Last night, friends invited me to a sexy, amateur burlesque show. Both cast and audience were having a great time, and for the first fifteen minutes, I felt carried along by their high spirits. But as the show stretched on, I became arrogantly and contemptuously disdainful of these ever-more predictable sexy hijinks and frivolities. And now, after having a night and some dreams to reflect, I feel my scorn is both warranted and illustrative of key aspects of the human shadow.
The premise of the dream was that I was back in high school as a teacher and that students had just been touched by the death of some people close to them. In one scene, some young teachers are doing a supposedly funny, school-sanctioned skit about death in a public bathroom to diffuse the situation.
Then there was a staff meeting, and in my typically outspoken, confrontational way (witness this card), I objected that the way they were handling death was grossly superficial, trite, glib, and that, in general, it sucked in every possible way.
I woke up feeling indignation at giggly, trivializing attitudes toward subjects as profoundly significant as sex and death. These feelings quickly converted to a desire to write a scathing Zap Oracle card exposing aspects of the collective human shadow revealed by the sexy burlesque I had attended the night before.
The name of the burlesque show was “Pandora’s Box,” and it included performers dressed up as characters and archetypes from Greek mythology. As I watched, it quickly became apparent that the cast was trifling with archetypes that applied to them in deadly serious ways they didn’t begin to understand.
Let’s start with the archetype of Pandora’s Box, the archetype the sexy burlesque chose as the name of their show. Indeed, sex is a Pandora’s Box in very, very, VERY dangerous and potent ways. Sex can cause both life and death. In fact, the first of these annual sex burlesques began as a fundraiser for someone dying of AIDS.
From my point of view, the dumbest oxymoron of all time is “casual sex.” How can a collision (or harmony) of the primal energies of two souls be casual? It’s a biological fact that “casual sex” can create life or cause death. And news flash to the clueless—when you merge your primal energies with another being, neither is the same ever again. Promiscuous sex with strangers, unerotic sex on the level of the genitalia, soulless sex as a metaphor for power, and mundane sex based on availability rather than quality is not a cause for giggly celebration.
A disdain for the nearly universal tendency to endlessly joke about sex has characterized my entire adult life. The presumption behind all the sex jokes is that we’re all sophisticated grown-ups in on the same joke.
But I’m not sure that anyone is actually in on this joke. A giant, irreducible factor called sex takes over the life of most of us and has us doing all sorts of things not necessarily to the benefit of ourselves or others. For example, homicide. There are whole bodies of law devoted to crimes of passion, and the most predictable local news headline of all time is a jealous boyfriend murdering one or more people.
So hilarious — this thing we joke about constantly without even beginning to understand what it is, even as it takes over our lives. Sure, procreative sex can be given a straightforward biological explanation. But this sexy burlesque was about every other form of sex than the procreative. It was a comic celebration of any sex thing thought to be kinky and transgressive.
Yes, if the burlesque were performed at the court of Queen Victoria, it would be transgressive. In its actual context, however, to an audience who also celebrates the anything-goes promiscuous norm of contemporary Western culture, it was not transgressive but in massive conformity to the expectations of peers in the audience. It was as norm-enforcing as a Presbyterian minister preaching to a congregation of Presbyterians. How daring and avant-garde to mimic the same forms of sexuality coming at us from every form of media during most of our waking moments.
No other animal is sexual in the way human beings are, nor are they sexually aroused all year round as so many humans are. As one psychiatrist put it, we know about as much about sex as stone-age folk did about fire. We know that we can create fire or sex by repetitiously rubbing two things together, but we know very little about why sex, to a degree unknown in the rest of the animal kingdom, dominates the lives of the planet’s most evolved organic species.
Much of the burlesque consisted of one cast member after another lip-synching sexy, top-forty hits while dancing lasciviously. One such lip-synching, butt-twerking performance was done to the classic Eurythmics song, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” which includes the all-too-familiar lyrics, “Some of them want to abuse you/ Some of them want to be abused.”
This lyric concisely describes a familiar aspect of human interaction going on in trailer parks, country clubs, and church picnics 24/7/365. Some people are abusers, some people are the victims of abuse, and some victims of abuse are masochistically addicted to being abused. Get it? What a rip-roaringly hilarious joke worthy of spastically erupting guffaws of laughter!
