Icon, index, symbol, semen

The shameful culprit: your standard pearl-white liquid hand soap, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the look, texture and consistency of semen.

Not content with meeting the facts, the thinking person sees in all things signs of something more, “tokens for something else” (Roland Barthes, Mythologies). I shall take semen as my subject matter. A rather plain and coarse substance, to be sure, yet as suffused with meaning in context as it is with sperm cells. To get a grip on the slippery analysis that follows, I employ American philosopher C. S. Peirce’s threefold classification of signs into the icon, the index, and the symbol.

A sign is something that stands for something else. The type of sign familiar to most people is the street sign. Street signs convey information by language, icons, or a combination of both. An icon is an image that stands for something by virtue of resemblance, functioning for the benefit of easy and immediate identification—a curved arrow warning of a bend in the road ahead, the schematic male and female figures indicating a restroom. Icons particularly aid people who may not speak the local language; thus airports contain the most elaborate collection of iconic signs of any public space.

Icons are not just for public use; they can also appear in an infinite array of more or less obvious guises, in short anything designed to resemble or suggest something else. There are ubiquitous corporate logos fashioned from icons—Shell Oil’s seashell, Microsoft’s four-paned window, Starbucks’ mermaid (whose breasts were formerly realistic but the present prudish version is no less iconic). People routinely create or play with icons for fun: snowmen, sand castles, Halloween costumes, impersonations. Dolls, squirt guns, model cars, dildos—most toys in fact—are icons. There are musical icons, e.g., the animals and thunderstorms in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, or those CDs of tropical jungles and ocean shores to help insomniacs sleep. There are tactile icons, like the whitish or translucent variety of liquid soap with its striking feel to semen, which you wash your hands and face with. And yet it’s not the soap that is so uncannily evocative and unnerving, it’s the icon: invisible, abstract, quite distinct from the soap itself.

Note that an icon need not be an absolute likeness. Unlike synthetic hand soap, which drips evenly, real semen has a more mottled, jelly-like texture; it drips off in clumps and strings and becomes runny. Whether liquid soap is capable of deceiving anyone into thinking it is real semen is beside the point. What’s key about the icon is that it is not just its likeness, but its difference from the object that defines and characterizes it. Consider the way people are drawn in comic books, where character and expressions are deftly depicted by a few stylized strokes, shorn of all realism in the detailed sense. The power and fascination of the icon lies in this art of tension, this miraculous recognition found in the icon’s simultaneous similarity and dissimilarity to its object. Absolute likeness, on the other hand, is banal and only required for the purpose of deception. If something succeeds in attaining perfect resemblance, it’s no longer an icon but a copy, a simulacrum, a counterfeit.

The splattering of semen on the face or other body parts (the “facial” or bukake in Japanese porn where it’s a specialty) is another example. Many porn facials do show real semen, but there is also the bad porn variety which fools no one, with gobs of cum made of liquefied cornstarch pumped out from a dispenser. When disembodied from the penis, flying semen seems to hit surfaces with greater violence, suggesting something ominous as if in a horror film, like the toxic venom ejected from an alien. But here fake semen oddly serves an iconic purpose; it is resorted to for the sake of cinematic clarity: the depiction of unmistakable male vigor, which can only be demonstrated when shown hitting a surface from a distance. After all, not every man can reliably eject semen with such force as to make it shoot or fly; it usually just dribbles out. In the comic book of life, the icon steps in where reality falters.

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Japanese manga art often attains a formal beauty reminiscent of Modernist abstract painting (Manga Bangaichi Comics, January 2012).

For an instructive comparison to the iconic variety of semen, let’s consider a quite different use of flying ejaculate in two notorious, pornographic “art” films of the last decade. Shortbus (USA, 2006, dir. Mitchell), an oddball drama set among the hip and queer in New York City, raised eyebrows for its explicit penetrative sex, still a radical act in American cinema, three decades after Nagisa Oshima’s Realm of the Senses and John Waters’ Pink Flamingos. In one scene, a male character with the help of a dominatrix climaxes onto a Jackson Pollock reproduction mounted on the wall behind him. The evidence is seen shooting out of his penis in powerful spurts. Semen also splatters a wall in The Wayward Cloud (Taiwan, 2005, dir. Tsai), as an introverted male protagonist masturbates in frustration over a woman, Shiang-chyi, played by her namesake, actress Shiang-chyi Chen. When he finally connects with her sexually, it’s forcibly by fellatio, and we see his cum dribbling down her chin.

Both these films seem at pains to show that the semen issuing from the respective actors is authentic. But if it is genuine, what then other than itself does it signify? Here we are no longer dealing with the icon but the index.

When disembodied from the penis, flying semen seems to hit surfaces with greater violence, suggesting something ominous as if in a horror film, like the toxic venom ejected from an alien.

