jeudi, septembre 18, 2008

Freak'n'Chic and men touching men

Preface

After work and before going out for dinner with some friends, I was at home, working on my proposal. I was fleshing out the section where I would give the titles and order of my chapters, which was getting complicated because it’s hard to plan your chapters when you’re still doing the research that is supposed to give structure to your thesis. So, before listing my (n-version, soon-to-be-changed) chapters, I gave a list of concepts that I want to work with and another list of “ethnographic moments” that I know I want to write about.

In this section on my “ethnographic moments,” I noted that I now have a cluster of references to moments about touch in various EDM scenes. Among them, there are several references to this tendency in the Paris scene for groups of unattached young (presumably straight) guys to engage in pretty intense sexual play (mostly touching, but pretty intimate stuff) on the dancefloor. They would immediately re-orient themselves around any attractive female that passes through their midst, but otherwise they would spend most of the night feeling each other up and simulating sex with each other.

I had seen this a bunch of times, especially among “younger” crowds (late teens, early twenties) and among boys that were legible as banlieusards (like “ghetto” and “suburbanite” mixed together), whether ethnically French or not. Nonetheless, my 1-year absence from Paris had made me wonder about the pervasiveness of this practice. Did I just happen to be the repeated witness for the few times that this sort of thing took place in Paris? Was this a passing fad that won’t be around for others to observe and confirm for me? Or is this maybe a spillover from another scene that overlaps with the techno scene? Anyway, this was all in my head as I worked on my revisions today. Keep this in mind as you read on.

Act One: Dinner at Les Trois Marmites

Ah, les Trois Marmites. I’ve eaten there a number of times before, three of which have been described on this very site (here, here, here). The food here is always very fine, in HUGE portions, and at very reasonable prices. They manage these prices by being a “menu fixe”-only restaurant. That is, you pay a fixed sum (22€, 3€ more than a year ago, alas), and you pick from a selection of 5 appetizers, 5 main dishes, and 5 desserts. The upside of this (aside from the price), is that the food is usually seasonal and very fresh.

Anyway, I had invited for dinner the friend that had taken me in when I first arrived this month and her boyfriend. They had never been here before, so I got a bit of an ego-stroke at the fact that I was introducing a pair of Parisians to a restaurant they didn’t know about. On the other hand, there’s probably zillions of restaurants in this city.

For appetizers, one friend ordered a tatin of pears and cheese, which involved a disk of cheese baked onto a disk of pasty dough, over which was spread a cold preserve of pears. The other friend got a mountain of breaded and fried calamari rings with a garlicky dipping sauce, and I got the Norman-style terrine that had apples in it. All were delicious but also HUGE. Especially mine. They had cut me a slice of terrine that was almost an inch thick, and as wide as a large piece of toast. Gah!

For the main dish, both of my friends took the skewers of marinated salmon, while I took the “loup de mer” (sea wolf, which is sort of sea bass) in a sauce made with my currently favorite mushrooms: les trompettes de la mort (black trumpets). Again, delicious and huge.

Finally, dessert. One friend was very smart and just ordered the cup of sorbets. Another one of us ordered the coconut custard (flan coco), while I got the clafouti aux abricots. I was worried that this was going to be a very thick, cake-like clafouti, but thankfully it was relatively thin and very moist and loose (ha. Moist and loose).

Nonetheless, we all needed a digestif of pear liquer and a coffee just to be able to stand up and go home. BUT, I still had a night of dancing ahead of me, so I headed home to get ready. I’ll admit that the temptation to just drink a glass of wine and go to bed was overwhelming, but I made myself another coffee, freshened up, and headed out.

Act Two: Freak n’Chic Closing Night @ Batofar with Steve Bug

As is usual for Paris clubs, I waited until about half-past midnight and then started moving. The goal was to catch the last subway out there, so that you wouldn’t get to the bar too early. I ended up walking into the club around 1h20 and was surprised to find it PACKED with people…

Sure, it was the closing night of this long-running series, but that it was still unusual to see a club this packed at this time of night. What gives?

I overheard someone yell “Whoo! Steve Bug!!”, and I approached the stage and realized that it was, indeed, Steve Bug. A headliner on at 1h00? I was at this point that I remembered: Freak n’Chic used to be a Sunday night party, which started at 20h00 and ended at 1h or 2h, so that you could get home and get some sleep before going to work Monday morning. The night had moved to Thursday nights and changed location for the summer, but the time schedule probably still applied.

Well shit, I thought, I just paid 10€ for 40 minutes of music. But then I realized that they would’ve stopped charging by now if the event was really going to be over that soon, so I should probably wait and see. In the end, the whole thing ran until 6h00, with Steve Bug doing an extra-long set until about 4h00, and then Dyed Soundorom picking up the baton until the end of the night. Both DJs were quite good, although I liked Steve Bug better; both were working in a minimal-house vein, with occasional dubby vocals and a focus on melodic or rhythmically interesting basslines.

