Conversation as avoidance of sex
Sex as avoidance of conversation
It seems obvious that it is easier to avoid talking with people than it is to avoid having sex with them, but it took me a while to understand this. In the first grade, I didn’t know what sex was, but I had a suspicion it had something to do with butts, which were gross, so I didn’t like it. I had also heard someone (or perhaps the TV) say that the only reason men and women ever bother to speak to one another is try to have sex. So when a girl in my class gave me a pencil or some such token of friendship, I panicked and told her that I didn’t want to have sex and thus thought that it would be best if we didn’t talk. I was informed by an adult that I had made a mistake, but not a mistake about the nature of friendship. I had made a mistake simply by saying that word (sex).
If I couldn’t avoid sex by not talking with people, perhaps I could only avoid it by talking to them. Instead of the comfort of a boundary, this method offered the anxious excitement of interaction. When nobody was having sex or even knew what it was, we appeared totally barred from it and yet could not help continually encountering and transforming it. Not, of course, by talking about it, but by learning how our conversations would artfully avoid it and thus tell us about where sex might be by virtue of where our conversations could not go. For some of us, this dance even seemed to offer a greater pleasure than any we could imagine sex to contain; I remember even the secular members of my class being somewhat impressed with a quoted line from a friend’s youth minister: “Sex ruins God’s greatest gift: sexual tension.” Perhaps the more spiritual among us could nurture that tension in silence, but the rest of us had to feed it a light but nevertheless energizing diet of text messages and gossip.
Now that I think I know what sex is, I no longer know how to talk to people in situations where our speech might be laced with sex. The continuance of talk appears to keep sex at arm’s length while at the same time feeling like an unbearably close intimacy, excessive and unsatisfying. If sex appears to be on the verge of occurring, speech will pour out of me. If sex is to occur, it seems, I must be made to shut up. This tension leads me to read Phillips’ remark differently. Perhaps the psychoanalyst and the patient agree not to have sex precisely in order to generate an insatiable prompt for speech. After all, in a conversational space defined by fantasy, “we will not have sex” is a bit too close to rhyming with “don’t think of an elephant.” Continually feeling anxiety as to whether sex is present in the room, the patient and analyst both are forced into different ways of speaking that can incorporate sex with the confidence that it will not end the conversation.
One might revise these lines with an ego-fortifying pen and replace the word ‘avoidance’ with ‘sublimation.’ While my next post will attempt to consider what exactly occurs when we sublimate sexual desire into conversation, I want to dwell here on the problems that accompany the particular posture of avoidance. Avoidance, of course, tends to produce bad outcomes because the avoided thing grows larger and larger until it is unavoidable. Talking about the avoided thing makes it more manageable because it at least appears to give it boundaries (this is the basic premise behind the talking cure). But what happens if one is avoiding something precisely by talking about it? How much can one talk about sex before it starts happening? How do we even know when we are talking about sex? This series of questions leads us back to Lyn’s sonnet.
When we ask, along with this poem, about the scope (and thus the limit) of the experience of sex, our talk gets hazy. It seems that we cannot locate its edge, and yet that our talk must be taking place at some distance from the hectic center of the inscrutable thing itself. The suggestion here, however, may be that the ‘incompetence’ of our talk when it encounters sex (we can neither avoid it nor explain it) is perhaps not a failure of talk, but a feature of sex itself. That fumbling feeling emerges not from sex’s uniquely chaotic nature, but instead from its condensation of a general feeling of disorientation born of the infinitesimal movements of life that constantly frame and direct our attention. Thus, talk about sex is a condensation of a condensation, but one whose disorientation may be so erotically mobile that its pleasures feel more omnipresent than the breeze in the trees.
The dream of one who avoids sex is usually to transcend sex. The ephemerality of speech, its mix of distance and intimacy, can give a pleasant floating feeling that seems to rise endlessly, freed of the body’s needs and rhythms. Of course, speech always comes from the body, and its music is inseparable from the other forms of physical attachment that bind us to each other. In this sense, what is said is much less important than the flow and movement of the conversation. What is most necessary for this continuance is the unpredictability of response; what is often most pleasurable is imagining how the unpredictability of that response emerges as an enigmatic message from another person. This is why talking to yourself (as well as its popular forms, reading and writing) do not quite scratch the itch of the conversational encounter, precisely because they do not run the erotic risk of having to squirm and skirt around the subject in public. Talking to someone is the closest you can get to being completely exposed or entering someone else’s body without broaching the subject of touch. The only reason we think we know how to have sex is because we think we know how to talk. The fact that we really do proves only that we have not been able to succeed in our attempts to avoid one another.