Friday, April 5, 2013

what a fun, sexy time for you!

I've been interested in health care my whole life. If I hadn't been bulimic, I think, I probably would have gone to medical school. (No joke: if you have someone in your life with an eating disorder, get them help, even if they aren't that thin, even if they don't seem to want it.) But for awhile, I seguewayed into the "academic world", a world in which excellence for its own sake is valued so unquestioningly that, should I have continued, my entire dissertation likely would have addressed Whitman and Dickinson's respective uses of spaces and line breaks, and what each has to say to us about object relations and the construction of identity.

These days, instead of that, the biggest contributions I make in the world include: plucking chin hairs for patients who cannot use their hands well, patting the backs of cognitively impaired toddlers and children, and remembering to talk to people when I am feeding them Ensure through the tubes in their bellies.

I sometimes think that I used to be super interested in sex -- so much so that, which each seminar I took, I moved further than the traditional lit-crit that had gotten me into graduate school and more firmly into truly remarkable gender/queer/sexuality studies circles that spring up like crocuses when one is studying in rural Texas -- and then, suddenly, I burned out and wasn't interested any more.

But this isn't strictly true. I was always up for talking about sex in college and graduate school. If I was having it, though, chances are I was thinking about my Whitman paper, at least after the first five minutes. Sex is like food, for me: I like it, but I don't really understand people who describe themselves as "foodies" and will devote free time to planning and executing of eating projects. Why learn to cook when one can spread peanut butter on toast, pop some frozen broccoli in the microwave, and go back to researching microlending online or studying liver disfunction?

This attitude may have been a sort of self preservation when I was in my early twenties. One of the few things Girls gets right is that casual sex is often shitty and awkward and perfunctory, and while I guess a lot of women relate to the experience of spending large amounts of time and money to prep their bodies for an experience that ultimately ranks a distant second to watching reruns in pajamas while snacking, I pretty much ended most of my "dates" in a existential quasi-crisis: life is so short, and I just spent two hours of mine listening to this person's thoughts on Quentin Tarantino, and now he is sleeping on my arm and I cannot leave. So, you know, I just found other things to do.

Being married, I am presented with the option of life-affirming, healthy, enjoyable sex. And so my feeling that I should be spending my time doing more "useful" things is exacerbated, because sex is now pleasurable, which, in my mind, means selfish.

This is why I think the bullshit apparatus of "women, submit yourselves to your husbands" and the belief that women should be sexually available to their spouses, however oppressive for a healthy woman, can be useful to women who have been taught that they should always be focused on caring for others -- useful in the sense that, without it, they would likely never have sex of any kind, which, well, we see how well that works (hi, Catholicism!). There is no space in that belief system for having sex because it is enjoyable; the only acceptable reason would be out of love for your spouse.

To actually enable women to feel okay about having sex because sex is enjoyable would require an interruption of the narrative that a woman's value is measured in her usefulness -- which is to say, a radical interruption of our anachronistic-but-not-really economic language in which women hover between object and the owners of objects. Because it's not just the "religious right" that insists on confusing the things a woman can do for others with her inherent value. New York City is littered with magazines, subway ads, and obnoxious commuters who are eager to remind any interested woman that she is failing to provide anything of value -- sexually, economically, aesthetically, whatever.

For me -- who threw in the towel at about twenty-five when if comes to trying to be of aesthetic or sexual value to anyone outside my marriage -- there is still enormous pressure to be of service to those around me, to have something to offer others. It both propels and (more often) interferes with the genuine concern I might feel for others and the desire to help them for their own sake. It also interferes with living my life: just how much time is it okay to spend having sex, eating food, playing with my child, when people are dying and people are lonely and people are unschooled?

How much time am I willing to spend on activities that are self-serving, on my own relationships and health and quality of life? Because I was taught that "none" is the appropriate amount. And, to be honest, there are days in which I just want to walk away from Christianity, because the same way that some people look in the Bible and can't see any way to read it that doesn't condemn homosexuality, I look in the Bible and can't see any way to read it that doesn't demand that I spend less time caring for myself, and more time caring for others. And for me, the logical extension of that is: if less time on me is better, no time on myself is best. And it is difficult to discern where the doctrine stops and the mental illness begins -- or if, as dark a notion as it is and as much as I dislike Hitchens, there isn't some legitimacy to the idea that religion is, itself, a kind of mental illness.

I don't know know if it is gender, or religion, or what, that makes it seem like things not done to serve others are not worth doing. Or why it is so profoundly threatening to me to devote any amount of time to any other area of life. But to the extent that I do believe that sex can be a natural, zesty enterprise, I think it is critical to helping us (me?) remember that we are meant to engage others relationally rather than functionally. Wanting to be of use to others is better than using others, sure. But loving others in a way that allows them to make your life better, too -- risking a relationship that can't double as a talking point in whatever cosmic beauty pageant you imagine yourself entering -- that, it seems to me, is actually best, is what we were made for. Terrifying and messy as it is.