I’m skimming over the musical portion of the evening because I was distracted by other things this evening, most of them to do with my observations of and interactions with various guys on the dancefloor (note: there are girls at these events, but tonight was an oddly homosocial affair for me).

Just as I first arrived and moved across the dancefloor, a guy tapped my shoulder and pointed to my Anemone moulded vinyl bag, “Is that a magic bag?” Smiling, I said, “Yeah, it’s very magic.” Looking more interested, he asked, “Is there any magic candy in there?” Ah, I see what he’s driving at. “Sorry,” I said, “my bag isn’t that magic.” He shrugged, “Well, it was worth a try.” We parted ways, but we would see each other again later.

I ran into GuiGui, who had performed with Nathan H last week at Happy People Only, and discovered that he was as tactile and affectionate as Nathan. They’ll make a well-matched (and totally hetero) couple…I wonder how that’ll translate into their musical output? Either way, I always appreciate people who are comfortable with expressing affection through touch; an arm around the shoulder or a hand on the waist does a lot to convey care and friendliness.

Maybe a half an hour later, I had made my way to the front of the room, precariously navigating between spastic bodies with a glass full of gin+tonic, planted my bag and my drink on the stage, and then got to dancing. A few minutes in, as I was pondering about the male-male erotic play I had been writing about that afternoon, I look to my left to see one guy leaning slightly over the stage, with another behind him, pressed entirely against his back, with his arms up the front of the shirt of the first guy, pinching his nipples. Well, speak of the devil.

Although they certainly didn’t look the part, I wasn’t sure if they were a gay couple. French men have this tendency to behave in ways that make an immediate reading of their sexuality difficult—a phenomenon the French like to call “being French.” On the one hand, they never made out, and they would alternate between intense touching and totally ignoring each other…and they would occasionally hit on a nearby girl. On the other hand, when they spoke to each other, they would press their hips and torsos together, wrap their arms around each other, and rub one face against the other as they shouted into each other’s ear. They were doing everything but kissing (including a lot of ass-grabbing and genital-grabbing, I might add), but at the same time they were checking out the girls around them.

They had this nonchalant and casual attitude about their intimacy that said, “I need to touch and be touched and I can do that safely with you, but all bets are off if that cute blonde returns my advances.” I wondered if this sort of casual erotic play ever leads into the more naked, this-goes-in-there sorts of erotic activity; that is, if two people ever find themselves engaging in sex with someone they are comfortable with, against their declared gender preferences, for nothing more than the desire to feel pleasure and contact. I don’t doubt that this has happened more than once, but it’s not a narrative you’re likely to hear very often.

Anyway, that was that for the time being.

A little while later, another group of guys materialized near the front of the room, just to the left of me. There were four of them, they appeared to be a bit younger (probably late teens, early 20s at most), and they were dressed in the style associated with the Fluo Kids community here in Paris. The one exception was a small-framed guy with short hair, dressed in jeans and a simple zip-up sport jacket (kinda exactly what I wear, come to think of it). They were all pretty drunk/high as far as I could tell, and were hanging off each other as they danced. There was a fair bit of touching going on between them as well, although it was less “Let’s engage in non-dramatic sexual touching because it’s fun,” and more “Woo! I’m having fun and I’m sorta disorganized and in my excitement my flailing hands may land on your body and neither of us will really notice.”

Nonetheless, they would occasionally play at sexually rubbing each other or grabbing asses, but most of the contact was arms-around-shoulders, woo-I’m-having-fun sort of contact. I dunno if there’s a qualitative difference or just one of degree, but nonetheless their behaviors were contrasted with the pair of guys I had seen a moment earlier.

But there was still an exception: that smaller-framed guy. He was frequently rubbing up against his friends, grinding on them, inviting them to do the same, and generally getting his mack on all over them. And, from time to time, he’d throw himself at a girl that he found attractive. More on him later.

That pair of guys I had first seen reappeared, again alternating between dancing distractedly and touching each other with surprising intensity and tenderness. In my peripheral vision, I would often think I had seen them kiss, only to look over and see that they were just cuddling. Lots and lots of cuddling.

Eventually, during a moment when the two were dancing separately (there was a third friend in the picture, but he sort of stood to the side and didn’t get involved), one of them danced next to me and struck up conversation with me. As I had sort of expected, the default stance for talking with him was arm-over-shoulder or hand-on-small-of-back. So we stood there in a half embrace and talked for nearly half an hour about everything. He was really friendly, he was from Toulouse, he was living in Paris now, and he was almost certainly straight (I didn’t ask, but he talked about girlfriends). We exchanged phone numbers and promised to hang out sometime soon.

