Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Strong stuff, thin ice

A colleague recently sought to summarise an epistle from the Department for Energy and Climate Change – and if, at this point, you’re already wandering off, I bid you persist, for the origin of this particular tale tells little of its middle or its end – and encountered a variety of jargon terms that, before circulating a summary, she wisely and kindly translated.

In amongst the various technical terms referring to sundry measures, technologies and institutional norms associated with the production and consumption of energy, she found the couplet “ghost load”. This, as the energy-literate among you will already know, is the small charge that permeates the electrical grid all the time.

It is also, according to a variety of ‘on line dictionaries’ [no link provided...], a slang term referring (and, at this point, I respectfully invite all readers of a sensitive disposition, or who have hitherto led sheltered lives, or whose belief systems give them reason to take offence at items of an explicit sexual nature, to turn away now) to a sexual practice that, for the purposes of the remainder of this piece I have no option but to describe, as follows:

To ‘ghost load’ is the practice whereby a male, typically engaged in heterosexual coitus from the rear, withdraws just before ejaculation and then simulates that ejaculation by spitting on his partner’s back; his partner turns around (apparently) at which point, and to his partner’s surprise, the male ejaculates into her face (a “facial”)

Assuming (for the moment) that both this practice and this definition are news to you (as they were to me) your reaction – at this very moment – may be especially telling; and may, furthermore, tell us something important about the current state of affairs in the world.

I want to suggest that your reaction will lie somewhere along a spectrum. I want to explore this spectrum, initially with respect to a classification that ranges from ‘negative’ through ‘neutral’ to ‘positive’. At this stage, I am referring not to any social sense of positive or negative – by which I mean, I do not wish to ascribe some socially-determined sense of ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ to the negative/positive distribution (I’m far too good a most-post-Modernist for that); and neither, while I’m at it, do I thereby automatically endorse a pure moral relativist position; I am, rather, in the first instance at least, keen to focus solely upon the – your – initial, unprocessed, unanalysed, dare I say instinctive reaction to your discovery of the concept of ‘ghost load’.

Let’s start at the negative end of the spectrum. It sounds disgusting? Degrading? Morally reprehensible? Unfathomable?

And in the middle? A nothing, a not-especially pleasant or unpleasant sexual activity between two consenting adults, barely worthy of attention. Or: a normal, you are already familiar with this (either through your own practise or your reading). Or: a humdrum, yet another in the litany of human sexual practices that modern society is either revealing or enabling, to which you react with nothing more exciting than indifference.

And, at the positive end: a thrill! That sounds like a fantastic idea! Or: an intimate, warming moment, in which two humans express their love for one another in their chosen fashion; or a sign that human sexual exploration continues unabated and that this is yet another wonderful expression of that endeavour.

You get the gist. I imagine that it would be possible to expound further upon each of these three, but to little further effect: you get the gist. (She got the jism, you get the gist.)

So. Where were you? Before any of your processing or rationalisation?


And after?

My view – or, perhaps more accurately, my response - was somewhere between negative and neutral. My ex-post rationalisation of this response found three acorns that led into a much, much bigger argument.

Acorn one is the notion that your own sexual proclivities and attitudes are an unavoidable amalgam of the things you’ve done, the things you heard or read about and the things you’ve fantasised about. Growing up in a time of Fiesta, the naughty bits in James Herbert novels and the publication of Alex Comfort’s ‘The Joy of Sex’ – for example – provides a very different frame of reference to – by way of counter-example – the front page of The Daily Star, on-line pron, JPG files for the mobile phone and Fifty Shades of Grey. The parameters of your expectations, the spaces within which you formulate ‘normal’, are profoundly different. The expectations you have of yourself, and others, must be different: and thus, too, your path of conduct.

Acorn two is an apocryphal tale from a friend of yore, who spent some years in a relationship with a handsome Dutch man. (The Netherlands, remember, is a country lauded in many parts of the UK for having spectacularly successful liberal laws and attitudes, and which has – amongst other things – one of the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy in the world.) My friend explained that sexual practice is taught (by parents, to children) with reference to a metaphor – of cheese. When young, so it is told, it is appropriate and sensible to eat mild cheese; and to progress, as the palate develops, to stronger cheese only with age. It is, furthermore, unwise to eat too strong a cheese too early: you don’t appreciate it as much, and you remove certain pleasures from your future self.

It’s a nice metaphor, it seems to me: don’t go too far, too fast, you’ll only spoil it for yourself.

And acorn three is a joke I heard told by the lovely Irish comedian Dara O’Briain. He imagines a young couple, in a few years’ time, visiting their family doctor together. We want a baby, they say, and we’ve been having trouble conceiving: could you give us IVF or somesuch, please, they ask.

Being a thoughtful woman, the doctor thinks to check a few basics first. You’re having sex regularly? Oh yes, they say. And not having any trouble with the sex? Oh no, they say. So could you describe a little of your sex life, she asks. Of course, they say. Well, we normally start on the sofa, with some kissing and cuddling, and then we usually head upstairs to the bedroom, and take our clothes off, and then when we’re nice and ready my husband puts his willy inside me, and he moves backwards and forwards like normal, and we really enjoy it, and then just before he comes he pulls out his cock and wanks into my face.


