Against desire essentialism III: against “experimentation”

If you’ve been to college, you’ve probably heard the claim that college is a time to “experiment”, meaning to try out mind-inducing drugs and deviant sexual practices.  It’s quite easy to dismiss this as an excuse for hedonism.  In fact, it’s so easy that I think we should resist the temptation.  Any widely used rationalization must have some plausibility, and it’s hard to see how anyone could take this claim to be “experimenting” at all seriously.  What information, precisely, are these “experiments” gathering?  Do these students plan to publish their results in scientific journals, announcing their discovery that it is possible to stupefy oneself with such-and-such a chemical or that it is possible to penetrate a woman in such-and-such a way?  Obviously not.  And no hedonist using this line could imagine for a moment that we’re that stupid.  We must be missing something.

Let’s grant that scientific information isn’t the only kind there is.  One might also be after experiential information:  what does such-and-such an experience feel like?  People can be legitimately curious about such things.  In the case of drug “experimentation”, I would grant some plausibility to the claim that people experiment to see what it’s like.  There may be different states of irrationality.  Of course, it’s only experiential “experimentation” if one tries each drug only once, and it’s still an evil and degrading practice even then.  If this were all it was, though, one could hardly understand the importance college culture can attach to “experimentation”.  After all, no one thinks it important that a person go around touching every kind of surface to see what they all feel like.

The key comes, I think, when we consider the case of sexual “experimentation”–trying out different positions, practices, and partner types.  Does the student try out a certain practice just to see what it feels like?  Here’s the problem:  what it feels like will be affected largely by his or her own responses.  It’s not just that there’s a fixed sensation attached to the practice that the student may or may not like; the sensation will be different for those who find themselves aroused, which will depend on psychological predispositions.  So what the student wants to learn is not information about the practice itself, but information about him or herself:  am I the kind of person who’s into this sort of thing?  It’s a matter of uncovering one’s self-identifying desires, to use my earlier terminology.  To a desire-essentialist, this has enormous existential import.  These promiscuous students are trying to “find themselves”.

Underneath all this is the desire-essentialist understanding of sexual desire:  that each of us has a set of “true desires”, that these desires are fixed parts of our psyche, that they are not just impresses of our environment, that we may nevertheless be unconscious of them–thus living in a sort of false consciousness until these desires are brought to the surface, that experimentation uncovers these desires rather than creating them, and that these desires are an important part of who one is.  I’ve attacked the latter claim–that these desires are important–already.  Now I’d like to address the former claim–that these desires are a fixed part of us.

Let’s say a college boy has found a college girl who is willing to “experiment” with him.  Let’s say the girl is ravishingly beautiful.  (No, this thought experiment is not an excuse to fantasize.  Trust me, this is going somewhere.)  Let’s say she wants to try out something that doesn’t sound particularly appealing to the boy.  For example, I’ve heard that some couples dress up in strange costumes and engage in role-playing as part of their foreplay–a practice that seems awkward and silly to me, and let’s say the boy in my story feels the same way.  Still, he’s not about to turn down a chance for intimacy with a hot babe.  So he plays along, putting up with the awkward-deviancy part but quite enjoying himself overall because of the sex-with-a-hot-babe part.  His memory of the experience is pleasant.  After they do this several times, the boy has associated the two aspects together and is now quite enthusiastic about this form of deviancy.  He becomes excited at the mere sight of a girl in a funny costume.

Has the above “experiment” uncovered desires previously latent?  No, it has created desires that weren’t there before.  The above is obviously a case of conditioning.  The truth is that the average man will find anything involving sex with a beautiful woman to be tremendously exciting, and he’ll be tantalized by anything that comes to be associated in his mind with this.

The desire-essentialist may reply that I’ve actually made his point for him.  After all, isn’t the point of the above story that the boy’s true sexual desires have been obscured by inauthentic ones?  But desire-essentialism simply is the claim that there are such things as authentic and inauthentic sexual desires–that the former come from within while the latter are imposed from without.  In fact, this isn’t the point of the story.  I imagine that the desires the boy has come to have at the end are quite real, as real as the desires he went into his “experiment” with.  After all, where did these desires come from?  If my fictional boy is not utterly exceptional, he did not spend his adolescence in sheltered purity thinking out–with no outside influences–what he’d like to do with a woman if he got the chance.  No, his imagination has already been shaped by television sex scenes (which don’t show everything, but they show enough to figure out how bodies are being arranged), by the cues of television and magazines about what constitute “sexy” looks, and by dirty books and magazines that he managed to sneak a look at.  Most likely, the act that he feels most drawn to came into his head when he saw a pretty actress simulating engagement in it in a movie he saw when he was twelve, although he’s forgotten that this was the start of it.

What a strong refutation of individualism this is, to realize that our most intimate desires are socially conditioned!  It’s enough to give a desire-essentialist an identity crisis.  The rest of us need hardly be surprised.  From a biological point of view, all that matters is that sperm meets egg.  The rest is just fad and fashion–why shouldn’t we expect it to be socially conditioned?

I don’t mean that our sexual desires are unlimitedly plastic, but I’ll bet the power of mental association and conditioning goes a lot farther than many of us like to believe.  I find it hard to believe that the recent explosion of lesbianism on college campuses is not related to the fact that such behavior used to be associated with low-status, ugly, mannish women, while now it’s considered high-status and sexy.  College is conducting an experiment–in the true sense of the word–to test the plasticity of female sexuality.

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