I’ve made some pretty big – some might go so far as to say unwise – confessions on this blog. But this one probably trumps them all, because it’s not about any one thing that I’ve done; it’s about who I am.
The jury’s still out on whether the benefits of honesty have outweighed the costs. Through this site, I’ve made new friends, discovered new communities, been commissioned to write a sitcom (watch this space – it’s probably funnier than the sitcom), and earned a derisory amount of money. But I’ve also lost friends, alienated colleagues, disappointed my parents, and put off at least 50% of the vanishingly small number of women who might conceivably have been willing to date me.
So the wisdom of dropping this particular bombshell is debatable at best. But since I genuinely believe I have an important point to make – and since I barely have a personal or professional reputation left to lose – I’m going to write it anyway.
There’s a monster inside me.
I was on my way home from the bank the afternoon before sitting down to write this when a woman walked by. About 24, slim, tanned, brown hair, in a stripy T-shirt and black jeans. Here (translated from the electrochemical) is the conversation that ensued in my head.
Voice 1: FUCKITFUCKITFUCKITFUCKITFUCKIT
Voice 2: We’ve discussed this. You can’t just have sex with anyone you like without their consent.
Voice 1: FUCKITFUCKITFUCKITFUCKITFUCKIT
Voice 2: No. And by the way, it is customary to refer to women as “she”, not “it”. She’s a human being, not an object.
Voice 1: ATLEASTGOANDASKITIFITWANTSTOFUCK (Voice 1 always talks in all caps, with no spaces or punctuation.)
Voice 2: That’s highly unlikely. She’s at least 20 years younger and about 10 times hotter than me.
Voice 1: ATLEASTSHOUTORWOLFWHISTLEORSOMETHING-SOITKNOWSYOUWANTTOFUCKIT
Voice 2: That wouldn’t get me anywhere, and it would offend, or possibly scare her.
Voice 1: ATLEASTSTAREATITSOMEMORE
Voice 2: That’s rude. Although … maybe one more peek wouldn’t hurt.
I report this not because it is unusual; I report it for precisely the opposite reason. Because this internal dialogue, or a condensed version of it – “FUCKITFUCKITFUCKITFUCKITFUCKIT”; “No” – takes place about 10 times a day.
It is conventional to think of people as individuals; as discrete, independent, unified beings. But I’m not just me, and you’re not just you. Because as well as being a separate, singular entity at a macroscopic level, you’re a set of systems – musculoskeletal, digestive, respiratory, urinary, reproductive, endocrine, cardiovascular, lymphatic, nervous, sensory, integumentary – that don’t always work in perfect harmony. You’re an assemblage of tens of trillions of cells, not all of which see eye to eye. You’re host to hordes of foreign organisms; there are 10 times as many bacterial, fungal and archaeal cells in your body as there are human ones, and their goals aren’t always fully aligned with yours. And most of all, the “you” in you, your personality, resides in a nervous system built up in almost laughably slapdash fashion over billions of years, full of redundancies and deficiencies and contradictions.
We all know that schizophrenia sufferers hear voices other than their own “true” selves, but even those of us in the soundest of mental health have at some time used some or all of the following phrases: “I’m in two minds”; “I’m conflicted”; “against my better judgment”; “I wasn’t myself”; “I’m torn”; “I had a moment of weakness”; “I let my heart rule my head”; “I hate myself sometimes”; “Part of me wants to do X and part of me wants to do Y”. Sometimes, at least, it seems we are less the sum of our parts, and more the parts of our sum.
Cultural references to the duality (or multiplicity) of the human mind date back to the dawn of civilisation: yin and yang, God and Satan, the warring “shoulder angels” (above), Jekyll and Hyde, the Incredible Hulk, Paul McCartney’s “good and bad (mm-hm) in everyone”, Pixar’s Inside Out. Philosophers and scientists have explored variations on the idea for almost as long: mind versus soul, Plato’s Reason, Spirit and Appetite, Wigan’s theory of mental duality, Freud’s Ego, Superego and Id, left brain versus right brain, and now Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2.
