It’s not what but who: the problems of desire

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.[1]) 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.


[1] So yes, the L-word: a note on personal history. My earlier adult relationships, after the adolescent disaster that fucked me up between the ages of 18 and 22, were basically formed outside any sense of personal desire. I fell for people because they fell for me, and luckily enough they were cute so physical desire came with; I never really dealt with desire outside love. That anyone could find my broken self not only acceptable but *needable* (is that a word?) was more than enough reason to love them. (Mysteriously, this doesn’t appear to’ve been that bad a filtration system; mad as they undoubtedly are, these gentlemen are thoroughly decent and charmingly eccentric chaps, and still friends.) Then there was the boy (I’m reverting to old nicknames again; if you don’t know who I’m on about, it doesn’t really matter), who just about blew every other concept or – sometimes it feels – possibility of love out of the water, simply by getting so thoroughly where I was coming from because we’d known each other so long. Devastating as the end of that was – ‘devastating’ being the best one-word summary of ‘it broke me for at least a couple of years and left me with scars that are still problematically apparent’ I have at my disposal – it left me with considerably more defences/barriers, a profound sense of what being loved could mean, the inability to trust anybody really (however close we are, I’m always really just waiting for you to walk away), and the firm conviction that I’d never really meet anybody I could love like that – or, more to the point, who would ever love *me* like that – again. These struggles are ongoing.

About Goblin

Academic, critic, endlessly fascinated; reads, thinks, listens and talks far more than is good for her. Ex-anorexic, ex-ME, excitable, queer, kinky, nosy, mouthy; overanalytical, overaffectionate, overarticulate, oversensitive, certainly overfond of the prefix ‘over’. Purveyor of uncomfortable truths. Talks filth in public. Needs more sleep.
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10 Responses to It’s not what but who: the problems of desire

  1. I’ve got a different background with my body and history of relationships, but I still feel a lot to relate to with this post. *hugs* How somebody sees me and what they want from me still seem to almost effortlessly trump who I am and what I want. A lover talks a lot about, “the male in the head”, and always having to fight not to seeing hirself via the male gaze. For me, I think it’s the cissexual lesbian in the head, but it feels similar.

    I feel for me like the work I want to do about this is to use fantasies. When I go back to fantasies, what is it which I fantasise about? What if I introduce this specific person into to a fantasy in my head? What am I wanting then? It’s only when the other person is absent that I can try to relate to my conception of them and discover the things it is that I want. I’ve only really started to do this recently and I want a lot more practice with it, but it feels like a legitimate and helpful kind of work to do.

    What about you – do you feel like you have any tactics that help?

  2. Goblin says:

    *wry* If i did, with this specific issue at least, I probably wouldn’t’ve written the post. Fantasy is part of it, and I think approaching these issues through fantasy is probably helpful: but I’m generally pretty clear on how I’d *like* to relate to somebody, on what I’d like us to be doing, on precisely what I’d like x person to be doing to me or vice versa. [Heh. Note construction there. I'm such a sub sometimes.] There’s an extent to which my desire is legitimised when it’s fantasy-based (although I do still sometimes worry about appropriating someone!) and thus doesn’t impinge on the other person at all – it’s when it comes to the tricky business of *admitting* those desires, of acknowledging how specifically vulnerable you are to this one other person, that it gets messy. There are things that I do, but whether they’re helpful tactics is something else entirely: I’m habitually over-open, I throw words about, I almost cartoon my desire for a specific person when discussing it with others to try and convey it’s overwhelmingness. I hope that declaring it will make it OK. But even when it’s reciprocated, it doesn’t necessarily help, because all the aforementioned inadequacy is still swimming around below the surface. I try and talk to the person concerned about it, and end up needing reassurance that *that’s* OK. Any tips on communicating these things gratefully received…

