At Eroticon 2014, Molly Moore and Stella Ottewill (then Harper Eliot) ran a session on labels, and on the positive value attached to finding specific ways to describe ourselves sexually. After explaining their thinking, Molly and Stella invited us to share some of the labels we might choose to apply to ourselves; without giving it more than a second or two of thought, I stuck my hand up, and went with ‘magpie’. Why? Because when I see something shiny, I invariably want to pick it up and play with it.
At this year’s Eroticon, I sat in Remittance Girl’s brilliant session on jouissance, and thought about the magpie label again. I also thought about the end of Mad Men, platonic dates, and the woman I kissed in an East London park the previous week. I’ll get to those later.
I don’t take many notes at conferences. That’s either arrogance or laziness, or maybe a mixture of the two, but it also stems from a desire to focus on the whole message, and on the speakers themselves, rather than dutifully jotting down each individual point they make. What I do like to record is the nuggets: the little gems that somehow perfectly capture a thought or an idea – or which just express it better than I ever could.
In RG’s lecture (for that is a more appropriate way to describe it), I found myself scribbling (and tweeting) those nuggets, those gems, every couple of minutes. For example:
“People who like edge (play) are really seeking jouissance: they’re almost frightened to orgasm, because it will curtail that fantasy of the beyond-pleasure.”
“The problem with fantasy is that it’s so perfect – we never construct imperfect fantasies – so consequently phallic jouissance is never perfect. It’s always lacking, because while it’s good, it’s never quite right. You may think ‘oh that’s disappointing, that’s so depressing’, but no! Because if you ever got it exactly right, you’d never seek it again!”
And honestly, I wrestle with this whole area a lot.
I took a first stab at explaining it to someone in the bar on Sunday evening.
“I have this friend, right? And she’s really hot. We go on dates every now and then. We flirt. I want to fuck her, but at the same time I don’t. It’s like the end of Mad Men…you understand what I’m getting at?”
The wary look on her face said very clearly that I needed to find a more coherent way of framing it. As I tried to do that in my head on the train home, I kept coming back to the whole magpie thing, and to the more general impact of curiosity on who and how I fuck.
At some stage, I’ve thought about having sex with each one of my female friends. With a lot of my female colleagues (and a fair few of the male ones too). With just about every woman I’ve spoken to for more than about a half hour, in fact.
That doesn’t mean I’ve sat there picturing them naked, or dreaming up detailed scenarios and fantasies. It’s usually just an idle thought at the back of my mind. The mental equivalent of cocking your head and looking at someone in a different way, just for a moment. “Huh,” my brain says. “I wonder what that would be like.”
I don’t imagine I’m unusual in that respect. Sexual curiosity is just one dimension of our general desire to know people. We want to turn them over in our hands and find out what makes them tick, or to feel like we’ve pushed past the face they show the world and teased from them something real or profound. We want them to open up to us, in whatever way – we want to be invited in.
If I find someone interesting, I want that connection. I’m not sure intimacy is the right word, because it’s often so fleeting – more like a glimpse of what intimacy would look like. Either way, I find that it often naturally takes a sexual form. I’m just as likely to find myself getting curious about how someone tastes or what sounds they make as they’re being fucked, as I am about the music they listen to or the things they’re afraid of. All of it – each little detail – goes into shaping who a person really is.
Of course the opportunity to satisfy that curiosity rarely presents itself. For one thing we’re socially conditioned to frown on (what’s presented as) promiscuity, even now, and that can make it hard to initiate those sorts of conversation. Asking someone whether we can go down on them is also just not the same as asking to see their Spotify playlist – and maybe that’s a good thing. As Remittance Girl also alluded to, if we entirely remove the transgressive element from sex, we risk stripping away much of the excitement – to some extent, I want to feel like there’s something riding on it when I ask that question. I want to feel my stomach knot, just a little bit, while waiting for the answer.