I didn’t notice a single person pause in their hilarity to think about what those lyrics actually mean. What the song describes, with clinical starkness, is a vast reality of what sex is for a very substantial part of the human population.
Humor is often used to cope with sources of anxiety. For example, there are more political jokes in politically troubled countries. Since sex riddles people with multiple anxieties, it drives them to compulsively joke about it. Endlessly, they laugh at a joke they’re not in on.
In the Pandora’s Box burlesque show, people laughed at archetypes, like the fool who naively opens Pandora’s Box, when they are themselves the fools laughing before the wide-open Pandora’s Box of sex.
Archetypes you don’t understand ain’t laughing with you. They’re laughing at you.
My advice: Don’t keep laughing at the same-old, same-old sexy jokes when you’re the butt of those jokes.
Try to understand the joke, realizing there are extreme limits to your understanding.
And when you are part of a vast, collective joke you can’t understand, here’s some more advice — be very circumspect about your behavior. Be cautious about being an actor in the endless sexual burlesque of the human species when you didn’t choose your role or the scripts that came with it. Closely examine what you are doing from an ethical perspective, and refrain from doing anything that violates universal ethics, such as acting out things with those not at an age, sobriety, or state of functioning to give rational consent.
Sex can also be loving, heartfelt, soulful, and transcendent. So here’s some more advice:
Maybe have a little bit of caution before settling for, let alone celebrating with jokey hilarity, sex that is none of those things. As users of this oracle are well aware, my advice with all significant choices is to ask yourself, “Will I remember this well on my deathbed?” How many of those supposedly hilarious sexual hijinks in bed stand up to that ultimate question?
I’m aware of the counterarguments to my highly polarizing perspective. A historian once described Puritanism as the “terrifying, paranoid fear that someone, somewhere, might be having a good time.” But I don’t have any Protestants or Catholics in my ancestry, nor am I a practicing member of any religion. Indeed, I am enthusiastically in favor of highly novel, life-affirming forms of sexuality and think sex can be at the cutting edge of evolution. I want people to have ecstatic, transcendent sex and to contribute spectacular, incandescent, polychromatic pansexual life-affirming orgasms into the collective cauldron of human energy. And in my experience, that can happen both in company and auto-erotically.
I’m not anti-sex, I’m just not in on the jokey celebration of promiscuous, pornographic sex merely on the level of the genitalia and of weak, mundane, mediocre sex borne of habit and addiction. Some people want to abuse, and some want to be abused, and these are the sweet dreams that so much of human psychology and practice are made of. But, sorry, I’m not in on that joke. I’m also not interested in being a school crossing guard stopping consenting adults from doing whatever with other consenting adults behind closed doors. But don’t expect me to laugh along with you.
Also, there is nothing whatever empowering about the oft-repeated intention of the clueless that they want to “let go of all their inhibitions.” I’ve heard well-educated people at Burning Man say they want to go to Jiffy-Lube Camp to “let go of all their inhibitions.” Many key neurological functions are inhibitory. Letting go of all your inhibitions makes as much sense as wanting to drive a car with no brakes. Ask someone suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome how empowered they feel by having an inhibition deficit.
Yes, you would be a rebellious maverick-renegade if you were performing your burlesque at a Baptist Bible-study summer camp or the court of Queen Victoria, but if instead, you are performing to an audience of other people who also worship in the common way at the altar of promiscuous sexual hijinks — there’s not the slightest aspect of rebellion or daring in what you are doing. In fact, what you’re celebrating is in perfect mechanical conformity with your peers and subculture, and that’s why they are all laughing along with you right on cue. You’re not a rebel but a puppet of forces beyond your control performing for the amusement of other puppets controlled by the same collective forces.
When laughter can be sustained without the slightest presence of novel humor, it means we’re in the presence of puppet-to-puppet tragi-comedy. For example, this audience found the same oral-sex sight gag—cast members going down on a cardboard cut-out of a phallus hanging clumsily from the costume of another cast member as hilarious in its tenth instance as much as it was in its first.
