Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Ageing, feminism and desire

My recent birthday seems to have sparked a bit of self-examination in terms of how I relate to men. Credit is also due to Kameron Hurley for the following blog post, which also helped to get me thinking about the same subject.
Kameron's post was focused specifically on girl-on-girl crushes, but I'd like to take her idea and expand it out a bit more.
I have always tended to confuse emotional and physical intimacy. I don't mean that I'm one of those unfortunate souls who is constantly jumping into bed with people in the hope that it will turn into a relationship, or that having sex with someone will make the person love them. In fact, I'm the queen of monogamous long-term relationships. I haven't been single for more than 3 or 4 months at a time since I started dating as a teenager. Romantic relationships come easily for me, and always have. Whether that's a good thing or something that may inhibit my personal growth in some ways is in interesting question, and one that I'm not sure that I can answer.
How to define what I mean when I say that I tend to confuse physical and emotional intimacy? I have never had a close male friend with whom I have not at least considered becoming physically intimate. I don't mean that I've actually attempted to hop in the sack with most of my male friends, or that I've ever planned to do so. What I mean is that I can't think of a single close male friend who I don't find attractive in some way, or who I might not be willing to consider as a lover if we were both single at the same time. I used to assume that this was just the way everyone thought, and that all human beings were naturally drawn to people whom they found attractive and tended to end up making friends with them. However, as I've gotten old enough to actually realise that not everyone thinks the same way I do I am beginning to realise that this may not be the case. Other people seem to have opposite friends who they would never in a million years be sexually or romantically interested in. So, what's going on with me? Am I sexualising my relationships, or am I only forming close friendships with men who I was already sttracted to?
I think that what's going on is linked into something that came up on Kameron's blog. In general I tend to be a very demonstrative, affectionate person. I cuddle people a lot. I kiss friends hello and goodbye. My parents were both very demonstrative, and I grew up around their friends, most of whom were equally affectionate. I tend to assume a certain degree of physical intimacy between people who are emotionally intimate. This has gotten me into trouble in the past - people who aren't quite as cuddly in general often interpret my cuddliness as my making a pass, which it typically not the case (when I'm making an actual pass I'm not inclined to be subtle, and it's pretty hard to miss). The only people with whom I'm not demonstrative are people I don't like, or people who I think would be made uncomfortable by too much physical affection. Unsurprisingly, this means that people who tend not to be comfortable with physical demonstrations of affection tend to get eliminated from my group of friends fairly quickly.
What I took away from the discussion at Kameron's blog was this - many of us tend to develop romantic attachments, and a desire for physical intimacy, with people whom we like and admire, people who we feel comfortable with. In itself this is not a bad thing. It is, however, not a thing that is well accepted by our culture, especially if any of the people involved are in a group who we aren't "supposed" to have romantic or sexual feelings towards (people who are in relationships, who are not of the gender we typically see ourselves as being interested in). For many people the "look but don't touch, and you should feel guilty for even thinking about it" category includes close friends. For me it doesn't. Why is that? Am I the only one, or is this actually a common thing that our society has decided to stigmatise and sweep under the rug?
The "crush" idea also got me thinking about what I actually want when I find myself in one of those relationships where I become aware of an attraction to a close friend. I don't think I actually want to have sex with them, necessarily, especially not if I'm already involved with someone (which I usually am). What I really want is to be allowed to be physically inimate up to a point that stops far short of actual intercourse. What I really want is more like what as kids we referred to as "making out" - I want to be able to lie around and cuddle, to kiss them, to fall asleep in front of the TV after drinking a bottle of wine the way that all my friends did when we were teenagers. I resent that fact that once we pass a certain age, that no longer seems to be acceptable behavior. I've thought about why I don't really want to have sex with any of my friends, per se, but do wish that it was OK to be more physically intimate than is generally "allowed". I think that, for me at least, the difference in relationships with men that are romantic and those that are not romantic is not one of kind so much as one of degree. In a way I kind of fall in love with all my friends. What's odd is that doesn't threaten my main relationship at all, and I'm always confused as to why people think it should. Doesn't everyone kind of fall in love with their dearest friends, or am I just wierd? And where do we draw the line between what is acceptable intimacy with a friend, and what isn't? Is that line different for all of us? I'm not sure, but I've been musing about this a lot lately and it would be interesting to hear other people's perspectives.
Another interesting observation...other than for a very brief period in high school, I've always had more close male than female friends. This is particularly interesting in view of the situation I've outlined above. It's more than that, though - I honestly think that in general men like me more than women do, which is an odd situation to be in for a feminist. It's intersting to see that the same pattern is replicating online as in real life. Can anyone clue me in as to what's going on here? I'm honestly puzzled as to why this pattern always repeats itself.

