** PART ONE: Lust and the Body Politic **
Later, much later, (Mira) would remember these years, and realize with astonishment that she had, by fifteen, decided on most of the assumptions that she would carry for the rest of her life: that people were essentially not evil, that perfection was death, that life was better than order, and a little chaos good for the soul. Most important, this life was all. Unfortunately, she forgot these things, and had to remember them the hard way...Because at the same time that she was Making all these decisions, she was being undermined. The problem was sex. Couldn't you have guessed that? That Garden of Eden story hasn't hung on all these years for nothing. Even though Genesis suggests and Milton insists that it wasn't sex itself that caused the Fall, but was only the first place the reverberations were felt, we go on equating sex with fall because that's the way it happens to us. The main problem with sex, I'm convinced. . ., is that it comes on us when we are already formed. . the strong desire for bodily contact comes upon us as a violation.
-- Marilyn French (The Women's Room)
The power [Norman] Mailer refers to is the power to excite lust, to provoke the fuck, especially the power to cause erection: the appropriate sphere of power for a cunt, whether in the air or on the ground. For the fuck to exist, the cunt must exist: and abuse and humiliation only serve to enhance the cuntiness of a cunt, which is her power, glory, and so forth, no matter how horribly she is used or degraded.
-- Andrea Dworkin (Pornography)
When kinsey laid to rest the part of the double standard that maintained women got no pleasure at all from sex, everyone cried out that there was a sexual revolution afoot. But such talk, as usual, was deceptive. Morality, outside the marriage bed, remained the same, and children were socialized as though Kinsey had never described what they would be like when they grew up. Boys were taught that they should get their sex where they could find it, "go as far" as they could. On the old assumption that women were asexual creatures, girls were taught that since they needed sex less than boys did, it was up to them to impose sexual restraints. ..Adolescent boys growing up begging for sexual crumbs from girls frightened for their "reputations"-- a situation that remains unchanged to this day--hardly constitutes the vanguard of a sexual revolution.
-- Susan Lydon ("The Politics of Orgasm")
Andrea Dworkin speaks out against pornography and points angrily at the images of women and describes these as further examples of men possessing women even as thousands of miles away women fight for the right to go unveiled in public and feminist photographers are denied the right to photograph the sheik's fourteen year old daughter. We read the paper and learn that Jesse Helms is the target of curses in Soho partly because he has deemed the work of certain artists to be obscene, among these the representations of some women artists which include nudity and which make statements about sexuality.
Around the corner from the Women Against Pornography march lies a Mormon church, and the fifteen year old girl heading back home is leaving because the church elders disapproved of her revealing clothing at the youth social and told her to go home and put on a longer skirt. Angry tears in her eyes, she passes theatre marquees advertising Dirty Cheerleaders XXX Adult Feature all-nite just before waving away the anti-pornography flier offered to her by the makeup-free drab-looking WAP marcher. All these feelings.. and part of what she feels seems to be leading her to want to feel sexy, attractive. Subway ads tell her that, as she matures, she embodies power in the form of her appearance, the power to trigger sexual desire. I am not a little girl...
Passing the other direction, the boy sees her coming long before she sees him, and he likes what he sees. Mmm!, he smiles to himself. He's seen the same subway ads, and although he never went to see Dirty Cheerleaders, he has tucked away under his arm the latest copy of Cycle World, and on the cover a tightly-clad woman straddles her Harley-Davidson as well as the judiciously placed camera. Yeah, this business of getting on with it with the sexy women of the world definitely appeals to him. Tempted to whistle, he grins and nods when she glances up at last.
Her thoughts are interrupted by sudden motion in her field of vision just ahead; she glances up and there's this creep, eyes surveying, staring at her like she's some kind of whore, God why do they have to do that? Doesn't even know me -- is he gonna start trouble...?
Smoldering with resentment at the hostile return glance and the rapid breaking of eye contact, he curses women again in his head goddam bitches know they look so hot I'd like to give her a taste of what she needs.
His sister is already home, arguing tiredly with parents she knows will never understand that this "nice girl / bad girl" business is unfair and she's not going to get caught up in it now would they please stop criticizing her dress style just because they won't directly address (he's a nice dude but it takes pulling out all the stops to get him in the mood) her suspected life style. Every once in a while she does sit and think about the role played by sexy appearance in sexuality because she was never entirely comfortable with growing up to dress and act the very way she swore she never would when she was younger.
He passes the three of them, goes to his room, curls up on his bed and reads, staring for long minutes at his two dimensional girlfriend on page 37 who smiles at him so steadily and lets him look all he wants...
