Saturday, April 23, 2011

On Women's Desire

Amanda has written a fascinating post on women's desire. That she wrote it in the context of one of those link-bait* stories at Femail, The UK Daily Mail's we-hate-women section, is irritating because part of me wants so badly to rip that original article apart.

It is so alluringly easy to do, so attractively placed, just lying there exposed and helpless, yet so obviously link-bait. So watch me restrain myself against one fervent desire! (Though you might be able to talk me into that rampage later...)

What I wish to write about now is women's sexual desire. My focus will be on heterosexual desire because I am a heterosexual goddess, but I hope that others can tell me more about lesbian women's desires. We are going to build a map of female sexual desire here! Yes we are. And that can include no desire, too. I suspect that the map will be complicated and if you want to add "here be dragons" do so.

But for the purposes of this post the term "desire" will be limited to its narrowest definition: To desire another person sexually. Do women desire? And what does that desire consist of?

As Amanda points out, women are not quite allowed to actively desire, not men, in any case:
Anyway, I think this whole situation shines more light on Figleaf's famous two rules of desire in a patriarchal system:
1.It is simultaneously inconceivable and intolerable for a woman to have sexual desire.
2.It is simultaneously inconceivable and intolerable for a man to be sexually desired.
His theory is---and I agree---that the reason this has cropped up is because being desired is cast as "feminine" in our culture, and men are taught to run from anything feminine.  But being desired is such a fundamental human feeling that I've often wondered how you really trick men into it.  (And you really don't with many men, who are going to keep grooming and wearing clothes that look good no matter how often you fling homophobic slurs at them for doing so.)  And I think it may be this.  If women are free from desire, straight men are free to see women as consumable goods for purchase.  What name you call them---wife, prostitute---depends mainly on the price.  Such a system means you're never really rejected.  That peanut butter at the store doesn't look at you and say, "Nah."  You either can afford it or you can't.  Reducing women to that is comforting, I suppose.

These are the reasons why women's desire may be stealthy, unnoticed, not labeled as desire, why we might look for other terms to cover it, to shroud it and to push it back into the subconsciousness. Yet what was the teenage girls' response to the Beatles in the 1960s if not desire, and mostly sexual? That many observers failed to see it as desire, registered astonishment at the "inexplicable" behavior of these young girls and women, tells us much about the way the society looks elsewhere when it comes to women's sexuality.

To look at our own sexual desires can be difficult. It is so easy to adjust the task I give here, to replace it with thoughts about what one might want to have done to oneself in sex or with other thoughts which turn us away from active desire, the "female gaze" if you will. It is hard to focus on woman-the-active-participant, rather than on woman-the-passive-object, because it is the latter role we learn to play so well.

Or perhaps not. I cannot speak for all women, not even for all heterosexual women, and that is why we need to make the map. I'm going to begin by quoting snippets from my writing, things which may or may have ended as parts of whole stories. The first snippet:
I first saw him silhouetted against the setting sun, walking down a path from the forest, dressed in faded jeans and a ripped T-shirt. He was lanky, with narrow hips, inscrutable hooded eyes and lips made for kissing. His feet were bare. They touched the earth on each step like a lover. Then he stopped and saw me.

A royal deer suddenly freezing because of a sudden sound in the forest, turning its antlered head towards the sound, beauty and power ready to flee. A golden god come down from Olympus. He made the air around him radiate with desire.

He accepted the wine bottle I offered him and drank from its mouth. I watched him drink, the wine beading on his lips, and I wanted him so that my body hurt.
This snippet was part of a longer piece which I cannot find, but all of it was my attempt to write about desire, to acknowledge it.

Here is a different approach to the question of desire:

Eloise has trouble with joy.
"Come", Alan says, "comecomecomeCOME!", and thrusts deep into her. But she can't, she wont. She has to remember, someone has to remember: who will pay the bills, iron the shirts, see that he orgasms, buy the funeral plots, learn foreign languages. Eloise is full of lists, her body blocked by all the shoulds and should-nots, her lust a feeble throb deep inside her bones.

Alan rolls off her, their skins separating with a wet smack. But mostly it is his sweat. She pulls the sheet over her nakedness, listening to his breathing slowing down, turning into snores, and she closes her own eyes. Her body is aching, her shoulders frozen and her hips like creaky gates. Her lust has compacted, nested back, grown another layer of skin that wont be pierced.

Eloise thinks of her chores for tomorrow: the joyless business of making a living, the endless repetitions of housework, the conversations without meaning. Her hands worry the sheet; she wants joy, joy to come back.

This is the beginning of a short story about depression. Elaine hears Voices, and finally she runs away to New York City to escape them and begins to live again, bit by bit:
The sun is bright outside, spring is in the air. Eloise finds an outdoor cafe, sits down and orders a double cappuccino with whipped cream. The painkillers are beginning to work and she feels anesthetized, weightless. Locals walk by, grumpy and stressed, and tourists wander around aimlessly. Street hawkers are setting up their wares and the first discarded food wrappers blow down the street in the breeze.

Eloise tries to think of the street as the tip of the nose belonging to an old man sitting somewhere in Europe. Is all the traffic tickling him? Do the people look like ants to him, ants hurrying to and fro for some infathomable reason? Her cappuccino arrives and she licks off the whipped cream first. The third challenge: to open oneself to the risks of feeling joy or not.

Eloise doesn't think that she feels anything much. But she is keeping the usual voices quiet, barring them with her magical sword from the spaces of her mind. She orders a croissant to go with the cappuccino and settles down to watching men.

The voices don't like that. Watching men is sinful, women don't do that, good women don't do that. Eloise raises her sword high above the voices and slashes down. Temporary silence ensues.

Men's hips are fascinating, the way they move. Eloise studies the bottoms of young men strolling by, she studies the skins on their arms in all the different shades of earth, she studies their eyes, dreaming, worried, alert, hooded. She wonders what the men would be like in bed, what it would feel like to kiss those lips or those. The voices rise again with warnings of violence, of disease, but the voices are faint for Eloise is just watching, just listening to the gentle stirrings of lust in her body.

It is your turn now. The discussion is not limited to just women, by the way, but I would like to see it kept on the topic of women's desire.
*Meaning a poorly argued and poorly researched story with the sole intention of getting people outraged enough to disperse it widely. Lots of clicks means lots of advertising income and, sadly, more link-bait stories for the future.