Ta-Nehisi is reading Raymond Chandler, and in exploring Philip Marlowe’s distaste for some of the women in his path, his observation that “It’s so hard for women—even nice women—to realize that their bodies are not irresistible,” turns to the question of visibile manifestation of male desire, and its relationship to shame:
Erection is not a choice. It happens to men whether they like it or not. It happens to young boys in the morning whether they have dreamed about sex or not. It happens to them in the movies, in gym class, at breakfast, during sixth period Algebra. It happens in the presence of humans who they find attractive, and it happens in the presence of humans whom they claim are not attractive at all. It is provoked by memory, by perfume, by song, by laughter and by absolutely nothing at all. Erection is not merely sexual desire, but the physical manifestation of that desire.
Masculinity’s central tenet is control—and perhaps most importantly, control of the body. Nothing contradicts that edict like erections. It unmans you, it compels you through sensations you scarcely understand. And it threatens to expose you, to humiliates you, in front of everyone. Laugh now at the boy at the middle school dance, who gets an erection on the slow number (God help him if he has orgasm.) But he does not forget that laughter, nor does he forget what prompted it. That boy is going to be a rapper. Or a painter. Or an author of fictions where men are men and somehow are invulnerable to the humiliating effects of the female form.
In the comments to that post, a number of people, rightly, bring up Prince as an example of someone who managed to decouple desire and shame, which I think is exactly right. When he sings in “When Doves Cry,” “Touch if you will my stomach / Feel how it trembles inside / You’ve got the butterflies all tied up / Don’t make me chase you / Even doves have pride,” Prince is offering up evidence of his arousal and embracing the power dynamic his desire occasions. The woman he’s speaking to has the initiative there. There is the possibility that he will be rejected or shamed. But he’s also gained power by being willing to run those risks, to speak honestly to her.
It’s also worth, as a counterpoint to Marlowe’s contempt, to consider Agent Cooper and Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks:
Her appearance in his bed is a repetition of Carmen Sternwood’s attempts to seduce Marlowe. But rather than reacting with disgust to his own attraction to her, or anger at her for arousing him, Cooper is kind, and self-denying. “What I want and what I need are two different things,” he tells her. His desire for her can exist within a web of his other values, including his devotion to the F.B.I. And perhaps most importantly, Cooper isn’t angry at Audrey for wanting him, an emotion that seems to underscore Marlowe’s repulsion to a number of the women that he encounters.
Because that’s the critical other half of this conversation, one that I discussed in part yesterday in exploring why James Bond and other sex objects designed for women’s consumption can be so threatening. If men can be shamed for visible and involuntary evidence of arousal, both because they’re deemed to have slipped in their control, and because they risk sexual rejection from the women who have prompted their reaction, women can be shamed for voluntarily expressing arousal and asking that their sexual needs be met. Such requests meet with such complicated reactions because they fracture sex, raising the possibility that for men and women, intercourse assumes varying levels of importance and delivers different levels of satisfaction. In other words, a positive reaction to evidence of male desire is the beginning of a negotiation, not the end of it. And that negotiation is a culturally fraught one.