This is a complicated and convoluted topic to address. It seems to be like a crystal, with facets, and you see a different reality depending on which face you look at. I do have a perspective that I think of as mine, about which I want to write, but I want to do the usual writer's thing about setting up the comparison perspectives, so what I think I'm going to do is continue as I started, turning it this way and that and scribbling my way around the territory. I am not going to write this in linear, declarative propositional rational language as academic nonfiction is usually written. And although I am a sociology student, I am not approaching this "sociologically". I can picture the typical sociologist getting excited about doing a study to see which people under which varying circumstances find the same behavior to be objectionably sexist or legitimate as an expression of sexual interest, and so on, without getting personally involved in trying to determine what is and is not oppressive sexual behavior. I don't want to do that. I reject the social determinism of those who act as if such things have meaning only in accordance with how we were socialized; I think sexual oppression is real (and politically central for feminists), and that there are answers to the questions of how one should behave as a sexual being if one is to be free and neither sexually oppressed nor a sexual oppressor.
This paper is a response to things that many feminists have said about men treating women as sex objects. In many ways, it is a response to Andrea Dworkin. She didn't bring it up first, but in many ways she brought the issue to a head within the feminist movement with her direct assault on porn. Like Valerie Solanas long before, she makes an easy target for anti-feminist males: after all, she's on record as having said that sexual intercourse itself is biologically, inherently oppressive to women. That makes it easy to see her as a walking stereotype, and to dismiss her as such. . or does it?
Guys who have tried to respond to Dworkin (and the feminist perspective on men treating women as sex objects by means of visual gazing and lusting) have usually fallen into two rather boring camps: the rednecks (fuck these feminist bitches damn right I'm a chauvinist pig I like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and so what?) and the apologists (Yes, when is our gender going to stop oppressing women in this fashion? Let me be the first to say that the women are right and we should immediately act to end pornography as pro-feminist men). I can't chime in with the rednecks because the opinion of feminists damn well does matter to me since they make more sense than any other social theorists ever dreamed of making. Unfortunately, I also can't just simply chime in with the "party line" for pro-feminist men, the way I can (and do) with issues where I am innocent of the patriarchal offense and fervently opposed to it without confusion or question.
One important characteristic of the 1970's phase of the feminist movement was the willingness of the women to speak openly from personal experience. It takes a lot of courage to open up so publicly about such personal and potentially embarrassing material. I think that if guys are ever going to have anything useful to add to the understandings that comprise feminist theory (and I am critical of male contributions so far), it is going to have to start with the same kind of honesty.
In this case the indictment of my gender comes embarrassingly close to home and addresses me. I'm simply not used to being guilty of what feminists accuse men of - I've always been sort of a "sissy" and different from men and rather proud of it -- but I do look at women lustfully; and although I don't read porn or go to porn movies I (yes) do sometimes stare attentively at sexy photographs ranging from pin-up types posing to market some kind of irrelevant product like Budweiser to fashion models showing off swimwear or lingerie in the Sears or A & S inserts that come with my morning newspaper.
When I was growing up, I used to look at pictures of girls (and later, women) that turned me on and I'd fantasize and masturbate and imagine how I'd make her have these feelings, you see, these feelings of becoming aroused in spite of herself, and I'd imagine how she'd feel, all vulnerable and out of control and deliciously carried off on naughty sensations...
In the real world, I was a shy virginal adolescent eagerly waiting for a taste of the real thing but totally bewildered about how to make it happen. The fantasy photo women never got furious and accused me of being only after one thing and not caring what they wanted or didn't want, but real live female people certainly did. I grew up with feminism and I happened to like girls anyway, and the real-life prospect of forcing my unwanted self on someone in hopes of arousing her by sexual molestation or rape was zero. In real life, in fact, I was hoping to fall in love and have sex with someone I could talk with, love and be loved by, care about.. but leaving that aside for the moment, the fact remains that I continued to have these erotic fantasies about causing women to have these feelings that had to do with being swept away helplessly aroused.
As I grew older, I began to develop sort of feminist attitudes myself, as my "sissy" personality kept getting in the way of me getting any, and I came to hate the pattern of sexually aggressive creepy guys getting all the action while all the girls complained that we boys were all alike and only after one thing and weren't interested in them as people but they still waited passively and chose their boyfriends and sexual encounters from among the boys who would come on to them.
Somewhere in there, I got uncomfortable with the naughty fantasies and wondered about their political correctness. Was I having grossly sexist fantasies? But I didn't stop immediately so much as I began to think about it while I was so engaged. Could this be reciprocal? Could I imagine that she who was in the picture was molesting and arousing me against & will? If I alternated roles and reversed the dynamics, the power relationship, would it still be a sexy fantasy? Or would I be incapable of really imagining myself in the "victim" role?
