Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for December, 2008

Cheaters Never Win…But They’re Not Always Losers

I look forward to this time of year for a very specific reason:  I get presents to catch up on my reading. Sure, it’s all well and good to see family if you’re into that sort of thing, but I also thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to delve into stuff that I’ve been meaning to read. Accordingly, the other day when I was curled up in some blankets I came across an excerpt from a book by Chuck Klosterman that contained a wonderfully interesting question[i].

I’m confident that everybody who reads the problem has a response, but would your answer change if you thought about this scenario in the context of pornography? Imagine that Jack was a passive participant in a scenario designed to get him sexually aroused in contrast to this case (where he was not excited). Which is worse? In essence, he would have initiated both, except one assent would have been explicit and one would have been implicit. Does it even matter? What if Jack was completely removed from the situation:  he just happened to look out his window to see the same scene but didn’t look away?

Chuck talked about how people are generally divided by gender when it comes to this question and so I thought that I’d go ahead and try a very (unscientific) survey. I e-mailed a section of my friends asking them to answer this question and to explain their rationale. To my surprise, I found that all of my friends were, well, reasonable. Despite representing different demographics (relationship status, sexual orientation, religion, political leanings, gender, and, to a lesser extent, age) every answer that came back said essentially the same thing:  they would take Jack’s side but not really feel good about it. My associates said that they couldn’t stand with Jane because they viewed her response as an overreaction. The replies of my friends were also similar to how I would have approached that situation, so maybe it’s not so much that they are reasonable as it is the case that I think that they are sensible because they agree with me.

When I spread out the various e-mails, I discovered that there seemed to be a common theme:  Both Jack and Jane were wrong—and they were both right. Maybe Jack should have considered how Jane would feel and maybe Jane was a bit reactionary. It could very well have been that the reason each individual was wrong was the reason why the other was right. I’ll give you a moment to collect your brain off the floor. Yet, when forced to choose one of two options, everybody sided with the person who they felt was less wrong and not necessarily with the person who was more right. My friends continued to discuss their thought processes via e-mail but interestingly, nobody (directly) mentioned the problem behind this whole mess.

Regardless of whether Jack was at fault for what occurred, did he cheat?

The sense that I got from my friends was that they overwhelmingly felt that Jack had not in fact cheated. Nevertheless, Jane surely felt betrayed. Could Jack have cheated and not cheated at the same time?

For the next few hours I wandered around my apartment thinking about this topic. “What was the litmus test to determine if someone had, in fact, cheated?” I asked myself as I scrubbed my sink (post-college life is not as glamorous as you think, kids). We have individuals who get jealous simply when their mate looks at another person. At the same time, we have people who don’t consider oral (or non-vaginal) sex as sexual intercourse. It turns out that the easiest way is also the hardest:  sit down and talk about what does and does not make you nervous. You might find out that your partner would be mad if you didn’t call her/him when you saw someone else masturbating.

[i] Let’s say you have two friends named Jack and Jane. They have been romantically involved for two years, and the relationship has always been good. Suddenly, Jack calls you on the phone and mutters, “Jane just broke up with me.” You ask why this happened. Jack says, “She thinks I cheated on her.” You ask, “Well, did you?” Jack says, “I’m not sure. Something strange happened.”

This is what Jack proceeds to tell you.

“There is this woman in my apartment building who I barely know,” he begins. “I’ve seen her in the hallways a few times, and we’d just sort of nodded our hellos. She is very normal looking, neither attractive nor unattractive. Last week, I came home from the bar very drunk, and—while I was getting my mail—I ran into her at the mailboxes. She was also intoxicated. Just to be neighborly, we decided to go to her apartment and have one more beer. But because we were drunk, the conversation was very loose and slightly flirtatious. And then this woman suddenly tells me that she has a bizarre sexual quirk:  she can only have an orgasm if a man watchers her masturbate. This struck me as fascinating, so I started asking questions about why this was. And then—somehow—it just sort of happened. I never touched her and I never kissed her, but I ended up watching this woman masturbate. And then I went home and went to bed. And I told Jane about this a few days later, mostly because it was all so weird. But Jane went insane when I told her this, and she angrily said our relationship was over. Now she won’t even return my calls.

Whose side do you take:  Jack’s or Jane’s?

