Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Panic over Porn

I recently became aware of some controversy concerning the availability of Playboy and Penthouse magazines to U.S. troops overseas. People react in all kinds of ways to the idea of army PXs offering explicit materials like these to soldiers. There are many who are appalled at the idea, saying it encourages perverted behavior. Many others feel that such materials are a comfort to lonely men far from home, and providing access to them is the least we can do for those in harm’s way.

It’s panic over porn, and resolving issues that involve sex is never easy. Is pornography a bad thing? How should we judge it, and how best can we apply those judgments?

Also complicating the issue is the fact that there are grades of pornography; in that category we can lump everything from artistic, museum-worthy photography to kiddie porn. I used to be an avid reader of Playboy, and in fact the articles are interesting and informative, while the photos are quite tame by today’s standards. I understand Penthouse is a bit rougher, but neither one approaches a lot of the stuff anyone on the planet can find on the internet any day of the week. But for the sake of argument, let’s focus on the relatively “normal” raciness of the magazines in question and their ilk.

How you react to this issue concerning the military is obviously going to depend on your opinion of these particular magazines and “pornography” in general. There’s certainly room in the world for different points of view, but this is a case of one group of people deciding for another what choices they may have. Were these soldiers home, the freedom we all enjoy in the U.S. would permit them to decide whether or not to look at these publications. That suggests we should, as much as is in our power, extend those same benefits to them when abroad fighting for that freedom.

But some people consider reading prurient magazines as a shameful activity that ought not to be encouraged among men assigned to honorably represent our country. It’s difficult to argue with them on that point, because they themselves feel shame about the enjoyment of porn. They do not think it a normal or healthy expression of sexuality, so naturally the idea of soldiers “contemplating” the centerfold makes them cringe.

Personally, I came to terms as a young woman with the male propensity to enjoy looking at naked women. It’s so pervasive and commonplace that I don’t need a sociologist to tell me it’s hardwired in males. And truly, I’d rather have men express their love for female variety this way than by indulging in rampant promiscuity. And when they are currently deprived of the option of conjugal relations, it’s hard to expect regular guys to become monks in every way. I personally side with the “let’s do all we can for these guys” camp.

But like I said above, when people are ashamed of a behavior themselves, it’s hard to convince them of the harmlessness of it in others. I’ve run into this a few times before in a completely different context. Sometimes when a woman discovers her partner has been indulging in online porn, she can really freak out. Because most women (not all by any means) aren’t especially turned on by this stuff, they simply can’t relate to what their men are doing. Many women in this situation panic, wondering if their mates are perverts, or if marriage been so totally unsatisfying, or both. A female can react to this situation as violently as if she had caught her husband in bed with a flesh-and-blood woman.

I really feel bad when this happens. Because in the vast majority of cases, the guy is just being a guy. He loves his girlfriend/wife, he would never cheat on her, he’s not any kind of a perv, and his perusings probably simply serve to spice up his monogamous sex life. But here we have a woman feeling undesirable and betrayed, and a man feeling either guilty or terribly misunderstood...and it really doesn’t need to be that way.

It’s then that I really want to step into an area that I would normally not consider my business: someone else’s sex life. Because I hate to see people drawing harmfully incorrect conclusions that will only bring misery to themselves and others. I want to reassure these women that it’s okay, they did not marry monsters, their mates still love them. I want to teach them that male sexuality, while different from their own, is not something to fear or loathe. No normal, healthy male, even if he occasionally downloads a movie or saves a naked photo to his hard drive, is trying to say by this that he doesn’t want to be with and love a real woman. (Although he’d better have virus protection on his computer, or the household will be adversely affected!)

And I do wish a similar attitude could be adopted by those passing judgment on soldiers who want to read Playboy and Penthouse. They’re not cheating on America, people, they’re just being guys. If we appreciate their maleness when it’s applied to using force to protect us, it’s not fair to begrudge them that same maleness in other contexts, now is it?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Intimacy Factor

After making love with my husband the other night (and if my dad or my girls are reading this, it’s okay, everyone…no details will follow!), an interesting thought crossed my mind. There’s a factor involved when you are sexually engaged with another person that sometimes gets lost in the fireworks.

