Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘promiscuity


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Non-poly people, on learning I’m polyamorous, always want to know if I’m jealous. I say that I’m not, and receive a puzzled look, then usually a statement that they would get jealous, that they just couldn’t do it, which is strange because I’ve never invited them to. It’s a lie, of course. I do get jealous, I just don’t get jealous about sex. Not often enough to justify telling a partner that my feelings should influence their actions, anyway. I could count my experiences of sexual jealousy on one hand, which is rather convenient, in poly.

But I do get jealous. I get horribly, irrationally jealous. I get jealous of people I hardly know. I’m jealous of friends of friends for being diverting and funny. I’m jealous of kinksters on Twitter who have more play and have better pain tolerances than I do. I’m jealous of friends’ partners because they get to see a side of my friends I’ll never know. I’m jealous of writers who have had their work published, even though I’ve never sent anything to a literary agent. I burned with jealousy when my father praised his girlfriend’s daughter’s cooking. She hadn’t even left home, my reaction was ridiculous.

I’m an only child, perhaps I never learned to share. That’s given me a useful perspective, though: I can’t help but recognise how petty I am. I can’t tell my friends not to have other friends, or boyfriends, no matter how insecure and envious I feel, it wouldn’t even occur to me, because I have no right to regulate their lives. If I did, though, there would be a helpful conversation about my insecurity or a row about the best way to make pastry, depending on our moods. There certainly wouldn’t be any level of acquiescence. Having learned to allow friends their freedom, I can’t see why friends I sleep with should be treated any worse.

Sometimes I can see the workings of jealousy in my petty mind, even as I’m feeling it. My father’s praising about his girlfriend’s daughter’s* cooking hurt. It still hurts, and it’s been a couple of years now. He never praises me, in fact he doesn’t show enough interest to hear of things he might praise me for. And he particularly never praises my cooking, because he never eats it. Offered it, he’s been known to opt for peanuts or crackers and cheese instead. He says that’s because he doesn’t like vegetarian food, but where’s the meat in a packet of peanuts? Where? WHERE?!

The comment that Millie was an excellent cook was like a fissure in the dam, a jet of my anger and hurt spewed out; all the feelings about my father’s lack of interest in me hit me in a flood. Those feelings may be big and important personally, but they really don’t have anything to do with Millie’s culinary skills. Jealousy is all about me, and it’s not going to be fixed by someone else, even if Millie serves something ugly and poisonous at a fancy dinner party. Unless it’s to my father, I suppose.

As far as sex goes, I stave off insecurity by only sleeping with people who I’m pretty confident think I’m attractive. They’re going to think other people are attractive, too, but they’d think that even if they weren’t allowed to act on their desires. I’m comfortable if I’m sure I’m near the top of the list, which limits my range of sexual partners but does wonders for my self-esteem. I do catch myself in little waves of jealousy about play partners’ play partners, which mostly boil down to “she/he has a less wobbly bottom and a better pain tolerance than me.” Those feelings have little to do with the person I’m jealous of and a lot to do with my relationship with my own bottom. I suppose if it reached a critical level I’d have to have a conversation with play partners about whether playing with someone who cries so easily and wobbles so much is fun, and reserve myself for the extremely enthusiastic, as I do with lovers. I’m hoping, however, that kinky confidence will grow with experience, as sexual confidence did.

I’m willing to work at it because jealousy is such a horrible feeling. On a selfish level, I just don’t want the experience of it, but I don’t want to be a partner who limits the people I’m with (rather the reverse). Dealing with jealousy brings freedom. I get the freedom to do what I want sexually, which is important to me because, goodness, I want to do a lot of things! I also get the freedom to refuse what I don’t want. Whenever I’ve been with monogamous people, whether I’ve signed up to those rules or not, there’s been a horrible, horrible pressure. We’re in love. He wants to be with me forever, he doesn’t want anyone else. And may he please suck my toes? And I think, how awful to have a burning desire to suck toes, to want that fulfilment, and never to get it. To go your whole life without this simple thing, to die with it undone, for me. It’s a huge sacrifice. And would it be so awful to have my toes sucked, to provide great happiness to the person who would lay down his life for me? And I try to say yes, but…no, I can’t do it. So I feel guilty, and he wonders why I look so downcast and bake so much. Eventually the relationship ends in guilt and recrimination.