We now live in a world where the following is the case:
  • on-line pornography means that extremely strong cheese is available in a matter of seconds to more or less everyone (and the statistics suggest that the overwhelming majority of men make, at a minimum, occasional use of on-line pornography) (and yes, that means you, and me)
  • the requirements of pornography – such as ‘the money shot’, and the idea that ‘the action’ is visible, and the idea that women are hairless – are generating notions of ‘normal’ that are totally at odds with day-to-day reality
  • sexualised images of women (and, increasingly, men) are virtually ubiquitous (take a look at the front cover of The Daily Star, available everyday alongside, and at the same eyeline, as other ‘newspapers’)
  • male attitudes towards women, rather than progressing since the emergence of feminism in the 1970s, seem to be going backwards rather than forwards. It seems that virtually all women have to deal with either the reality or the threat of leering, sexual abuse or harassment on a daily basis; and it is taking courageous stances from the likes of Hollaback and Slutwalk to bring this to ‘mainstream’ attention [though, for the life of me, how on earth a daily issue for half the population is not already a ‘mainstream’ issue is utterly befuddling) while pole-dancing and lap-dancing clubs seem to be on the verge of ‘acceptability’
  • most discussion of and/or reference to such issues takes place on the ‘women’s’ pages of newspapers and/or websites

Enough, I cry. We have two, big problems here.

Problem the first: the liberal attitude towards sex, engendered by the freedoms of the 1960s, and which was so vital and essential and emancipatory and wonderful, has reached a point – by no means uncommon in human affairs – where the freedoms are both being abused (not least, of course, by the big corporates – the sex industry in the US is second in turnover only to the aerospace industry) and are in turn abusing. We are being debased. We are lessening ourselves. We are actually depleting our ability to enjoy ourselves through gluttony: not only are we consumers and voyeurs of the strongest cheese our imaginations can muster; we are consuming it in ever vaster quantities. Commensurate with the excesses of capitalism more generally, we find ourselves obese with fuck. Our self-control mechanisms – see Avner Offer – are out of kilter with our environments.

(This is not for one moment to suggest that in any individual case there is not a fully loving, wonderful, exploratory sex underway: who am I to judge the sexual preferences of another? I don’t even understand my own! No: I mean – in much the same way I wish to see Eton and other bastions of privilege abolished, yet I do not wish to see existing Etonians eliminated – that I condemn the system, not the individuals within it.)

Problem the second: men need to get on the case. We need to learn to look at this porn and remember: virtually everyone we see is being exploited, virtually everyone we see is funding a drug habit. We need to hear an anecdote from a friend and condemn rather than endorse his attendance at lap dancing clubs and his reliance on prostitutes. We need to be truly conscious of how we speak to our sisters, and to do our utmost to ensure that we bring normal respect to that discourse, not derogatory innuendo; and we need to call our brothers to account for their leering remarks and their wolf whistles and their sniggers. It’s not funny. It’s not clever.

And we need to put proper effort into building human relationships with our fellow humans, even those we(’d like to) have sex with.

This is a demand side issue, and that’s why it’s so important to the project of Enough. Enough, in the end, is a judgement we make to limit our consumption, our behaviour. The supply side can never do this for us. The supply side is dumb: it supplies the stuff that we ‘want’ within the strictures (legal, regulatory or otherwise) that civil (and, indeed, uncivil) society places upon it. If we keep on ‘wanting’ this stuff – if we keep on behaving this way – either someone will supply it, or we’ll come to feel it’s ‘normal’.

Yet our wants, desperately individual though they feel, are horridly shaped by our environment; and so much of that environment – that ‘fitness landscape’ – is shaped by, and in the interests of, the big beasts. Someone, somewhere, is making a lot of money out of the idea of the ‘ghost load’; and I’m pretty sure that an awful lot of young women are feeling pretty desperate and humiliated, and a not dissimilar number of young men are feeling a deep-down sense of shame and ill-ease, as they try to live up to the impossible demands of a system that is abusing the freedoms we’ve won.

Sex is a basic appetite, and has the potential to be a wonderful, uplifting and fulfilling part not just of everyday life but of a sustainable world. We need to reclaim it.

Come in her face if you want to – but, second, make sure you really, really want to; and, first – and it’s the leading first – make sure she really wants you to.




Friday, 6 July 2012

What do I want when I'm old?

So, I’ve been thinking about pensions.

Not my own, especially, but the generic problem of pensions, and what they are and how they work and what we might do about them.
 And I’ve been thinking about two things in particular:

firstly, that the basic thinking underpinning a pension is that at some point in the future I shall want a supply of money to buy the things I shall at that future point want, and so I need to save some money in a suitable vehicle so that the money is available when I want it.

second, that all the money that gets saved in pursuit of said ends, in the form of ‘pension funds’, constitutes a very signficant fraction of the money that these City boys and girls get to play with and from which they skim their obscene salaries and bonuses. (“Skim” is an interesting euphemism: points to the fact that the faster they can make it spin about, the more froth there is from which they can purloin their ‘earnings’.)

