March 2008

Elizabeth Bachner


Awkward, Disgusting Copulation: Writing on Sex

In biology class my freshman year, we watched an awful film (The Dance of Love? The Dance of Intimacy?) that involved silhouettes of bodies and soft Muzak as a couple danced together. After they were done dancing, we got a look inside the girl’s uterus (accompanied by a slow, Vaseline-smooth voice-over) as the boy’s sperm frenetically battled to fertilize her egg. I lost it. I failed to be suave. I got the kind of giggles that ruin your life. Back then, I was a pert little blond girl with MTV, older suitors and a Jim Morrison fixation. I mean, it wasn’t like I was some pathetically horny pubescent boy or desperate, prurient swim coach. Why couldn’t I just be cool?

The truth is that sometimes sex -- especially earnest portrayals of sex, especially earnest portrayals of sex in front of the boys from the football team and your tight-lipped biology teacher -- is just squicky. And pathetic. And bathetic. There’s something canine or simian, in a bad way, about our drippy urgency to rub our uglies against something until we come. There’s something deeply unfortunate about the fact that urination, procreation, defecation and orgasm all happen within such inconvenient proximity. Having a human body will kill each of us eventually, no matter what, so we might as well enjoy it. But it’s not for the squeamish. Western culture, in fact, has largely developed around the tension between revulsion and fascination, between being grossed out and turned on. 

According to the authors of Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now, erect penises are few and far between in Western art, except in a few depictions of horny satyrs. Instead, there are tiny, flaccid cherub penises and a wide variety of fig leaves and fig leaf variations, like the “bizarre loincloth” that now extends over the right thigh of Michelangelo’s naked Christ, after a brief airing of his package when the statue was first restored. Women’s genitals, on the other hand, are everywhere, but always “a schematic and sanitized version of them… smooth, undifferentiated and modestly rounded as it disappears in a neat V between marble thighs.” We’re so used to seeing these Barbie-and-Ken bodies that we forget how weird they are, and “the spectacularly rampant penises and swollen vulvas” in Japanese prints, usually with abundant and spiky black public hair, “stand out in this or any other context.”

Seduced, based on a 2007 exhibition at the Barbicon in London, is designed to “encourage pleasure at the same time as encouraging debate… Seduced encapsulates 2000 years of visual art. It also encapsulates the limits of what is institutionally acceptable in terms of the visualization of sex, in Britain, in 2007.” The book features anonymous 19th-century snapshots of mustachioed men fingering women in braids alongside classical masterworks. What’s the difference between art and porn? It’s slippery, but: “An ‘artistic’ image operates in multiple visual and psychological fields in a way that works against the one-dimensional thrust of pornography. The pornographic image has one job to do, to arouse for the purpose of eventual climax. It may do its job with artistry, but it does not aspire to reach the interpretive openness of art.”

Eh. The thing is that even when interpreted openly, poetically and magically, the body has a strangely finite set of possibilities. It’s titillating -- revolting and/or thrilling -- to see body parts that are customarily hidden. In the case of the average Barbicon art connoisseur, those parts include the breasts, anus and genitals. In some cultures, where breasts are always bare, it might be a different bit of the body. For Tolstoy-era Russians, exposed ankles were hott with two ts. For Mishima-era Japanese, it was still the soft nape of a woman’s neck. In Seduced, there’s more similarity than variety between the different sex pictures. Beautiful, ugly, shoddy, elegant or strange, these are pictures centered on what boobs and genitals look like and what people can do with them (or to them). Until the French eighteenth century, writes Martin Kemp, sexual artwork in Europe had to be ostensibly about a respectable story -- a myth, perhaps, or something from the Bible -- and the genitals from before then were often demurely covered. In earlier European masterworks, plump, pearly women with plump, exposed breasts lay in vaguely orgiastic scenes, being fondled by Lot, Jupiter or satyrs. Suddenly, circa the mid-1700s, Boucher’s Leda had a rosy vulva, and by the mid-1800s, artists didn’t need a narrative excuse for their sex pictures at all. Gustav Courbet’s scandalous 1866 L’Origine du Monde features a headless woman’s torso and genitals.

