Sunday, March 2, 2008

Laws of Desire

My ENG 112 students are writing cause-and-effect arguments on human sexuality this month, investigating contradictory scientific, sociologic, and psychological explanations for sexual attraction, sex orientation, mating, masculine/feminine traits, and long-term romantic relationships.

Although any argument is based on the arguer’s values to some extent, I have asked them to minimize evaluation in favor of analysis, weighing the scientific and empirical evidence.

Some of my students are up to the task, whereas a good many are not, but, for me, the assignment addresses the sort of thinking challenges that a college education should confront them with.

The mysteries of desire—created and/or stimulated by genetics, hormones, culture, imagination, volition, and the pleasure principle—are of great interest to me.

Desire is part of the working of nature—and, like all aspects of nature, it has been romanticized and idealized to the point of disconnection with physical nature, and, if examined closely, as, say, under a microscope, it appears odd, a bit unwholesome, and hostile to convention and theory.

All romantic and sexual relationships strike me as perverse, even (maybe even especially) “normal” and “successful” ones.

I’m as curious about what makes one straight as about what makes one queer. Under the alienating lens, monogamy is as hard to justify as promiscuity or polygamy. Nowhere else in existence, except perhaps in death, do I find a force as hard to explain, as difficult to justify with logic and reason.

No wonder, then, that desire is the subject of so much mythology—and so distrusted (and suppressed) by the puritans who want to reduce the world to simple dichotomies.

I sometimes wonder to what extent all sexual desire is fetishistic; whether making a fetish of latex pudding wrestling or suburban white picket fences, we ascribe a certain “magic” to objects and gestures that, for us individually, exhibit implicit sexual power.

What makes some people, actions, and things “sexy”? and others not? Why did Europeans cover women’s breasts, but Polynesians did not? Why do Japanese tolerate nudity as un-pornographic, as long as no pubic hair is visible? and why did 19th-century Japanese women blacken their teeth (ohagura) to enhance their sexual allure? And why do homophobes insist on saying gay men’s “parts don’t fit” when so obviously they do?

Tattoos or no? Body hair or no? Straight acting (whatever one means by that) or no? Muscles or no? And to what precise extent?

These are mysteries we find within ourselves, and they are worth investigating.

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