The Velvet Glove, the Iron Fist, the Historic Failure, the Blandest Myth

“Love don’t make the world go round, it holds it right in place, keeps us thinking love’s too pure to see another face. Love’s another skin-trap, another social weapon, another way to make men slaves and women at their beckon. Love’s another sterile gift, another shit condition, that keeps us seeing just the one and others not existing.”

Smother Love by Crass

“You see there’s lots of chances in this land of hope and glory. Try and make your own rules, that’s a different story. If you’re a man, you’d better act like one. Develop your muscles, use your prick like a gun. Fuck anything that moves, but never pay the price. Steal, fuck, slaughter, that’s their advice. Are you man enough? Ask the posters on the walls. Have you got what it takes? Guts and balls? Keep your myth of manhood, it’s been going on too long, a history of slaughter is the proof that it is wrong.”

Big Man, Big M.A.N. by Crass

At this point in my life I don’t have sex and I’m generally uninterested in it. Romance holds no allure for me. While just like anyone else I’m interested in causality I hesitate to attribute my general lack of desire for this most human of impulses to any one particular factor. It could be that I’m on a number of medications that count as side effects a diminishment of one’s sex drive. If this is the case I’m fairly grateful for this outcome. There’s nothing so compulsive as the drive towards pair bonding. Freedom from it is welcome, perhaps outstripping the antidepressant effects of these medications themselves. 

Or maybe it’s a learning curve that I’m on. As for many people I find that monogamous partnership that has perfect and unending union as its goal is something that I’m supposed to want. However when I’m on track for this sort of thing I feel stifled, surveilled and limited. I fight against my own patterns of behavior that, although they may be maladaptive, allow me to make it through the day. I’ve got all sorts of undesirable traits that I feel compelled to hide when I’m with someone. I don’t want them to know that I’m a slob. I don’t want them to suspect that I’m lazy. I don’t want them to see me with my shirt off or realize that I sleepwalk and eat during my somnambulism. These are things that are supposed to be secret and I feel threatened when they are subject to the gaze of another. To paraphrase a friend of mine, I can’t take the mirror that it holds up. The judgement of others is something I fear. The judgement of myself is something I’ve learned to live with. 

The illness, or illnesses, that I live with are another factor here. While antidepressants are libido killers, depression itself is too. There are times when I can’t do ‘it’, or anything for that matter. I’ll eat only toast for days or allow garbage and clutter to tower over me. There’s no working, a fact that I prefer to keep ambiguous for anyone but lifelong friends or blood relatives. And of course, there is the constant specter of anhedonia, where pleasure is simply not attainable. I want to like things and put a lot of effort into attempts at breaking through the barrier, but ultimately I’m just acting. I want to return to the seated position and type until my concentration falters, at which point I read ethnographic treatments of mythical monsters. 

Maybe it’s training. I was raised in a household where a terrible marriage was the defining and pivotal source of misery. I can’t point to a relative in the generation preceding mine who didn’t have a marriage crumble after a few years. When the thing that is conveyed to you, over and over again, is that the best thing one can hope for out of life is a disappointing pairing that results in unhappy kids who need to be supported financially by a job that is, at best, tolerable, well, it starts one thinking that maybe the whole deal is a bad one. We mortgage our independence and self-direction to a package of goods that is maggot infested and moldy. 

My experience has been that I’m poorly suited for this way of living. In the last six years I’ve been in two relationships. One lasted for three months. The other one was with someone living in Taiwan. We spent perhaps two months in close proximity to one another and even this was more than I felt I could do. One video chat a week was too much, and ultimately I felt that I was wasting both of our time. These were both uncomfortable experiences for me. I feared the possibility of a greater degree of commitment. I hated the thought of living outside of my sickbed. Breakups are uncomfortable and inevitable and it’s easier to simply avoid the conditions that bring them about in the first place. I need to be free to be sick. 

I didn’t have this self-awareness for most of my life, nor did I have the political savvy to understand that, where partners are concerned, I am a bad person. My early romantic life was typified by me acting like a scumbag and while the more egregious aspects of this diminished over time, it was only rounded ‘round the edges. I went from a cheating and mean person to someone who was simply disappointing. I confused sex for love and love for fulfillment and I never got beyond the first step of this conditional statement. I felt that if someone loved me I would finally love myself and I clearly got this backwards. 

Misogyny is a factor here. I grew up in an environment in which my parents were profoundly unhappy. While my mother seemed desperate to repair the divide, all of her efforts saw my father retreat further. Children were accessories to disdain and annoyance. I came to resent my mother for her inability to leave, a hobbling born of hope destined to end in more disappointment.

