Posts Tagged 'sex'

The Politics of Sex

Happy Valentine’s Day.

In honour of this happy fertility celebration co-opted by Christians to celebrate a Saint who no one remembers anything about, I would like to relate a conversation I recently had with one of my coworkers about sex.

(Yes, a few glasses of wine after work leads to the most exciting conversations).

How this young whipper-snapper and I got on to the subject of nookie, I cannot quite remember, but I suspect it had largely to do with feminism, which often appears in my conversation.

This individual stated that he thought that, in hetero sexual relations, subjugation of the female to the male was inevitable.

I, naturally, argued that this suggested some rather awkward things about his own morality, as well as his opinion of his ladyfriend’s own agency and ownership of her own sexuality.

The main point being, if you genuinely believe that
a) there is an inevitable power imbalance and
b) it is always to your advantage and
c) we are using this dictionary definition of ‘subjugation’
– then what the hell are you doing having sex at all?

I mean that in all seriousness. To consider oneself a decent human being, how can one be in a relationship with someone believing that all of the sexual encounters create and maintain a kind of master/servant interaction? How can one believe both that one is a good person and that one is regularly lording over the person they ostensibly like/love/care for?

One of the dramatic differences in the way the sexes are treated arises from the cultural views of gendered sexual behaviour. What is important is to recognize the difference between a social construct and reality. Women have sexual feelings, and make choices about their sexual behaviours. The virgin/mother/whore thing is not real, as any stereotype is not real.

If a woman is choosing to sleep with you, it does not mean that you own her or her sexual pleasure, or that she is some kind of sexual incontinent.

The missionary position is not a metaphor for your position in life.

Until they don’t

Inspired by the new films Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached, Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon asks “Does ‘friends with benefits’ Work?”.

Since brevity is the soul of wit, I will be brief:

As one of Clark-Flory’s interviewees (her one-time FWB) pithily says “I’ve been in so many of these situations and, basically, they work until they don’t.”

And that is the point.

All relationships, whether they are serious/monogamous/long-term, open, sex-only, sex-free, or entirely platonic, work until they don’t.

People change. Sometimes changes affect compatibility, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes people decide to work through changes together, sometimes they don’t, for an infinite number of reasons or no reason at all.

To pretend that FWBs and NSAs are the only relationships subject to human mutability is fatuous.

image from the Telegraph.co.uk

Oh the Male Gaze

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Recent emails between myself and another blogger pal over the relationship between porn and (hetero) male’s attitudes toward women, led us to the inevitable consideration of the male gaze, and how we internalize it.

I have often thought that it should be possible to appreciate the aesthetics of human beauty without denying personhood or changing the value of non-visible traits, I just don’t know how one knows if that is what one is doing or not, and how one would go about changing it.

Obviously there are plenty of women who perform femininity in part because of the attention it garners from ‘the male gaze’ (whether the gazer is male or not, women notice each others appearance, too), and can enjoy said attention. Of course, then you get into a discussion of power – that the women with sex appeal supposedly have the power, but really the gazer does because they can withdraw that power by withdrawing their approval.

We’re (people in Western/developed nations) surrounded by messages that tell us we have to care about the way we look and our aim should be to look/smell/feel ‘good’ (the definition of good depends on the context and the advertiser), to consider ourselves not just as an individual but as an object of outside attention, and therefore exert control over the message our appearance/aroma/skin sends. I think everyone is trained to look at themselves with that kind of evaluation in mind – whether they choose to reject it or not depends.

So can an ‘equal’ (hetero) sexual relationship – where men and women entering a relationship with no preexisting imbalance in power or agency – exist when we have internalized this kind of evaluation, and where porn is an exhibition of the same? The argument against porn and prostitution suggests that in the presence of a culture in which one can view and/or purchase a female body for sexual purposes and it is considered normal, a woman entering into a relationship with a male is already in a situation where the sexual side of their interaction can be purchased by him elsewhere (less easily or acceptably for her), so to speak, and the availability of such alters the interpretation of its use and value.

It’s true that sex is a very ego-centric activity, but I don’t know that I would say it’s all inevitably objectification; I see sex more as a conversation, where concern and awareness of the each other’s thoughts and feelings are a critical part of the experience. But that’s within a relationship (however one wants to define it), porn and prostitution would of course fall outside of this consideration as they are exclusively about self-gratification and ignorance of the true personality and feelings of the other party.

We’re complicated. Can we do both?

Sexpectations

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Sexism is bad for everyone.

Why? Because everyone has a sex, and the stereotypes accepted and perpetuated apply to men and women, with negative repercussions for all.

The rampant and offensive results of sexism for women are amply documented and discussed elsewhere (feministing, feministe, F-word, et al.); at the moment, I have been thinking about the subtler and less seemingly ‘negative’ aspects of the stereotypes at the root of sexism, and how it affects (hetero, though it probably holds true in the LGBT communities, too) romantic and sexual interactions.