I’m exaggerating (slightly), but the core point about the pressure of monogamy is sincere. To supply everything that someone wants sexually is going to require doing things you’d rather not do. After many years of trying to seem interested as sweet nothings were whispered, look enthusiastic during gentle thrusting, and pretend I like the taste of cock, I’ve come to terms with my kinks. I don’t want to go back to doing things I don’t enjoy. That’s why it’s nice to say to my partner, “You want toe sucking/gentle sensuousness/consensual sex? Go find someone else to do that with.” He can, and he will, in the same way that he presumably does with his desires for blondes, or men, for which I really don’t fit the ticket. And I’m happy, because I like him, and I want him to have things he likes.

In the middle of all this freedom: freedom for me to see other people, for him to see other people, for me to say no, the obvious question is whether there’s a point when I’ll want less freedom and more security. The idea of my lover chatting up men at the Folsom Street Fair this week didn’t trouble me, the idea of him having a fling doesn’t, but how would I feel if someone became so important in his life that he didn’t have time for me? Probably quite hurt. But—and I’ve managed not to say this to a non-poly questioner yet—throwing your lover over for another isn’t a phenomenon restricted to the poly world. It’s a story as old as creation, in fact, wasn’t it Lillith’s first crime? So I’ll take the risk of being replaced as we all do, but comforted by the knowledge that I’ll see my usurper coming. There’s a chance I’ll be jealous then.

*Let’s call her Millie. It’s easy to say ‘Millie’ disparagingly.

Written by Not an Odalisque

October 4, 2011 at 1:20 am

‘Don’t let’s talk about being in love, OK?’

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Some time ago a friend said that he wasn’t falling in love with me. Oddly, even though I have no romantic inclinations towards him, it was even more awkward than if he had declared his undying affection. At least I’d know what to say to that; I’ve had some practice. I said goodbye. I got onto a train and I tried to read, but instead commenced re-examining my words and actions for the past several months, looking for those which could be misinterpreted as expressions of love. Even with my obsessive nature and considerable critical abilities, I was unable to sustain it for three hours straight, and was distracted by thoughts of love in general. I had obviously failed to communicate my position on love, or I wouldn’t be being warned off by anyone.

Love is like expensive ice cream. People tell me how great it is, how comforting. They say they crave it and describe taking a two litre tub of it to bed at the end of a terrible day. I’ve tried it and found that it’s, well, like eating frozen cream. I’m more of a sorbet girl myself, but ice and fruit aren’t ever going to elicit the response from me that Ben and Jerry’s does in others. That’s fine; I’ll not take ice cream. But if there is momentary incredulity about my not desiring ice cream, there is outright denial of my wish not to get romantically entangled.

My biggest problem is this: those who challenge me aren’t entirely wrong. Even if I don’t like ice cream, I would like to believe that a cure for unhappiness could be bought in pots. Of course I want someone who accepts me for who I am. I want someone to think it’s sweet that I can never remember the name of the main character and adorable that I can’t organise a cupboard in such a way that things don’t fall out. However, I live in the real world, have experienced the pain as the items have hit me on the way down, and have a realistic expectation about people’s reactions.

I’m tempted by the promise of love. And by the seductions of extended metaphors.

Being with people thinking of love is like being in a supermarket. Supermarkets make me panic. This time last year they left me breathless, stumbling through crowds searching for the door, hardly able to remember my own name. Nowadays, I avoid that by going in with a shopping list at 2am. Supermarkets scare me because they seem to be trying to turn me into a different person. I think I only need milk and bread flour, but before I’ve gone a few paces hundreds of products have been suggested. I stride past them with certainty that I don’t need shower gel or heel cream or hair mayonnaise (yes, that one’s real). By the time I’ve passed the books, DVDs and Christmas decorations I begin to think something’s not quite right. Other people want these things. They are there, picking up action movies and artificial trees. I must be a very picky. At the fruit and veg I feel ought to get something. I may think I want tomatoes, but from a range of eight types, with wildly differing price tags in no way reflective of variation in the tomato eating experience, I feel totally unable to make a choice. It seems there’s an interpretative system which everyone else is in on, allowing them to pick the right one, but no one’s told me the secret. By the time I get to the bread aisle and find that, among the hundreds of options, there isn’t a crusty brown loaf, I feel there’s something horribly broken inside, dividing me from the rest of humanity and confirming that I’m just not the person I ought to be.

