Monday, October 4, 2010

On Being Surprised: The Technologies of Intimacy and the Intimacies of Technology

Last week on QueerToday, Anthony L. Carter posted this article about ‘unacceptable risks’. He says: “I was 36 the first time I had sex in public. I had no idea this was an option... I truly thought people went to the park to read, the restrooms to pee and the malls to shop.” Mr. Carter went on to question the potential dangers and risks involved in cruising.

Cruising: Isn’t it actually an inherent part of queer lives, almost a rite of passage? Isn’t it the thing we all need to do to feel that we’ve arrived, that we’ve finally ‘made it queer’, in the same fashion that our families don’t consider us adolescents till they hear the acute crack in our voices, in the same way that we dare not call ourselves teenagers till the physical traces of pubic hair reveal themselves on our bodies? I’ve lived in three continents so far, and in each case, the act of cruising was seen as that liminal space where one finally gives in to one’s ‘forbidden’ desire, the moment where one finally comes, quite literally.

Speaking of the nature of cruising, Mr. Carter adds: “Nothing like a romp in the great outdoors to set your heart a thumping, your mind to shutting down and the belief that you have thumbed your nose at the man, polite society, and have truly gotten away with something dastardly. Oh yes online or in person, the concept of free, noncommittal sex (hookups if you’re 30 or less) serves a number of functions. The connection can be explosive, entertaining, instantaneous and most importantly if the person is a pain in the ass you never have to see them again (...) It’s free and always available. Nobody is at these spots not wanting to be sexual. A bit of negotiation and you’re off and running...” Above all, I am tempted to add: cruising is anonymous!

Anonymity is indeed key in the functioning of others as simple bodies, there, exposed, to be seen and to be courted in order to satisfy one’s own desire. The potential dangers stay closeted and the dirty secrets behind this anonymity may (or may not?) make the experience of cruising more attractive: Who are those men? Are they married? Do they have children? Are they compulsive rapists? Did they just get out of jail? And what about STDs?... The possible horror narratives are endless, and yet, we’ll push them at the back of our minds, ignore them and assume it’ll just be exciting sex... And then... And then let’s forget about it and pretend it never happened.

For many queers of my generation, ‘hook-ups’ as we call them have always been mediated through technology. Acquaintances younger than me have often looked at me like an old piece of junk that should belong to a gay-museum when I told them about my earliest experiences cruising in public. For many indeed, the practice of cruising in a park seems so far removed from history that it belongs to an archive that simply cannot exist. “Why would anybody do this?” is a question that often comes up. The rite of passage has changed: we live in an age where coming out with one’s desires has to be mediated through the use of technology.

I was roughly 16 when I started to think through my desires and the possibility of carrying them through. At the time, I used to live in Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. Since my raging hormones were driving me crazy, I thought of parks, public toilets, beaches, malls and all those places where I used to see ‘those boys’ roaming around on Sundays after church. I would walk by, discreetly, pretending I was there by mistake, looking furtively and building potential scenarios in my head. I stayed in the borders, an observer never daring to enter the center. I was skinny, I had pimples, I had an oily skin and an awfully low self-esteem, and I was conscious of all that. And then, I found the one thing that would save me: a screen behind which I could hide.

It was a new trend at the time, but it did it for me: I felt secure and above all, I feel reassured that I did not have to expose my skinny body and my low self-esteem to public scrutiny. Online chats (for there were no dating ‘website’ accessible to me yet) for many teenagers like me were a blessing at the time. I was out to my friends, but not to my family and I lived with the constant fear of being outed to them. On the local chat-room, we would hide behind screen-names such as ‘gay15’ or ‘gayboy or ‘gayhottie’ or ‘gay-whatever-you-want’ and we would wait till somebody started chatting with us. Of course, we also lied when we had to, about our ages, about how sexually knowledgeable we were, how sexually knowledgeable we were willing to become... We lied about how tall we were, how big ‘it’ was, but we didn’t lie when we said we were looking for a long-term relationship. In our heads, being 16, the raging hormones and a potential relationship were one, as long as it involved a lot of sex.

