Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Sex, Looks and Obligation.

Louise Mensch (groan) has courted controversy (it's what she does for a living) with a series of blogs entitled What Men Want, which is absolutely everything you're afraid it might be. The reason Mensch gets any attention for this is that she repeated refers to herself as a feminist. Mumsnet published a debate between Mensch and the brilliant Glosswitch, in which Glosswitch takes care of business, but something Mensch said in this debate made me particularly cross:
"It's bemusing to me that you frame the notion of making an effort to look good for your man in terms of domestic abuse and passivity. This is not something I suggest men demand of women - any man who makes such demands should get you running away fast - but something that a loving female freely offers her man."
All abusive relationships are based on this sort of thing; if you love your man, you will do X. That is a demand. Since the absence of X, freely given, shows that you're not a loving person, what choice do you have?  Put on that dress or admit to being a heartless bitch.

I couldn't care less about Mensch and her version of feminism based on women being rich and getting richer (as she recently stated, she earned her privilege!).  But I am interested in commonplace messages which mess with people's lives, and this is one I'm both very familiar with and slightly removed from. I'm not a straight woman, so I've never felt any particular concern around what men want as opposed to what the people I fancy want. As such, my life experience and study of psychology has lead me to the radical yet bloody obvious conclusion that people want to be loved and beyond that, well, we're all different.

Yet we live in a world which attempts to apply capitalist principles to human relationships. Men and women in love are seen as entering into a mutually beneficial contract, where each provides a distinct set of goods and services to meet the other's desires in a series of orderly transactions. These desires are seen as distinct and complicated, which is why people (whose names sometimes begin with L) are able to make money talking about it, rather than people just talking to one another for free. It's all absolute bollocks of course - if it wasn't, we'd all know answers by now and there'd be no more money to be made.

However, apart from the self-help and wind-up industries, this stuff ruins lives. It is the foundation stone for abusive relationships (same-gender partners, parents, all abusers believe that their victims have natural obligations towards them, but heterosexual abusers are more regularly affirmed). It ruins sex because individuals are made to feel that there's a role to be performed. It makes many folk believe that they have little to offer because they're not minted, aren't cover-girl beautiful, can't bench-press a baby elephant and can't prepare a three-course meal without breaking a sweat and Auntie Eve's best china. It undermines some of the greatest sources of human happiness available to us, by making long-term romantic love seem like a mortgage deal.

So here is the truth about sex, looks and obligation, since I am as qualified as anyone else:

  • Your looks are part of your identity. They may be a small part or a big part. It is really important to come to terms with what you look like, at the earliest possible juncture. As your looks change, try to come to terms with those changes. Our culture will get in your way, but do what you can.
  • Wearing nice clothes helps in coming to terms with what you look like. Nice clothes are clothes you like the look of and feel comfortable in. Comfortable can mean a lot of things. You may feel comfortable in high-heels and a corset. You may feel comfortable in tweeds and a cravat.  You may feel comfortable in a floral print onesie. It's all fine.
  • Similarly, looking after your appearance. Please wash sometimes. Beyond that, it's up to you.
  • The physical appearance of others is important to the sexuality of most people, to a varying extent. Men tend to have their sexualities wired to the visual, exposed to multiple images of naked or partially-naked women from an early age (boys who don't fancy women naturally seek out other images). We know it's programming, because the kinds of women who are seen as sexually attractive vary between cultures and over time, and some secondary sexual characteristics - like under-arm hair - can be seen as unattractive despite its evolutionary origins. If the whole world were blind, we might have more sexy dolls or even bottles of womanly scent for men to discuss, critique and aid masturbation, in which case we would declare that men were intrinsically tactile or olfactory when it comes to sex. 
  • The reasons this doesn't happen so much for women are multiple, but they include (a) the history of Western Culture is heavily dominated by straight men and what they wanted to see, (b) women aren't supposed to masturbate, (c) women are taught that for them, an investment in the looks of a potential partner is shallow, (d) women are taught to be more concerned about other aspects of a potential partner (and does he have a car? Aha, aha, aha...). Despite this, some women are extremely visual, enjoy visual erotica and care very deeply about their partner's looks. 
  • There are absolutely no rules about what any given person of any gender will find physically attractive in a partner (let alone their clothes). There are very general rules around geometry and the faces and bodies we consider beautiful - the same applies to paintings and flowers. But look around you. Look at the couples you know. See? There is absolutely no accounting for taste.
  • When two people are in love, they tend to find one another physically attractive. If this love endures, they will continue to find each other physically attractive through fluctuations in weight, pregnancy and the aftermath, hair-loss and all seven signs of ageing that Oil of Olay propose to protect you from (cardigans, Countryfile... I forget the others). People don't usually fall out of love because of issues around physical appearance - not appearance itself. Appearance may symbolise something - age, for example, or social standing (these things don't have to be reasonable) - and it is not on to have a Union Jack facial tattoo without consulting your partner. But love never died because someone's hair was a mess.
  • The best way of making sure that your partner is happy is to look after them, demonstrate an ongoing interest in them, comfort them in sadness, support their endeavours, celebrate their triumphs and make sure that they know they are loved. There are no guarantees, but it is the best any of us have got to offer.  
  • Sex is not something women give to men in exchange for affection, physical help, money or anything else. It is not a kindness. It is something that two or more people come together to do for their mutual enjoyment. It uses up a lot of energy and can make quite a mess, so if you ever find that you are trying to "make sex as pleasant as possible", I do wonder if it's worth the bother. Scrabble is pleasant.
  • Being beautiful is not something women give to men in exchange for affection, physical help, money or anything else. But...
  • Everybody in love cares how they are seen in the eyes of their lover (I mean this both metaphorically and literally). When they genuinely stop caring - apart from when their priorities are sensibly elsewhere, such as when unblocking a drain or suffering from a rotten cold - they are perhaps no longer in love. But this is the thing; (a) this care could mean a million different things, few of them involving a hair-dryer (Mensch seems really into blow-drying) and (b) it's not exactly a conscious effort. People in love act to please their partner, people in lust act to turn their partner on. This isn't owed, this isn't a duty or a kindness. That's the thing about things done "freely". You don't have to tell people what they need to do if they're already doing it freely. 
  • Some people are turned on by nuns, some people are turned on by dressing as a nun. Some people are so turned on by the way their partner looks at them when they're dressed as a nun that they love dressing as a nun. Some people are so turned on by the way their partner behaves while dressed as a nun that they love their partner dressing as a nun. Some people just don't get the nun thing - they don't want to have sex with a nun, they don't want to dress up as one - but that doesn't mean we can't all have fun. That's all you need to know about pleasing a sexual partner through clothes and appearance. 

This is the truth. Anyone who tells you otherwise, gives you rules about love or sex, or about men, women and imaginary debts between them, is either (a) a liar (b) trying to make money out of you (c) trying to defend their own choices by pretending they are universal or (d) an abuser.


Peggy Colebank said...

This really brightened my day. I'm so sick of seeing Menschian unthink everywhere lately. Thank you.

The Goldfish said...

Thank you, Peggy. :-)