Nb: I’m aware that this is a post underscored by multiple privileges I have and bring to these issues. Eg, cis-privilege, racial privilege, often-heteronormative privilege, ‘pretty’privilege, or at least some version of being vaguely culturally assimilable as attractive, able-bodied privilege, etc. I’ve tried to write this without apologising every other word, because that just gets annoying, but do please call me on anything you find problematic.
There are two things underlying this post. The first is this brave and sensible article about ‘what do I want’ by the wonderful Holly Pervocracy (whose blog you should all read, on the offchance you don’t), and the second is Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose Bitch and Now, More, Again I read recently during my bedbound post-hospitalisation doze. I haven’t read Prozac Nation, but M,N,A expresses a sort of ruthless loathing self-excoriation I strongly identify with, for all that I’ve never snorted prescription drugs or gone on international TV fucked on coke. Particularly the way she talks about her body and her self.
‘I write books, I give lectures, I have good friends, I am a good listener and a better talker – I have an entire personality that is not entirely unappealing; but the only part of myself I really believe in, that I really think men care about, is my body.’
I read that, in More, Now, Again, and just thought ‘yes’. Unlike Elizabeth I certainly haven’t grown up knowing I was pretty; I was an ugly kid, blossomed a bit in late adolescence, but from ME at 18 onwards I spent the majority of my life starving and/or stressing about my fundamental undesirability (for which read unlovability and unacceptability, symbolised by what I felt – or feel, mood-dependent – to be my grotesque ugliness). Nevertheless, enough people over the last couple of years have made it clear that they consider me physically desirable for it to sink in, at least to the extent that Elizabeth’s statement above is very much where I live. At a pinch, now, I can consider myself a desirable object; my body as something with worth, not least because it conforms at least to a certain extent with contemporary cultural criteria for female attractiveness (smallish, boobs, proportionately long legs, long hair, etc). But this leaves me with two fundamental problems.
One, yes, I can see my body as an object of worth, but an object whose worth is ruthlessly, inexorably depreciating, with age, number of partners, and the number of times I sleep with any one person. You’ve had me once, why would you possibly want to again? I’m permanently waiting for lovers, potential and actual, to lose interest, to move on to someone new/else/better. (There is at least one possible exception to this, but frustratingly, in this instance the specific doesn’t seem to transfer to the general.) The fact that I look a good few years younger than I am bizarrely makes this worse: is whoever it is only interested because I look 23? Should I be careful not to talk too much in case I’m accidentally too mature? What if I’m having a fat day, or my IBS is bad, or I eat a lot? I warn people, obsessively and overanxiously, that I’m not good enough for them whatever they may think, just to offer them the chance to walk away before they decide to take it, to maintain some fragile illusion that maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe I don’t care. It must get really annoying.
And two, as per Elizabeth’s quote, I know how to be desired, but not how to desire, really. Desire fucks me up. I know how to be a desirable object, to respond to (mostly male, see later) desire, to be courteous and friendly where necessary. Well, not entirely: I still find others’ desire problematic, but I am at least familiar now with the concept of its existence, with how it feels. Saying ‘no’ is still difficult, especially when I care deeply about the person concerned, but even when that isn’t the case I’m aware that on some level I instinctively assume people deserve a yes just for deigning to want me, at the same time as I fiercely resent anyone who makes me feel they only want me for my body. I don’t, actually, have sex with that many people, and never have – hitting on me has something like a >5-10% success rate – but I still, after all these years and all these feminist blogposts, angst whenever I turn someone down. As if just in case, if I’d put out, they would have been miraculously transformed into somebody I wanted. As if saying yes if I actually meant no would be reasonable or fair.
Far worse though, I have NO IDEA AT ALL, none whatsoever, how to cope with my own desire. None at all. So for me, Holly’s post is a bit offbeam. I’m mostly cheerfully open about *what* I want, the things I like doing in bed, my kinks and foibles. I can discuss *that* with strangers and friends as well as with lovers, although I too am susceptible to awkwardness in the heat of the, er, moment. But desire fucks me up. How to express wanting someone, even how to deal with those feelings and/or the possibility of rejection – I’m utterly lost.
