Updated: Sep 23
Let’s face the tragic nature of desire. Not exactly titillating, but bear with me, I’m marching towards a point with a pink dildo-shaped spear.
Sex and tragic ends are linked so closely together, there are evolutionary data to back it up. Just think of dystopian novels and how the main character and the love interest are sexually charged regardless of death being so imminent. From an evolutionary standpoint, that’s the biological imperative of continuing our species kicking in. From a practical standpoint, if things look shitty, let’s at least get some.
Now let’s look at what literature tells us.
Madam Bovary, Flaubert
Emma Bovary suffered through a marriage so dull, it makes the 9–5 corporate cubicle life appealing. She falls into a deep depression. She manages to find happiness through two short-lived affairs. Then commits suicide.
The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway
Jake Barnes is in love with Lady Brett Ashley and mopes because his privates were blown off in war — or at least that’s we’re led to think. Ashley is madly in love with Barnes but doesn’t pursue a relationship with him because faithfulness would mean the end of her sex life. This was meant to represent the aimless search for love and comfort after World War I and the corruptive consequences of modernity, but in 2020, I applaud Lady Brett Ashley for thinking of her needs first. Hemingway would say I’m proving his point. I say I’m merely rejecting the notion that modernity was corruptive.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde
While Wilde dances around the subject, Dorian Gray experiences a sexual awakening and an attraction for both sexes. Yet his narrative is about the corruption of the soul and is tied to a life of endless parties, heavy drinking, and even murder.
The literature examples could go on for days, but let’s come back to real life and the millions of accounts revealed on Ashley Madison, a platform designed for married men and women to find people with whom to be unfaithful. The people who hacked the site did it with the intention to shame. And while dishonesty does not a relationship make, infidelity is complicated, and, as Esther Perel says in her TED Talk, Rethinking Infidelity: “the victim of an affair is not always the victim of the marriage.”
What all of these examples have in common is that the characters and persons had the audacity to seek pleasure on their own terms and met with tragic ends. The tragedy wasn’t for the act itself, but for the shame of wanting pleasure and having to seek it in a society of stiff necks and upturned noses. In a healthy parallel, Emma Bovary would’ve realized that she married for the wrong reasons and that she could pursue men with the lifestyle she wanted. The real story would be whether she wanted Rodolphe of Léon. Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley were particularly tied to the strict rules of monogamy. They could be in a relationship and have no sex (because in their world, apparently, oral doesn’t count), or they could be not in a relationship and Lady Brett Ashley could have all the sex she wants. An open relationship would be out of the question. The even more tragic Dorian Gray, whose YOLO-esque narrative of partying and murder was tied to his sexuality in order to make the argument that a sexually charged life automatically leads to the corruption of the soul. Why?
The mainstream hasn’t accepted a healthy, sexually-fulfilling, narrative. (Some would argue 50 Shades of Grey, but even in the realm of BDSM, that relationship was highly unhealthy, so don’t.) It doesn’t have to be that way anymore. We start by talking openly about sex. We ask questions. We share stories. We write poetry. We make jokes.
Sex isn’t something to hide. Have dates in a sex shop. Watch porn together. Write erotic love letters to each other. Use ridiculous emoticons to sext. Whether it’s cunnilingus, fellatio or anilingus, gormandize your partner. If you don’t have a partner, please yourself every which way without fear of reproach.
Sexual desire is the people’s penetralia and it has to end. While it lends to very relatable coming-of-age stories, I find it disturbing that the mainstream literature of longing, and giving in to said longing, so often come to violent ends.