Saturday, January 20, 2018

Sex and the Feminist Womyn

As a teenager, I read the following books from my mother's house (technically: apartment) because they were there and they intrigued me: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, The Women's Room by Marilyn French, The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking by Alex Comfort (1972 edition), Our Bodies Ourselves from The Boston Women's Health Club Collective (1973), Women and Madness by Phyllis Chesler, Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor, Sula by Toni Morrison, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou; You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down, In Search of our Mother's Gardens, The Temple of My Familiar, and The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

In my father's house, I found The Sensuous Woman by J, "the first how-to book for the female who yearns to be all woman." This, among a dozen biographies of powerful men, the complete series of Patrick O'Brien, and myriad other seafaring titles, struck me as exceptional. It had no corollary; there was no Sensuous Man anywhere. (I searched long and hard for it.) More's the pity!

By the way, it ought to have been titled The Sensual Woman, because sensuous refers to arousal of the intellect, whereas sensual refers to carnal arousal. I'm just saying, J was right about a lot of things, but she got the title wrong. (J, btw, was Joan Theresa Garrity, nice girl from Missouri, born in 1940, same age as my dad.)

In college, I took "Foundations of Feminism," the pre-requisite course for taking any other class in Women's Studies at UMass.

We read: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, and A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. We read other books too, but these are the ones I remember and can list off the top of my head 33 years after I read them.

There were one or two guys in that class to start, but they quickly dropped out when they realized that on the whole planet, this classroom was by far the worst possible place to meet girls.

We studied patriarchy, objectification, inculturation, ethnocentrism, homophobia, racism, sexism, human trafficking; and institutional and economic oppression.

We learned about masters raping slaves, violence in pornography, rest cures, adversive conditioning, the cycle of poverty, the prevalence of rape, incest, sexual harassment....

This was simply no place for a guy to ingratiate himself with women.

We women, freaked out as we were, could barely tolerate each other. We argued with each other. No one seemed to agree about anything.

Some women responded to the horrific reveals in our reading by choosing to be celibate or lesbian. Some stopped wearing restrictive undergarments....

I wasn't sure how to respond, or what to do with my shock, anger and sadness. I had grown up  in a feminist home. For years, I had been dressing butch without realizing it.

It was a confusing time.  More or less straight,  I was grateful to have a sports bra and I was beginning to discover a more feminine personal style.

I did not know how to respond to this new reality.

The new reality was a way of seeing that did not idealize the heterosexual "hegemony," or dominant cultural norms, or "Father Knows Best" image of the world.

Factoring in oppression, sexism, racism, and homophobia, the world as I was seeing it took on infinitely greater complexity--by which I mean it seemed shadowy and shameful in some places, horrendous and tragic in others.

Here's a riddle:

What's the difference between a Women's Studies major at Harvard, and a Women's Studies major at U.Mass?

Answer: The Harvard student goes to law school and become a public defender or founds a women's law collective. The U.Mass student discovers pornography in her boyfriend's sock drawer and tries but fails to draw blood from her veins with the intention of smearing protest graffiti all over the walls of their apartment.

I wrote a paper on the book, Female Sexual Slavery by Kathleen L. Barry, published in 1984. (My paper probably constituted plagiarism.) I was so shocked and appalled by the statistics in that book,  I kept glancing down at the footnotes to see where the  author was getting her numbers. She got them from the International Police Organization, INTERPOL (192 member countries at this writing, per the INTERPOL website).

What was I, as an insecure 19-year-old, supposed to do about all of these horrors?

At around this time, I went to see a documentary in Central Square, Cambridge about violence and pornography. It followed the story of a young woman who starts out strong, independent, and comfortable with trading in sex for a living. But, by the end of the movie, she sees that pornography is a clear expression of violence against women.

Pornography, which had intrigued me since I was six or seven years old and found a stack of Playboy magazines in a trunk in the basement, was now OUT. Which meant, by some Catholic line of reasoning, that all thoughts that seemed pornographic must also be an expression of violence against women--and by extension, of my own self-loathing and identification with the patriarchy.

I will come right out and tell you that this delayed my experience of female orgasm until well into my twenties. For years, I believed that female orgasm was not really a thing.

And then, one night, I was volunteering at a suicide & crisis center in Honolulu, age 22, when I had a conversation over the phone with a lesbian that blew my mind. Not only was she not a feminist, she also went to strip clubs to watch and hit on strippers.

This was the most radically weird and exotic thing I'd ever heard in my entire short life.  I did not know what to make of that at all.

This was at about the same time that I read Andrea Dworkin's WOMAN HATING, which effectively argues that all of the fairy tales to which young girls cling are in fact extremely toxic. The step-mothers are all plotting to murder their step-daughters, whose fathers are somehow helpless to intervene on their daughter's behalf. Snow White in her catatonic state (waiting to be awoken by a kiss from her prince) is necrophilic...There is NO sense of sisterhood between Cinderella and her step-sisters, obviously....

Rapunzel had particular resonance for me then.  As she languished in her tower waiting to be rescued by her prince, I languished in a tower also, in Aiea, Hawaii, where I did not know a soul and was lonely, waiting for my submarine officer (prince) to return from sea and rescue me from my loneliness and, btw, lack of purpose.

Odd, wasn't it, that despite the constant intake of feminist literature, I continued to participate fully in the heterosexual hegemony.

After finally dumping the guy I lived with in college (following a full year of working up the nerve to hurt his feelings), I fell in love (more or less) with one guy after another, until, at 25, I married a very princely Navy officer in a very public setting, in a white wedding dress with a very cute pillbox hat, demi-veil, and matching shoes.

The top cinched at the waist and flared over my hips above a long form-fitting A-line...

