As I continue making notes and gathering ideas for my new novel Fallen Men, I find myself reflecting frequently on the writing of my first novel The City of Earthly Desire. More specifically, I ponder about the themes I chose to address in that book and, perhaps more importantly, why I even bothered to address those themes at all.
One the central themes I explored in The City of Earthly Desire was casual sex. Now if you happen to be one of those hacks churning out 99 cent ebooks with titles like I Don't Care Who You Are, Just Fuck Me, the subject of casual sex probably does not inspire a great deal of soul-searching or angst within the dark recesses of your sybarite imagination and that's just swell, I guess. But for a writer like me, one who explored the topic extensively through narrative only to come to the conclusion that the very notion of casual sex is perhaps the most acute oxymoron ever created, well, the subject becomes a tricky one to write about. How do you criticize the altar one of contemporary society's most alluring and most worshipped golden calves without coming off as moralistic, prudish, self-righteous, or biblical? (Damn, I just got all biblical there with the whole golden calf thing!)
The answer to that is simple. For most readers, you can't, and you won't.
What you say grinds against the entire sexual liberation philosophy that has infested our culture. When I approached the topic of casual sex in The City of Earthly Desire I came to the realization that what I included in the story would turn many people off and make them scoff in defiant irritation. Given the choice, they would choose the calf and that's all there was too it. This didn't trouble me too much. In the end, I believe the decision to accept a contradictory concept like casual sex is ultimately an individual choice, and like all choices of that nature it is the individual who must face the echoes and consequences of their decisions. What really interested me was the ubiquituous and pervasively fundamental belief that casual sex was totally free of any sort of consequence. This inspired to ponder the origins of our beliefs about casual sex and our attitudes toward its practice in the real world. These lines of thought eventually found their way into the story.
I began with the simple question of what people believe casual sex to be. On the surface, the concept is an attractive one; one can fulfill one's sexual desires in an encounter that has been mutually agreed upon by another consenting adult, or perhaps many other consenting adults. Seen in this light, casual sex becomes the epitome of the old cliché of "having your cake and eating it too." In theory, you can get together with another person for whom your feelings never ascend past the physical, get your rocks off, then have a good shower and go home without giving the encounter another thought beyond perhaps a warm feeling of physical satisfaction and satiation. Approached this way, sex is reduced to the level of a good meal, a fine glass of wine, or an exhilerating workout at the gym. And let's be honest - even if we have not indulged in casual sex, who among us has not yearned for such sexual experiences? Who among us has not at least daydreamed of getting down with someone at the purely primal level and then getting up and getting out with no strings attached once the getting down was done? It's the stuff fantasies are made of, and since sex is a powerful primal force in most of our lives, casual sex fantasies are powerful forces to be reckoned with.
Yet as I began to explore the subject in my first novel, I came to the rather cold conclusion that casual sex is, in essence, nothing more than a fantasy. Not fantasy in the sense that it is impossible to act out in the world on the physical level, but rather fantasy in the sense that it cannot be acted out in the world the way people envision that it can. As much as we would like to deny it, sex without consequences is impossible.
Traditionally, the most obvious and concrete consequences associated with casual sex - unwanted pregnancy and disease contraction - were also the the biggest deterrents. The advent of the birth control pill and condoms removed these obstacles and the path to wanton, liberal, and, most significantly, consequence-free fornication was cleared. Or so it seemed. There is no denying that birth control and condoms practically obliterated the concrete consequences of sex, but no pill or ribbed-for-her-pleasure latex sheath can defend against the more subtle consequences of sexual encounters, namely the psychological and the spiritual consequences.
Of course, those who subscribe to casual sex and do not comprehend the contradiction inherent in either the term or the action cite pleasure as the only consequence worthy of discussion and vehenmently deny the severity of any other kind of consequences. As I wrote my novel, I found this to be a misguided and dishonest stance. A denial of reality. A fantasy. Or, as Jordan Peterson recently quipped in one of his YouTube videos, "a demented adolescent's fantasy."
To believe that one can engage in a casual physical sexual encounter without the encounter leaving any lasting psychological or spiritual consequence on oneself or upon the person with whom one experienced the sexual encounter seemed both peurile and wrongheaded to me as continued deeper into the writing of my book. Despite the allure of the phrase, I found that there was nothing truly casual about casual sex. Despite promises to the contrary, pleasure was not the sole side effect. The words casual and sex bind together only in fantasy. In reality, the meaning inherint in each word repels the meaning inherint in the other. In this sense, casual sex is a true oxymoron - the first word utterly contradicts the second. To echo the original Greek meaning of the term oxymoron, casual sex becomes something that is pointedly foolish. Casual sex = pointed foolishness. This was the conclusion I reached as I wrote The City of Earthly Desire.
All right, so casual sex is pointed foolishness. Great. The problem is this - I realized that weaving this idea into a narrative would not win me many friends. Why? Well, who among us wants to face the possibility that casual sex might not be so casual after all? It's not so much that people fear they might be denied the freedom to engage in casual sex, but rather that people fear they might be denied the freedom to fantasize about casual sex. Engaging in casual sex relies solely on the belief in the casualness of the act, that is, that the act is truly free of consequence. Accepting the reality that the act is anything but casual is, to put it colloquially, a bummer. The fantasy of the demented teenager ends and we are forced to look upon the subject with sober adult eyes. And let's face it, there's not much fun in that is there?
Unless, of course, one considers all the recent sex scandals plaguing America - Harvey Weinstein and all the rest of them. Sure. Sure. Faulty comparisons. But are they?
If I learned anything while writing The City of Earthly Desire it was this: We do not approach the topic of sex with any level of acceptable seriousness. I'm not sure what the ultimate answer is, or if such a thing even exists, but as I wrote the novel I came to the realization that most of us really are demented, fantasizing teenagers when it comes to the topic of casual sex. This mode of thinking becomes dangerous in the end simply because it does not grant the appropriate level of gravitas to the subject.
As I mentioned before, this conviction will be considered problematic, contentious, or laughable by many, but there it is.
Sometimes I wish I were a 99 cent hack erotica writer - life would be a hell of a lot simpler and more profitable then. I could propogate and indulge in the fantasy of casual sex and devote me creative energies to composing killer titles like . . .
aw, the hell with that. When it comes to writing, I will always choose what I feel is right rather than what is easy, which is another theme I addressed when I wrote The City of Earthly Desire, but I won't wade into that now.