all I’m good for in this world. But I still have a sex drive and the only outlet for it is this person who makes me hate myself, so I guess I should definitely hate myself. That’s masochism. Glorifying it is the most intellectually dishonest thing in the universe.

The fact that she called it an experience of not being judged and someone wanting her to be the most powerful version of herself…LMAO.

She was judged to be a fuckhole shared among friends (bros before hoes). An actual secure attachment would be empowering in a way that she’d make progress on her underlying issues, such as masochism.

“Gee, that traumatized person is masochistic. We should definitely encourage that by beating them.”

Garza has a version of this relationship, an affair with a shady businessman with whom sex was often “painful. Both physically and emotionally. There was a lot of choking, slapping, and hair pulling involved, and he’d always find a way to verbally demean me … Most of the things he said were things that I had thought before, but nobody had ever spoken them aloud like this.” Like Sciortino, Garza finds all of this arousing, but unlike Sciortino, she feels terrible about it, convinced that the relationship is a manifestation of her own self-hatred.

That’s so much more honest. I’m waaaay more harsh on myself than anything people say out loud to me, when I also feel like killing myself. Hearing about it during sex only makes sense as a good thing if you’re determined to stay depressed and anything else isn’t “the real you.” It’s hopelessness and it’s sad. Predatory awful people like hurting those who’ve been pre-damaged in this way.

Later, Garza would live with a filmmaker who promised to pay for everything while she worked on her writing career, a relationship that on the surface looked supportive but that soon devolved into dependency: She’d spend her days obsessively grooming her body, masturbating, and brooding over his exes, and her evenings dreading the moments when his friends asked her, “So Erica, what do you do?” The couple had, she now realizes, little in common. Even though their relationship was her first not to “revolve around sex,” she seems to have been little more than a lifestyle accessory chosen for her willingness to accommodate him in every respect. A recovering alcoholic, this man was the first person to suggest that Garza might be a sex addict. He also asked her to marry him. She said yes, then went on Zoloft, which, combined with Xanax, made her an anorgasmic semi-zombie well-suited to this plan. Yet somehow she managed to get into an MFA program, decided to move out of the filmmaker’s loft, and after that never spoke to him again. Theirs was a relationship full of the conventional signifiers of psychological “health” but nevertheless hollow at its core.

So why did she spend her time like that instead of writing? I’ve also paid for everything for someone. She played a lot of videogames and came to resent me. Wanted someone “bossier.”

It sounds to me like a lack of initiative, discipline, belief in the self. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. If you have all day to do whatever you want, free of economic worry, and you spend your days grooming and masturbating at home alone, is that your boyfriend’s fault?

This is a key sentence: “Theirs was a relationship full of the conventional signifiers of psychological “health” but nevertheless hollow at its core.” Seeking out “conventional signifiers” of something instead of the thing itself is the wrong approach, doomed to failure. If you have “little in common,” what does it even mean that the relationship doesn’t revolve around sex? The reviewer is using big words to hide that she has no idea what to expect from a healthy relationship. She’s missing a mental model of why a healthy relationship manifests externally in things that look like “conventional signifiers.” They just happen, they’re not the point! Everything in life isn’t about managing perceptions of yourself.

For her part, Sciortino, sick of waiting tables, signed onto a website created to connect “sugar daddies” with young women willing to exchange a spectrum of sexual and emotional services for cash. She “dated” five rich men, all of whom she claims to have “genuinely liked,” although not well enough to devote much of her book to them. What she really liked was the chance to be financially comfortable for the first time in her life. For Sciortino, this was a job like any other: “Sure, sometimes I’d be hungover in bed looking at memes, and the last thing on earth I’d want to do was go to the Upper West fucking Side and stroke some millionaire’s ego and then have really performative sex—the last thing on earth.” But in the end, she writes, it was both lucrative and “more interesting than handing drunk people dumplings.” She felt far more exploited, she claims, working for “Vice and at other culture magazines, where my labor was clearly under appreciated and I was drastically underpaid.”

The myth of sex work. People should understand that using economics as a model for sex profanes the sacred.

Honesty at last:

People have sex not only for physical pleasure or to feel close to their partners but—more often than they’re willing to admit—for myriad other reasons that may have little to do with the present company. Because they want to feel virile, or feminine; because they want to feel younger or more mature; to compete with or get back at someone else; to avoid acknowledging who they’re really attracted to; because they want to think of themselves as spontaneous or hedonistic or powerful; because the opportunity’s right here and it may not come again; to defy someone who told them not to; because they want to tell their friends about it; because they’re bored. Can anyone doubt that for Donald Trump, grabbing women by the pussy was far less exciting than boasting to Billy Bush about getting away with it? Garza’s life seems to have been a long quest for and a rebellion against externally imposed authority (that Catholic thing); shame may be both the price she has paid for her wayward sexual behavior and its reward, the proof that her disobedience can never be entirely subdued.