Particularly grotesque in the Pandora’s Box performance was a slightly obese late middle-aged woman in the cast who had chosen to personify Hades — a male god of death and the underworlds as a hilarious and personally empowering archetype of you-go-girl uninhibited promiscuity. This mildly obese older woman was dressed all in red in the sort of skimpy one-piece outfit of the sort that would force a circa 1950s, twenty-one-year-old Las Vegas cocktail waitress to live on a diet of black coffee and cigarettes so she could fit into it without embarrassing herself.
This unflatteringly dressed Hades Lady kept singing in a tone of you-go-girl self-empowerment of her eternal willingness to have people sit on her face and act out every sort of adolescent sex fantasy she could think of, every one of which was a golden oldie in ancient Egypt. Another newsflash to the clueless: unless your sexual kink requires batteries, it is not new, daring, avant-garde, rebellious, shocking, or maverick-renegade sex pirate in any way, shape, or form. It’s a golden oldie widely in practice thousands of years before you came on the scene.
One of the songs the Hades Lady sang in her you-go-girl exuberance of self-empowered acting out began with the line, “I was born standing up!” Note to Hades Lady: No, you weren’t. You were born as a helpless, squirming infant driven by blind instinct. You’re not standing proud, but still being mindlessly driven by adolescent obsessions in late middle age.
So, next time you find yourself laughing about sex, do a reality check to see if you’re actually in on the joke. If you find, like I do, that this immense force contains mysteries we have yet to unravel, retreat from the hollow laughter of the collective burlesque and reflect on the role sex plays in your life. Will you remember what you are doing well on your deathbed?
For those who wish to read an earlier rant on this subject, I wrote at high speed in 2013:
Why I don’t Find Jokes about Sex Entertaining (And why Promiscuity, Pornography and Public Nudity are Boring and Unerotic)
I don’t find most jokes about sex to be entertaining and believe them to be the nervous and compulsive byproducts of ignorance. I’m not an absolutist about this. I occasionally find such jokes amusing and make such jokes myself. My objection does not come from moralistic or religious grounds or because I long for a Victorian sense of decorum.
To me, sexual joking seems embarrassingly ignorant. Typically, it’s delivered in a glib, careless mode, and the jokester seems to assume a smug, cynical knowingness about an aspect of life that is actually veiled in many layers of mystery and that also burns with the potent fires of tragic magic.
First, sex is not this trifling plaything. Scan any collection of news headlines, and you’ll inevitably find them splattered with examples of the tragic outcomes of our ignorance about sex. Scan your own life and you will probably see innumerable instances in which this drive has burned you and others. Can you explain why most of us seem so fatefully, ineluctably, and intensely drawn toward a particular body type and not others? I can’t explain that, and I have yet to meet anyone in person or in writing who can fully explain it. Sexuality is a powerful engine driving us toward all sorts of things, often toward harmful means and ends, and rather than joking about it, I want to look under the hood and see how this engine works. The design of the engine, however, seems to be so deep in the source code that it eludes anything but the most intensive, prolonged, relentless probing, and even then, we gain only fragmentary glimpses of how it works.
When people joke about his mysterious, magical, and potently dangerous, frequently fatal force, they seem to me to be coming from a smug and cynical knowingness about it, and what they seem to know about it is a bunch of slapstick cartoons, a caricature of sexuality’s grosser presentations. I find the grosser aspects of sexuality — sex on the level of the genitalia, sex seen through the garish pornographer or jokester lens — to be mildly horrific rather than entertaining. When most of us contemplate having sex with or between body types of the sort we are not attracted to, it seems weird and gross. Yikes, who would want to do that? We imagine (or are forced to imagine via jokes) sex between body types we don’t covet, and it’s like, Ouu, gross, why would they even want to do that? But if you look at all sex on the level of the genitalia with beginner’s mind, including sex with or between hotties of the sort we covet, and it’s all gross. As Yeats so memorably put it, “Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement.”