That’s how I feel about love. I can recognise the utter duds, the men who email me on fetish sites with photos of their willies and the drooling guys in bars who tell me I’m the most beautiful girl they’ve ever seen as they ‘accidentally’ brush my leg. These are the blue cheeses and the value sausages of love—you’re amazed that anyone has even tried them. Most people aren’t like that. I find people interesting. Some of them announce their love, and I try, as with the tomatoes, to imagine what it would be like to pick this one, or that. I never seem to be the tomato buyer they wanted me to be.

Love demands attention. As an intense personal experience, it cannot be denied. Even as a person tells you that they want nothing from you, their love is given for free, it is whispering the question, “why don’t you pick me? Here I am. Better than any other bread on the aisle.”

Every time someone says they love me, I have to bite my tongue so as not to say “but you don’t know me.” There’s a constant tension between revealing enough for your liking to apply to me, and making myself the sort of person you would like. People have said they love me on the basis of my listening to expositions on Kandinsky when totally uninterested, defining words when I think they are perfectly capable of using a dictionary, agreeing with their philosophies I think are banal. I can’t believe that their experience was all that different; these are the compromises life is made of.

One man said he loved me on a Friday and dumped me on the Sunday. Apparently he couldn’t deal with me being flogged by other men. I’d like to think that a propensity to being flogged by other men is an integral part of my character, so we’d obviously misunderstood each other somewhere along the line. I think I’ve worked out why. In depictions, love is a spontaneous, explosive force that sweeps objections out of its way. That’s fine when you’re Mr. Darcy and by overcoming petty doubts you prove your love and give your girl a really big house. I, however, quite like myself, my life, my way of doing things. I don’t need any explosions.

So I’m not looking for love. I am looking for people to sleep with, play with, tie me up, hit me with things or read me stories in bed. I’d like to meet first-readers, coffee-drinkers and re-organisers of kitchen cupboards. I’d be very grateful to the person who can explain the end of Selima Hill’s poem Don’t Let’s Talk About Being in Love, as it has been troubling be for years. For a few minutes you could be my special someone. I think we could both be happy with that.

Written by Not an Odalisque

October 13, 2010 at 11:10 pm

Tell Me How To Say “No”

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A few months ago I resolved to start saying “no.” I think that the part of me that tells potential partners to go away is missing; I’m trying to find it. It isn’t all about sex, you understand. I still haven’t managed to tell my father that I’m not going to read the copy of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ he bought me for Christmas. I’m likely to assent to a coffee, a meal, or a slow dance, and then realise that I haven’t been wary enough of romantic expectations.

You see, people come along with their narratives of who they want me to be, and I don’t want to disappoint them. They seem so happy when I get it right. Because of that, I’ve played successively the ingénue, the other woman, the struggling writer and the sunny girlfriend. But it has to stop. People get so disappointed when they find out their ingénue is someone else’s femme fatale.

More than a year ago I was sat at a bar in Prague airport waiting for my friends. I’d already spent the flight there playing the idealistic charity worker to a fellow passenger’s successful but jaded businessman. I wanted to start my holiday with a coffee and some quiet time, but a man came in, got a drink and wandered over.

“What are you writing?”

“My diary,” I say.

“Am I in it?” he asks.

“I’m afraid not.” I reply.

