Thursday, November 17, 2011

analog sex in a digital world

One of the things I promised myself when I fell in love this summer was that I was not going to look back. With my boyfriend, I didn’t want to be in love the same way I was in love in my twenties. This task has been surprisingly easy for someone whose idea of living in the present had been romanticizing/ regretting the past and idealizing/ dreading the future. It helps that my boyfriend is the kind of soulful being who would respond to an OK Cupid profile (mine) in which “Thinking about the past and the future” was the answer to the question “What are you mostly likely to be doing on a Friday night?” So yeah, I’m getting better at living fully fleshed in the present tense. What surprised me was how I—and my boyfriend—went back in time to construct a romantic sex life.

A couple weeks ago, my boyfriend and I were verbally horsing around, and because he is that delectable combination of tech geek and music geek (with an MFA in electronic music to prove it) we somehow came up with the idea of my being a cassette tape to his tape deck. Exactly how we came upon this metaphor I don’t quite remember. All I know is we’ve been using it like hell to flirt with one another. A week ago, we had the following email exchange (which has been redacted for love and modesty):

Me: “you make me feel like a cassette tape being slipped out of its case.”

Roddy: “i’m slipping you out of your case so i can sound your ribbon with my magnet this weekend!”

OK, cue burlesque comic horns and please, gag if you want to. It could seem like we were making some kind of crude sex joke about a penis and a receptive orifice, but it sure didn’t feel like it. When I think about the cassette tape and the tape deck as a metaphor of our connective sexuality, I find that it resists cooption by human sexuality. Certainly, something is being inserted into another thing via an opening. But the cassette tape is hardly a phallic object. Not only is it not oblong in shape, the cassette doesn’t have the insistent willfulness of the phallus. The cassette is in fact a very coquettish object (even its name is a cute pink tease): it withholds the smooth brown thin ribbons of its voice within a tiny flat body. So traditionally feminine is the cassette that it must wait for a knob of magnet to push into its own slight opening and press its own magnetic skin down against a fairy bed of foam. But for the cassette tape to be invaded, rotated and read by the hungry knob, it has to first invade the bodily integrity of the knob. In their mutual invasion and caginess, the cassette and tape deck could be lesbianic...except that the two objects are totally different, physically.

This little mental exercise underscored for me how much heterosexuality structures the fantasy life of gay people: cock-dildo-tongue-finger up in the ass or vulva, the culmination of the sexual act is penetration leading to climax. Even when we reject it, penetration hovers above us like the patriarch we are rebelling against. Penetration hovers ever ready to invade all possible fantasy-representations of sex. But rather than creating a sexual metaphor out of the structure of human sexuality, what if we use a metaphor to re-structure human sexuality? What does sound-playback technology teach us about sexually connecting with one another?

The digital means—the mp3 and CD—are depressingly tautological. Operated by light, digital playback forbids touch and tactility and thus offers sexuality that is...well, digital (skype sex). So onto analog: the classic vinyl and turntable combo is, by contrast, depressingly too human. Pointed, mechanized metal probe pierces into the chasms a round object to make it produce sound.

This is why I find the metaphor of the cassette and tape deck to be such a functional conceptual tool for my sex life. It doesn’t shy away from penetration, but it refracts the focus of penetration in such a way that it is impossible to derive from it a phallic narrative. Penetrations cancel each other out, becoming pure choreography. Simultaneously, the mechanics of deriving pleasure emphasizes a gentle, tender tactility: if the magnet pushes down too hard, the tape will be ruined and silenced forever. My boyfriend and I have sex (and romance) like cassette to tape deck.

I always thought I was a girl, but maybe “girl” was just a placeholder in my child’s mind for the moment when I would learn about that glorious object of analog technology called “cassette.” Just hours earlier today, I went to the basement and pulled out a giant box full of my old cassette tapes. I was bummed that I couldn’t find my Mariah Carey “Emotions” cassette single, but I did find a bushel of old mix tapes, including one decorated with clippings from a 1992 issue of Vibe magazine: a tiny picture of Mariah and a caption that quotes Biggie’s “Dreams” (“Mariah Carey’s kinda scary.”) I had forgotten, but I also had multiple mix tapes that I had labeled, “My Girl Self.” This was back in the nineties, when I was looking desperately for love and having bad sex with bad men. In wanting a cassette to stand in for My Girl Self, wasn’t I really yearning for this inevitable moment in November 2011 when I would find myself fully upgraded in the technology of love and sex?

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