One of the good things about the top-floor flat that my boyfriend and I are sharing in Berlin is its panoramic views. We look down on a kebab shop, an Apotheke (pharmacy), a tram line, traffic weaving round to Friedrichstrasse and, in the distance, the steaming top of a huge hospital called Charite.
We can also see into the 50 odd bedrooms of the Arcotel Velvet, which face us with embarrassing nakedness. Each room is a glass box, their street-facing walls entirely windows. The whole block of them look directly into our living room.
It’s not just the rooms that are naked in their proximity and transparency. Many of their occupants are too. These occupants don’t draw the curtains.
One of the first things my boyfriend did when he got to the flat two months before me was to draw the blind on the window that looks into the hotel. He reported seeing one too many naked old men wandering around, as well as the making of a porn film. It appears that distaste at the former outweighed everything.
I thought he was being a bit prudish. What fun! Seeing 50 sets of strangers shag in different hotel rooms! Like in Sex and the City or a seasonal French comedy-drama!
So I kept peeking through the blind. And never saw more than some contemplative women in bras working on their laptops; or some men in boxers crawling into bed and turning off the lights.
Until yesterday. It took my father (my parents are visiting) to raise the blind. This is not as bad as it sounds. He had been left unattended in the flat for a few hours and likes light (a scant entity in Berlin in winter). He saw a closed blind and opened it, then continued reading about geological formations in the Galapagos.
A few hours later, my parents, Simon and I were having tea and some linzertorte. Suddenly Simon said, “Oh god, here we go.”
We all looked. A naked man was mid-coitus with a naked woman; she was flopped backwards over the bed while he stood and thrusted. It was an extraordinary scene to see with your parents and your boyfriend.
“Well, that’s why there are so many people on the planet!” noted my mother, before returning to her cake.
Thank God the others were also genuine in their determination to continue as before. Nobody looked again, apart from me. I was riveted. Five, ten, 15 minutes would pass and they’d still be going strong. The man would be coming at her from behind; she’d be on top, hair flying back, back arched like in a movie; he’d be pleasuring her orally, then having at her missionary style. Repeat.
Hours seemed to pass and the lady was clearly not climaxing; or maybe she came immediately and he had to catch up, and in doing so give her several more orgasms. But something about it didn’t give me that impression. It looked like SUCH. HARD. WORK. To be fair, it was hard work; the man did not flag.
But I was riveted not because this seemed an erotic scene; but because it seemed so unerotic, so sad almost. It encapsulated the pressure of enjoyment under which modern sex-havers labour: YOU WILL CLIMAX. The reality is that after 30 minutes of hammering, a woman is not suddenly going to climax because of a switch in position. It’s gone. Even the most artful finger or mouth session may be futile as the area can become desensitised due to psychological as well as physical wear. Plus by then, both parties know the game is up and it’s become a job, at which failure reflects badly, TERRIBLY, on the modern lover, particularly the casual modern lover, who is meant to have all kinds of climaxory experiences at their fingertips; a portfolio for every situation.
On and on they went. This position, that. A break. Back he went. They seemed to stop, and lay side by side. But then he began trying again to pleasure her. He was giving it a good effort, I’ll hand him that. You could see him thinking: “How annoying that these days you have to make the woman have an orgasm too; still, needs must I guess!” while she was probably thinking the exact same.
Eventually I forgot to watch. But hours later I felt a bit depressed by what I’d seen. Not because I’d suddenly discovered myself to be a filthy old voyeur. But because I had seen a crystallisation of modern sex: an international city in Europe, 3:30pm, a November’s day in a minimalist hotel room, and I hadn’t liked it. It had seemed a real bore, a hollow shell, like I was watching porn. It was performance; it was rogering, hammering, it was get to the finish line sex at whatever cost. It made me uneasy about this great edifice of meaning that we call sex, and wonder if it really is just animals rutting after all. Simon noted that from a distance (in this case, about the width of Regent Street), people having sex really does look like animals having sex. (This is not an arousing thing to either of us, for the record.)
I don’t know for sure, obviously: they might have been lover reuniting and enjoying every second of their bodily contact. They might have met the night before. But it reminded me of something Germaine Greer said in the introduction to the 2007 Palladin edition of The Female Eunuch, about how no amount of the the masturbatory thrusting of polished limbs gives the kind of orgasm that emotional intimacy and physical frankness can.
