Most Americans believe themselves to be middle class – about 70% of the population. And most people – again, about 70% – believe that they have above-average intelligence. They’re right, of course: most people probably define “average intelligence” as “slightly less intelligent than me,” instead of as a statistical concept.
We are the norms against which we measure the world. To me, my body is normal; my brain is normal; my beliefs are normal. As are yours, to you!
In sexual parlance, kinks are behaviors outside the norm, but what we do is normalized to ourselves. Kink is a horizon, ever receding as we approach.
Some types of touch or activities might never feel enticing to you, just as some don’t feel particularly enticing to me, but as we live and grow, we encompass more within the boundaries of our norms. Until very recently in this country, all homosexuality was considered kinky, and only through numerous acts of bravery – people making their identities known despite living in a culture bent on rejecting them – did the general populace realize that these desires are widespread and normal.
Which is not to say that your increased awareness of the desires held by others, and your ability to recognize shared humanity with the people who hold them, will make the same desires whelm inside of you. I don’t have to want to wield a whip to recognize the sexual ecstasy gleaming from Bartolomeo Manfredi’s painting Cupid Chastised.
In Good Sex, Catherine M. Roach writes that:
Good sex is sex that is good, as in ethically or morally commendable, and good, as in pleasurable.
As to the ethical: good sex is consensual, does no harm, and impacts people’s lives in positive ways.
As to the pleasurable: good sex is hot! Erotic, sexy, stimulating, sensual. It satisfies desire and leads to physical and emotional enjoyment for all partners involved, orgasms all around.
In both senses, sex should do good and feel good. In both senses, sex is good.
This intertwining of the ethical and the pleasurable reflects an ancient and enduring belief that the good life, the life worth living, is a moral one that brings satisfaction to the person living that life. To do good feels good.
Consensual, happy, body-positive, desire-affirming sexuality is a force for moral good. Pleasurable in and of itself, good sex also shields us from advertising, which is designed to sway us toward behaviors that, in aggregate, could cause the collapse of civilization as we know it.
Commercial advertising often subverts a pent-up desire for sexual novelty. The thrill of new acquisitions can replicate or replace the psychological thrill of discovering shared pleasure with someone new.
Many – not all, but many – humans feel lifelong desire for new romantic, erotic, or sexual experiences, but traditional American culture does not celebrate ethical polyamory – open commitment to lifelong adventurousness, perhaps in conjunction with nested stability to raise a family – and polyamory is scary, both for the adventurer and especially for the partner(s) who fear being left behind.
And so, instead of having sex, we’re encouraged to fulfill our need for adventure by buying things.
In the essay collection Escape Into Meaning, Evan Puschak quotes a speech that Jerry Seinfeld gave while accepting an award intended “to honor excellence in advertising”:
I love advertising because I love lying.
In advertising, everything is the way you wish it was. I don’t care that it won’t be like that when I actually get the product being advertised – because in between seeing the commercial and owning the thing, I’m happy, and that’s all I want.
We know the product is going to stink. We know that.
But we are happy in that moment between the commercial and the purchase, and I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy.
Considering this speech, Puschak writes that:
Seinfeld strikes at the essence of advertising, which may be a creative and clever craft, but is exploitative at heart. … They manipulate us in gross ways to generate desire, to make us feel need where it doesn’t exist.
By design, advertising aims to make you feel worse. But it also offers an escape: successful advertising lays the kindling for joy, if you are willing to spend money. And so, Puschak writes:
Seinfeld suggests that there’s something to cherish in the perverted relationship we have with advertising: the small period of joy between the purchase and getting the crappy product.
“A brief moment of happiness is pretty good,” Seinfeld says. “I also think that just focusing on making money and buying stupid things is a good way of life. I believe materialism gets a bad rap … If your things don’t make you happy, you’re not getting the right things.”
Advertising (and by extension, capitalism) only offers us a superficial happiness, and maybe that’s not the most we could hope for, but it’s not bad, either. Superficial joys are still joys, after all. They’re “pretty good” and pretty good is good enough.
Buying new things will not bring you lasting pleasure. Presumably, most people know this. And advertising is not designed to convince you otherwise. Instead, successful advertising aims to accentuate the interstitial joy: that brief nigh-erotic thrill of acquiring something new.
Indeed, even within the realm of sexuality, the physical sensations we receive from new bodies pressed against our own will resemble physical sensations that we’ve already known. Our minds reside within relatively uncomplicated meat-machines; the physical sensations from most sexual encounters won’t be better than what you could accomplish on your own, masturbating. The greatest difference is in the moments of anticipation and expectation – the mental thrills we share.
Indeed, in Bad Sex, Nona Willis Aronowitz portrays the dull absence of thrill that we reap when we objectify other people (a habit so pervasive in our patriarchal, misogynistic culture that even Aronowitz herself slips into it, like when she describes her partner’s “whirlwind hookup with a young blond French girl”).
Aronowitz hires a sex worker to give her an erotic massage:
Considering the circumstances, I was relaxed and turned on. He took his time “massaging” me, which really meant stroking my butt and breasts and, eventually, between my legs. His pussy-rubbing skills were legitimately advanced, and it was clear he was paying close attention, responding to every little moan I made and every time I pressed into his hand a bit more.
