Friday, December 1, 2017

Slavery, Sexual Coercion and Quentin Crisp at 90 - Views of the Heart of the Conundrum

The Conundrum

I have long believed, not least from my own experience, that the human capacity for denial knows no bounds. I’ve convinced myself of any number of egregious falsehoods - I still do - if they ‘support’ (or rationalize) a behavior or desire I don’t want to give up. What causes that desire and behavior to change, which they sometimes do, is mostly a mystery. Whatever intention they yield to is largely unconscious. It may be stage of life, it may be something genetically determined - a chromosomal marker that at age 70 some lessening in the amount and therefore efficacy of testosterone will drain me of my fetishistic lust for a particular body part or a diminution in my need for glucose will lessen my formerly irresistible desire for seedless red grapes. There may be effects imposed from the outside from which we learn - ‘experience’ that slowly erodes us by its continual demonstration that actions do have consequences and that we may through some species of cognitive behavioral therapy or twelve step principles of surrender or psychoanalytical exploration of hidden motives or adherence to a religious or spiritual discipline discover means of changing what we deem to be destructive behavior. But having immersed myself in many of these strategies, I’m not convinced that any of them can be relied upon to deliver what they promise.

At the age of 90, Quentin Crisp confessed, in his last book “The Last Word,” that he couldn’t see he had influenced the world nor had been influenced by it. The ‘nature’ with which he was born was in various ways - maybe in all ways that counted, i.e., that intractably defined him - immutable. This was the source of anguished bewilderment. In Quentin’s case it was that he believed himself to be a woman in a man’s body. There was nothing to be done about that - not if you were born in 1908 at a time when medical science had not advanced to the point where a sex change operation was thinkable - not to mention into a middle-class English family in the London suburb of Surrey where any notion of desiring to effect that morphological change would have been seen as the nth degree of pathological. But it also couldn’t be done, because Quentin hadn’t been born in a woman’s body. Change or disguise that as he might, he would have remained a lie. To his mind he did remain a lie. One that he couldn’t put to rights. It’s the stuff of Greek tragedy. Which is to say it’s full of rich meaning.

To me Quentin’s dilemma describes the uncrackable nut of the human condition - ours as well as his. You may not feel like a woman in a man’s body but I would bet on the certainty that should you want to look for it, or allow yourself to feel it, you would find the source of an existential anxiety whose unwelcome message is: you don’t belong. Even if you’re the happiest banana on the block – that is, have adjusted to the outer world with sufficient ease to experience it largely as embracing – there will come times when something stranger and inadmissible occurs to you about yourself. It may be catching yourself repeating something you don’t believe as if you believed it. Catching yourself in a lie does not always bring you to a truth. That is, you may know you haven’t reached a solution, but that doesn’t mean a solution will reveal itself. The thing is, there is no solution to life. All you can do is live it. That may seem self-evident and even ring with hope – and I would agree it does. The only hope we have is if we can accept that we will never know who or what we really are. The most fundamental truths about why we’re here or why we love or hate what we do or what it means to “live fully” will always be kept from us. There is no solution to life.


There was a time in the 18th century we call The Enlightenment when what transpired in the 17th century, built on roots of Renaissance thought which for the first time since the ancient Greeks put Man at the center of philosophy, led to a new “rationality:” for example, the formulation and general espousal of the Scientific Method, and a belief in rational (logical) human agency that could be applied to politics, economics, history and art. The onset of this Age of Reason in the seventeenth century soon expanded to include caring about the individual in new ways. “Human rights” became a theme and an issue and informed the founding of this country through the genius of such thinkers and writers as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. That Jefferson was this “enlightened man” did not, however, keep him from keeping slaves at a time when the debate about the morality of keeping slaves was in full swing. England eventually banned slavery in the early 19th century. Washington and Jefferson apparently decried the institution by vowing to free their slaves after Washington and Jefferson’s deaths, but to excuse to any degree the human atrocity of slavery at a moment when the philosophical argument against slavery was fully and well loaded (not least by Jefferson at least occasionally), not only generally but in their own lives, seems inexplicable. What permitted thinking men to regard the institution of slavery which many who owned slaves overtly decried and regarded as temporary to extend it? Economic reasons surely. The south’s wealth was based on their labor. But there’s still an X factor not explored or expressed – and maybe unexplorable and unexpressable. Robert E. Lee is another example of a Southerner who did not favor slavery on moral grounds and yet beat his own mercilessly when they misbehaved. There’s a disconnect here which I see as evidence of that uncrackable nut in human nature.