Although the ongoing sexual revolution has promoted the sexual freedom of women, in accessing and expressing their desires, gaining access to contraception, and the increasing (though ever-fraught, as with the current debate over hook-up culture) acceptance of these liberties, stereotypes about sexual desires and roles remain present and damaging, even among those enlightened pro-sex, pro-choice, pro-contraception types who should know better.

For example, this terribly offensive video is meant to encourage women to use contraception – not because they and their sexual partner might not be ready for children or due to the risk of STDs, but because, apparently, the men by whom they might be impregnated are coarse, misogynistic, immature, insensitive, and generally obnoxious cads.

To portray men this way is insulting. It also suggests that women making the decision to have sex with men are gullible and completely ignorant of their character.

It falls into the logical nullity of the most basic form of sexist thinking – men are walking penises with no thought other than sexual gratification (and swift escape), and women are commitment-craving baby machines.

Diluted, this manner of thinking can make its way into even the most sensible and respectful of relationships. Women, embracing their sexuality within a social milieu that suddenly celebrates it (Cosmo, Sex and the City, etc – the validity of these as vehicles for sexual normalcy is obviously problematic), are astonished to find that men don’t, actually, want to have sex all the time.

Moreover, women are offended when they attempt to initiate a romp to be met with a polite but firm negative. Suddenly they doubt whether this person finds them attractive, and wonder if they are going to leave them, or have already sought gratification elsewhere. Especially since the media that celebrate their sexuality also insist that their value in relationship is largely a factor of their appearance and sexual attractiveness.

Why do they think this? Because the sexually insatiable male is an accepted stereotype: the male is meant to be constantly sexually interested and available.

If men want sex as often as possible with women, and this man does not presently want to have sex, therefore he no longer finds this woman attractive, possibly does not even see her as a woman (for the stereotype also includes an implied ‘any port in a storm’), and therefore does not value her, or is impotent (id est, is not a man).

If anyone takes a moment to think about it, they will recognize that this false syllogism is beneath their sudden insecurity, and that men are as susceptible to fatigue, stress, inebriation, headache, or simple lack of arousal as women, and this is a reflection not of impotence or disinterest, but of life of an individual in the world.

It is virtually impossible to imagine a partnership wherein both parties have perfectly synchronized libidos. The thoughtful and polite thing to do if rebuffed is to back off without reproach. But when so much in our culture insists upon sex as the be all and end all of conversation between the sexes, it is difficult to maintain a logical outlook.

Sexism is just one of the many isms that get in the way of fair and compassionate human interaction, by creating false expectations (of oneself and others) and encouraging subsequent judgments.

To quote Ferris Bueller: -Ism’s in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.

This would, of course, also apply to feminism, but then, every feminist wants a world where Bueller’s paean to individuality is a given, where everyone is regarded as an individual and not labeled as belonging to a particular group with an associated cloud of character traits.

XX, XY, and ‘Other’

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Ariel Levy writes in the New Yorker an article about Caster Semenya which, along with discussing the mismanagement and insensitivity of the testing she underwent, and the various politics influencing said manhandling, also examines the difficulty of establishing gender in any irrefutable way; when one reaches the point where there is a degree of crossover, there is no clear binary distinction – however specific and scientific the tests may be, all they reveal is a greater muddle.

There is no absolute – not everyone is either XX or XY, not everyone has the biological, chemical, and/or hormonal capacity to create and obey various cues which develop what we consider to be the markers of a particular gender.

What is interesting, though Levy does not go into this point in detail, are the implications this ambiguity holds for the rest of us.

If we were to admit that at some level we don’t know the difference between men and women, we might start to wonder about the way we’ve organized our entire world. (Currently, the United States government recognizes the marriage of a woman to a female-to-male transsexual who has had a double mastectomy and takes testosterone tablets but still has a vagina, but not to a woman who hasn’t done those things.) We depend on gender to make sense of sexuality, society, and ourselves. We do not wish to see it dissolve.

emphasis mine

What would it mean if people accepted that gender existed on a spectrum rather than as a binary trait? So much of how society is arranged is determined by gender (and by extension, sexuality, since that is another assumed binary that evidence suggests is also more of a spectrum), however much gender roles have evolved over time. Would an acknowledgement of this gray area assist in the deconstruction of gender roles? Would it allow people to be more tolerant and accepting of the variety of ability and inclination, and would culture and social infrastructure come to reflect that?

At present, what exists is, I think, more of a third category, with most people assigning themselves and others to either A or B, and relegating a small percentage of the population to a ‘neither A nor B’ category, and not considering it beyond that. The only people for whom the idea must be complicated are those in that third category.

And why? Because there are value judgments placed on people based on how much or little they correspond to their gendered categories. However much one might be completely at peace with their body, sexuality, voice, wardrobe, haircut, weight, walk, and interests, the rest of the world, when it bothers to pay attention, makes assumptions and judgments about that person’s value, attractiveness, propriety, and intelligence (however wrongly), based on such information.