These two were thrusting and their limbs were polished. In the end, I am sure they both got to the finish line. But the effort it took to get there didn’t look erotic, it looked exhausting.
Berlin is one of the coolest cities in the world right now. Everyone – from Europe’s most creative (and only slightly failed) artists, to the serious philosopher scholars of Scandinavia, to the American college students on tour, to the Israelis seeking hipsterdom and family allowances at lesser prices – thinks so. They’re all here, after all. I’m here too, 78 years after my grandfather – now 93 and living in North London – left due to Nazi ascendance.
And great parts of it I like a great deal. I like the reflexive elegance, the enormous apartments, the minimalist shop windows; the parade of white-washed galleries; the cafes with velvet sofas, plum cakes and Florentine espresso machines. And let’s not forget the expert curation of past and present culture: the museums and classical music.
But Berlin, for all its flexibility and open-ness in dealing with its past, its creative approach to museums, and its great eye for sleek modern design, is profoundly retarded in one very important area – along with the rest of Germany. Namely: a woman’s right to choose – and be respected in that right.
With a degree of ignorant and indignant surprise, I bring you the news (news for me, anyway) that Germany’s birth control policies are among Europe’s least progressive. They are queasily paternal and – having lived in England (land of free, no-questions-asked abortions, full STD tests, and hassle free morning after pill acquisition) for so many years – I find them shocking. Oh, and sinister, for they hint at how thin the membrane is between the rights I take for granted in England, and the monstrous welter of patriarchal oppression only so recently put into shadow. Only 550 miles from London is a country that basically still thinks that when a condom breaks, a woman should apologise to God for her sins and meekly take her punishment.
The abortion policy in Christian Democratic Germany requires mandatory counselling, and a wait of at least three days between the counselling and the abortion, to ensure the woman doesn’t have the luxury of a short period of emotional discomfort. She must suffer, at the very least (and pay – abortions cost €300-€500 unless income falls below a certain extremely low level). But this is an improvement on the recent state of things: before 1992 in West Germany, a woman needed the “approval” of two doctors and could have an abortion only if her mental and physical health were “severely” threatened or she had been the victim of sexual violence. No doubt in both cases she’d have to be submitted to extensive examinations, physical and psychological, like something out of a Victorian clinic for lunatic women. I wouldn’t be the first to posit the notion that abortion law is made complex and obstructive just so doctors get the chance to poke around inside women. Historically, physical examinations have been a veritable obsession (see Michel Foucault and Elaine Showalter for more on this).
Now take the morning after pill which is not, in Germany, just a pill. It is, rather, a murder – one that can be authorised, to be sure, but not without extensive and humiliating hoop-jumping.
If a woman strolls into a pharmacy expecting the respect of Europe’s richest state to assume that the choice to pay £25 to take a pill that will disrupt her period and possibly her state of mind and stomach, simply because she happens to be the one who – out of the two – gets pregnant, is not taken with gay abandon, but rather the desire not to become a parent, than she has another thing coming. Unlike in Bulgaria, Ireland, Turkey, France, Scandinavia and Israel, she must get a prescription. Which is to say, permission. She must pay at least €100 for this prescription if she is uninsured, plus the €25 cost of the pill. If she doesn’t have a private doctor who can nip out and write her the prescription on short notice, she will have to miss work, or the best part of a weekend day (likely when she is emotionally distressed and hungover to hell), to go and sit in a hospital emergency room. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking as she waits for the paternal system of control over her body to work its way through to the pill itself. Every second the woman is made to find hospitals and clinics, and wait in emergency rooms for (usually male) doctors, the fetus grows. Which is ironic for a country that makes you do all this because it DOESN’T want to murder unborn babies.
I met a woman this morning who said she had her first child because of the difficulty of accessing the morning after pill in Berlin. She was told she’d need a physical examination (not true, in fairness) by a gynecologist (a grey area) and – since German pharmacists and hospital administrators insist that a three-day delay in taking the pill is FINE (it isn’t), this lady simply decided to wait till she went back to her homeland in Scandinavia to get it, a few days later. It was, against the counsel of Germany’s contraceptive gatekeepers, too late. Granted, she kept the child and seems happy with the decision (she’s had another one too) so it couldn’t have been all bad.
