Believe it or not, sex is a very important part of a relationship for many women, despite what we may say or what nonverbal messages we may send. From a female standpoint, I enjoy the intimacy. I enjoy knowing that I have that kind of power over another, that I can bring them to their knees, move them to lose control so completely in spite of stretch marks and saggy boobs. This becomes more important to me as I get older. It is validating.
This is just one rich moment in an excellent blogpost, “The Other Half of the Bitter Pill (Sort Of…),” by Victo Dolore, the pseudonym of someone who presents herself as, and indeed seems to be, a doctor, in the UK, I believe. (All links may be found at the end of this post.)
Dolore begins her post with an anecdote of a female patient:
“You gave my husband viagra?!??!” Her voice rose an octave with the last word. She was livid. “No one asked me if I wanted him to have it!” she sputtered.
The Viagra itself was not the issue. It was that she felt she had to engage in intimate acts for which she was now an unwilling participant. Erectile dysfunction had been her savior. Take that away and she was forced to confront her feelings about her partner and her marriage. Only, she did not really want to confront them…
This post of Dr. Dolore’s came on the heels of a previous one, “A Bitter Pill to Swallow,” which is also very good, but has more clinical and political moments.
Erectile dysfunction is a physiological issue when you treat it with Viagra. Viagra and related drugs change how blood flows through the penis to allow erections. Libido in women, the desire for sex, generally is a psychosocial issue with a myriad of causes and as such does not have a good, pharmacological fix. There is not just one simple fits all answer. There are a multitude of variables at play, each with their own subset of issues. Hormones. Fatigue. Stress. Ambiance. Medication side effects. Relationship dynamics. I could go on. . . .
When looking at the prevalence of female sexual dysfunction, some studies state that it occurs in 25-63% of women. In fact, Even the Score (a lobbying group closely affiliated with the pharmaceutical company that stands to make millions off of this drug) states that 1 in 10 women meet the criteria for hypoactive sexual desire disorder. Can something that prevalent really be a disease?!?!? There may be women who would benefit from this drug but I find it hard to believe it would be that many and I am angry that a pharmaceutical company is allowed to manipulate public opinion in this way. Let women believe there is something wrong with them so that you can sell the pill that “fixes” them? At what cost? That is hardly a humanitarian act.
My goal in this post is not complicated. I want to call attention to some interesting writing about sex that has appeared in the last month or so, and back in January, and in 2012 and in 1930 (Freud). This may seem odd: calling attention, and adding some comments along the way, but without coming to a conclusion, without seeming to have a “point.” Thus I would recall that the original idea for “Zeteo is Reading (ZiR)” pieces such as this one was precisely this: to call attention to texts, be they whole books or bits of graffiti, that were worthy of greater attention. The analogy we used was strolling in a park with a friend and seeing a bird in a distant tree; pointing and exclaiming, “Look at that! What an interesting bird!”
It might be in some cases that your friend would look quizzically back at you and ask, “Why do you think it’s so interesting?” (It’s just a robin.) And the ZiR writer might answer—as I might in the case of Dr. Dolore’s posts—if you can’t see what’s interesting, I can’t help you. And in other cases—as I in the cases of the Vargas Llosa and Alex Ross texts pointed to below—a ZiR writer may go on to speak of what he, or she, finds of interest and to express some of his reactions to the text that has caught his eye (and indeed more than just his eye).
In “Ars Erotica,” the English translation of an essay reprinted in the July 2015 Harper’s, the Peruvian novelist and Nobelist Mario Vargas Llosa comes out against the teaching of masturbation in school. (Such teaching was apparently briefly done in a socialist-controlled Spanish region, Extramadura. John King, Vargas Llosa’s English translator, gives the program’s title as “Pleasure Is in Your Own Hands.”)
“I acknowledge the good intentions behind the program,” Vargas Llosa (King) writes, “and I concede that campaigns of this sort might well lead to a reduction in unwanted pregnancies.”
My criticism is of a sensual nature. Instead of liberating children from the superstitions, lies, and prejudices that have traditionally surrounded sex, might these masturbation workshops trivialize the act even more than it has already been trivialized in today’s society? Might they continue the process of turning sex into an exercise without mystery, dissociating it from feeling and passion, and thus depriving future generations of a source of pleasure that has long nurtured human imagination and creativity?
Among the shortcomings of Llosa’s article is that he does not tell us how masturbation was taught in Extramadura. And thus, among other things, we cannot judge the extent to which the course trivialized sex. Were techniques demonstrated or described (or Power Pointed?), or was it rather a matter of “decriminalizing” the activity—of telling young people that there was nothing wrong with masturbating, that lots of people, young and old, masturbate, and with pleasure?
In this regard I would also like to hear of a course that talked frankly to students about how people lie and cheat in order to make money, gain power, get ahead. As Freud so well put it in a footnote in Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (Civilization and Its Discontents), the modern approach to education does not well prepare children
for the aggressiveness of which they are destined to become the objects. In sending the young out into life with such a false psychological orientation, education is behaving as though one were to equip people starting on a Polar expedition with summer clothing and maps of the Italian Lakes.