It is a grotesque and embarrassing aspect of humanity that people will do the most ill-advised things, use the most unscrupulous means (“all’s fair in love and war”) and often incur tragic and even fatal consequences to achieve slippery contact with a very tiny piece of meaty real estate, the unsanitary orifice of another body, for example. And yet, rather than feeling humbled that they’re driven by a fateful, ineluctable irrational drive, the origins and nature of which are almost entirely veiled in ignorance, they joke about it with a smug, cynical knowingness as if the locker room were the place to graduate into a state of total sophistication about a subject that, as Churchill once said about Russia, is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Fools rush in (and joke about) where angels fear to tread. The ignorant make jokey and overconfident pronouncements about sex, like the malignant narcissism of gangsta’ rap lyrics telling us with testosterone-infused psychopathic self-confidence what “bitches” are like. The ignorant seem to know all about sex, while the wise tend to be awed by their vast ignorance of this potent part of our human core. The aware person may look out toward the horizon line of human conscious and wonder what governs our drive toward one kind of person and not another. For example, Emily Dickinson writes,
The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.
Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.
I’ve known her from an ample nation
Then close the valves of her attention
Can you explain the openings and closings of this valve? If so, explain it to me. Meanwhile, maybe people should think twice before joking about the workings of such a nuclear engine about which they and I know so very little.
Another thing that repulses me about sexual jokes is that they reduce and reinforce sex to a series of slapstick meat-puppet cartoons. They degrade the mystery and potential for beauty, soulful Eros, intimacy, and love. The jokes are worse than unerotic; they are anti-erotic if you accept the definition of Eros as an oceanic merger with another. The characters in the jokes are interchangeable stereotypes and caricatures rather than individualized people. Also, promiscuity, the current reigning norm in Western culture, is reinforced. People who joke about sex tend to think that explicit talk is daring or avant-garde, as if they were daring to rebel from Victorian convention, when actually it is the same old, same old, a scratchy, golden oldie that has been playing monotonously in the background for many decades. Promiscuity does not just mean careless sex with multiple partners, it also, at least for me, means careless explicit sex talk, sharing intimate details about even long-term partnerships in group settings, public displays of affection, jokey homoerotic photos posted to Facebook,* etc. It means that you thoughtlessly act out this mysterious, dangerous drive in public in any of a number of banal and stereotyped ways.
*(see: Anti-homophobic Homoerotic Joking — a Positive Mutation of the Millennial Generation? for an instance where I take a more positive view of a particular kind of sex jokes that have recently erupted on Facebook and elsewhere)
When I was a high school English teacher in the 80s and 90s, I would often find myself in a faculty lounge where colleagues, middle-aged teachers, were drinking coffee and bantering back and forth with these off-color jokes, which were often lazily flirtatious and embarrassingly self-disclosing. They seemed to find what they were doing amusing and witty, but to me it was like walking into what I thought was a fairly neutral space where I might do some paperwork only to find that a series of gruesome autopsies were being performed by drunken comedians. To anyone with an ounce of psychological discernment, people were disclosing the gross workings of their sexual neuroses. To my perception, these were like shadow X-rays of their inner malignancies displayed as a series of garishly colored cartoons, with gross, anatomically correct cartoon characters. The teachers’ view of sex was not in the slightest degree more elevated from that of the hormone-driven high school kids.
Freud and others have noticed that we tend to make jokes about sources of anxiety. In the repressive days of the U.S.S.R., for example, Russians made more jokes about politics. People may be seeking to depotentiate the degree to which sexuality intimidates and makes them anxious by joking about it. Perhaps if we make light of the monsters under the bed, they will dissipate. Advocates of promiscuity, a number of Burning Man attendees, for example, will say that they are trying to “push their boundaries” and “let go of inhibitions.” They say such things as though relaxing boundaries and letting go of inhibitions were always a good thing. From their perspective, people who prefer to keep intimate matters private are uptight, repressed and in need of orgy therapy.
As I discuss in Pushing the Envelope — Boundary Expansion in Personal and Evolutionary Contexts the creation of boundary was the beginning of life. Also, boundaries were crucial to the development of more intelligent and self-aware life. Inhibition is often a way to conserve power. As Goethe said, “A master first reveals himself in his ability to hold back.” The Zen archer hits the mark when she holds the arrow back until just the right moment. The I Ching continually emphasizes reticence as a virtue. If in doubt, don’t act and don’t speak. Better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. Many crucial neurological functions are inhibitory; ask someone with Tourette’s how empowering they find their lack of inhibition.
