How Did Sex Become So Boring?
In 2008, veteran feminist Germaine Greer took to the pages of The Guardian ostensibly to remark upon a newly released biography of the 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, but her critique quickly swerved into a skewering of the poet himself.
Greer’s complaint with Rimbaud had nothing to do with the form of his poetry, but rather with the content: that Rimbaud’s purported obsession with anal sex shaped his oeuvre into something relentlessly boring. “To suggest that anyone would worship an anus is a consciously outrageous contrivance,” Greer wrote. “This is the point at which I lose patience, because a preference for the anus is actually as banal and ridiculous as any other sexual fixation.”
Nevermind that Rimbaud probably wasn’t as obsessed with anal sex as Greer claims; the verse she cites was written by Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud’s periodic lover, and the poet’s best-known work does not meditate on anal sex. Greer’s greater error was to ignore the political significance of poetry about anal sex. Writing so boldly on such a taboo subject in Rimbaud’s day could have serious consequences for a person’s life and career. Thus Greer’s sneer that Rimbaud and Verlaine were little more than “two drunks trying to scandalise their equally middle-class drinking companions by advertising their sexual preference” is something of a backward reading. Doubtlessly drunks and almost certainly fond of scandal, Rimbaud and Verlaine nonetheless lived before a time of “sexual preferences,” in which sex is considered a matter of personal taste. They lived, in other words, before sex was boring.
In Rimbaud and Verlaine’s world, for better or worse, sex had stakes. It reflected upon a person’s social standing—building status or destroying reputations—and had a decidedly political edge, influencing distributions of power.