It has been mentioned both within and outside of the movement that a great many women tend to have fantasies and sexual imaginations that could be called "masochistic" or passively oriented -- being coerced, aroused without their consent, dominated in a sexual context, etc. The most common feminist interpretation of the trend, among those who feel that it actually exists (rather than just being a male guess about women's sexual fantasies and so forth), is that is is a cultural artifact -- in other words, "Well, of course you'd expect many women to believe that about female sexuality, it's just like women believing the myth of male supremacy; it's deeply embedded and hard to weed out, it's the damaging effect of patriarchy on women's sexuality..."
Lesbian poetry sings the praises of women's bodies, the textures, the contours, the secret intimacies of physical exploration and knowing of another woman, touching the soul through the body yes, but not merely the body as a means to an end (any more than meeting and sharing feelings is a means to a sexual end like the men do, they might say) -- no, a real celebration of the wonderfulness of body, the sexual wonderfulness of the body, the sexiness, randy animal craving delicious appetizingly teasingly entirely alive lustful excursion into arousal, stimulation, orgasm, in which the body is not means to an end but lascivious in essence, eroticism embodied.
But in the lesbian bar the newly "out" feminist woman who has just discovered that yes she can love another woman turns to her friend and lover with dismay because of the occasional meat-market glances and appraisals "just like a bunch of men, are we any better? Haven't we learned from being' on the receiving end of being men's sex objects?...", and in the discussion that ensues it is decided that there are lesbians and there are gay women because not all women who are sexually responsive to other women love women in the sense that feminism is based on...
Real sexuality is the divine ceremony of the Goddess, says the witch to her companions at the coven. Merging, joining, but intensely self-seeking, it is the sacred place where the most me-first spirals around the us-that-loses-the-me. Sacred and sacrum come from the same archaic word. Touch the base of your spine above the crack of your ass and you are brushing the nerve center that erotic response runs in. It talks to itself and it talks to the head, and the the head talks to it, to the center of your sexual energy. Mind and body, self and transcendence of the self.
And they ask her but what about the porn, the rape, the use of bikini-smile models cutely selling paint and beer and this is not divine and neither is Sue the Housewife getting pronged by Bob 2.1 nights per week before he rolls over to snore at her oppression. But they have to seize it, to try to coopt it, she insists, they have to steal it from women and box it like chocolate covered cherry candies, defuse it, trivialize it, and still it scares the shit out of them, them that fear the divine, the energy..
Men aren't sexual, they aren't capable of it, another sneers contemptuously. Performance anxiety: whew it's working now, quick fuck her get it over with, one more threat not to have to worry about until next time. Hell, the only thing they can feel is women's sexuality since they don't have one of their own, it's all vicarious for men, like peeping tons watching someone else doing it. They get off on the idea of sex and they gloat at women's arousal and climactic tremors but they're too busy being the machines they're so proud of being to let go. You know, most rapists are inorgasmic, they can't come...
The first witch continues, porn and other theft of women's sexual essence steals the divine attractiveness from the sacred temple of selfmerging and it gives them a cheap squirt and partial immunity to the call. When they do mix with real women, they have it all mixed up so that real women and the pictures are all somewhere between two dimensions and three, more real than photographs but not quite human...
I was in a truck stop in Texas, hitch-hiking my way eastward, and the guy I was talking to concluded, in reference to our discussion of phony images of women as weak people, "Yeah, you wanna know power? What she's got between her legs", he indicates a woman patron who had just waked in, "that's power. That's the strongest power in the world." In a way, I concur. It has something to do with something I heard a witch say at a coven meeting. Except men have this way of failing to understand that women have appetites of their own. If only men had appetites, it would make a difference. In fact, somewhere at the core of the Ti-Grace Atkinson bit about how "feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice" is the acknowledgement that if you are attracted to your oppressor, sexually, then your sexuality is not your friend.And yet, still, the witch was on to something, I know it. . .and despite his one-sidedness, so was the truck driver...
When I was in Junior High School and the girls my age poured themselves
into their blue jeans,and seemed to have this power to which I had no response
(I later heard tales of physical damage they did to themselves; carrying
pliers to pull the pants on after going to the bathroom, never sensing themselves
to have any real choice in the matter), I used to think to myself that I
would do anything to have the ability to have the reciprocal effect on them,
to make them lust and sigh and drool and not even knowing me just tantalized
and appetized because I walked by...
