When I was in my very early twenties and going through my dungarees-and-Andrea-Dworkin phase, I was once troubled by a picture of a penis.
There was nothing particularly wrong with this penis. It was a painting of a seemingly perfectly serviceable organ with a woman’s – or at least I assumed it was a woman’s – hand around its base. It wasn’t necessarily the sort of thing I’d hang on my wall but, hell, Tracey Emin’s still unaccountably popular to my continued bemusement, so what do I know, right?
I was returning from Leeds on a day out with some friends from college, and one of the girls had purchased this objet d’art from one of the stalls at the Corn Exchange. The basis of its appeal for her, she explained to me, was that it demystified the sexual act: there was an erect penis being pleasured by a hand. No frills, flounces, or flirting. No coy glances or 'accidental' touching, or sitting too close, or suggestive comments that could be brushed aside as non-meaningful if desire was not returned by the other. None of that. Just an erect penis and an assisting hand: the sum total, and basic premise, of all human erotic experience.
Even though my theories on life, the universe, and everything were, in those days, coloured by the absolutism of youth, I found this supposed nirvana quite a depressing one. Surely the sexual act was mostly the mysticism my friend rejected - otherwise wouldn’t it be a little, well, dully formulaic? Like getting a new tyre fitted or visiting the mortgage advisor?
On the other hand, I could see the point of the painting’s new owner. When we talk about mysticism in sexual terms, quite often this translates as a pressure on the woman to deck herself out like a whore’s lampshade and conform to a patriarchal ideal of ... c’mon guys, you’ve all heard this one before – sing along!
There were more things in that painting of a willy than were dreamt of in my philosophy.
The existential crisis caused by that one damned spam rod has haunted my view of feminism in general, and eroticism in particular, for the past eight years. Although I can keep it under wraps most of the time in order for my sex life to continue in its usual catastrophic fashion, there are periods when the contradictions and inconsistencies become too much, and I feel like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four desperately trying not to roar, “Hang on a sec, I thought we were always at war with Eastasia?”
This time my erotic dichotomy’s been brought on by that most evil of arch-nemeses of the feminist movement: Olympic beach volleyball.
Y’see, I get it. It’s a serious sport played by committed professionals, and the sight of a bunch of overweight Brits with knotted hankies and beer-bellies reducing their efforts, talent and struggle to 'Phwoooar! Look at the arse on that!' is both unedifying and misogynistic. Cool. I’m down with that.
But, conversely, you make a comment along the lines of, 'Burlesque. Stripping for posh birds, innit?' on Twitter, and you’ll be knee deep in the same women who outraged about the drooling focus on athletic bums shouting at you that you don’t understand the “eroticism” of it, in less time than it takes to attach your fishnet suspenders and hunt out your corset.
I’m fully prepared to admit that I don’t get the entire burlesque thing and that this is one of the reasons, inter alia, that I am unwelcome at north London dinner parties. But how, in God’s name, is removing your clothes for an audience and exposing your bottom for an Olympic audience qualitatively any different? Except for the fact, perhaps, that there are sports-related reasons for the more-disapproved-of latter?
To my uneducated mind, when you strip it all (see what I did there?) down, burlesque is taking your clothes off in order, as Shania Twain once said, to feel like a woman. Yeah, but in the grand tradition started by Salomé, isn’t that just conforming to a male view of what sexual women should be?
Then, according to the received wisdom du jour, prostitution should be legalised to make it safer and, afterall, it’s only a financial transaction that we all need to chill out about, like paying for a new tyre or negotiating with your mortgage advisor. So we’re back to the demystification thingummy according to my friend’s painting of a pork sword and a hand
Let me get this clear: stripping’s ok as long as you do it ironically and call it burlesque, getting your buttocks out in the interests of sporting excellence is not ok, flogging your lady garden is ok as long as you find the experience 'liberating' (presumably the Olympic volleyballers, unlike the burlesquers, don’t find men looking at their arses liberating. One assumes they’ve been polled on this) ... everyone with me? Because I’m not; my mind feels like it’s been through itself twice. And I’ve not yet had a consistent press release on the 50 Shades of Grey thing either.
Maybe a bit of double-think is necessary to the sexual sphere, a sort of 'erotic relativism' if you will, otherwise we’re all going to get lost in the mire of our own prejudices, secret preferences, and contradictions.
In the interests of the easy life and my mental health, bring on the bums, says I.