“Where are you from?” he wants to know. I don’t want to talk to him, but all the time he keeps asking questions I can’t get out of the conversation without being rude. By the time he’s suggesting that he sets me up in a little flat to be his “private English tutor” I feel like I’ve led him on so much by engaging in conversation that I can’t tell him to take his sleazy proposal elsewhere. I find myself making excuses rather than looking at him disdainfully and stalking off. Sighing with relief when my friends appear, I escape. You may think that these problems don’t arise very often. You’re wrong. I was asked out by three men during a ten minute walk from the tube to my destination in London recently.

The situation in Prague wasn’t too difficult, since only a very small proportion of my social circle can be found there. Other areas are more complicated. I once had a boss who used to ring me in the middle of the night for pointless conversations about the next day’s meetings. I never did find out quite what that meant. A married man asks you to meet for coffee. Do you trust that he’s faithful? Last time that happened to me I found myself in the other woman role before I even realised that his wife didn’t know my name. After that incident I decided to carry a big, flashing sign saying “No, Thank You”.

There are three problems with my sign. One is that I tend to sabotage it. Auto-flirt if triggers when I don’t want to answer the question or feel the need to keep someone at arm’s length. I’m flirted with auto-flirt almost always activates immediately. If you’re an older man with a bit of authority to your presence I have no chance. For me, flirting with such a man represents both conformity and resistance, it is a vehicle for pushing at the boundaries a little, while being rewarded with a bit of approval.

The second problem is that there are a few people I don’t want to wave a “no” sign at. I don’t know that I want to wave a “yes” sign, either, but I’d take the opportunity to find out. There’s a rather nice man I see at dancing, for example, who I’ve thought about more than once. If I began flirting with him exclusively, however, he might realise that I’ve thought about him. It all sounds a bit too risky to me.

My biggest problem, though, is that being hyper-aware of messages means I don’t get to do things that are fun. I don’t get to go for coffees with interesting—if unattractive—people, I don’t get to do the close moves at modern jive for fear of feeling a hard-on pressed against my thigh (yes, that really happened, and it was icky). These seem like silly sacrifices, because I’m sure most men can drink coffee and dance close without a thought to their willies. If you’re male, please let me know if I’m right.

So what am I to do? Declare this a failed experiment and indulge my need for universal approval with playacting and/ or prostitution? Fight the flirting and live with the limitations on my drinking and dancing? Please, if you’re a good girl, tell me how you do it!

Written by Not an Odalisque

April 1, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Myth Number Five: It Wasn’t Rape.

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I had been planning a light-hearted post about women’s orgasms, but then I read this:
Rape Case Dropped. A woman was denied the right to have her alleged rapists put on trial because she had shared fantasies of group sex on MSN messenger. She intended to have sex with one man, but, she says, when she reached his house she found several more men who forced her to have sex with them. Let me repeat the reason why these men weren’t tried: she had told somebody about her sexual fantasies.

Fantasy is not consent. I used to daydream about accidental explosions during chemistry class, but I wouldn’t have thanked the person who actually made a bomb. In no other area of the law is fantasising about something an agreement to action.

When it comes to rape we don’t think straight. We make excuses for perpetrators, often along the lines of “she was asking for it.” If she really was asking for it, it wouldn’t have been rape, but a surprising proportion of people blame the victim. I did the number-crunching at Amnesty International for this study Amnesty International Study. It shows that almost half of Northern Irish university students believe that a woman is to some degree responsible for being raped if she has behaved in a flirtatious manner and almost a third believe she is if she is wearing ‘sexy or revealing clothing’. One in ten students considers violence acceptable against a girlfriend who nags, flirts with other men or refuses to have sex.

Would a thief be acquitted he said “I only stole the Ferrari because it was so shiny and red”? Would its owner be blamed because he washed and polished it? If I broke into a shop, could I excuse myself by saying that I had seen the advertising and it made me really, really want what was inside? It would be absurd.

In truth, that’s because the analogies don’t make much sense. If I stole a Ferrari, I would then have a Ferrari, with all of the same features as a legitimately purchased one. If you rape someone, it isn’t going to be the same experience as consensual sex. She’s not going to light candles or lick your nipples or whisper how much she wants you in your ear. So I can’t help thinking that, if you’re a rapist, you aren’t actually after those things.