Whatever complexities of vision and context shaped Egon Schiele’s masturbating self-portrait Eros, or Man Ray’s stylized photo of a lipsticked mouth giving a blow job, or Francis Bacon’s ambiguous vignettes of two figures having sex in the shadows, or Nobuyashi Araki’s close-ups juxtapositions of mollusks with vulvas or anuses, they’re all about the variety of opportunities to rub our junk up against stuff. It’s an obviously simple, yet enduringly mystifying project.

If you want to embark on a (literary) odyssey into the strange history of humans’ crude, hilarious and misguided attempts to understand how our own genitals work, there’s no better companion than Mary Roach. Roach’s new book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, is even better than her bestseller Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and not because bad sex is inherently funnier than dead bodies.   

First of all, even if you are a seasoned professional sex researcher (or, um, hobbyist), you are guaranteed to learn something new from reading Bonk. Did you know that in 1970s Thailand, approximately 100 angry wives cut off their adulterous husband’s penises as they slept? And that surgeons were able to reattach most of the penises? Have you read the classic guidebooks Masturbation: The History of a Great Terror, or Prevent It! A Guide for Men and Women with Leakage from the Back Passage? Perhaps you’ve already read the 1491 anti-witchcraft tome Malleus Maleficarum, but maybe you skimmed past the past about what happens to the penises stolen by witches who “sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report.” Or 1597’s Chinese Materia Medica by Li Chi-Shen, who informs us that “the freshwater otter is always male, and… it cohabitates with the gibbon.” (“It’s possible that Li’s grasp of otter biology was patchy,” Roach writes cheerily.)

Also, Mary Roach is a great wit in a relatively witless era. She’s sort of a holy hybrid of Dorothy Parker and Jon Stewart, with a little bit of Gary Larson and a dash of Virginia Woolf (in a mean, happy moment) thrown in. Bonk is full of really bad puns (and by “really bad,” I mean excellent) -- for example, in the chapter on Princess Marie Bonaparte’s sexual disappointments with her husband, the mustachioed Prince George of Greece, Roach writes that the Prince hung pinups of male athletes all over his dressing room and became the gymnastics examiner at the Panhellenic games. While Marie, who had just had a baby, was “home all day ‘suckling Peter,’ George was off, well, suckling peter.” Baaaddd. Mary promises us in the introduction that she’ll try to avoid the “cringe factor” of all of this riveting, appalling subject matter by applying the “stepdaughter test,” leaving out material that will mortify her stepdaughters. She surely failed 100%. The scene where she and her (very, very loyal) husband Ed volunteer for an experiment is gentle, but the scene when Mary asked, “May I squeeze it?” about the reconfigured “bulky, conspicuous” member of the Taiwanese post-op penis surgery patient “Mr. Wang” to see whether it feels like a “blood-engorged penis” or like “a penis with two silicon rods in it,” made me think of the “stepdaughter test,” and that made me think of my own stepmother and blood-engorged penises and surgery and Mr. Wang, and, well, I probably would have needed some intensive therapy one of these days anyway, right?

Even if you’re one of those people who’s totally comfortable and laid-back about sex, bodies, fluids, late-1980s biology class sex videos, old people panting their way to frenzied orgasms, urethral penetration and the insemination of pigs, something in Bonk is sure to gross you out entirely. For me it’s the description of L.D., the “self-polluting watchmaker” in 1760’s Onanism; or, A Treatise upon the Disorders Produced by Masturbation, who had diddled himself so much that, allegedly, “A pale and watery blood often dripped from his nose, he drooled continually; subject to attacks of diarrhea, he defecated in his bed without noticing it,” and “there was a constant flow of semen.” Your mileage may vary.

