To See is to Be Seen

seenApparently I said something deeply offensive when I tweeted that, among the many functions that sex serves, one is to see yourself through the eyes of your lover. When it finally occurred to me why the statement might be offensive to some people, it depressed me. It’s political, of course. Although I realize it is fundamentally impossible to keep politics out of the bedroom, I often feel it does more harm than good there.

We find ourselves at an incredibly narcissistic point in our history and, god knows, I’m not immune to it (witness my last post). But somehow we’ve come to a point where we want to believe – and certainly the commercial entities who sell us things that help ‘define’ us want us to believe – that we make ourselves, and  can completely remake ourselves, that we are the sole authors of our own identities. Or, at the very least, that we have been since we had the agency to stop toddling.

True, the most formative years of our psycho-sexual development occur very young. And having a primary carer who looks upon and touches and interacts with you with the right level of admiration (not too much and not too little) has a tremendous impact on whether you instinctively feel that you deserve to be desired and loved when you grow up. Although the deepest scars to this part of our psyches may be done in early childhood, I still believe that we are not immune or unchanged by later experiences.

The gaze is a paradoxical thing. You cannot see the world without it seeing you back. You cannot gaze into the face of another human being without knowing that you are being gazed at too, and judged. It’s a dangerous thing, because they might not like what they see in you. In gazing, you expose yourself to the gaze of others. And you learn to know you are ‘other’ to them. You learn how to be the object of someone else’s desire. Or worse, you learn that you do not inspire desire in them at all – and you learn to live with that truth.

There is a humanist concept: intersubjectivity. It’s used in a lot of senses, but at its core is the idea of viewing others as fully rounded, complex human beings like you. Affording them the same complexity, the same emotions, the same desires and needs that you afford yourself. It’s a very nice idea and I think it is very possible to do that once you get to know someone well and feel for them. There is an aspirational goal we have been given to be sexually intersubjective as well. I’m not convinced this is possible. I think you can love someone that way, but reality is a string of continuous moments, and I think in the midst of erotic experience, it’s not possible. Or rather, it is possible, but then it feels a lot like you’re fucking yourself, which offers no risk, no jouissance, no peril, no adventure. And nothing feels as revelatory as knowing you are seen, in all your beauty and all your ugliness, by another, and still desired.

I think we really need our ‘other’ to be ‘other’ in those moments. And we need to be ‘other’ to them. To be strangers and strange, to be alien territory. To be in the erotic company of, not a clone, but an other. And hopefully you are very desirable other to them, and you can see that, feel it, know it in their eyes and their touch and their responses. There is an inherent tension in feeling the ‘wrapper’ of the other. You can’t see through their eyes or taste through their tongue or touch with their skin. You are together and yet you are separate. It allows you the erotic luxury of atomizing them. Of reveling in their otherness and of fearing it also. Because at some point, if things are really good, you get that ecstatic moment when, for just for a brilliant, blinding moment, the wrapper of the other dissolves and falls away. But it is only a moment and then gone; it is what you then seek over and over. Usually, coming up to the point of orgasm, or passed it in that flash of yearning that extends into the twilight past it. A good thing too, because it’s far too intense a place to be with all your intellect intact.

It occurs to me that, these days, we spend a lot of time not really seeing. We put labels on the objects of our desire as a way to categorize and peruse them at a superficial level for fear, if we look too long, they will look back at us. It is safe, quick and convenient to classify each other, and the things we desire with meta-tags and 50 years of marketing savvy has taught us how to do it. Look, this is the MILF shelf. Here’s the buff but mature and successful man shelf. Here’s the butch girl shelf. And the sweet but a geek shelf. We classify each other in our minds so we can imagine we know each other without actually seeing, and avoiding being seen. And it’s safer to be one of those labeled objects, too. No one is going to bother judging you in any depth when they can simply classify you. It’s quicker.

We have become cowards. We delude ourselves that we have hermetically sealed ourselves in the impermeable packaging of absolute self-definition. It saves us from encountering the gaze which tells us something we don’t want to know about ourselves. We self-affirm with masturbatory glee.





  12 comments for “To See is to Be Seen

  1. deliriumtree
    February 4, 2014 at 5:17 am

    I’ve never had the experience of someone’s wrapper falling away. Although, I’ve also never looked in anyones eyes and felt any certainty I was wanted. I’ve hoped while it was happening, but that uncertainty eventually rips me to shreds. So maybe, you have to get that far first. Sex always feels the same as failure a few days after, which probably why I haven’t dabbled with it much.

    I’ve never thought of simply categorizing people. I guess maybe people do that? I could see how that could work. I’ve never thought about people not being complex and dimensional. Most people are completely overwhelming to me, I don’t know how to see them any other way.

    This was an interesting look at probably what is real for other people. Thank you.

