Last Friday night I went to a bar for a Korean friend’s birthday; I know this guy via some westerners I know, so there were plenty of westerners there as well as Koreans. Maybe 60% guys, 40% girls. The birthday friend’s in his early thirties, so most of his friends had ten years on me. But since this is East Asia, they looked to be in their late twenties. And since this is Korea, in particular, the girls and guys know how to dress and how to make-up, so what you had was a bunch of scruffy western English-teaching guys and a bunch of very attractive Korean men and women of various professions.

I spent most of my time talking to two girls. One of them reads a lot of books, and we exchanged some titles. The other girl taught me something about myself that evening, and that’s what I want to write about. She put herself in my phone as 숙이 (Suki pronounced Soo-key); this is a nickname and I don’t actually know her real name. Suki thought I was cute and with great determination spent the next two hours expressing her attraction and trying to get me to kiss her. I spent two hours hitting self-imposed psychological barrier after psychological barrier. Eventually I kissed her on the cheek.

I came away with great admiration for this girl. She wasn’t carrying any baggage: she was able to express her sexuality by just going ahead and trying to touch me, with no attachment to how I responded. She’s twelve years older than me; there’s no way we’re ever going to date. It’s also fairly unlikely that we’d sleep together. Suki listened only her feeling that she was attracted, and put aside all these tangled expectations, and societally-imposed ideas about differing ages and kinds of relationship, and she expressed herself. In particular, she persisted in a carefrree way as I continually failed to respond. I, on the other hand, was completely frozen up. Suki is pretty gorgeous (to my western eyes, maybe 27 years old). But I wasn’t able to let her know that this was how I felt.

Suki’s friends spent their time talking in Korean about the situation; every so often one of them would translate and basically drop some massive hint to me, in case I just wasn’t getting the signals. But (for once) I was. I think eventually they all (including Suki) saw what was going on with me and respected it.

I think it’s fair to say that the psychological barriers involved here are tied to all sorts of other inhibitions I have in my life. I’m not going to pity myself for several paragraphs; I don’t feel inadequate because of this, just inexperienced. I guess that the only way to become experienced is to talk to a lot of girls with sexual intent i.e. talking to them because I find them attractive, and hopefully I’ll get round to doing this at some point.

Here are a couple of other ideas I’ve read recently, related to this topic. Firstly, it’s bad to let yourself rank girls (or guys, as relevant to oneself) in terms of physical attractiveness. I fell into a bit of a trap here. I think I finally accepted that it’s okay to be physically attracted: that is, for this to be a primary motivation for both starting and continuing to interact with someone. But I indulged in the idea of comparing girl’s attractiveness on a kind of scale; this is the famous “ratings system” that a lot of guys have (think “yeah, she’s a solid seven”). Without saying a word about the uselessness of this incredibly simple linear ten-point scale, this isn’t a good idea because it immediately takes you out of the present moment of spending time with someone into thinking about people who aren’t there. All that really matters is that you’re compatible: that you’re attracted to each other for all sorts of conscious and unconscious reasons that come together somehow. There can be no need to rank, since situations in which one has to make a straight choice between two people as to who one finds more attractive, occur perhaps as often as one goes to a brothel.

Secondly, that unrequited attraction is fine. A friend of mine posted this essay on Facebook. The author makes a lot of anthropological claims about non-English-speaking cultures that I have no idea of the accuracy of; I can, though, speak about his claims about my own culture. The contrast he claims is that in English-speaking cultures we tend to shame those who have their sexual desire unrequited. If someone is interested in someone else and the compatibility is one-way—that is, the other person doesn’t like them back—we look down upon the first person and prize the second as sitting in some sense above the first in the social hierarchy. The only solution for the first person to avoid the shame and gain back some face is to try desperately to seduce the second person, or perhaps better, rack up a high number of other sexual conquests to prove his worth as someone who can have his or her attraction reciprocated. Thus men’s dating advice in the past ten years is the pick-up artist scene, which starts with a few sensible ideas, and tends to dissolve into hopeless misogyny and rape-culture because the focus narrows to getting women from bars and clubs into bed as frequently as one can.

Recognising this aspect of our culture is enough to see that it’s wrong. This is because once you see the ties to social standing, acceptance and shame, you immediately realise that sex can’t possibly deserve that kind of weight in our judgements of each other. It’s just not that important. I don’t mean to suggest that sex isn’t a huge part of most people’s lives nor to say anything against the psychoanalytic theories that have it centre-stage. I take issue with this culturally powerfully idea of sexual conquest, that is, the importance we place on one’s power to get someone into bed, whether or not there’s mutual interest. Crucially, this cultural idea has us have very little interest in the quality of sex people are having.

I suspect that some people reading this will wonder why there’s no mention of romantic relationships here; I’ve never been in one of those, and so I don’t know how sexuality gets weaved together with friendship to make couplings. Of course I’ve never had sex either, it will be retorted, so why do I feel able to say the things I’ve said above? I think that I’m able to get something of a grasp on these things because they’re played out over shorter periods of time. People built relationships over weeks and months; Suki and I have spent around two hours in the same room as each other.