Everyone recognizes that sex is significant to a relationship because it is physically intense. That special person who is there when you reach the pinnacle of pleasure is bound to mean a lot to you, if only in that moment, no matter how much you try to treat the act as “casual.” But there’s something else that goes on that may create even more of an attachment.

Ever think about why it is that we are naturally shy about sex? Even if a person is raised without any religious guilt or other hindrances, he or she will tend to keep his or her erotic activities on the D.L. I think it’s because passion makes us a little crazy, and certainly different in our behavior than in any other circumstance, and we’re just not comfortable showing that side of ourselves. In order to be willing to let another person see us like that, we need certain assurances, like privacy and trust. [Well, unless we are drunk or simply too turned on to resist, that is. But if intoxication or extreme horniness came into play, the result is typically that “walk of shame” the next morning.]

My point is, we don’t give away our sexual selves easily without paying a price. The happier, more comfortable manner of doing it is in the context of a strong relationship, one where we have become at ease and secure with our partner. If you are intimate in other things, like knowing each other’s personal history, sharing times of illness or extreme emotion, creating a home, etc., you will likewise be intimate in bed. It’s hard to worry about what your mate with think of the sex noises you make when he’s seen you with the stomach flu!

People complain a lot about “losing the magic” as a relationship ages, and that’s a topic I could discuss for pages. But there’s one aspect of a mature relationship that is a real benefit: the accumulated intimacy. Being at ease in bed is a real boon, especially when you are too tired or stressed to worry about being really sexy or performing at your peak. When you’re not at your best, love and intimacy can take up a lot of slack.

The flip side of this is that when you choose to have sex with someone, that person is going to uncover a very private part of you, and vice versa. If that one piece of intimacy is out of balance with the rest of your relationship with him or her, some strange repercussions will develop in spite of both your intentions to be casual and not have the encounter mean anything. Perhaps it isn’t a big deal in the context of the rest of your life (although it’s sad when that’s true of sex!), but it will mean something, assuredly.

The Intimacy Factor does matter, whether in a stable relationship decades long or a one night stand. Those who are wise at love are mindful of that!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Nothing’s Sexier than a Guy Who Wants You

Warning, 4/17/08 “The Office” spoilers to follow!

First a bit of back story: A couple weeks ago my daughter broke up with her boyfriend of two and a half years. It was their second break-up: the other time was a year ago when her boyfriend called it off. It only took him like two weeks to beg her to take him back, to give him another chance, which eventually she did. He made a lot of promises, everything from quitting smoking eventually to marrying her eventually. Well, a year went by of her waiting for that ring, hoping he would change his various ways, and while at first it look promising, time told another story. Finally, when pressed, he admitted he didn’t really want to get married at all.

The “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” rule went into play, and now my daughter is single again, and surprisingly happy. There are worse things than being single, and one of them is being with a guy who doesn’t truly want you—at least not enough to compromise his other wants.

So, this past Thursday night my husband and I were watching “The Office,” and our favorite TV couple, Jim and Pam, were up to their usual charming hijinx all episode. Finally Jim mentioned, humorously, that he intended to propose to Pam—not right then, but eventually. This was the same line that had been used on my daughter, but somehow coming from Jim, we knew he meant it down to the soles of his feet. Or so we hoped, anyway.

Next scene, Jim is talking to the “fourth wall,” the cameraman, and tells him he really means it. He whips out a small black box, flips it open, and there’s the ring! He says he bought it a week after they started dating and is just waiting for the perfect moment.

Wow. If you’re wondering what my daughter thought of this, she hasn’t yet seen the episode as of this writing. But David and I couldn’t help sighing and wishing it had been Jim who was our hoped-to-be son-in-law.