So let’s reassess the ‘temptations’ (fantasy, flirtation, sexy clothes) from another perspective. What sort of a woman has sexual fantasies, wears sexy clothing and flirts? It’s not the good girl.

Our culture distinguishes between two types of women: virgins and whores. It isn’t all that long ago that a woman’s virginity was her most precious possession and her virtue was measured by her chastity. Yes, we’ve had the sexual revolution, but I think the 6.5% conviction rate for rape tells us a lot about the rate of actual change. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have mentioned to a man that I find both men and women attractive, or that I’ve visited a fetish club, only to find that his eyes have glazed over for a moment and he’s lost to his own thoughts. Soon after he will make a move, or reveal an assumption about the sorts of activities I may be willing to engage in (group sex, for instance) and I will realise that I’ve been put in the bad girl box. Sometimes that’s fun, because it makes me attractive and provides opportunities to play. It isn’t an accurate perception of who I am, though, and that can be a problem.

Bad girls, you see, can’t be raped. A recent study of men who use prostitutes found that a quarter of those questioned thought that the very concept of raping a prostitute or call girl was “ridiculous.” I’m not saying this is a representative sample of the population, but how would you feel if one in four of your clients thought that forcing you to have sex with them wasn’t in any way out of line? Twenty-seven per cent of our interviewees explained that once he pays, the customer is entitled to engage in any act he chooses with the woman he buys. Any act. What a terrifying position to be in.

The prostitute is the most extreme example of the bad girl in popular perception. As such, she is seen as radically different from other women. One interviewee said “the very fact that they’re prepared to do that job where others won’t even if skint, there’s some capability inside them that permits them to do it, to not be disgusted by this, a normal woman would be if she was asked to do it.” Another man concluded, “They must be able to have sex more often because they do it all day. They don’t mind foregoing a lover or romance or a married partner…. They don’t mind going to people’s homes for sex. They don’t mind having sex with anyone.” One interviewee who struggled with the notion that prostitution damages women rationalised it by believing that women in prostitution are, unlike other women, intrinsically indecent and slutty:

“It’s a dirty job in my humble opinion, having sex for money isn’t a decent thing for a human being. I wouldn’t go out on a date or be in a relationship with one of them. I don’t see myself going out with someone who has been paid for sex. I’m an old fashioned person, Roman Catholic. In high school, boys don’t want to go out with slutty girls. Part of my brain is divided – like a wall. I think two different ways about women.”

This last quote brings up an important point. Not only are prostitutes intrinsically different from other women, they are also desirable. Why else does he pay to have sex with them? Presumably because of their supposed difference, their indecency, sluttiness, lack of disgust and discrimination.

So what of women who do not take payment for sex, but share some behaviours with those who do? Women who, say, have a lot of sex with a number of different men, outside long-term loving relationships? Woman go to some lengths to attract men? Those who put on mini-skirts and go out looking for casual sex of a weekend? They, too, fall into the ‘bad girl’ category. Can you rape one of them? The prevalence of terms like ‘date rape’ implies that while you can, this is a lesser form of rape. A girl who spends and evening with a man, drinks alcohol with him and goes to his home has diminished rights.

The logical conclusion of this was reached with the support for Roman Polanski, who gave a thirteen year old alcohol and drugs then raped her. Some of the greatest artists alive today have protested against his arrest. Whoopi Goldberg says it wasn’t ‘rape rape’. Our divisions into categories of rape have come so far that when a man in his forties drugs a child and fucks her up the ass we find a way to argue that it wasn’t really, truly rape.

What do you have to be to be sure that you aren’t going to be laughed at when you report your rape, as one of the victims of John Worboys says was when she went to the police? I think you’d better be a virgin wearing Laura Ashley who was jumped by a stranger late at night. A few witnesses and a couple of broken bones, would help, too.