Should I/we also say something about Harper’s approach to sex? If you want to get people thinking and talking about sex (and perhaps engaging in a little extra, by themselves or with others), you might publish any number of articles, to include, for example, a personal essay by an enthusiastic masturbator. (Richard Rhodes wrote something like that, as I recall vaguely, in Making Love: An Erotic Odyssey.) Or you might publish Kinseyesque empirical data. Or . . . ?
Whereas Dolore so energetically and engagingly mixes, “the personal, the political, and the intellectual” (as we say at Zeteo), at least in this one case the Harper’s approach to sex is a solemn condemnation of the teaching of masturbation in school (and, along the way, of le Marquis de Sade). If this leads to some juicy dinner table or couch conversations about masturbation, or to demonstrations of it (“You show me one of your techniques, I’ll show you one of mine”)—well, worse things have happened to nicer people. But it seems at a bit sad—and impressive!—that what Harper’s readers are given to start with is a “the world is going to hell in a handbasket” discussion of appropriate educational policy. And without pictures!
It may seem that, with our gaze so fixed on this or that interesting sight, we are drifting without realizing it from one part of one park into several others. But neither our eyesight nor our enthusiasm has dimmed!
The longtime New Yorker writer Alex Ross is best known as one of the world’s best writers on “new music”—twentieth and twenty-first century compositions that are in various ways in dialogue with the work of the great classical composers. He has also written several excellent articles on homosexuality. His 2012 “Love on the March: Reflections on the gay community’s political progress—and its future,” is well worth rereading in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent decision on gay marriage.
In a Zeteo comment I have already expressed some regret that Justice Kennedy’s rationalization for the decision was that marriage is a “keystone of our social order.” Not so long ago LGBT lifestyles not only seemed to threaten the social order and sacred traditions, they also appealed to straight people eager to escape the stodginess and conventionality of mainstream American life. Now gays are being asked to help hold up the social order with its basis in marriage (or in what’s left of marriage?).
These comments echo remarks found in Ross’s article, remarks made by David Halperin, a leading figure in queer-studies scholarship. Gay people, Halperin writes in the final chapter of How to Be Gay, are now “preening themselves on their dullness, commonness, averageness.” He also laments the rise of online hookup sites, which, he says, are erasing the messy diversity of gay bars. “Sometimes I think homosexuality is wasted on gay people,” he says.
As a heterosexual, I might say more generally that we are all, way too much of the time, preening ourselves on our most conventional and crowd-following features, and the wonderful human capacity for erotic life is, in this day and age at least, being largely wasted.
Never mind “official” Internet-porn watching, I would bet that the average American has spent more time watching Girls, and any number of other shows and movies—going back past Sex and the City to 9½ Weeks, Last Tango in Paris, and beyond—than s/he has spent in delicious regression, hungry exploration, and naked communion with other human beings.
One thing that interests me here is while TV, Netflix, Hulu, et al., are quite cheap, a few hours with a lover, in a bedroom or elsewhere, are, from one perspective, even “cheaper”—“free.” Financially rich or financially poor; it might seem not to matter. It might seem that what matters is having or making the time (getting away from TV, computer, smartphone) and being open and warm or seductive. But of course it is much more complicated than this. A lot of (most?) sex involves prostitution on one level or another. One or more of the partners is expecting to get non-sexual recompense (money, status, security, domestic tranquility, etc.) from engaging in the sex acts. And the most free and equal lovers may well discover that sex comes with quite another kind of “cost”: the psychic costs or risks (and the great pleasures!) of revealing more of oneself to another human being, and this while she, or he, is also revealing more of herself to you.
A more recent Ross “sex piece” is “Berlin Story: How the Germans invented gay rights—more than a century ago,” which is a summary and discussion of Robert Beachy’s book Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity. One nice aspect of this piece is how it calls attention to the connection between male homosexuality and what might be called masculinity—male bonding, javelin throwing, nature-hiking youth. I was in France when I read the article, and I believe this helped me appreciate that those of us whose erotic urges are focused on (obsessed with!) women—of course there’s an effeminacy to us. (Assuming words such as “masculinity” and “effeminacy” continue to make some sense.) We are effeminate because we are so drawn to women, are so caught up in their (your) skirts, and spend so much time engaging or trying to engage with women. (Of course I am simplifying here. There are plenty of gay men who spend lots of time with women, etc. And the dyad or dichotomy—men/women—now seems less informative than it seemed even just a few years ago.)
At the end of his piece, Ross again champions diversity, and here through expressing his “deepened fondness” for Magnus Hischfeld, the German doctor who, in 1897, founded the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee (Scientific-Humanitarian Committee), the first gay-rights organization.
