New York Times Asks: What Is Sex?

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Well, they didn’t exactly ask that. But it is the subject lurking behind an enormous article in Sunday’s paper, titled Strangers’ Things, about “the growing online marketplace of people’s intimate objects.” “People,” of course, means primarily women. Customers are almost exclusively men–often with a fetish.

What “intimate objects?” Panties, used and unused. Bath water, hair trimmings, gym socks, shoes. Ordinary cookies baked by the hands of pretty girls with special smiles.

This is totally different from the online web-camera entertainment that women developed a decade ago, such as masturbating, kissing another woman, playing with a vibrator, putting in a tampon, or shaving (armpits, legs, pubic area)—available on demand, with the woman often responding to customer requests (“Can you please put two fingers in there, now?”).

It’s easy to call this porn, if you wish. But is the consumer having sex? Does the answer depend on whether he can make requests, or text the woman an applause emoji? For the guys, is this simply high-tech masturbation, not-quite-infidelity, or something for which we don’t yet have a name?    

Why would someone want to buy socks worn by a woman who’s essentially a fantasy? It’s easy to see that someone’s hand on your penis is sexy, but by what mental alchemy does the purchaser turn these socks into a valuable object, something beyond mere socks? Are they then a sexual object?

In anthropology, a fetish is an object to which a community attributes special powers—antlers used in a war dance, for example, or a dead saint’s bone, or a carved stone used in a ritual humbly asking for autumn rain.

Psychologists refer to fetishes primarily in the sexual context; the ICD-10 defines fetishism as a reliance on non-living objects for sexual arousal and satisfaction. These most typically involve clothing, underwear, shoes, and things with unusual textures like rubber, leather, or silk. They may also involve equipment used in BDSM games, such as handcuffs. While people often refer to “foot fetishes,” “hand fetishes,” and so on, extreme attachment to others’ body parts is actually called a partialism, not a fetish. Real fetishes are about things.

A person consuming an object he has fetishized is having a very different experience from a non-fetishist doing the same thing. For this latter person, a sock is just a sock, no matter who has worn it. When you consider how many ordinary people have trouble feeling desire or arousal, we should be learning more about how the human brain creates eroticism in what most people consider a non-erotic context.

So is buying the bath water of a web-cam lady primarily (or totally) about “sex”?

American culture is virtually obsessed with categorizing things as sex or not-sex. For one thing, this determines whether you can legally pay for it: if you pay a dominatrix to spank you, you can both go to jail; pay a physical therapist, no problem. Pay a strange woman to leer at her in her underwear while you get erect, you can both go to jail; pay to go to a lingerie fashion show and see the same thing, you’re OK. Get your back waxed, your girlfriend can watch; get your balls waxed, she’s banished from the little room. It’s the law.

Other reasons Americans obsess on whether something is “sex” or not:

* If I do X, am I still a virgin?
* If I do X, am I guilty of the sin of lust?
* If I do X, is that infidelity?
* If I like to do X, am I “kinky”? A “pervert?”
* If I like to do X, what is my sexual orientation?

On the one hand, people—OK, men—continually find ways to access a wide range of erotic experiences: masturbating at peep shows, attending Victoria’s Secret pay-per-view shows, age-role-playing in chatrooms, using escort services, getting happy endings at massage parlors.

(Please note that I’m NOT talking about non-consensual activities such as upskirt videos on escalators, or elevator frottage.)

A lot of what looks like the pursuit of erotic activities is simply men using money to cope with loneliness, shame, low self-esteem, or poor social skills. In capitalist societies, women have always sold emotional medicine to these men. Self-righteous, erotophobic cultures like Victorian England or 21st-centry America will of course code these activities as “sexual,” therefore taboo. Of course, that increases the very shame of such men, as well as the legal vulnerability of both parties (usually she more than he, but both of them).

Churches sell this emotional medicine too, as do bars and social media.

So the logic of America is: if you’re lonely, go to a bar. If you seek respite from life’s meaninglessness, go to a church. If you lack social skills, spend your time at home using social media and playing video games.

If you seek relief from any of these burdens by trying to feel erotically connected, buy objects, but not the time or attention of actual humans. And do it soon, before that’s criminalized as well.

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