In the utterly brilliant Inside Out (go and see it, and take a hanky), the human psyche is portrayed as a broadly harmonious office run by Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. I’m not sure exactly how many voices there are in my head, but only two speak out often enough and loudly enough to matter: Metatron and Asmodeus.
Metatron is bright, fun-loving, considerate, mildly flirtatious, for the most part conscientious. Will do anything to avoid causing his fellow man offence, or even inconvenience. Enjoys games, philosophical conversations, travelling, documentaries, romcoms, kissing and cuddling; dislikes prejudice and lack of consideration. Metatron – named after the wise, virtuous archangel of Jewish mythology – is far from perfect, but on the whole, he’s a pretty good guy to have around.
Asmodeus wants to fuck.
Asmodeus – named after the Jewish and Orthodox Christian demon of lust, and one of the seven princes of hell – is entirely one-dimensional. He’s stupid, amoral, and selfish to a sickening degree. But he’s loud, and by God, he’s insistent.
What I’m saying, in essence, is that my two main subpersonalities are my rational brain and my sex drive. You might suppose, therefore, that a good metaphor would be the classic “thinking with your crotch” trope, as memorably captured by Gray Jolliffe and Peter Mayle’s Wicked Willie cartoons.
But this image is misleading, on two counts. First, sexual urges come from the brain, not the sexual organs: the genitalia are the tools for the job, not the workman. Second, Wicked Willie was cunning, and, though self-interested, essentially well meaning. Asmodeus is as dumb as fuck and has no moral compass whatsoever.
Metatron speaks with a measured, reasoned voice, always balancing probabilities and predicting possible outcomes. Asmodeus just grumbles constantly in the background – until a beautiful woman appears, at which point he goes apeshit.
When lust strikes, there’s a blazing at the base of my brain. My heart starts racing, my mouth goes dry, my attention crash-zooms on to the target, to the exclusion of all else. Suddenly, this woman is the only thing that matters, the only thing that has ever mattered.
There’s no other sensation exactly like it, but for speed, rawness and power – and the ability to bypass my “better judgment” – it’s comparable with anger and fear. Like anger and fear, it takes you unawares, alters your brain chemistry, paralyses your thoughts. And that makes perfect sense, because the seat of lust, as with rage and fear, is the subcortex: the older, deeper part of the brain, the part we share with the “lesser” beings. The part with no conscience or deductive reasoning or empathy.
On the other hand, it takes quite a lot to make me fearful, and quite a lot more to make me lose my temper, whereas all it takes to inflame my lust is a flick of the hair or the gentle sweep of one yoga-panted buttock past another. And while anger and fear can be suppressed or even eliminated with practice, lust, in my experience, is a harder beast to tame.
When Asmodeus awakens, he grabs you and slaps you and screams in your face. He’s not so much a petulant child, wailing until he gets what he wants; even petulant children give up eventually. He’s more like a cat, miaowing incessantly until you feed it. Only the cat is a lion, its miaows deafening roars, and locking it in the utility room is not an option.
Then, like Tarzan swooping in to rescue Jane from the savages, Metatron appears, and sends Asmodeus whimpering back to his basket.
And that, I am relieved to report, is how it always goes down. I must be absolutely clear about this: every single time this battle has raged in my head, Metatron has won. And now that my libido finally seems to be beginning to fade, I can say with no little confidence that he always will.
For the most part, thanks to Metatron, my behaviour towards the opposite sex has been exemplary. If ever I find myself walking close behind or next to a woman at roughly the same pace, I’ll slow down, speed up, or cross the road to prevent her feeling scared. And I have always been openly and loudly critical of sexist language and behaviour whenever I’ve encountered it.
I’ve never wolf-whistled or catcalled. I have never bullied or cajoled anyone into sex if there has been even the slightest doubt that they wanted to have sex. I have never cheated on a partner, and I’ve had sexual intercourse with precisely one married person, who I didn’t know was married at the time. I’ve never touched anyone appropriately without their consent – well, not since the spring of 1985, when Kerry Beach informed me, to my genuine surprise, that it was not OK to smack girls’ bottoms in the registration queue. I’ve never crashed or nearly crashed a car after being distracted by a pretty pedestrian (although I did once walk into a lamppost). And it should, I hope, go without saying that I’ve never raped anyone.