Over the years though, the chat-rooms gave way to online dating websites. By then, we had started filling boxes: height, size, sexual preference, fetishes, looking for... And in many cases, we now had enough confidence to show ourselves, to post our best pictures and flatter our egos. However, it didn’t take me long to be appalled by the number of closeted cases I would find on dating websites. I began asking myself: is online dating a blessing or a curse? On the one hand, it opened up doors to articulate and seek satisfaction for our desires. But on the other hand, it kept us closeted; it said: stay there, don’t come out, don’t ever even call yourself gay. Just meet them, fuck and come back home to a normal life. For me, online dating was a glass closet: a place to where we could show ourselves and yet remain hidden.

Besides the closeted aspects embedded in seeking fulfillment of intimacy via the medium of technology, it is also pertinent to think through how technology actually structures and regulates our desires and relationships. We live in a society where we are used to getting what we want. We want new jeans that are blue, slightly faded in certain spots, tight at the waist but large at the calves with embroidered patches on the back pockets; what do we do? We want a chicken burger with cheese and fried mushrooms, ketchup, mustard sauce and lettuce; what do we do? In both cases, we order what we need and we get them.

This is what online dating does for us; it allows to finally specify our desires and ‘order’ the partner that we want: I want him at least 6ft tall, blond with olive skin, with dark eyes and a six-pack. I want him to be interested in sciences and comics and I want him to be able to cook and be a non-smoker. Where else could I find him and ‘order’ him other than on a dating website? From the moment we start putting ourselves in small boxes, and describing our attributes and desires in other boxes, we can order our potential partners and let ourselves be ordered too, like pizza to be delivered. Online dating solves many problems for us; it does the weeding and the selecting: I no longer have to deal with the guys who are not my type feeling me up at the bar anymore, I no longer run the danger of being cruised by men I am not primarily attracted to, I no longer have to fall onto a guy who doesn’t share my taste in music...

And yet, I ask: did online dating really solve the problem? Did we actually get rid of the ‘bad weed’? If such is the case, how come so many of us are still cruising for somebody compatible online, just like another generation used to in bars years ago? I think the solution lies in realizing that there is a clear distinction between desire and the fulfillment of desire. You know those days when you crave for a chocolate brownie and you crave it so much that you rush to a pastry shop and buy it? But then, once you eat it, you think: “Is that it?” and your taste buds remain unsatisfied?

Online dating entails the same process. We shouldn’t confuse our fantasies with the actual realization of those fantasies. There is a need to realize that the people we dream up as potential mating partners may only be so perfect and exciting only because they seem so in the ideal state that we conjure them into being. How many of us have actually woken up on Sunday mornings feeling frustrated that the perfect date didn’t turn out to be so perfect?

Sure, we have preferences, we have desires, but we seem to forget that human interactions express themselves in interesting uncanny ways. Ever remember going to the shop for looking for that particular pair of faded-blue jeans with embroidery on the back pocket, but coming out of the store with plain black denims because you unexpectedly fell for them and realized they were perfect in their own ways? Well, cruising is about that too: letting ourselves be surprised by other human beings and what they may have to offer.

Often, our dating and mating partners and our longest relationships are to be found where we least expect them, in the desires that we thought we didn’t have. There is an element of surprise in human interaction that online dating can take away if you let the medium act this way. This is not to say that online dating is to be totally ruled out, but maybe is it time to loosen those boxes a bit: make them bigger, make them more inclusive and in the process, make the squares and rectangles a bit circular too?


supi said...

hey i loved this.

and i couldnt agree more about the "our longest relationships are to be found where we least expect them, in the desires that we thought we didn’t have" part.

Astraeus said...

oh kama,
i can identify so much with that young boy in mauritius. Its exactly what i was five years ago

Amak said...

@ Supi:

Thanks! This piece somehow means a lot to me. So thanks for reading and commenting.

@ Astreus:

You and I, my dearest! Don't we have parallel uncanny histories?!