    • February 4, 2014 at 5:28 am

      I think you probably have a pretty unique view of the world, Sweetpea and I definitely can see how, when you feel people are so overwhelming to you, it’s more likely to leave you skittish about engaging on that level. I don’t think everyone possesses the key to everyone else’s zipper. In fact, I think it is pretty rare. I’m old, and it’s only happened 3 times in my life. And, while we’re on it, good sex with the wrapper still intact is nothing to be sniffed at. I’m pretty sure, however, you’ll get there sooner or later. Ecstatic experiences are not entirely pleasant, they’re somewhere on the far border of pleasure and unless you’re really stupid, they terrify you as much as they awe you. I think you’ll get there when you’re ready.

      • deliriumtree
        February 4, 2014 at 5:36 am

        Thank you! Yeah, no one seems to see things the way I do. I’d like to eventually relate to all this stuff. Thank you for believing I’ll get there some day.

      • February 4, 2014 at 9:47 pm

        “I don’t think everyone possesses the key to everyone else’s zipper.”
        I think, back in the day, Erica Jong might have disagreed.

        • February 4, 2014 at 11:37 pm

          Jong was talking about a very different zipper.

  2. Aloof enthusiast
    February 4, 2014 at 5:45 am

    Too fuck in such a way that you or your partner becomes completely and totally vulnerable, to strip away all of the cognitive defences, self deceits and societal bullshit, and hear them demand what they want or need so urgently they can’t control themselves is the greatest intimacy there is. It’s no accident religions and governments throughout history seek to control eroticism and the freedom to have each other in the ways we actually want, because people who have experienced loss of imposed images of self in their lovers and themselves are so much harder to keep neatly tidied away.

    If you can leave yourself behind like that and see through another’s eyes, you are dangerous to other people. If you expose other people to things they have studiously hidden themselves from, the usually take great offence. Hence the persecution (at worst) or disparagement of people who do not follow the pack. Evolutionarily, they were a danger to the herd, but now they are a danger to a lucrative status quo. The world is truly a terrifying, unsympathetic place, and people put up their defense to avoid considering it and to drown the desire to something about that. So it’s no surprise there’s an angry reaction when the modern narcissism and consumerism is challenged.

  3. February 4, 2014 at 6:07 am

    Which leads me to contemplate whether the restlessness that comes with long-term relationships is just the yearning to actually be seen as ‘other’ again once you’ve past the point where you can see each other objectively anymore . . .

    • February 9, 2014 at 5:10 am

      This is an interesting way to look at it. I’ve been with my significant other for close to two decades now and I can say that there has been some backing away from that hyper-intimate sex that happened so often at the beginning of our relationship. I don’t feel that it is a loss of intimacy however, so much as our reasons for having sex have evolved over the course of our relationship. I can see how that early sex could be addictive however and something that one would wish to reclaim.

  4. brendanstallard
    February 4, 2014 at 8:10 pm


    Coo, you do make a fellow think!:)

    I was born in 1950 to a devout Irish Catholic Family. The very idea of masturbation was never, not once, discussed. We were 9 children in a 3 bedroom house, so, most of us had a pretty reasonable idea that “something,” went on around sheets-but any mention of it was hidden under fearful pain of punishment. Said punishment was often enacted for crimes merely suspected, so, one was careful.

    I was so ignorant when thrust upon the world, that today’s kids would no doubt laugh. I joined the police force at 17, and I had NO IDEA till I was 23 just why my collar number 69 raised such delight amongst my colleagues.

    In the mean-time, I have attempted to remove some of that ignorance of sexual matters, but there is no question that the old Jesuit axiom of, “teach the children early-you’ll have ’em for life,” is still well in evidence.

    This idea of being outside of oneself while fucking or being fucked-is mind-bendingly difficult one for me, but I think I get why it’s important to attempt to understand it.

    As always, RM, by jingo, you do make a feller think…..


  5. Harry Smith
    February 5, 2014 at 4:18 am

    Dear RG,
    I found most of this particular post a bit of a psychoanalytical extravagaza, however the last two paragraphs really hit home.
    We live in a world that has almost welcomed Big Brother and O’brien in through the front door. Privacy is regarded as an abberation and the ‘reality world’ is the way to go.
    A soldier getting decapitated in the street, perfect, pop out the iPhone and lets Mpeg away, if I rush home I can upload it to youtube before the next guy. No disgust, no anger. Another 30 second burst of activity and whats for dinner?
    So, we see, but we don’t see. People see events not for what they really are, but for the image they portray.
    There is no value on reality, everything is put into a box, including what one wishes to see and how one wishes to be seen. Western humanity has wrapped itself in some sort of mass denial that makes actually accepting real emotions, both good and bad almost unacceptable.

    • February 5, 2014 at 4:31 am

      That pretty much encapsulates how I feel about it. Like we’re giving away an incredibly important part of ourselves.

  6. Korhomme
    February 8, 2014 at 11:09 pm

    I was going to respond with ideas from Rabbie Burns, Johari’s window, the gorilla and baseball, female tetrachromatism etc. Instead I read a review in today’s (8 February) Graun:

    which I suspect says it better than I can.

    Re the last two paras: that’s certainly true; but it’s usually helpful. For instance, we “know” that the handle of a door is on the edge opposite to the hinges. But, experimentally, if we find the handle beside the hinges we have to work out how to open it, something we do automatically. A case of “we see, but we do not observe” perhaps.

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