Meanwhile, here in the modern era of Playgirl and the cute male stripper-dancers at Chippendale's, my feminist friend feels that "letting" women participate in sexual freedoms designed around male definitions of sexuality isn't what it was all about. I hate it when you stare at women's bodies and drool, she says. It is demeaning to women and I'm surprised at you, because you don't seem to be like that. But you're just like the rest of them...
So I went to the city to hear Andrea Dworkin and the rest of the speakers at the symposium "Sexual Liberals and the Assault Against Feminism", expecting to be a participant (if a marginal one) in an attempt to unravel some of this complex material and get at an answer that would address the "sexual liberals" who defend pornography. What is a "sexual liberal"? Enthusiastically bidding everyone seek their orgasms, espousing the ethics of "consenting adults", they speak of the harmlessness of fantasy, the goodness of avoiding all restrictions, because it was restrictions that led to so much pain in the generation they grew up in, all that denial and secrecy and shame and so forth... they cheerfully bid us good fun, criticizing only involuntary sex, selfish partners who do not attend to their partner's orgasm...Andrea Dworkin isn't having any of it. Sex occurs in a context, she says. The context makes "consent" a ridiculous idea. Consider the penalties. Consider the lack of alternatives. Victoria Woodhull, way back when, said that truly volitional female participation in heterosexuality could only occur in a context where there was no harassment, no pressure, no socially structured inequality backing up the wishes and desires of Mr. Hard On. Dworkin says you can't have that inside of patriarchy, and that if women were free no woman ever ever would choose to be invaded, penetrated, dominated by the prick. The intrinsic dynamics of heterosexuality are oppressive to women, she asserts. Other speakers attest to the undesirable experience of orgasm under conditions of rape and pseudo-rape, slicing up the conventional notion that orgasm is by definition pleasant. It isn't, they say; it is a dissolving of the self, a destroying of the soul and later you just want to cry and die...
And against the larger background of those indictments of invasive male sexuality was the matter of the male gaze, and the associated idea that it is impersonal and objectifying. Men occupying women the way colonizers occupy a colonized country. Occupying women with our eyes.
Is the gaze male? Well, I don't know from personal experience
whether or not the gaze is also female, but yeah, part of my sexuality is
visual, and part of what that means is a sort of acquisitive lusting even
if the other part of it is a distinct and somewhat frightening vulnerability.
Now, in part, being a feminist has meant to me that I need to be willing and often inclined to look into myself as well as at the world surrounding me with a critical eye, to rescue my Self from the distorting processes of patriarchy as well as work towards changing the world. In light of that, the next step after recognizing these tendencies in myself might logically be to blame them on my socialization as a male in patriarchal society and work to transcend them. However, I don't think matters are quite that simple.
For one thing, I was one damn naive little kid when I started gazing at females and thinking sexual thoughts and feeling sexual feelings. secret untold silent perversions of the second and third grade, completely unaware that such feelings were natural and entirely commonplace, there I was glimpsing little girls' pants and the way the anatomical differences made differently shaped contours, more of a v-shape, and there were feelings and imaginations that went with it all...
Although I knew about the reproductive aspects of sexuality (how babies are made), I didn't know anything about the erotic, pleasurable aspects of sexuality, and had no idea that anyone besides myself had such odd, secret feelings about such an unspeakably private thing as that. The principal reason for this state of ignorance was that I was a "sissy", a boy who evidenced mannerisms and behaviors as well as values and priorities that were typical of the girls and was proud of it, while maintaining an attitude of contempt for the boys that mirrored their contempt for me. This made me sufficiently alienated from "boy talk" that I learned very little from other boys about sexuality, and did not share my experiences with them, either. Meanwhile, although I did try to befriend girls throughout my childhood, I was only occasionally accepted by the girls, and at any rate would not have felt comfortable sharing such gendered curiosities with them as I was feeling.
When I discovered masturbation one night around the age of nine or so, I made no attempt to share this kinky secret with any other boys, either. I remember beginning to tell my sister about it and then realizing (erroneously, as I discovered years later, but understandably so) that this was one experience she couldn't try to see if it felt the same way to her, too. I never tried to tell anyone else. Before long, the feelings that went with masturbation were also starting to be connected with my fascination with girls' bodies, especially with naughty feelings that had something to do with power and control and loss of control of that part of the body, which I, at that age, associated with urination. Sigmund Freud, the famous Austrian whose outdated sexual theories are for some inexplicable reason still taken seriously by many, attached sexual significance to all manners of orifices and appetites and bathroom functions, yet somehow neglected to consider the same connection that every child considers first when learning about sexuality and anatomy ("but that's where you pee"), but that's how I experienced matters as a kid. If there is a strong candidate for a socialized aspect of my sexual nature, it is probably the shame that is socially connected with wetting one's pants and the contrasting emphasis on control that constitutes potty training. One could argue that this is the source of the naughtiness-flavored erotic feelings that are tied up with control or loss of control of genital sexual feelings; on the other hand, it could be counter-argued that it is the erotic nature of the anatomy itself that mixes with the social to cause the smirky childhood attitudes towards bathroom functions, urinary in particular, in early preadolescent years.
