Photo by Jasmin Merdan
Artillery Row Books

Sterility as liberation

Sex positivity drains the erotic of existential meaning

What compels a grown man to write a book called Boyslut?

This simple question piqued my initial interest in this “memoir and manifesto” by Men’s Health sex columnist Zachary Zane.

Boyslut: A Memoir and Manifesto, Zachary Zane (Abrams Image, $26)

Zane, who is in his thirties, makes a living selling his “sex positive” lifestyle, providing advice to readers on how to fulfil their sexual fantasies guilt-free and without consequence.

In Boyslut, Zane documents his struggles with being “bisexual, polyamorous, and horny all the time” in a world in which structural systems “idealize an unhealthy masculinity, promote queerphobia, and perpetuate sex-negativity”.

Zane’s first-hand experiences with these “oppressive” systems are documented at length in Boyslut — revealing much in their innocuousness.

Zane admits he grew up in a “very liberal, queer affirming” household. It was his nanny who first introduced him to sexual shame, when she scolded him for experimenting with another boy at the tender age of seven. Zane makes it clear that he doesn’t blame the help for this unfortunate foundational trauma, noting that she “like us all, was a product of a sex-negative and homophobic society”.

In a bizarre aside, Zane notes that he truly loved his nanny and that he “would beg her to feed me her half-eaten food, directly from her mouth like a mama bird”. Rich kid things, I suppose.

Zane’s other big resentment is the “double discrimination” he experiences as a bisexual man. Bisexuals, particularly online, are quick to lament their lack of “representation” in the wider media. They begrudge their diminished situational power within the dog-eat-dog world of identity politics. This insecurity is revealed in some hilariously bland complaints of biphobia in Boyslut, consisting of gay and lesbian people not sufficiently recognising Zane’s “queerness” and both men and women refusing sex. Harrowing stuff!

When reading the first chapters of Boyslut, I was fully prepared to just mock the author for his self-indulgent nonsense. The book is written in painful millennial sarcasm, and it’s pretty clear the author lacks the confidence to write seriously on any topic. How else is one meant to interpret: “I think we should celebrate STIs. It means you’re getting some, and couldn’t we all use a little more action?”

As Boyslut becomes more confessional, the darker components of Zane’s “sex positive” lifestyle bleed through. What at first comes off as a juvenile and asinine take on sex is gradually exposed to be something much more troubling.

Zane is a self-confessed “fraysexual” — one of those stupid online neologisms for a person who only experiences sexual attraction to someone for whom they have no emotional attachment. Relatedly, and possibly because of this, Zane primarily engages in very rough sex.

Much of Boyslut is spent describing Zane’s experiences within group sex — choking and (so important it gets its own chapter) emetophilia. “Whether someone’s puking on my dick or I’m puking on theirs; I’m an equal opportunity vomit fetishist!” Zane exclaims.

Sex for Zane is a completely unserious activity. Having racked up over 2,000 sexual partners he still understands eros as a bit of “fun” without much, if any, emotional significance attached. It therefore wasn’t at all surprising to learn that Zane deals with ongoing mental health issues, particularly obsessive-compulsive disorder. A sex columnist with obsessiveness is a bit like a doctor with hypochondria — prone to projecting their own pathological worldview onto others.

For people disposed to intrusive thoughts, the contemporary “sex positive” movement is understandably appealing: providing clear structures and certainties to mitigate sexual risk, whilst working to purge society of all guilt. However, it’s clear Zane has been led by these ideas towards a rather diminished understanding of sexuality.

Beginning in the internal squabbles amongst feminists in the 1990s, the “sex positive movement” is an ideology that frames sex as inherently unproblematic as long as it is done in a consensual, risk-aware and health-conscious manner. Sexologist Carol Queen describes the movement as a celebration of “sexual diversity, differing desires and relationship structures, and individual choices based on consent”.

Sex-positivity is a far cry from many of the leading theories of eroticism

Sex-positivity fits within what philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls the “enlightened consumerist hedonism” of the West, where “enjoyment is tolerated, solicited even, but on condition that it is healthy, that it doesn’t threaten our psychic or biological stability”. It is this free market approach to sexuality — combined with a fair amount of US-style therapy language about harm, trauma and “finding oneself” — that we see in Boyslut. For Zane, we are not born sexually free, but into a world filled with hang-ups and stigma, which we must unlearn and transcend to enjoy ourselves.

