I’m pretty much all about sex-neutral feminism, but I’m going to take a break from taking online “how emo are you?” (not very) quizzes to talk about sex now anyway. As much as I hate the fact that “sex-positive” “feminists” have nearly succeeded in reducing the feminist movement to arguing over whether waxing one’s pubes is or is not a revolutionary act, I do have to admit that sex plays a large role in my view of feminism, if only because it lies at the center of a large majority of the most visible forms of oppression that women face. That is not to say that I think that rape, pornography, sexual harassment, or objectification are about sex — I know they are just as much, and usually more, about power as they are about sex — but it does mean that I think sex needs to be talked about, a lot.
I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about his views on infidelity, and he told me that making out with people didn’t count, that it was intercourse that was out of bounds. This struck me as very strange. I mean, I know that having sex with people outside of a supposedly monogamous relationship carries the risk that the offender will bring various cooties back to his partner, but is that all that matters? I’m pretty sure that most people’s problem with infidelity is the idea of their partner being intimate with someone outside the relationship, which would include even the mildest of make-outery, would it not? I realize that plenty of people have drawn this distinction in order to ease their own consciences, but what can that thin line between third and fourth base tell us about our culture’s view of human sexuality?
I’ve been thinking here and there about how sex is defined and imagined in our society since my first disappointing experiences with dudes, but a comment from reader M (who likes Panic at the Disco, which I will forgive since she brought up a good point) on one of my posts on porn has planted the subject into whatever part of my brain my thoughts on feminism hang out in, where it’s been mingling and making friends. When I heard this dude’s Joe Rogan-esque demarcation of the line between harmless tomfoolery and cheating, I decided the time had come to address this topic.
I know I’m not exactly blowing the lid off of anything huge or shocking the hell out of everyone by saying this, but sex in our society is defined by men. That means a lot of things for women, most of which are pretty uncool. Actually, it means a lot of things for men, too, and a lot of those are also uncool.
“Sex,” in the sense that we commonly use the term, refers to the act of intercourse. That means that our colloquial (read: widespread, common, main, chief, primary) definition of “sex” is “the act through which men reach orgasm,” and that whatever comes before intercourse is not sex, but rather “foreplay.” Since a very, very small percentage of women reach orgasm through intercourse alone, that means that women’s sexuality and pleasure is not a part of sex, but is rather a side dish. (And that completely leaves aside the issue of whether orgasm, male or female, ought to be considered the sole and ultimate goal of all sexual activity.) Sex starts at penetration and no earlier, and it ends at ejaculation and no later, because that’s how it works for men. Everything else is women’s stuff, and we all know that means it’s of little to no significance.
Well, that’s fucking stupid. Men, in a big hurry to get to the point, to close the deal, to score, are missing the fuck out.
Everyone knows how sex works for men because we’re bombarded daily with sexual images and narratives that center on the path to male orgasm, but what do we know about women’s sexuality? We know a bunch of bullshit generalizations, that women purportedly like wine, candles, flowers, incense, and Whitney Houston (no thanks on all counts), but what do we really know about female sexuality? Female sexuality, according to our popular culture, is wrapped up so tightly with male sexuality that the two are inextricable. In fact, the common picture of female sexuality is one that is completely dependent on and subservient to male sexuality. And that picture doesn’t just exist as some kind of fantasy that men have created, but rather has been absorbed by women and has actually come to dominate women’s own sexual identities. Women, as I’ve discussed before, have been trained by popular media to see themselves as if through the eyes of an onlooker, to derive their arousal and pleasure from their ability to excite their partners. In such a scenario, women don’t have the opportunity to find out what their “natural” sexuality might look like, because it’s been sublimated, it’s been erased and replaced by male fantasies turned inward.
So what does that mean in real life? Instead of learning what kinds of things appeal to them, women learn what kinds of things appeal to men. Instead of learning about how their own bodies work, women learn how to use their bodies to titillate. Many women, especially young ones, engage in completely unfulfilling sexual encounters, not knowing that there is more to sex than male orgasm or, knowing that there is, being afraid to ask for more. Even those women who have figured out how to incorporate their own pleasure into their sexual encounters still labor under the dominant narrative of what sex is, and often feel pressure to hurry up and get their silly business over with so that the “sex” can commence.
One might argue that, as long as both parties get to their final destination, it doesn’t matter what terms we use to refer to the different parts of the journey, but it does matter. It matters because we live in a male-centric culture in which the default human identity is male, and in which women are not afforded the same measure of humanity that men are. When sex is defined as intercourse, and when the completion of the act is synonymous with ejaculation, men control sex, and women’s sexuality disappears completely, or is acknowledged only if men choose to do so. Women in our society are considered adjuncts to men, and such a view forces women to conform their sexuality to that of men. It takes an abnormally self-aware and thoughtful dude to take full account of female sexuality, and I’m therefore not very comfortable leaving the definition of sex up to men.
It isn’t just because women’s ability to get off is at stake that I’d rather not leave the delineation of what sex is and isn’t up to men, it’s also because I’m more than a little concerned at what men have come up with since they’ve been in charge of defining and elaborating on what sex means. Sex cannot be divorced from gender relations; the dynamic between men and women in this culture is hostile and sick, and it’s just getting worse.
