March 31, 2018

Misogyny and the Men Who Love Us

It easier to ask a stranger to check their privilege than a close friend, family member or lover.
What if we all ask, every day, anyway.

In 2014 I started the blog O School - now La Femme Erotique - after several lengthy conversations with women I was close to revealed that their sexual experiences were often unfulfilling. Their pleasure wasn't just not being prioritized, it was non-existent, and though they pursued relationships with men and seemed to want to have sex, they also readily admitted that they didn't get much out of it. Strange, I thought. But why have sex if it isn't pleasurable? Further dialogue revealed motives that had nothing to do with the personal pleasure of these women, but instead motives like making a guy like them, staying in the dating game, competing with other women, solidifying commitment. Wanting to make him (whomever he might be) happy and thus aspiring to questionable goals such as being able to override one's gag reflex at will, being able to hold one's breath for long periods of time, being able to put large objects down one's throat without (much) discomfort. Not because any of these things would feel good, and in fact, it was usually the opposite. But because these things would make someone else feel good, and that's all that sex was to many of the women I spoke to. They weren't even upset about it, they were resigned to the idea that their role in this particular arena was to facilitate a pleasurable experience for someone else. Their romantic pursuits, then, were less about their own experience and more about achieving the prestige of being the best at whatever sexual act was all the rage at that particular time (though curiously, blowjobs seem to be the Chanel suit of sex acts).

That saddened me, as I was lucky enough to - for better or for worse - have discovered the joys of masturbation early enough in life to enjoy very regular and sometimes spontaneous orgasms. That isn't to imply that I had been encouraged to explore this. Rather, I had been strictly forbidden. But happily I disobeyed, and by the time I became sexually active I was familiar enough with my personal pleasure to want it and even expect it in a sexual interaction. What I found was that despite female pleasure in sexual interactions being almost incidental (like when you sit your boyfriend down to help him understand your body, and he says, "Baby, of course I want you to enjoy it too." The "too" giving away the truth that he may not even be conscious of - that his pleasure in this merging of the bodies is assumed while yours is a nice goal to have that you two can "work on") the female body seems to be inherently capable of much more pleasure in a single sexual encounter than the male body, and for a prolonged period of time. It isn't as though after orgasm our vaginas close up and our nerve endings cease to function for fifteen to thirty minutes. But if there is so much raw potential for exquisite pleasure, why is it that so many women experience so little of this pleasure in their relationships with men? Something had to be done, I thought. And I was going to do it.

"I want to be the Oprah of orgasms," I said to my best friend as we sat discussing the possibilities of my mission. Would it be a book? Would it be a YouTube channel? Would it be a blog? "You get an orgasm. And you get an orgasm. Everybody look under their seats - everybody gets an orgasm!" 

Four years later, while I still look back on the conversation fondly, I can't help but sigh at the now obviousness of my naïveté. 

My mission, you see, was to teach women how to enjoy sex. To stop thinking about what they looked like naked, or whether someone was judging their love handles, but to lose themselves to the pleasure instead. To not be afraid to ask for what they wanted, to make a suggestion, be it subtle or bold. To simply pursue their own pleasure in bed - wait for it - just like men do. Yes. These were indeed the early teachings of a very optimistic, very orgasmic, 25 year old me. 

To this day my female sexuality blog hosts less than 30 published posts. As the months went on, it got harder and harder to write things like Orgasm 101 or Faking It. Why? any responsible writer I researched. And my research seemed to be distracting me from my goals. I found myself soon writing posts about street harassment. About catcalling. About the micro-aggressions that make women uncomfortable on dates and even in long term relationships. About how frustrating it is that women are systematically made to think of ourselves as objects for male pleasure

I thought about how I felt when I declined to give a blowjob on my period when I was 20 and the guy I was seeing tried to guilt me by saying that his ex-girlfriend, who he didn't hold in the highest esteem, "at least" had done that for him. I thought about how it felt when I slept over the house of a guy I was seeing when I was 26, didn't want to have sex, and he angrily confronted me the next day as though I was required to explain why I'd failed to please him. I thought about the silent pressure to have sex before bed in nearly every relationship I've ever been in. The cuddle that turns into the caress that turns into the grope that turns into an unfavorable attitude if any of these is turned down, no matter how tired I am or how early work is, or if I'm just not in the mood or if I really do have a headache. I thought about the pressure to have sex in the morning in nearly every relationship I've ever been in. The terrible experience of being awoken from my sleep by an uninvited hand brushing intimate parts of my body, not because this counts as foreplay, because foreplay is a mutual act with a partner who is awake and responsive, but rather because they are awake, and they are ready, and suddenly I am not the sleeping human next to them, I am the sexy thing in bed which is very convenient because they would like to have sex now. I thought about the absolute obliviousness of partners who sit in bed wearing confusion on their faces when I opt to start the day by getting out of bed rather than by getting on top of them. How their eyes follow me around the room, watching, waiting, because surely I'm going to come back to bed, right? Surely I'm not going to just...get out of bed not. Because somehow the ease of which expectation becomes obligation never occurred to them, nor has the absolute distaste of being treated like a prostitute in one's own relationship. 

