Oxford English Dictionary: The Male Harem Edition

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Holy Communion: Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute.

Blame it on a recovering Catholic’s naughty schoolgirl fantasies. On those crooked streets hiding randy-making pubs, arcane museums, pastry shops with proper tea, and the seraphic strains of evensong rising heavenward in gothic chapels. One of the hottest Male Harem weekends of The Sultanette’s life was had at Oxford, yes, England. It was a weekend so exceptional, an experience so perfectly shared, there was no choice but to return: Alone.

What does being alone have to do with The Male Harem? Everything. The harem was hatched out of the acute aloneness experienced upon realizing that One and Only would never have – never did have – my back (see Whose monogamy is it anyway?). A lethal tipping point, for sure, but a life-giving one. That old wives’ tale that it takes another person to complete you? I began to understand it was up to me to finish the job and now I could get on with it. So if you’re expecting lurid tales of the bodice-ripping Oxford weekend, read no further. But if you’ve tasted the mental-masturbatory thrill of self-discovery, stick around for the ride.

I’ve returned to Oxford twice since that first harem weekend of evensong and sweaty sex and strolls down antiquated lanes – each time alone – in search of something less and more. Instead of the harem lair at the 17C Old Parsonage Hotel with its crackling fire and creaking floors, I’ve slept in a single bed in student housing with shared bath and two allotted towels. Instead of being, wined, dined and goaded to orgasm, I’ve attended Oxford classes in a summer program for perennial students called The Oxford Experience.

Henry Prince of Wales. After Isaac Oliver.

Henry Prince of Wales. After Isaac Oliver.

You wouldn’t believe what you can learn at Oxford. I arrived on July 7 for the philosophy of politics starring John Stuart Mill, Kant, Locke, John Rawls and Isaiah Berlin, and left July 13 with theorems for Male Harem management. Studies began at breakfast in the great hall of Wadham College, my 17C private fortress.  Every morning as I feasted on eggs, beans, bacon, Weetabix, marmalade and toast (praise the Brits for resolutely sorting toast in those clever wire racks) a character out of Alice in Wonderland would come by at 8:45 sharp and ask me with crisp politeness if I had everything I needed before she closed the kitchen. And I would glance up at the imposing portraits of formidable men in lacey ruffs and puffy sleeves, painted at a time when it meant something to be a big swinging dick, and reply, “Yes thank you, I have everything I need.”

When it comes to going solo, I’m not alone. More than 50% of American adults are now single – about 17 million women to 14 million men – says NYU Sociology Professor, Eric Klineberg, in Going Solo. And while as expected, the majority (over 15 million) are 35 to 64, the fastest growing group is 18 to 34 (now at 5 million from 500,000 in 1950).

What are they all doing detached? According to Klineberg, the twenty to thirties set is aspiring to a “second adolescence.” The thirty to forty-somethings are enjoying the ”benefits (personal, social, and sexual) of living alone.” The divorced aren’t sprinting to the next connubial holy grail. And as for the worn out comment that women desperately flail in a sea of single men – the latest census reports that women now make up the majority of undergraduate students and those who earn a bachelor’s degree, along with a third of lawyers, judges, physicians, and surgeons – a leap from the previous generation. They’re putting off marriage and pursuing careers.

The idea that living solo is not a default but a choice is in the ethos. It’s surfacing in popular blogs like quirkyalone.com, SingularCity for upscale urbanites, and Yale/Princeton graduate Nicky Grist’s Alternatives to Marriage Project. In books like Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After by Harvard PhD psychologist Bella DePaulo.

Back at Oxford, my Male Harem tutorial proceeded after morning classes spent filleting the finer points of liberty, equality and fraternity, when every afternoon, I wandered the city. I snooped among arcane anthropological finds at the Pitt Rivers Museum, splurged on bijoux at The Lebanese Store of Cheap Bling, inhaled the musty redolence of a book store crammed with second-hand books, picked up souvenirs at an off-beat stationary shop, and hung out for hours at a funky student café.

Lane in Oxford: By Doc Searls (Flickr)

Lane in Oxford: By Doc Searls (Flickr)

Yes, there was camaraderie in the mix of Brazilian, French, Australian, Norwegian, Irish, Japanese, Canadian, and American curious minds who had signed up for The Oxford Experience. Evenings were shared at a croquet match on Christ Church lawn, pub crawls, and a rigorous single malt scotch tasting event. But after spending time with these impeccable strangers I’d head back to my monk’s cell. I’d make my way between pools of light down empty shuttered passages until The King’s Arms, a popular pub next door to Wadham would explode out of the holy silence, scholars spilling onto the street, their hilarity ricocheting against Oxford’s venerable dreaming spires.

Passing that scene every night, I was content to be a satellite hovering by. Happy for the quiet of my room and the metal bedside lamp that, if properly contorted, shed a corner of light on the book I read until sleep came, and then morning, and breakfast with the puffy sleeves.

On the day of my departure, I dropped off my suitcase at the porter’s office and took a detour before my last breakfast in the great hall. Through a dim crusty archway at the far end of the quad, I entered Wadham’s private park. Not a soul interrupted the sweep of manicured lawn and courtly trees poised in fragile light. Not a leaf stirred. The stillness was profound. Hundreds of mornings had happened here, hundreds would follow, but this one was all mine.

Back in America, the treadmill was waiting: mail to sort, meetings to make, loose ends to tie, jobs to hustle, ladies to lunch, and the harem to reconnoiter. Monsieur Bogie emailed to say bonjour. Young Preppieshared summer vacation sagas at Il Cantonori. Doctor Zhivago and I swapped lofty creative schemes over nouvelle Chinese takeout high above Manhattan. An afternoon with The Impresario was spiked with philosophical foreplay. A new candidate emerged, funny, bawdy, direct, to be known as MOFW (Man of Few Words). The Artful Duo’s dinner party catered by a Casablancan chef, was spiced with half-sozzled off-duty classical musicians.

Call me a gadabout. The male harem is my curation from the ashes of emotional betrayal. It’s my alternative to digital dating, friend’s well-meaning fix-up’s, and vacuous flings. Its credo is that while you can never count on one man for all time, you can always count on one at any given time. Its goal is to be surrounded by intellectually stimulating, entertaining, heart-warming, surprising, hot, heady, and bracing males. I ask nothing of them but decency and full engagement in the present. And they keep showing up.

Woman in crowd. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian, 6 March 2009.

Woman in crowd. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian, 6 March 2009.

But of course they do, one could easily say. They have no promises to keep, no fidelity to comply with, no transgressions to confess, or commitment to declare. What have they got to lose? And sometimes I question that, too. Have I given up too much by not asking enough? Am I losing out by not holding one man to his word? Yet with One and Only I abandoned myself for the illusion of it. Yes, I’ve chosen to be a loner in The Male Harem’s crowd. But now there is more of me than there is of them.

Before I left for Oxford, a married friend called, peppering me with questions about the trip.  She yearned to get away on her own, she said. She loved her husband but resentments had accumulated over years of slights and past offences. “I need to do something for me,” she confided. “So do it then, it’s only a week out of your life!” I replied. “Maybe I will sometime,” she said, “but now I have the grandchildren to look after.”

Had a fling with yourself lately?