Learning to Play

by Susanna Paasonen, University of Turku, Finland

In a scene from Jan Soldat’s 2016 documentary film, Coming of Age, a senior male couple recount the beginning of their relationship as a fisting date. Horst is sitting topless on a sofa and Kalle, dressed in a plastic bib and diaper, sits in a playpen hugging a teddy bear with a markedly pensive expression. Explaining how the couple ended up doing diaper play, Kalle defines it as a spontaneous event contra Horst’s suggestion that this had been a more long-term fetish and interest:

 – You’ve always been into diapers, right, Kalle?

– Me? Well… As I’ve told you before, it’s connected to my whole incontinence thing. I do it out of need to make something good of the situation. Just to look at it differently.

This exchange suggest that, rather than been driven to adult diaper baby play out of an innate urge, long-term fascination, or identification, Kalle has developed these routines as a means to cope with an uncomfortable physical condition by turning it into something pleasurable. The couple continue to discuss how their scenes of play have emerged and evolved:

–The first time is always forced anyway. You need to work it out to see what works, what doesn’t work. The second time is always more relaxed and it gets better and better.

– Just like any kind of a game. Some people like it, some don’t. You can’t force it. It either works or doesn’t. It’s that simple.

Much could be said of this remarkable scene – and film – which, like Soldat’s work more broadly, documents kink communities around the Berlin region with both ethical gravity and unmistakeable warmness. For my purposes here, I zoom in on just one aspect, namely the scene’s take on sexual play. As particular and marginal a niche as baby-diaper play may be on the spectrum of sexual likes, the scene unpacks it as a realm of improvisation, repetition and learning. In other words, there is no attempt to uncover or position the roots of the preference in childhood events, traumas, or family histories in ways that would fix or explain it in relation to the notion of identity. Rather, age-play is seen as unfolding as a response to later life events that have since grown into routines, habits and tastes. As such, it has gradually and in degrees come to define the couple’s sexual life.

The scene, like many others in Soldat’s films, opens up ways of thinking about sex, play and sexual play in ways that foreground experimentation, contingency and pleasure. In fact, it helps to conceptualise sex in terms of play: as pleasurable activity practiced for its own sake that need not serve any functional or productive purposes beyond the appeal of the engagement itself. 

ComingOfAge_leadingStill_JanSoldat
Coming of Age (Soldat 2016)

Play can be light or heavy, cumbersome or casual, spectacular in its props or focused on the particularities of skin, take the form of role-play or tentative tickling. Driven by the quest for pleasure and the intensification of the body, play probes and stretches the horizons of what people may imagine doing, liking and preferring. Seen in this vein, sexual play pushes identifications into motions of varying speeds and lengths. Play can therefore be seen as central to how sexual desires, fantasies, pleasures and orientations emerge and animate bodies within, in-between and even despite the categories of identity.

The exchange between Kalle, Horst and Soldat recounts how play scenes are coined and rehearsed, and how their shapes and rules are tested until they seem to somehow fit. It provides a vignette into a much broader question of how people, living out their lives, experiment with their bodies and those of others. Novel connections between and within bodies become forged in the course of lifespans, while others are shut down in ways that may be surprising, hurtful, or something else. Sensory experiences layer, bodily capacities shift and sexual palates range in their hues. What one desires at 20 is therefore likely to be different from that which holds intense allure for the same person at the age of 50.

As Lauren Berlant notes in her dialogue with Lee Edelman in Sex, Or the Unbearable, play ‘can provide a space of interest within which other rhythms and therefore forms of encounter with and within sexuality can be forged’. [1] For its part, the exchange of Horst and Kalle suggests how sexual play can generate new forms and patterns of sensation through improvisation. As such, play is a means of exploring and reworking the boundaries of both sexual norms and the more personal confines set for one’s desires, pleasures and objects of interest. Bodily horizons of possibility connected to sex are, in sum, mutable. Such contingency would also be key to the appeal and force that sex holds in individual lives, cinematic depictions and public debates alike. 

Note

[1] Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman. 2014. Sex, Or the Unbearable. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 6.

Contributor

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Susanna Paasonen is Professor of Media Studies at University of Turku, Finland. With an interest in Internet research, sexuality, affect theory, and media culture, she serves on the editorial boards of e.g. the journals New Media & Society, Social Media + Society and Sexualities. Susanna is most recently the author of Carnal Resonance: Affect and Online Pornography (2011), co-author of Not Safe for Work: Sex, Humor, and Risk in Social Media (forthcoming, with Kylie Jarrett and Ben Light), as well as co-editor of Working with Affect in Feminist Readings: Disturbing Differences (2010, with Marianne Liljeström) and Networked Affect (2015, with Hillis and Petit). Her two current book-length projects explore the dynamics of distraction and boredom connected to social media (with Michael Petit) as well as the applications of the notion of play in studies of sexuality.

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