Why Do You Want to Get Laid? Mapping Sexual Geographies
Issue #17, November 1994
this is for Dave Santucci, with many thanks
When I was about two years old, I heard some boys in my housing tract cursing at each other — I think they were saying 'fuckface' mostly, but whatever they were saying included lots of 'fuck.' I fell in love with the word instantly, probably because I could tell that it was an emotionally powerful set of syllables. I had no idea what it meant, but my mother reports I went around for months saying 'fuck!' gleefully, and finally I named one of my favorite dolls Fuck. Ultimately, the inevitable happened: at age three, I used the word fuck in society, and I was punished. I called a little neighbor boy 'fuckhead' after he hit me, and his father grabbed me so hard by the arm I was bruised by the time he had dragged me to my parents' apartment. 'Why is he so mad?' I asked my giggling parents after the boy's father had stormed off. 'Well,' my mother said, 'fuck is a combination of all the worst words in the whole world.' This was my first acquaintance with the language of adult sexuality. It reflects all the basic problems of our understanding of sex. 'Fuck' as a word is deeply powerful, but at the same time it has no meaning because it really refers to every *other* bad word in the human vocabulary.
The story I have just told you is about how we learn to see relationships through the lens of social meanings. While the sex act was not directly involved in this situation, nevertheless the idea of sex, and the meaning of the word fuck, shaped it. Memories like this one — which all of us have — are a part of what theorist Fredric Jameson calls 'cognitive mapping,' or the practice of knowing where one stands in social space. The idea of a cognitive geography is simple, and yet we interrogate its legitimacy far more than we would a road map of California. What is required to map a person's relationships to society and understand them? And what is necessary to understand a social situation in the process of happening? The answers are not always verifiable in a way we would like them to be. Many people would insist that social space cannot be mapped because it is 'intangible,' unlike Potrero Hill or rural East Texas. Why should we believe that maps of human relations are impossible? To put it bluntly: we are afraid to find out who we really are, and what our relationships really mean.
A Sexual Atlas
One of the most obvious examples of deliberate blindness about mapping social space comes when we start trying to talk about what sex means in the context of our relationships with each other. Sex is supposed to be the most 'intimate' — and therefore the deepest — kind of human connection. And yet sex is also a taboo subject, something that we have been taught is shameful and abjectly terrifying. On top of all that, I cannot count how many times I have been told that sex acts — like the word 'fuck' — are basically meaningless, and therefore to analyze them would prove nothing. So we get two messages about sex in our culture: it is an expression of perfect human connection; and it is meaningless.
Since Alfred Kinsey's famous series of scientific surveys on sexual activity conducted in the 1940s, medicine and the social sciences have been vying for the opportunity to provide the most rational discussion possible about sex. For the medical community, sex is mostly a matter of reproduction — or the failure to reproduce. It is also, as Masters and Johnson's Human Sexual Response suggested in the 60s, a physical response to stimulation. Whether that stimulation is pleasurable or not depends on who you believe; Masters and Johnson call it pleasurable, but Freud has represented the orgasm as a 'release' from unpleasurable discomfort. In the social sciences, sex has been the unspoken term at the core of studies on everything from work, to race, to gender. The most recent 'sex survey' conducted in the USA, and documented in Robert Michael et. al.'s Sex in America is a perfect example of the way sex gets cast as the invisible mortar holding together all kinds of cultural traditions. The book ultimately deals with social institutions, like marriage or family, in which we have sex, rather than telling us about what sex itself means.