And on another wierd is it that I've started to have boys literally young enough to be my kids checking me out? Last week a kid of about 15 or 16 stopped me in the street to tell me I have nice legs, and then proceeded to follow me down the street trying to make conversation. If a guy my age did the same thing I might feel a bit creeped out or threatend, but how to react when the power disparity is so clearly in my favour? It seems silly to feel threatened. What the hell does a 32 year old woman say to a teenager who's checking out her legs? Maybe I should start wearing longer skirts...


FoolishOwl said...

I usually feel desire for any woman I like and respect, though I never have occasion to express that. The thrill of sexual desire is always very much a part of my interest in a woman. The flip side of this, though, is that I really have a hard time feeling interested in another man, or taking him seriously.

On expressing affection through physical contact: that brings up a lot of tangled feelings. The short version is that, before I became an adult, I almost never expressed affection through touch, and it almost never happened that anyone expressed affection for me through touch. I remember my mother once hugging me to comfort me when I was sick as a child -- it sticks out in my memory because such a thing almost never happened. In early childhood, I was frightened of visits from my paternal grandmother, because she'd hug me, which I found terrifying. The first time I can remember ever seeing my parents touch each other was when I was in my twenties.

I was surprised the other day on reading a newspaper story about a bigoted school administrator who'd punished two young women for kissing on campus -- he'd gone on to say that there was no rule against opposite sex couples hugging or kissing on campus. In my high school, that was grounds for detention, and the rule was rigorously enforced.

I had one friend, years ago, who was very much inclined to express her affection physically, and I felt really bad about how my stiff response would make her uncomfortable.

When I see my older nephew, he usually runs up and hugs me. I try to respond appropriately, and encourage him, but I worry that my discomfort shows.

Arwen said...

Hmm. I'm a classic introvert, and I like lots and lots of physical space - I like to hug, but not to be in the physical space of other people unless I'm: having sex with them, greeting or goodbye-ing, comforting them, or they're kids in my care. (I'm very huggy and squeezy and wrestle a lot with kids who like that sort of attention.) A few of my friends are more extroverted than me, and they'll drape legs all over each other and lean into one another when we're hanging out. (Extroverts share the couch, introverts find a chair...)

My sister, on the other hand, is wired more like you: I call her "the ferret girl", 'cuz she'll happily weave her body around the bodies of all of those she loves in a fuzzy, warm, and wonderful sort of way. I imagine she'd read this post and spend the whole time nodding. She's very physical with her affection, and there are very few friends she doesn't climb up on the lap of. So I don't think you're at all weird... It's just a wiring thing. After all, my sis and I came out of similar environments.

As for my male friends and the possibility that we might hook up, should we be single? But of course. The men that I love are the men that I love. However, there are male friends of mine that I have greater chemistry with than others, and ones that I'd imagine I'd be more sympatico with in terms of the other parts of a relationship - life goals, emotionalism, etc. The guy I'm with is the best fit on both scales of all my friends. But it's not as if the others aren't on my radar and I don't find things... stimulating with them. My husband is a little like you, Brian - most of his friends are female, and I think that a lot of that has to do with how straight he is.

