I really don’t know how I started to formulate the various thoughts in my mind as I approached the coining of the term ‘self sexual’. Let me start from the few sketches in memory.
It’s Oxford, 2006. I’m living across from a plush green field and serene woodlands. I often would walk down there, day or night, wrestling with my depression and sadness that seemed to never relent. I was isolated, didn’t have much confidence or will to socialise, and I spent most nights wondering about the dark, bilious film that just wouldn’t peel off from my eyes.
This drawn-out defeat in my personal life was kept in check by the persona I projected at work and when I did actually meet people (even girls). I was loud, comedic, able to mimic voices and accents, and outrageous at times. When I was there, I had hope. When I was alone, I had none. Sometimes, whatever I could foster in hope and happiness I could see choke slowly when I was alone. Outside of home, I wanted to understand myself, the world around me, and girls through writing and research; but at home, I did nothing. I really wanted to be a writer. I really wanted to comment on the things in society I didn’t understand.
But one day the two worlds started colliding. I unearthed a notebook from high school that had served as my record and assessment for my philosophy class. I decided to rework all the essays in a methodical manner, as a way to provide physiotherapy for my atrophied writing muscles. I was excited. There was hope, for once, away from the workplace. And soon, I put to computer screen the first of my thoughts about this idea, the self sexual. I went through three drafts within a few weeks. And it stopped.
At work, a certain colleague of mine was pursuing postgraduate studies in gender and sociology. I told her about my thoughts and the title of this essay and asked what she thought. She shared some course notes from her studies. And I never used them or looked at them in-depth beyond a cursory first glance after her giving them to me.
This is what I remember of the backdrop, of the sketches in my memory.
I had gone to a bustling university and met a raft of people. I had gotten to know people at depth. I read in a student magazine about the girl who had slept with over 60 guys during her first couple of weeks at university. I knew guys who slept with the most attractive girls in dorms and then dumped them for vain reasons. She had bad breath. She had a hair on her nipple. I saw guys and girls cycle through partners, both one-nights and long-term, like socks. I didn’t understand, as girls wouldn’t return my interest or affection. No matter how I tried or how much I drank or how hard I partied, it was impossible to understand or be successful with girls.
The most powerful memory was from earlier in my educational career, during high school. “Dom” was a very close friend of mine, a best friend. We connected on many levels, we had good times and good laughs. We hung out all the time. I had basically taken him in when he first joined school. Soon enough, our social circle had grown and Dom got more influential and popular within the group. His humour turned more suggestive and his teasing of me intensified. Others appreciated his physical humour, even when it involved touching the guys on their butts or chest or arms or face. This continued to the end of my time in high school.
Our friendship survived into university although I started feeling that I was drifting apart from Dom. We met up in England and we laughed, joked, and screwed around, but he was always able to push the envelope one step beyond what I could handle. And when I couldn’t handle it, I was derided.
Dom had joked many times, through his touching and antics in high school, that he was gay. We really didn’t believe it until he asked me to come to a three-way online MSN conversation, in which he came out of the closet. Knowing my zealous Christian beliefs at the time (which have changed a lot), he was afraid of me judging him. In his fear, he judged me and turned our other two friends, the remaining cell of our original South African circle, against me. I was now the reactionary, judgmental Christian who couldn’t accept Dom as a homosexual.
But over time, things didn’t make sense. Dom would talk about guys and being gay and feeling free. But we met up for a night out and he introduced us to his girlfriend. Girlfriend? A lovely girl; nevertheless, all of us were puzzled. The others didn’t spend too much time on it, but I stewed in confusion. I just didn’t get it.
Then, much later on, we reconvened to hang out as mates for a weekend and the night’s proceedings got messy. We ended up in his flat, me sleeping in the living room somewhere. I woke up to a frosty and uncomfortable silence. Them three were silent and as we scoured the streets for breakfast, I wondered what had happened.
I found out much later that Dom had gotten so drunk that he had propositioned one of the guys. The guy, himself fubar, joked it off, but when he found Dom was very serious, he freaked out. So, was Dom gay or was Dom straight?
The next time we got together as a group was the last time. I walked away from Dom, and although we stayed in touch for a while through IM, he continued to mock me and confuse me with his vacillations about his sexual orientation. Not that his choice would make any difference to me personally, but because he had always made such a big deal out of it I just wanted to know where I stood with him.
Things fizzled out until there was no contact, and then Google reunited us when he searched for my name. We exchanged the icebreaker e-mails and I asked, in that socially phatic way, how the love life was treating him. Not missing a beat, he told me he was still with the Girlfriend. And from that point, I decided to stop caring and stop trying to understand Dom or his sexual orientation, which seemed as unpredictable as the current financial markets.
I tell this story of Dom because this first part of the essay has served as an exercise in reverse engineering, as I write to figure out why I got thinking about the self sexual. Dom may be my first observable specimen or case of the self sexual.
The title must seem strange. I guess it conjures up the image of a dedicated masturbator. But in my mind, self-sexuality is not a synonym for autosexuality, that is, pursuing sex with oneself exclusively or preferring it above any other type of sexual congress. Those I would see as self sexuals still want to seek satiating coital interaction with other individuals. It seems to me that self-sexuality should be conceptually considered as homosexuality and heterosexuality. My intention here is to expound on the term self sexual without destructive or pejorative connotations. So, this won’t be a coining of another catchphrase for a new ‘type’ of person or phenomenon, but rather an emerging all-encompassing ideology and world-view, as valid and as pervasive as heterosexuality or homosexuality.
