Travelling around the northern hemisphere, a good chunk of time ago, I’d arranged to stay in [name of large city] with the relative of a close friend for a night or so. He lived in a share arrangement with two women artists. When he spoke of them, it was with a kind of dreamy reverence, something a more prudent guest might have clocked. Who knows, too, how he felt about a visitor, about the effort of hosting someone two steps removed? Guests are an interruption, a kind of work, after all. It was confirmed over email and, following a train-bus combo from the main airport to his suburb, he met me somewhere I can’t recall and seemed pleased enough, even excited, that I’d arrived. We were about the same age, were known to sleep (at least sometimes) in hetero configurations and were both officially single. That day we traipsed around the city, stopping in at drinking establishments, meandering through galleries, careening around parks. I still have a photo of him clinging to a playground merry-go-round, giddy in the sunshine.
I had the brittle exuberance of someone who, three days earlier, had left a small city and with it the cherished body of a serious, life-altering love. The latter didn’t have a future. It was a classic case of Being Rejected—by a person and by circumstance. Three days and a plane, train and bus ride later, I was ‘getting on’ in the aftermath—gadding about in various metropoles, meeting creative and clever people. Living my emptied-out life to the fullest.
Consent and rejection. In what follows, you’ll witness my attempt to navigate their cahootedness, or more precisely the glue in their cahootedness, which, I’m going to argue, turns out to be anger: anger and its relation to rejection; consent’s absence and its relation to anger. Angers plural, in fact. I’m proposing that there are two types in the hope that the ruse of this division can help me think through a volatile topic.
In drafting this essay, I’ve been aware of walking a line between privileged glibness and constructive provocation. To lean on that classic (third-wave) feminist move, let me disclose my position: I have an income, my own bank account, am not heavily constrained by religious or family expectations, and I don’t have kids with my sexual partner. These factors weigh in considerably to some of the things I’ll say below. (I am not my grandmother, in Australia, in the Catholic Church, in the fifties, who still left my abusive grandfather, with her four children, and raised them on a hospitality worker’s income. My position is light-years from hers). Some of the things I write below may not work in your current situation. With your own money (or not), with secure housing (or not), with dependents (or not), and so on. Some of the things in this essay, we could call utopian. A utopian vision that speaks as if our NOW aligned with our society’s preferred self-image—in the media, among some of the hopeful youth, in our tiny, lucky enclaves—but which, as we all know (even if we can hardly bear this knowledge), really isn’t here yet. I know this and so my querying proceeds off the outrageous and aspirational base notion that we partner with people we choose, that we are in position to leave them if we so choose, and—finally—that the people we partner with are not dangerous, are not loose cannons. These assumptions are very pretty, and also not what many live.
A friend, whom I consider wise in a rare way, once told me something about desire. She’d worked for a decade as a counsellor for couples of every ilk and persuasion—gay, straight, older, younger, newly besotted, long-term—hence she had a pretty good sample size to ground her speculations. She’d observed that when anger is operating somewhere in a relationship between two people, then there can be affection and affectionate gestures but, in most cases, there won’t be desire, or not for long. Through the haze of anger, the other seems simply undesirable. Enduring anger, then, will tend to mean either that sex slowly gets replaced with lots of ‘loving’, sweet but not very ‘sexy’, behaviours, or (my extension of her theory) that there might be regular instances of compulsory congress—since contemporary folk can be committed to diligent, frequent sex as a to-do list item—but things won’t tend towards elated tumbling, scintillating eroto-brilliance or throat-catching swoons. The sex, if there’s any at all, basically won’t be very hot or very happy. So goes my paraphrasing of her concept. It’s stayed with me for years. I’ve called on its logic when sex in my own relationships has dropped off and I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) work out why.
In this essay, sex operates as a metonym for probably a few things (if you’re not interested in sex per se). It’s a name for a context where, theoretically, we encounter a person (or persons) from whom we want something. Sex can name our coming up against what and how we want. If sex—as activity, not as category—then, involves desire, it works as a reliable laboratory for what it feels like to want and to wrestle with our atypical and ordinary tendencies in relation to that. Sex can reveal us to ourselves because we never quite behave or want in the ways we expect; even if we seem to repeat, nothing—technically, ontologically, really truly—does. It’s different every time; we are different every time.
We might, via sex (should we allow this to include quite a wide range of behaviours) come to dignify our quirks and vulnerabilities, our inventions, styles and vectors of wanting, as well as wants dropping out. We may get better—over time and as we develop discernment, and if life offers this scope—at finding people who are compatible with how we want. People who are, by definition, somewhat different from us. Different, not necessarily due to their obvious bits(this conventional logic clearly no longer stands), but due—I’d suggest—to the ways in which they want to give and receive, to how they express and play out the wantings they have.
Jacques Lacan, the famous reader of Freud and psychoanalytic clinician, has a diagram with some arrows and quantifiers and functions. It attempts to capture one depiction of how we can be different and how this difference is not gross or fleshy, not blatant in the ways we’d assume. We need someone with whom we don’t quite match, in order to match. Missing each other is an inevitable part of wanting something from the other. Thus, the sex at issue involves at least one other person; it involves our wants happening alongside another’swants. Part of the deal, then, is everybody’s favourite pastime: negotiation.
(It’s really not everybody’s favourite pastime, you say. I know that, I reply.)
After this nice-enough, even mildly zingy, day with my overseas-city host, we inevitably headed home to his flat. My luggage (dumped in the hall initially) had ended up in his room; I learned that there were no spare ones. When I tentatively inquired about where I’d be sleeping, he motioned to an extremely ad hoc bedding situation involving some blankets and a length of foam, barely- adult length, which was wedged between the wall and his queen-sized bed, jammed up against the dresser. Now, as a guest, one is well accustomed to showing gratitude for all things the hosts provides. You shouldn’t, in other words, quibble. In [name of large city] such hosts are probably saving you somewhere between 70 and 250 AUD a night—and that’s for modest accommodation. So, you’re grateful and polite; you take what you’re given. On the other hand, there are ways of showing hospitality, not to mention chivalry, and his approach in regards to both of these left something to be desired.
This is an excerpt of a piece that was originally published in The Lifted Brow #41. To read the full version and many other brilliant works of writing and art, get your copy here!
Antonia Pont lives in Melbourne and works at Deakin University as Senior Lecturer in Writing & Literature. A long-term practitioner, she also runs a yoga school in Melbourne’s CBD, where she and others collectively research non-violence, intentionality and the mechanisms of change.
Ali Chalmers is a designer / illustrator from Sydney.