These rules are, obviously, linked to Christianity (one of the places German women can go to receive no doubt completely unbiased pre-abortion counselling is a church centre) and echo much of the weird bullshit surrounding contraception in the US. Thus it is no coincidence that abortion law was more punitive in West Germany (until 1992, the woman had to be either raped or suicidal to get one) than in Communist and therefore secular East Germany (abortion was legalised in 1974 in the GDR).
But Christianity isn’t the whole story. The birth control palaver is also a serious example of a set of attitudes that can be summed up by the ideas of “no” instead of “yes”, of “I am not authorised to…” instead of “let me see if…” and of “here are all the reasons why you cannot…” or “why it is not possible” rather than “hmm, let me get the manager”. But that’s for the next post. Let me now just say how glad I am to have been got used to the machinations one of the best contraceptive states on earth. It’s just too bad that on going just a few hundred miles away, one finds remnants of a world that one had lazily hoped gone from Western Europe.
Mindfulness, a Buddhist idea made popular by Jon Kabat Zin in 1979 as a stress-reducer for the masses, is a very big thing in mental health and wellbeing counselling. Millions of happiness-pursuers around the world practice mindfulness or try to, using, among other things, meditation and breathing exercises.
Mindfulness is about being in the present, not fretting about the past or thinking about the future, and – very importantly – about being kind to yourself, by showing yourself love and understanding.
More precisely: “The first component [of mindfulness] involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance” – (Bishop, Lau, Shapiro, Carlson, et al. 2004)
I am very keen to get better at mindfulness as I think it obviously helps not only the quality of your life, but of those around you – people I know who are good at it are tranquil and nice, and forgiving to others. They, it is no coincidence, seem happy, more supple.
But I am still a beginner at mindfulness and I don’t quite understand. It is axiomatic in mindfulness theory to show yourself love and care – that’s what the words like “open” and “curious” and “acceptance” are about. One of the things that loving yourself entails is forgiving yourself for imperfections and not beating yourself up about mistakes. But what do you do when, for instance, you can feel yourself acting like a brat IN THE PRESENT? Being awful IN THE PRESENT MOMENT? Do you regard yourself with open acceptance then, even when you deserve a good spanking?
My non-mindful questions continue. What does mindfulness say to the simultaneous awareness of not acting or feeling nicely, the desire – sometimes carried out – to throw a tantrum and punch (and punish) someone/ everyone and the awareness of the imperative to show acceptance, openness, curiosity, forgiveness and love to yourself? After all, when I feel my anger levels soaring for no good reason – like feeling left out when I’m not, or feeling attacked or criticised even minutely – I am extremely aware, even sometimes curious, eg: “why the hell have I not grown out of these sorts of feelings”? Acceptance, though, is the rub. Say I said: “In this moment I am being a baby, and I accept it”, I would just go on being a baby, wouldn’t I? What would improve about the situation? In this case, acceptance is just a mantra; just words. It would not derail negative, angry thoughts. Or would it?
Ok, another mindfulness puzzle. Someone you care about, or have high expectations of, says or does something to you that offends your values deeply. For example, imagine if a partner or sibling suddenly disclosed views that you felt to be utterly unjust – say, that women do not have the right to abortion.
Being intelligent, you know that your rage and disappointment is a reaction, and that if you had mindfulness, you’d be able to handle it without doing damage. That is, to exhibit wisdom, perhaps to cool down and attain perspective.
But being intelligent, and headstrong perhaps, you refuse to label your reaction a reaction ONLY – to you the reaction follows a breach of something that you think, or think you know, is right.
But in mindfulness, I believe you’re asked to relinquish your grasp on what is “right” and let it all float past you.
Instead of anger, even righteous anger, you should breathe.
But what if you breathe, and you’re still upset? What if you breathe, and the wrong belief that angered you is still a wrong belief?
Are you a mindfulness drop-out?
What is missing in the literature on mindfulness is how to resolve a sense of violated justice – where justice is a meaningful concept, even if it is sometimes hobbled by its bond with individual egos – with a “letting go”.
Did the great political pioneers of the world, who used their anger to change things (let’s take the past century of women’s rights campaigners, for an example) take their anger and say: “I am angry, now let me meditate and let it swim past me”. Perhaps they did. Perhaps it’s what happens when the anger leaves you that is the best antidote to injustice of all types.
