Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A couple things I forgot to mention about sex.

1) Sex is not that big of a deal.

Despite the fact that I love it, and I love to write about it, I firmly believe that sex, between consenting adults, is not that big of a deal*. I don't think it's worth falling in love, falling out of love, ending a friendship, breaking up a marriage, impeaching a president, or maiming or killing anybody over. 

I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately, and I'm starting to think that this sentiment is unusual. Somehow I keep coming across the type of movie where two people fall in love, have a giant conflict involving sex, hate each other's guts for a while, and then realize that love conquers all and get married. Or, in the tragic version: realize that said conflict has revealed their insurmountable incompatibility, and go their separate ways.

In other words, pretty much every American movie that isn’t about war, or a heist.

I can’t help but wonder whether these movies would be so poignant and popular if we all stood up, en masse, and said, WHAT IS THE BIG DEAL ABOUT SEX?

How about a movie where the boyfriend casually mentions to the girlfriend that once, before they were together, he had sex with her best friend/sister/nemesis, and she says “that makes sense, she’s a cutie”, and that’s the last we hear of it? How about a movie where the wife cheats on her husband, and then confesses tearfully, and her husband says “Well, that’s a real bummer, but I love you and I think we’re great together and we have all these great kids, so I’ll get over it.”? How about a movie where the heroine has unprotected sex with the dopey-but-lovable guy at the party, and then wakes up the next day and says to herself, “I don’t know this guy at all and this is a terrible time for me to have a baby”, so she takes the fucking morning after pill? Even better, how about a movie where the heroine has drunken sex with the dopey-but-lovable guy at the party, but she doesn’t get pregnant, because she uses birth control like any sane woman who has drunken sex with guys she meets at parties

I would love for sex to exist in pop culture, but not be central to the plot line. I would love to see characters who have other shit to think about. Perhaps if we all start living that way, Hollywood will follow suit.

So here's my advice: have some sex, or don't. Be safe, be honest. Above all: don't freak out about it.

2) There is no normal.

People, as a species, tend to be pretty concerned with whether we are "normal". Which is really too bad, because "normal" is not only impossible to achieve, in many areas it's impossible to identify. Normalcy is determined by your perspective. Louis CK brilliantly illustrates this point in the opening lines of his stand-up act
"Hello everybody. Actually, I shouldn't say everybody, because most people are not here. By a pretty huge majority, most people are not here tonight. In fact, most people are in China.
Actually, most people are dead. Out of all the people that ever were, almost all of them are dead."
So next time you ask yourself, "Do most people dress/eat/fuck/think this way?" Remember: most people are dead.

For example: is it normal to drink cow’s milk? If you live in North America or most of Europe, you might think ‘yes’. But the answer is: only if you don’t live in Asia or Africa. Considering the fact that most people (that's living people; about 5.2 billion of them) do live in Asia and Africa: no, it is definitely not normal. If you drink milk, you are a freak.

As Christopher Ryan observes in his brain-busting book on the topic, Sex at Dawn (I've mentioned it before and I will again - read the damned thing): cultural attitudes about sex vary at least as widely as cultural attitudes about food. Plus, our personal sexual desires seem to be affected not only by our culture but by our genetics, our epigenetics, our family dynamics, our formative experiences, and probably other things that we don’t even know about. Even our species' evolved sexual behaviors are not as you might expect. What’s more: the way all of these things affect our sexual interests and behaviors is complex, unpredictable, and extremely difficult to study.

In short, if there is such a thing as “normal” sexuality, we probably don’t know what it is.

But I can tell you what it's not: it is not normal for two completely heterosexual people to meet in high school, fall in love, get married at 20, lose their virginity to each other, and have mutually orgasmic missionary-position sex once a week, exclusively with each other, until they both croak. 

So if that doesn't describe you, congratulations: you're normal.

