I had a female friend who would always disparage young women who dated older guys (of course, said disparagement was aimed not very subtly at me). She’d say what you’d expect her to say with the inevitable scorn: These girls just have a daddy complex.
Now, let’s put aside how condescending that is, so swiftly to brush aside someone else’s will and desire, to reduce it to a symptom of some sort of so-called malady. And let’s put aside the attack on me as it couldn’t be possible that a younger woman might actually find me alluring (believe me, I’m more surprised than any when it happens; still, I don’t need this lady bashing me along with my own self loathing).
What’s actually absurd about her claim is that, well, all desires are a complex. How else do we learn to want, to desire, than by the experiences we’ve had? And what experience of desire is more intense than that of a parent? Freud was absolutely right in one sense: all desire is at some point Oedipal (or Electric). I mean, wouldn’t it be weird if my desire was not shaped by the fact that I emerged from a woman’s vagina, suckled on her breasts for sustenance, was tucked in every night by her and told everything would be all right (a lie, but still)? Where else is desire supposed to come from?
Of course, erotic desire cannot be reduced to Oedipus. After all, we are inundated with stimuli, with provocation, coming at us from all angles — TV, magazines, internet, bus stops, other people on the street. And then there are all the objects — those shiny, plastic come hither packages tempting and beckoning with an odd, ahuman allure. I watch my son’s eyes light up as we pass the toy section at Walgreen’s. When he looks closer, he sees that there’s nothing there he actually wants, not really. But this doesn’t stop him from desiring. When I was a kid, my grandmother would take me to the gift shop at Lennox Hill Hospital on 77th Street in Manhattan. And, to this day, I remember my longing for the Aquaman action figure. I didn’t even know who Aquaman was. But something about his golden shirt and equally golden locks and black boots and proposed intimacy with all things aqueous — a Nazi in the womb? — had my full attention. Go figure. Desire is strange and often irreducible: we want what we want.
Having been alive for over 44 years and having been intimately involved with women for over 30 of those years, it’d be hard not to notice the multitude of factors that feed into the madness of sexual desire. There is, of course, all that guilt. I know women who are outrageously, beautifully, voraciously sexual who nevertheless disparage sex — even while they’re busy getting busy! Is this not a complex of some sort? Have women not been trained in all sorts of ways to feel both sexual and guilty for that same said sexuality?
It’s not just women, of course, who experience that awful congruence of sex and guilt. For me, so much of my sex life has been defined by hypochondria which is itself an expression of my guilt: I’m afraid I’ll do something in the moment for which I’ll pay horribly unto eternity. Rather than eternal damnation, I have feared AIDS (and, well, herpes). Sure, I came up (as it were) with the rise of AIDS and saw young men dying everywhere around me. These images, this experience, fed my guilt that I’d somehow fuck up (again, as it were) and disappoint everyone, mostly my mother, by dying because I was horny.
So what is a so-called healthy desire? If this woman I knew could reduce another’s desire to Oedipus, then she must feel there is some sort of desire that is not tainted (ahem) by…what? What is this desire that is not a complex but that is pure and unadulterated?
The fact is it doesn’t exist. All desire is a complex, a taking in, a processing, a putting out. The apparatus that would have us — that would let us — reduce someone else’s desire to a perversion is an apparatus of judgment and control (pace Foucault). This same person who judged younger women and me for enjoying ourselves was also freaked out by cross-dressers, transvestites, even homosexuals. This is not a coincidence. She wanted the kind of control that comes with judging others. Me, I’m creeped out by people who are creeped out by others’ sexuality.
When I was first in San Francisco, I found myself in an apartment that had been the home to a bunch of blood-sex folks. The fact is, I’m not really sure what that means. But I know that there were bloodstains on the walls and that, presumably, people who lived there got their rocks off doing some kind of something with blood. While it’s not my cup of tea (see my hypochondria), why would I possibly care if they enjoy it?
What is weird desire, anyway? It seems to me, a woman who would disparage and reduce other women — not to mention me — for their desires is a pretty freakin’ weird desire.
It seems to me that if there’s such a thing as healthy desire, it’s the desire that fuels your health and vitality. If you keep dating people who make you miserable as you find yourself fighting ad nauseam and angry and anxious too much of the time, well, that seems unhealthy. If you drink someone else’s blood while wearing lederhosen and a wig and feel so beautifully alive, well, that sure sounds like a healthy desire to me.