  3. Gosh, it’s refreshing to hear this from a viewpoint so opposite to my own personal experience of self. Forgive me if I am speaking from a position of privilege here. I find your posts like this essential to understand how many other people think as it is so alien to my own way. My own desires are filtered through strong self-belief and ambition, although that still doesn’t mean I understand my desires any more than you do. Until you mentioned it I never even thought to question my own acceptance – as why would anyone not accept me? The idea is so alien it just slides off me (possible denial? My mind cannot accept the thought that I could possibly be in a world that does not accept me, so I irrationally refuse to see any evidence of non-acceptance?). Any time my desires are thwarted, any time I am rejected (and this happens a lot) I’m far more likely to assume whoever rejected me is wrong or mistaken, as opposted to any intrinsic non-acceptabiliy on my part. My desires come from this strong self-belief – although paradoxically I often fail to pursue desires because the fear of rejection my expose may self-belief to be invalidated, so often my most persistant and strongest desires are never acted on. I too fail to flirt at those who I fancy the most.

    • Goblin says:

      Thank you :-) i’m really interested in several aspects of your comment. For a start,do you see the differences as culturally constructed? Gendered? (in which case,what’s the interplay with gender presentation?) or do you see it as a purely individual difference? The possibility of denial you mention – that would be my assumption,but i don’t really know you well enough and have too much loading myself to know whether it’s fair. And if you experience only confidence,is it even relevant? Bit then if tou don’t act on what you really really want,what other explanations might there be? How does this confidence affext how you appdoach people? Could you say a bit more?

      • The difference between the construction of your non-acceptance of self and my self-belief? Hmmm. There’s a strong argument to be had that loathing one’s own body will lead to loathing of self, and thusly to the the belief that one is therefore not acceptable. You’ll know lots more than me on the gender and cultural conditioning that leads to body loathing, so would be able to tell me why it affects some people crushingly, and others not at all, maybe? However, I think that’s only one factor out of many that may lead to the same self-denial of acceptability. As to where self-belief comes from, that’s also a good question. My own personal experience (and I would say this is individual) is a childhood not knowing failure. Clever privilege and pretty priviliege put me in a bubble where I only knew success. All desires can be obtained. Some people never leave that bubble. My bubble burst, and the first time I encountered true failure I had no coping mechanism at all. I still bear the physical and emotional scars of that depression, which let me to have no wants or desires at the time. I know now failure, but it’s still a fear, and it’s possible the coping mechanism I now have is to not expose myself to failure by not attempting anything with major consequences if it goes wrong. My confidence comes from knowing I will succeed, because I’m choosing to only act on desires that I know can be fulfilled. So I guess my instinct is to not ever make myself hugely vulnerable, so I don’t get hurt. I know that most people I fancy, even complete strangers, will kiss me if I ask, so can act on that (although I choose not to cheapen my kisses by kissing *everyone* nowadays). Asking for someone’s *self* is a much bigger thing to ask, a raw desire of purely wanting another self – not just their body, but *them*. Exposing a desire that strong to someone else leaves oneself naked and vulnerable. You’re exposing your deepest self to them, and all the potential hurt that implies. How much do you trust that person with your desire? Desire is power but who has the power? Mutual desire empowers both parties. One way desire is dangerous and a battle of wills and the strength of desire over willpower. Sometimes the desire wins – seduction is deceptive by nature, and you yourself seem to be saying you fear you have imposed your desire on others [seduction] who may not have the will to resist? Extreme cases lead to stalking (let’s not go there) and worse evils. Conversely, the desire object can if so minded manipulate and control any that desire them – this is why, as Nile points out, an attractive person should be very careful in weilding their desire. How does one act on desire? Yes, ACT. Your submissive side shines through your use of the words “respond” and “wait” – are you waiting for a cue? Are your flailing because you have nothing to respond to? How do you control a situation when you want not to be the one in control? Or are your afraid of rejection, or even (as Rei says) afraid of getting what you want? Unattainability is frequently a desirable quality in itself, of course. I don’t have all the answers, in fact, if I did I wouldn’t be in the mess I am in. Is it a personal template or a social template we need to cope with our own desires? Is it just a case of wearing your heart on your sleeve and trusting the world to hug it and not crush it? Broken hearts take time to heal, after all. I …er… don’t know where I’m going here and I think I went into automatic writing ooops. I hope some of what I says makes some sense to you.