Klosterman, Chuck. Chuck Klosterman IV:  A Decade or Curious People and Dangerous Ideas. © 2006 ScribnerNew York,NY

Hey, Dirty Baby, I Got Your Money

When I talk to female friends of a certain age about great cinematic romances, I will often hear Pretty Woman come up in the conversation. Let me start off by saying that I enjoy the movie but that I also have some questions about it. Perhaps it’s just my cynical nature, but I just don’t buy the whole “rich dude falls in love with a prostitute” thing. I get why the movie might be appealing:  a downtrodden girl gets the opportunity to escape her life (and cramped apartment), swept up in the arms of a client and transported into a life of the finer things. Who doesn’t love being rescued? Who doesn’t like believing that True Love can conquer all? Or, at least transcend the sociocultural taboos of Beverly Hills? For me, part of the allure of the movie stems from the fact that it probably wouldn’t happen in “real” life—there’s simply too much of a stigma associated with prostitutes.

I haven’t thought of this movie in a while, but an ending scene of a recent Private Practice episode made me think about prostitutes. I have to say that I don’t really have an objection to the whole idea, although I certainly wouldn’t ever tell someone to prostitute himself or herself. I’m not going to try to convince you that prostitution is okay, or that you should like it, but there are some things to consider.

What kinds of things do we sell ourselves for? We sell our skills, sell our bodies, sell our souls, and sell ourselves short. And, since we’re selling, how do we know how much we’re worth? We market what we can do in a boardroom so why is it so different when we market what we can do in a bedroom? Is it prostitution if you trade sex for favors? Can we whore ourselves out for things other than money? Do we trade sex for love? Or romance? Or attention? At its core, how does the idea that you’re willing to make a fool of yourself, or break a bone, or shave your head, differentiate you from someone who’s willing to pose naked, from someone who’s willing to have sex? If you distill it down, and money is not involved, how is the whole process different from bartering? And, why is it morally dissimilar? How do the expectations of buying dinner in exchange for the possibility of sex differ? I’m not going to call any of my friends out but some of them have slipped between the sheets for a lot less than a good meal (and they know who they are).

A recent episode of one of my favorite shows, How I Met Your Mother, also talked about reasons why you would have sex. I don’t disagree with anything on the list, but how is having sex to reinforce good behavior not whoring yourself out? You are having sex in exchange for something that you want.

The classic deal, of course, is that women are interested in money/status and men are interested in beauty (and everybody’s afraid of rejection, although men more so). So if we’re naturally trading sex for money on some level, what the big deal with it all? If you are willing to sleep with, and marry, someone who you don’t love in exchange for a life of comfort, how is that not a form of prostitution? Although the example of this scenario that readily comes to mind involves rich/straight White people, you see this same kind of relationship in other subcultures with, for example, a trend of old White men going after young Latin males.

For me, there is nothing inherently good or bad about this whole process—it is what it is. So, what is it to you?

Sex on Pyre

Yawn. That was number forty-one.

I had gone with my friend Kim to a concert the night before and it had been a long evening. I will be the first to admit that I usually stay up late, but getting out of a venue after six hours of hearing sets from Snow Patrol, The Killers, and Death Cab for Cutie, would be draining for anyone. Kim and I had both refrained from calling in sick to work and were now commiserating with each other.

“It was raining on the freeway this morning,” Kim lamented via e-mail.

“I have to navigate the treacherous waters of the office holiday party,” I countered. “It’s like Buffy having to live on Earth after glimpsing heaven.”

To be honest, it wasn’t much different from any other day but it was in the wake of one of the best shows of my life and the relative low could not be avoided. Being surprised by Kanye West’s performance was enough to push me over the edge and I would be in the relative doldrums for a few days.

I sat at my desk contemplating the message that I had just crafted. Had I just made a Buffy reference? Sure, I’m not the biggest fan of the show, but, like with the Facts of Life, you take the both the good and the bad (aspects of pop culture). The merits of Buffy itself are another discussion entirely, but one of the things that always struck me about this series was the way that it incorporated sex. Thankfully, although a show containing teenaged characters, the show itself transcended the issues that make up the typical high school fare. In the run of the show, audiences were exposed to Warren, a guy so desperate for a girlfriend that he created a robot (go back and check out the allusions to sexual gratification); Oz giving into his animalistic nature and cheating on Willow; and Buffy engaging in loathsome sex (her internal judgment, not mine) while the walls were literally and figuratively coming down around her. But, of all of the issues surrounding sex and sexuality on the show, the one that continually got to me was the recurring theme of sex and death.