How did we get to a situation in which behaviours common to most women, such as trying to look attractive and flirting, became signifiers for an identity which apparently invited violence? I think it is due to desire and jealousy. Men like bad girls. We have a communal fantasy, dating back to Eve, of women with insatiable sexual appetites. These women are beautiful, they are seductive and they want you. Who wouldn’t want a woman like that? Men want them, so, to some degree, women try to be them. We style our hair, put on our makeup and choose the sexiest clothes. We learn to give killer blow jobs and to walk in high heels. I do it, too. I do it because although I know I’m brilliant on the basis of my knowledge of Foucault and ability to make a fantastic chocolate trifle, most people are never going to be exposed to these things. Anyone likes women has a chance of falling for my curling tresses and reddened lips. I like the attention, who doesn’t? Not making an effort to be attractive makes a big statement in our society. Who wants to be a hairy-legged lesbian?

While men like bad girls, they wouldn’t want their mother or their wife to be one. Their liking is specifically sexual. The image is seductive because it communicates availability. A woman who is sexually voracious and indiscriminate in her choice of partner will certainly sleep with you. Her dedication to dick frees a man from his inadequacies (he can’t talk to me about Foucault, but that doesn’t matter, he can certainly supply a cock) and from commitment, since she’s not attached to any of his specificities. The fact that her experience and longing imply that she knows how to please a man and is gagging to do so (gagging, in some cases, being far too accurate a word) add to the perfection of the fantasy.

The possibility of rape would shatter the fantasy completely, predicated as it is on sexual availability. For men who cherish this fantasy, then, it is easy to see why there would be little sympathy for allegations of rape if someone isn’t squeaky clean. And the number of men who do wish to preserve it is surprisingly high, in my experience.

What about women? Surely we can see more easily the complexities of the situation? We have all experienced the difficulty of balancing sexual liberation with sexual objectification. In the report I worked on, however, women’s views were similar to men’s, with a high percentage excusing rape in cases involving low cut tops or flirtatious behaviour. So what have women got against the bad girl? I think we fear her. We know men want her. Our boyfriends and husbands desire her, possibly more than they desire us. Men have affairs, they visit prostitutes, and sometimes they hurt their loved ones very much in the process. Who do you want to blame, the man you love or the woman who ‘seduced’ him?

The ‘bad girl’ is competition. I know this because I feel it, too. In a very small way, intermittently, I am envious of those who are better at seducing men than I am. I know that what I actually want is a man who loves me on a deeper level than noticing that I have great legs, but it doesn’t change my reaction. I know that other women feel this, too, because I’ve seen the marketing campaigns for mascara and heard about the national obsession with weight loss from all of my female friends. I notice that there is a whole genre of magazines dedicated to telling you the difficulties of celebrities’ lives and printing pictures of them on bad hair days. We want to be the most attractive, and when we can’t, in some nasty, hidden part of ourselves, we want to see the winners suffer.

What punishment would be more fitting than rape? You want to be a sexual object? Well, there you are then. These are the consequences. It’s the same plot as any number of novels, the good girl gets the guy, the bad girl gets her comeuppance.

There is a flaw. The girl we are talking about is a fantasy, albeit a fantasy that has a profound impact on who we are. Most prostitutes aren’t sexually voracious; many are traumatised, drug-addicted, coerced or just in need of money. Most women playing the bad girl role have a lot more to their characters. Those that don’t must have had good reasons for turning themselves into a male fantasy, reasons which made them crave the approval and attention it brings. My guesses at those reasons would be isolation, loneliness, low self-esteem, self-loathing, even.

I’m not saying that the bad girl role isn’t a fun one to play. I enjoy being bad and I’ve got the outfits to prove it. It’s something I do, though, not something I am. It doesn’t change my right to say “no.”

It doesn’t matter who she is, how she’s acted, or what you’ve done with her before. If she doesn’t want to do it, if she is subjected to force, violence, coercion or manipulation, it is rape. There’s a very simple way to check whether she wants to have sex, you can ask her, and see if she says “yes” or “no.” The criminal justice system in the UK is improving its services to rape victims, albeit too slowly and in spite of judges like Robert Brown. Wider perceptions, however, show that we have difficulty separating fantasy from reality. These are real people, real lives, so get over it.

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Written by Not an Odalisque

January 25, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Myth Number Two: I’m a Neanderthal

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Special thanks to Daisy for bringing this to my attention.