In fact, I’m fairly sure that anger is best when dissolved, leaving a dew of calm resolution. If that’s what mindfulness can teach, then I accept it, with curiosity and open-ness. For now, my awareness of the present moment tells me I am sceptical… though hopeful.
There is much to irritate as well as to trouble about the story of Lauren Marbe, the A-level schoolgirl from Essex, who is apparently the cleverest girl ever and now gets to go to a ball in Paris. First, there is the assumption that “an IQ higher than Einstein” - put about by every outlet reporting this story, including Au Feminin, The Daily Mail and the Telegraph – is a meaningful fact.
Lauren Marbe is cleverer than Einstein? Her innovation and promise in the field of quantum physics is greater? Or she’s better at identifying that, for instance, the statement that two ducks and two dogs have a total of fourteen legs is false? Then again, Intelligence Quotient (IQ) indicates a person’s mental abilities relative to others of approximately the same age – does this mean that Lauren Marbe is cleverer than Einstein at 16? Certainly, at 16, or just 17, Einstein had only entered the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich to train as a teacher in mathematics and physics. But by his 20s, Einstein realised the inadequacies of Newtonian mechanics and attempted to reconcile these laws with the laws of the electromagnetic field; hello special theory of relativity. Or maybe it means that at his PEAK, if only “the test had been around when he was alive” (to quote the Telegraph), Marbe would have still outdone him – Einstein may have written Special Theory of Relativity (1905), General Theory of Relativity (1916), Investigations on Theory of Brownian Movement (1926), and The Evolution of Physics (1938) as well as the non-scientific works, About Zionism (1930) and Why War? (1933) – but perhaps he’d have struggled with the number of slices to be got out of a pie cut four ways.
So that’s one thing. An annoying example of press release meaninglessness brushed up and welded with seeming fact. I might have been guilty of such things in my day.
The main thing about this story that gets me, though, is what it says about women and smarts.
Lauren Marbe is brainy – no doubt. She did well in her GCSEs and does maths and physics A-levels (like Einstein would have, had it been around) and then there’s the “gruelling” IQ test she ass-kicked.
Does it then follow, and would it follow for a boy/man, to be invited to a DEBUTANTE BALL in Paris?
The ball is not at all like Davos, the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize ceremonies, nor the Booker, or Wolf Prize for physics. Its guests include the likes of the Ecclestone sisters (Bernie’s daughters; probably not Einstein material) and Bruce Willis’s daughter.
At the ball, young Marbe, whose father is a taxi driver, will also have the chance to feel upper class for the day: “she will be escorted by a dashing French “cavalier” (knight), and spend the evening surrounded by princesses and heiresses in the elegant ballroom of the Automobile Club on Place de la Concorde”.
On the surface, the process by which the organisers of Le Bal got from: “clever Essex girl” to “girl whose extraordinary talent for solving puzzles quickly deserves a brush with Tamara Ecclestone, a lingerie model and ex-wife of sex-tape extortionist, and Lady Amelia Windsor”, seems mysterious.
But on second thought, it’s not mysterious at all. It’s blindingly obvious that Marbe’s reward is to put on a fancy gown and be offered every girl’s dream – to be a princess for a night – rather than, say, an all-expenses paid visit to Davos or an Oval Office meeting, or an internship at Apple or Google or – as she wants to be a lawyer – at a top firm.
This is because raw brains in women – apparently considered scarce – are fetishised (likewise the seeming absence of brains, and indeed pretty much everything else associated with the sexual axis of submissiveness on one hand and domination on the other). That is, any irregularity in a woman’s presentation, especially to do with power, intelligence, toughness and so on, quickly gets filed into the sex–>porn category. Lauren Marbe, a blonde working class schoolgirl with a big brain? Queue immediate images of the sexy spy chief, the dorky-sexy maths genius, the sexy-powerful policewoman; the naughty-sexy schoolgirl, an intelligent Britney Spears, a clever Cinderella….Or spiteful pictures that both sexualise and nastily reduce, make stupid, punish the girl/woman for not knowing her place, like the one pictured in this post.