  4. Interesting. As in all things, I must view it through the lens of the self, with all the inevitable distortions and chromatic aberrations; this is, of course, rather limiting.

    Reading EW helps there: I know far too much of her experiences, too closely, for it to be a comfortable read; but empathy in one thing opens up the reader – me – to understanding in another. Pity she’s so repetitive.

    …Which leads to you, a rather more varied writer and, I think, a more varied person. Enough to make me see something deeply different: that desire, in an attractive person, is something dangerous, because it’s going to be reciprocated, powerfully.

    I’ll need to think about that. The closest point of empathy I have is the need to keep people at a distance in order to manage or pre-empt common aversion and rejection behaviours; and, sometimes, to manage group-exclusion behaviours, which can be startlingly vicious in their intensity.

    But the other half of that – dealing with a personal sense of falling-in which can be *reciprocated* – and a dangerous pleasure, to boot – that’s a strange, strange thing.

    As I say: food for thought.

    The only reassurance I can offer is that, in the seas you swim, there is far less ‘depreciation’ than you think. But I have no idea how to express that in a way that will actually work.

  5. Rei says:

    I debated with myself as to whether or not to comment, but I actually identify with a lot of what you’ve written about here. I am slowly (very slowly) trying to learn to change my thought patterns, but I primarily experience desire as a mixture of excitement, lust, and soul-crushing nervousness; except that in my case it’s not necessarily a fear of rejection (although I am also, confusingly, afraid of rejection).

    It’s because if I make my desire known and get rejected then that’s really no more than I deserve, according to my sneaky jerkbrain, but if I make my desire known and don’t get rejected then that can be worse, somehow, because what that means is not that I have these feelings towards someone that are being reciprocated but that I have somehow tricked them, through cultural norms or alcohol or being just unlike myself enough that they didn’t notice what I am actually like, into not saying no. I drunkenly kissed a friend a couple of weeks ago (we were hanging out with alcohol, I asked, she said yes, we kissed) and felt horrible for days about it because even though nothing was awkward or anything like that I was convinced that I had made her do something she did not actually want to do. And it’s taken a very long time for me to get to a stage where I was comfortable enough with my own desires to actually attempt to initiate something with someone in the first place.

    …I’m not entirely sure where I was going with all this. But thank you for writing this; it was very much food for thought.

    • Goblin says:

      Heh. I completely, entirely get that. I sleep with a new person – on openly discussed terms of mutual desire – and then spend the next few weeks essentially going ‘are you sure? But I’m awful. You can’t’ve meant it. Are you fed up with me yet? Are you? Are you?’ This is, in many ways, distinctly suboptimal.

  6. Anadel says:

    You won’t be surprised that I get so much of what you say. It is so easy to flirt with friends for me because with them I’m safe and boundaries aren’t crossed as we all know the rules (implicit and verbally stated). However, I still cannot read signals, I just don’t see them. I can read when someone is hitting on someone else, but never on me. If I desire that person it gets far worse as I become completely frozen and incapable of talking to them unless we have a subject to talk about and even then it can be a bit on the disastrous side.

    However, I do think that in order to ever be comfortable with showing someone I desire them, I need first to be able to accept that I might just possibly be desirable to someone else and I’m still a long way from getting there. It would help if someone told me they desired me or at least if I knew how to read the signals that tell you that. It’s a vicious circle and breaking the cycle is bloody hard.

  7. Matt Wiltshire says:

    I have this thing where I am completely unaware of other people flirting with me.

    I’ve been to party’s where I will be happily chatting to people then later be told, “x was totally flirting with you”.

    Completely oblivious.

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