My daughters’ generation abounds in commitment-phobes, much to the dismay of both my girls (the other one is just looking for a nice guy to go out with once or twice and they even balk at that). Too many of these young men simply don’t want to grow up and be responsible for a wife, a home, and possibly even children. They need their time for playing computer games, hanging out in bars, or watching sports. They need their money for iPhones, trips to Europe, and lots of beer. One figures they will eventually develop different priorities and start to see the value of nurturing a relationship with a long-term companion, building a home, and setting goals for significant personal achievements.

There’s that word again: eventually. Meaning not now, maybe later, maybe.

These same guys don’t have a clue what being a real man means. Masculine virtue—the kind that makes a male attractive to the opposite sex and admirable to his own—lies on the other end of the scale from “eventually.” It encompasses qualities like determination, responsibility, reliability, devotion, maturity and discernment. The virtuous male also recognizes the value in a good woman, a woman who has the qualities to make a happy and secure home with him, and wants her in a proactive way. Not just in a “hey, it’s cool, we’ll just hang out” way, but in a “let’s take the steps to make a real future together” way.

Which brings us back to Jim. He knows Pam well enough to have figured out the two of them can be happy together. His conclusion: Why not get married? Why not promise to spend the rest of their lives together? In fact, his excitement at the idea is obvious and infectious. Who can help but envy Pam, that a good man like this wants her so bad?

Jim Halpert has been pretty damn sexy for the duration of this show’s four seasons. But I think he reached new heights Thursday night.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Secret to Falling in Love

It’s spring, when hearts turn to thoughts of love, sex, and romance, hey? I know mine will, if it ever stops with the cold rain here in Wisconsin. This will be my life’s 51st spring, but who ever gets tired of falling in love? If the average human had her way, she’d like to do it every day.

I was pondering that thought this week while reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, during a chapter that discussed married love. My dear departed friend Jack (as Mr. Lewis was known to his friends) talked about the folly of expecting to stay in love with your spouse. And he made an excellent point: considering the insecurity, anxiety and nervous excitement that accompanies romantic love, who would want to experience that forever concerning one’s life mate? It’s fun, but just too stressful. The feelings of security, contentment, and quiet happiness that come from a good marriage are far better.

But didn’t I just say I’d like to fall in love every day? Well, yes...but I’d like to do it in a less serious and stressful capacity. I’d like it to be fun, exciting, arousing, adventurous, abounding in rapturous emotion, invigorating, fresh, sensuous, and glorious. You know, just like that spring day when you were nineteen and met that really cute guy in your Psych 101 class and dreamed about him meeting you for a beer, and you laid awake all night imaging kissing him...well, you know what I’m talking about.

You may be thinking, that kind of thing is possible when you’re young, but the older you get, the less likely it is that you are going to fall in love on any given day. You may feel that at this point in your life it’s impossible. Some days I sure feel that way. But in point of fact, the older you get, the more control you have over your life, and the less desperate you are. If the cute guy in Psych turned out to be not interested, or actually a loser, you were doomed to some very unpleasant disappointment relationship-wise. But an older, happily married woman is already contentedly attached. She doesn’t need to be desperate about falling in love, she can just sit back and enjoy it for the fun of it.

Well, clearly I’m talking about a certain sort of falling in love, and it’s the kind in the realm of fantasy. (And after all, if you’re going to be truly honest about it, all falling in love is in the realm of fantasy!) Whenever you discover someone new that you find attractive, whether it be a character in a book, an actor on TV, an athlete, or your new pool boy (naughty!), you can play at falling in love. You can enjoy the thrill of masculine beauty and charm, you can revel in the particular gifts of this guy, you can rejoice that he exists and that you encountered him...and most of all you can rejoice that you are only playing at being in love so won’t ever have to learn all about his shortcomings by actually having a relationship with him!

While it’s spring, and we’re focusing on falling in love, why not broaden our definition a bit for the fun of it? You can fall in love with a piece of music (try Beethoven’s Ninth), a dish (there’s this amazing orange liqueur cake I make), a piece of art (I felt that way about a statue of David once), a film (how many times have I watched “Love Actually” now?), a pair of shoes, a lilac bush, a pet, a cologne, etc., etc. This kind of romance may not venture into the realm of the erotic (that cake comes damn close), but it still satisfies the soul.