The good doctor had a vision that went far beyond the victory of gay rights, narrowly defined; he preached the gorgeousness of difference, of deviations from the norm. From the beginning, he insisted on the idiosyncrasy of sexual identity, resisting any attempt to press men and women into fixed categories. To Hirschfeld, gender was an unstable, fluctuating entity; the male and the female were “abstractions, invented extremes.”
Alfred Kinsey’s extraordinary work—which paved the way for the wonderful decade or so of sexual liberation that some of us had the good fortune to stumble upon in our youth . . . Kinsey offered Americans and the world many more statistics to advance a similar view: that our sexual tastes and orientations cannot be simply split in twos, and that social conventions and conformity can all too easily transform natural desires into unnatural suffering. (We have hardly ignored the Freudian title, Civilization and Its Discontents.)
In the interest of diversity—in intellectual reflection as well as in sex—I cannot leave this post, and Victo Dolore’s opening gambit, without quoting from Justin E.H. Smith’s 2012 blogpost, “The Venereal Gadfly: More Notes towards a History of Orgasm.” May this at least help us to appreciate that there are aspects of the human predicament, and of the various battles of the various sexes, that are not as eternal as we often imagine them to be.
One thing that comes as a surprise to people with little historical memory is that it was not until very recently that sexual insatiability came to be associated with men. In the early modern period, these were classic female attributes, and if a man were to exhibit them he would be thought to have lapsed into effeminacy. The idea that men are naturally and essentially the lustful ones, and the pseudoevolutionary explanations that are offered for this idea, are really nothing more than apologetics for our own current set of prejudices. I have never come across a single early modern male author who owns up to his own libidinousness. They write about themselves as if sexuality were not a defining factor of their existence.
But when did the shift of prejudice occur? I suspect that it happened roughly in tandem with the shift in the meaning of “orgasm”, which in turn was a reflection of a much broader shift in the conception of the place of sexuality in an individual person’s identity. The culmination of the sexual act came to be described not as the relief of an itch, as a physiological release comparable to sneezing, but rather as the culmination of the vital force of the body, again, as the supreme expression of one’s bodily life. And naturally, it was men and not women who came to be seen as charged with this vital force.
In closing, it should be noted—or I myself noted, as I was working on the present piece—that Picasso and Victor Hugo and Agatha Christie, etc., they could not have had very active sexual lives. Otherwise they would not have painted so many paintings or written so many words!
— Wm. Eaton, Zeteo Editor
Click for pdf of Sex, Sex, Celibacy, Diversity.
Top image, of an oak seed gall, is from a Web post, “Galls on Oaks,” by James R. Baker and S. B. Bambara, entomologists with the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension. They note, “Most galls are formed by three kinds of insects or mites: gall wasps, gall midges, and gall mites.”
Before beginning to survey humans about their sexual practices, Alfred Kinsey studied gall wasps, seeking to reveal the degree of anatomical difference within a single species. He wrote much later that in these wasps some structural characteristics varied as much as 1,200 percent, while “in some of the morphologic and physiologic characters which are basic to human behavior [i.e. human sexual behavior] which I am studying, the variation is a good twelve thousand percent.” [From a speech originally delivered on June 5, 1939. As quoted in Rebels with the Ranks: Psychologists’ Critique of Scientific Authority and Democratic Realities in New Deal America, by Katherine Pandora (Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 158.]
Second image, of multiple galls forming on a single acorn (which “suggest that there are several eggs and larvae on these acorns”), is from a post by Justine Aw, London-based editor and resident zoologist of NOTCOT (“a community of creatives, design lovers, and trendsetters”).
Third image, of a gall induced by the sexual generation of a gall wasp (Neuroterus numismalis) on the underside of an oak leaf, is from a July 1, 2014 blogpost by Alan Watson Featherstone, Executive Director of Trees for Life.
Source of the fourth image, gall-wasp related, has not been identified. Image of the wasp itself and alone is from Wikipedia.
Victo Dolore. The Other Half of the Bitter Pill (Sort Of…). Post on blog “Behind the White Coat Beats a real human heart…,” June 18, 2015.
——. A Bitter Pill to Swallow, blog op. cit., June 14, 2015. This post includes links to the sources of the data it cites.
Mario Vargas Llosa. Ars Erotica. Harper’s Readings, July 2015. Reprinted from Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society, due out soon from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Translated from the Spanish by John King.
Alex Ross. Love on the March: Reflections on the gay community’s political progress—and its future. The New Yorker, November 12, 2012.
——. Berlin Story: How the Germans invented gay rights—more than a century ago. The New Yorker, January 26, 2015.
Justin E.H. Smith, The Venereal Gadfly: More Notes towards a History of Orgasm. Blogpost, May 29, 2012.
As regards the prevalence of lying, one might see On Lying, Montaigbakhtinian.com. Montaigbakhtinian pieces that touch on contemporary sexual life include Professional Primates and My Evening with Marta (A few notes on sexuality in the workplace).