Toronto
3 min

Chasing down dreams

My changing times

Personally I blame it all on spam. I had no trouble with spam until a year or so ago, but I must have hit one porn site too many and now I’m inundated with offers to enlarge, expand, pump and drug my penis into superhuman proportions. The first time I received one of these missives I was amused. The 500th time I groaned in fury.

Some of the come-ons are really quite tender and considerate.

“Don’t be the guy whom others laugh at in the locker room,” advises one correspondent while another all but frowns in empathy (I can almost see his face) as he asks, “bro, your shortPenis worry u all the time??” My correspondents want me to know that it’s all for my own good (“women love dick driving deep inside”) and that it will enable me to “Light her eyes with fire of true adoration.”

It’s all very touching, but after a while a bit ham-fisted and apt to make you cranky. In fact I’d say that spam has done more than any other media to dim, dull and otherwise blanderize the very notion of sexual desire — were it not for the fact that it has so many competitors.

In recent weeks I’ve read about the dearth of sex in contemporary marriage and I’ve read about all the great dating advice straight guys are now giving straight girls and I’ve read about the optimal duration for intercourse. (Only seven to 13 minutes? Geez, why bother?)

But none of these stories has done much for my sex drive, which seems to be at an all-time low. It’s probably just me — one of those things, seasonal, age, blah-blah. Or maybe the time of year — is anyone enjoying the snow? — but I prefer to blame it on all the yak-yak-yakking out there about sex.

There’s a reason why some folks in England invented a contest for the worst erotic writing (the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Awards) and it’s simple: Writing about sex is all but impossible. Even the most eminent writers stumble in these parts. The great critic George Steiner recently tackled oral sex and wound up with the phrase, “inner grotto, now scented and alive with wetness as is a fountain hidden by moss.” Sounds like a bad night at the baths to me.

With such egregious examples to draw on, you’d think people would pull back from sexual discussion. But no, there’s more of it than ever. Sex is like sleep. Once upon a time we did it; now all we do is talk about it, especially in the media.

Popular topics like sex and sleep lend themselves to endless recycling (sorry, “renewal”) and as we approach the end of hibernation season we are once again in the midst of another sleep cycle, with at least three major outlets (Maclean’s, Esquire and The Globe and Mail) offering big pieces on snoozing. Like articles on sex, articles on sleep often repeat stuff you already know (always go to bed at the same time), but sometimes they come up with some interesting new nuggets.

Esquire, for instance, reports that people in the pre-lightbulb world slept a lot more than we do, about 10 hours a night versus the 6.9 hours enjoyed by the average contemporary American.

Interestingly other research (not reported in Esquire) suggests that people in premodern times slept not just longer but differently than we do — not straight through, but in shifts. They routinely woke in the middle of the night, got up and puttered around for a couple of hours before going back to bed. In other words, they spent a lot more time under cover of dark than we do and while they may have spent some of that time sitting around the campfire telling tall tales of yesteryear, I’m guessing they found other more sensual ways to calm their mid-night fears as well.

More importantly they didn’t have feature articles in Esquire to keep them awake at night, which probably means they were a lot less self-conscious as well.

All our talk, on the other hand, suggests nothing so much as a great discomfort. Both sex and sleep are great mysteries, other worlds where our usual sources of self-control — willpower, discipline, reason — have little agency or effect, leaving us excited and scared in just about equal measure.

And so we invent technologies to control them — the internet for faster delivery, pills for faster sleep and therapy for greater understanding. But none of our devices gets around the great unknowability of the act. And so we talk. And that’s fine.

But like all technologies talking takes us out of the body and into the head, and therefore away from the experience at hand. Which is not so good. Though maybe at this stage of civilization completely unavoidable.