Of course, being a romance writer, I especially love to fall in love with characters. I think romance readers are on to something: they know how to fall in love over and over again throughout their lives, deriving great satisfaction and pleasure therefrom, without any of the unfortunate side effects that come from lusting after “real life” romance experiences.

Jack Lewis is one who highly recommends that rather than trying to force ourselves to feel romance in areas where in fact we might be perfectly content, we be open to the exciting things each day brings our way. Fall a little in love with each good thing you encounter, and you’ll have plenty to be romantic about.

Of course, it’s a lot easier--at least here in Wisconsin--to do it in spring.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Me and My Shadow

“The devil inside, the devil inside, every single one of us the devil inside.” The band INXS was onto something there. The devil inside is a concept explored extensively by my mentor, psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Dr. Jung termed this phenomenon “the shadow,” and defined it as those anti-social, morally negative traits we all possess and bury deep in our unconscious.

I doubt that too many people would argue with this analysis, whether you call it “original sin” or take a more humanistic view. Each of us has a sort of light half and a dark half, angel and devil, but we prefer to see ourselves as the light half. The dark half we deny, suppress, and try to ignore.

Jung saw this dichotomy reflected in mankind’s art and legend and superstition. He wrote, “How else could it have occurred to man to divide the cosmos…into a bright day-world and a dark night-world peopled with fabulous monsters, unless he had the prototype of such a division in himself?” Whether you think of centuries-old scary fairy tales or Stephen King thrillers and Eli Roth horror flicks of today, we see our own shadows in fable and fiction even if we ignore them in ourselves.

Jung would call that a good thing. Ignoring the dark side is the worst you can do, while understanding your shadow can lead to enlightenment, balance, and wholeness. “To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light...Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle,” advised Jung, on the subject of finding healthy psychological wholeness.

So what’s this shadow business got to do with sex? I believe Jung would back me up when I say, sometimes it is the erotic lure of the darkness that invites us to come to terms with our shadow. When a wholesome, cheerful, kindly young woman finds fascination with, say, vampires, she is forced to recognize her own suppressed amoral bloodlust. It beats the heck out of denying your shadow any means of expression and ending up acting out its yearnings in real life.

I have been reflecting this week on my own shadow, which (not surprisingly for those of you who keep up here on my waxing and waning obsessions) has recently taken the form of one renowned fantasy author named Neil. As my reading of American Gods progresses ever closer to the end of the novel, I find myself amazed by two things: (1) Mr. Gaiman’s devotion to making his fiction as bleak, grimy, horrifying, disgusting, and even painful as possible, and (2) my unmitigated joy in reading it.

You readers who have been kind enough to partake of my own fiction know that I write in a very different style than this, even when I’m penning a scene that is unhappy. Case in point, there is a passage in American Gods where a character undergoes a sort of drawn out, dying torture that parallels a similar scene in one of my works. (First of all, Neil’s version put mine to shame—I have never felt so literarily inferior!) His character’s suffering was gritty and ghastly and perfectly like your worst nightmare. Mine, while reasonably moving and engaging enough, was clean and purely psychological, and doubtless left the reader shedding a tear or two but not praying to never have a dream that vaguely resembled the passage.

I’ve said it before: I couldn’t write in Neil’s style if I wanted to. But the interesting thing is, his writing is very much a shadow of my own. It’s harsh, unblinking, uncensored, whereas I create worlds that are pretty and poetic. I write scenes that are transcendent fantasies of delight, he writes of maggots, grimy dishes, roadkill, and dirty snow (hey, it’s April in Wisconsin, there’s nothing so hideous to us as dirty snow right now!).

Okay, it may be this book in particular—I’m sure Stardust will be different—but my point is this: The part of me that operates in day-to-day life, my outward face, is Diana Laurence. The part I don’t want to deal with, deep down inside, is a lot like Neil Gaiman. To be a whole person, to integrate both sides, I need a good dose of American Gods. You might even say I lust after a good dose of American Gods.

I’m sure I won’t go postal having nourished my soul with this book. It’s just what Dr. Jung ordered.