All the more so given that my sexuality – and my social circles – have shifted over the last few years, from being almost entirely het to being quite frequently attracted to those of genders other than male. Anybody I find powerfully attractive, whatever their gender, I fall apart around. I’m a complete idiot. It is a source of constant wonder to me that anybody whom I’m drawn to ever actually reciprocates interest. (When they do, I tend to attribute it to aforementioned ‘desirable object’ theory, regardless of how unfair this may be.) In some ways it’s easier when the person in question is male, cis or otherwise, because I have some vague template now of how to respond sexually to men, the aforementioned knowing how to be desired but not to desire notwithstanding; and nevertheless God knows I am enough of a fool around men that I find overwhelmingly attractive. But when the person concerned is female or one of many glorious flavours of genderqueer, that effect is magnified, because I haven’t been raised with or absorbed any social templates for this. I’m much more just a(n inadequate) person. I fall apart. I flail. I have absolutely no idea of how to express myself, let alone express attraction; as someone who cheerfully and intent-freely flirts with a lot of the people a lot of the time, sometimes the best way of telling who I find attractive is who I’m being careful not to flirt with (THEY MIGHT NOTICE I WANT THEM, AND THEN WHAT? o.0 ) Just sometimes, I manage to do the flirting thing with someone I actually want, and it works, and then I still fall apart, because WHAT IF THEY WERE MISLEAD INTO THINKING I WAS SOMEBODY WORTH HAVING? You can see the problems here, yes? Even if I’m not *actually* being a twat at any given time, I generally feel like I am, and that I’m secretly not worth having, and this can apply as much with established lovers as it does with new people. (Love, that complicated and messy concept, might make a difference here, but by and large I don’t believe in it for myself anymore, so the question fails to arise.) There is a stage, once people are friends or – occasionally – lovers, and we know where we stand, when I relax again, but even then flirting can feel painfully loaded, given the poly/open seas in which I swim, and that nobody is my partner.
This is bigger than sex, too, although sex is probably both the most important area in which it, ah, comes up. I’m useless at wanting things, particularly at wanting things from people (and you don’t get more personal than someone’s self, really.) I want like a child – fiercely, irrationally, passionately. I chase my passions like they’re running away, and I’m falling over my own feet trying to catch up with them. I don’t know whether it’s a female thing, although Susie Orbach’s piece about the two great female taboos, expressing dependency needs and initiating, is floating around the back of my head somewhere – I suspect a lot of people find desire, particularly unmet desire, complicated on some level. But because so much of the process of my growing up was essentially that of learning *not* to want, to put others’ needs or desires first, even now I can recognise that maybe my (being allowed to) have desires is a Good Thing, my relationship with my desires is stuck somewhere between ID (childlike, animal, raw) and superego (socioculturally mediated, the self in relation to others, what do they want or need) almost without passing through the coherence of ego first.
Maybe that’s not quite true. My notorious inability to do anything by halves is implicated here, too – bear in mind that even attempting to resolve ‘being an acceptable person’ and ‘wanting things’ comes off the back of years of anorexia, which is basically refusing to acknowledge even basic desires and needs because they’re so overwhelming and it’s easier to block the lot than look at them head on. And I’m aware that part of how I’ve been going about resolving ‘other people’s needs are paramount’ with ‘I have needs and desires too!’ has been to problematically correlate ‘other people desire me’ = ‘I am a desirable object’ = ‘*therefore* maybe I’m allowed to need’, a process whose complications don’t even bear thinking about. The key to all this goes right back to Elizabeth Wurtzel above; goes right back to a childhood that taught me emotional sensitivity is bad and others’ needs should be prioritised; right back to a culture that teaches me my function and value as a woman is always somehow based on other people. Namely, for all Elizabeth’s sense that men want her body, she’s still convinced of her own inner unacceptability and unloveability, and needs others to affirm otherwise. I’m not quite as bad as she is, I hope, but I’m close. Although I now have the capacity to believe myself worthwhile – and manage to do so in certain areas much of the time – at the end of the day, I need other people to validate my core self, the emotional drives and sensitivities and needs. I need other people – each themselves mired in their own struggles with or connections to this stuff – to give the self I still feel is inadequate (because if you want, or need, you’re not self-sufficient, therefore insufficient, right?)the right to exist. I need other people to reassure me not just that they want me but that I’m acceptable. And that’s not a fair thing to ask of anyone, even if they ask it of you in return.
In summary: man, we’re fucked up.