Precipice: On co-opting Desire
published in Leste Magazine, 2022
One of the oldest sex museums to stand can be found in Hakone, Japan. I would know, as I chanced past it on one of the last trips I ever went on with my entire family, at ten when I knew very little about the nubs of my own body, even less about this shrine that seemed to celebrate something out of my reach. My sister and I had hovered over the entrance where a smiling, full-breasted mermaid perched — uncertain if this was a threshold we were allowed to cross. I remembered her hair was very long, parted in buttery waves, and that I was afraid.
Of course, we were never allowed in. Not by the jaded attendee who did little to hide her discontent with us: a family with three children to boot, but by my own mother, who marched down the stairs to ‘verify’ the lewdness of the space while we half-begged if we could come along with her.
It was sleepy in May and we were in an outstrip of coastal seaside in the off-seasons (Hakone being famed for its onsen springs), and I hated parts of it — kicking pebbles with my younger sister outside a Lawsons mart, the serenity of it compared to Universal Studios, in Osaka, and the encroaching restlessness in wait of busier days. The Hihokan was the final reprieve of excitement I felt we could have. A small luxury, if you will. While my father and mother argued nonsensically about whether or not the corruptions of our young minds were at stake, I committed every detail to memory: the glass fogged with the breath of the nearby attendant, plastered with images of smiling women with tasselled bras, some baring rhinestone-encrusted nipples, the rest surrounded by leering, ruddy men, and a general sense of lacquered decay.
When I was sixteen I let men put their lips on me and revelled in every uptick in those encounters. I didn’t know why I wanted so badly, wanted to be wanted, wanted to be conjoined in ways I didn’t know much about. It was puerile and silly; under a haze of smog and candied lights who couldn’t look alluring? I had stitched myself in one piece after watching my parents have many more arguments like that one, at the mouth of the museum — until they were snuffed out altogether and my sisters and I were left to fill the gaps of what we didn’t know apart from that we weren’t welcome.
Then, the only thing more sinister to me than being undesirable was being forgotten.
I think of the first time I had told my then-boyfriend at the time that I did not want to have sex yet, and the blank, sleety hardness in his eyes before he withdrew his limbs from mine where we lay outdoors. The bench grazing my tailbone as he shoved me from his lap felt almost soiled by my skin. Perhaps if I had curried favour with more winsome smiles, more excess, I wouldn’t have felt winded by the sense of panic that unspooled something inside of me. The Atsumi Hihokan could have benefited from exacting the same formula: a retinue of involved entrants up for a flash grab, only to dip in uninterest at the site of stale bones. Pared down, there isn’t much of a difference between us.
It’s become a sore for the locals of the Izu Peninsula, and tourists who have glazed over it have opted for more reputable attractions nearby, like the MOA Museum of Art and the Kyū Hakone Rikyū Palace. One review on Tripadvisor provides this scathing indictment: ``Horrible tacky and rundown place...To me, it was just sad and boring.”
I know now that maybe by some stroke of hooplah I had been allowed in I would have come to some like-minded conclusion. I’ve trawled the internet for images of what lies beyond the cavern: there's penis paraphernalia, some woodcut duplications of shibari shunga, and other mermaids like the one flanked at the entrance, with the same undeterred blankness as to why they’ve been disrobed and dumped on display.
Today’s me still finds the museum arresting in its erosion. Would I have found the display grandiose then? Had I been let in on the secret that there was something shiny in the tips and folds of my own body? I can excavate more memories like this one, twined in guilt and openmouthed curiosity over the fledgeling knowledge I had at my disposal. I’ve mapped out the routes I’ve taken since then, the displacement I’ve felt as a sexed being — deemed irreverent, second-rate. I see the hihokan as an archaeological site: it’s a point of embarrassment, but for who? The locals, my mother, or my own naivete? Was it a threat or was it necessary to water down what it held for those like me, who at age ten had nothing left to give?
I’ve wanted what I didn't know for as long as I’ve been a woman, maybe even before I had bloomed into one. I have nested in the comfort of not knowing, not being, because to be unassigned is to be unassailable. The little boxes to tick, my own dizzying performances of gender, all of this is laid bare when you realise to be a girl is to be foolish. Inspired by the faintest wisp of attention, grabbing at the air when that gaze that you believe to be firmly trained on you at all times has roved in search of a shinier, blinkering light. That sort of sexual altruism so innate to womanhood in all its sectors becomes even more congested when you factor in race, gender assignment, the bloat of public standards that dictate how we are supposed to look and fuck. A friend of mine recently published a poem titled Girlness, and isn’t that just it? Being ‘girl’ is just a suffix, attached with all the extensions and promises of sex. Goodness, kindness, girlness.
Some days I can call my own bluff. I catch myself in thrall of my own desiring power — distensions that remain to uphold the smoke and mirrors that women cannot be harmed if they wall themselves up behind allure. I don’t want to preach to the choir about how ownership of our bodies can be bargained through working together. This we all already know, especially for those who, like me, are gridlocked in varying intersections that do little to mitigate the weight of being.
I cannot be that femme fatale without acknowledging that such projections are the pinings of a child who yearned to be insulated in some form of protection that wouldn’t quiver, wouldn’t break. I think back of the me on the cusp of the hihokan’s entrance; heady and fearful for what’s to come. We are all weary with the pretence of femininity. Its putty-like pinkness, its tepid suggestions of what can be inferred from the lines of our bodies, its aspersions cast on the subject — even when it feels good to beguile. It is important that we foster that same childlike propensity to learn, to see through parts of us rotted and half-abandoned to cut to the core of what lies beneath. It doesn’t matter if veiled illusions are a part of what makes us us, what we need to mangle the sordid expectations of the bodies we carry. Is there anything more woman than inhabiting space unintended for our pleasure?