Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Friday, March 13, 2015

Problems and Pleasures of The Myth of the Uncontrollable Urge

Minotaur crouching over sleeping woman; Picasso, 1933
I'm going to begin this essay by asking you for the benefit of the doubt. I'm going to ask you to assume I'm not an insane or immoral person. I'm asking this of you because I'm about to wade into the uncomfortable, murky waters of consent, intentionality and biological imperative when it comes to sex - both fictionally and factually.

Attempts to unpack these issues, to examine philosophical, historical, institutional, artistic and socially constructed understandings of human sexuality reveal uncomfortable realities. They don't always accord with the way we want things to be or live up to our ideals. But I'd like to argue that approaches that seek to present the issue as uncomplicated for the sake of clarity, are not realistic or productive ones.

I just watched the documentary "India's Daughter." It chronicles the events of the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder of a woman identified in the film as "Jyoti". Some Indian feminist have criticized the film because it allows a number of the rapists, their defense lawyers and a few others to air, what to most Westerners and many Indians, too, are deeply misogynistic views on where women belong in society and the part they play in their own victimization. These statements are not directly and immediately rebutted in the film - it allows the audience to be appalled at them. The strategy works well in the context of a Western liberal audience that is probably unaware of the extreme schisms of social attitudes surrounding women. But for an Indian audience, where these views are not uncommon or unknown, it fails. The Indian Government has banned the airing of the documentary, ostensibly because it offers a platform for views it wishes to eradicate. However, this decision might also have been influenced by a recent incident in which a mob of thousands pulled an accused rapist out of a prison in Dimapur, and beat him to death. The event is more complex than it appears. The accused was a Bangladeshi, so there are both issues of religious and immigration tension that have played significant roles.

I'd like to examine the myth that humans are at the mercy of their animal instincts, driven by their biological imperatives; how old and widespread this fallacy is and how deeply it has embedded itself into many cultures; and what part it plays in both our fictions and our social norms.

It's all Aristotle's Fault.
Not really, but at least in Western culture, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics has served, through the centuries as a font of great wisdom on the matter of the human condition. In Part Seven of the Ethics, Aristotle submits that, once in the thrall of sexual arousal, humans are no longer capable of exercising reason, restraint or judgement. Historicity and language is a bit of a problem. We don't know what stage of arousal Aristotle is referring to. Perhaps he was referring to the moment of orgasm, in which case he'd be spot on. The problem is that our historical unease with the specifics of the human sexual response led to very broad generalizations about states of sexual arousal. This myth that a human in any given state of sexual arousal is incapable of exercising choice, or control, or good judgment, has been responsible for a millennial get out of jail free card when it comes to sexual ethics.

Sorry, Different Department.
By the time we did get around to studying human sexual response in the mid-20th Century, courtesy of Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, the sciences had specialized. People who were interested in philosophy, ethics, sociology or psychology had all been given their own departments - nay - buildings on another campus. Let me tell you, interdisciplinary studies of human sexuality are a rare, belittled, and underfunded species.

However, we know humans can and routinely do exercise enormous control over their 'animal' instincts. We seem to be able to restrain ourselves from peeing in our nests, we often find ways to negotiate our territorial instincts, and unsurprisingly, we manage to restrain ourselves from spending all our time mating - even though some of us spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about it. There are men and women of diverse religious orders who manage to live a life of complete sexual celibacy. Even hormone-addled 16-year-olds don't generally rampage through the countryside raping every orifice they encounter. To look at it more quantitatively and at more extreme levels of sexual arousal, practicing the 'withdrawal method' (27 pregnancies in 100) is still vastly more effective than using no birth control method at all (85 pregnancies in 100). So, even at the abyssal precipice of orgasm, it's clear that we can and do have the capacity to exercise some choice, some judgment.

Once We Were Dumb Mammals
Meanwhile, in the realm of society, we consistently ignore that fact. Historically and to the present day, we create narratives about humans helplessly carried away by the urgency of erotic bliss. Our literature, drama and films are full of it. But, more darkly, so are our laws, our judicial systems, our security structures.  We may acknowledge rape as a crime in theory, but even in the most 'enlightened' egalitarian social systems, it is astonishing how often responsibility is shifted from the person who refused to exert control over themselves and onto something or someone else. It was the clothes the victim was wearing, the fact that she was out alone, the fact that she wasn't accompanied by a relative, the fact that she (or he) came up to the rapist's apartment, alcohol, drugs, peer pressure, prison, porn, the prevalence of a 'rape culture'. The list of reasons why an individual is not wholly, personally accountable for their actions goes on and on. Whether you find yourself in a culture that denies women autonomy, or one that offers them an equal legal status, the myth of the uncontrollable urge always rears its head.