Most of my female friends are women I'd imagine being interested in if I were looking for women to share my sexual life with. I find most of my friends attractive.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that someone who is a monogamous creature as a matter of course also feels the desire to be more physically intimate with friends. I have also tended to be in long-term relationships (five years prior to my wife, and then a long relationship before that). However, I chafe against monogamy. All my prior relationships were polyamorous, and even with my wife we're willing to consider outside partners as long as we're together.

I do find that, for me, admiration and intellectual and emotional intimacy sort of blur into physical attraction. There are plenty of women I would gladly be sexual with who, when I stop to separate out what I think, I don't find that attractive in a physical way.

The idea that physical intimacy that is generally thought of as sexual ought to be available as between people who are not sex partners is an interesting one. At some level, it is appealing, but I also think that, at least for many of us, being sexual in small ways with someone makes us want to be more sexual with that person. That's not to suggest that we cannot place limits on this urge. I know that I can put myself in a position where I really, really want to do something sexual, and not do it because it is a bad idea: frankly, I'm a little unsympathetic to those who cannot do so.

And I think it always makes sense to question what makes an interaction sexual. For example, almost every night, I rub my wife's feet and stroke her hair. This is certainly physical and certainly intimate, but it is not a prelude to more intense sexual interaction. But to an observer, it probably looks sexual, and it is probably the case that if my wife saw me do this with another woman, she'd feel a little jealous.

Also, I'm a sadomasochist. Though for me, BDSM is usually pretty sexual, there are people who do very non-sexual BDSM, and I can see myself doing scenes that are very far from sex. Physical, intimate, not sex.

It seems to me that the way we define "sex" and "sexual" is one of the least discussed phenomena of sexuality. When nobody could admit to being gay or lesbian, the assumption of the man-woman couple dominated, and that combined with a general reluctance to discuss sex honestly and in detail supported the further assumption that all sex was PV intercourse.

Now, when talking about sex, we have to talk about all possible combinations of biological sex and lots of genders, some of which while not precluding penetration do not privilege it either. Also, we had first phone sex and then cybersex, which is clearly sexual and explicilty so, but where biology is rendered almost irrelevant. (Insert here your favorite sci-fi prediction of how technology will change our sexual interactions in the future.)

My sense it that this is the least thought-about area in the sex-and-gender field.


FoolishOwl said...

I should note that I've made an effort over time to be better about accepting (and occasionally offering) physical affection. And part of the reason is that I'd read some casual contact as having erotic content, which is awkward for everyone involved. I suppose it goes against the usual dialogue about expressions of sexuality, but I'd prefer to have clearer divisions between what is sexual and what isn't -- not out of some sense of essentialism, but out of the emotional need and practical necessity to differentiate between sexual and non-sexual.

Off topic: do you know about the George Galloway tour? He's speaking in San Francisco on Wednesday the 21st.

Cassandra Says said...

Arwen, I think that your sister and I would get along...except there's a catch. As demonstrative as I am, I have a very firm sense of personal space and very much resent it being breached. There's one set of behaviors that I use around people I feel close to, and another completely differnt set of behaviors that I use around everyone ele. Kids are the exception, as I pretty much cuddle all kids even if I don't really know them, as long as they seem to want to be cuddled. I think that the difference between the way that I act with intimate friends and the way I act with everyone else confuses people, especially if they don't know me well. The wierd thing, and this ties into Brian's point, is that since moving to the US I have often felt very uncomfortable being as affectionate as I'm naturally inclined to be, mostly because I fear that people, especially men, will misinterpret my gestures of affection as sexual overtures (and in fact this has happened on more than one occasion).
As to Arwen and Thomas's points, it seems to me that a great many people do think of their friends in a sexual way pretty much as a matter of course (actually acting on those thoughts would of course be a whole different situation). The question for me is, if this is in fact a common thing, why the guilt?If most people think this way then why is it so taboo? The wierd thing is that as a teenager I was extremely open about the sexual/romantic feelings that I had towards friends, but as an adult I somehow feel that it's forbidden to acknowledge that these feelings exist. I've also seen situations in my own life where being open about those feelings has seriously freaked out my friends. I suspect that people take the idea that you have sexual/romantic feeling for them to mean much more than it actually does.
On the other hand I may be babbling. What does everyone else think?