Can there be a world where people are more or less masculine or feminine without a value being assigned to that quality? Or where everything is deemed gender-neutral and therefore a matter of inclination or biology, something personal rather than a way of organizing people and society?

Hopefully, as people are periodically confronted with the necessity of thinking about such things, as unfair as it is to whomever is in the spotlight, there will be a consideration of the individual, and as the ambiguity on a scientific level is manifest, there will be a movement away from judging such things cruelly, and more acceptance of such variation as just that, a variation, like hair colour or eye colour.

Hopefully.

On Aging and Sex

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[Roth’s novels] were also paeans to masculine sexuality, which remains potent long after the ravages of the body have removed the ability to do anything about it.

That Shakespearean Rag’s review of Philip Roth’s The Humbling made me think of the notable old white guys whose work addresses the perceived injustice of the failing body with the active sex drive, whether through wish-fulfilling narrative fantasy or cruel mockery, and contrast them with the fewer instances of older female writers exploring the same situation.

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins looks at (among many other things) the fading sexuality of an older women who cannot enjoy the present without a painful awareness of her own age and future asexuality. Diana Athill’s latest biography, Somewhere Towards the End, deliberately takes a rather sensible and unapologetic view about her own independent sexuality, its final flowering (if you will pardon the phrase) and its ultimate and total disappearance.

Which is crueler? The male body that, once developed (over, on average, eight gawky and masturbation-filled years), never loses its sexuality and urges, only weakens their potency and lessens their frequency, or the female body, that enters fecundity in a maelstrom of hormones (the rapid four years of sudden breasts and awareness of the lunar calendar), whose development is quicker but whose peak is later, and who later returns to the asexuality of youth, but for the memory of experience, after another short and unpleasant hormonal battle?

Ultimately, the desire is for the same thing – the possession of the young body. I was going to say the young female body, but one must except the homosexual men in this case. However old the male body becomes, it is still capable of arousal, still, then, susceptible to the attractions of the young and nubile. The female body, on the other hand, has a greater disconnection between the mind and body. While the mind may crave or pine or what have you, the body cannot respond.

One sex has an ever-responsive libido (however incapable of action the rest of the corpus might be), and the other with a body that returns to the disinterest of childhood, without the curiosity.

Of course, the medical community has found ways to work around this – with the male, rendering him capable of performance, and with the female, producing a steady dose of hormones that stave off the rapid aging that comes with the stoppage of natural hormone production.

One could ask why aren’t we all on the same timeline, and be met with the biological determinists who would point out that the male body producing viable sperm until death is more likely to succeed genetically, whereas the female body, who, with age, is less and less capable of enduring pregnancy and childbirth, is better off without the strain after a certain point.

But I want to know which is better or worse – or if we must simply shrug our shoulders and label it different. On the one hand, one always has hope, and on the other, one has a kind of freedom, but a freedom that entails exclusion.

With the literary evidence mentioned, I have to say it is the women who seem the most calm and accepting, whereas the men seem to be in the grip of an epic tragedy which involves a significant amount of embarrassment. And yet, what is there but acceptance when hope is gone?

Lie back and think of England

I cannot buy the Times today. Jezebel found this stunning piece of advice from Suzi Godson in yesterday’s paper.

Godson answers the query of a recent divorcee back in the dating scene, whose current beau expressed shock that she had pubic hair. It being so uncommon in grown women and all. This woman, rather sensibly, has no interest in ripping the hair from her genitals, and wonders if it is expected.

Rather than the obvious reply – your boyfriend is clearly an insensitive chauvinist for a) expressing anything other than delight when you drop your panties and b) suggesting that you do anything you find painful/uncomfortable for his viewing pleasure, Gordon, supporting her answer with a brief history of pornography, says that men are now ‘instinctively’ attracted to bare pudenda and must therefore be gratified, preferably by waxing, since shaving can leave unsightly stubble.

Aside from revealing a complete misunderstanding of the word ‘instinct’, Godson reveals herself to be a useless advice columnist, particularly for women. If she can justify bikini waxing exclusively with the prevalence of porn, what would she make of anything else? This is taking the idea of general grooming to a point of absurdity.

Does her beau look like a porn star? Does his grooming involve waxing, fake-tanning, and bull-like penile dimensions?

Any man who expects real sex to be like porn has, probably, never actually had real sex.

In a rather asinine final line, Godson says ‘at least’ the Sicilian is the latest trend, so ”you are left with a neat little Sicily-shaped triangle, which at least means that you still look like a woman.” Yes, that little triangle makes all the difference. No way do you look like an adolescent.

Godson should be ashamed of herself, and I hope the letter-writer has the good sense to ignore her stupid advice (advice which I suspect comes from Godson’s own decisions as regards her pubic hair, which may in turn have come from a similar scenario to the letter writer’s), and either tell her young man to appreciate her body or get the hell out of Dodge.

The Times should be heartily embarrassed.


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