Eroticism’s Missing Link
When I saw these erotic postcards from the 20s, I was surprised by the shivery delight they created. Beyond being just sexy, they made me happy, a feeling I couldn’t account for until I analyzed what was special about them. Do we really live in the healthiest era for sexuality that’s ever existed?
Mashable shared these back in May, making them relatable to millennials by calling them “PG-13 Selfies” and condescendingly cooing over their antiquated charm. Isn’t is endearing, say they, what people found titillating back them? Oh, how quaint, when a bit of stocking was risqué! But I found these sexier than any Redtube porn that’s produced with the same robotic precision as are predictable money shots. I found them more arousing and engaging than 90% of the sex scenes I see on HBO (and God knows they try so desperately).
I almost never see modern depictions of sexuality so playful, affectionate, fun, or MUTUAL. In each postcard, both people are comfortable, excited, and focused on each other… I feel short-changed that something so basic is depressingly rare in sexual media I see today. I felt cheated once I realized what made them so wonderful. It should not be rare and magical to find erotic art that depicts consensual, joyful, attentive erotic play.
I sometimes hear all of history dismissed as a one-note regressive slog of prudery and shame that’s only recently shifted, but that’s simply not accurate. We may be saturated with sexual images and discussion now, but the absence of repression does not necessarily indicate that the fish tank is healthy – the pH could easily be out of balance in the other direction. Orwell depicted a world in Nineteen Eighty Four where sex was rigidly controlled and regarded as an unpleasant duty, and this is the extreme that’s usually presented when describing unhealthy sexual perceptions. But Aldous Huxley showed the other end of that spectrum in Brave New World, where sex was as mundane and meaningless as after-school chores. Inundation is no healthier than repression, not when sex loses all its context, value, intimacy… everything that makes it transcendent and joyful.
A friend of mine contributed that it was the “natural and joyous” attitude the models had that made the postcards so involving. She said it was wonderful how unposed they were, how they were more involved with each other than in showing their best side-boob angle to the camera.
They offer context and focus. I hear women and men say often that one of the most erotic experiences is to be desired and focused on. To hold a partner’s undivided, ardent attention, to know that the sight, smell, and feel of your body is pleasurable to them. Why then, in a well-lit, stylized internet porn, are both partners barely touching while the camera hones in on a medical image that has become meaningless without any other form of intimacy colouring it? Who really has sex like that, pushed away from each other as much as possible so that the man can be cropped out of the shot?
In a Tedx talk from 2013, Ran Gavrieli discussed “Why I Stopped Watching Porn”. At the time I was wary and critical because I still believed all depictions of sexuality must be inherently progressive and laudable. But he discussed how the aggressive, goal-oriented porn he found online made him irritable and impatient in his day-to-day life. He missed fantasizing about why he and the woman found themselves alone. He’d trained himself to want instant gratification and could no longer indulge in anything but the mechanics of the act.
From that I learned not all depictions of sexuality are created equal. And apparently, the majority of what I’ve been exposed to has been so lacking in connection or context that it feels dazzling to see a man kiss his sweetheart’s forehead instead of immediately interacting with her exposed panties. Their joy in each other and their excitement at being alone are more erotic than all the pitchy, artificial moans in the world.
I am not being sentimental when I ask for context and intimacy – intimacy can be a dark, challenging thing as easily as it can be mushy. Intimacy is paying attention for the subtle signs that a partner has been triggered by a past trauma. Intimacy can be a dominant who knows a sub can only stay in certain positions for under ten minutes. Intimacy is a girlfriend who puts her hand inside her boyfriend’s coat while they’re on the subway, because she’s allowed. It’s focus and surrender co-existing in one pulse. As Joseph Gordon Levitt pointed out in his brilliant Don Jon, it’s “getting lost in another person”.
Television studios could learn something from these postcards, not just in terms of how to present eroticism, but also in how they present everything that surrounds and informs our attitudes towards sexuality (I’m talking to YOU, Game of Thrones). Netflix is on the forefront of this, having given free reign to Melissa Rosenberg, the writer and show-runner of the massively successful “Jessica Jones”. Skip past the naught bicycle accident to bypass possible spoilers.
In contrast to how HBO depicts sexual violence against both women and men so exploitively and gratuitously that it ceases to examining rape culture at all, Melissa Rosenberg never had to show it on screen to tell a stronger story.