To quote Leonardo Da Vinci (as Mary Roach does in one of her dazzling footnotes), “copulation is awkward and disgusting.” It made me think of a passage in one of “sexpert” Susie Bright’s books. She described watching some porn, and thinking it was ridiculous, and then masturbating while she watched it, and suddenly, with that “one-dimensional thrust” (as the author-curators of Seduced would put it) applied, it became hot and sexy and exciting and turned her on. Susie Bright has her own definition of pornography -- she’s the one who wrote, in an unfortunate and subtle misreading of Dworkin’s critique of patriarchy, that Andrea Dworkin “was a great pornographer, if what that means is using explicit sex in her art to cause a tremendous sensation.” Dworkin got 1980s feminists to look critically at porn, Bright has suggested, and “we saw the sexism of the porn business… but we also saw some intriguing possibilities and amazing maverick spirit.” 

The problem with the awfulness of society -- the lynchings, the pogroms, the constant, daily rapes, the sick torture that people inflict on each other over and over again -- is that it doesn’t go away when we’re having fun, when we’re groping each other under the bleachers or eating some tacos or watching a TV screen. And the strange mortality of our bodies -- our illnesses and fragility and excretions -- never goes away, either. Sometimes we get turned on sexually because we’re not thinking about dirty watchmakers with semen dripping down their hairy palms, or Danish men reaching their arms into the vaginas of aroused pigs, or inequality, or shame, or death… and sometimes we get turned on precisely because we are thinking about those things. Revulsion and fascination. It’s like enjoying a juicy hamburger. Some eaters imagine that a “burger” is its own clean, pure, delicious thing, unrelated to death, and that’s how we can happily eat it. Others, perhaps, have the stomachs to think about the slaughtered cow their burger came from, the animal “moo” it made as it died, the cold factory where its bloody flesh was stripped from its recently-living skeleton and ground up in a machine, and the way the meat will be churned around and pooped out of our own viscous, bile-filled digestive systems.                      

The authors of Seduced write, “We have excluded exploitative images that are savagely aggressive or degrading. Consent is an important watchword… The exhibition is concerned with depictions of the sexual act, whether before, during or after.” Andrea Dworkin’s frequently misrepresented argument was that the patriarchal arrangement of society -- and she included anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and other forms of exploitation and oppression in that definition -- permeated the “sex act,” whether or not it was consensual on the face of it. In Bonk, Roach downplays the true depth and pervasiveness of sexism, racism and homophobia that has marked the history of sex research and that lingers today, or at least she doesn’t highlight it. She mentions some injustices -- the “wandering uterus,” for example, or Masters and Johnson’s therapy to convert homosexuals -- but she doesn’t underscore their systematic nature. It’s not that she drapes a (loin?)cloth over the elephant in the center of the room -- she just doesn’t announce that there’s an elephant, or point it out to the complacent reader. “The feminist in me,” she writes, “…is small and sleeps a lot, but can be scrappy when provoked.” Because they’ve been fetishized and made taboo for so long, scrutiny of our (actual or metaphorical) sexual parts and how we use them brings us deep into the pink, slimy core of human vulnerability and social disorder. 

Given the circumstances, there’s a lot to be said for Mary Roach’s sweetly sly, Zen approach to human sexual (and scientific) foibles. In Bonk, all of us come across as a bit ridiculous, but not unlovable. Why do we read about sex, or look at pictures of genitals? Sometimes it’s because we want to explore the dark truths that shape human psychology and society. Other times, we’re hoping to get turned on and get off. Either way, there’s a strange remove from the beauty, animal spontaneity and indescribable thrill of actual contact with other people, with their unique bodies and charms. Whatever your reason for probing into books about sex, there will probably be a certain moment when your “Too Much Information” alarm will bleep loudly. When you start to really think about it all -- not just the lab rats in polyester underpants, the urine-sniffing research subjects, or the men who buy Neuticles prosthetic testicles for their dogs and then have a plastic surgeon install the device in their own scrota, but also the masterworks of Western art, Egon Schiele’s massive and ruddy erection, the knowing smiles of nipple-pinching satyrs -- it starts to make you giggle. Compulsively. Or maybe that’s just me.