I’m hugely in favor of taking down the Confederate Flag: whatever interest lies in the complex history of the Confederacy, and indeed the merits of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, and a mission which to Confederates was as much about states rights in general as it was about keeping slaves, the blunt message of a Confederate flag can’t not be taken as countenancing slavery. The Germans could be very reasonable about organizing an effective economic state. But it would require erasing Jews from the planet. The Nazi flag can’t not mean anti-Semitism in the same way the Confederate flag can’t not mean espousal of slavery. 

Sexual Oppression

Somewhat similarly, though it may seem an unlikely leap, I'm in favor of as big an uproar as there need be to redress the damnable imbalance revealed by the revelation that many well-known and 'powerful' men in the history of our species, but certainly piling up into our very moment, have sexually imposed themselves on other human beings without their consent.

One condition seems equally to apply to slavery and human sexual attack. The perpetrators of sexual attack, and the movers and shakers who have encouraged and instituted slavery seem historically to have been nearly all men. Not that women haven't been sexual predators or haven't been at or near the helm of insisting on slavery and wholly welcoming it. But they didn't themselves, anyway from evidence I've osmotically gleaned, round up the slaves-to-be, bodily force them from their homes, whip or otherwise physically harm them at whim, construct the legal apparatuses which would permit their owners to buy and sell and keep them and profit most by their labor. Men did that.

However, the great and because less seemingly less tractable more troubling difference between slavery and much of what occurs as sexual attack is that slavery is largely the product of social institutions, and sexual attack seems to have much less explicable, more atavistic roots, perhaps even at least obliquely accounting for why far too many social institutions like the Roman Catholic Church and the Armed Forces and the Entertainment Industry have collectively either looked the other way or covered up sexual abuse committed by their members. There is a deeply held if now rarely publicly admitted belief that much of it proceeds from ‘how men are.’ It’s true that slavery in the South drew much its rationale from the premise that black men and women were less than human; social Darwinism ignited that flame and provided a specious logic for making this claim ‘scientifically.’ However, slaves in ancient Rome weren’t regarded as constitutionally inferior: they were just the unfortunates who lost a war, and were thus made to work for the conquerors. But eventually they could become full Roman citizens. Inferiority on the basis of race as we have construed it doesn’t seem even to have been a thought.

However the urge to conquer and humiliate which is central to both slavery and sexual oppression brings the two messy realms into alignment again. A case probably can be persuasively made that a general bias in Nature for sexual aggression in the male has a biological or genetic determinant which therefore can be implicated in transmitting a received/inherited/biological strategy for male behavior in effecting propagation of the species. Testosterone is known to increase both aggressive and sexual instincts especially in men, since they have more of it than women. That the most aggressive male gets to impregnate the female seems to be a common natural law in most of the mammals from which we've evolved.

From this view, the Bills Clinton & Cosby & other men accused of aggressive sexual 'opportunism' have acted quite literally like animals. As have many of the most publicly esteemed of our past leaders: Jack Kennedy, the standard-bearer. In the past weeks a day hasn’t gone by when one or more of some of the best known and publicly admired male politicians, performers and other celebrities haven’t been accused of and immediately lost their jobs because they admitted to committing acts of sexual aggression. The cover has been ripped off what turns out to be a crime vastly more widespread than any but the perpetrators knew - if they even knew it. One of the most oppressive facts about this is suggested by the silence of so many of the women and men who have been attacked - again largely by men. Their jobs and status are on the line. The world would appear to be no less run by men than it ever was. The capacity to intimidate sexual victims into silence has continued - until now - virtually unabated at the highest levels of power in nearly every American industry and endeavor. 

But the “until now” has to be significant. The cascade not only of these accusations but the quick acquiescence to accepting the truth of them in what so far seems to be the majority of accused men may very likely mark a sea change in attitudes. Men are no less trying to save their hides but at least in many of these cases, such as Charlie Rose and Kevin Spacey and Matt Lauer, they’re no longer lying to do it - perhaps not least because of the credibility of the accusers and of the evidence against them, which they now believe can no longer be waved away as exaggeration or unwarranted nastiness, but also because the message that this is a crime is something that what is decent in them may actually understand and abhor.