In any case, against the backdrop of my overall gender-role nonconformity and lack of normative socialized patterns, my strongly visual sexual interest in girls' anatomy stands out in my memory and my sense of self as something particularly my own, and not something that was taught to me.
So here's the deviant part, I guess -- due to some combination of being a nerdy sissified misfit and coming of age alongside of the feminist movement, I became especially sensitive to the notion that just because some girl happened to be visually sexually attractive to me didn't mean she was going to enjoy being stared at, commented, or otherwise "treated as a sex object". The whole visual side of my sexual responsiveness became bracketed off, and for almost all my life has had nothing to do with who I become sexually involved with. My sexual involvements have almost always developed from touching with women I've felt tender and affectionate feelings towards or, somewhat less commonly, started when a woman rather specifically came on to me. The stereotypical scene that you often see in movies, advertisements, or sometimes at parties, where mutually attracted strangers meet, exchange smoldering steamy glances and a volley of double entendres, provocative poses, and signals of readiness to head for the bedroom or the bushes, just hasn't been a part of my life.
The lust that individual sexy-looking women have inspired in me just gets universalized into an awareness of my desire for sex and intimacy with women. I never learned how to "come on" to someone, verbally or nonverbally. The testimony of my entire culture makes me wonder if I'm missing something even as my feminist politics continues to cause me to wonder about the politics of any expression of appearance-based sexual interest to a woman I don't know and have just met (or, for that matter, a woman I've known for some time but don't have any closeness or emotional-personal interest in, just lust for her body). Even as I say this, I'm not sure if I'm confessing to a sexual hangup or bragging about having a more natural, less patriarchally distorted form of sexuality than most guys do. Writing this paper was, originally, in large part an exploration of the first possibility, a consideration of whatever might be good and natural and nonoppressive about visually-stimulated lust and casual sex based on surface appearances.
One of the interesting things I've noticed about the dialogue (if you can call it that) between the traditionally masculine portrayals of sexuality and feminist critiques of it is that the masculine images associate the erotic with the emotions and experiences that I, personally, associate with arousal -- an emphasis on difference and distance between the lustful and the lusted after, a sharp keen emphatic hunger, a sense of excitement and thrills; meanwhile, much of the traditionally feminine and the feminist representations of what sexuality is about for women are imbued with the emotions and experiences that I tend to associate with sex itself and the afterglow that follows: merging, coming together, trusting, feeling loving sweet feelings, rapturous happiness, and so on. A common theme within this contrast between masculine and feminine emphasis is the notion that the masculine is more trivial or casual, less personal or meaningful; and, especially, that the masculine aspect consists of sex without love, whereas the feminine aspect makes love a central component.
This is, of course, an oversimplification. Feminists are far from universal in agreeing with traditional feminine constructions of female sexuality as valid only when love exists, for example. Meanwhile, not all men portray sexuality in the way that I've described above as "masculine". For instance,
With the mink, the musk ox, the' chimpanzee, and the human, the proper friction at the proper places if continued for x minutes will cause the nerve ends to trigger the small glandular-muscular explosive mechanics of climax. And afterwards there is no more urge to caress the causative flesh than there would be to stroke the shaker that contained the pepper that caused a satisfying series of sneezes. So in the sensual-sexual-emotional areas each man and each woman, has, maybe, a series of little flaws and foibles, hang-ups, neural and emotional memory pattern and superstition, and if there is no fit between their complex subjective patterns, then the only product you can expect is the little frictional explosion, but when there is that mysterious fit, then maybe there are bigger and better explosions down in the ancient black meat of the hidden brain, down in the membraned secret rooms of the heart, so that what happens within the rocking clamp of the loins at that same time is only a grace note, and then it is the afterglow of affection and contentment that celebrates the far more significant climax in brain and heart.
-- John D. McDonald (The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper)
Although professional studies of sexuality abound, and sociology has identified sexuality as a valid field for study, there has been far less attention paid to the phenomenon of sexual love as opposed to sexuality that has less to do with love, even so far as to acknowledge that there has been and continues to be a bit of a male-female schism over whether there is any such meaningful contrast to be made, or whether sexual love exists as a genuine social experience and phenomenon.
continue onward to Part Two
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