And if you're not married, but you're still having sex, congratulations to you, too. And if you're gay and married, gay and partnered, or gay and single. And if you're a transgendered bisexual sex worker who's into threesomes, or a super-femme housewife who's dominant in bed. If you need a lot of time to have an orgasm, or you need to use your hand to have an orgasm, or if you have orgasms at 'inappropriate' times, or if you don't have orgasms at all. If you need to be in love to feel aroused or if you can't get it up unless you're with somebody new. If you had sex when you were twelve or if you've never had sex at all. If you love giving head or hate getting head or love porn or hate porn or like being slapped or hanging from the ceiling or fantasize about animals or high heels or, actually, if you're only into missionary position once a week with your high school sweetheart:

Congratulations to all of you. You are just as normal as anybody else. Which is to say perfectly, blessedly, magnificently abnormal.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

the first-sippers

The Pepsi Challenge is a marketing stunt wherein volunteers are asked to choose between Pepsi and Coke in a blind taste test. The results skew heavily in favor of Pepsi. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a new set of taste tests (some single-sip, some whole-can) suggest that although Pepsi (being sweeter) is preferred upon first sip, Coke (with its more complex “flavor profile”) is preferred in full-can form.
Lately, I’ve had a creeping suspicion that American culture (which unfortunately seems to be rapidly devouring most other cultures) has become first-sip obsessed. In many areas of life, we’re trading in quality for convenience, and experiential complexity for candy-coated immediacy.

Take music, for example. 

On my recent trip through Europe, I was plagued at every turn by the sort of hyper-emotive, autotuned, electro-dance-pop that much of the world is so enamored with.  I’m not saying “Somebody That I Used to Know” and “We Are Young” are bad songs, but I’ll tell you what: the dance remixes, which are being played not just in the clubs but in grocery stores, restaurants and radio stations internationally and at alarming rates, have been robbed of any element of soulfulness they once possessed.

What do I mean by soulfulness? Well, as Ray Charles said, soul is “when you become part of your song… so that the people really believe every word you’re singing”. A soulful song reaches out and grabs your attention, like a stranger talking directly to you about their personal, emotional life. I think Gotye was on to something when he originally recorded “Somebody That I Used to Know”, but whatever kernel of truth made it believeable has since been remixed, multi-tracked and autotuned right into oblivion.

So why do we love these shells of songs? I would venture to say that we don’t. We take pleasure in them, especially upon first listen, because they are sweet to the ears. They are emphatically, overwhelmingly in tune. They are devoid of all non-musical sounds, like breath, movement, or catches in the throat. They are agreeably inhuman, like airbrushed supermodels . They are so pleasant, so unobtrusive, that they can play in the background while we drive and text and drink Pepsi, and they do not demand our attention.

But I’ll tell you what does demand your attention: every song Ray Charles ever recorded. Ditto The Beatles, in spite of all the ear-candy. And how many great artists have demanded our attention in a way that wasn’t pleasant at all - at least not at first? Billie Holiday. Bob Dylan. Tom Waits. The more pressing question is, how many great artists did strike you as pleasant, within the first ten seconds of the first song of theirs you heard? I’d wager that pleasantness is a common feature of mediocrity, and an uncommon feature of genius.

Imagine you’re in your car, driving and texting and drinking a Pepsi, simmering in a not-unpleasant fog of caffeine and Facebook-induced narcissism, and Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame” comes on the radio. You’ve never heard him, or anything like him. The piano is out of tune. You hear breathing, a creaking piano bench, squeaky fingers on bass strings. His voice is like a thousand years of cigarettes and whiskey and unrequited love. How long does it take you to turn the dial?

Unfortunately for the first-sippers - the Blackberry dads,  the Real Housewives of Atlanta, and the whole eat-on-the-run, sleep-when-you’re-dead, one-stop-shop, party-in-the-USA generation – soulfulness, with all of its inherent sorrow and strangeness and black magic,  demands our full attention.

Upon posting this, I plan to turn off my computer, throw my phone in a lake, and allow the soulfulness of life to grab me by the hair and shake me, yawning spit and sound into my face. I suggest you do the same.