The Ambiguity of “May”

The ambiguity of ‘may’ reminds me all of the points I struggle to make here are speculative. Who knows what anyone’s motives are or what he or she believes or is thinking. But the blunt fact that so many of these accused men readily agree they are guilty of a sexual crime which not long ago many if not most men boasted of as sexual conquest at least testifies to a major social change in expectation: powerful enough to alter behavior. Our culture’s sudden shift toward the general acceptance of gay marriage after an all but wholesale general rejection of it is another instance of this capacity for seemingly abrupt behavioral change. “Seemingly” because unacknowledged conditions conducive to that change had been working slowly to effect it. 

Because I have sex with males, the accused abuser of a 14 year old boy Kevin Spacey becomes my readiest focus. There are many unwritten or tacit ‘rules’ in sexual adventuring for the urban gay man. It is accepted, and even a part of what excites both partners in a prospective encounter, for there to be an imbalance of power. In 1973 when I was 22, newly graduated from Middlebury, and attempting to convince myself I wanted to be a violinist by attending the New England Conservatory in Boston, I frequented sexual hunting grounds in parks and, well, other less savory venues. That it ‘disturbed’ was a part of what made it exciting. I would say something ‘transgressive’ all but always ignites an orgasm in any of the many gay men I’ve known and had sex with, no matter what their background or current lives were like. I remember one time I went for lunch at a Zum-Zum in Cambridge (that long defunct franchised German sausage place), and was stared down by a well-built but clearly young teenager, probably about 14 or 15. He stared at me and then stared with theatrical intention at the men’s room. In fact I had to use the men’s room, and he all leapt in after me. I did not give in to the admittedly exciting invitation to have sex there and then, but I won’t say I didn’t want to. What I’m describing has happened in the lives of very nearly every gay man I know. For easily a third of them, they were the 14 year old. Not only were they not scarred by the experience, it became a sort of lodestone of what makes sex hot. This sort of tale is not one that Kevin Spacey will want to tell, even if it may have characterized some of what he experienced. But it’s a fact, people. And it changes things – which is to say, it expands our view of the effects of what a sexual encounter can be, and often are.

When encounters that are intended to be (or seem) unequal remain in the realm of ‘play’ (albeit serious and sometimes physically dangerous play), which is to say when each of the ‘top’ or ‘bottom’ roles are lavishly desired and inventively acted out, but not believed to be the entire human case or to invite unwanted attack, the sexual encounter is often held to be a success. That this is “consensual” is mostly a given, although because of its turn-on potential, being forced against one’s will is (again) often a central part of the fantasy. I recall when women’s sexual fantasies were being studied in the early 70s, probably by Kinsey or somebody, it was found that one of the most widespread was of being overpowered by a male. This is a euphemism for rape. But middle-class American women, albeit often in Regency bodice-rippers, nurtured the fantasy of a bodice being ripped. Which is an act of violence.

How does any of this factor into the whole business? To some degree – that is, legally to the degree that sex occurs when only one partner wants it and the other actively does not want it -- it is irrelevant. The perpetrator’s actions are actionable. But in our human miasma, this intentional imbalance of power in sex touches only one of the ambiguities and conundrums going on. We are always in a kind of mess in sex. Sex seems to require it.

Quentin Crisp at 90

Let us return to Quentin Crisp, feeling himself a woman saddled in a male body: the untenable ambivalence writ clear: having to face something true about himself that could physically, by definition of him having the ‘wrong’ body, not be expressed in life. Having therefore to live a lie. I can tell you from my delightful association with Mr. Crisp, that he in every way, with every breath I saw him take, turned his situation to advantage. He was what he was, and he turned to a kind of theater to express the untenability of what he was. To me he did not seem like a woman in a man’s body, but that too is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what I think. But the purity of his vision was, I think, if anything intensified by his decision to make public what he regarded as his constitutional failure. “I am a professional failure,” he said. He also said “I am in the profession of Being.” We are all failures who are in the profession of being. We are all impossibilities who are nonetheless here. How funny this is! Indeed I would venture to say all of Quentin’s formidable wit proceeded from this insoluble dilemma of life. It’s hilarious in its anguish!

I don’t know what this means in terms of, or how it may affect, the way we think of the atrocities we visit upon each other – like enslavement or sexual attack. However, I would suggest that the closest to a “solution” we can reach must include a moment not just of humility but awe, as we face the forces with which each of us in ourselves must somehow make our peace. Quentin Crisp in his embrace of all this was a complete, if at the end of his life quiet, success. To know you’re a failure and to find it at once hilarious and horrible frees you to profess being. It’s not what they taught us in kindergarten.

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