Redefining Sex and Sexuality

I’m in my last semester of my Bachelor’s degree in English, which essentially means I spend a lot of time analyzing works of literature from what’s called the Canon. The Canon is essentially a group of books that literary elites have chosen as important for students to study. We study them in light of theory (Poetics, Marxism, Feminism, Historicism, etc.) which can get extremely boring, in my opinion. It’s easy though. A lot of it is common sense.

I’m taking one class that examines American Literature and we’re studying literature with from an African American perspective, which is a nice diversion from the mostly white male literature in the Canon.

Yesterday’s novel was Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin–an African American gay male author who was  very popular in the 60’s. Giovanni’s Room is a novel that explores sex and sexuality–particularly homosexuality and heteronormative behavior. Heteronormative? Yes. Basically the concept that society thinks we should act a certain way to be considered “normal” and this is usually from a straight perspective.

But I digress.

The novel’s protagonist, David, is a typical white male American who’s goal is to be married and have a family. He asks his fiance, Hella, to marry him and she goes off to Spain to “think about it.” While she’s in Spain, David has a sexual relationship with Giovanni, another man.

Throughout the entire novel, David is afraid of people’s bodies. He’s disgusted by both male and female bodies, and particularly disgusted by his desires for men. He associates being gay with death and decay.

When the novel was written, homosexuality was thought to be a mental illness and gays were “treated” for this “mental illness.” President Eisenhower even signed a bill that said “sexual perverts” (aka, gays) could be fired from their jobs.

It’s no wonder David things being gay is disgusting–white male America thought being gay was disgusting, perverted, and dirty.

Baldwin, however, criticized Americans (especially white male Americans) for this “fear of the body” and “sexual shame.” He thought racism stemmed from a white male American hatred for the body and a fear of sexuality. That’s why in literature and movies we saw African Americans portrayed as lustful, sexual beings. Baldwin said that white America’s portrayal of African Americans as out of control sexual people reflected OUR fear of sex and our shame of being sexual.

Baldwin said, “You really feel that sex is dirty–that the body is vile–you really do.”

I feel like things in America haven’t changed all that much. We really feel like the body is vile and that sex is dirty. We hide it. We don’t bring it into public discourse and if we do, it’s talked about as dirty or immoral. We’re not comfortable seeing gays and lesbians be affectionate and religious people call them “sinners.”

Why do we feel the body is vile and that sex is dirty? Why do we hide our sexuality or our thoughts about sex? Why are we ashamed?

Do you agree with Baldwin?

Since I’ve de-converted from Christianity, I’ve thought a lot about sex and sexuality and my sexuality has ranged from heteroflexible to bisexual. I find that people are still very closeted; they still obey the heteronormative rules in society. Men are afraid to admit (or admit with caution) that they wouldn’t mind sexually experimenting with a man. Women are often displeased with men, but instead of trying things with women, they just accept their “normal” role as a woman. To be “normal” is to be a wife of a male, a mother, etc. The normative roles in society for women require a male (marriage, kids).

Part of what I consider self-growth has included reexamining the social norms revolving sexuality, primarily because sexuality (and our ideas of what is normal) is imposed on us from patriarchal religion. If religion says it must be so, then I say I must question it and redefine it for myself.

I’m advocating for a more open, flexible idea about sex and sexuality and bodies, particularly among those of us who’ve been highly religious at one time. If the church says sex is dirty and sex is shameful and we can’t control our “wicked desires” then I say the church is wrong and we should redefine sex and sexuality in a more progressive way.

What do you say?

  • Can we change our dialogue about sex in the world?
  • Can we embrace sex as something enjoyable (with or without procreation) instead of something vile?
  • Can we embrace sexuality as something that may be flexible instead of rigid?

(Author’s Note: I’d like to give credit to Professor Mills at CSUN for his lecture being the impetus to this post. Many of the ideas presented here were inspired by his lecture on James Baldwin)

Feminist Fail

Another feminist gets it wrong. BDSM is actually fun and it’s not “anti-woman.” Wonderhussy, whose blog I loved here, writes why she thinks BDSM (modeling) is “dehumanizing”:

As I’ve mentioned before, I shot a few times with this one bondage photographer, and I found it humiliating and dehumanizing. Now I realize this is coming from a gal who makes a living doing humiliating and dehumanizing stuff on camera…but come on, enough is enough!! I don’t mind someone jerking off to a video of me stuffing my face with Twinkies, or of me having my toes sucked. But anyone who gets off watching me or any other model struggle around while tied up is a SICK MOTHERFUCKER with serial killer fantasies! No? Please tell me why I’m wrong!

I know, I know — I already heard ALL about it from my BDSM Facebook friends: you see, in the bondage arts, the sub (the tied-up one) is the one who’s REALLY in charge of the situation. But I find it hard to understand how someone who is totally immobile and silenced with a ball gag can be in charge of anything at all.