The point is, I’ve had the urge, however briefly, to do all those things. Or rather, part of me has.
Furthermore, I have done some questionable things at Asmodeus’s behest. (While Metatron has never lost a major battle, he has conceded some minor skirmishes, particularly under the influence of alcohol.) I spent so much time chatting up women at university that I earned myself a reputation as a sexual predator despite never having sex. At a party in the 1990s, when a woman I fancied took the seat next to me, I drunkenly put my hand underneath her as she sat, and only got away with it because, as luck would have it, she fancied me back. I spied on my ex-girlfriend having sex with her lesbian lover (albeit after extreme and protracted provocation). And of course I spent £15,000 in two years on high-class escorts. So while I’ve never done anything that technically makes me a sex criminal, I almost certainly meet most people’s criteria for sex pest.
The burning question here would seem to be: is this normal? Does every male brain operate according to this model, or something like it? If so, what determines the relative strength of Metatron and Asmodeus in each of us? What separates the average man from the Rolf Harrises and Josh Duggars of this world – a yawning crevasse, or mere gauze?
It may well be that I am a freak; that the vast majority of men go about their daily business entirely untroubled by their own Asmodeuses. It’s impossible to say with any certainty, because no one ever talks about this stuff, or really ever pauses to think about it. A few studies have been carried out on convicted rapists, but there’s hardly any data on the male population at large. There’s no official “lust scale”. If there were, I imagine I would score quite highly on it; but I do not imagine for one second that I am alone.
Look at the terrifying database amassed by the Everyday Sexism project. (Incidentally, fanastic job, Laura, and do keep it up, but is this really sexism that you’re cataloguing? Or just sex?) Look at Hollaback’s “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a woman” video. Look at the proportion of men who pay for sex (10% in the UK, 20% in the US, 40% in Italy, 80% in Cambodia). Look at the statistics on cheating (40%-80% of men have cheated, as opposed to 25%-70% of women). Look at the popularity of porn (87% of men, 31% of women).
When I talk to men in the absence of women – especially drunk men – most of them seem every bit as “reproductively focused” as I am. And when I lean out of my window for a smoke, I see men behaving exactly as I would: passing the pretty woman in the street, waiting (most of the time) until she can no longer see, then stopping, turning, and gazing admiringly. When judges used to let men off rape charges because the victim was “asking for it”, it was not, I believe, because they actually blamed the women concerned; it was because they empathised with the accused. There but for the grace of God go I.
The prime mover
The distasteful truth is that Asmodeus exists for a reason. Without the sex drive, neither you or I would be here to discuss this. Sex is the be-all and end-all; the ne plus ultra; the point. It is, in an evolutionary sense, more important than life itself, as a quick look at the animal kingdom will attest. Male spiders risk (and more often than not, give) their lives in order to mate. Male ants, after fertilising the queen, die. Salmon, too, die immediately after spawning.
Worse, the upward selection pressure on sex drive is virtually unlimited: any individual that evolves a higher sex drive will reproduce more than its peers, creating more offspring with a high sex drives, who then out-mate those with lower sex drives, and so on ad infinitum, until you are left with a population of slavering, bug-eyed jizzmonkeys.
(You’ll notice that I have barely touched on how women fit into all this. While I don’t doubt that there are women out there with high libidos, I don’t believe there are many with problematic ones. Apart from anything else, if a woman does have a high sex drive, it will generally be much easier for her to find a legal, consensual, non-monetary outlet for it. For more on this, and how sex drive can be imbalanced across the sexes, I refer you to the older entries on this blog (1983-5), and especially the end of this post.)
For animals, and for prehistoric humans, then, Asmodeus is a boon – indispensable, in fact, to the continuation of the species. But in the modern world, he’s a liability, a menace. Like the appendix, he’s no longer required; but like the appendix, he refuses to quit.
