DEGUILTIFICATION – experiential essay by Chris Ifso

Beata and Matís run luhmen d’arc, a company founded in Berlin which creates “spaces dedicated to the manifold aspects of intimacy and desire.” In September 2019 the duo were participants in Schmiede, a 10-day maker festival based at the Old Salt Works, Hallein in Austria, involving over 100 artists, musicians, digital creators and writers – including me. Beata is also an academic; her PhD topic is The Art of Sex Education: Contemporary Aesthetics As Idiosyncratic Interventions in Hegemonic Sexual Discourses. As research for this, luhmen d’arc was there to interview a range of participants about attitudes to sexuality. Interviewees were also offered an introductory bodywork session.

A mattress sits in one corner of this large barn-like wooden studio, behind a flimsy curtain hung on a rope between pillars. I take off my shoes, lie face down and close my eyes. Beata and Matís proceed to give me a massage which is by turns tender, arousing, rough, funny and relaxing. I am fully-clothed and they are mild, but crucially there is no rule against getting turned on. To prove this, around the space are scattered vibrators, rope and masks for those who request to experiment further. I purr, laugh, wriggle and groan as I’m cradled, gently pummelled and stroked. I open my eyes, they switch on the tape recorder and ask me what the session brought up for me.

There I am, a man aged 63, relaxed and glowing, lolling next to a young man and woman I like and trust, with whom there is no reason whatever to feel inhibited. I am amongst friendly strangers in a foreign country, with no need to hide or prove anything. I find words tumbling out, and what follows is based on what we talk about.

First, a memory from my boyhood which has been on my mind, when I was given another unexpected massage, this one by a man 20 years older than myself. It was 1970. I met him at an open-air concert in a London park and we talked, as everyone seemed to do all the time back then, about spiritual enlightenment and personal liberation. He invited me back to his small upstairs flat which was filled with books about Eastern mystics, poetry, therapeutic practices, psychedelics and the rest. After much talk about freeing psychic energy and Wilhelm Reich’s intensely physical form of therapy, he convinced me to strip naked for what he called a bio-energenetic massage, at the end of which he too was naked. Afterwards he pulled me onto his bed and clumsily and briefly fondled my genitals. I walked home not sure if I’d been liberated or abused. I was 15.

At the time I felt I’d coped with this experience pretty well. The man, an eccentric local poet, didn’t frighten me. He giggled a lot, was self-deprecating and silly, like a big child really, but a needy and insidious one who next befriended my mum and would call round for tea and biscuits when I came back from school. I felt excited to have met someone with links to the literary and philosophical scenes which so enthralled me, I was eager for alternative adult experiences of pretty much any kind, and I knew that, now he’d found out how young I was, he wouldn’t dare touch me like that again.

Briefly I wondered whether having allowing him to touch me at all meant I was gay, but I decided it didn’t. After all, I’d found this man’s doughy, hairy flesh deeply unattractive. In those days homosexuality was widely demonized but covertly tolerated in places such as the boys’ school I attended. Also parents took it for granted that male teachers might have some kind of carnal interest in their pupils. Although I knew it wasn’t sinful to be homosexual, fear of the queer hovered around growing boys, fueled by constant jokes and taunts. Being gay or not worried me far more than whether I had been preyed on illegally. And no way would I have dreamt of telling even my liberal parents about anything like this. I knew I was below the legal age of consent, but that law then seemed more like a stricture on burgeoning desire than a reassuring protection against paedophiles. The establishment hated sexual activity of all forms and I was anti-establishment. The generation gap was an absolute reality then.

Recently I came across an obituary on-line for this ‘lovable eccentric bard’. In a post underneath the article, one man angrily accused the deceased of having been a serial abuser, preying on innocent young men, and related his own story which was very similar to my own. All these years later, for the first time I let myself think of my young self as a victim. And was overwhelmed with a flood of protective feelings for this teenage boy, alarmed at the weight of moral responsibility I’d shouldered at the time, trying to justify to myself what had happened while keeping it secret from my parents. The obituary led me to wonder how the encounter might have damaged me. Abuse often leads to hypersexuality, defined as a “dysfunctional preoccupation with sexual fantasy”. Did I have that? Didn’t we all? Weren’t we all fucked up by society’s attitudes to fucking? There were plenty of media role models to encourage obsessive male randiness, from James Bond to Benny Hill.

