Sex, Technology, Desperation & Summer Movies

As a Cameron Diaz fan, on the opening weekend of Sex Tape, I dragged my spouse to the theater. Not surprisingly, I was disappointed by the comedy starring Diaz alongside her Bad Teacher (one of my favorite movies!) co-star Jason Segel. Lamely, as much Sex Tape is about not understanding how the cloud works it is also about a couple looking for a shortcut back to the way things were before kids and house payments. How? By objectifying each other instead of actually talking things out. Making a sex tape is a technological version of putting a mirror above the bed; only the camera lens is the mirror and there’s a whole audience on the other side of it.   

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However, since the movie had put me in the mind of sex, technology and desperation, I could not let the weekend pass without watching a classic film that no one or their mother cares about. anymore

Twenty-five years ago this summer Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape was released. The story of a marriage undone by the double whammy of infidelity and the arrival of a college chum with a video camera starring James Spader and Andie MacDowell, Soderbergh’s splash onto the international film scene explores intimacy, sexual and emotional impotency and how technology can ultimately make our conversations about sex more honest and forthright.

Yet over the past twenty-five years we have not come very far in our discussion of sex and technology. Why? Our cultural conversation has yet to catch up to the proliferation of sexual images and stimulation. In the 21st century where the Internet has performed a coup of epic proportions on the human libido, most of us enter the terrain of sexual relations armed with our smart phones without a clue about how to build the fire of intimacy.

Why would we? On social media, we mostly give answers to questions no one’s asking but us, mainly how cool am I? In response to our own insecurities, we’re not getting off; we’re showing off, which doesn’t have a damn thing to do with intimacy of any kind. The more intimate you are with someone the more you discover about yourself. Social media, on the other hand, gives us practice cutting this process off at the pass because posting on feeds is mostly about experiencing ourselves as well as having other people discover us as personas, not actual people. In a recent viewing of Sex, Lies and Videotape I was surprised by just how many humane reminders the film provides for navigating sex and technology in the 21st century.

Here’s my top four.

Women Talking About Sex is Sexy

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According to incidences of sexual assault ranging from the Steubenville case to the more recent crime involving the Houston teen “Jada,” it’s apparently not entirely uncommon for teenage boys to think they are racking up the stud points by documenting their rapes of non-responsive, inert girls. In the film, the only thing that can get Graham off is a close up shot of a woman’s face talking about things such as discreetly masturbating in public or seeing male genitalia for the first time. On the videotapes oddly enough, the women are not just images; they are speaking and feeling subjects. And it’s these scenes of the women recounting their sexual histories that are the sexiest in the film.

Telling the Truth About Sex is the Sexiest Thing in the World

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Unhappy in her marriage, the vulnerable southern belle Ann played by Andie MacDowell is sexy and beautiful because she tells the truth. Even if the truth is she’s never had an orgasm and feels uncomfortable masturbating. Her spitfire sister, a bartender artist named Cynthia oozes sex appeal not only because she has a lot of sex, but because when her lover who also happens to be her sister’s husband rings her up for a booty call she turns him down when she doesn’t feel like it or has something better to do. She’s not only honest about when and how she wants sex, but she’s also clear that her brother-in-law is scum and that so is she for sleeping with him.

Asking Interesting Questions and Listening to the Answers Leads to Orgasms

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Recovering from a former life as a pathological liar, Graham paradoxically needs honesty to come and the way he gets it is by facilitating self-reflection on the part of his interview subjects by asking questions that puts the women more in sync with who they are than impressing the person they are talking to. In order to let down our guards, most of us have to be in a safe space. Graham creates one by listening and asking questions, which is great foreplay.

You Don’t Have to Take Your Clothes Off to Get Naked

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One of the film’s most intense scenes takes place in a restaurant in the middle of the day when Graham and Ann are talking about therapy. Graham admits that not only is he impotent, but that analysis didn’t work for him while Ann naively explains how deeply she knows her therapist. Graham advises Ann to only take advice from people she’s slept with and Ann finds this amusing and puzzling, as I imagine the audience does. At the same time, if we strip this adage of its literalness the character is suggesting that we only take seriously advice from people we’ve been intimate with. In other words, advice from people whom we have been inside and who have been inside us, advice from people we have been naked with even when we were wearing clothes. From that standpoint, opening a message and finding a penis or a pair of breasts shows a lot of skin but very little soul.