Ever tried to be a Mistress? It’s quite lovely. And being a sub is fucking mentally and physically MIND-BLOWING. Watch the Maggie Gyllenhaal film Secretary.

Poll of the Day: How Do YOU Feel about Sex?

Just a few minutes ago, I wrote about how some women feel guilty and slutty for having sex on my super secret sex blog. Read the post here. And please enlighten me how YOU personally feel about sex in the comments or by taking this poll. The poll is pretty much anonymous, so feel free to be honest.

Biblical Women Who Behaved Badly

I liked the women who behaved badly, and I liked the women who made men behave badly. I liked Jael, the warrior woman, who in the book of Judges lured the enemy commander Sisera into her lair, fed him a soporific potion and then hammered a peg through his temple and left him for dead. Jael was a heroine, a seductress in the service of God, but that makes her a minority of one: all the other self-actuating, sexually compelling Bible women were presented as Satan’s spawn.

Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women by Elizabeth Wurtzel (author of Prozac Nation)

*Emphasis my own

Sexual Energy Cannot Be Contained

So Delilah was instantly heroic to me–perhaps this was misguided, perhaps this was just an attempt to find a God who looked like me–but the rabbis were all telling me that she was a witch, a bitch, a termagant, a whore. There were other problem women in the Bible, the main problem being that their sexual existence could not be denied, and while everything about a woman can be controlled and regulated–right down to whom she is or isn’t allowed to sleep with–her elusive, effulgent sexual anima, her ability to project lust and allure, cannot be contained by any set of rules. It just is. Sexual energy, like the warmth of the sunshine or the green color of grass, is an indigenous characteristic with exogenous manifestations that can’t be stopped, can’t be helped, and should not be blamed…Nothing the rabbis said had any real impact, but certainly I later noticed that even at this late date, women perceived to be sexual–never mind sexually powerful–are scary.

Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women by Elizabeth Wurtzel (author of the bestselling book, Prozac Nation)

The Ramifications of Sex

Following the pattern of thinking of many fundamentalist Christians and Abstinence-only proponents, gets the  idea of “If you have sex, you deserve the consequences.”

Usually these consequences are a child, an STD, or the label of whore.

What brought this about is my re-post of a conversation I found on the Ask-Feminists subreddit about men being forced into fatherhood, without options like women have.  I for one feel sympathetic toward men who are forced into fatherhood–either by accident or by a woman lying to him, etc. Women can choose abortion, adoption, or single motherhood but men don’t have an option like that. Men can face time in prison for not paying their child support, which is problematic if the  man had no voice in the choice to become a parent. Of course a Christian friend of mine argues that the man did have a choice–he chose to have sex and therefore he should be a father. Sex is about responsibility and repercussions, after all.

The problem with this argument is that it assumes that having sex makes you morally inferior (especially if that’ sex is outside of marriage and for pleasure) and that sex cannot be about pleasure–it must be about procreation. This argument also supports homophobia, because two men and two women can not procreate in the heterosexual sense. Thusly, it’s also a heteronormative argument and in some ways it could be considered an anti-feminist argument.

I agree that people should be responsible while having sex. To me, that responsibility includes ensuring they and their partner are healthy and disease free, that they use Birth Control and/or condoms and that they are honest about what they want with one another. By no means do I feel that sex is just for procreation, though. To say so puts women (and men) back a few decades. If sex is for procreation only, then women might as well abstain completely unless they want to get knocked up.

Most people who believe sex is for procreation only also believe that women are the gatekeepers to sex and if they “give it up” they’re responsible for the “sin” just like Eve was responsible for the fall of man. Women who engage in sex are immoral, “deflowered” (implying that they’ve lost their innocence and beauty), and sluts.

Sex for pleasure is often not talked about in abstinence only circles, because the implication is that it doesn’t exist. Sex is a duty, not something you can enjoy. Sex makes a woman lose her “purity” (as if morality can be gained by refraining from sex or lost from having sex), unless it is in the confines of a marriage bed.

Women’s bodies and genitals have often been construed as being dirty. In the Old Testament of the Bible if a woman was on her period, she was considered unclean and a man couldn’t have sex with her. In her book, The Female Thing, Laura Kipnis talks about the historical context of this assumed dirtiness:

Recall the unhappy fact that throughout history there’s been a universal conviction that women are somehow dirtier than men. The male body is regarded, or is symbolically, as cleaner than the female body…Possibly it’s that outjuttings of the body, like a penis, are regarded as somehow cleaner than holes and cavities…The vagina is frequently associated with rot and decay…”

Even a woman’s emotional problems were considered to come from the uterus (Jessica Valenti talks about the term “hysteria” in her book The Purity Myth, which is where I found the Laura Kipnis quote above.)

So if sex is dirty and women’s genitals are dirty, we can only be redeemed by having sex for childbearing purposes.

And then of course, we have Michelle Bachmann crying out against the HPV vaccine, making false claims that it causes mental retardation and feeding into the whole Republican sex-hating party because god forbid girls have sex…someday.