We live in an era of nihilistic thirst. People keep begging their favorite celebrities to run them over with cars and inflict grievous bodily harm. It’s a joke and also an expression of ambient mortal dread that comes from living in a rapidly warming world whose social networks and actual human infrastructure are failing. Or, I guess, it’s maybe more accurate to say that those who have felt secure now feel less so, and we’re all horny for destruction and devastation. It feels like for the first time in a long time, the society in which I now operate has freed up some space for the discussion of glancing, casual desire for people who have had fewer opportunities to do so in public without grave consequences to their personal or professional lives. It seems like a miracle that people can log on to one of the world’s largest social networking sites and beg Cate Blanchett to put her heel to the back of their necks without worrying about getting fired or having their children taken away. We can beg Cardi B to literally remove our insides and choke us with them, and no one is going to have us arrested.
I mean, as always, certain restrictions apply, particularly restrictions of race, gender, cis-ness, sexuality, location, ethnicity, body size, body shape, disability, class, etc. We permit a certain easiness to certain people. There’s no mystery in that. We all know the game. So when I say that we’re freer to express our want, our need, the we is a heavily mediated term. Some people get death threats for saying that they want someone or want something to happen to them. For some people, the mere mention of a desire is a provocation of abuse, isolation, pain. And in much of the new discourse around wanting Cate Blanchett to drive a spike through your forehead, the people doing the discoursing are a certain class of new media professional. What we talk about when we talk about desire as devastating experience, as destruction and remaking, is usually pretty banal, all told. And then there are the homosexuals, with their softcore radical fucking as theology. It’s as boring but it’s louder, somehow.
Lately, one of my favorite things to do on Twitter is to articulate an exact aesthetic of physical desire though I don’t really feel physical desire as such. There’s all this construction downtown. There are all of these men in neon green shirts and dusty pants and heavy boots lifting themselves out of huge holes in the ground with nothing but their forearm strength. And when I see them, I understand something about myself and my own wanting. I say, usually to Twitter: Wow, eager to be torn apart by a man who won’t look at me afterwards and thinks that Creationism is real and distrusts climate science. It’s not so much about him or his body, though these are the incitement to look. It’s more about wanting to interface with a particular genre of masculinity and power, all the while knowing that said particular genre of masculinity and power is morally bankrupt and would be catastrophic. Instead, it’s more about the capacity of that genre of masculinity and power to undo me, unmake me. There’s this desire in me that wishes for total erasure, incineration. I want to be un-alive. Undone.
It also isn’t uncomplicated by the fact that much of what we are taught about desire, we are taught through the eyes of white men. What the white male gaze permits or does not permit. We construct ourselves in the shadow of that gaze until we become, what, aware of it maybe. And then we either step out of it, or we stay put. I don’t know what to make of it except to say that it’s like all things. It flows along a gradient of power, wanting. And I think much of our desires have a lot to do with power. Wanting it, or wanting to be destroyed by it. I don’t actually want to be touched.
The other month, I was flying either out of or into Minneapolis, and I had just come through the body scanner. The TSA agent watched the screen behind me to make sure I had the all-clear to go. But the machine pinged something, maybe the waist of my pants which I had pulled up a little. Anyway, he said he’d have to pat me. He put his hand on my stomach, and I flinched so hard that I almost toppled backward. It was the first time in months that I had been touched, I realized. And he just did it again. And again. Running his hand up and down my stomach and my chest, not in a punitive way or a loving way or a generous way. It was as neutral a touch as I’ve ever experienced, and yet the shock occurrence of another human body coming into contact with mine made me flinch and shiver, and I held my breath until it was over. I collected my things and sat on a nearby bench. My heart was beating so fast that it was like I had run from the security checkpoint. But I hadn’t run. I had simply gotten my things and calmly walked over. But I was so embarrassed by my response to being touched. Embarrassed by the knowledge that I hadn’t been touched in a long time, and what it might mean about me though I knew it didn’t mean anything about me.