For a truly shocking insight into the attitudes which my generation grew up around, just listen to those mainstream BBC sit-coms which they replay on BBC Radio 4 Extra: shows like Doctor in the House, Marriage Lines, Not In Front of the Children… Wives connive to trick their owner husbands into doing their bidding by lying and flattery. Sexy girls abound but their male scriptwriters fail to give them even basically coherent characters. Men cheerfully threaten to give their children and their women ‘good hidings’. Mockery of homosexuals and the hilarious harassment of women was the norm. Rampant if clumsy male lust was suffused with fear of the female and the properly erotic.

Friends who suffered serious abuse growing up find it hard to chart precisely the repercussions of those events on their lives. Some never fully recover, others manage to move on. I didn’t consider I had anything to get over.  I went on to lose my virginity at 16 with a girl who seemed just as keen to shed her innocence and get on with adulthood, then had a string of girlfriends, some fumbled one-night stands, some heart-rending romantic yearnings, some angst-ridden love affairs, gradually leading to engagement with 1980s sexual politics, anti-sexist men’s groups, communal living and an open relationship with the woman I’ve loved ever since, have two children by and now three grandchildren with.

At Schmiede I tell my new polyamorous and pansexual friends that in my twenties I also had a few sexual encounters with men. I enjoyed these experiences a lot but didn’t lust for more. Since then I’ve come to think of myself as hetero- rather than bi-. Might I have identified differently in less homophobic times? I don’t know. I stopped after a scene with an older, married man to whom our exploratory coupling clearly meant far more than it did to me.

In the 1980s my partner worked for the local Rape Crisis Centre; she was in a women’s consciousness raising group, and I formed a Men’s Sexuality Group which met weekly to discuss topics like masturbation, fantasies, monogamy and its alternatives. One evening a visitor to the group began talking about the sexy games he engaged in with his girlfriend and described these in a way which became quite arousing. We who fearlessly and earnestly critiqued the patriarchy, became uncomfortable when faced with the actually erotic. The Women’s Movement then urged sisters to explore their bodies and themselves, to be whoever they wanted to be – unless this involved behaviours and desires which were deemed un-feminist remnants of sexist conditioning.

I’m married to the woman with whom I was having an open relationship back then. At the time we both idealistically rejected monogamy as a patriarchal trap. Now we’re mutually monogamous, but a key to the long-term success of our relationship has been our preparedness to accept that no one person can fulfill all of one person’s needs. I also can’t avoid the toxic aspect of the furtive carnal scorecard I carried in my head, making me rather than her continue to seek out flings.

After the hippy free love of the 70s and feminist experiments in non-monogamy of the 80s, the tide turned in the 90s and any sexual activity outside conventional coupling tended to be written off as ‘cheating’. More recently there’s been a resurgence of interest in open marriage and polyamory. The podcaster and therapist Esther Perel argues that desire “draws its powerful pleasure from fascination with the hidden, the mysterious, and the suggestive”. How can married couples be expected to keep wanting what they already have? “When we validate each other’s freedom within the relationship, we may be less inclined to go look for it elsewhere” she writes.

On the mattress at Schmiede I can talk easily about personal fantasies and kinks which, in the clear light of that warm Austrian day, seem utterly predictable for a middle-class Englishman of my generation. In this setting they even look positively pleasurable. Although my partner and I enjoy similar turn-ons, that pervasive myth about sexual desire being a fundamentally male drive clings on. I sometimes feel as if I’ve shouldered the moral responsibility for our fantasy playground.

luhmen d’arc and I discuss how, although it’s great to assert the joy of consensual sex play, to recognise the difference between sensuous spanks and genuine hurting, there is still something problematic about the common desire to bind or be bound, to hit or be hit. Of course, a fantasy isn’t reality – except that, if enacted, it sort of is. I’m reassured to know that people who run flogging and bondage workshops for a living share these concerns.

Lying on the floor in the Salt Works, I talk about getting older, and how for me the elements of sexuality are separating out in an unnerving but stimulating way. Once fantasy, attraction, arousal, flirtation, foreplay and consummation were all part of one seamless erotic flow. Now there’s space in-between. Desire doesn’t necessarily result in erection. Beata suggests that, as time goes by, male pleasure may become more like women’s – less clearly discernible, more subtle and responsive.