Sex In America claims that, on the whole, Americans enjoy pretty much the same sexual territory: a sex act 'goes from hugging to kissing to bodily caressing and manual stimulation of the genitals to intercourse,' the authors write. Let's pretend, for a moment, that the authors are correct about this. In spite of what we see on TV, in the movies, and on stage, we are all allegedly enamored of the above sexual script as a way of pledging our social connectedness to one another. How do we 'read' this script? First, let's take it at face value. We see two people getting physically closer and closer to one another. But how do they 'act out' doing it? For one thing, getting close involves 'caressing' and 'stimulation' which results in 'intercourse,' an act usually intended to make us have an orgasm and then stop feeling stimulated (at least directly afterward). The most common forms of sexual intimacy, therefore, are based on a script which always ends with people no longer desiring sexual intimacy. Probably the idea of multiple orgasm is intended to subvert this script, but even multiple orgasms do not stretch into infinity. All sexual intimacy comes to an end.
Sex is also a form of intimacy which is — at least in its most common manifestations — purely physical. This is what makes sex so literal — and so frightening. What if you love somebody, but you do not have 'good' sex? Or, more frequently, what if you dislike somebody, but they know exactly what it takes to give you orgasms? Each time we decide to have sex, we ask ourselves these questions. Particularly when the sex is intended to be a form of intimacy, we wonder: why do I feel one way emotionally, and another way sexually? Finally, if we choose not to have sex for whatever reasons, we ask ourselves (or are bluntly asked by others) why we aren't having sex, and whether this means that we are social misfits, people who cannot make the proper kinds of social connections.
Sexual relations are one way social relations actually do become concretized. Moreover, we tend to keep sex as contained as possible, and invent all kinds of boundaries to 'hold it in' such as monogamy, various legal injunctions, and the so-called common sense notion that sex is something we should keep to ourselves. Like a nation, sexuality has rituals and borders — it even has exiles of various types. Since the idea of a 'nation' is one way we perform cognitive mapping, or a way we know who is 'with' us and 'against' us, it would seem logical that sexuality is another form of cognitive mapping. And indeed, we often use the sex act as a way of mapping ourselves in social space. Why else do we burn to know who is sleeping with whom at work, or among our friends? If you are engaged in conversation with a group of people you don't know very well, suddenly the social territory seems more familiar when you find out which people are having sex with each other. Or, on a different note, when you begin having sex with someone, your social landscape shifts dramatically. Their friends become your friends, and their social life is open to you because you have a definite place in it as 'the sex partner.' I have noticed, in the initial stages of a sexual relationship, the way my partner's friends and acquaintances will say to me, 'I'm sure I'll see you again.' When I am introduced to friends of friends, I rarely hear such a comment, even if it is likely to be true.
The confessional and churlish 60s bestseller by Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint, documents the way one mans sexual relationships become his map of the social world. Alexander Portnoy, the main character, is from a Jewish lower-middle-class family in New Jersey. To escape from his oppressive background, he has sex with women who embody its opposite in nearly every way. His first lover, an upper-middle-class gentile from the midwest, is a woman he seduces then rejects, describing this experience as his first 'thrill of sadism,' a way he essentially takes revenge on all the gentiles who snubbed him as a child. Portnoy says, 'I don't seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds — as though through fucking I will discover America. *Conquer* America — maybe that's more like it.' He goes on to have sex with a woman he calls the 'Puritan;' and most of the novel is taken up with his delirious and hateful description of an affair he has with 'The Monkey,' an illiterate model from the backwoods of Virginia. She is, to his mind, a WASP incarnate — and Portnoy degrades her sexually in every way he knows how, then abandons her with revulsion. While Portnoy has become a respected civil rights lawyer and left his class background behind, it seems his sexual conquests are what truly convince him he is no longer a helpless little Jewish boy living in the Jersey ghetto.
