When I moved into a new house recently, the previous owners had left a small blackboard hanging on the kitchen wall. On it, the familiar palimpsest of forgotten notes, the chalky ghosts of ‘milk!’ and ‘call Stuart’ clumsily erased but not entirely gone. But one item had been left proudly intact: the phone number for the BBC Complaints Department. The numbers were clear, almost as if they’d been traced over several times to make the lines stronger, more indelible. Its prominence in an otherwise-empty kitchen was striking. How often did the previous inhabitants of my house call to complain to the BBC, I wondered? And for what?
They must have been more accustomed to taking offense than me, or perhaps with a different conception of what constitutes a crossed line. Whilst I’ll admit I don’t spend much time consuming the BBC’s content, on the occasions I do I’m more likely to be offended by the dodgy acting in the latest police procedural than anything else. But then, I may not be the best judge of distaste.
Of course, I’m offended by the usual subjects: hate speech, prejudice, words that harm or hurt. I’m offended by people who put their feet on seats on public transport; poorly-executed puns; small minds and small talk. But nudity, swear words and rough sex? Not so much.
I’ve always thought offence and lust were closely intertwined. It’s there in the language – we take offence. Acquisitive, hungry, needy. It’s no secret our erotic imaginations are often fired by things that tread the line between offence and propriety. Physical reactions to provocation aren’t so far off arousal either. Our skin prickles. Our heart beats faster. Blood rushes to the surface of our skin when someone gets on our nerves. Like desire, provocation brands itself to a particular, central part of us. The masochist in me half-wonders if we enjoy it.
It’s popular to believe contemporary discourse is a minefield, impossible to negotiate without upsetting some imagined, thin-skinned millennial. But in many regards, I’d argue we’re actually more live-and-let-live than ever. Culture is awash with so-called subversion. Sex is ubiquitous. The erotic, everywhere. I’ve no problem with this, but I do wonder what it does to our capacity for playful provocation.
Within an artistic context, many argue that in postmodernity, it’s no longer possible to be offended. While I’m not sure that’s entirely true, it’s funny to look back on some of history’s most ‘offensive’ creative works and marvel at what all the fuss was about. From our modern vantage point, it’s almost unbelievable something like Tracey Emin’s ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995’ was able to cause such an uproar. Taking the form of a tent embroidered with the names of everyone Emin had ever slept with, the piece now looks oddly benign when held up against our hyper-visual, hyper-explicit culture. And yet, when she unveiled it in 1995, Emin was accused of boasting, of indecency, of taking things too far by including the names of the many people who had, in her words, “shagged her against a wall.”
Perhaps the offence was not so much in the content but in the context: for Emin, a young woman, to be so unashamedly erotic in the hallowed halls of Fine Art. Well, that was too much for some to bear. Outside of a set of socially sanctioned spaces and expressions, an unapologetically sexual woman continues to provoke and offend. Never is this more true than in digital spaces, where depictions of female sexuality are used to sell you just about anything, but when a woman seeks to profits from her own sexuality, she’ll find herself swiftly removed from any platform where she might do so.
This tension has a lot to do with subverted expectations: the unapologetic slut in the gallery; the woman reclaiming the male gaze for her own ends. When desire doesn’t play by the rules of respectability, we recoil in shock and sometimes anger. By and large, society sanctions women who happily perform their sexuality but only in a way that is non-threatening. She must toe the line of propriety, and preserve her sexual appetites for the ‘correct’ context. Personally, I find such oversimplification more offensive than anything else.
Even in our supposedly liberated, sex-positive culture, many still feel uncomfortable at the sight of a woman who rejoices in her sexuality, addresses her desires, seizes her own pleasure, enmeshes her identity with her erotic power while recognising it doesn’t define her entirely.
To avoid offence, we’ll often dance around the issue and soften our truest needs to make them more palatable for others. Really, though, we’re more united by what provokes us than what offends us. I say, reject the double-entendre; say what you want in no uncertain terms – unapologetic desire is the the most thrilling provocation of all.