And sometimes I want the answer to be ‘no’. Not because I only want what I can’t have, or bullshit like that – but because sometimes it’s better not to find out. Reality can disappoint; even when it doesn’t – even when it’s fucking fantastic – it can rob you of the curiosity that proved compelling enough to risk asking the question in the first place.
<Spoiler alert – next three paragraphs discuss the end of Mad Men>
My first response to the closing scene in Mad Men was to slam down my laptop screen in disgust. That’s it? That’s fucking it?? Seven seasons of emotional investment, and all we’re left with is Don Draper sitting in a field doing fucking yoga?! It didn’t feel like a resolution. All it did was leave questions unanswered. Questions about the past and the future; about who this man really was, and whether he could ever truly be happy.
I thought about all those things in the hours after the episode finished. I cursed Matthew Weiner for not playing to the crowd and giving us proper answers. I tried to piece it all together in my head, and construct the ’10 years later’ scene the episode never gave us. The more I did that – the more I obsessed about it – the more I was grudgingly forced to accept that maybe the whole thing had been pitch-perfect in its build-up and execution.
Weiner held his nerve and did one of the hardest things – he let his audience take over and paint their own pictures on the canvas he laid out. We could decide for ourselves whether Dick Whitman lived out the rest of his life in a hippy commune, or whether Don Draper went back to New York and made that Coke ad. By not having our curiosity satisfied, we were given the opportunity to indulge and enjoy it.
The point I was trying to make in the bar last Sunday is that there are times when I’d prefer to hang on to my curiosity. Meeting up for drinks with my friend’s sister every couple of weeks has turned into a sort of expanded version of edge play: we’ve taken a mutual attraction and stoked it over a series of ‘dates’, till it glows with an intensity that I’m almost afraid to burn off. Not because it can’t live up to expectations, but because by finding out I’d lose something that may be even more valuable.
Things don’t always reach that stage, of course – that’s what I mean when I say I wrestle with it. The magpie in me wants the shiny new adventures too, which is why the curiosity balloon usually gets popped before it can really start to soar. That’s rooted in a different fear – the fear of missing out on opportunities. When I kiss someone I’ve just met, I’m mainly doing it to find out what sort of reaction the chemistry between us will generate, but I’m also trying to make sure I don’t have cause to regret not kissing her. It doesn’t much matter whether that leads to something more or not – the experience itself makes the decision worthwhile.
In the case of the woman in the park the other week, a perfectly pleasant date had led us to the point where an experimental kiss felt like the natural next step. Or, more to the point, like a natural next step. Taking it was an active choice, but not one I made with any thought of what might follow the kiss. There was no weighing up of pros and cons – no wider context. I kissed her simply because I wanted to know what it would feel like to do so. That desire – and the tingly anticipation that precedes the kiss itself – is often why I go on dates like that in the first place.
Making that choice is not always the right thing to do. There are times when curiosity can hurt other people in your life, and times when the short-term rush of adrenaline can give way to other kinds of regret or remorse. Occasionally it’s just flat-out disappointing. I’ve got it wrong plenty of times, I know that much, and I’m sure I’ll get it wrong in the future too.
Those failures won’t stop me trying though. I agree that when it comes to the gap between fantasy and reality, we should celebrate imperfection rather than allow it to weigh us down. It’s what keeps us curious, and what gives us the impulse to go out and make connections with people.
The two Eroticon sessions, 18 months apart, helped me to frame and unpick a tension within myself. A tension between competing and contradictory impulses: the need to know (to touch, to taste, to kiss) and the fear of what that knowledge might cost me – of what I might lose in its acquisition.
Over the last few years I’ve learned to live with the (false) perception that I’m basically a massive slut who will jump into bed at the drop of a hat. I’m not ashamed of who I am, and will never apologise for wanting to indulge my curiosity, but after a lot of thought I’m no longer sure the magpie label is quite right.
I imagine I will always want to swoop down and pick up the shiny thing – it’s just that these days I also have a better (and calmer) appreciation of the value of staying in my tree. Not least because it’s only from there that I can watch the sun dance brilliantly over its surface, simultaneously hiding and illuminating what lies beneath.