Roth's novel offers us a number of clear reasons why we avoid getting at the meaning of sex — or, more accurately, why we avoid mapping sexual territories. Portnoy's 'complaint' — that his sexual satisfaction is at odds with his moral responsibilities — is perhaps a version of the complaint we would all make if we were honest enough to put it into words. This complaint reminds us that sex is profoundly meaningful, for it tells the truth about how we feel in the social relationships we experience on a day to day basis. Portnoy, filled with rage that he has been 'Jewed' by the world and humiliated by his mother, expresses in his sexuality the anguish and confusion fostered by social prejudice and an abusive family. What we learn from the map of Portnoy's sexual life is that his social experiences have made him a self-hating, cruel person who longs for love but seeks out revenge instead. In charting our own sexualities, perhaps we fear finding out a similar thing about ourselves. Though we might not have had any choice about the circumstances under which we came into our sexual desires, confronting them makes us all too aware of how flawed our social system can be. Social relations as we know them tend to produce Portnoys.
Because sex is a socially meaningful act, we need to ask what the mainstream definition of a sexual encounter can tell us about ordinary social relationships. Let's return, therefore, to the sex act as described by the authors of Sex in America, who explain that it begins with hugging and ends with intercourse. As I noted earlier, the mainstream sex act is finite and physical — that is, it lends itself well to measurement and literal description. While it may mean much more to us emotionally speaking, the act itself can be considered separately, clinically, and scientifically. We all basically know what sex looks like — we've seen it in the media, or we've read about it in biology. Sexual minorities are often disgruntled when people ask them, 'How do you have sex?' The question indicates that sexual ignorance still exists, but also reminds us how easy it is to dispel. Seeing — or hearing — is believing, as it were. Sex, in the end, is understood as a 'thing,' an object we can look at, and describe, and even purchase. Associated with intangibles like love and pleasure, sex is not necessarily either of these: it is something you 'get,' as in the phrase 'I want to get laid.' Often we say 'I want to get laid' in much the same manner we say 'I want to get a new jacket.' Both are objects we desire, and both provide material satisfaction.
And yet sex, which we want so much, is something we keep to ourselves. Why do we have sex in private? And why do we recommend monogamy as the ideal sexual situation? If sex is so wonderful and pleasurable, why don't we do it openly, and share it with everyone? The answer is connected directly to the way we tend to understand sex as an object, rather than an action based on thought and emotion. We use sex to quantify the value of particular relationships between people. Sex is a form of private property, which allows us to 'own' people or at least to figure out how much we own of them. When I have sex with someone, I essentially communicate to them that they belong to my social world in one way or another. Through sex, I'm measuring something intangible: my connection to a particular person. For this reason, non-monogamy and public or group sex are fundamentally incompatible with the way we map sexuality today. Having been taught that 'ownership' and 'property' are concepts which limit access to particular objects, we regard sex as something which cannot circulate freely among people. It is owned by one person only — the person with whom you have sex. Hence monogamy is the sexual practice of choice, and group sex is particularly confusing: how can more than one person possess a single object at once?
We can liken our understanding of sexuality to the way we use money in all kinds of financial relationships. We pay unskilled laborers less than we pay college graduates, even if they are both working in retail. Why? One person's relationship to their employer is 'more valuable' because they have an education. Education, of course, is something immaterial, but we use money to measure it anyway. But what if the 'unskilled laborer' is actually very good at his job, while the college graduate is a big flake who spent all four years of college getting drunk and playing video games? Viewed in this light, we can see that money is a misleading way to measure a relationship's value. Despite the qualitative value of the unskilled laborers work, he will still earn less money than his co-worker. Money is an arbitrary way of evaluating relationships. Sometimes it can tell the truth, but more often than not it is simply a way we try to reassure ourselves that human relationships can be converted into objects. Objects, after all, are much easier to deal with than personalities or feelings.
The truth that money does tell us about relationships is that people are very uncertain and defensive when it comes to making social connections. Rather than taking the time to get to know somebody — and trusting our judgment of them — we would rather assign them an abstract value and leave it at that. We can judge them on the basis of their salary, or if we want to get intimate we can judge them on the basis of how well they have sex. Furthermore, like sex, money is something we don't talk about. Your salary is private — perhaps even more private than your sex life. For instance, just the other day I was talking to an old friend of mine, who told me an elaborate story about how difficult it is to find a woman who likes him to cross-dress when they have sex. We commiserated and joked a lot about the way both of us are searching for the perfect mate. And yet when I asked him how much money he is making now, he became oddly silent. It was clear that his desire to have sex dressed up in womens clothing was less personal than how much he is 'worth' per hour where he works.