These two things are of course linked:  one brings you into this world (usually) and one takes you out of it. We can get philosophical and mention the cycle of life or our subconscious desire to cheat death by having children, but I find it fascinating to examine how these two forces affect our daily lives—we seem to have a bit of trouble with both in America, don’t we?

Americans are complex beings and our psyches often do not make a whole lot of sense. We have trouble dealing with death and sex but we are ready to accept sensual vampires—Twilight, True Blood, Angel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’m looking at you. Vampires are an incarnation of death (fine, the undead) whose act of feeding involves the intimate placement of a mouth on a neck and live only by seeing others die. Not to mention that the process of siring involves killing and birthing in the very same act!

I firmly believe that both events are natural (although they definitely have unnatural manifestations at times) and that neither should be feared. Yet, while I have my personal opinions on this subject (and there’s enough material to write a moderate essay), what’s more important for me is that you ask your own questions and find your own answers. When you have a second, think about how you relate to sex and how you relate to death:  these two things will, in part, tell you how you relate to life. From le petite mort, to necrophilia, to autoerotic asphyxiation and the reduction of blood flow, the connections are there, if we choose to see them.

Stirred, Not Shaken

Like many young people, I had a dream of one day becoming a spy. I wanted to work for a government, living a life of danger as I dodged in and out of countries (complete with all of the technological accoutrement, of course). As I grew up, I came to see that my image James Bond was quite different than the reality of the situation:  operatives didn’t have fantastical car chases or always get some exotic beaut. Although I never got the chance to go off and work as a secret agent, I realize that many aspects of my profession allow me to do things that I aspired to when I was smaller:  I get to uncover information and, if I do my job well, outsiders will never know that I’ve been here, only that the result was accomplished.

I recently came across an individual who told me of his struggle to reconcile his faith with his sexual identity. This person mentioned his struggle throughout high school to understand who he was and mentioned how he viewed his orientation as something negative. Although he viewed himself as gay (and not by choice), he wanted to work toward becoming straight.

I should say that I read many stories every day but these accounts rarely affect me the way that this one did. As the message of this student processed through my brain, I flashed through the traditional stages of coping, working my way from anger to acceptance in record time. After the student had finished, I sat in stunned silence, letting waves of emotion pass over, and through, me.

I was never angry at this student, really, but more upset at the situation that he had found himself in. I was furious at the world that made him feel shame for what he was. What made me cry a little bit inside was the sense, to me at least, of self-hate that was evident in his voice; on a larger level, I was just heart-broken. I knew that it was not my job to mend him or even presume that he needed fixing, but I couldn’t stop myself from wishing that things were different for him or even just a bit easier.

I get the idea of not being proud of one’s minority status. I thoroughly enjoy my ethnic heritage, for example, but I’m not necessarily going to be participating in a festival. I mean, I’d go and walk around, but I just don’t care enough to host a booth or anything. But what I don’t understand, and honestly probably don’t ever want to understand, is the continued doubt, anxiety, and guilt that you place upon yourself for something that you can’t change. I know why the feelings are there in the first place, but I just don’t understand it when people refuse to let it go. And, while I recognize that you don’t have to like it, I do think that you have to accept some aspect of it.

I realize that as a minority you receive constant messages from society saying that you are “less than” or “different” or “other” but what happens when you start to internalize that thought? What happens when you view a part of yourself as a curse and a plague? We draw arbitrary lines in the sand, and around ourselves, defining who “we” are and daring others to cross. Our lives are a search for identity (and in that identity find meaning), a journey to understand how we fit in with the rest of the people who happen to inhabit this planet—so much of our self is relational. What happens when we begin to believe society’s message that who we are is all that we can ever be? What does it take to commit a form of genocide against ourselves, against our own people, killing off the very thing that makes us real? In this person’s battle, it seems as though he feels betrayed—but which part of him jumped ship?

I have a theory that we are so used to defining ourselves in certain terms because society at large says something about who we should be; if we let go of this characterization we have to craft a new identity for ourselves, which is a frightening prospect. It’s so tough to let go because we have to take a leap of faith and hope that we’ll discover something about ourselves on the other side of the chasm:  all we can focus on is the idea of, “If I’m not that, who am I?” I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but one of the stories in “The Joy Luck Club” has always informed me:  the idea that people often don’t know what they’re worth. There’s a power, I believe, in fundamentally understanding who you are but, in order to tap into that force, I think that you have to accept who you are.

