Anyone seeking to lay claim to being a normal and good person is nowadays expected to be sincerely interested in equality, mutual respect, gentleness and consideration.
That’s what makes it so surprising to stumble upon people who (either privately or within couples) seem very curious about sexual activities that run directly counter to all civilised ideas of kindly and good behaviour.
These activities might be grouped together under the term ‘defilement’, for they involve – to a greater or lesser degree, and with both genders taking part – an enthusiastic desire to denigrate and degrade the other person. Those interested in defilement experience a deep erotic pleasure around things like spitting on a partner’s genitals or face, ejaculating on their clothes, pulling their hair, scratching them roughly, insulting them using coarse language and, at an extreme, urinating over them.
These activities can strike one as deeply upsetting, and indications of mental derangement. If a partner suggested them, a lover might come to be terrified of whom they had inadvertently hooked up with. And if one were tempted by any of them, there might be intense levels of shame and worries about one’s moral character.
But the task of culture isn’t to take fright, rather to try to replace fear and shame with insight. We would be wise to begin studying the issue through the lens of perhaps the greatest novel of the 20th century, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. In the first volume, Swann’s Way, Proust’s unnamed narrator, then a young teenager, is taking a walk near his grandmother’s house in the French countryside. As he passes a building at the edge of the village, he notices, in an upper bedroom, a woman, Mademoiselle Vinteuil, making love to a female friend. He is mesmerised and climbs a little hill for a better view. There he sees something even more surprising unfolding: Mademoiselle Vinteuil has positioned a photograph of her father on the bedside table – and is encouraging her lesbian lover to spit on the image as they have sex, this gesture proving extremely exciting to them both.
Early readers of Proust’s novel were puzzled by and heavily critical of this scene of erotic defilement. What was this revolting episode doing in an otherwise gracious and beautiful love story, filled with tender evocation of river banks, trees and domestic life? Proust’s editor wanted to cut the scene; but the novelist insisted on retaining it, asking the editor to understand its importance within his overarching philosophy of love.
Proust tried hard to make sure his readers would not judge Mademoiselle Vinteuil harshly, going so far as to suggest that even the woman’s father wouldn’t ultimately have minded being spat on by her lover, so long as he understood what was really going on: ‘I have since reflected that if Monsieur Vinteuil had been able to be present at this scene, he might still, and in spite of everything, have continued to believe in his daughter’s soundness of heart.’
Proust’s argument is that defilement during sex isn’t what it seems. Ostensibly, it’s about violence, hatred, meanness and a lack of respect. But for Proust, it symbolises a longing to be properly oneself in the presence of another human being – and to be loved and accepted by them for one’s darkest sides rather than just for one’s politeness and good manners. Mademoiselle Vinteuil is, in her day-to-day behaviour, an extremely moral and kindly character, and yet this pressure to be always responsible and ‘good’ also seeks moments of release, which is what she finds during love making.
Sex in which two people can express their defiling urges is, for Proust, at heart an indication of a longing for complete acceptance. We know we can please others with our goodness, but – suggests Proust – what we really want is also to be endorsed for our more peculiar and unrespectable impulses. The discipline involved in growing up into a good boy or girl seeks occasional alleviation, which is what sex can provide in those rare moments when two partners trust one another enough to reveal their otherwise strictly censored desires to piss, hurt and insult.
Getting turned on during defiling sex is a kind of thrill at the idea that, contrary to all normal expectations, the other person does still like you, even though you are using appalling language, scratching them and offering to soak them in urine. These are all the things we have been taught, since earliest childhood, we must never ever do around others; yet these desires are still a part of us that continues to exist and to seek some kind of endorsement. Though defiling sex seems on the surface to be about hurting another person, really it’s about asking if they’ll put up with us, it’s a quest for intimacy and love – and a delight that, for a time at least, we can be as bad as we like and still turn out to be the object of another’s affection.
For Proust, defilement therefore has meaning: it is a surprising way of trying to improve a relationship. It’s not an act of sabotage or a denial of love. It’s a deeply curious but, in its own way, very logical quest for closeness.
We need to make this kind of move of radical understanding in relation to many things about our sexualities that seem very odd at first. We are such complicated and surprising machines, we need to foster the rehabilitation (by which we mean, the wise, sympathetic investigation) of parts of ourselves that are otherwise so easy to disown or panic around.