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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A touchy subject

For the last while, Eldest has been checking out a lot of old and esoteric movies from the library. (you can check out her new movie blog here) Tonight, we re-watched Metropolis, and it reminded me of a conversation we'd had about how different the old movies are from today.  In the old silent movies, the acting is physically over the top. Motions are exaggerated, facial expressions extreme. Without speech to convey the message, people did a lot of heart clutching, eyebrow waving and dramatic swooning.

In one old Garbo movie, the two male leads played characters who where the best of friends. They often held each other in their arms, faces inches apart, while talking. They even kissed each other in greeting. While watching Metropolis, we saw various male characters hold and hug each other in various ways, even though the characters weren't close friends. There was a great deal of physical contact. In modern movies, physical contact between men is either the macho, manly sort, where they punch each other's shoulders, or roughly clasp each other, or they're gay characters who's physical contact is meant to imply romance or sexual intimacy. It's similar with female characters, though modern movies do allow women to have more physical contact with each other in a non-sexual manner then men.

Old novels describe characters behaving in similar ways, and these reflected the culture of the time. I remember women of my parents' generation, for example, would frequently walk hand in hand or arm in arm if they were good friends. At social gatherings, I often saw little old ladies dancing waltzes and polkas with each other more often then with men.

Everyone, male and female, greeted each other with kisses. On the cheeks, on the lips, it didn't matter. It wasn't unusual for people staying overnight in each other's homes, at a time when spare bedrooms were rare (if people had houses big enough for there to be bedrooms at all), for women to sleep with other women, and men with men, and no one thought anything of it. It really wasn't that long ago when entire families would sleep together, sometimes in a big dog pile, and any guests would join them. Co-sleeping among family groups was the norm, even for those wealthy enough to have space and beds. I remember reading that the largest bed recorded belonged to a British (?) king, and it slept 120 people. These days, in Canada and the US, everyone is expected to have their own bedroom, and even infants are expected to sleep alone in a separate room - a truly modern turn of events, and far from the norm around the world.

Other cultures are far more comfortable with physical contact. I recall my FIL telling me about some of the customs they had to get used to while living in Bamako, Mali. There, men walked down the street hand in hand, without anyone assuming they were gay. My FIL demonstrated to me the typical behaviour when meeting someone at the beginning of the day.My FIL reached out to hold my hand with one hand, while stroking the back of it with the other.While looking me full in the face, he started asking me things like, how are you feeling today? How is your wife? Your daughter? This would be coming from the people he was working with! Job talk would not start until after this greeting ritual. Saying hello could take 5 or 10 minutes. It took a long time for him to get used to this level of physical touching.

How different our current culture has become!  Somehow, we seem to have come to a point where all physical intimacy is viewed as sexual. If we see two people holding hands, we assume they are in a romantic, if not sexual, relationship; especially if they are of the same gender. More so men than women, for whom girlfriend hugs are still okay. Physical touch has become so sexualized, that many women won't do breast self exams, never mind use tampons that don't come with applicators. Even parents are suspect when touching their own children. Particularly fathers and daughters. I recall reading one psychological text that described a father bouncing his toddler daughter on his lap, interpreting not only the father's actions, but the daughter's responses, in a purely sexual manner. It was downright creepy!

How did we come to this point, that we have so physically isolated ourselves from each other? How did we come to interpret even the most innocent of physical contact as sexual? (I could probably blame Freud, now that I think about it.)

More than that, we seem to have even begun to see all non-familial relationships as potentially sexual. In looking at older generations or reading books from earlier time periods, we see that people developed close, intimate relationships with each other, without them becoming sexual, and no assumption that they ever would. Men and women alike expressed their love for each other, in words, in letters, in gestures, without it ever becoming sexual. Many people, looking at these real or fictional relationships through the lens of our modern culture, insist that this meant they were actually gay - the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Watson being one example.

It seems to me that our sexualization of intimate relationships may even be effecting our ideas of our own sexuality. I think it's perfectly natural to want to touch and hold someone you care deeply for, regardless of gender or sexual preference.  Since we live in a culture that seems to interpret any sort of physical or emotional desires for intimacy as sexual, I suspect that some people who've found themselves caring very deeply about someone of the same gender are concluding that they must be homosexual. Why else would they want to be so intimate with them? It seems we can't even admire the beauty of someone of our own gender without the suggestion that we must be gay because of it. I can look at another woman, admire and enjoy her physical beauty, without it meaning I'm a lesbian and want to have sex with her, yet our culture increasingly sends the message that I couldn't possibly enjoy looking at another woman without being gay. Heaven help a man who appreciates the beauty of another man! (Note: when it comes to homosexuality, I know that for some people, there's no doubt that they are born that way. They're not who I'm talking about.)

The idea that we can form a close bond with another person, share our heart and soul with them, hold them or even *gasp* kiss them! without also wanting to have sex with them just doesn't compute. Our highly sexualized culture tells us that men and woman can't have intimate (or sometimes, even casual) relationships with each other and not want to have sex with each other. In fact, it seems as if our culture sees people as being completely enslaved by our sexual desires, and that we must indulge them. Not only that, but if we find we *don't* have these desires, something must be wrong with us. The idea that we can have a relationship with someone of the opposite sex without wanting to hop into bed with them means one of two things. Either we're gay, or there's something wrong with us and we should go to a doctor for a pill to fix our lack of desire. The idea that we might actually enjoy an intimate, non-sexual, relationship with others seems an aberration. Yet, like co-sleeping and higher levels of physical contact, this interpretation is very new, and not at all the norm for humanity.

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