Maybe the problem wasn't women not understanding how to enjoy sex. Maybe the problem was how women could possibly be expected to enjoy sex with men in a world that doesn't even pretend to give two shits about our basic human rights to safety and comfort, let alone pleasure. 

Soon I had to start another blog altogether for all the posts - nay, essays - that were springing up like weeds all over my female sexuality blog. And shortly after Brilliant Bitchin' was born I was no longer gunning to be Oprah for orgasms. I was a feminist. I was an activist. Orgasms for all? - Sure. Maybe someday, but there were more immediate concerns. Concerns like justice, and I damn well wanted justice. 

It's a term that's being used now - intimate justice - to address some of the aforementioned trends that we see in heterosexual relationships. To address the fact that men expect to drive the sexual experience and women tend to be seen as passengers. (e.g.: In Sex and the City, every other story line was about whatever strange preference the man had in bed, and how one of the four female leads would have to adjust to his preference. What about her preferences? Why is she adjusting to him as opposed to them adjusting to each other? Think about it...) To address the irony of men brazenly declaring things like, "I don't eat pussy," and then delineating the frequency and ferocity of which they require their dicks to be sucked in order that they might consider "making" some hypothetical woman their girlfriend. To address the term "blue balls", and how it is used to coerce sex acts out of women. To address the fact that in popular culture, in our society, a patriarchal society riddled with misogyny, male pleasure is prioritized over female discomfort. Blue balls tells the listener that the problem is not the woman being pressured into performing a sexual act even though she doesn't want to. Blue balls tells the listener that the problem isn't that the man in this situation is knowingly pressuring an unwilling woman into performing sexual acts. Blue balls tells the listener that the problem is that an erection is being ignored. 

Life does a very good job of preparing women to be excellent sexual objects. Magazines tell us what to wear, how to hide our wrinkles (when we're 17), at what angle to stand when we're being photographed, 50 tricks to blow his mind in bed. We're bombarded with advertisements that almost never feature entire women, but rather fragmented bits of sexy body parts. Sweaty stomachs, red, glossy lips on an open mouth and some phallic symbol nearby like a lipstick or a banana or the top of a beer bottle. Underwear ads clearly more interested in selling breasts than bras. High heels attached to a pair of legs attached to an ass that is not attached to a person. You can't see the person - all you see is ass, and legs, and high heels, and if you're lucky it makes you angry but on some level all of us are very unlucky because all of us at one point or another have been intrigued by such an image, aroused by such an image, or inspired by such an image. You go to the movies or watch TV and you don't even get to decide what is beautiful anymore. You are told. You are told via camera angles, and slow motion, and a long pan often from feet to face (tell me - do you think it's a coincidence that a woman's face, the place where most of her personhood lies, is often saved for last?) and you immediately understand that this woman is sexy. The camera tells you not just where to look but how to feel. And if you're a woman, what you should aspire to. 

This is what life does to us, I realized, and then we wonder why our interpersonal relationships with men are so fraught with intermittent bouts of push and pull, the origins of which are supposedly inexplicable. Is it though? Is it so inexplicable, when even casual conversations harbor conceal carry instances of patriarchy, from the lover who gently and cautiously asks whether you've ever considered going down on him "to completion" (translation: it would be great if you didn't stop until I finished), to the long term partner who thinks your desire for any potential children to share both your last names is "interesting". Conceptually. Of course. Although he isn't sure how practical it is. We experience these conversations in which we are so thoughtlessly undermined, so casually, so frequently, and yet the tensions we feel in even our most intimate relationships are labeled inexplicable? We accept these backhanded apologies à la I don't know why you're upset, but I'm sorry if I did something to upset you, or, I'm sorry that you feel that way, and there's a question about where the tension is coming from? What it's all about? How about - oh, I don't know - the not inability, but often unwillingness to step outside one's own experience in the relationships with the people you profess to love the most and check your privilege! 

We tell ourselves things like not all men. No. Not all men. There are different men out there, good men out there. We just have to be patient and find them. Oh, he made a sexist joke, or likes choking in the bedroom though he can't explain why, or watches too much porn? He must not be a good man, then, but don't worry, all you have to do is find a good one. 

This is where we get into trouble. 

