Tag Archives: pleasure

Desire and Pleasure of the (Un)Sexed Body

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The “sexing” of bodies is inevitably a social process whereby certain bodies are categorized as pertaining to men, while others- to women. The “in-between” remains invisible, concealed by the widely-accepted notion that there are only two “regular” ways of existing:  either being male, or female. Within this context, social power dictates not only the assignment to sex, but also an accompanying gender and with that a whole series of roles, expectations, preferences and life choices one is pressured to adopt in order to “fit”. While concepts such as “desire” and “pleasure” and their resulting behaviors and actions may rather be seen as a concern of  the individual’s “psychology”, social power circulating around both the sexed body and its sexually unclear counterpart dictates the characteristics of desire and pleasure and their respective perception as either “deviant” or “normal”. Within this paper I will explore how the subject of pleasure and desire is construed historically in relation to sex and gender. Simultaneously, I will focus on the ideas and narratives pertaining to sexual “appetite” and “enjoyment” situating them in the sociohistorical context that made them possible.

To begin with, it is important to outline briefly how the social “sexing” of the body occurs and perpetuates itself. In “Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality” Anne Fausto-Sterling unequivocally claims that “labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision”[1]. This decision may be presented as grounded in science, yet the production of scientific knowledge itself is not unaffected by existing beliefs about gender. Indeed, throughout “Brainstorm: The flaws in the science of sex differences” Rebecca Jordan-Young demonstrates how research of sex differences and particularly “Brain Organization Theory” (the theory presupposing the existence of “female” and “male” brains, differentiated to serve complementary roles within the process of reproduction) has been flawed by unchallenged “commonsense” assumptions and neglect towards historical and cultural shifts in understanding of gender, in addition to lack of reliable data due to the quasi-experimental design of most studies [2].

Instead of being all about hormones and biologically-determined processes as researchers would have liked us to have it, sex (meant as a category) is invariably dependent on definitions and as such is largely human-made. This point is all the more important in dealing with intersex babies whose genitalia is not fully developed until puberty, yet which begins to be inspected and assessed from birth. This practice creates the risk that “doctors may remove a small penis at birth and create a girl child, even though the penis may have grown to “normal” size in puberty”[3].

Moreover, to account for the importance of socialization, Fausto-Sterling draws on stories about children, raised away from society, in the absence of other humans’ presence. These children, as she describes, do not develop sexuality because while they have the “raw material” for reproduction, they have not learned the set of meanings that predispose desire and give one “consciousness” of her “bodily functions”[4]. For sexuality to be even possible, it is not merely enough to have a certain set of genitals.

In attempting to answer the question “Who is the subject of desire and pleasure in the context of gender and sex historically?” I first need to identify the existing possibilities. Once a baby is born (that is in most of the Modern World), it is assigned into one of three categories: “girl”, “boy” or more rarely: “intersex”. Yet in most cases the “intersex” child is not allowed to exist as “ambiguous” for very long. Its “ambiguousness” is accompanied by so strong a drive to include it in either of the two “normal” categories that numerous irreversible surgeries and loss of much sensitive tissue become justified. In many cases, surgical “fixing” is guided by social, instead of medical needs: “whether it ‘looks right’ to other boys, whether it can ‘perform satisfactorily’ in intercourse”[5] ends up being more important than the penis’ function for its owner’s physical wellbeing.

I will claim then that the intersex child born with sexually unclear genitalia is altogether denied pleasure and desire. It will either be “fixed” and, theoretically, “find belonging” to either the “male” or “female” cohort of its peers, or “live always as a sexual freak in loneliness and frustration”[6], the last exemplifying the “rhetoric of tragedy” construed by parents and medical personnel, alike.

As a general “rule”, if a baby is born with a vagina or “fixed” into having one, it would, “naturally”, be assumed to develop as heterosexual and to be female-presenting. In regards to desire, late into twentieth century the grown-up woman was expected to develop a “feminine” sexuality, understood as passive (“in the absence of a partner, a ‘normal’ woman waits”[7]), sentimental and romantic longing. The “feminine” woman deemed “normal”, as interpreted by the infamous Brain Organization Theory pioneer John Money and his colleagues, would not enjoy various sex positions, would not experience erotic response to anything else, but kissing and touching, and would primarily find interest in marriage and motherhood.