Five 90s Songs That Made Self-Loathing Cool

A few weeks ago I took a trip back to the 90s when I attended a Beck concert in the Berkshires. The song of course that got everyone out of our lawn chairs and up on our feet was Beck’s 1994 single “Loser.” As I sang, “Soy un perdedor/I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?” I had a flashback of Kennedy, Andie MacDowell’s hair twin and host of MTV’s Alternative Nation, wearing her prescription lenses and crop tops (way ahead of her time) introducing Beck’s video as I watched from a basement rec room at boarding school. Twenty years later, I didn’t have an “OMG! I am actually a loser!” epiphany or anything like that, but the musical walk down memory lane did leave me with this takeaway: a lot of the most popular, decade-defining music of the 90s was about white men hating themselves.

In fact, the 90s Alternative rock aesthetic made self-loathing infectious mainly because the lyrical content of some of the decade’s most memorable rock songs are also about self-awareness as much as they are self-hate. Alternative 90s music taught a whole generation of us in the gray space between Generation X and Millennials how to be self-aware. Unfortunately, the conduit of this coming of age realization was a brutal self-loathing.

Here are my picks for five 90s songs that present portraits of self-hatred too many of us can still relate to today.

Offspring

Offspring, “Self Esteem”

A description of the ultimate toxic romance, this song relays the tale of a man whose low self-esteem keeps him in a horrific relationship that mirrors just how little he thinks of himself.

The narrator puts up with a girlfriend who “sleeps with my friends” and says that he’s like a “disease.” Why? “The more you suffer/The more it shows you really care/Right? Yeah yeah yeah.” For the tormented narcissist, martyrdom is the ultimate test of love. It’s also, in this case, a sign that this dude knows exactly who he is. The song ends with this self-conscious assertion: “I may be dumb/But I’m not a dweeb/I’m just a sucker with no self esteem.” Here, I interpret dweeb as the literal acronym for “dick with eyebrows,” meaning the narrator, however low his self-image, acknowledges that he is not a jerk, but instead a “sucker,” meaning he loves obsessively. Only what he loves here is not the girl but hating himself.

STP

Stone Temple Pilots, “Creep”

This STP classic delivers a huge dose of the “I wish I could go back in time” narrative. But the “half-man” making this claim is an emotional and spiritual kleptomaniac evidenced by one of the song’s refrains: “Take time with a wounded hand/’Cause it likes to heal, I like to steal.” So healing is synonymous with stealing? But stealing what? Who the narrator “used to be” back from time of course. It’s lame and pathetic to be backward-looking non-productively, but who doesn’t bear at least a scar or two from self-flagellation of this sort? It also takes some reflective chops to admit that you’re a mess compared to a better version of yourself as opposed to someone else’s example. 

radiohead

Radiohead, “Creep”

Most of us have had the experience of being romantically rejected by someone more attractive, or more popular than us, etc. And though that rejection may have played on repeat in our heads for weeks or even months afterward, Radiohead boils this universal self-esteem killer down into an anthem that is at once cathartic and beautiful because it unapologetically declares not only how the humiliated party appears: like a “creep, a weirdo.” But also how we feel within ourselves with the Q&A, “What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here…” Well, the place we don’t belong may be the bar where we have just made the come-on that went horribly wrong. At the same time, the emotional headspace where none of us belong is the one where this kind of self-hatred creeps in on us.