An index is a type of sign that stands for something by virtue of a causal relationship: not fake semen representing real semen as in the case of the icon, but real semen representing something else, which either caused it or it may in turn cause. For instance, semen (or a broken condom) on a penis just withdrawn from a vagina signifies the woman’s pregnancy that may possibly result from this. Thus in addition to being a mere thing—the sticky matrix of sperm—semen is a sign, indexing an effect, pregnancy. To be more exact, semen indexes the sperm that indexes pregnancy. But it can also index causes, not just effects. A famous example is the semen stain on Monica Lewinsky’s dress implicating Bill Clinton in their adulterous affair. And of course semen is a standard index of rape in laboratory forensics. More broadly, semen indexes a fraught sexuality, Christian shame, guilt, even horror (e.g., the recent case of a teacher convicted of feeding his students cookies garnished with his semen). It’s not just a benign fluid but something much more and indeed potentially quite dangerous, messy evidence that’s tricky to eradicate in an emergency situation, such as your mother’s sudden appearance in your bedroom. Semen here indexes a whole series of items, from its cause, incontinence, to the ultimate effect of incontinence, the blindness resulting from the act of self-pollution.

To return to Shortbus and The Wayward Cloud, the sheer excess of semen in these films calls attention to itself and points to an enabling factor. Manly copiousness normally suggests virility, but though the actors are healthy enough male specimens, there is nothing particularly virile about the characters they portray. What the semen seems to be directing our attention to, what it is indexing, is precisely the actor in each case, rather than his role (which ironically aligns the films closer to porn than might have been intended). Similarly, we could say that their semen indexes the Modernist theatrical technique from almost a century ago of breaking down the “fourth wall” to deliberately call attention to the artifice of realism and remind the audience that actual reality can be more interesting than fictional reality (cf. Brecht’s “epic theater”).

We are now in a theoretical position to analyze an incident of a more personal nature but nonetheless seminal significance, for what do we call semen that is not merely visible in plain guise but worn on the body like a badge or a coat of arms?

The event in question took place at the Blue Heaven, a bathhouse in the Deshengmen area of Beijing. It was a typical Chinese bathhouse with sex-segregated bathing areas and saunas on the first floor and both private rooms and a large public resting room (where the sexes could mix) on the second, but for two anomalies: 1) To go upstairs after bathing, you had to go back out into the front lobby in your pajamas and pass the reception desk to access the stairway, whereas in most bathhouses there are stairs inside feeding directly into the resting area from the bathing area. 2) To reduce the risk of a police bust from any sexual goings-on in private rooms, the Blue Heaven eliminated private massage altogether and made it public.

What do we call semen that is not merely visible in plain guise but worn on the body like a badge or a coat of arms?

They did this by packing everyone into a designated massage room tables lined up side-by-side and viewable from the adjoining resting area through a large window. This was to enable a vice squad to take in all activity at a glance and confirm that at this venue only proper massage was on hand. Once the masseuse positioned herself on the table between your legs, she got around the restrictions by sticking her hands right inside your shorts and devoting the whole 45-minute session to genital work, thoroughly on the balls but more sparingly along the shaft. This prevented the ejaculation which would follow upon full stroking; not to mention that the pumping motion of a handjob would be visible under your shorts—embarrassingly so to your fellow patrons on the tables right next to you as well as anyone observing you through the big window. With this arrangement, if the bathhouse suddenly got stormed, the girls could simply withdraw their hands without any incriminating signs of semen.

The constraints in place at this venue forced creativity out of the girls and turned not a few into masturbation artists. Some of the more memorable techniques—always fleeting to prevent ejaculation—were to coil their forefinger and thumb around your shaft like a ring and slowly draw it up and down while brushing your balls with her other fingers as if by feathers. Alternatively, the same hand cupped the balls in the palm and vibrated it like an electric vibrator. Or the girl pulled both hands up along your shaft one after the other, twisting them in a continuous corkscrew motion. Or she grabbed the shaft and balls in each hand and squeezed upward in increments, like working the last bit of toothpaste out of its tube, as if you had already shot your load.

On this my third visit to the Blue Heaven, a new masseuse with unprecedented technique went off-script and delivered the most intense handjob I have ever had, one I have not since been able to get another masseuse to replicate. She zeroed in on the most sensitive spot, the head of the penis, with a pincer procedure, rhythmically pulsing the glans between thumb and forefinger, while compressing my shaft and balls in her other hand. I was a bit nonplussed since although she was only gently massaging rather than outright pumping my cock, her motions were bringing me to the brink of orgasm, which I thought was forbidden. When I was about to cum, she squeezed me hard to abort things.

We still had a good forty minutes to go. She killed time by flitting around other parts of my groin. Near the end of the session she came back to the same maneuver. The waves of approaching orgasm began rolling. Now I prayed she wouldn’t abort it, as even more than the physical release, it was the idea she was violating house policy that was so exciting. I wanted to explode just to confirm that what was not supposed to happen could. She slowed down her stroking to draw it out torturously. My body shuddered, jerked, bucked in frustration, trying to yank her up to speed, to piston-pump me, but the gears failed to catch and a gulf separated us. But soon she lifted me to the next plateau. I slid into blindness…the dam burst…I gushed all over the place….The spurting hadn’t stopped when she slapped me hard on the leg and threw me a cross look. I returned her the same look. Hey, what’s this all about? Skillfully bringing me off and then blaming me?