Historically, the understanding of “female” sexuality underwent great transformations. In Renaissance Europe women were perceived as sexual insatiable-s, while men were thought to be more successful at restraining their urges due to their inherently greater rationality[8]. Men who “slept around” were seen as “de-masculinized” since they failed to enact the expected manly self-control. Yet, this paradigm shifted drastically in the centuries to follow and led to the advent of the Victorian ideal for a “lady”, whereby females were expected to erase their sexuality in order to gain status and respect.  Sadly, while social and political movements in the 1960s were disrupting traditional ideas about sexuality and “a revolution in birth control and the legalization of abortion increasingly separated sexuality from reproduction”[9], it wasn’t before 1980 that brain research on sexual differences began to adopt a model of female sexuality that didn’t follow the Victorian model which portrayed it as “romantic, receptive, slow to waken and only weakly physical[10]”.

The underlying assumptions in this gendered profile began to be addressed in the 1980s when a more “egalitarian” understanding of female sexuality began to emerge. Or rather, elements of “masculine” sexuality were neutralized and become “common” for both “male” and “female” sexuality.  Upon this radical cultural and scientific shift women’s sexual desire expanded to include masturbation, genital arousal (which before was considered to only pertain to men), sexual arousal, high libido, frequent sexual activity and multiple partners, to name a few[11].

In fact, sexual pleasure had a lot to do with the stereotypical depiction of women as “passive” and “passionless” which still circulates mainstream culture (and science). In “Making Sex” Thomas Laquer explains how Orgasm was used in the creation of a sharp distinction between women and men “sometime in the eighteenth century” when “sex as we know it was invented”[12]. Prior to that, sex was understood through the “one sex” model, whereby females were seen as underdeveloped males, whose genitalia were the same as men’s, yet turned on the inside[13]. Within the “female-as-male” model men and women possessed identical physiological functions. Female orgasm constituted a mandatory element in the process of reproduction. The idea that a woman would not get impregnated unless she reached orgasm was accepted as “commonsense” late into the 1800s, yet evidence was building up to demonstrate that female orgasm had little role in conception. In 1770s experimenter Lazzaro Spallanzani succeeded to artificially inseminate a water spaniel and in 1879 Mabel Loomis Todd tested her hypothesis that she would not get pregnant if her husband ejaculated inside of her after she had orgasmed, only to give birth nine months later[14].

Following this discovery and as the “two sex” model emerged, the woman’s ability to receive sexual pleasure was altogether contested. The rejection of female orgasm as unlikely served to further differentiate the sexes and justify the obsoletion of the “one sex” paradigm. According to Laquer this had at least two important dimensions: firstly, while earlier it was thought that both the man and the woman needed to orgasm/ejaculate for a baby to be “made”, with the discovery that female orgasm was not instrumental for conception, men were elevated to “creators” while women began to be seen as a mere physical “container” for reproduction (“the material cause is inferior to the efficient cause”[15]). As the Bible reads: “For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man” (Corinthians 11:8, English Standard Version). Women’s seemingly inferior contribution to reproduction justified their subordinate position in society. Secondly, the revelation of female sexual pleasure as “unrelated” to conception soon translated into larger claims about “most women’s” lack of sexual “feelings” which in turn led to the identification of a variety of characteristics now perceived as a “sign of gender”.

As evident, “Female” pleasure and desire have been the concerns of inexhaustible controversy within the scientific community and outside of it for centuries. For most of history, women have not been seen as “subjects” of desire and pleasure, but rather- “objects” of male desire, in service of male pleasure.  The male “subject’’ is the assumed subject. In choosing to limit my analyses to only “sexually unclear” and “female-sexed” bodies and their interactions with desire and pleasure, I not only exercise my feminist right to “reverse” privilege and attend to those, who have traditionally been either omitted from or exploited by scientific research, but also have a theoretical justification. For once, in describing ideas and narratives related to female sexual pleasure and desire, I am (inevitably) simultaneously, if not directly, presenting ideas and narratives about “male” sexuality since the two were most often than not seen as contradicting. The man is what the woman isn’t: “Masculine and feminine sexuality could be represented as not just distinct, but polar opposites”[16] in the view of early Brain Organization theorists and many more, even today.  We can only hope they don’t remain a majority.