We’re in a downward spiral (it’s Trent Reznor week here at RATM). Men feel threatened right now. The gains women have made socially, politically, and economically scare men who believe that women’s equality can come only at men’s expense. They don’t want to lose the power over women that our culture has told them is their birthright, and the anxiety that women’s social gains cause in such men expresses itself in their degrading, and often violent, misogynistic fantasies. See advertising, entertainment media, strip clubs, and porn if you need some examples of what I’m talking about. It’s hard to come away from any of these with any impression other than that men, threatened by the loss of their privilege, are attempting to put us back in our place, and that they are doing so in the most sinister of possible ways.
I often attempt to recreate for myself the instinctive, subconscious processes in the minds of men who go in for the objectification and degradation of women, and it goes a little something like this: “I feel like my economic and social position is precarious, and I feel powerless in the face of the men I see as my superiors and the institutions they have created. I’m supposed to be above women in the social hierarchy, but they are getting too close to me, they are threatening to take the things I thought were mine. I’m afraid, and so I am angry at the people who are making me afraid. But I need women in order to fulfill the most essential of my biological desires, and I also need them in order to have a full life, according to the ideal that my culture has set up for me. I want women, I desire women, but I can’t have them unless they will allow me to. I am angry at them for not wanting me, and I hate them for making me afraid that I’m losing my tenuous grip on my rung of the ladder.” Is there anywhere for that train of thought to lead but to Max Hardcore’s house?
As pornography infiltrates mainstream culture to a greater and greater extent, women’s sexuality, which has always been constricted and defined by men, is being forced into ever more painful contortions. As weird as some of the things I’ve seen in my life have been, thank fucking Christ I’m not a teenager right now. Every time I read about the way young people approach sex I get terrified. It seems everywhere I turn I read some heinous anecdote or survey in which I have to hear about the horrific things young women are putting up with, or about the disgusting and degrading things young men “expect” (fuck you) out of their partners. Men who’ve grown up watching internet porn don’t seem to think it unreasonable to ask their partners to allow them to ejaculate on them, don’t think there’s anything wrong with demanding that someone “do anal,” don’t know why their girlfriends might not enjoy being called “bitch” or “whore” during sex. (It really makes me wish that lesbians wrote books and put on camps that could train people to go queer, kind of like the ones the JC lovers put on claiming to “teach” people how not to be.)
Why would we elect to let people who hate us dictate our sexual identities to us? Why would we rely on people with such dim views of our humanity to treat us with dignity, respect, and care? Why don’t we decide for ourselves what sex is and should be, and tell these motherfuckers to get on board or get to wanking?
Fuck, now that I think about it, why would men even buy into such a limiting and dehumanizing picture of sexuality? I know that power is seductive, but it’s a pretty bad trade-off for men when they don’t actually gain any power in any real sense, and when they lose so much of their ability to experience the best things sexuality has to offer in the process.
Leaving aside the degradation of and violence to the human spirit that is pornography, our more mainstream cultural pictures of male and female sexuality are still pretty fucking stupid (though they are, of course, heavily influenced by and have a heavy influence on porn). Human sexuality isn’t a simple matter of “women want love, men just want to fuck.” That, despite the pseudo-scientific bullshit pumped out by our media that would have us believe otherwise, is not the “natural” or “instinctive” state of human sexuality, but rather the creation of the commingling of sexuality and power that characterizes our current sexual milieu.
I’d like any dude who reads this to ask himself if fucking random strangers is really as fulfilling as Entourage makes it look. It’s made out to be pretty fucking exciting, but it can’t live up to its promise and is really a poor substitute for what human sexuality has to offer. It’s dangerous, awkward, embarrassing, dehumanizing, and completely deadening, even to those who have an easy time of getting strangers to get naked. Fucking is the realm of those with huge ego problems and insecurities, and it’s disappointing to me to see women latching onto the practice as an ill-conceived attempt to clamber toward some kind of equality with men.
Now, I am not saying that women ought to face censure for their sexual behavior. I’m not saying women ought not to be as free as men are to have sex with whomever they choose, whenever and however they choose. What I am saying is that men, inasmuch as they’ve come to view sex as a tool of domination, have lost a key part of human sexuality that women still possess for the most part. Without sinking into gender essentialism, I think it’s safe to say that women, in general terms, have retained the most desirable elements of human sexuality because we haven’t gotten sex mixed up with power to the same extent men have. We ought not to be in a big hurry to toss that away. Equality doesn’t necessarily derive from imitation; no matter how much we emulate men’s piggish sexual behaviors, they still hold the power in our society. Fulfilling male fantasies might get us some short-lived attention and might allow us to manipulate individual men for a few hours or days at a time, but it amounts to dick in the long run, and it robs us of the best of what human sexuality has to offer.
I don’t mean to sound like a fruitcake, but humans have some pretty unique and important abilities when it comes to sex. We can empathize, we can love, and we can reach levels of emotional understanding through sex that pigs can’t. We should be exploring those abilities rather than suppressing them so we can be more like men, and men ought to be asking women how sex should be done instead of telling us.