For the less intelligent schoolgirl, there’s the under-age French maid, the corruptible innocent, and so on. In short, when it comes to females, so long as there’s a person there’s a fetish and a an open pathway for objectification. It’s worth noting that when the woman gets older and attains real power and no longer fits with the classic porn-lite avenues – there’s hate: Hilary, Angela, Margaret….
It is a shame that intelligence and ambition in girls – the precise group that needs the most cheering on in physics and maths – is immediately sexualised (for a similar example, see the Apprentice’s last winner, Leah Totton aka “Dr Totty”). Ok, Marbe isn’t starring in a porn film, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a sex tape or more likely, a lingerie ad emerged soon, featuring her with glasses, a calculator, pencil and a killer balcony bra.
Bras would shift, but would more girls pursue maths? I don’t think so. Plus, I think, ca change.
The idea of not touching a man before you marry him is obviously alien to non-Orthodox Jews – some of whom, like me, consider non-marriage a prime occasion for touching men. By not touching I mean not touching at all; not nudging, hugging, poking, pinching or anything else. Ultra Orthodox Jews are not meant to have friends of the opposite sex, either. This is considered a distraction – a betrayal, even – of energy from the main sexual-romantic bond: the husband or wife.
This week in Jerusalem I had the opportunity to talk at length to several haredim (ultra-orthodox) about their approach to matchmaking and their theories of intimacy. What I realised was that for all that this version of the religion is devoted to warding off, controlling and legislating sex, its practitioners end up getting obsessed with it. That you want what you can’t have is nothing new; but when what you can’t have is dressed up in robes of holiness and existential sanctity, I believe it creates a Himalayan mountain range out of a mere mountain (of variable size), with neurotic results.
Let me say something here – I think this effect is worse in religions where sex is considered a sin. In the Torah it is actually a mitzvah when done in marriage, because of its procreative and thus spiritually profoundnqualities. Sex is a mitzvah, but desire, apparently, is more like other appetites and must be carefully controlled (the Greeks would have been on board with this).
The Torah also stipulates the woman’s right to sex, and the man’s requirement to please her and not make her ask for it – which we can plonk rather roundly into the Biblical category of crumb-throwing to slaves/women.
Curious about the combination of respect for sex and seemingly excessive prohibitions surrounding it (no TOUCH! before marriage) in Judaism, I acquainted myself with the central arguments, courtesy of a woman called Gila Manolson, author of The Magic Touch. I suppose in a fair enough interpretation of the Torah, she said how sex is only meaningful understood as a sign of commitment and trust. Touch, she said, sends hormones firing and all sorts of emotions zooming through the lust-filled culprits, leading to an itch that can’t be scratched without disgrace or an unwise marriage.
Fine, fine. I took some of her reasoning – secular people do sometimes place such a great emphasis on sex that they stay with people for chemistry alone, ignoring their awfulness as human beings.
But, as I sat opposite a 22-year-old single Haredi woman this week in a Jerusalem suburb, and heard her – in hushed tones – talk about what a big deal sex was, how nervous her friends had been of it, the rumoured pain and so on, but for all that, safe in the knowledge that it would be a spiritual act when it finally happened, I was overwhelmed by a sense of archeological mismatch.
That is, understanding mere touch as a force for untold sexual appetite is a relic of the past, the days when men exclusively wandered about with sheep pelts and spears on Masada, hunting while women tended the fire back in the cave, only perhaps meeting on the way to the baths. The haredi of today – having never experienced touch – think that touch still has the power to ignite, whatever it is. And maybe, for them, it does – some of them do manage fairly expertly to avoid contact with the opposite sex, by going to single-sex schools etc, and living in religious areas.
But what they won’t know, as they bite their nails in expectation of the holy marital act, is that the spiritual and physical fireworks suggested in the Torah will, more often than not, surrender to the awkwardness and ineptitude of first timers who barely know each other – and, in the biblical sense, don’t know each other at all.
If only the hyper-religious of all ilks knew that while sex can be serious, very serious (rape is a good example), it is precisely with the people you love and trust that it can be most banal. Amusing; delightful; meaningful but above all, various and variable. And that it is precisely the sorts of expectation the bible heaps on the Jews that are not likely to help the interchange take flight. If sex prohibitions were relaxed, there might be many fewer inner cries pouring out of Meir Sh’arim: “THIS is what I’ve been waiting for?”