And yet I didn’t come. I knew from the beginning I maybe wouldn’t. My clitoris refused to cooperate, even when he understood (bless his heart) that his bare hand wasn’t working and he employed a few vibrators – including the all-powerful Hitachi Magic Wand.
His methods were all fine and arousal inducing, but it felt empty, mechanical. The only time my brain fizzed with true excitement was when my arm grazed his hard-on.
Without the emotional thrill of connection – an exquisite moment of anticipation like Seinfeld’s brief happiness “in between seeing the commercial and owning the thing” – Aronowitz couldn’t enjoy herself. Even though the physical sensations were impeccable. In “I’ll Read What She’s Reading,” Toni Bentley’s essay about participating in Clayton Cubitt’s “Hysterical Literature” video project (in which women have orgasms while reading aloud on camera), Bentley writes that:
I told Katie [who would be ensconced beneath a desk and controlling the vibrator for Bentley] that I was a Hitachi virgin—I never really understood the point of vibrators, particularly if there was an able-bodied man around—so she offered to touch the side of my knee with the wand for a moment before filming as a preview.
Good thing she did that. Jesus. I mean Holy Mary Mother of God. Thus I was relieved in five seconds of my concern about not being able to climax, and I quickly had the opposite problem: How would I last long enough to do justice to [a passage from Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady]?
Bentley’s situation was erotic: a sultry mélange of exhibitionism, literature, self-control, submission, and physical sensation. Whereas Aronowitz had only the physical sensation, and it wasn’t enough. She’d purchased a service; she wanted a person. (“Most of the time,” she writes, “a hot one-night stand simply requires being a decent human being.”)
During her erotic massage, Aronowitz didn’t get to linger in “that moment in between the commercial and the purchase” – she understood the pre-arranged boundaries of their encounter, which would not include shared pleasure or mutually-recognized humanity. There was nothing to anticipate. Expecting physical pleasure could have brought her ecstasy; having physical pleasure didn’t.
Puschak writes that perhaps the momentary thrill of consumerism is enough. Even if capitalism, in repurposing our desires for sexual discovery, “only offers a superficial happiness,” maybe that’s fine. “Superficial joys are still joys, after all.”
And these joys are sometimes more accessible. You can do capitalism all on your own. Earn some money and feel the thrill of buying things. You don’t get to form human connections, but you also don’t have to form human connections with anybody.
In a world of isolated individuals, I might agree. But we are not alone: there are eight billion of us sharing this planet together. We are inherently connected; the choices we make as individuals affect each other.
In If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal, Justin Gregg writes that:
Let’s say you wanted to grab a snack right now. Ten thousand years ago, you might’ve walked a few feet into the forest, stuck your hand into a log, and yanked out a handful of tasty termites. Boom. Problem solved. Snack acquired.
These days, you might walk a few feet into the kitchen and grab a banana. Same problem (hunger), same solution (food).
The difference between the two is that the availability of the banana today is shaped entirely by human-made, technological processes that have added unimaginable complexity to the simple act of grabbing a snack. And these processes generate long-term consequences we hadn’t considered.
Our hankering for a snack in the twenty-first century is identical to what it was ten thousand years ago, but our complex cognition allows us to engage in activities (e.g., oil and gas extraction, mechanized farming, soil depletion) on a massive scale, which is transforming this planet into an uninhabitable shithole. Our kitchens are full of foods that come from a global agricultural-industrial complex that is fundamentally problematic to the survival of the human species.
When we seek to sate an instinctual desire for sexual novelty by constantly acquiring new things – robot vacuums and snazzy telephones and single-season clothes – we are making our whole planet less livable.
For human civilization to survive, we’ll have to dampen our lust for consumerism. But we’ll still feel full of all this desire, all this need for novelty. Which is why many people continue to seek out new pornography over the course of their lives, instead of discovering the one ideal fantasy, memory, photography, film or story that excites them perfectly and then having it accompany them ever after in their moments of solitary sexuality. We shouldn’t let Disney movies deceive us into seeking a single destination, a fade-out moment of “happily ever after” – our happiness often depends on continued adventure. As we live, we continue journeying.
To many of the humans who lived before us, a banana would have seemed so weird! It doesn’t look or taste like anything that grew in Africa, Europe, or Asia.
To us, a banana is a normal snack.
If you and your partner(s) grant yourselves permission to (cautiously, safely, consensually!) adventure, then more of the world is normalized. Toys, lighting, & music; outfits, role-play, & scenes; groups, activities, & settings: the horizon of kink will keep receding.
And in the process, we might quiet the urges that compel us to wreck our planet. As we journey – reclaiming our desires from advertising – with luck, we’ll feel less need for commercial stuff. We’ll be able to, like Seinfeld, “know the product is going to stink” … but, even better, maybe we won’t even buy it!
When we open our lives to other joys, we can more easily resist capitalist compulsions and perhaps, perhaps, do the right thing regarding climate change. We need to buy fewer things. We also need to still be happy.