Jul 072011

You can tell I’m on vacation by all the mainstream media I’m consuming. Next up: River Monsters. It might be the sexiest show on television, and no I am not being sarcastic.

My sister introduced me to it maybe a month ago, and I assured her that there was no way I’d get into it. It’s a fishing show, you see, featuring this dude, the auspiciously named Jeremy Wade, who travels around the world and fishes for very, very big fish in fresh water.

I repeat: an hour-long tv show about one guy fishing. How could this be a show I would enjoy?


What I find compelling about the show is Mr Wade’s abiding need to catch these fish, his deep and absolute commitment to a singular passion, even in the face of skepticism about the ultimate purpose or even responsibility of doing so. This is a man with no friends, my sister and I joked after the second episode, a man whose first and only real interest is catching fresh water fish, to the cost of his ability to engage with other humans outside the context of fish.


See, all the while he’s acting out “The Old Man and the Sea”: “It’s as if the fish is taunting me,” he says. “It feels like a test of character that I’m failing at the moment.” Like Buddha, he’s being taught by the river. That, my friends, is sexy.

But he’s at his sexiest when he’s confronting his own privilege as a middle-class white guy fishing catch-and-release with expensive equipment for sport, in places where his 100-pound catch could feed an entire village of people who are struggling to eke out an existence on the river.

And through the disintegration of his entitlement and the deepening of his spirit through self-confrontation runs his passion–consistent, relentless, enlivened even, by his deepening understanding of its place in the reality of human life on Earth.

All of which I find genuinely sexy.

Forget the “solving a mystery” gimmick. Forget the giantness of the fish. Forget the ecological message. Remember his left index finger resting on the line, attending to minute vibrations, and the French, Portuguese, and various other languages in which he can talk about fish, and he way he totally forgets he’s presenting a television show when the line rips out at last, after hours or days or weeks of waiting. Remember Mr Wade’s genuine agony when a fish goes off the line and his glowing joy when he has the fish in the boat or on the shore.

THAT is what’s sexy, friends. Because it’s passion.

So here’s some bad advice:

Single? Want to attract people? Get yourself a soul-devouring passion*.

(*Warning: soul-devouring passion probably obscures your ability to have substantial relationships with the people your passion attracts.)

Jul 062011

I’m sitting in Barnes and Noble because I’m dogsitting for my sister and needed to get out of her house so that I would stop watching A&E’s series “Obsessed” on Netflix. It’s a show about people in ERP therapy for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

This last episode featured this woman who was a germophobe. In explaining her experience of the disorder, she compared it to “losing your virginity.” She said something like, “Once you’ve done that, you’re not pure anymore, and you never will be again.”

Well, of course all my sex educator alarm bells went off.

I’ve been thinking about virginity and purity a lot lately, in part due to the hymen discussions. I’ve been thinking about this notion of “purity,” which applies differently and more oppressively to women than to men, and how destructive it is, the idea that sex is “dirty” or, in the phraseology of OCD, “contaminating.”

And incidentally, her OCD absolutely shifted into her sex life. She wouldn’t allow her partner to kiss her without scraping his tongue first. Just feeling touched by someone else made her feel contaminated. How totally unerotic is that? Sure there’s a sexily whispered, “Baby, you’re so dirty,” but then there’s a flinch and a step back and a grimaced, “You’re contaminated.”

Where does the whole “purity” thing in sexuality comes from? Most likely some combination of Medieval religious leaders noticing that people who didn’t have sex didn’t get syphilis and gonorrhea and thus decided that “God” considered sexual “purity” a “virtue,” since “He” was punishing those who had sex and the notion that women are property whose reproductive capacities quite literally BELONG to the men who legally own them, and having sex reduces the “value” of that “property.”

In other words, it’s cultural, and it’s pretty old. Not evolutionary old, just cultural old. Unlike germophobia, which can only be as old as medical knowledge of germs and thus is brand fucking new.

What makes the difference between a sexy, naughty experience of “dirty” and a psychological freeze in response to perceived “contamination?”

I think it might be Haidt’s moral foundations again. I’ve never been troubled by sexual disgust. At my first gynecological appointment, my NP said, “Really? Your first time? You seem pretty relaxed.” And I shrugged and said, “Parts is parts.”

But lots and lots and lots of people ARE. Lots of people – and increasingly these days – are. Of course there are those who are aroused by dirtiness – some by the notional moral dirtiness of sex and some by actual physical dirt (see Napoleon and the mythical letter to his wife telling her, “Don’t wash. I’m coming home.”) It’s certainly possible for that to cause problems, but I’m generally not worried about them. I’m worried about the folks who fear fluids, smells, dirt, and, broadly, what I call “the sticky.”

Fear of the sticky interferes with sexual functioning. In dual control model terms, anxiety about the sticky activates SIS, keeping the sexual brakes on. Anxiety is the opposite of arousal.