 

Bibliography

  • Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. P. 58
  • Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

 

 

 

[1] Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. Page 3.

[2] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[3] Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. Page 58.

 

[4] Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. Page 23.

[5] Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. P. 58

[6] Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. P. 47

[7] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 116.

[8] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 110.

[9] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 112.

[10] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 113.

[11] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Pages 138-141.

[12] Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 149.

[13] Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 4.

[14] Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 181.

[15] Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 151.

[16] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 118.


Affairs to remember

Maggie NazerChurch, early on a Thanksgiving morning. I close my eyes to pray but the picture that flashes before my eyes is His being on top of me, kissing me. I’m not talking about Jesus, of course, and it’s not my imagination. “If love is a sin, I’m a sinner,” I comfort myself (with the lines of a song I had never heard) proudly as I whisper, “Amen.” I am thankful to remember last night precisely: our voices, the silence, the tension between our bodies, reading a book in bed together. No hangover, no doubt that it happened, no regret whatsoever.

Hooking up is so big in college that people have come so far as to call it a “culture.” Students are so busy, stressed and dedicated to succeed in the big world that hook-ups come in handy, within the strict time-frame of Saturday nights and with the helpful assistance of lots and lots of alcohol. Yet, what does it do for us? What are the needs we try to satisfy as we dress up, go partying, get drunk and take someone to bed? Is it about intimacy, or being with someone, or even simply receiving pleasure? And do we ever get what we want?

“Waking up on a Sunday morning is heavy-duty,” my friend tells me as we sit to have brunch together later that day. Coming to terms with last night’s outcomes must be, indeed, hard to swallow (no matter of our degree of mastery). With the ecstasy of being young, drunk and alive after yet another week of Middlebury academics, comes the natural need to perform in yet another discipline – sex. Yet, how do we prove we are the high-achievers we know ourselves to be?

We drink. We drink to relax ourselves, to get ourselves excited and excused… Drunkenness is the socially accepted apology for the lack of erection, for the abandonment of restrictions and the temporary display of amnesia when you meet your late-night companion(s) in the dining hall the following morning. Drinking is the confidence booster we need to silence our fear that we aren’t good enough, or interesting enough, or sexy enough, so that we go on stealing sex from each other uninterrupted by reality. We steal what we can steal, afraid we won’t be given anything otherwise.  It’s all good until you realize you can do better than that.

The sober seduction is the ultimate turn-on. There is power in vulnerability and beauty in the creation of proximity, be it even for a night. The more present I am, the more aroused. Only presence in the given moment provides passion with existence, because it exists solely here and now, and only then forever. Reduced to its mechanics, sex offers no pleasure. Eroticism is conceived by the consent and fullest participation of everyone involved in the sexual act. In the exchange of value we call “sex,” why do we rob each other of any meaning?

As I looked at the glowing stars stuck on the ceiling of my college dorm, lying sleepless in his arms, I asked myself why the need to forget. “Life is short”- everyone around me claims as a justification of everything we do in attempt to bring ourselves what we want, which most often results in the exact opposite of it. Yet if life is short why not live it to remember it? Should the affairs we remember be only the academic ones and do we have anything to feel good about once we put our clothes back on?

We all know that sex is no more a mere instrument to reproduction. But while we are among the luckiest people ever lived on the Earth to be able to create togetherness through sex without too much fear of unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases (if we are smart about it, of course!), we run away from truly being with each other afraid of its implications… As we confront our guilty consciousness after another naughty Saturday has passed, we have to accept that the most obvious consequences of our wasted hook-ups are the missed opportunities… If not for “true love”, than at least for human connection and warmth. And as we dare to open up and be with each other unmasked, naked and sober, we might find that someone would want to stay around not only for the night, but may be even after…

The article was first published in my very own “Love and sexuality” column in “The Middlebury Campus” newspaper- Vol. 112, NO. 11 from December 5, 2013; www.middleburycampus.com