Now the growing evidence stood out in sharp relief as the semen bled and glistened through the fabric of my disposable shorts. The spot’s position was also revealing, since if it had been a urine stain, say from that of an incontinent old man, it would have appeared lower down below the penis, but my stain was at the upper edge of the shorts where the rim just hooked over my hard-on. As I descended the stairway into the lobby on my return to the bath area, the stain was unmistakable. Four witnesses were present: my girl, a fellow masseuse, a female receptionist, and a male customer who had just entered and was inquiring about prices. They all looked upon me.

My initial thoughts were confused. My masseuse appeared to glance at me triumphantly, with a nod to her coworkers, as if having prepared everyone for my entrance. Was this some kind of game, her little power trip, getting a customer to have an accident so that they could amuse themselves at his expense? Or was she role-playing for my benefit as I regressed into puberty, as if caught once again by the mother in self-violation?

As I organized my analysis along semiotic lines, clarity began to emerge. There was the person who had caused the stain, my masseuse. There was the person to whom she had pointed out the evidence but without indicating its cause (to make it appear I was responsible for it), her co-worker. There was the person to whom she had not pointed out the evidence but who nonetheless would have quickly been able to ascertain its cause, the receptionist, who might moreover have been in a managerial role and thus in a position to criticize the masseuse for allowing the accident to occur. Finally, there was the hazier personage who might or might not have noticed the evidence, the customer at the counter standing among them. On first association, the sign of semen on my shorts indexed nothing but an orgasm produced by a handjob. Depending on the varying perspectives held by the observers, the sign might have had a certain degree of shame attached to it as well, or if not shame then comedy, or surprise; there would have been an impulse to rationalize a mishap that was not supposed to have taken place. The sign would therefore also have indexed, falsely, premature ejaculation and sexual incontinence on my part.

It might perhaps at this point be wondered why I have not yet brought up our third category of signs, the symbol. Isn’t wayward semen the perfect example of a symbol, that of shame or guilt? There was a time long past when semen might have served this function, for certain people in the Catholic Church I suppose, particularly in cases where semen sullies something already symbolic—a hassock, a communal wafer (it had this significance for Rousseau in his Confessions, though he was unable to utter its name outright). But what distinguishes the symbol from the icon and the index is that it is a conventional sign, that is, widely recognizable as a sign with a fixed meaning. Semen is not normally read as a sign but merely as the thing itself, which may as we have seen index a variety of things in context. It does not symbolize in the way, say, the Christian cross does. The cross also happens to be an icon—of the original wooden cross of the Crucifixion—but primarily it’s a symbol. A cross worn around someone’s neck has not much iconic but only symbolic significance, that of the Christian Church, and the strong likelihood that the person wearing it is a Christian.

Similarly, a hammer and sickle superimposed on each other doesn’t merely stand for work or labor but forms the symbol of Communism (though they can still be said to index manual and agricultural labor respectively). A circle with three lines joined at the center is a symbol, the logo of Mercedes-Benz. Extend the vertical line to the bottom of the circle and it becomes the peace sign. Rearrange the three lines to form the letter A and it becomes the anarchist symbol. Symbols have no natural resemblances but purely arbitrary associations, which become naturalized and universally recognized only through a historical process of conventionalization and popularization.

Yet in one respect we could read the semen on my shorts symbolically, as a special or esoteric kind of symbol, one created and shared among a small community—the masseuse and her present coworkers (but not my fellow customer in the lobby, for whom only the indexical properties of my semen stain would have been evident). Indeed had I not in fact been the first male customer to make an entrance on stage in this state on the stairway but there had been others before me, the evidence would be doing more than merely indexing another accident. Each new bearer of evidence would lend the sign a greater sheen and glister, not that of the literal liquid dripping through the shorts but symbolically so. The sign would begin to resemble an emblem or coat of arms, something not just in evidence but brightly on display, to be worn with sheepish pride.

The emblem is an example of a symbol that is worn on the body, signifying not a particular religion or ideology but membership in a group. The coat of arms more specifically indexes a lineage or heritage (and may incorporate iconic elements such as nature or animal images in the design as well). In my case, the sticky badge was a symbolic trophy my talented masseuse could add to her growing collection, admired or envied by her coworkers and attesting to her skill in releasing customers’ semen without an apparent handjob. Yet at the same time it was emblematic of her little acts of sabotage at the absurdity of the pretense that a patently sexual massage was nothing of the sort. While I of course did not willingly share in the symbolism, the responsibility for it was displaced onto me, the guilty customer, who belonged to their order after all and displayed the sardonic coat of arms on my clothing for all to see.

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