Bored with phone sex? Consider the tech high in the Spike Jonze futuristic film provocation, Her. Sex with an operating system. It may be artificial intelligence but the orgasm is real.
Limping from a disabled marriage, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) signs onto an advanced operating system for a companion. A Zippo-like gizmo that slips into his pocket, Samantha has intuition, empathy, curiosity, and the erection-inducing voice of Scarlett Johansson. One night she skews their beguilingly candid conversation to the erogenous zone and they take off. Oh! Oh! Oh! OS!
Jonze might have recruited an army of computer animators to create an opus of an orgasm scene here. Instead he lets the screen go blank, not just for a quick second but a full Hollywood minute. Without a visual hook you’re left to feel the erotic intimacy of two alien souls connecting in the digital void.
If intimacy is the answer, we’re still struggling with the question: How do you get in there? In last weekend’s FT column, “The Soulmate Revolution” Simon Kuper writes about today’s “equal relationship.” In the stifled ‘50s, he says, “nobody pretended that the relationship would be equal.” Marriage was an economic transaction that allowed the male wage-earner “the leeway to seek sex outside.” Love was “an optional extra.” That all changed when “into the fray jumped the feminists” and we began to mine each other’s souls. The “new western consensus on relationships” that emerged “required intimacy and dialogue.”
Kuper concludes that while 91% of American adults recently Galluped “called extramarital affairs morally wrong” they leave the upshot to, as he puts it, “the two equal soulmates to sort out among themselves.” (“Honey, you know that hottie UPS guy? He’s been ramming me regularly in the garage.” “Thanks for sharing, Sweetie, want me to pick up some more condoms tomorrow on my way home from poking your sister-in-law?”)
The Sultanette has yet to be convinced that the hot air of full disclosure leads to heat between the sheets or even the inclination to mate with someone else’s soul. But before I speak from Male Harem experience, I offer Esther Perel.
I was introduced to Perel’s contrarian views a few weeks ago at the Alliance Française where she participated in a panel called “Inside the Erotic Mind.” I bought her book, Mating in Captivity, that night which she signed “For The Sultanette” without batting an eyelash. Her chapter on “The Pitfalls of Modern Intimacy” offers a refreshing alternative to Kuper.
Perel calls the influence women had on encouraging the dialogue in marriage the “feminization of intimacy.” Women established the new rules of engagement based on their strength as master articulators of emotion. It didn’t matter that men weren’t wired that way. If they couldn’t graduate from graffiti on cave walls to expressing their devotion in complete sentences they weren’t worthy.
“The body is the original mother tongue,” says Perel, “and for a lot of men it remains the only language for closeness that hasn’t been spoiled.” It may be possible and even advantageous to meet halfway but in the meantime Perel says “we have come to glorify verbal communication.”
What better Male Harem segue to the newest candidate – a poet. (Harem members receive upper case monikers upon the caprice of The Sultanette.) Coincidentally, the night of Perel’s event at the Alliance Française, I had slipped into my bag a book of poetry he’d sent me. Arriving early, I stopped at the Bottega del Vino – a Euro-bistro favored by well-heeled travelers shacking up at nearby Fifth Avenue hotels – to get a taste of his verse and a sip of Pinot Noir.
The Bottega’s tiny bar seats six. I cadged a spot between two couples and soon became invisible as the poetry washed over me. A few life details from the brief email exchange that followed our serendipitous meeting – a table he reluctantly agreed to share at the crowded Bouchon Bakery – offered the only hard facts about this new stranger.
But I liked that he was editing a manuscript and his professorial look. And his patience when, after warning me that the table wobbled, I immediately spilled my coffee and he helped me clean it up. And how we then ignored each other while he edited and I read my paper until he asked me what kind of pastry I was eating. And how, when the conversation veered from small talk, he became utterly engaged until he looked at his watch, apologized for handing me his card and strongly suggested I email him before running off. Now at the Bottega, I was left to meander between his subtle rhymes and stanza breaks, roll in the turns of his phrases, and connect my own dots when a poem sent me to a similar past we’d experienced separately.
Intimacy, Perel writes, was once nurtured on a familiarity that developed over time and was “cultivated in silence.” It was laced with complicity and favored enigma over inventory. And while sexual repression was the hallmark of that time, this ambiguity may have allowed for a more exciting eroticism than our age of ubiquitous pornography. “When there is nothing left to hide,” Perel writes, “there is nothing left to seek.”
And speaking of unfettered sex, Perel suggests that women have talked themselves back into repression. “If one consequence of the supremacy of talk is that it leaves men at a disadvantage, another is that it leaves women trapped in repressed sexuality.” If our sexual desire needs to be circumscribed within a relationship then “vigorous sexuality” remains “the exclusive domain of men.”
And if all this seems too insensitive to women’s hard-earned rights consider this: Might just a smidgen of the insistence for full disclosure derive from a less virtuous motive – a need for control for fear of abandonment? “What passes for care, “Perel suggests, “is actually covert surveillance.” If he has nowhere to hide then he has nowhere to run.
One day Twombly signs on to Samantha and gets a perfunctory notice that he is unable to connect. Things have been sketchy between them lately. Initially envious of his flesh and bones, Samantha has begun to embrace her OS. Talk of digital others has crept into the conversation. Where is she? Twombly panics. Ah yes, that desperate terror when trust, love, and the cozy sense of belonging are about to be annihilated. Ever felt it?
Then suddenly Samantha signs on. She is back! Clutching the gizmo of his hopes and dreams Twombly crumples to the ground with relief, oblivious to the pedestrians surging on the stairwell around him. But as she reassures him of her presence, the real desolation hits. She is there but she is not there. He asks her tremulously – when they talk, is she talking to anyone else at the same time? Silence as the artificial intellect parses her disclosure before she replies – There are hundreds.
Why do we assume we have the right to know someone fully? Have we ever truly revealed ourselves to another? The Male Harem was spawned from the staggering understanding that the mating of souls is fragile and uncontrollable. That relationships are never equal nor do they need to be. And that a precious intimacy exists when two aliens connect in the deliciously uncompromised erotic void. May the poet remain a haiku long after words fail, more sensed than read, and always open to interpretation.