Apparently it’s all very simple. I am trying to use my beauty to seduce a mate who will father my children. I’ll judge him by his strength, status and power. I’ll try to remain captivating for as long as I can, so that he will provide for my children, rather than pursue his goal of promiscuous, indiscriminate sex with younger women (probably secretaries). I should really stop writing and pluck my eyebrows.

This is what evolutionary psychology tells me, anyway. The thesis is that I am pre-programmed to act in this way, because I inherited the genes from ancestors who did it and survived. As objections clamour in my mind to be heard, the one that shouts the loudest is “if that’s true, then how, after all these years of men choosing beautiful women, do we still have so many utterly ugly women?”, but I’ll put that to one side for now.

What I find interesting is the time which they choose to fix on, when men killed hairy mammoths and women dusted the cave. It’s the same one fantasised by both Hobbes and Rousseau, a ‘state of Nature’ before culture got its grubby hands on us and bent us to its will. It’s the one early anthropologists thought they had discovered in Africa and the colonies when they were trying to prove that white people are better because they are ‘more civilised’. The idea of a time before culture is very appealing; in it we can find an image of our purer selves freed from the mores of society, freed even from morality.

Another thing I find interesting is how terminally useless we are at understanding other societies. Even today, in a globalised society with better communication technology than has ever been known, British Islamophobia has reached such fevered levels that I sometimes wonder if we’ve moved far beyond maps with “Here Be Dragons!” written on them. When European artists went east they came back with paintings of hordes of scantily clad sexually available women. Few of them bothered mentioning that they hadn’t actually been allowed inside the harem, and the women’s more accurate paintings strangely didn’t prove as popular. When anthropologists went to Africa they told tales of animalistic, super-sexed women. The kind who leave scratch marks on your back.

Henriette Brownie, A Visit: Harem Interior, Constantinople, 1860,

Are you noticing a theme here? Yes, when men don’t know the answer, they fantasise about sex. Reporting on cultures, they fantasise one in which the women are sexually available. It’s hardly a new discovery, Homer represented it pretty well with Odysseus’ sexual exploits. To be fair, I’m prone to the occasional fantasy about sexually available women myself. It gets dangerous, however, when you call it science. Well respected men published studies about the sexual voracity of African races; black women still have a reputation for animal lust and are constantly depicted that way in pornography. Harem images, I’m sure, have influenced our understanding of relationships in the Muslim world and fed into our burka panic.

So what does this tell us about evolutionary psychology? It tells us to be wary of conclusions drawn from examination of another society, because we may well be mistaken about the nature of that society. It tells us to be suspicious if the tale we are being told is one of the candy-shop of girls variety. And is it? I’m afraid so. Evolutionary psychologists envision a society in which women did their utmost to be pleasing and men slept around, so we do it, too. I do wonder what their wives think.

I think we can learn more from the fact of evolutionary psychology’s speculation than we can from its contents. Men like to envision a world in which they get to shag pretty women. Hang on, we already knew that. So why go to all the effort of putting the label of science on it? Because most people believe that there is objective truth to be found in science. If you take the long view, most science, most of the time, has been wrong, but we are positive about its potential. Often we find what we want to find. So why do we want to find that men are promiscuous and women clingy?

I suspect that it is because you can do a lot of things with the word “natural.” It sells everything from face cream to potatoes. Being a vegetarian, I hear the argument “it’s only natural” often from defensive meat-eaters. I usually suppress the retort that I could name any number of natural things they wouldn’t do in front of me. So when we fantasise about a prehistoric time when we did what was natural, what is our response to it? A bit of philandering only natural. So’s rape, too, when you come to think of it.

I’m not saying that there’s a mass conspiracy of evolutionary psychologists advocating rape. I’m not even saying that even a significant proportion of the population would think like that. I’m just pointing out that when we dip into science, we should recall its tendency to disguise mass communal fantasies. We should keep in mind the Black and Asian women still fighting inaccurate perceptions today. We should remember that these are real people, including the gays, lesbians, childless, promiscuous women and, God love them, the monogamous men.

Written by Not an Odalisque

January 10, 2010 at 5:26 pm