overhaul / undertow

Tuesday, July 09, 2002

An interesting article:


I've excerpted some bits of it here.

The Trouble With Sex

Are women today really more sexually liberated than their mothers and grandmothers?
Far from it, says Libby Brooks, in the final part of our feminism series

Friday June 7, 2002
The Guardian

I can remember very clearly the first time a man whistled at me in the street. I was 12. It was a warm summer afternoon and I was wearing my favourite baggy white shirt. A truck turned the corner and drove towards me; there were some khaki-coloured soldiers in the back. And one of them whistled. There was nobody else on the road. I felt shy and thrilled, and delicious. I thought, this is what it's like to be a woman.
It was the first time I understood that my body had a life of its own, that it would be received and interpreted by the world in ways that might have nothing to do with the me inside. In the modern classic, Ways of Seeing, John Berger wrote of a woman being continually accompanied by her own image of herself, "because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life".

[what an interesting way of framing this interrelationship between a woman and her physical identity, both as it is conceptualized by others as well as how it is created by her own set of ideas about herself....the notion that I am not one woman, but many within one, like images refracted in a room of mirrors, each woman a slight variation, sometimes a virgin, sometimes a whore, often somewhere inbetween... -m.]

The western world is saturated with public representations of sex. Yet vast ignorance persists around the mechanics of sexual pleasure - astoundingly, we are still unable to agree exactly why and how a woman has an orgasm.

Has sexual liberation failed to deliver for women? Chastity and passivity may no longer be feted but both men and women continue to view women who appear at ease with their sexual selves with suspicion. The traditional codes of pursuit and denial are defunct - nobody knows whether playing the tease is bad behaviour or a role we can relish. Is it any wonder that anxiety about sexual etiquette is rife?

Theory and politics surrounding lesbian relationships is now highly developed. The lesbian community has used its increasing visibility to explore some truly radical ideas about sexual identity. But what is the feminist response to straight sex? How do we talk about the equivocal space that women now occupy, somewhere between escaping their traditional role as sexual objects and becoming active sexual subjects? If we fully take control of our desire, does it mean embracing a model of sexuality where sex is only ever casual? And does it mean rejecting entirely attitudes of submission, femininity and flirtation, which are not without their particular pleasures?

Meanwhile, we continue to teach girls a romantic story of their futures, of which sex forms one element, while teaching boys that sex is a discrete act that underpins masculinity.

Female sexuality remains a dark continent, not least because women themselves are still uneasy about how to be, sexually. Throughout the ages female sexuality, like the female body, has been construed as passive. But do women and men really experience desire differently? "Women are said to have lower sex drives than men," writes Natalie Angier, the Pulitzer prize-winning science correspondent, "yet they are universally punished if they display evidence to the contrary - if they disobey their 'natural' inclination towards a stifled libido. Women supposedly have a lower sex drive than men do, yet it is not low enough. No, there is still enough of a lingering female infidelity impulse to justify infibulation and purdah... How can we know what is 'natural' for us when we are treated as unnatural for wanting our lust, our freedom?"....

...Ironically, however, this saturation doesn't tally with a lack of inhibition around sex. Despite hopes that the Aids crisis might change this, there are still huge areas of sexual practice that women may or may not enjoy - anal sex, for instance, or rape fantasies - that we can't really discuss. Of course, mystery makes for great sex - and earnest, clinical examination around the water cooler does not. But we have to fathom a better way of filleting what deserves to remain mysterious from what does not.

Is it possible for feminism to talk about intimate relationships? Our private lives are not, after all, driven by political movements or public ideas of how two people should relate. But feminism's basic tenet was that the personal can be political. This will always be contradictory territory: sexual attraction demands a level of playful deception, it is fed by fantasy and projection - but feminism is about honesty. Sexual satisfaction can be about physical abandonment or submission - but feminism teaches us to be in control of our bodies.

And feminism has another, far more more nuanced role, in helping us unpick these confused times: a generation of women who have been raised to be independent of men but still want to be in partnership with them; where the rightwing agenda terrorises women who put careers before domesticity, where older women must fight to be taken seriously as sexual beings. But fundamentally, feminism cannot legislate for desire, nothing can. Too many moralists have tried to codify it, frightened of the human freedom it suggests, but desire takes us to the heart of our greatest fear: that we might be anybody or anything.


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