Sex and money are the ways we make and measure human relationships, and yet we are ashamed to talk about them. Perhaps we should give our feelings some credit: it is shameful to turn human actions, desires, and connections into 'things.' What we are hiding from when we refuse to speak honestly about our sex lives is not sex itself, but the unfair way we use sex as a measure of a relationships worth or strength. We are, in other words, hiding from knowledge about the way we create social networks. Nobody wants to know that the basis upon which they create a social network is fundamentally arbitrary and flawed. And so we 'just don't talk about it,' perhaps hoping that our silence will make our discomfort and shame go away.
But shame has a way of catching up with you. It can turn a 'good' relationship into something upsetting that you want to avoid. When we base social connections on shameful objects, rather than thoughtful actions, frequently we end up hating ourselves and each other. That is why, for example, people use money and sex as weapons. Money and sex are quite destructive of human connections when we want them to be, and this should confirm our general sense that they do not present a reliable cartography on which to plan our movements in social space. In a recent and very popular song (ironically titled 'Closer'), Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails describes how sex, when used to measure the worth of a human relationship, makes everything hopelessly confusing and hurtful:
You let me violate you, you let me desecrate you You let me penetrate you, you let me complicate you Help me I broke apart my insides, help me I've got no soul to sell Help me the only thing that works for me, help me get away from myself I want to fuck you like an animal...my whole existence is flawed... You can have my isolation, you can have the hate that it brings You can have my absence of faith, you can have my everything... I want to fuck you like an animal.
Here we find out what happens when people try to use sex as a map of human connection. According to Reznor — and I think Portnoy would agree with him — sexuality can be used to 'violate' and 'desecrate' a person as much as it can be used to form a loving alliance. Interestingly, Reznor reveals that he relies on 'fucking like an animal' to cement this relationship because his 'whole existence is flawed,' he is 'isolated,' filled with 'hate,' and he has 'broke[n] apart his insides.' To 'get away from himself' he uses sex — he isn't forming a bond here, he is just consuming an object to escape from the pain of social reality. Most importantly, he tells us that he has an 'absence of faith.' Without faith, an intangible sensation and immeasurable action, Reznor falls back upon sex — an action which is measurable, in its objectified form. And, of course, he does this only because he's 'got no soul to sell.' Having given up on measuring himself in money, he measures his worth in sex instead. Doing so has made him alienated and profoundly lonely.
Thus, while we claim sex is a form of deep human connection, it is — more often, I have found — simply a biological function. Sex is not an accurate way to measure the quality of human relationships. Like money, it is just a concrete 'thing' we use to stand in for actions which transcend the object world. Obviously, 'things' do not keep us company when we feel lonely, because only people can do that. It is when we tell ourselves that objects are equivalent to human actions that we make ourselves ashamed and alone. In short, this is because we know that love and connection are not objects. We cannot really get at what they mean using our bodies, or counting orgasms, or seeing each other naked.
For these reasons, eliminating sexual secrecy (and even monogamy) might help us learn that human relationships are not the same thing as material objects. By bringing sex out into the open, and refusing to make it private property, we might destroy the shame which lies at the heart of so many routine or personal interactions. This is only one of many ways we can educate ourselves about the truly significant landmarks on social maps — human connections based on trust, faith, and morally responsible action. While sex may be fun, social relationships are more important.
Annalee Newitz is a Production Director of Bad Subjects. She is a freelance writer currently at work on a series of articles about sexuality and economics; she is also a Ph.D. student in the English Department at UC-Berkeley, completing her dissertation on monsters and psychopaths in American pop culture.