Jokes tend to thoughtlessly vent into public spaces a variety of neurotic tensions and obsessions when it would be better if we contained them. It would be better if we worked on our anxious, messy content within rather than spilling it out. We need inward tension to be creative and dynamic.
Our promiscuous spillage is not just via jokes, it is also the American cult of confession that has celebrities disclosing their private affairs on Oprah’s couch, and noncelebrities pursuing embarrassing self-disclosure on social media.
Promiscuous spillage may create a brief buzz, but ultimately leads to a deadening of feeling like the ever-diminishing stimulation of a series of hits from the crack pipe. One of the most deadening aspects of promiscuous spillage mode is that it tends to severe the connection between the heart and sexuality.
In 1940, Anïas Nin and some of her bohemian friends, who were all struggling to survive financially, got paid work writing explicit erotica. Eventually, she and her friends became sickened by the work and came to despise their employer. Finally, she wrote him the following:
We hate you. Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession. It becomes a bore. You have taught us more than anyone I know how wrong it is not to mix it with emotion, hunger, desire, lust, whims caprices, personal ties, deeper relationships that change its color, flavor, rhythms, intensities…
The source of sexual power is curiosity, passion. You are watching its little flame die of asphyxiation. Sex does not thrive on monotony. Without feeling, inventions, moods, no surprises in bed. Sex must be mixed with tears, laughter, words, promises, scenes, jealousy, envy, all the spices of fear, foreign travel, new faces, novels, stories, dream, fantasies, music, dancing, opium, wine…
There are so many minor senses, all running like tributaries into the mainstream of sex, nourishing it. Only the united best of sex and heart together can create ecstasy.
In <i>Brave New World</i>, published in 1932, Aldous Huxley foresees a future in which promiscuity replaces eroticism and sex becomes dreary and commonplace:
Lenina shook her head, “Somehow,” she mused, “I haven’t been feeling very keen on promiscuity lately. There are times when one doesn’t. Haven’t you found that too, Fanny?”
Fanny nodded her sympathy and understanding, “But one’s got to make the effort,” she said sententiously, one’s got to play the game. After all, every one belongs to every one else.”
“Yes, every one belongs to every one else,” Lenina repeated slowly and, sighing, was silent for a moment: then, taking Fanny’s hand, gave it a little squeeze. “You’re quite right, Fanny. As usual. I’ll make the effort.”
Another depotentiator of sexuality is public nudity, which some people at Burning Man and other festivals and venues seem to think is daring, liberating, and sexy. As George Leonard points out in his 1983 book that deserves to be better known, <i>The End of Sex — Erotic Love After the Sexual Revolution</i>,
Nudists are right in claiming their practice is nonsexual…Here is ideology again. According to the ideologists public nudity is supposed to be natural and freeing. It isn’t. Far from being natural, in fact, nonerotic nudity in large mixed groups is quite unnatural. Few indeed are the cultures, no matter how primitive, in which there is no clothing whatever. Body covering is not merely an ornament or a protection from the elements, but rather a metaphor of the mystery of generation. Uncovering is discovering; unveiling the body stands for all unveiling. To reserve full nakedness of the personal erotic encounter is to enhance both nakedness and the erotic, as poets and lovers have always known… Row upon row of naked bodies denies the mystery and serves ultimately as yet another depersonalization. In the mass, bodies become increasingly abstract and general. Distinctions become merely anatomical.