And so I often find myself thinking that if I were granted the ability to travel back in time and change one thing about my life, I would go back to visit my 12-year-old self, and I would chop his fucking bollocks off.
Flog It and biscuits
It’s not a decision I’d take without regret. I’d be denying myself some wonderful moments: the soaring hope when I meet someone I like; the thrill when she smiles; the unfettered joy when we make love. My life would be impoverished in many other ways, too, because my sex drive has been more or less my only drive. Without Asmodeus’s constant exhortations, I’d never have got fit, never have taken up stand-up comedy, never visited a storytelling club, never have gone to improv class. (I think I’d still have written; I’ve loved writing since long before puberty. Although the haunting possibility remains that I started writing out of a subconscious desire to please some forgotten foxy primary school teacher.) Without Asmodeus, I might well have spent my entire life watching Flog It and eating biscuits.
But on the whole, I think I’d have been better off without him. Because as well as filling my mind with these grubby thoughts, these shameful and for the most part pointless impulses, he has made me endlessly unhappy.
When I was 12, I laughed all the time. I had lots of friends, male and female, I was academically gifted, and I was generally a decent fellow. I wasn’t especially cool or attractive or funny, but I took decisions for the right reasons, I rarely pissed anyone off, and I never disappointed myself. Then my testicles expanded, my body spurted upwards, hair started sprouting on my chest and on my face, and my Adam’s apple swelled to twice its size. And ever since then, only one thing has mattered: girls. Girls, girls, girls. While it would be an exaggeration to say that Asmodeus has dominated my every waking moment, he has been a factor, usually the determining one, in virtually every decision I have made since the age of 13. Asmodeus is why I cycled six miles in the snow to knock at the door of a girl I liked at school in 1984. Asmodeus is why I chose to study French at university instead of physics (more female undergraduates). Asmodeus started me smoking (you had no hope of being considered cool or attractive at university unless there was a Marlboro dangling from your lip). Asmodeus drove me to take up stand-up comedy (girls like guys who make them laugh). Asmodeus is why I forked out all that dough on escorts. And it was my inability to satisfy Asmodeus that drove me to lock myself in my bedroom every weekend for three years and inhale colossal amounts of cocaine.
This constant carnal craving might have been less bothersome if it had been satiated a little more often. But the fact is, I’m just not that hot, and with the exception of a few purple patches, the vast majority of my love life has been characterised by frustration, disappointment, rejection and loneliness.
“Simple solution, Andy,” my friends seemingly never tire of saying. “Just lower your standards a bit. Stop aiming for insanely hot women and settle for a nice, ordinary girl.” If Metatron had his way, I’d have taken their advice many moons ago. Unfortunately, Asmodeus is one picky motherfucker.
Desperate, but choosy
It’s a common misconception that people with high sex drives are indiscriminate; that they’ll “fuck anything”. That hasn’t been my experience at all. Probably only about one in every 50 women remotely piques Asmodeus’s interest: usually perky 25-year-old brunettes with big eyes and a waist-to-hip ratio of exactly 0.7. (Metatron, as he has grown older, has developed a taste for women nearer his own age; not so his opposite number.) And the kicker is, Asmodeus has the ultimate power of veto over every possible mate: because without his say-so, I can’t get an erection.
I tried dating someone I didn’t fancy once. Things were OK to begin with, but within about a month, she felt unloved, and I felt guilty.
This, I think, is main reason I’m still alone at the age of 45: Metatron and Asmodeus just can’t seem to agree. And on the few occasions that they have, the woman’s Metatron or Asmodeus has vetoed me. In most cases, the evidence strongly points to the latter. I imagine the conversations in their heads go something like this:
GIRL METATRON: Hey, this guy’s quite nice and interesting. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of him.
GIRL ASMODEUS: FUCKOFF
There are four conditions for true love, or at least a tolerable relationship of significant duration: boy likes girl, boy fancies girl, girl likes boy, girl fancies boy. Below is a representation, in Venn diagram form, of my romantic history thus far.
