I’m a sucker for grocery store candy.
Whenever I’m in a checkout line all of those bright, gleaming packages just jump out at me, massaging and probing desires I didn’t even know I had. Do I want any Peanut M&Ms? Ya know, maybe I do. Before this desire can fully articulate itself, before I can feel anything interesting about why I want Peanut M&Ms or whether I really want them or how how they will improve my life the bright yellow package is in my hand and my desire, still just a waning “maybe,” has been summarily executed.
In a way, desire isn’t something that I ever learned to think about, just something I learned to either satiate or ignore. I can identify an endless stream of snacks and gizmos and elixirs and archetypal relationships that are supposed to make my desires a thing of the past, but banishing desire isn’t really the same as understanding it. I’ve never fasted for Ramadan or given up something I wanted for Lent. I’ve had few opportunities in my life to really learn to love my desires, to just let myself get caught up in the tension and pleasure of wanting. It’s a shame, because desire matters. If I leave the Peanut M&Ms on the shelf and take a little journey into my sweet tooth I can sometimes come away understanding myself that much better and experiencing pleasure that’s that much deeper.
It’s probably not a shock that in a culture grounded on mass consumerism these sort of journeys of desire are not that encouraged. If I don’t have some candy or a Mini Cooper or an iPhone I’m supposed to get one, and if I’m stuck just desiring one I’m supposed to feel ashamed about it. When it comes to our material desires, shame is a big part of what keeps us in line. Exploring our desires and ourselves may make us happier, but it certainly doesn’t make us better consumers.
I bring all of this up because sexual desire seems like a sure-fire way to break this trend. With a million variations layered inside the infinite complexity of human relationships sex is so rich and so complicated that instant gratification isn’t really possible. You’d think that sexual desire is something that can’t be neatly avoided, that when it comes to sex everyone (or at least 99% of everyone) would have to delve into all of the pleasure and frustration that goes along with desire. Openly exploration and discussion of sex should be taking a massive bite out of consumerism, transforming our desires into things too deep and too varied for marketing departments to tackle.
I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I can see why it’s beneficial for our culture to objectify and commodify sexuality with one hand and shame it with the other. Shame keeps our desires simple and predictable. So long as we’re ashamed to think about sexual desire we’ll be a little bit ashamed to think about desire, period. We won’t understand ourselves or what makes us happy or how to demand it. But if we can learn to question that shame, if we can learn that desire can be fun, then we may just unlock something revolutionary.
When I was in school, I learned all about sexual shame and the end of the world. Shame, after all, is almost always grounded in fear. Homophobic and transphobic rhetoric often talk about the breakdown of the most fundamental rules of our society. If left unchecked, sexual desire is so strong and gender exploration is so all-consuming that they could rip through our society like wildfire, leaving everything from the family to country to the food supply smoldering in an orgy of ash. Sexual shame is the bulwark, the lining around the fireplace that keeps us from utter, all-consuming entropy.
In practice things aren’t nearly that easy. A lot of sex is boring or awkward or not worth the effort, and the wildest orgies tend to take a lot of meticulous planning. Sexuality doesn’t spread like wildfire because it only really feels good under specific circumstances. Sexual shame isn’t keeping sexual desire at bay, just keeping us from better understanding where it makes sense and where it doesn’t.
If you take away sexual shame the world doesn’t come to an end, your relationships get better. You don’t just turn into a raging sexual juggernaut, you learn to more openly discuss sexuality on your own terms. (And if your terms happen to be those of a raging sexual juggernaut then more power to you.) All that sexual shame does, in the end, is impair communication and make relationships that much choppier.
And I’m not just talking about Relationships with a capital R. Lurking behind sexuality are emotions and desires that are just as present among friends and coworkers as they are among romantic partners and one-night stands. I’m talking about messy things like intimacy and power and negotiation, those fundamental building blocks that are present in human relationships regardless of sexual status. Sexually or otherwise, getting along with other people ain’t easy. It takes work, it takes experience and it takes skill to build something like a marriage that works or a community that stands the test of time. When we’re ashamed, afraid and isolated it’s that much harder to build those skills, and we need them now more than ever.
That’s because there’s a very different type of apocalypse in the works, one that substitutes the fires of hell with the fires of the internal combustion engine. Scientific debate is long over, climate change is hard, urgent fact. The world is getting hotter faster than almost any time in human history, and we have to simultaneously stop contributing to the problem and prepare for the impact. In his book Deep Economy Bill McKibben proposes an elegant way to do both.
As the world gets hotter and fossil fuels get rare and more dangerous to use we’re going to have to start depending more and more on our local communities. We’ll have to shift from cars to public transit, we’ll have to shift from fast food to farmers markets, and we’ll have to shift from a culture based on individual consumption to one based on sustainable communities. The planet just can’t afford to give us all our own individual cars and lawnmowers and washing machines- we’re going to have to start working together to manage the resources that we have available. We’re going to have to start sharing. And if we want to share, we’ll need good relationships to do it.
When you get right down to it things like intimacy and communication are more than romantic minefields, they are fundamental survival skills. If we know how to articulate our desires and negotiate those desires with others then we can survive and thrive. If we don’t…well, fear, isolation and shame may just become things that we can no longer afford.