Mythological Beasts
We can control ourselves and we enjoy the lie that we can't. It's not really that surprising: biological drives are compelling, and it takes effort to refuse their call. It makes sense that humans would have fantasies about respite from that control. In his book "Speaking the Unspeakable: The Poetics of Obscenity," Peter Michelson explains the liberating appeal of pornography. It is, he says, a space where we can luxuriate in relinquishing the very real control we have over our animal instincts. There is romanticism, authenticity and empowerment in our fantasies of giving in to our animal natures. I don't wholly agree with Michelson on the specific mechanisms of this, because I think our 'animal natures' are themselves a fantasy construction.  Nonetheless, he presents an excellent argument: there is erotic pleasure in the prospect of relinquishing control only because that control is, in fact, so real and so often exercised.

Meanwhile, romance often features motifs of being swept away, overcome, overwhelmed, desiring beyond the boundaries of social acceptability. The pursuer can't help but want the object of his or her desire. It obsesses them; it drives them to extraordinary and unruly lengths within the context of the storyworld. And the pursued, it usually turns out, cannot refuse the pleasure of being that object of desire and, if all is well, return the feeling.

Fictional Outposts
One of the reasons I champion fictional, eroticized portrayals of reluctance and even rape is because to deny that these ideations have semiotic power is dangerous. But also, to attempt to force limits (i.e. to have rape fantasies is a betrayal of feminist ideology) on what metaphors, what metonyms, what 'signifieds' might be is also futile. I think fiction is a safe space in which to negotiate the uncomfortable fantasies and nostalgias humans possess for the lawless, reasonless, unempathic animals we used to be. I'm not convinced of the veracity of that earlier state of natural 'innocence', but it haunts us and calls to us nonetheless. Fantasy and fiction are the only safe places we should give it power or credence. To situate this myth of the uncontrollable urge in fantasy and fiction is to put it exactly in the place it belongs - beyond the pale of the everyday world and civil society, and to underscore that it is the ONLY place it belongs.

One of the stark messages of "India's Daughter" is that it is social attitudes, the tolerance of real world inequities, the historical absence of women's voices, their lack of power and the perpetuation of utterly baseless justifications that create an environment in which crimes like this are possible. The shocking testimonies of rape-apologists in the documentary are offensive as hell, but they serve to remind us that these attitudes don't survive and are not perpetuated through fictional works, but through entirely real-world levels of tolerance that predate 'Fifty Shades of Grey' and even basic literacy.

6 comments:

  1. This is a very timely essay for me because I've been grappling with the review of a book that argues men need sex more than women, so women should provide "maintenance sex" for a marriage in the same way we service our cars. For me this also draws on unquestioned assumptions about our "animal natures." India's Daughters presents a more extreme manifestation of the ancient apology for rape, but there is clearly a continuum of explanation for sexual behavior. Yet while these constructs of what is natural go seriously unquestioned in "real life," FSOG and other fictional explorations are criticized for introducing dangerous ideas to society. I believe the appeal of these works is rooted in the way they grapple with existing tensions, such as an unwritten contract of sexual behavior for both women and men.

    I completely agree that ...fiction is a safe space in which to negotiate the uncomfortable fantasies and nostalgias humans possess for the lawless, reasonless, unempathic animals we used to be. I believe it would be far more productive to focus on limiting harmful behavior in real life through education and the law rather than censoring the discussion, expression and exploration of the roots and meaning of that behavior--which can also lead to greater understanding.

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    1. Hello Donna,

      "I believe it would be far more productive to focus on limiting harmful behavior in real life through education and the law rather than censoring the discussion, expression and exploration..."

      And historically, that HAS been what has worked.

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  2. "Nonetheless, he presents an excellent argument: there is erotic pleasure in the prospect of relinquishing control only because that control is, in fact, so real and so often exercised."

    This struck me as one of the most succinct explanations of I've encountered for the appeal of BDSM. We'd love to jettison self-control and allow our "animal natures" full rein. "Beauty and the Beast" remains a potently erotic fable, even in Disney dress.

    However, the myth of uncontrollable desire also provides a ready excuse for irresponsible behavior. It's akin to the notion of temporary insanity. While under the influence, we might do anything - anything at all - and we can't be blamed.

    Of course, "crimes of passion" do occur (though anger is more likely to be the motivating emotion than desire). So this transforms into a discussion of the limits of rationality and self-control.

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    1. It's an amazing book, actually. Next time you're in the States, see if you can find it.

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  3. As always, you give me a lot to think about.

    The beauty of fantasy is that the person fantasizing is always in compete control of the outcome. So when women fantasize about rape, they aren't saying "I want to be a victim of violence." They're saying "I want this game of passion to play out by my rules." Now that's a revolutionary act.

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