Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn
In the fifth episode of the third season of Episodes (a comedy by Showtime that reminds me a bit of Entourage and makes me want to work in the series industry very bad), Beverly and Sean Lincoln, a couple of scriptwriters, find it difficult to have sexual intercourse since they got back together. So Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins, ‘Til Death), the network executive who is also Beverly’s friend recommends they should go to a couple counselor (Nancy Lenehan, My Name Is Earl). This is their first visit:
THE SEX THERAPIST (Nancy Lenehan, My Name Is Earl): So, have, uh, either of you ever been to a sex therapist before?
[Beverly and Sean freeze, dumbfounded, then look at each other with terror in their eyes]
BEVERLY (Tasmin Greig, Black Books): W-we were under the impression that you were a couple’s counselor.
THE SEX THERAPIST: Specializing in sex therapy.
SEAN (Stephen Mangan): Bloody hell.
BEVERLY: We were not aware.
SEAN: Thanks, Carol.
THE SEX THERAPIST: Oh, so this isn’t a sexual issue that you’re here to deal with?
BEVERLY: Well, it is.
[Sean seems to disagree, glances at his wife]
BEVERLY: It is!
THE SEX THERAPIST: All right, then why don’t you tell me a little bit about what’s going on?
BEVERLY: [Silence] Okay. We have recently been through a, um… A bit of a rough patch in our marriage, which we have both worked very hard to get past. Unfortunately… It has left us with certain… Uh, ramifications.
THE SEX THERAPIST: Sexual?
BEVERLY : Sexual. Yes. Sexual. Sexual.
SEAN: Say it another ten times.
BEVERLY: I’m sorry, it is sexual.
SEAN: Nine more?
THE SEX THERAPIST: Sean, let me ask you a question. Are you able to achieve an erection?
SEAN: [Silence] I’d really rather not say.
THE SEX THERAPIST: If you want me to help you…
BEVERLY: That is why we’re here.
THE SEX THERAPIST: So, are you?
SEAN: Am I what?
THE SEX THERAPIST: Are you able to achieve an erection?
THE SEX THERAPIST: Do you find it difficult to maintain your erection to complete intercourse?
SEAN: [Silence] I’d rather not say.
THE SEX THERAPIST: Do you masturbate?
SEAN: Her or me?
THE SEX THERAPIST: You.
SEAN: I’d rather not say.
THE SEX THERAPIST: Beverly, I’d like to try an exercise.
BEVERLY: All right.
THE SEX THERAPIST: If your vagina could speak to Sean right now, what would it say to him?
BEVERLY: If my vagina could speak, we’d be having an entirely different set of problems.
THE SEX THERAPIST: I sense your discomfort. But, please.
BEVERLY: [Silence] Okay. Uh… I suppose, if it could speak… it would want him to know…
THE SEX THERAPIST: No, no! No. As your vagina… to Sean.
BEVERLY: [Silence] Hi, Sean.
THE SEX THERAPIST: Have you two thought about alternatives to intercourse? Perhaps you could pleasure each other orally or engage in anal play.
SEAN: Mm, absolutely!
SEAN: Take me home. I want to go home.
THE SEX THERAPIST: Sean, as you find yourself losing your erection…
SEAN: Oh, good, we’re back on that.
THE SEX THERAPIST: …do you think that there’s anything that Beverly could do differently?
THE SEX THERAPIST: No? Maybe something that she used to do, or for some fantasy?
THE SEX THERAPIST: Maybe something that this other woman did.
SEAN: Oh, God, no. Look… It’s not about sex.
What is the origin of Sean’s modesty? Freud saw in shame the expression of a feeling of being small, a conscious or unconscious sense of failure and inferiority. He associated it to narcissism and self-regard. Indifference to the judgement made by others prevents shame.
Sean Lincoln is an English man in Los Angeles, working in the show business as a script writer. One may think that as he is living in a world where people do not mind exposing their private lives in the tabloids, he too must be comfortable with his own self-exposure. But it is not only Hollywood: in the western societies (that assume the lead role in the world’s big dramedy), the frontier between public life and private life has been more and more blurred over time. World leaders show their homes, their families, their emotions in super close-up. They have to justify themselves to the world, about whether or not they are having an affair.
Ever since the fifties, television has become some kind of secular confessional. First, the listeners in distress could call the TV show and pour out their feelings on air. Then, in the seventies, the shrinks were all the rage: you had to let it go, to just “tell everything” (Freud’s “alles sagen“). The next decade was the decade of the very first reality shows, that bloomed in the nineties. Not to mention today, the great era of social networks and home-made porn. Modesty seems to have been outdated for decades now but still Sean Lincoln is embarrassed.
The Franco-Czech writer Milan Kundera denounced a world where no one would have anything to hide. In Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts (1993), he defines shame as “one of the key notions of the Modern Era, the individualistic period that is imperceptibly receding from us these days; shame: an epidermal instinct to defend one’s personal life; to require a curtain over the window; to insist that a letter addressed to A not be read by B. One of the elementary situations in the passage to adulthood, one of the prime conflicts with parents, is the claim to a drawer for letters and notebooks, the claim to a drawer with a key; we enter adulthood through the rebellion of shame.”
However, the utopia of a perfectly transparent life brings back the images of one of the darkest times in the history. The French Surrealist Poet André Breton dreamed of a glass house where everyone could see him: “I myself shall continue living in my glass house where you can always see who comes to call, where everything hanging from the the ceiling and on the walls stays where it is as if by magic, where I sleep nights in a glass bed, under glass sheets, where who I am will sooner or later appear etched by a diamond.” But Kundera who experienced real socialism in Czechoslovakia knows best: the only possible fulfillment of this dream is a totalitarian society controled by the police.
Cultivating one’s secret garden is in a certain way an act of rebellion, it is defending one’s liberty to decide the content and the addressee of the information one discloses about oneself. It is the power to say no. But shame is also a question of appropriateness: not only should the time be appropriate to expose oneself, but so should the place. The following lines by John Green illustrates it (Looking for Alaska, 2005):
“There are times when it is appropriate, even preferable to get an erection when someone’s face in close proximity to your penis.
This was not one of those times.”
For the Christian philosophers, decency indicates and preserves the threshold between body-object and body-subject, between visible and invisible, between private sphere and public sphere. Walking topless on the European beaches is not as embarrassing for European women as it would be in the middle of a steering committee of a mortgage company. According to Serge Tisseron, French writer and psychoanalyst, modesty is not revealing nothing about one’s intimacy. It is revealing something about it but only in the appropriate places. In the same time, the notion of appropriateness varies in time and space. In many African countries, it is more indecent to unveil a thigh than to expose one’s breast. In China, the water closet often has neither a door nor a partition, but sexual intercourses are to be performed in the dark.
“Everyone, either from modesty or egotism, hides away the best and most delicate of his soul’s possessions; to gain the esteem of others, we must only ever show our ugliest sides; this is how we keep ourselves on the common level”
― Gustave Flaubert, November (1842)