I initially wrote this for Thought Catalog and while the comments were more or less what you'd expect, some of them did make me think and re-work this piece.
I had a friend who would always disparage young women who dated older guys. She'd say what you'd expect her to say with the tone of scorn you can imagine: These girls just have a daddy complex.
Now, let's put aside how condescending that is, so swiftly to brush aside someone else's will and desire, to reduce it to a symptom of some sort of so-called malady. What's actually absurd about her claim is that, well, all desires are a complex. How else do we learn to want, to desire, than by the experiences we've had? And what experience of desire is more intense than that of a parent? Freud was absolutely right in one sense: all desire is at some point Oedipal (or Electric). I mean, wouldn't it be weird if my desire was not shaped by the fact that I emerged from a woman's vagina, suckled on her breasts for sustenance, was tucked in every night by her and told everything would be all right (a lie, but still)? Where else is desire supposed to come from?
Of course, erotic desire cannot be reduced to Oedipus. After all, we are inundated with stimuli, with provocation, coming at us from all angles — TV, magazines, internet, bus stops, other people on the street. And then there are all the objects — those shiny, plastic come hither packages tempting and beckoning with an odd, ahuman allure. I watch my son's eyes light up as we pass the toy section at Walgreen's. When he looks closer, he sees that there's nothing there he actually wants, not really. But this doesn't stop him from desiring, from being tempted, by all the goo and color and sheen of cheap ass shite. When I was a kid, my grandmother would take me to the gift shop at Lennox Hill Hospital on 77th Street in Manhattan. And, to this day, I remember my longing for the Aquaman action figure. I didn’t even know who Aquaman was. But something about his golden shirt and equally golden locks and his black boots and intimated intimacy with all things aqueous — a Nazi in the womb? — had my full attention. Go figure.
These streams of temptation, these forces of desire, are multifarious, insidious, pervasive, and ideological. In the most obvious of examples, think about our desire for things such as a house and car that leaves us indebted for life.That is, we find ourselves desiring things that hurt us. No doubt, this is true of sexual desires, too, as they're informed and inflected by so many forces, some more explicitly ideological, controlling, and violent than others.
Having been alive for over 44 years and having been intimately involved with women for over 30 of those years, it'd be hard not to notice the multitude of factors that feed into the madness of sexual desire. There is, of course, all that guilt. I know women who are outrageously, beautifully, voraciously sexual who disparage sex — even while they're coming on to you. Is this not a complex of some sort? Have women not been trained in all sorts of ways to feel both sexual and guilty for being sexual?
It's not just women, of course, who experience that awful congruence of sex and guilt. For me, so much of my sex life has been defined by hypochondria which is itself an expression of my guilt: I'm afraid I'll do something in the moment for which I'll pay horribly unto eternity. Rather than eternal damnation, I have feared AIDS and herpes. Sure, I came up (as it were) with the rise of AIDS and saw young men dying everywhere around me. These images, this experience, fed my guilt that I'd somehow fuck up (again, as it were) and disappoint everyone, mostly my mother, by dying because I was horny.
So what is a so-called healthy desire? If this person I knew could reduce another's desire to Oedipus, then she must feel there is some sort of desire that is not tainted (ahem) by...what? What is this desire that is not a complex but that is pure and unadulterated?
The fact is it doesn't exist. All desire is a complex, a taking in, a processing, a putting out. The apparatus that would have us — that would let us — reduce someone else's desire to a perversion is an apparatus of judgment and control (pace Foucault).
This is not to say that certain sexual actions should not be criminalized and discouraged. That would be absurd. It's to say that the judgement of desire is incredibly tricky. To tell someone what they feel is not right, that it comes from a dark place, that it's informed by capitalism or patriarchy, to tell them that their desire is a sickness, a "complex," is to reduce that person to a symptom. It's to deny his or her will, his or her voice. This is what turned me off from Marxist critique when I was younger, these self-righteous claims to false consciousness: You think you want that but you really don't. Who has the privilege to state that? Where is that person standing?
I'm not saying that we can't critique desire. At times, we have to interrogate our most assumed beliefs, including our desires. I'm just saying the critique of desire is awfully tricky as it's situated in a place where you can't separate the function of ideology from the will of the individual. We are all always already enmeshed in flows of desire and ideology. We are all situated within — while situating — a complex of some sort.
When I was first in San Francisco, I found myself in an apartment that had been the home to a bunch of blood-sex folks. I'm not really sure what that means. But I know that there were bloodstains on the walls and that, presumably, people who lived there got the rocks off doing some kind of something with blood. While it's not my cup of tea (see my hypochondria), why would I possibly care if they enjoy it? Because it's weird?
What is weird desire, anyway? To me, the will to judge others for their perversions (whatever those are) is itself perverse. It demands a certain relish in the power of condemnation that wields psychiatric dogma like a club. If you look at the comments on Thought Catalog, the first instinct of critique was to dub me a creepy pervert (not to mention old and bald: how did they know?) — which is precisely that perverse will to judgement in action.
It seems to me that if there's such a thing as healthy desire, it's the desire that fuels your health and vitality, brings you peace, calm, love, satiation. If you keep dating people who make you miserable as you find yourself fighting ad nauseam and angry and anxious too much of the time, well, that seems unhealthy regardless of how old they are or what kind of panties they wear. If you drink someone else's blood while wearing lederhosen and a wig and feel so beautifully alive and everyone involved is enjoying themselves — which may take the form of pain, mind you — well, that sure sounds like a healthy desire to me.