What if a self sexual is a form or type of metrosexual? I don’t think so. Metrosexuals, as I understand it, are highly groomed, highly fashionable, almost androgynous incarnations of modern men. Women love them because they’re so polished and striking, but infuriate them because they spend more time in front of the mirror than they do. And while the subject of women’s conceptions or expectations of men is outside the scope of this essay, it’s important to note that women themselves are ambivalent about metrosexuals.
The self sexual engages with a world on a far deeper level. He or she asks, how can I please myself? How can I reach new levels of mind-blowing pleasure? These are the constant, nagging questions of the self sexual. Self-sexuality promotes me-ships, not relationships. Its loyalty is solely to its self-preservation and extreme pursuit of sensory pleasure (sensual here meaning pertaining to the physical senses). The self sexual’s personality is feeble and fleeting, as fragmented as all the varied emotions and needs on which it subsists. Self sexuals proclaim they are intensely self-aware and know themselves fully. If an event or experience challenges this, the self sexual will totally regenerate him or herself. On scrutiny, they will justify their decision by saying it’s continued self-awareness. It seems wholly intuitive, they reason: self sexuality does not imply any weakness of character or moral pathology of any kind. What will make my life better, more exciting, more sensually pleasing? Social groups and communities are being reconfigured around purely self-sustaining, self-preserving individuals. It’s like applying the principles of consumerism and personalisation in relationships. This person has this and this for me, I’ll use it in order to reach this or that.
Let us consider this situation:
A man drinks too much one night and somehow ends up with another man. The intensity and experiential content of the night seems to be identical with or even greater than with his partner. So, he abandons his partner and pursues further same-sex intercourse, regardless of whom with. To himself and less importantly to the world, he is now a ‘homosexual’. Later on, another explosive encounter with a woman rivals and supersedes his first formative same-sex encounter. He now struggles again.
Or, he may not struggle at all. Why struggle when this cycle of changing principles, of evolutionary sexual pragmatism works? It’s important to note that in this hypothetical situation, I am not critical of his infidelity to his first partner or his choice to pursue same-sex intercourse. This is not a criticism of relative sexual morality, defending instead absolute or more settled sexual moralities. I am critical of the baselessness of self sexuality. The self sexual is maintaining constant congruence with the sensual core. In an episode of the web-series Quarterife, the character Abbey says the following just before she’s about to cheat on Andy with Danny: ‘When I sense a connection with someone, physical or intellectual or both, I don’t censor myself. I figure life is too short…’
This attitude of amorphous sexuality undoubtedly threatens established societal patterns. Society exists to maintain itself, and defining politics between sexes is a core activity. To self sexuals, society can exist only when they have a pressing need, or when its definitions line up with theirs. Otherwise, the self sexual acknowledges no group or social building block that threatens the sensual core. If anyone was to scrutinise that man, he justifies himself by saying it’s continued self-awareness. And he is right. It is continued self-awareness. But it’s hard to grasp. Remember that cult classic, Chasing Amy? Towards the end, as Ben Affleck’s character Holden is trying to understand why Alyssa won’t do a three-way with Banky and him, Alyssa tells Holden, through tears:
But what if – I saw something in Banky that I never saw before, and fell in love with him and left you. I’ve been down roads like this before; many times. I know you feel doing this will broaden your horizons and give you experience. But I’ve had those experiences on my own. I can’t accompany you on yours. I’m past that now.
Holden struggles to make sense of this, just as I do.
Self sexuality hovers above us, in poised authority, not needing anything from us, self-sufficient somehow, like Hadden’s blimp in the film Contact. The West and East both face the spectre of self sexuality. Eastern cultures generally still view sexuality with a deep sense of ambivalence and confusion. In the East, sexuality is parsed solely through the mould of monogamous marriage. Outside marriage, sexuality cannot be fathomed or dealt with in any significant or progressive way. Male sexuality, in its dysfunction through infidelity or fetishes, is in general quietly accepted and overlooked in Eastern culture.
In highly religious or faith-oriented subcultures, any expression of male sexuality outside monogamous, opposite-sex intercourse is attacked but quietly glossed over if discovered. It is not so with females in any context. Eastern culture is virulently opposed to sexually aware or expressive women. Obviously, the effect of the three original monotheistic faith systems, and their cultural applications, on the Middle East is clear here.
The West may have started out from where the East is currently, but later abandoned its inheritance, opting to continually revise and redevelop its doctrines of gender and sex. If sexuality can be defined as the way a man or woman express his or her perceived gender through speech, relationships with others, appearance, and world-view, and that sexuality is then validated through reciprocation, we can express an initial understanding of the concept of sexuality as a two-way road: a symbiotic process at best, an often polarised human exchange at worst. While sexuality still is defined, expounded, and accepted by willing ears from the mouths of leaders of faith and religion, not all will accept. People hesitate to listen and comply. Sexuality is preached from new pulpits: media, popular thought, spiritual traditions, and the vernacular philosophy of everyday life. As much as it unsettles believers in the Great Three monotheistic religions – Christianity, Islam, Judaism – a completely new sexual geography is upon us.
You can give self sexuality any name you want: depravity, grave sin, modernity, danger, liberation, ‘the future’. And it will survive as long as its existence is criminalised and socially vilified rather than embraced and transformed. It will perish once it replaces its core with something else that intuitively seems more appropriate to its survival. But its intuition is ultimately deceptive. Imagine: what if the new core is not sensual at all?