The other group of “fluo kids” were dancing next to us and engaging in a fair bit of intimate touching, so I leaned over to my interlocutor and said something along the lines of the observations that I’ve been making about tactile intimacy between guys in clubs here. He, too, noted the contrast between everyday touching norms and party-time norms, but he also insisted that part of it was personality. “It’s just the way I am with my friends,” he said, and then proved his point by pinching my nipple and grabbing my ass, “I’ve always been like that with my [male] buddies.”

Regardless of whether it’s Paris-wide or just restricted to a few groups of guys, this sort of intimate-but-undramatic touching just isn’t possible among male (heterosexual) friends in North America. Certainly, there’s some ass-slapping that goes on between guys (usually followed by “fag” jokes), but nothing quite as intense and unflinching as what I see here in Paris. There’s no nervous laughter or shoulder-punching to inoculate themselves against the possibility of homoerotic desire, it’s just there in a very as-such or “whatever” sort of way.

A few minutes later, that smaller-framed guy from the other group (the one NOT dressed like a fluo-kid) came over and swung his arm over my shoulder, declaring me his friend and trying to introduce me to his other friends with slurred speech. I think he asked my name at least 15 times during the course of the night. He was being very tactile with me as well—but with careful escalation that belied his drunken appearance. First, he had his arm around my shoulders or my waist, occasionally squeezing my arm or my side. He danced away for a moment, and then came back and ground against his friend’s ass for a while right next to me, before moving over to me and pressing his crotch against my hip briefly, smiling while reading my expression carefully, and then floating off. A moment later, he came back and slurred something in my ear about how he wanted to dance on the stage but the bouncer wouldn’t let him, even though there were other guys on the stage and they weren’t very handsome. Right, I know this trick; casually mention masculine attractiveness and study the response. Fine, I’ll bite: I muttered some comment about how I didn’t find the guys onstage particularly hot. He apologized for being drunk, asked my name yet again, and then kissed me on the cheek. I returned the peck on his cheek. He disappeared and returned a moment later, sidled up next to me, and finally went for the kiss.

We made out for a little while and then he pulled himself away and said, still smiling, “Look…I’m not gay…but, you know, I’d like…I’d like it if we grab a coffee sometime…you know, if you’re up for it. Well, he was cute if somewhat confusing in his manner of identifying his sexuality, so I said sure and we exchanged phone numbers. “Tu me plais beaucoup,” he said (“I like you a lot”).

For the rest of the night, this guy would occasionally appear next to me, give me a quick peck on the lips, and then wander off again, drink in hand. He would occasionally complain about trying and failing to pick up a girl, but otherwise we didn’t talk all that much.

By about 4h00 or so, I ran into the guy that had asked me for drugs at the beginning of the night. Apparently he had found something, as he spent the rest of the night dancing with his eyes half-closed, running his hands over his chest and smiling in contentment. He was a pretty good-looking guy, and by the end of the evening he actually had girls throwing themselves at him (which is a rarity here in Paris; girls very rarely make the first approach). But he was clearly a bit too high to do anything about it. Sometimes he wouldn’t notice their advances until they had already left in exasperation (if a girl does make the first move here, you’re expected to jump on it), sometimes he would be aware of them and go through some of the motions, only to get distracted by his own pleasure and ignore them (again, FAIL).

I occasionally checked in on him, putting my hand on his shoulder or his back to make it clear that I didn’t mind if he needed some contact to keep his high going. Yet while he was always very tactile when I talked to him, he invariably went back to caressing himself, eyes closed, his own little autonomous island of pleasure right up until the end of the night, around 6h30.

2 commentaires:

Humingway a dit…

Wow, that is some complex and subtle shit. While I was reading, my contrarian instinct kept interrupting: "Pssh, straight guys TOTALLY do that in North America. We're not all that closed-minded!"

But no, you're right. The grab-a-coffee guy in particular defies every social/sexual category I know. Maybe he's, um, going through some self-discovery? Or maybe he's really religious and can't be GAY, but making out with guys is okay? Does that ever happen there?

LMGM a dit…

Yeah, that guy was definitely an interesting one. What was surprising about the whole thing was precisely that he was totally un-dramatic about it. He engaged in a fair bit of boykissing in front of a well-populated dancefloor, in front of the same girls he was hitting on, and in front of his friends, who didn't seem to have any particular reaction to it.

But, yeah, you've got a point about over-generalizing about N.American guys. There are some guys over on the other side of the Atlantic that are also comfortable with a fair bit of contact and physical intimacy with other men and don't necessarily need to "undo" every male-male action with giggling and punching. But there are few that I know of that engage in such intense and sexualized touching (in public).