cartoonist: Robert Crumb
Text copyright Jonathan Zap, 2013 (ROUGH DRAFT)
I’ve learned to tolerate jokes about sex, and am not trying to change anyone’s behavior so much as to explain why I don’t find such jokes entertaining and believe them to be the nervous and compulsive byproducts of ignorance. I’m not an absolutist about this, occasionally I do find them entertaining and very occasionally make such jokes myself. My objection does not come from moralistic or religious grounds or because I long for a Victorian sense of decorum, etc.
To me, sexual joking seems embarrassingly ignorant. Typically it is delivered in a glib, careless mode and the jokster 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 will 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 you, and others you know, have been burned by this drive. Can you explain to me 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 that can explain it. Sexuality is like this 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 slap stick 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, Ooou, 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 is 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 just 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 are 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 and enigma.
Fools rush in (and joke about) where angels fear to tread. The ignorant make jokey and overconfident pronouncements about sex, like the malignant naricissism 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 you should think twice before joking about the workings of such a nuclear engine about which you 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 that unerotic they are anti-erotic if you accept the definition of eros as oceanic merger with another. The characters in the jokes are interchangeable stereotypes, 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, would be 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 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, 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.
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 might be thought to be uptight or 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 inhibitions.
Jokes to tend to thoughtlessly vent into public spaces a variety of neurotic tensions and obsessions, when it would be better if we contained them, transformed them inwardly, metamorphic work that can be depotentiated via public spillage. Sometimes 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 seeking embarrassing self-disclosure on reality shows, the Maury Povich show, etc.
Promiscuous spillage may create a brief buzz of excitement, 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 Brave New World, 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, The End of Sex—Erotic Love After the Sexual Revolution,
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 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. My very wise volunteer editor, Ellen, who is also a therapist also provided some great insights. Here are some of the comments:
Many related writings can be found in the Eros, Love and Sexuality Category of this site.