It’s true that desire has always been really complicated for me. Inside of every want, there’s been shadow fear. My earliest sexual experiences were not consensual. I was assaulted as a young person. Assault makes it sound like one incident, there and gone, like getting hit in the head with a baseball or cutting my palm open with a knife. But it wasn’t like that. Instead, it was like the weather, always present. It happened more than once, more than twice, more than three times. Over a period of many years. The result was that I didn’t know when it might happen again. You live in fear of it the way people in certain parts of the world live in fear of hurricanes or tornadoes, which we also had. You wait out the hard weather, but you know it will come again. It always comes again. When I came into my own sexual desire, I wanted, I needed, but also, I felt like something in it had been taken away from me, some crucial bit of agency. It felt like even when I initiated sex, I wasn’t doing so of my own volition. I felt removed from myself, like I was watching myself do and move and want. There was the part of me that did want. But then there was also the part of me that feared and waited for it to end. Desire is so messy. Because on the one hand, I don’t want to be touched. And for great periods of time, I can go without it. You forget after a while. But then when someone touches me, I am reminded that I have a body that can be acted upon, and I feel at once a thrill and also a great fear. Desire and its twin compulsion, terror.
But there’s something in being destroyed that joins the two. I think there’s something in the sex I’ve had and wanted to have that is always rough and hard and mean and painful. I have had good sex, kind sex, with good, kind men. And it’s not that it was inadequate, because it wasn’t. It’s more that having good, kind sex feels like a betrayal. Because of course I have this thing where I hate myself and hold myself in low regard and degradation feels like the only kind of love I can accept. It’s more complicated than that too, because I have also had rough, mean sex with good, kind men, and the degradation was a kind of pleasure too.
I think that it must be okay in some way as long as you can say that it’s what you wanted. But this is another complication. Because what if your wanting is the result of tampering, meddling, what if your wanting comes from a place of being told that you don’t deserve good things or that you’re worthless, and so your want grows into a shape of self-neglect. We accept the love we think we are due. We want in the way we think we deserve.
I think it’s messy, wanting to be destroyed. To be torn apart by men with rough hands and a fear of themselves. But it’s messy in part because all desire is messy. You can’t separate desire from the system in which the desire is embedded. There are always rules that you’re breaking by wanting, by desiring. No matter what the object of your desire is. I change my mind daily about what I want. About who I want. About whether it’s want at all or something else, urgent and bone-deep: need.
I know why they call it thirst. Because of the way it hurts you, the sense of your lack, the ache of wanting, needing, how you go dry with it, the way you vibrate in anticipation of it.
Sometimes, my friends and I make a joke about a certain kind of tightly wound person. We say, They need a top. That’s all. They just need a top, and all will be well. It’s a joke because sex solves very little of one’s personal problems, all told. But it’s not a joke in another sense, meaning that sometimes what you need is a force greater than yourself to which you can abdicate responsibility of your life--to put yourself in the hands of another person, to be run through completely and utterly. A top won’t solve your problems. But neither will prayer. And yet there is a kind of analogy at work. Submission. Yielding. Handing over. It’s like when Henry II says, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest,” about his good friend and closest advisor turned political adversary and opponent, Thomas Becket. That appeal to the higher order, not even a fully articulated desire, so much an almost ecstatic exhalation in the friction of circumstances. But then, we all know how that ended: violence and suffering.
I think one thing I mean when I say that I want to be split in half by a man who doesn’t believe in science and who thinks that I’m subhuman is that I want all of the helplessness I feel in every other moment of my life to be tightly concentrated into one moment, one reason, one cause. I want the amorphous drifting haze of feeling unsure and unsafe to gain sudden, piercing clarity. It’s clarity that we’re horny for. Clarity and heat. But of course that’s privilege. That’s the result of the leisure class, transmuting yet again, some primal need into a game or a meme. What amazes me is that it’s not even about sex. I seldom think of sex with men I see in public. I can’t imagine it. Going home with a strange man and sleeping with them. Very little of my desire has to do with sex.
It’s something more than I can say or explain. It’s something else, bigger than me, bigger than my capacity to write and think. Desire and fear, want and need. I’m still turning it over.
Anyway. I hope you enjoy the long weekend. I hope you see someone with very excellent forearm veins lift something heavy. I hope you enjoy yourself.