Against this backdrop I experienced a great deal of bullying. Some men will be able to relate. A feature of bullying, or at least the bullying that I experienced, is emasculation. You are physically assaulted, sure, but there is a sexually charged element to it. As you get punched and kicked, you are called ‘bitch’ and ‘faggot’, over and over again, as fists rain down. There is a kind of circularity to all of this- are you beaten because your sexuality and gender are in question, or are your gender and sexuality in question because you are beaten? I still don’t know. 

But the effects of this are that you come to hate the parts of you that rebel against the prison of gender, that find no pleasure in masculinity. These integral things, these fundamental oppositions, these ways of being that might lead you to shed your skin and live as something different become the sources of your pain and fear. You’re too young to see that your failure to walk the lines of this binary are anything other than a scarlet letter that singles you out. You come to hate yourself and the people like you who are buried in the toxicity of it all. You become a misogynist and a homophobe, a kind of jailhouse snitch or plantation overseer who seeks redemption by winning the favor of enemies by stomping on the people below you. 

One of the many shitty outcomes of this process is that women become nothing more than a means of validating your masculinity. You use notches in the bedpost as mile markers towards the respect of the people who’ve hurt you. You resent them because they remind you of yourself, the you who was sensitive, the you who was kind, the you who appreciated beauty and walked in ambiguity for just a little while. 

By the time this leghold trap has sprung you’re not even aware of it. The disregard for women and gender rebels is baked in. It feels natural, though it is anything but. To prevent any doubt as to your sexuality you become a violent validation of a thing you never wanted: To be a man, entirely untroubled by the violence that will continue to rain down on people more like you than you can ever admit.

I’ve come to terms with this in the last decade. It is a hard thing to even see and an even harder thing to admit. When you realize you’ve been a traitor to humanity by being a partisan of your feeble genitals there’s nothing to do but cry for a few years and try to salvage whatever time remains. 

Emerging from  scattered islands of punk and anarchism I came upon critiques of romance and gender that provided me with a great analysis of the conundrum that I failed completely to internalize. The great proselytizers of anarcho-punk, Crass (quoted above), made a useful and incisive intervention into the phenomenon of love,  marriage and masculinity. It is nothing aside from the ideal condition for the reproduction of labor power, with a waged male slouching his way towards the factory (or wielding a club) while a woman cleans and cooks and bears children without a dime of her own to show for it. It is the enemy of transcendence, one that promises us the feathered wings of angels while only providing us with the repetition of a dialectic. Loved/Not loved. Worthy/Unworthy. We can’t promise ourselves to humanity in this paradigm. There are no ways to break free from the tyranny of social reproduction when we are trapped like this. 

Emma Goldman is another figure who speaks to this, offering both a personal narrative of her refusal of unyielding monogamy as well as a crique. To read her autobiography is to be dazzled by a life of ceaseless dynamism while fending off the efforts of the men who surrounded her to tie her to them and them alone. This is not to say she didn’t love. In fact she loved furiously, but it was a love for the species in its entirety, for the people in her life and for the ideals to which she was committed. This isn’t to say she was celibate. Quite the opposite. Emma had tons of sex. There were many times she had to painfully extricate herself from the tar pit of monogamy, but she did it. She serves as a reminder of the terrible gravity of the unfreedom that marriage threatens, and an example of a furious refusal to give up and drown in it. 

The indoctrination of this way of living starts early. We watch our parents fight and then we’re bewildered when they assure us of their devotion to one another. Disney heroes find their perfect, magical partners and we forget to ask what happens next. Every move we make as we grow is undergirded by a current of sexuality. Be a football hero. A cop. A soldier. You will be loved. Be beautiful, be a cheerleader. You will be loved. Aspire for more to be loved better, to be as close to perfect as one can be, and the gift of love is still the only prize that you can redeem your tickets for. It’s a Chuck-E-Cheese game that everyone plays and no one wins. 

When I’m not paired my heart is bigger. I am able to orbit something like self-love. The children, relatives and friends in my life are afforded the fullness of my attention and this feels more mutual, more rewarding, and less fraught. I only have to be me for these people. And while I inhabit this frail human body that deteriorates day by day, I feel no compulsion to rage against it. I hope I go into the dark as myself with no one who requires me to deny my suffering or to be any braver than I am. We all leave this world. I don’t know what happens next. If I am nothing then there will be no tears that I can cry about my erasure. If there is something then I can navigate this space with the door firmly closed on the past. Either way I will be more free than I was in life. 

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