I tell Beata and Matís that in my fifties I developed a mild form of a condition called Peyronie’s, causing a hard plaque to form in the penis which bends the shaft, making penetration difficult. It also numbs sensation, but that’s not so much talked about, even though the tinglings in one’s genitals are, when it comes down to it, pretty vital to one’s sense of sexualness. Joints grow creakier, bodies less pert and juicy, I experience less sensations in my cock during penetration, my partner finds it hard to come without penetration. But we get by; in fact our sex life now is a wonderful blend of tried and tested positions laced with familiar turn-ons and new fantasies to keep things exciting. I love our later-life lovemaking more than I would have believed.

And I remain interested in sex as a topic beyond the wish to be having it. At my weekly trip to the gym back home in London I’ve been listening (on headphones) to Dan Savage’s Lovecast in which this charismatic gay agony uncle responds to calls from people with every kind of kink, orientation and polyamorous preference. Savage treats them with a level-head and a clear moral framework. He’s insistent on consent and respect, all-embracing in a sex-positive acceptance of every kind of desire. His worldview is refreshing for one brought up at a time when so much sexual discovery seemed inevitably borne out of illicit and furtive fumblings.

As my session with luhmen d’arc nears its end, Matís points out that I’ve used the word ‚guilt’ a lot in our conversation. I wonder again if that early experience with the predatory poet contributed to a sense of the sexual as a compelling but dark space, and a lonely one. In William Blake’s poem his Garden of Love has “thou shalt not writ over the door” and priests in black gowns “binding with briars my joys and desires.” My garden is also overgrown and entangled, but thanks to Beata and Matís, I’m pruning it to let in more light.

We end with hugs and a reminder that, while it may not be easy or appropriate to share all thoughts and feelings on the topic, my sexuality is not a furtive, shameful secret but a vital and positive part of my being. I leave my session at Schmiede feeling an astounding unshouldering of a burden, a sense of release unlike anything else I’ve experienced. The combination of physical wellbeing, therapeutic disclosure and intellectual engagement is overwhelming. I am chuffed too when Beata and Matís say they’ve found it fascinating to explore with me the differences between sexual politics then and now.

Since the interview I’ve been thinking that I would love to talk to more older people about what sexuality means to them. By that I don’t mean whether or with whom or how often they do it, or if and when they watch other people doing it on the ubiquitous screens. As an internet definition says, „sexuality is about all your sexual feelings, thoughts, attractions, emotions and behaviours.” As I enter my nearly old age, I’m putting it on the list of essentials to my self-esteem and quality of life which I demand the right to hang onto forever. We must refuse to have sexuality ‘othered’ away by younger people who can’t handle the concept of randiness amongst the wrinkled.

Pleasure activist adrienne maree brown calls on all those side-lined by society through gender, race, age and disability, to revel in self pleasure.  Evidence suggests that people lacking money and/or status, whose bodies don’t conform to societal norms, in fact those most in need of free, safe, solo forms of sensual joy, are less likely to give themselves orgasms than privileged, straight, white male wankers. What a waste.

Sexuality is a wholesome sounding word covering much that is still shrouded in embarrassment. Moral panic about access to online erotica dominates current debate about desire, but we need to frame a much more profound conversation about real human feelings. What can and should sexuality mean to females, males and all shades in-between, as we grow up and grow older? Sex isn’t a product to consume but a deep-seated energy flowing through all stages of life. And yet we don’t hear older sexuality described as a positive attribute, only as a lack: of hardness, of wetness, of desire and desirability, of frequency – and of tact for raising the topic at all.

As we grow old, do we lose interest in sex or are we shamed into pretending to? Over time sex changes; I feared it might fade away, but after my session at the Salt Works I’m beginning to think it’s evolving into something far more interesting. Beyond the relentless drive to get it up, in and on, sexuality remains a rich and enduring element of being human and alive.

Chris Ifso, October 2019

Chris Ifso is a writer of fiction, songs and transmedia and the author of What Didn’t Quite, a novel of Nearlyology. His website is www.nearlyology.net.

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