We had just got around to applied Indo-European etymology at Bibendum, somewhere between the Piedmontese Peppers and the Deep Fried Cod and Chips with minted pea puree. It was at that stage in a lunch when the conversation gets animated and cutlery is used to emphasise significant elements of the argument. Sitting next to us on the plush banquettes in this bright, airy, spacious and dignified restaurant was an expensive-looking couple murmuring demurely and neglecting to follow our example of prodding the air with a fork in the interest of rhetoric.
Three glasses of house Gascony into the meal and we had reached the topic of perennial fascination to monogamists: the limits of fidelity. Just how far can you go before a genuine transgression occurs? What is the quantum? A quantum being not, as is the mistaken commonplace, a very large thing, but the smallest measurable one. This is a pursuit whose metaphysics compare with the finesse needed from line calls in tennis. Just what’s in and just what’s out? It’s always entertaining. What are the exact limits of acceptability? Clearly mwah-mwah air kisses are fine and so are pecks on the lips, provided you don’t have even a suggestion, an implication, a promise or a hint of an open mouth. A social hand around the waist is unexceptional, but where this one gets interesting is just how far south of the waist towards the gluteal fold can your palm slide before the alarms go off in the C3? Of such unassuming voiceless refinements is civilisation comprised.
This is a source of absolutely perpetual fascination for us. We play it again and again like an old record. My own feeling about the absolute, ultimate, maximal outer limits of transgression allowable for a state of authentic monogamy to be maintained would be perhaps the enjoyment of a favourable response to a house Gascony-fuelled request of “would you mind frightfully if I asked you to show me your tits?” With a distinction that might have pleased the argumentative Fathers of the Early Christian Church, I maintained on the Bibendum banquette that to issue such a request, have it granted and then savour (perhaps — but not absolutely definitely — even touch) the results would certainly be naughty, but not wicked. My heavily-married friend chewed his cod thoughtfully, screwed his eyes a mite and said, “No, you’re wrong. Penetration is OK,” and forked a snaggle of chips before he continued “provided you don’t come.” Whereupon the adjacent demure and expensive couple clattered their cutlery in an emphatic display of non-verbal communication.
Of all the questions about sex, the very biggest one is, where does it happen? Is it a spasm of the groin or a brainwave? This is of exceptional interest to monogamists determined to observe Mosaic Law and enjoy themselves. Conceptual sex may be the answer here. As so often in the twentieth century, technology is now available to make good the shortcomings and extend the limitations of both anatomy and of traditional culture.
3 Technology allows the seat, as it were, of the action to be removed from its application. Forgetting Duchamp’s pissoirs and bottle driers, the first exercise in technologically aided conceptual art were the telephone paintings by the Hungarian Bauhausmeister, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (whose significance in the history of modern art has always been undermined by the difficulties encountered in pronouncing his name). One quiet day in the early Twenties, Moholy had the wheeze of ringing up a Berlin signwriter and reading off graph co-ordinates and references from a colour chart to produce his epochal (but, frankly, rather dull) “Telephone Paintings”.
Conceptual art is something that has to be finished off in the head, rather than enjoyed on the canvas or in-the-round, hence its metaphorical significance in the great groin-or-brain debate concerning the location of sexual pleasure. The real and virtual distance which technology allows, gives extra depth to erotic possibilities. Hence, one imagines, the appeal of telephone sex. We have Nicholson Baker’s word for it that one of the sexiest things in the world is the sound of a intelligent woman masturbating carried down a GTE sprint, Nynex or Mountain Bell ‘phone line. This is what you might call Fermata’s Last Theorem: a seriously sexy experience, but perhaps not an utterly immoral one.
To complete the arsenal of C3 erotic possibilities allowed by the ‘phone there is the Xerox machine and the fax. Some years ago there was a mischievous fad which required sporty uninhibited types to sit (undressed) on the glass bed of the copier and record the impression. Arrival of the fax turned this amusingly puerile jape into a remote sex medium of bizarre appeal: a primitive, garage engineering version of the cyber sex which promises remote, guilt-free, conceptual erotic gratification for anyone with access to a ‘phone line and a three-pin plug.
The 1973 Woody Allen movie Sleeper predicted a Star Trek-era device that would deliver orgasms at will: a pleasant and innocent explosion in the brain. This technology is now Buhler in the making. In theory, husbands intent on a little conceptual adultery could strap on a virtual reality headset and a body suit with intelligent erogenous sensor stimulants that would authentically reproduce the smell, touch and feel of a lover’s body. You could (if she were willing to donate her dimensions, textures and pheromones) make electronic love to a real fantasy woman, to the one next door or the one you see at the Chelsea Bridge traffic lights in a yellow Mazda every morning, or, alternatively, to an entirely imaginary female equipped with all the physical features and personality traits you find most attractive. Real visionaries even predict that when we get genuine e-sex it will not even bother to replicate the hot and wet mechanics of copulation, but will intelligently bypass the sleeves and shafts of the groin with a stimulus-and-response mechanism which shafts the hypothalamus directly. With, one imagines, the inevitable and entirely traditional consequences.
I say “in theory” because the fact is, just at the moment, the sophisticated level of real-time VR, of transducer and feedback technologies needed to make e-sex a goer, if you’ll excuse the expression, are not in the marketplace. We will have neuro-chemical orgasms before we have plug-in ones. And they are some way off.
So, in the meantime, we monogamists will have to make do with the conventional surrogates for simple lust. If nothing else, the great advantage of thinking about sex in the future is that it takes your mind off the pressing problems of sex in the present.