FoolishOwl said...

Sexuality is problematic. There are all sorts of pressures upon us, and we have to choose one or another of several imperfect strategies. And then our strategies clash with each other.

I think you answered your own question about guilt: you learned, the hard way, that your innocent honesty confused and hurt people who had decided (probably long before they were conscious of the question) that they should deny their desires for anyone but their official partner.

eddyflynn69858338 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
FoolishOwl said...

Say, where's our Cassandra got to, anyway?

Cassandra Says said...

Sorry for the absence, I've been busy and also not feeling well - I fell on the (metal) staircase at work and kind of hurt my back. I've been arguing with people on Twisty's blog and the MRAs at Hugo's and neglecting my own blog. My bad.
Back soon though, as the argument over at Twisty's has got me thinking about identity - that and the fact that I just met one of my adolescent punk heroes (Richard Hell), which got me thinking about how much of an impact that scene has had on my life. Lovely man by the way.

FoolishOwl said...

Ouch. Back injuries are nightmarish.

I've seen you post things on a few of the blogs on the circuit. I just felt like guilt-tripping you a bit, since I just made one of my semi-annual blog posts. (Nothing too exciting -- I found a webcomic I liked.)

StealthBadger said...

Ack! Hope you're feeling better...


I've pretty much settled down with the theory that if I get a crush on someone, the emotional, cranky, unreasonable part of me that doesn't bother with civilized illusions perceives something in the other person that I need and am not getting (shaddap, y'all, I'm not talking even partially about sex, though now that I think of it, someone innocently touching you in just the right way at the right time can very definitely short-circuit your critical thinking but good, and other physical contact can have even more wonderfully mind-blowing effects. Then again, it could just annoy you; "Okay, so this howling like a banshee and trying to gnaw my arm off thing means I'm doing something right, or something wrong? And stop trying to stick the rubber chicken up my rear end.")

*clears throat*

Anywho, where was I?

Oh, right.

So pay attention to your crushes, they may or may not be pointed at the best people, but they're trying to tell you you're missing something.

As for physical contact, well, you need it. Especially when you're young, you need it like you need air, food, and water, the signs of hunger for it just aren't as obvious. To me, what you're talking about isn't confusion, it's your method of expression, which is pretty much your choice. I know that in the States, romance, physicality, love, and friendship are treated in such loaded, conflicting, and un-sane ways in U.S. popular culture, it's amazing more people aren't gnawing on the furniture in frustration. (I know I find it soothing from time to time *ducks*)

And as for younger kids finding you attractive? Welp... that says some things about both you and the kids who are looking at you, most of which I'm having a hard time finding anything "bad" about. As long as someone is comfortable with themselves, and they're not doing anything that's going to make them the subject of a Fox News Alert, then what's the problem?

FoolishOwl said...

Earlier today, I was on a coffee-date. I kept wondering if it was going well. As we were about to go our separate ways, there was an awkward moment. Moving to kiss her didn't seem right. Asking to kiss her didn't seem right. Shaking her hand seemed absurd. My immediate impulse was saying to do the thing where you tap fists, first on the same level, then one above the other, then the other way round; but somehow, surprising someone by waving a fist seemed like a really bad idea. So I just waved.

I figure I'm not even going to know how she felt until I definitely propose a second date, and she responds. If she does.

Gah. Why is this all so damned confusing?

FoolishOwl said...

As an aside, a blog owner can delete unwanted comments. It helps if you're logged into in another window (or another tab, if you're using Firefox).

StealthBadger said...

*nudge* Hello?

You all right?

FoolishOwl said...

Yes, I've been getting a bit worried, too.

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