Thursday, July 02, 2009

A/Sexual Body

Guest-post by David Schraub of The Debate Link.

The Futurama episode "Parasites Lost" opens with Leela being harassed by space truckers at an interstellar rest stop. Seeking to defend her, Fry yells at the men "How would you like it if Leela said you were sexy and she wanted to make love with you?" It is, of course, a well worn joke -- the male answer to that question is "that would be awesome!" The idea that someone finding you attractive and expressing it might be unwelcome is supposed to be utterly foreign to a guy.

All people, men and women, move in a sexual sphere. We love and want to be loved, lust and wanted to be lusted after, flirt and want to be flirted with. Of course, this isn't all we want, and we don't want all of it all the time. But it is fair to say that everybody in some form or another wants the mutuality of a relationship: to want someone and be wanted by them.

The prevailing discourse surrounding bodies is one that aggressively reinforces a sexual dichotomy between men and women: men as subjects, and women as objects. Men are the wanters, women are the wanted. Feminist literature has challenged this somewhat, but primarily by trying to reclaim female subject status and react against objectifying norms that "treat women as thing." The goal is to recognize that women are not just objects of desire, they are subjects as well -- they can create desire just as well as it can be directed at them. A valid goal, to be sure, but one that leaves largely unchallenged the descriptive legitimacy of dominant masculinity as a valid presentation of how men experience sexuality.

The sexual landscape upon which men walk, by contrast, is not well mapped. The traditional paradigm of the male-as-pure-subject has not been interrogated to a meaningful degree. To be sure, feminist commentators have hardly exempted this male status from critique -- the subject-status of men, by contrast, is laid out as the crucial contrast between male sexual privilege and female sexual subordination. But their inquiry, I feel, falls short on at least two dimensions. First, it accepts the patriarchal construction of male sexual being as a given -- effectively ceding it so they can bash it and hopefully replace it with something new. The idea that the dominant narrative of male sexual existence might not actually be a valid, even descriptively, of male sexual being doesn't seem to occur. Second, even to the extent they recognize that the male sexual image may be somehow lacking, they overlook the realm of objectivity a potential candidate for absence. This is understandable -- objectification is the primary manifestation of the sexual subordination women are trying to escape. But, just as water takes on a different valence to the drowning woman versus the man trapped in a desert, it is wrong to presume the realm of objective value is barren territory.

The paradigm of man-as-subject restricts male sexuality to very particular manifestations -- it is active, not passive; in control, not reactive; autonomous, not relational. It wants, it is not wanted. But healthy sexual relationships are not the product of this pure subjectivity. The pure subject is a parasite -- it takes, but does not offer anything of use. This is not a positive image to have of the self. Few of us desire that sort of relationship. We want our partner to respect our rights, autonomy, and human dignity, yes; but we also want him or her to find us useful for their own purposes: we want our partner to gain benefits from the arrangement, whether it be humor, cooking skills, sexual pleasure, or any of the infinite ways we can be instruments to another's happiness. Where our interlocutor draws nothing from us, finds nothing necessary in us, sees nothing desirable in us, then we are ultimately interchangeable instead of indispensable. When men are told that "real men" carry no objective value, that there is no reason anyone would find them attractive or desirable, what grounds are their to construct stable relationships on (except, perhaps, coercion)? The dominant masculine narrative clearly goes hand in hand with the tolerance of sexual violence and inequality, by denying women subjectivity, for sure, but also by denying the potential for men to be objects -- to be the type of entity with which one might want to form a voluntary association with.

I am not saying that such subject-values as autonomy, control, and activeness are unimportant (clearly, we want to be valued both subjectively and objectively -- it is not either/or), nor am I drawing an equivalency between the harms of objectification and subjectification, nor am I saying there is an obligation to desire men. This isn't about individual behavior, this is about the broader language we use to create and police the borders of the sexual arena -- what counts as being psycho-sexually healthy and self-actualized. If we define healthy sexuality as a relationship of mutuality, as I think we should, then the prevailing discourse asexualizes men in important ways. Put bluntly, the way men walk through the world, sexually-speaking, is severely stunted. Ours is a/sexual existence.

By depriving men access to an important realm of human personhood -- the realm of objectivity -- it effectively closes off the full flourishing of interpersonal relationships. The uncritical acceptance the men have had their say about sex ignores the very real ways in which (to use the old cliche) patriarchy hurts men too. That the sexual narrative has largely been constructed through male eyes does not mean it represents male experiences. At best, it represents "male experiences" refracted through seriously distorted lens (at worst, it represents "male experiences" constituted in such a way as to preserve existing structures of power -- which, for anyone who agrees with Frederick Douglass' admonition "No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck," is not equivalent to a frame that actually provides for full male actualization). We should, if we take seriously the importance of pluralism and inherent incompleteness of any one perspective, expect the dominant paradigm to be as incomplete a descriptor of male lives as it is for women. And so it is.

There is a reason, I think, why the language of the pure Cartesian subject is often referred to as the "disembodied self". Bodies that matter are bodies that matter to other people. The pure subject cannot be fully sexually liberated, because the pure subject cannot be the object of another's desire. Talking about bodies (particularly happy bodies!) means talking about objective as well as subjective bodily potential. It is a gap in the discourse, and one that needs to be filled.

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