poetix (old content)

oh build your ship of death

"Their Pride Keeps Them Warm"

What does the “hyper-” in ”hyper-sexualised” denote? (Compare “raunchy”, or “pornified”). An unnatural emphasis, inscribed IN CAPITALS; an immodestly enhanced visibility, like that of a neon sign blinking “girls…girls…girls…”. Altogether too much. The hyper-sexual phreaks the mechanisms of sexual attention, drawing it where it would not ordinarily be expected to go (towards children, for example). It’s about being looked at, but trivially so: built into it is the recognition that you’re already being looked at, all the time; that the gaze that appraises you works in certain predictable ways, and can be distracted. Think of it as a sort of street magic.

The inauthenticity of the hyper-sexual is entirely to the purpose: to be authentic is to be evaluated, and perhaps summarily dismissed, on the onlooker’s own terms. The hyper-sexual routine sows deliberate confusion. But it does so in competition with dozens of other routines, all targeting the same mark. From the mark’s point of view, the cumulative effect may well be like that of an inbox full of spam.

The male counterpart of heightened female sexual display is the routine put down by the would-be pick-up artist (PUA), who is similarly attempting to phreak the mechanisms of sexual attention in order to get somewhere his native charm and good looks wouldn’t normally enable him to go. Built into this behaviour is the assumption that everything you do or say, from explicit verbal statements to the gestural code of body language, is being used to assess your status (life really is one long performance review to these guys). Again, the goal is misdirection, and the height of accomplishment is to succeed in fooling even yourself: “inner game”, the seamless integration of the status value advertised by the PUA’s routines into his self-perception and consequent social behaviour, is the direct male correlate of “inner beauty” for women.

Attempts to game the system reveal two things: firstly, that some actual system is perceived to be in operation, and secondly that the system is understood to work predictably enough to be amenable to subversion. The PUAs talk about “biomechanics”, meaning a hodge-podge of second hand evo-psycho dressing up an even shabbier hodge-podge of old-fashioned sexist stereotypes. The instructions given to women on how to make the most of themselves are scarcely any less atavistic or incoherent. But these desolate, derisory projections are the very substance of the symbolic contract: that is how the world really works. Not, as everyone secretly believes, because people are bloody ignorant apes, but because of the reflexive self-validation of symbolic rules. We assign status to men based on their demonstrated prowess at playing idiotic status games, since this at least is some sort of achievement. We confer desirability on women who pout and act hot, even though the act itself is ludicrous, since this at least shows willing.

In one sense, then, female hypersexuality can be characterised as “making the best of a bad job”: since women are ubiquitously judged and valued on their looks - since there is a system of continuous appraisal in place - the incentive exists to game the system, to hustle for recognition. The PUA’s defensive mantra, “don’t hate the player, hate the game”, proclaims an identical rationale: since “biomechanics” purports to make sense of the apparent “chaos” of sexual selection, it’s only fair for a second-rater to use this knowledge to get himself an even break. In both cases, there’s a kind of reflexive impotence at work: nobody really wants things to work this way, it’s just accepted as natural and inevitable that they should do so, and this acceptance incentivises patterns of behaviour that, in turn, reinforce the very conditions to which they are a response.

This being so, shouldn’t the player be compelled to accept some responsibility for the game - at the very least, to recognise that the “system” cannot function without his co-operation, and to consider ways in which that co-operation might be strategically withdrawn? I want to suggest in this regard that there was after all some value in the “political lesbian” feminist challenge, now generally considered intolerable, to politically committed women involved in heterosexual relationships. The point here is not that heterosexual relationships are intrinsically bad, and lesbian relationships are intrinsically better: it is that heteronormativity is reflexively self-sustaining, and “making the best of a bad job” with respect to compulsory heterosexuality is already a political choice for which one should be prepared to answer. Recent feminism has argued forcefully that women should never be criticised for doing what they have to do to get by in a sexist society, frequently implying that such criticism usually comes from a privileged position where the necessity of getting by is less keenly felt. It’s a just and fair-minded argument to make (and, pragmatically, rules out a lot of petty judgemental sniping); but something is lost if one is no longer able to issue or accept any kind of challenge to one’s rationalisations for passivity.