Which leads to a counter-thought:

Is there a way I could de-monetise this? I could reduce my risk (have you any idea how much your pension will be worth? Have you any idea how much a fucking annuity will cost you?) and I could reduce the amount of money available for these criminals to play with.

How about:

I want to invest in some sort of community bond, a community owned, non-tradeable asset, which guarantees me not a supply of money but of something else I’m pretty sure I’ll need: care. I want to buy a care bond. I want to pay xxx pounds per year, cash which will be available to my/a community now, in return for the promise (and what is ‘money’, if not a promise?) that I shall receive yyy hours of care, per year, in perpetuity, once I pass a certain age.

Pros and cons?

Back from the future

Meanwhile, whilst researching the previous post, I chanced upon my own prognostications from 2008:


A helping hand in every store?

I had the pleasure yesterday of participating in a ‘roundtable’, hosted by Unilever. (Funny phrase, ‘roundtable’: up there with ‘seminar’ and ‘symposium’ and ‘colloquium’; like we’re embarrassed to say ‘gathering for a bit of a chat’.) Subject of discussion: food waste. In the mix: Natan Doron and the Fabian Society, responsible recently for “Waste Not, Want Not”; my good friend Mike Tuffrey, of Corporate Citizenship, cheerfully facilitating; and a tableful of stakeholders, each holding their very own stake, and representing various NGOs, retailers, industry and government bodies and think tanks.

Oh, and, of course, a smattering of Unileverenes.

Whole thing conducted under the Chatham House rule, which means that participants are allowed to say that they were there, and to say that such and such was said, but not to identify the person responsible for any particular utterance. I worried about this once before and established that, under the Chatham House rule, there is one person whose utterances I am allowed to report – and that is me. I can say what I said, but no one else can. Ha.

Anyway, I said a couple of things that represented something of a condensation of some previous and longer-winded remarks, and thought they bore repetition:

Thing 1 – What is the nature of the mess we’re in?

I was restricting myself to food waste on this occasion, of course, so endeavoured to base my remarks as fully as possible on the research evidence that I’ve inadvertently accumulated through the past seven or eight years of work at Brook Lyndhurst, everything from the London Food Strategy through various studies for WRAP and Defra to recent projects for WWF, Fairtrade and Oxfam (a few of them are here).

At a crowded table (it was actually rectangular) you don’t have time to say too much, so I limited myself to two remarks:

  • UK citizens are in a big mess with food because we live in an age of superabundance, shaped in and by the interests of mega-corporations. It is important, for the purposes of organised capital, that we buy more than we really need, and that is how it is, so many of us are no markedly fatter than we need to be and most of us throw away quite frightening amounts of perfectly edible food

  • Second, we have been progressively de-skilled for a period of more than forty years, so that great numbers of us no longer know how to shop with guile, nor to cook with wit. Or cook at all, in fact. Most people, I asserted (and, if I had to, I could find evidence in support of at least ‘lots of people’), would be simply perplexed at the idea of combining half a jar of unfinished sauce with some leftover chicken and vegetables in order to make this evening’s support. Just throw it away and open a new packet: much easier.

Add those two things together – millions of people without the skills, operating in a retail environment designed to engineer our consent (see my Abergavenny performance) and – hey presto! – shameful, truly shameful amounts of food waste. Wasted food, wasted effort, wasted energy, wasted goodness.

Thing 2 – so what do you propose we do about that then?

Well, out of respect for my hosts I thought it would be impolite too directly to propose the overthrow of capitalism (here’s the great Paul Foot on the matter, circa 2002: “Is capitalism sick? Yes, disgustingly so, and it urgently needs replacing”) so I stuck to the skills thing.

What I’d like to see – it seemed like a good idea at the time, and since I’d not thought of it before I guess I’ll find out how bonkers it was over the coming few weeks – what I’d like to see is a levy (a bit like the Tobin Tax) raised on every major retailer and every major food brand (I didn’t bother with thresholds at this point: the symposi-table was coming to an end and we’d each been given only a few moments in which to put forward a ‘practical action’) to fund the presence in every large supermarket (I reckon anything above 20,000 square feet) of an “advisor”, someone a bit like a butcher or a fishmonger or a baker but whose job it is to offer help and advice, to anyone who wants it, about what to buy and how to cook it. They could/should be positioned (I managed to squeeze this bit in) near the section in the supermarket where, at around five o’clock, they position all the mark downs. Nothing predatory, nothing pushy, just a source of friendly white-coated advice to help the hard-pressed British consumer not merely to buy “two packs for only £3” but to think a little about what they might do with the leftover bits of ham once they’re half way through the second (I didn’t really want it anyway) pack.

That sort of thing.

Why not?