Yes, sex is most definitely a sad and sordid thing. Again the problem is a lack of imagination. Are we content with this state of affairs? Is this all there is to life? Fucking without connection and acting out our issues instead of confronting them internally? Is this the best we can do? Are we proud of having sex for these reasons? Those are the questions that would be asked by someone with AGENCY.

Even a self-professed sexpert like Sciortino, determined to be open-minded, can find it hard to respect the infinite variety of human lust. In a recent interview, she condemned sexual assault (because who doesn’t?) but then sounded a disappointing cautionary note about “female sexual victimhood.” “If we want to be able to have the same sexual freedoms that men have,” she insisted, “we can’t be fragile.” But what if you actually are fragile, emotionally and sexually? What if—God forbid!—you’re a sexually fragile man? Does that relegate you to the ranks of the unfree, obliged to endure the boorish overtures and callous treatment of your bolder, freer betters? How free is a freedom that’s not equitably distributed? Sciortino should celebrate her sluttiness, and reclaim the word for a new generation of adventurers. But she, of all people, ought to know better than to lecture other women on how to conduct and feel about their sex lives.

To get this out of the way: yes, being a sexually fragile man relegates you to the ranks of the unfree, obliged to endure the boorish overtures and callous treatment of your bolder, freer betters. Everybody knows this, which is why it’s important to beat women to prove you’re not fragile.

The “depressive musician” was no doubt selected exactly because that fragility made him give up and just take it. You let the Real Men hit you, and then you punish the weaklings. This extremely destructive behavior pattern is called “empowerment” and “having the same sexual freedoms as men.”

The best sexual encounters happen between people who find similar or compatible meanings in what they do together, whether it’s two holy virgins on their wedding night or Sciortino and her pervy friend. The bad ones, like the evening the pseudonymous “Grace” spent with Aziz Ansari, occur when the participants bring narratives that are diametrically opposed. As recounted, however clumsily, by Babe.net reporter Katie Way, this was clearly a meeting between two people who envisioned themselves as the protagonists of very different movies. Hers was a romantic comedy about a plucky young nobody who enchants a star—Hugh Grant in Notting Hill—and his was a porno about a famous guy to whom women offer themselves up willy-nilly. Their tryst was a threesome, the third party—perhaps the true object of desire for each?—being Ansari’s celebrity. If both Grace and Ansari took too long in recognizing just how badly off the rails the night had gone, it was because they were paying more attention to his fame and their fantasies about it than to each other.

That’s a very good way of putting it. The social problem we face is deciding what we want sex to mean. Using people sexually shouldn’t be within the scope of reasonable expectations.

It’s not hard to see why Grace felt violated: Our dreams can be as precious to us as our bodies. But in the conversations I had with female friends after the story appeared, several expressed disgust with Ansari for thinking that any woman would enjoy his porny moves, particularly one in which, as Grace relates, he kept “taking his two fingers in a V-shape and putting them in my mouth, in my throat to wet his fingers.” Yet there are surely women out there for whom the scenario Ansari tried to enact with Grace would be just the ticket—though probably not as many as Ansari wishes. One woman’s degrading encounter can be another’s delirium of abandon.

No anecdote in either of these two books makes this point better than a story Sciortino tells about the “intense, voraciously sexual romance” she had with a Scotsman while she was living in the converted stairwell of a squat in London. She once got her period during sex and “he just reached down, grabbed a handful of blood, shoved it into my mouth and then violently made out with me.” Her reaction? “I was like… ‘Wait, are you the one?’ ” Just because hers is the minority response to such an action doesn’t make her enthusiasm any less sincere or valid. The story is a demonstration of how well the two knew and understood each other, the kind of intimacy that can’t be arrived at by resorting to shortcuts, assumptions, or prefab scripts. It has nothing to do with what “women” or “men” want—nonsensical notions—only with what one person and another person wanted at one particular point in time. And the only way anyone ever learned that was by asking.

Obvious question: did he turn out to be The One? If not, why?

The comparison of those two sex acts isn’t valid in the first place. Note that she can’t find a single IRL example of someone who’d want Aziz Ansari’s fingers-down-the-throat thing.

There are huge taboos and stigma around women’s periods, vaginal odor, etc. Therefore, the act of making out with period blood symbolizes a deep acceptance and lack of revulsion at the other person. It’s qualitatively different than Aziz Ansari’s move, except for involving fingers, mouths, and vaginas.

She’s very obviously struggling to justify an ideology where anything goes as long as there’s “consent.” It requires intellectual dishonesty.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if, the first time you’re having sex with someone, it’s not reasonable to stick your fingers down someone’s throat instead of wetting your finger with your own mouth? If that were just considered part of respecting other people? Is that too much to ask?