It would not have been out of place on the set of Mad Men.  It was that retro.
Almost ironic. Almost.

Perhaps that just goes to show that everything is lost on me.

But then, too, there is the whole question of feminism in the Nineties, when suddenly feminists were assuming ownership of pornography in a way that struck me as weirdly heretical.

Branches of my family were beside themselves when one of their most talented academics announced that she was taking a Ph.D. in, of all things, feminist pornography. Or feminism and pornography. Or just pornography--but she was still a feminist.

Personally, I was not aghast, but I was confused. And rather delighted. But mostly confused.

And here's something else that confused me, at first: Women of my mother's generation were having children and reaching an agreement between themselves that one of them would be the "mother" and the other would be the "not-mother."

I found it beyond interesting to learn that lesbian couples becoming parents were sometimes (not always) adopting traditional hetero-culture gender roles: Mom, Dad (or if not "dad," then Mom 1-A and Mom 2-B).

Sometimes, they had an understanding at the beginning, but, over time, relationship dynamics changed and evolved into something more organic and less deliberate or intentional.

But what struck me was the idea that, barring biologically-ordained gender roles, someone might choose to embrace the traditional role assigned to women: mother as primary caretaker.

This was helpful to me as I became a parent. I knew that I wanted to be the primary caretaker--Mom A-1.  Because I knew women for whom this was a choice and an option--I felt like I was making an affirmative decision based on what I wanted and not based on default cultural norms and assumptions.

And now, here we are, 2017.  Feminism, as ever, remains under attack, but has nonetheless managed to strike a significant blow against the presumptive male privilege of sexual predation in the workplace.

Somehow, and I think we have the Millennials to thank for this, sexual harassment in the workplace has become totally unacceptable--at least in certain high-profile quarters of the hegemony (if I'm using that term correctly--I rarely use it and should probably stop using it now).

I was recently struck by a different perspective from France on sexual harassment.

Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve both signed a letter of disagreement, more or less, basically saying that all forms of sexual discourse in the workplace between a man and a woman should not be condemned out of hand; a man should not be shamed or penalized for attempting to seduce a co-worker--even a subordinate. Seduction is nice. Flirtation is nice. Hands off French values, American feminists!

But then other voices piped up and clarified that sexual HARASSMENT was not simply the failure to seduce, but frequently resulted in gross abuses of power, including unwanted advances, demands, threats, rape, and various forms of real sexual trauma not to be treated lightly, dismissed or miscatagorized as flirtation (or seduction).

Oh, said Catherine Deneuve, who is great. She took the point, and apologized publicly for appearing dismissive of women (and men) who were victims of that kind of sexual harassment (the bad kind).

Brigitte Bardot, however, basically maintained that American feminists had no joie de vivre.  (Personally, I'm not altogether surprised that Ms. Bardot would defend the institutions that glorified her objectification, but, whatever.)

I think the French do have a point, however. I've enjoyed some history of flirtation in the workplace, and I would hate to imagine how dull that brief but thrilling time would have been without it.  I have no regrets.  But also, I was not sexually harassed.  No one who had power over me made any untoward demands.  There may be a feminist argument to be made that I played a wifely role, or the role of an ingenue, depending, in relation to my boss, and that this had its own weird aspects. Probably, yes. But, be that as it may, I would say NOT sexual harassment.

My flirtations, etcetera, were among peers. All's fair in love and war among peers...As long as no one spreads vicious rumors afterwards. Even peers can handle indiscretion unprofessionally.

Where do we draw the line?  Not in the same place, probably.

Back in my twenties, I had what I thought was the most marvelous aerobics instructor ever. He was fit, handsome, sexy, and flirtatious. He played great music...hot, sexy music. The whole atmosphere  seemed charged with electricity and pheromones. I loved it when he danced over to me and offered encouragement. He never touched me in an erogenous zone--I'm sure I would have remembered--but his touch was erotic. He gave me a major thrill. (Have I made that quite clear?)

On the other hand, at least one woman in the class felt offended or threatened or triggered by the same instructor's demeanor and approach.  There were complaints, and suddenly, he was gone!

I was devastated. I can't remember his name, but I remember how he moved. I remember that it seemed like "Little Red Corvette" was always playing when he was in the room. I remember his energy, and the unique heat and vibe of the room, all of us jumping and dancing like Shakers trying to exorcise all of that sexual energy...

God bless that man.

I can see, from the perspective of women who have been repeatedly victimized, sexually, that my aerobics instructor might have triggered them.  I understand that bad things frequently happen to women and to men, and that it is not yet and has never been a level playing field.  I get that. I respect that. But at the same time...

Let me just say this: The bleak stuff that I learned about in Foundations of Feminism is all true. But,  I also found books to read about women who broke the mold:  Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, Gertrude Stein, Anais Nin, Simone de Beauvoir, Beryl Markham, Isak Dinesen, Mary Baker Eddy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sojourner Truth, Annie Oakley...to name a few.  There should be more. There should be many more books written about Harriet Tubman, and as many movies made about her. She is America's greatest action hero.  And Pocahontas, leading Lewis and Clark from Missouri to the Northwest with a baby in tow.  Where are the movies about that!?

Herstory is not a simple one. It is not all misery and oppression. It is a lot of misery and oppression, but it is much, much more...And we have only just begun to tell the stories--with movies (and books) like "Hidden Figures" and, yes, even "Wonder Woman" (though she's not real).

Where or where are the Harriet Tubman movies? Did I mention that Harriet Tubman returned to the Deep South again and again, like, a hundred times, to rescue soul after soul at enormous risk to herself--and did it at an incredible rate of success that defies the imagination? Where is that movie?

Anyway, what was I saying?  I miss my aerobics instructor.

To summarize, I may not be the best feminist, but I am a feminist.




Post a Comment