A Woman, Thinking

Pleasure, Enthusiasm, Sex and Food

Because GRRLS Rock!Poppy LochridgeComment

Just when you thought deep thought had left the room, Aunt B posts some comments that make you think. And she links to Amanda, who thinks more deep thoughts that make you go hmmm. And all of these deep thoughts collide in my memory with something I read a few weeks ago, which has some bearing on the whole thing. And then you find yourself sitting around at 8 am on a Saturday, unable to sleep until you can put these thoughts in the keyboard and see them come out, contrasty and dark against white background. And still wonder if you're making any sense, if anyone groks what you're trying to say.

So, Aunt B posts about Pleasure, and its role in the revolution. There's so much to say on the subject of pleasure, I feel that I could be here for hours talking to you about it. But, alas, I wouldn't enjoy it so long, so I probably will give up halfway through what I could say, and wander off, frustrated, to go and make some breakfast.

Tiny Cat Pants - Journal - Pleasure and the enthusiastic yes

What do we want? Justice, equality, freedom, all that stuff. Why? Because it feels good.

Admitting that we're in this thing because the results would be fun, or because the relationship would be pleasurable means, in our workaholic society, admitting that we are "weak" enough to desire entertainment. There's a pretty strong tie between this and the attitudes of early settlers and ancestors. (Note: interested in any links anyone might have to discussions about the intersection of pleasure and race) I have known people, raised in farming families, who shun reading for pleasure as a waste of valuable daylight where work could be accomplished. Or where work needed to be done.

We also, as Aunt B noted in the comments, have tied pleasure and entertainment to social class. This has been discussed elsewhere as well - I recall reading a flurry of posts within the last year on this topic.

So, take the following points:

  • Given the previous assumption of modern society as a patriarchy wherein men assume more status and privilege over women, this organization of society places a man of a particular class, race, and background at a higher status over a woman with the same characteristics.
  • The general placement of women with certain characteristics below men who share those characteristics means that when we think of the sexes as an entire group, women are ranked below men.
  • We have internalized, in our culture, the idea that entertainment and pleasure are privileges that have to be earned. Tickets to the opera we attended last night would have been impossible for me back when I worked minimum wage jobs, for example. We attach a price tag to most of our entertainments which reflects our belief that if a Person just worked a little more or a little harder, he or she would be able to afford to be entertained. And conversely, if he or she is being entertained without working that little bit extra, what is wrong with him/her that he/she cannot put the extra time and effort into working more and harder to earn the money to actually afford what we feel we have paid more for.
  • Since women as a whole as considered lower class than men as a whole in our society, it is expected that women will work harder to earn their pleasure and entertainment. In fact, depending on the individual and his or her level of maturity, there are some who would honestly argue that women don't deserve pleasure because it might detract from his or her personal pleasure. (e.g. Without men who insist that foreplay is unnecessary and refuse to do it, there would be no cultural humor about same, no?)

Yeah, this all relies on some base assumptions which may or may not have been demonstrated by some accepted epistomology that the individual reader may or may not agree with. I'm far more interested in debating alternative conclusions which rely on the same assumptions than in debating the assumptions themselves. Be forewarned: if you want to come here and debate whether or not patriarchy really exists, the resulting debate would both take a lot of time and fail to provide with me any fun. I'd recommend you take the debate somewhere else so that I can go have some fun.

Amanda digs a little further into pleasure:

Real consent manifesto at Pandagon

The feminist concept of enthusiastic consent for sex, or total consent or whatever you want to call it, is such a new, radical idea that apparently it confuses the hell out of people. And it’s absolutely fed by queer politics, if for no other reason than acceptance of homosexuality is basically the acceptance of the idea of relationships between people that aren’t in a power differential for gendered reasons. The notion that sexual relationships could be built on desire and enthusiasm from both parties instead of a series of trade-offs between someone with power and someone without is more radical than I realize a lot of the time. The 1950s version of the patriarchy that conservatives long for was supposed to work roughly like this—women trade sex, housework, fidelity, and child-rearing to a husband-boss who pays her by taking care of her and being faithful. The trade wasn’t really fair, because men really had the power there, but conservatives argue through various ways that the only way to get men to be responsible is to get women to be submissive.

The example Amanda uses in her post - the woman subjected to a sexual practice she was not comfortable with - made me wince when I read it. Not just because it was painful and unpleasant for her to be hospitalized and require stitches, but because it triggered a memory for me. I harkened back to a time in a previous life when I, too, dated someone who wanted me to do something that felt uncomfortable to me. Someone who continued to suggest it, to tell me how much he'd enjoy it even after I expressed how uncomfortable I was with it. And in recalling that time, I recalled how, after the relationship finally ended, we discussed the same topic in the way you'd push at a sore tooth, and how he told me I was confusing. On one hand, I made it clear that I wasn't interested in a threesome, that the thought bothered me. And on the other, every now and then, I'd see someone I thought he'd find attractive and tease him about inviting her home with us.