Leonard incisively points out that our present, promiscuous era is actually just the flip side of the Victorian:
Love, desire, longing, and lust have always existed, but it was only under the repressive Victorians, ironically, that “sex” as a separate, highly charged entity really came into its own. In the very act of constraining erotic expression, the Victorians extracted sex from the matrix of social relations, made it lurid, then held it up to view as something alien, an abstraction. During Victoria’s reign, as French philosopher Michel Foucault has pointed out, “Sex was driven out of hiding and forced to lead a discursive life.” We are still engaged in that discourse, and indeed it might be said the modern Sexual Revolution is essentially a continuation of Victorian dynamics. Prescription has replaced proscription, liberation has replaced repression, but the preoccupation and the context in which the preoccupation occurs remains the same: “sex” as a well-defined, highly charged entity that dominates much of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
The jokster, pornographer and promiscuous person continues the Victorian obsession with sex and uses familiarity to breed contempt for sex being anything more than an anatomical event. It takes what could be soulful, heartfelt relations (the sort Martin Buber referred to as “I-Thou”) and reduces them to the degraded monotony of “I-It” relations. The purveyors of promiscuity think they are being sexy in excitingly dangerous ways, but actually what they are doing is turning sex into a boring set of meat puppet transactions. They take what could be alchemical gold, and turn it into something as dull as dishwater. An I-Thou sexual encounter, an encounter in which sexuality is individualized rather than promiscuously stereotyped, is an alchemical combination that is unique in all the universe.
10/21/2013 This is the next day, and I’ve been getting feedback on Facebook that is changing my view of the subject and showing a bit of one-sidedness in my attitude, and an insufficient consideration of generational differences. One of the commentators gave me insights about how my personal history (which he sensed intuitively) colored my attitude.
Ben Good Read!!! ahem “people were disclosing the gross workings of their sexual neuroses, and to my perception these were like X-rays of their inner malignancies being displayed as a series of garishly colored cartoons, with gross, anatomically correct cartoon characters. The teachers’ view of sex, was not in the slightest degree more elevated from that of the hormone-driven high school kids.” How are these malignancies? I strongly disagree, I knew a young man with extremely kinky sexuality who is no longer here, and his christian upbringing demonized any expression… If he could have laughed about what he liked… If that dialogue about our anxiety can’t happen in humor it can’t happen anywhere… why did some of the most potent racial commentary of the last 70 years come from the mouths of stand up comedians? Joking is a way of opening the doors to communication… and yes a way of insulation, but sometimes we need that…I don’t want to share the depths of my sexual experience with everyone, but it can feel nurturting and freeing to feel like I am in a safe world where other people have sexuality (vulnerable, hungry, sexuality) and that this is something which can be talked about, something that can be fun… I’m curious if your sexuality is less malignant? Do you not enjoy the mechanical and sensuous aspects of sexuality> what of the sensuousness of the clown, the coyote, zeus, the wild dumb energy is universal, and hilarious. Is there an aspect of your sexuality which you have “corrected” and now you expect others to do so? Geoff and I joke about sex frequently with our other sexually frustrated and confused and exploratory 20somethings… I also agree about a lot of your points but that is less interesting to type about
Jonathan Zap Those are fantastic insights, and a great counterbalance to what I wrote. With your permission, I’d like to add them as an epilogue to the article.
Will It’s definitely a worthwhile subject to discuss, since sex jokes are quite widespread. I find myself mildly irritated by the x-rated sex jokes of my straight friends. The typical bitches and pussy variety. They often use ironic gay jokes as well, but they aren’t always anti-homophobic. I definitely appreciate the comedy of people like Louis CK, who is very popular with the millenials, and his material is almost exclusively sexually vulgar. But he uses tons of the anti-homophobic homoerotic jokes, as does many popular comedy shows like SNL. I think the irony is the most hilarious part, and it is essentially good natured and doesn’t discriminate against anyone. So I appreciate those ones, but then again I am myself gay, so that isn’t entirely surprising. If you were to ask an intellectual lesbian about jokes coming from good looking straight young men with above average social standing, ones like: “now that i let some dude finish in my mouth i want in the butt.” – she might comment that it reflects a smug, cynical knowingness that is boring and embarrassing! lol – Just sayin’… To Each Their Own, I guess. Unfortunately, most young people of the world have grown up with easy access to hardcore porn. I myself learned about the birds and the bees that way. So vulgar sex talk and thinking is quite rampant, even more so in the younger generation. I think it is a fairly significant generation gap – one that is quite confusing and perhaps frustrating…
Many related writings can be found in the Eros, Love, and Sexuality category of this site.