Chin: Muse-en-scéne: A Crisis of Desire

Breaking the taboo on sexual health requires more than open discussions.

by Clara Chin | 3/29/19 2:00am

I began the year writing a manuscript about desire but quickly realized that words fall short of experience. One weekend away from the opening of the installation, “Dora’s Room: Digital Dreams,” at the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts, I started to think about the practical implications of desire. People want to experience sex — not talk about it. Most adults remember having “the talk” with their parents when they were teenagers or having to sit through a sexual education course; these conversations were probably more uncomfortable than they were helpful. Given the national institutions that seem to oppose embracing sexuality and a collective desire to do just that, talking about it is more important than ever. This means that taking control of our own sexual health (both physical and mental) requires not just paying attention in health class, but also looking to media that acknowledges the aesthetic element to our bodies. While there are biological and scientific explanations for what happens to our bodies, there are emotional reasons for why these scientific occurrences are allowed to happen. 

There is an extreme tension between the societal desire to engage in sexuality and the structures prohibiting sexual expression. We see the desire to engage in sex through the use of “dating” applications, the resulting engagement in casual sex and the popularity of sex educators on social media websites. We see regulation take place through the banning of sexual content on Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook (going as far as banning conversation on sexual preference), as well as national policy changes. A recent directive, known as the global gag order, requires that organizations outside of the United States receiving national funding pledge not to perform or advocate abortion in sexual or reproductive health care programs. In response, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) wrote in a startement to Newsweek: “This administration’s obsession with attacking women’s reproductive health is egregious and dangerous …Trump administration’s actions threaten access to critical services that prevent maternal deaths, treat HIV and Zika and provide communities with lifesaving health care.” The dissonance between the public and bureaucracy increases desire while many are left without proper education about safer sex. 

Sex education often uses positive language to advocate safe sex, and by nature is a sterile presentation of sexuality. The classroom setting in which sexual education courses take place, as well as the neutral tone of national regulation, leaves out the more complicated and often ugly emotional side through which decisions that affect the body occur. Dartmouth College offers free condoms in various places on campus, including at the Student Wellness Center, Dick’s House, sexual health events, vending machines and residence hall bulletin boards. But what the back of a condom wrapper, safer sex poster or instructional pamphlet will not tell you are the many reasons why it may be tempting to not use one. At most, a pamphlet might warn you of the dangers of coercion or being inebriated while having intercourse, but rarely will it warn you how intoxicating love can be. Even if it did, a how-to guide cannot fully capture the desire to please a romantic interest — or even one’s own desire to be physically intimate with someone.

Discourses that ask more questions than they answer add to sexual education the difficulty of knowing the right answers. To understand one’s own sexual being, it can help to look towards affective mediums that allow oneself to contemplate their acts of desire in a philosophical or imaginative context rather than one of practicality. Gaspar Noé’s film “Love,”for instance, allows the viewer to confront both the beauty and the ugliness of infatuation. A young woman experiences multiple sexual encounters with ambivalence, her trepidation and desire intertwined with her infatuation with a young man. I set out to watch this film for my installation to understand what a visual medium could express that my own words could not. The enveloping red tones of the film, the music that lingers following an intense emotional encounter between the two lovers and the camera hovering on the young woman’s face puts conversation about safer sex into the context of intoxicating love. Putting facts and words about the outside reality of sex alongside the effect of provoking images allows one to understand the environmental factors that affect their sexual actions.