Saturday, March 30, 2013

Working the kinks out (A Response to the Beautiful Kind)

In the previous post, which went up on Thursday, we gave space to a guest blog by Kendra Holliday of The Beautiful Kind.

The topic of the week around here has been fantasy and taboo.  For her contribution, Ms. Holliday wrote about an event in which she and several friends enacted a taboo fantasy in an environment of safety and voluntary consent.

While comments have mostly been positive (e.g. "I like how she defines the limit and difference between sexual play and doing actual harm to someone") with some bemusement, one reader responded with disgust: "I was filled with visceral revulsion reading about a woman whose sexual fantasy involves perpetuating violence against women by involving 8 men in a non-consensual act. This sort of thing encourages the treatment of both men and women as objects rather than persons."

The objection, as I understand the comment, is to the enactment of non-consent.  The non-consent, of course, was fictional.  In reality, these folks were all actors participating in a private theatrical act, role-playing a non-consensual situation.  They were not engaged in making art for an audience, of course; I don't think they viewed this as an artistic endeavor; yet people do engage in fantasy and role-play in non-public spaces.

Presumably, we can agree that a real rape did not take place here.  This was a "gang bang" with quotation marks around the phrase. Yet they did enact that fantasy.  I did not think I would be writing a post about acting, but there is something very familiar (and very ancient) in this reaction.   In traditional theatre, I have committed murder, I have kissed women (and men) who were not my girlfriend or wife, I have empathized with and played characters who did truly horrible things.  I have even simulated sex in front of an audience.  Yet I did not actually commit murder or adultery.  I am not personally accused of disregarding human life or infidelity.  And likewise, Kendra and her friends did not actually participate in a rape, commit actual violence, nor -- and here I refute the anonymous commenter -- did they actually treat one another as objects rather than persons.

So, to my mind we have established that we are talking about a truly non-violent event.  If I am not a murderer for what I've done on a stage, then these men are not rapists for what they did in private. 

Now we move on to the content of the fantasy.  Which is what our anonymous commenter found so reprehensible, and perhaps other readers as well. 

There are taboos within taboos here.

Fantasy itself, the content of our thoughts both conscious and subconscious, is a murky and disorderly continuum.  It never ends (except perhaps with brain death).  The stream is affected by social conditioning, the interventions of family and society.  Repressed material merely gets pushed down into the subconscious.  Meditators learn about this pretty quickly:  if you try to stop your thinking, it is apt to get worse.  Wanting to stop thinking IS a thought.  Zen meditation adopts a "leave it alone" approach to consciousness.  Surface thinking settles down by itself.  When it really settles down, the subconscious stuff -- ideas, memories, emotions for which there are no names, fears, desires, and more -- comes to the surface, and that's an "interesting" stage.  Sexual energy, a primal instinct that is largely taboo and repressed, is definitely part of this -- especially for those practicing in their prime sexual years.

Many of us pay a lot of money to therapists for a space where these thoughts can be expressed, exposed, released.  There are many kinds of therapy to help us do this.  There are meditation practices expressly for the purpose of noticing and then releasing this stuff.  The theatre, among other art forms, has served a similar function through the ages.  Plays have engaged societal issues, private relationships, and even struggled to express the confusing inner psychic territory of the human.  This requires actors to enact crimes and taboos.  In the process, the actors themselves become associated with repressed psycho-sexual feelings.  Plato didn't want actors or poets in his republic; and in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha includes actors in his list of people to avoid.

Readers may disagree as to whether there is an analogy to katharsis (κάθαρσις) in their activity.  Either way, Kendra Holliday has experienced something very similar to what actors have had projected on them.  For people like her, it's called "slut shaming."  It is not okay for a woman to be explicitly interested in sex on her own terms and to act on that interest non-secretively; yet male-dominated pornography thrives, and influences the culture in ways that are not vehemently refuted except by a few.  The conditioning is negative and goes largely uncommented-upon.

Hence, her work around fostering a "sex positive" culture seems to be an effort to transform our relationship to our sexual feelings and fantasies, so what is hidden can be brought to the surface and released.  In her own words:

I find exploring taboo topics to be therapeutic and a way to face fears. It's horrific to hear in the media about acts such as men having sex with a passed out woman while a bunch of people stand around and gawk, but have I fantasized about it? Certainly. You can read about it here. Having sex with someone who is sleeping or unconscious is on the necrophilia fetish spectrum, one of the most highly verboten topics. Sure it's disturbing, but that's the whole point - no one fantasizes about washing the dishes or performing other mundane activities - it's necessary and healthy to acknowledge our dark side and work the kinks out.

So she created a safe space with some consenting adults she knew well enough, and they role-played a forbidden fantasy.

My own sexual taste is a lot more vanilla than this; but if I look past that difference I see something dignified in the event as Kendra describes it.  I don't see these people reduced to objects, I see people.

And I don't find what Kendra wrote about nearly as obscene as a culture that exploits repressed sexual feelings for commercial purposes.  Our culture does not even stop at sexualizing children in order to sell products or win beauty contests. We are manipulated and led around by the figurative hook in our nose.  This, to me, is obscene.  It is one of the major motivations I have for practicing zen and sharing it with anyone who is interested.

[Image:  Oh my god!  Call the police!  I have just murdered someone in front of a couple of hundred witnesses, and now the man on the right is trying to kill me!  Well, actually, we're just acting out a scene from the famous play Romeo and Juliet.]


Anonymous said...

Our culture gives our kids such terrible messages about sex. Girls are told they can't say yes, and they're also told they can't say no. Boys are told that girls really want it whether they say yes or no, and also that real men always want it.

I'm glad Kendra had a good time. But I'm weeping because I know there are women who are enduring terrible experiences that men are forcing on them, because stuff on the internet has encouraged the men to believe that their women share Kendra's fantasy -- or should.

What would our culture look like if we really respected each person's right to only engage in consensual sex? How can we get there from here?

Algernon said...

I am sorry you are distraught. I do view what Kendra and her friends did as consensual sex, but I hear you.