(conversation about consent below; proceed (or not) accordingly.)
I’ve been listening to Bill Bryson’s “Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid,” and I must say that hearing a boy’s-eye point of view on sex is amazing to me.
Boys in early adolescence, in Bryson’s account (overblown for comic effect), view girls as possessors of a special and mysterious THING that they WANT, they just WANT. They want to TOUCH. When describing his astonishment that anyone would bother with a nuclear drill, he writes,
The time would be better spent apologetically but insistently touching Mary O’Leary’s budding chest.
Well. That sentence.
On the one hand, it’s a really funny sentence.
And on the other hand, it’s a mournful signal of the early occasions when a woman learns that her body is in the public domain. Boys apologize because on some level they realize that a girl’s body is not theirs to touch, but insistently, because the force of their want overwhelms the strength of their interpersonal boundaries.
Of course this paradigm of girls as Possessors of Sex and boys as Consumers of Sex, this entire narrative of commodification, is culturally constructed and a foundation of rape culture, of punishing women for misusing their sexuality, and of women learning that their value lies in their sexuality rather than in, well, anything else.
Add to that the brain issue. What brain issue, you ask? Adolescents have trouble with impulse control; their prefrontal cortices won’t be fully developed until they’re in their mid-20’s, so they literally CAN’T comprehend the consequences of their actions and they just DO shit because their impulse control is abysmal.
Bill Bryson grew up to be a perfectly nice guy, as far as I can tell, not a sociopathic sexual predator. He was a healthy boy growing up in a sick culture, and he survived it with minimal scars around his sexuality – again, as far as I can tell.
Which speaks to the robustness of human sexual functioning, that it can remain more or less intact in such conditions. It’s a bit like how humans can stay alive on Big Macs and corn syrup, when we evolved to eat animal flesh and roots and berries and stuff.
I think his salvation lay in the “apologetically” half of the equation. He knew, on some level, that Mary O’Leary’s body belonged to Mary O’Leary and that he did not have the right to touch it without her permission. And I think that may be the part that we’ve lost, to a great extent, in the last 50 years. Somewhere along the line, as we became an increasingly visual culture, an increasingly media-saturated culture, an increasingly… dare I say, an increasingly stupid culture, kids are having a harder time with the idea that the person in front of them is a person rather than an image, another individual with an internal life of their own, rather than a product.
Just as the American diet has, in the last 50 years, grown increasingly processed and preserved and, essentially, less full of food and more full of products, our time spent learning about culture is spent more with images and less with other members of that culture. Our brains are drowning in cultural corn syrup, and we have an epidemic of sexual dysregulation as a result.
I keep returning, lately, to this idea of disconnecting from the corporate, in order to untangle the knots that mainstream commercial (a redundancy if ever there was one) media has done to one’s brain, and trying to reorganize one’s understanding of one’s own body and the bodies and minds of the people in one’s life.
All this from “apologetically but insistently.” Life inside the head of a sex nerd, friends.