I shift in my chair and realize that I agree with the individual’s claim that he could feel however he wanted, but I wonder if he can ever become not gay. Maybe it’s possible…I don’t know. I guess, at the end of the day, I’m filled with sorrow for the burden that this student has to bear. Life wouldn’t be easy for him even if he was “just” gay, but he seems to be struggling with an additional weight that only he can lift. Life isn’t simple for anybody and we all have our own baggage (often of our own making) but I just hope that he works this out. I don’t know him or his relationship to God, but something inside wants to scream, “I don’t believe in your God but I believe that your God loves you. God is love. One of God’s faces is the manifestation of love in its purest form. How can He not love you as you are?” I want to tell this person that life doesn’t have to be like this, that life isn’t always this difficult, and that I wish that he had someone to talk to.

I imagine that it would be difficult for anyone who has had to struggle with self-acceptance to read this student’s story, but, despite everything, I am also hopeful. I am hopeful that this individual gets to a place where it’s no longer about hate, or blame, or shame; a place where it’s no longer “us” versus “them.” I hope that he comes to a place where it’s not about fighting but about peace. I hope that this individual gets to the point where the lines blur and he realizes that we’re all “us” and we’re all “them”; I hope that this individual realizes that the solution has only ever been acceptance of some form. I hope that this student learns that it’s a process of growing, and, in that process of growing, developing acceptance. While I would say that this person doesn’t have to live a gay lifestyle if that’s not what he wants, I do wish that he would find a sense of calm. I am hopeful because this individual managed to take a risk, becoming uncomfortable for a second even though he ended up crashing and burning. I am hopeful that the fires of this student’s Hell will dissolve all that is unnecessary and allow the spirit underneath to shine. I am hopeful that this student will one day see that it is really about love, even if it’s just about learning to love yourself (which is the greatest love of all).

To Sir, with Love

“Ping!” my phone chimed, pleasantly alerting me to a new e-mail. Rolling over onto my side, I glanced at the tiny screen illuminating the darkened room and briefly debated abandoning the warmth of the comforter but burrowed deeper into instead.

After starting to work, I’ve become one of those people who’s addicted to e-mail:  I can’t stand not being linked to the world around me. Computers have become my gateway to the world and I’m constantly agitated when a connection is not at hand.

As I lay in bed trying to go back to sleep, I settled onto my half of the bed and began to muse upon the ways in which my electronic obsession defined both me and the way in which I interacted with the world.

In recent months, a new service called inSPOT has come online, which allows people to send e-mail notifications informing others that they should get tested for a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI). After hearing about the website, I immediately began to feel a sense of conflict roil up inside:  What is the greater good? Raising awareness or addressing the social factors that prevent people from talking about these issues in person?

Initially, I rebelled against the site as I thought that people who engage in sex should prepare themselves for the associated responsibilities. In my mind, the picture has always been clear:  it’s difficult enough to have a conversation where you tell your partner that he or she should get tested but, in an ideal world, wouldn’t your ability to have that conversation help to determine if you were ready to engage in sex at all?

On the other hand, I find it difficult to argue that getting more people tested is a bad thing. In fact, the thought that an early notification system could prevent people from unknowingly infecting others is a very compelling argument. And, while I can’t pretend to speak for all young people, haven’t most of my peers integrated electronic communication into their routines? Why not embrace this as an extension of that developed instinct? I certainly don’t disagree with anything that the site is trying to do, but I foresee trouble ahead.

While I generally love to incorporate technology into my life, I can’t help but wonder if we are giving up something by becoming so reliant on these new forms of message dissemination. I probably use text messages or Facebook every day of my life, but do indirect forms of communication contribute to social anxiety? Do we become accustomed to avoiding conflict by not actually talking to each other?

I think that the idea of actually sitting down and talking about serious issues tends to become so foreign and scary because we’ve conditioned ourselves to avoid the fear; by refusing to confront our growing discomfort, we only make things worse. Taking this a step further, what would happen if we didn’t practice our interpersonal relations skills and found ourselves in a situation where we had to have a face-to-face:  one can’t have an argument with a spouse, for example, via text message (N.B. “We have to talk” is never a good way to start a discussion).

In the end, I realize that it’s naive to think that everybody is going to develop the skill set necessary to talk to infected partners prior to engaging in sex and the bottom line is that the website might very well be aiding the fight against STIs. Perhaps the result of the clash between idealism and realism is the understanding that there really isn’t a magic bullet that will serve to make STIs disappear; ultimately this approach might have its flaws but it’s undeniably a step in the right direction.