Monday, November 22, 2010

Sexual pleasure and the Third-Wave

I have been blogging about violence against women the duration of the semester. And although it is a painful and depressing topic, it is something I am both deeply familiar with and deeply passionate about. But it is time to discuss one of the joyful sides of womanhood - sexual pleasure and sexual self- awareness, risky as it might be.

Third- wave feminists advocate for girls and women taking charge of their own sexual fulfillment. In her essay, Lusting for Freedom, Rebecca Walker discusses the need for sex education for girls. She says:

The question is not whether young women are going to have sex, for this is far beyond any parental or societal control. The question is rather, what do young women need to make sex a dynamic, affirming, safe and pleasurable part of our lives?

Third-wave feminism recognizes that sexual pleasure is a central part of women’s lives and doesn’t hate on women who know how to achieve it without guilt or regret.

This is in stark contrast to feminists like Catharine MacKinnon who see women as sexual victims of men. She describes sexuality as something that happens to women, not something that women are genuinely capable of embracing for their own personal fulfillment. For me, there is something that fundamentally does not resonate with me about her interpretation. I will admit that with the right person and one that is skillful, I am more than capable of embracing my sexuality and enjoy sexual pleasure. I am not alone in this thinking, even as a mature woman.

MacKinnon would be critical of women like me. She would question the extent to which my desires are authentic:

All women live in sexual objectification the way fish live in water . . .Women seem to cope with sexual abuse principally by denial of fear . . .Women who are compromised, cajoled, pressured, tricked, blackmailed,or outright forced into sex (or pornography) often respond to theunspeakable humiliation, coupled with a sense of having lost some irreplaceable integrity, by claiming that sexuality as their own. Faced with no alternatives, the strategy to acquire self-respect and pride is: I chose it.

In stark contrast, men and women describe their personal experiences of a "new feminism" in a collection of essays called To Be Real: Telling the Truth about the Changing Face of Feminism. Rebecca Walker, who edited the essays, claims this is:

... like a welcome sign to my generation of young women, allowing us toat once differentiate ourselves from our feminist mothers and at the same time achieve mainstream power in our careers and love lives. It allows us the self-righteousness of being political activists without the economic sacrifice or social marginalization that has so often come along with that role. It is a feminism no longer on the defensive, without a fun, playful aesthetic that acknowledges the erotic and narcissistic pleasure women receive from beautifying themselves, a pleasure not to be denied.

Our new generation of feminism embraces beauty and the power of women's sexuality. Sexual pleasure is a human right. By challenging the forms of sexuality and sexual pleasure that reinforce masculinity, it should be possible to imagine sexual rights that are based on sexual equality. We third-wave feminists, advocate for women's equality with men, but at the same time we also celebrate women's differences from men.

I can honestly say that women’s needs for sexual pleasure and sexual self-awareness evolve as we pass through different ages and mature. The bad news is a University of Chicago study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, said half of sexually active Americans aged 57-85—male and female—reported bothersome sexual problems. Not surprising, the biggest issue for women was the lack of an able partner, because of death, divorce or erectile dysfunction (in spite of Viagra).

Scientists once thought men and women experienced sex identically. There was a straight line from desire to arousal to orgasm. Now they see female sexual progression as a circle, with many interrelated factors—emotional intimacy, arousal, emotional and physical satisfaction and desire. Men can take a pill to stay aroused and enjoy sex as they get older, but women's responses are far more complex.

Now the good news: those same University of Chicago researchers found that women over 50 who were sexually active had intercourse about as often as much younger women. So to all my younger female law buddies my advice is this: in a decade or two, you should ignore all the cultural messages and advertising that say you have to look like you are 20 in order to be sexy. Actress Helen Mirren is my personal role model. She is 65 and proud of it. She is fabulously sexy and still rocks a bikini.


Chez Marta said...

Thank you, Rebecca, your post is a great validation for something hard to deny: it is impossible to forbid the flower from blooming. We are sexual beings. Sexual pleasure developed in early humans as an evolutionary advantage: it is a huge reliever of stress (along with social grooming) and anything that can relieve stress in the wild serves to preserve the species.

On the other hand, I am bothered by your reference to Helen Mirren as a role model: she DOES look much younger than her real age, as her picture above proves. My mother and grandmother did not look that fit at 65, even though my grandmother exercised regularly. We have to embrace our bodies in whatever shape we are in, if with a nice belly testifying to our giving birth to wonderful children, second chins acquired through long hours of reading, grey hairs from worrying about our responsibilities. I wish to see more matronly 65-year-old women in the media being celebrated.

Betty said...

Great post!

Third-wave feminism recognizes that sexual pleasure is a central part of women’s lives and doesn’t hate on women who know how to achieve it without guilt or regret.

Something that rang with me when reading this simple/informative sentence alone is the reminder that going hand and hand with this most recent wave of feminism is how we simultaneously should not just embrace our sexuality and sex in general as females, but we also need to combat the stereotypes, negative connotations, and oppressions faced by women sexually. The double standard that women are promiscuous/"slutty" if she has too much sex, or that women shouldn't desire it as much as men do (while studies show that in general, women tend to do so even more so than males - go us, I say!)

Dusty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dusty said...

Along with everybody else, thanks for this post. I really appreciate support for subversive expressions of sexuality. People hear "subversive" and expect whips, chains and dark alleys, but like your post totally clarified, even just allowing women a full range of sexuality can be subversive, especially if those women are older than the current standards of what attractive is supposed to be, or like Marta said, look different than what is traditionally sexualized.

I heavily related to your statement about how McKinnon would not view your sexuality as authentic because as a woman in the patriarchy you are never free from victim hood enough to actually choose your sexuality. She is taking away the agency of women to be self determining sexual beings even within the oppressions of patriarchy. A similar attempt at removing personal agency (around gender not sexuality) happens a lot for transgender persons when they are told that they only choose to change their gender as a response to abuse they have suffered. These ways of reducing people only to the reality of the abuse they suffered keep survivors being viewed as only that one facet of their experience. What a shame when our sexual identities are as vast, unique and multifaceted as we are.

N.P. said...

As reiterated in all the previous blog posts - this was my main contention with McKinnon when we first read her articles and theory. Primarily, my contention with her was the fact that women do not have any sense of control in their bodies and their sexuality - we are only "vessels" that reflect off of men.

While I find some of this to be true in my life - after all we do live in a white man's world - I find this definition to be incredibly limiting and not one that I choose in my life. I embrace my sexuality, I embrace my femininity, and most importantly I embrace the fact that I am a woman in a man's world. But I never think that I am a mere vessel to a man.

McKinnon's words are useful because they state the underlying reality. Ultimately, however, they detract from embracing women, men, and the transgendered who find solace in the choices they make for themselves.

2elle said...

"Faced with no alternatives, the strategy to acquire self-respect and pride is: I chose it."

I couldn't agree more with this post and I really dislike the assumptions behind that quote. Although I respect Catherine McKinnon for her courage and profound insights, I think this kind of attitude is very demeaning towards women. The quote is a bit condescending, it reminds me of the attitude of certain arrogant frat boys in college: "oh that girl wants me, she just won't admit it to herself and I know better." Only this time it's, "you really don't want this, you're just telling yourself that to make it better." Nonsense. Women can and do own their sexuality/pleasure at any age.