 Nirvana

Nirvana, “Dumb”

Unlike the narrator of the Radiohead song, the speaker here “can pretend” to be like the people he’s surrounded by. How? With intoxicants. Yet, the “fun” of getting high causes the narrator to suspect that he’s “…dumb/Or maybe just happy.” What’s the line between happiness and stupidity? Self-awareness, yes, but at price. Along with the narrator’s acknowledgement that his “heart is broke” comes the impulse to pretend again, use again, with the mention of some “glue” to “inhale.” Because substance abuse makes euphoria “dumb” euphoria isn’t really euphoric at all. At the song’s end, “Think I‘m just happy” is repeated four times while “I think I’m dumb” is repeated twelve. Undoubtedly, addiction is the engine of low self-esteem. 

weezer

Weezer, “Undone – The Sweater Song”

Beginning with a dialogue between two bros, one of which is excited about the band and the after party while the other guy, the narrator, isn’t excited about much, this song is about social anxiety disorder. The narrator declares, “Goddamn/I am” and even acknowledges talents, but upon being asked for a ride to a party, he responds: “Who I/I think/I sink/And I die.” Not of suicide, but by the hands of the instruction: “If you want to destroy my sweater/Hold his thread as I walk away.” The jokiness of it all and the lightness of the melody serve to obscure the strangeness of giving out to the world a personal recipe for one’s destruction. Yet that’s exactly what the unraveling of the sweater constitutes.

Do Boys Face Sexism In Utero? Or Am I Just Sexist?

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From the time I found out I was pregnant I was certain I was having a boy. If acquaintances asked if I wanted a girl or a boy, I’d offer up, “It doesn’t matter,” or the old standby, “I just want a healthy baby,” but in my heart I knew the matter was settled, so I acted accordingly.

On the street when I saw small children or infants I mainly paid attention to the boys in an effort to glimpse my own little genetic stowaway. In my online wanderings through baby paraphernalia, I never bothered to look at any girl stuff. And besides calling the baby by the surname of one of my favorite male poets, the only other names I liked or gave any serious thought to were also for boys. So when a penis confirmed my intuition in my second semester sonogram before the technician had a chance to call it I breathed a sigh of relief. My instincts had proven an accurate compass that I soon would have plenty use for on the rocky path of parenthood. However, what I could not have anticipated were the immediate responses to my XY news right there in the hospital pavilion.

After the sonogram I had an appointment with my ob gyn and the nurse practitioner took my weight and blood pressure before the examination.

“Did you find out what you’re having?” she asked.

I was elated. “Yes, a boy.”

“Oh,” she responded, following up her disappointment with, “it’s better for the first child to be a boy anyway.”

“This is going to be my only child.”

“Oh,” she uttered again, teetering on a shudder.

When I went to have blood drawn the female technician asked me to make a fist before she inquired about my baby’s sex; I told her. She sprouted a toothless smile, but there was no congratulations in it. “I have three girls,” she said proudly and left it at that.

For a second or two I thought these women’s responses to my boy-in-the-making might have had some racial undertones. The altered playing field boys of color face is a well-documented one. Could bias reach into the womb? Well, of course, but across the world the selective-sex abortions of girl fetuses is the most prominent threat the unborn face. Here, in Upper Manhattan, however bothersome it was to me, I was encountering something altogether different and eons less consequential than a sex-preference amounting to girl genocide.

I did not have “gender disappointment,” meaning sadness about having a baby of one sex when I had my heart set on another, but the women I encountered in the prenatal unit where I am being treated not only expect their patients to want girls, as I’m sure their experience has taught them, but actively feel sorry for us when we’re not carrying them. Though as a feminist I feel this inverted sexism to be heartening, it has made me confront my own sexism. Was I really that certain I was having a boy? Or did I just not want a girl?

In response to my boy news, a close friend at work emailed: “I know why you’re so happy. You won’t have to do anyone’s hair!” To an extent, my friend is right. I have been undone by the beauty obsessed culture of womanhood and though in the best of all worlds I would like to imagine that I could protect my daughter from soul-killing objectification and appearance based low self-esteem, the challenge makes me wince. By no means do I think boyhood is a walk in the park; rather it’s just a giant unknown and for that I reason, funnily enough, I don’t fear it.