But boo-hoos aside, Bodle, what is your point? What do you hope to achieve by sharing this frankly unsettling information?
Myths and ideology
First, let’s be quite clear about what I am not trying to do. I’m certainly not trying to excuse sexual assault, or any other abusive or intimidating behaviour by men towards women. (Explaining, as so many people seem incapable of grasping, is very different from excusing.) The hurting, intimidating and offending of others should not be tolerated under any circumstances. End of.
Nor should this be seen as an abnegation of culpability, akin to that stunt some people pull when trying to blame their bad temper on their “Latin blood”. I take full responsibility for my actions (whether I can ever truly take responsibility for my desires, over which I have no control, is a more vexed question). Asmodeus is part of who I am; a much larger part than I would like, but fortunately not too large to control.
I’m not angling for a pat on the back. Metatron is fully aware that not molesting strangers is a rock-bottom basic standard of human behaviour. And I’m not after your pity. “UNLESS,” Asmodeus has just predictably piped up, “ITSINTHEFORMOFAPITYFUCK.”
Sexual abuse and sexual harassment are among the biggest and most persistent problems still facing society. And I don’t think we can begin to address the root causes unless we are entirely honest about what those causes are. The main reason I’m spilling my guts is to dispel some myths.
1) Sexual violence is cultural in origin.
First of all, I would direct your attention to the animal kingdom, where sexual violence is an everyday occurrence. Animals have no culture. Second, there’s me. I grew up in a middle-class household in southern England in the 1970s, where there was no sexual abuse – where sex was, as far as I recall, never mentioned – where there was no pornography, and no nudity on TV. And yet, somehow, I was playing sex games with my best female friend at the age of two, masturbating to orgasm from three, and had harangued Sarah Nielsen into showing me hers behind the boiler in the primary school playground years before I’d watched my first Carry On film.
2) Men and women are exactly the same in every respect, so they must have similar sex drives.
I’m sick and tired of arguing this point, because it just seems so mind-bogglingly obvious that it’s nonsense, so if you don’t agree, just fuck off.
3) Rape is not about sex, but about violence and power.
I suppose Susan Brownmiller’s claim, made in the mid-1970s, may be true of a few individuals. But does this really make any sense when most people – yes, even most men – hate violence, both the inflicting and the receiving? Moreover, most men, myself very much included, have zero interest in power. Way too much effort, way too much responsibility, way too much to lose! The only reason most men ever toy with the idea of power is that it leads to the promise of more sex. As I’ve already mentioned, sex (or reproduction, which as far as the dimwitted Asmodeus is concerned, is the same thing) is the point. Everything else is a means to that end. Why should rape – the most direct means possible of achieving that end – be the sole exception? (This is a position on which more and more researchers are agreeing; see footnotes 10-16 on this article.)
The question we should be asking is not whether culture is to blame for creating this behaviour. It is whether culture is doing enough to prevent it. If we recognise that, in general, it’s Asmodeus (animal brain) driving this behaviour, and Metatron (cultured brain) restraining it, then our course of action immediately becomes clear: we have to do everything in our power to weaken Asmodeus and strengthen Metatron.
I’m not sure how we go about the former, short of pumping oestrogen into the water supply, but some ideas for the latter strategy seem obvious. Increase the social stigma against sexual harassment (already happening. Good). Educate girls and boys about sex drives, boys’ in particular. Teach kids to manage their urges. Teach them empathy: drive home how much sexually aggressive behaviour hurts people, and how much society disapproves. If we accept what few have been willing to admit – that men are horny bastards, in spite of culture rather than because of it – then we will be in a much better position to manage it.
And what of my own demons? Asmodeus hates Metatron, and Metatron hates Asmodeus, but since the two are forced to share an office for life, they have come to an accommodation, of sorts. It works like this: Asmodeus constantly makes lewd suggestions; Metatron vetoes every single one, whether for reasons of morality or practicality; but in the spirit of concession, every now and again, they sit down and watch porn together.
And that, I guess, is my happy ever after.