The sticky is a LEARNED stimulus for SIS, and it can be UNLEARNED with exposure and practice relaxing. Because the sticky can’t actually hurt you, you can expose yourself to the sticky, experience your anxiety, sit with it until it begins to go down on its own, and learn that you don’t have to manage the sticky in order to feel calm and in control.

I suppose it’s asking too much to ask people to embrace the sticky. But if you could avoid fearing it…. you’d make the world a better place.

Jul 012011

It’s been a while since I was as disappointed in a work of non-fiction as I was in Backwards in High Heels.

The book is beautifully produced – interesting font, idiomatic and pretty full-color illustrations, even satisfyingly heavyweight paper – and it is charmingly written: the idea that love is not the answer is “an intellectual mouse scratching behind the skirting board;” they often use the word “hoary,” which I love.

But I have three standards when it comes to writing about sex, gender, and relationships: scientifically accurate, helpful, and well-written. With exceptions, Dan Savage tends to meet all three. And Susan Douglas’s Enlightened Sexism met all three. Everyone should read that book. My own writing is clumsy enough that I usually settle for two out of three. Backwards in High Heels meets only one.

Still, there are worse sins than unhelpful, inaccurate, but chewily written prose. Sadly, the book commits a worse sin, albeit inadvertently.

I knew going in that the authors were only writers, not context experts, so I didn’t have high hopes of learning anything, but I did have the expectation of unique and creatively expressed insights. What we get instead is creatively expressed pablum, the ordinary, bland, offensively inoffensive tropes you can find in virtually every issue of “Red Book.”

Authors Tania Kindersley and Sarah Vine say in the book’s Introduction that the book is about “making up your own mind and trusting that mind.” It is, they write, “the literary equivalent of the conversations women have every day of the week.”

This is where that “worse sin” mentioned above comes in.

Why then is it 389 beautiful pages of unenlightened platitudes, like work-life balance is about finding the balance that’s right for YOU, and you will recover from grief if you allow it to move through you? I mean, both of those things are true as far as they go, but they’re just the same old obvious stuff. Are we making up our own minds if we’re sitting around like frogs in a swamp, wallowing in the mire of the ideas that pop culture put into our heads? If oodles of Oxbridge-y literary allusions can’t lift our perspective out of the swamp and into the creative world of novel insight, what can?

Take the section called “What to do when your husband/boyfriend/lover runs off with a tall blonde who is half your age and dress size.” We all know without needing to be told that tall, blond, young and thin is more appealing than short, dark, aging, and round, which makes the paragraphs that follow (“let your girlfriends rally round” and “Go out and buy yourself a bunch of flowers”) not only unnecessary but pointless. He betrayed you because he’s a man and you’re not up to standard. The flowers and the rallying of your girlfriends can’t fix that. Here, have one of my flies, I’m trying to watch my weight and you could use some cheering up. Ribbit.

Of course they don’t MEAN it that way. They mean it to be girl-talk, supportive, “Oh men are hopeless but you are AMAZING.”

Excellent writing should show us something new, should dig deeper than we ordinary mortals dig and bring up something beautiful or jolie laide from the ditch. And all they do is wander around in the already-dug trench and describe it to us. Disappointing.

But my own personal reaction was even worse than that. If these are “the conversations women have every day of the week,” no wonder I have so few female friends. I want to believe that women are not so small as the thoughts in this book. I want to believe we’re capable of digging new trench, to overuse the metaphor from the last paragraph.

Actually, the whole book reminds me of this dinner I went to with my BFFL, back when we were both grad students. It was him and me, a professor (in the BFFL’s department) and his wife, and a visiting speaker and his girlfriend. The men were talking about animal epistemology and the women were talking about recipes. I swear to god. Can you guess which conversation I wanted to participate in? But the women tried to include me in their conversation and I felt rude rebuffing them – I don’t cook, I don’t knit, I don’t have or want or even particularly like kids, but they were being nice. But really I just wanted to talk about how squirrels know where all the nuts are.

My friend Bill – not that Bill, the other Bill – once described me as a guy with a vagina. But is my lack of engagement with the zeitgest of femininity a barrier to my finding someone to date? Does Bridget Jones bring all the boys to the yard? If I’m a guy with a vagina – and not in the sexy Carmen Diaz I-can-belch-just-as-loud-and-swear-as-fluently-at-professional-athletes kind of way but in an in-fact-I-know-more-about-this-than-you-do-and-I-won’t-pretend-otherwise-just-because-I-have-no-penis kind of way – am I therefore as unappealing to men as I am to women?

So this book that purports to want to make me “feel that I am all right” makes me feel simultaneously very lonely and sad for the state of women in the industrialized west. If this is the best we can do with all our advantages… god.