Zane’s ethos is to not be “bound by traditional heteronormative scripts” and to “embrace a range of ethically non-monogamous relationship styles”. “I’ve gotten over my sexual insecurities,” Zane proudly exclaims. “I’m brazenly out as bisexual, and I don’t have a bone in me that’s sex-negative. I’m sexually shameless, baby!” We all, of course, must become sexually shameless as well.

In substance, sex-positivity is a far cry from how many of the leading theorists of eroticism have approached the subject.

For the grand theorist of eroticism Georges Bataille, drawing on Freud, sexual desire is intertwined with a longing for self-annihilation. According to Bataille, we find refuge from cold individuality in the touch of another by breaking through to a sense of continuity, by “assenting to life up to the point of death”. Good sexuality (or eroticism) is not about simple pleasure seeking, but an encounter with the abyss in the moment right after orgasm (the little death).

Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that all pleasures, including from sex, come not as some gift from the body, but in the relief of ridding oneself of an unpleasantness (in this case, the sexual drive). It is in the brief post-coital suspension of the mind amongst lovers where sexual bliss is truly found, not in the possessive climax that precedes it.

This of course, all sounds very “sex negative” to contemporary ears. What’s wrong with a bit of harmless fun without all the sentimentality? Boyslut gives us the answer in its depiction of sex completely purged of existential risk.

Zane’s accounts of sex, rather than enviable moments of life-affirming, mind shattering sex, read more like a tourist racking up novel experiences. In the opening chapter to Boyslut, Zane cheerfully lists off his various accomplishments:

I’ve had sex with men, women, and nonbinary folks. I’ve had sex with twenty-one-year-old guys and grandmothers three times that age. I’ve had sex with people in and from dozens of countries. I’ve had sex with drug addicts, millionaires, and millionaire drug addicts (free cocaine, yay!). I’ve had orgies with over a hundred people, anonymous sex in saunas, and have hooked up with my Lyft driver.

These aren’t the tantalising memoirs of a Don Juan, but a rather silly attempt to impress readers by flexing one’s promiscuity.

Philosopher Byung Chul Han describes how our current social climate is one of culturally mandated self-exploitation. Becoming an “entrepreneur of the self” cages us in a cycle of self-curation, novelty seeking and self-marketing. Reading Zane’s accounts of his sexual exploits, I do wonder how much of all of this is playing up to the mascot of “horny bisexual sex columnist”, rather an earnest quest for sexual freedom.

The descriptions of violent sexuality in Boyslut aren’t shocking because of their content — we’ve known for centuries that male sexuality is prone to aggressive, sadomasochistic fantasy — but because the author gives no weight to these experiences. They are merely part of his shame-free sexual brand.

The sex positivity movement, in its urge to “destigmatise” and license any and all sexual activity, has deprived sexual encounters of any value. Call me a prude, but I think oral penetration to the point of puking should elicit something of a visceral response. Sexual shame, rather than a tool of oppression, is a sign that a person is embedded within a prism of meaning where limits exist to be transgressed. There is no point in a kink without shame.

Writer Mary Harrington has noted that the increased popularity of BDSM and stylised sexual violence is an attempt by many (particularly young people) to recapture and “re-wild” sexuality, which has been culturally overexposed and overanalysed. “The true, deep wildness of sex can only be reproduced, in the sterile order of de-risked consumer sex,” she writes in Feminism Against Progress. Even these extremes appear at risk of being intellectualised and diminished.

In one chapter, Zane describes being part of a panel discussion at a porn film festival where he nonchalantly discusses his puke fetish. “Oh, very interesting,” the moderator calmly replies. “Is there any type of puke you prefer?”

At its core, the sexual liberation proposed in Boyslut is that of Nietzsche’s “last man” — a contentment with simple pleasures with no desire to ascend to sensual heights. Zane’s anxious mind has fixated on the permissions and rules of sex positive gurus, denying himself any truly life changing erotic experiences. In practice, this has led him to the edges of depravity but without any libertine sense of transgression or intimacy.

Despite its jokey title, Boyslut provides an unintentionally nightmarish glimpse at contemporary sexuality. It scandalises, not because of its explicitness, but because its author repackages emotional sterility as a form of liberation.

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