I didn't have the words then to make any kind of sense out of my seeming inconsistancy, and Amanda hits on it in her post when she says

The problem that I see is that there’s a lot of pressure on people, particularly women, to have a “success” at marriage and children and that this manages to give the patriarchy a hold on us.

Um, yup, that's exactly it. I was trying to find my "happily ever after". I thought, if I could just be everything he wanted me to be, it would somehow magically make him everything I wanted him to be, and I could check off "marriage and family" off of my "to-do" list. And that would somehow make me fulfilled and successful.

Obviously, there's so much wrong with this I can't even start to count them. As Amanda comments, it seems as if the belief that we as women raised in a world which whispers to us that marriage and family are "success" for us can consent not only to what we do with our bodies in someone else's bed, but to whether we want to be in that bed in the first place is a radical one. And on the surface, it's not - you see that every time someone says "Why didn't she just leave him?" But for us to believe all the way into our hearts that it's not the end of the world if this relationship ends is pretty radical. If it has been a sexual relationship, we consider whether leaving this one and finding someone else will be that one extra notch in the headboard that it takes to make us a "slut". We consider whether we believe we'll be able to find someone else to be with. We consider whether these factors are minimal enough to "risk" leaving. But very rarely do we ask ourselves what needs to be asked - are we enjoying ourselves in this relationship?

In my personal example, the answer is no. It didn't even have much to do with him wanting behavior in bed that I wasn't willing to provide. I didn't like who I'd turned into, much less the life she was living. And he knew that and broke it off when I proved unable to put my own pleasure, my own joie d'vivre, above the "risk" that leaving him presented to me.

Which is really the point that Amanda makes. There was a beautiful point made somewhere here that no-one would blink twice about a man leaving his girlfriend over sexual incompatibilities and finding someone who was actually interested in what he wanted to do; why do we assume that women can't or won't do the same thing?

So, to Recap:

  • The freedom to enjoy sexual pleasure is NOT identical with self-objectification. To be blunt, knowing what makes you orgasm (and asking for it!) is nowhere near the same thing as wearing a t-shirt that says "Porn Star".
  • Patriarchy suggests we make a bargain - we provide sex for men, in whatever way they desire it, and men provide a roof over our heads and food on our table - symbolic for safety and security.
  • Women are taught from the time they are small girls that "success" in female terms is marriage and family.
  • The natural outgrowth of this teaching is that women learn to try and keep relationships as a measure of how successful they are, whether they are happy in said relationship, whether it is a healthy relationship, or whether they are honestly compatible with the other person in said relationship.
  • The other outgrowth of this teaching, among other things, is that people like me can come along and summarize these points as if every person in the world were actually straight and marriage was even an option for every single woman out there. Which it is not. And yeah, much as I'd like to see success for women defined differently, getting married should be an option for everyone.

Hugo wrote about pleasure over a month ago, in what I believe is one of his best, and most personally moving, posts:

Another long post about pleasure, feminism, food, and sex at Hugo Schwyzer

But whether they are black, Latina, Asian, Armenian, they’ve almost all been raised with one enormously important — and colossally destructive — discourse: pleasure comes with penalties.

Hugo focusses on the pleasure of both food and sex. Food, of course, he points out, was one of our very first pleasures as infants, and one that accompanies us throughout life.

I was one of those who didn't encounter the "shame" of enjoying food until late. I recall an incident in college when a few of us went out for pizza. My cohorts each ordered a slice, maybe 2. I ordered an entire small pizza. They were shocked that I would intend to eat an entire pizza - no matter that my pizza was only slightly larger then 2 of their slices.

I've never quite felt the "shame" of enjoying food. I was raised by a SAHM whose creative outlet is cooking. Now that most of the family has some sort of health complaint or another, her hobby is finding healthy, beyond-delicious meals to serve when we get together. I did live, for a few years, with the "shame" of being overweight - starting from when I weighed about 160, and the mothers of my friends whispered behind my back, "what's happened to your friend, dear?" After realizing that physical problems mandated that either I get medical attention for a problem that could take months just to diagnose or I stop exercising because it hurt, I managed - somehow - to simply accept my body as it was.

And still, I enjoy my body. I like dancing around the house, mostly because I just like the way it feels to move. It's a very child-like pleasure, and if more of my friends offered "dance parties" as "girls' day out", I'd go to a whole lot more of them. Even though I've started losing weight (I'm aiming for 180, which is still heavier than the doctor says I should be, but then, she's not the one who has to walk around in this skin), I still accept my body as the shell I live in and must take care of, as well as dance around in and enjoy.

