Wednesday, May 07, 2008
(12:00 AM) | Dominic:
Wednesday Sex: Alpha and OmegaIs there a parallax effect in sexual attitudes, caused by a fundamental inequality between two distinct classes of person?
Consider the fables of sexual happiness set up by Houellebecq, in which a lifelong sexual loser finds love with a desirable, vivacious, obscurely unhappy sex maniac who will do absolutely anything to please him. A law of nature is posited in order to be broken: someone whose previous sexual experience is entirely composed of rejection, humiliation and sordid failed attempts at gratification with other unhappy persons is suddenly ennobled, granted the keys to the garden of earthly delights. It is like passing from one side to another of the screen separating the viewer from the pornographic movie: the world's great "no" to the loser is transformed into a ceaselessly renewed "yes, at once!".
The transformation is a "local truth", confined to the immediate vicinity of the beloved: the wider world remains hostile, contemptuous, structured through and through by the invisible line that separates the desirable from the undesirable. Happiness for Houellebecq is an "island", a zone of exception where the normal rules of social hierarchy are suspended and one's desires can be fulfilled without having to demonstrate one's status, or display one's credentials. His lovers visit sex clubs together, or frolic in the sand dunes, expanding the freedom they have found with each other to include others. There is something saintly about them.
Houllebecq's vision of happiness requires of women specifically that they cease to discriminate between desirable and undesirable sexual partners, whilst continuing to make every effort to be desirable, and not undesirable, to men. It is not as if there are not plenty of disgusted, contemptuous descriptions of old, saggy, emotionally mean or mentally inferior females in Houllebecq's tales: women who fail, or refuse, to give pleasure to men, to stimulate or accommodate them. Houllebecq dwells with morose delectation on every particular of the sexist schema within which his characters are imprisoned; but his imaginary solution to the impasse at the heart of that schema is for one party simply to roll over and let the other have whatever it wants.
What is this sexist schema, and where does the impasse arise? Houllebecq's novels assume, and propound, the premise that nature prescribes sexual competition between males for the attention of females. Male social hierarchy is organised around sexual access to females: the "alpha" male both monopolises resources (food, money, markers of status) and maximises his reproductive opportunity. Females co-operate with this system by awarding reproductive opportunities to those males who look like a good bet in terms of nourishing and defending future offspring. What makes females desirable to males however is not status but fecundity: the female sexual attributes that Houellebecq's male characters continually salivate over are all markers of reproductive health. (Nubility in this system is nothing other than fuckability, the state of being of "prime" child-bearing age). A male is undesirable if he is not materially successful, or if his place in the male social hierarchy is low; a female is undesirable if she is old, unhealthy or sexually unaccommodating.
It's clear that this system hasn't much to offer to non-alpha males, or non-conformist females; but the trouble is that the non-alpha males persist in finding well-formed females desirable, and ill-formed females persist in fantasizing about alpha males; indeed, they have to in order for the system to work. In reality? Who knows: this is ideology we're talking about here. And as ideology always does, it says two incompatible things: i) there is a natural order which matches sexual partners one to another according to a system of rank ("there's someone for everyone"), and ii) the system of rank operates by making everybody desire precisely those who are out of their league ("you shall go to the ball!" - and Houellebecq does indeed rewrite Cinderella with a male protagonist). Attempts to game this system, in the manner of Neil Strauss, only affirm its ludicrous premises.
To return to my initial question: do the kinds of inequality that Houellebecq first naturalises and then miraculously suspends (in a manner that actually completely validates the underlying logic of the system) actually exist in the real world in such a way that they result in a parallax view of sex? I've often felt that people talking about how constrained they feel by monogamy, for example, must belong to some entirely other sexual universe than the one I live in: a universe in which you're actually missing out on something by only having sex with one person. (One whole person!) For me, the familiar claim that no one person can completely satisfy one's diverse sexual needs just screams MASSIVE SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT. But this is wholly unfair of me: I like having more than one friend (while I'm not gregarious, I do like to hang out every once in a while...), and would probably feel a bit hard-done-by if even my best friend in the whole world were the only friend I had; and some people feel that way about fucking, too, and it's an entirely contingent and uninteresting fact about me that I mostly don't. Someone who found it difficult to form and sustain lasting friendships would probably find my alleged need for a wide and varied circle of friends similarly vexing, and suspiciously self-centred.
But still, there's that whole-other-world effect. I was once very briefly in a situation when I might if I chose have split up with one woman and taken up with another - or, if I'd been really crafty about it, managed to keep them both on the go at once (can't think of anything worse, actually, but some people would I suppose have relished the challenge). I think that was the only time in my life when I was ever in the position of having that sort of decision to make (in the event I vacillated, which is never good). It's incredibly difficult for me to imagine what it might be like to be continually faced with such dilemmas, but I've known people who were, and whose working assumptions about sex and relationships were simply incomprehensible to me. The thing is: they weren't necessarily the most attractive, or rich, or socially impressive people I knew. Some of the most mind-rendingly complex psycho-sexual configurations I've ever heard described were - apparently - swarming around the persons of some of the plainest and most unprepossessing people I've ever met. So it's not - pace Houellebecq - alpha-maledom or super-breeder status that makes for this kind of differend. In that case...what the heck is it?