The other part of why I am “gender satisfied” is that I really was set on a boy. My primary caregiver as a child was my grandfather who remains the most sensitive, caring, openly sweet person I have ever encountered in my life. I wanted a boy because a giant piece of me yearns to nurture and care for in a literal way a reflection of the person who I feel most cared for me. When my grandfather died fourteen years ago I remember journaling that the only relationship that could rival the closeness I experienced with him would be with my own child. Now, just a few months away from this new frontier of love, I can’t wait to enter its embrace at the same time I am scared as hell.

Weighing Sanity

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Pregnancy. Labor. Child rearing. The books are countless. The websites stretch the length of infinity. The message boards are insane. However, the one piece of advice I have taken is to keep my appointments with the scale limited to prenatal visits. So when we moved a few weeks ago, the scale did not come with us. And not one morning since have I missed it.

 

Black Women: Reality-vs-Representation

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African-American women appear to be doing doing great. People declared Lupita Nyong’o this year’s most beautiful person. Beyoncé rules the world. And we’re all used to Michelle Obama being our First Lady. Still, a chasm exists between the anomalous representations of African-American female success and what our lived experiences actually are. This divide between representation and reality makes it difficult to gauge where exactly African-American women are status-wise because common perceptions of our standing ping-pong between polarized portrayals of either dismissal and degradation and/or success and striving. However, one thing is certain. For African-American women the devil is in the details, not on the cover of magazines or cheerful, sisters-are-powerful social media posts.

Case in point: African-American women and postsecondary education. Filmmaker Janks Morton alongside Black and Married With Kids shared back in February that during 2011 college enrollment of black women as a group proportionately outnumbers that of all other race and gender groups, respectively: almost 1 in every 10 black women to be exact. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education consistently reports that at the nation’s top ranked universities black women considerably exceed our male counterparts. And a recent study by The Pew Research Center indicated that 69 percent of African-American women fresh out of high school in the spring had enrolled in higher education by the fall, whereas for black men the matriculation rate was 12 points lower. But just because we are doing better than black men doesn’t mean that we’re actually doing well.

Though educational achievement for black women has risen steadily over time our gains remain lower than the educational achievement of white women. In 2004, according to the Center for American Progress the graduation rate for African-American women was 24.1 percent. Since 2004, that rate has not considerably increased while degree attainment for white women, Asian-American women and Latinas has.

On issues of earning, the situation for black women remains bleak. The Center for American Progress also reports that African-American women earn an average of $610 per week, $56 less than African-American men. African-American women also have an unemployment rate of 10.5 percent compared to 5.8 percent for white women according to labor statistics released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. From 2007-2012, the number of black women earning the minimum wage or below more than doubled. And while white women make roughly 78 cents on the dollar compared to white men, African-American women only take home 64 cents on that same infamous, shrinking greenback.

How does having so little of the American pie translate in other aspects of our lives? Well, a recent study found that the happiness bump experienced in pregnancy largely bypasses us. Our infant mortality rates according to the CDC, due to preterm births are 2.4 times higher than those for white infants. Unfortunately, the shit parade doesn’t stop there either.

Due to a widespread stigma toward mental health issues in our community, African-Americans don’t experience depression more than white people, but we are less likely to report the symptoms, and therefore seek treatment. A broad swath of experts attribute our silence to the “strong black woman” myth. Yet this idea that we are invincible, which actually makes us weak because it disallows us from asking for help when we need it, refuses to die. Maybe two months ago the new Saturday Night Live hire Leslie Jones gave voice to a virulent strain of this outdated defense mechanism.

Jones declared that though she has trouble dating in the 21st century, in the antebellum south, due to her height and strength, she would have enjoyed the status of a breeder, “popping out” field hand equivalents of NBA stars. On Twitter, Jones admitted that her monologue emerged from a dark place of what I can only assume is a deep feeling of being less than. As a black woman who did stand-up comedy and who was threatened for doing jokes about how white people don’t use washcloths, to a certain extent I get the “artist sensitive about her shit” aspect of her defense. At the same time, by perpetuating this myth of black womanhood, Jones pointed to the ways all of us can be weak when we don’t feel loved. However, we don’t need to look to unfunny comedy to get a grip on the places in ourselves and in our community we need to fortify. For that mirror, statistics are better than fine.