Hugo connects the shame which is attached to food to sex, as well. He says,

Many were taught by their mothers how to be pleasing and desirable; they were taught how to attract men while at the same time keeping them at bay. For far too many, male sexual desire is a tool to be used with great care. But few were raised with any sense of their own sexual agency (at least in the service of their own pleasure.) During a discussion a few semesters ago about the "discovery of the clitoris" by the male-dominated medical profession, one bold young woman said frankly: "I’d sooner admit to sleeping with dozens of guys than admit that I masturbate. Bringing pleasure to men is always easier to cop to than bringing pleasure to yourself. It’s almost like masturbating for yourself makes you more of a slut — it’s like you can’t control your own desires, and that’s bad."

And:

Many of my students seem to have a sense of their own sexuality that reminds me of many folks with eating disorders whom I have known. I’ve known quite a few women who regularly starved themselves. And yet, rather than avoid food altogether, they became marvelous cooks. I once dated a woman (briefly) who wanted to cook for me every weekend. She made full-course fattening meals; she spent hours in the kitchen. And she ate virtually nothing. It became incredibly uncomfortable for me to eat in front of her, as she watched me with tremendous interest, constantly asking if I wanted more. Obviously, she took some vicarious pleasure in watching someone else eat, but she clearly also had a perverse sense of personal agency. For this woman, pleasure consisted solely in the capacity to bring pleasure to another. She had no ability to enjoy food for herself; her delight was entirely contingent upon mine. It was absolutely awful.

I think he captures a great deal of female sexuality in this paragraph. Whether it is girls wearing thongs and midriff-baring "Porn Star" t-shirts or young women unsure whether they should dump a man who has landed them in the hospital by violating her wishes, almost everything we market about "female sexuality" is created to stimulate men. Many young women grow up without any concept of what pleases them or, worse yet, how to discuss and ask for what pleases them. Here, we run full-steam into the cultural teaching that relationship and marriage is "success" for women - there's sometimes a deep fear that by telling him "No, I'm not interested in that at all" or by saying, "You know what, I'd really like you to touch me this way", there's a deep fear that be expressing those kind of honest desires, that the man will leave. Even the reality that he might not leave needs better communication than most people have when they are still learning the ropes of adult life.

So, to collect all of the summaries in one place:

  • Given the previous assumption of modern society as a patriarchy wherein men assume more status and privilege over women, this organization of society places a man of a particular class, race, and background at a higher status over a woman with the same characteristics.
  • The general placement of women with certain characteristics below men who share those characteristics means that when we think of the sexes as an entire group, women are ranked below men.
  • We have internalized, in our culture, the idea that entertainment and pleasure are privileges that have to be earned. Tickets to the opera we attended last night would have been impossible for me back when I worked minimum wage jobs, for example. We attach a price tag to most of our entertainments which reflects our belief that if a Person just worked a little more or a little harder, he or she would be able to afford to be entertained. And conversely, if he or she is being entertained without working that little bit extra, what is wrong with him/her that he/she cannot put the extra time and effort into working more and harder to earn the money to actually afford what we feel we have paid more for.
  • Since women as a whole as considered lower class than men as a whole in our society, it is expected that women will work harder to earn their pleasure and entertainment. In fact, depending on the individual and his or her level of maturity, there are some who would honestly argue that women don't deserve pleasure because it might detract from his or her personal pleasure. (e.g. Without men who insist that foreplay is unnecessary and refuse to do it, there would be no cultural humor about same, no?)
  • The freedom to enjoy sexual pleasure is NOT identical with self-objectification. To be blunt, knowing what makes you orgasm (and asking for it!) is nowhere near the same thing as wearing a t-shirt that says "Porn Star".
  • Patriarchy suggests we make a bargain - we provide sex for men, in whatever way they desire it, and men provide a roof over our heads and food on our table - symbolic for safety and security.
  • Women are taught from the time they are small girls that "success" in female terms is marriage and family.
  • The natural outgrowth of this teaching is that women learn to try and keep relationships as a measure of how successful they are, whether they are happy in said relationship, whether it is a healthy relationship, or whether they are honestly compatible with the other person in said relationship.
  • The other outgrowth of this teaching, among other things, is that people like me can come along and summarize these points as if every person in the world were actually straight and marriage was even an option for every single woman out there. Which it is not.
  • Women are frequently taught that pleasure comes with penalties - over-indulgance reflects more negatively on women than on men as a general rule.
  • While boys are expected to masturbate and view porn from early teens on, there is a more severe stigma on girls for participating in either activity.
  • Many girls grow into women without any real idea of what they truly take pleasure from. (do boys grow up with a similar limitation?)