So much of social change is dependent on calling out the daily wrongs that we have become desensitized to as a result of being immersed in the problematic culture from birth. And even if it isn't easy and we aren't always fully prepared for this, it is much easier to call out these wrongs when they are committed by strangers.

It is not easy for me, when someone walks by me and makes an overtly sexual comment, to muster the nerve to turn and say to them, "That's inappropriate." It would be easier to keep my head down and say nothing. But I can't. The commitment I made to gender equality, to justice, demands my participation, so even as my cheeks flush and my heart beats furiously and I steel myself for the backlash - and there's always backlash - I make myself speak up. It isn't easy. But I promised. 

It is not easy for me, when I'm at work and I go next door for a large apple cinnamon tea, and the man behind the counter says, "Be careful, it's hot. Hot like you," to look him square in the eyes and say, "That isn't nice to say. It's making me really uncomfortable." And to hold that gaze, not look away shyly as though I'm the one that should be embarrassed, until I receive the apology I'm owed. No, it isn't easy. But I make myself do it, because I promised. 

Promise is key, here, because I believe that I love you is a promise. A declaration not only of love itself but the things encapsulated by the ideals of love, such as care, loyalty, trust, and respect. 

Nothing that I feel when calling a stranger on a misogynist act compares to what happens inside me when I'm sitting at the dinner table and my father makes a misogynistic joke. None of that compares to what I feel when I'm out to dinner with a male friend and he lazily comments on the bodies of the women in the room as though they're part of the decor. Nothing compares to that moment in bed where I don't want to do something, or just don't feel like it right now, and I'm met with an exasperated sigh of obvious disappointment from the man who regularly tells me he loves me. These are the moments where it's tempting to say nothing, because I don't want to argue with my dad. I don't want to start a disagreement in public with a good friend. I don't want to fight with my lover in our bed. But the minute I say nothing I become tacitly complicit in my second-class citizenship and I just...I can't. And then I'm in that argument with my dad, or in that spat at the dinner table where the word feminist is being thrown in my face sarcastically, or in that cold war with my lover over his entitlement, and these conversations for those men may never be more than annoying or exhausting, whereas for me these are not surface wounds. These are deep, fractures from which, if I'm honest, I'll never really recover. Because in each of these it's as though that promise, the one made when you say to someone I love you, has been broken. It is so much easier to potentially make waves over misogynistic injury with a stranger, than to do it with someone who loves me. Someone that I love. Someone with whom I want to have a relationship. 

Just not one in which I'm subjugated. 

I'm less interested, now, in teaching women to ask for what they want in bed than I am in encouraging women to speak up. Not just on the internet. Not just in the middle of 5th avenue when that construction worker says that weird thing. Not just on your way out of the corner deli. These interactions are important, yes, but they're fleeting, and if misogyny were a plant, this would be the flowery part of the plant that lives above ground. The obvious part that everyone can see. The part that you can cut down all you want but it will probably grow back because you didn't pull it up by the roots

What I'm realizing more and more is that the roots of misogyny run deep into our intimate lives. There are misogynist roots adorning the dinner table at which the man dominates the entire conversation and the women at the table exchange knowing glances because they know that pointing our this tendency will only make him further aggressive - waiting out his monologue is best. There are misogynist roots adorning the bed posts in the bedroom in which a woman has expressed, numerous times, discomfort taking off her bra, but her partner, though fully aware of her discomfort, repeatedly asks her to. Every time they supposedly "make love". Because it turns him on, and what's the harm every now and then. These are the moments in which we need to speak up the most. The people we need to speak to are the men in our lives we're closest to. What does it matter if we volunteer to pull up misogynistic weeds at the community garden if they're happily thriving in our own backyards?  

It is very easy to walk around thinking that we're all "woke", and that someone else, in some other town, with some other political opinion, or what have you, is the problem. It is easy to assume that only men say and do misogynistic things, not women, or that only bad men do these things, so that if there is a good man in your life and he says or does something - even if it hurts you - it couldn't be that. He's just not like that. 

We need to get over this fraudulent idea that some people, by virtue of their political opinions or ownership of pink yarn, are automatically exempt and beyond examination. None of us is exempt - we all live in the world together and there is literally no place in the world, no region and no time period in which women are not/have not been subjugated. Frequent examination is the necessary stuff of deprogramming, the stuff of revolution, and justice demands that this be done without exception. 

We cannot make exceptions. Not for our fathers, or brothers, or best friends, or boyfriends, or husbands. Never. We must always challenge, even when it's hard. Even when it hurts. Because when it comes to the impact of sexism and misogyny, that pain is felt not only by women and girls but by men and boys throughout the world. 

All of us. Without exception.  


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