Friday, May 22, 2015

Rolling In It

by Jean Roberta

I recently reviewed a scholarly book, The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830, by Susan Lanser. As the author shows, “woman + woman” (primary relationships between women) were described during the period under discussion as 1) impossible (especially if they included any activity that could be called “sex”), 2) new and “modern,” despite the general belief that the poet Sappho, from the Island of Lesbos (circa 600 BC) was the original foremother, and 3) a dangerous epidemic that could destroy civilization. This book includes evidence of “the sapphic imaginary,” including much speculation by anxious conservatives about the debauched practises of women who supposedly had too much freedom.

There needs to be a book about the “slut imaginary,” and maybe there is. At various times in my life, most of the people closest to me have accused me of “wanting it all the time,” and even of doing it all the time, presumably with no breaks for eating or sleeping, let alone earning money by holding down a non-sexual job. According to some men (e.g. my late ex-husband), too many women are Biblical demons who have no other function except to tempt men to spill their seed.

Accusations of sluttery are often motivated by political bias other than contempt for women in general. Queen Jezebel in the Old Testament wasn’t necessarily an adulteress or a nymphomaniac. According to the story, she was the foreign wife of a Hebrew king named Ahab, and she brought the worship of “false gods” to her husband’s people. In the centuries since her story was first written down, it has been assumed that such a “pagan” woman would be a slut. Most visual images of her focus on her lush, sinful curves.

Skip ahead to the late 1700s, when Queen Marie Antoinette of France was still known to her enemies as “the Austrian woman,” a foreign invader who married the dauphin of France when she was a teenager. On the eve of revolution, written stories about her “furious womb” (uncontrollable need for sex) circulated widely.

Note that King Charles II, who ruled England from 1660 to 1685, was a famous “libertine.” Historians estimate that he fathered between 12 and 19 children outside of marriage. (He had a wife, but she couldn’t carry a pregnancy to term.) Apparently no one suggested that he was unfit to rule because of his prolific sex life. At the time, more of his Protestant subjects seemed shocked by rumours that the king was a closeted Catholic!

When I was still fairly young and horny, I learned from experience that no one can really do it “all the time.” (I’ve also been accused of writing “all the time” as well as reading “all the time.” If there are only 24 hours in a day, how can time be multiplied?) Males, in particular, have a disadvantage if they want to do it “all the time.” Most guys, no matter how healthy and full of juice, need some reloading time after ejaculating before they can fire again. Girls/women are capable of multiple orgasms, but not for hours at a stretch. Human energy is limited.

The general Western (Christian?) fear of “excessive” sex really seems like fear of the impossible, much like a medieval fear of having one’s crops or general well-being destroyed by a witch’s curse. Nonetheless, I’m sure I wasn’t the only girl whose parents recommended “therapy” of some kind (medical or psychiatric) to eliminate those inappropriate feelings. The only alternative to being a “fallen woman” who presumably wanted it all the time was to be a “nice girl” who was supposed to do it only with her husband, but not to like it.

The flip side of traditional fear and dread of uncontrolled lust (especially in women) is desire for unlimited pleasure. My earliest “porn” stories (as I thought of them) were about some other country – it might have to be on some other planet – where my sexual ability would be admired, not sneered at or punished. I could have high rank (i.e. be an earthier kind of Disney princess), be initiated into sex in some public ceremony, and not lose any status because of it. Au contraire; my “people” would love my sexual generosity.

The surrealistic plots of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novels, Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872) seem like reactions to the Victorian social order, and even though they don’t include any mention of sex, they do include a surprisingly assertive young heroine. In my fantasy story, “Becoming Alice,” she accelerates through puberty by drinking a magic potion (one of the bottles labelled “Drink Me”), and then makes her debut, her presentation to the King and Queen, in a sexual sense. In Wonderland, this is all as it should be. (This story appears in my single-author collection, The Princess and the Outlaw, and in The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 13.)

For a brief time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I thought a Sexual Revolution might really be on its way, and it would liberate people in general from undeserved guilt and shame. That revolution never arrived, and I probably won’t see it in my lifetime, which is probably more than halfway over.

In the meanwhile, I can only imagine a world in which sex would never be considered a problem unless 1) it was forced on someone who didn’t or couldn’t give meaningful consent, or 2) it resulted in unwanted consequences (pregnancy, disease), or 3) it interfered with other aspects of life (eating, sleeping, working). Otherwise, an “oversexed” person could be considered an “overachiever,” someone who accomplishes more than the rest of us.

8 comments:

  1. We must be of similar age, Jean. I also remember the idealism of the times.
    But we didn't realize that although our attitudes were what defines those years, it really did encompass just a slim slice of our generation. After all, it's our peers who now wield power as bible-toting evangelists. Tea partiers are taking out their frustrations on hated systems which were set up in the Roosevelt-through-Carter years. And the pendulum swings.

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  2. True enough, the sexual revolutionaries were never a whole generation, but as time revealed, even the "radicals" of the 60s and 70s didn't all support the same platform. Second Wave Feminism arose largely from the disappointments of the young women of the counterculture who supported guys their own age in their rebellion against the worst aspects of a traditional male role (the draft that forced them to risk their lives in an unjust war and the expectation that they would become slaves to corporations to support wives & children). In most cases, the guys didn't support women's demands for equal job opportunities or a single standard of sexual morality or equal responsibility for children and housework. Many white "radicals" never really understood or challenged racism, and many of the offspring of middle-class parents didn't understand the systemic roots of poverty. I think the radicalism of the 1930s went deeper, but as you say, that's exactly what the right wing (incl the Tea Party) has been trying to root out ever since.

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    1. I have access to lots of old LIFE magazines that go back to the thirties. I't amazing that the articles about communism and other leftish thrusts are fairly (compared to the later venom of the fifties) objective in their approach, although definitely not totally on board. Of course, many of the Roosevelt reforms leaned sharply to the left. That's why the late 40's, the 50's and 60's worked so efficiently to create a large and influential middle class. Those reforms have been systematically chipped, chipped, chipped away by neo-conservative ideas, and presto! The middle class is pretty much drying up.

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  3. Your title "Rolling In It" made me think, of course, of the old saying "rolling in money," which is often said enviously, with a dollop of admiration and just a touch of criticism. In our current culture, "Rolling in Sex" would have the same connotations for men, but for women the envy would be well-hidden, the admiration almost non-existent, and the criticism vitriolic.

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  4. It seems sexism is rampant in the Republican party - those guys don't want anyone - especially women - to enjoy sex. Women enjoying sex? They must be whores! 'Nuff to make you sick.

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  5. "The general Western (Christian?) fear of “excessive” sex really seems like fear of the impossible"

    I love this piece in general, Jean, and need to go look for that book you reviewed. The thing I quoted particularly struck me. It's helped me a lot to relax about my supposedly out of control appetites. Ironically, in my experience, struggling against them inflames them more anyway. I really don't think it's common for people to sink uncontrollably into the abyss, but I know you know the erotic narratives I'm talking about, and they were drummed into my head so much that it took a long time for me to see there might be another way.

    I love your utopian visions. The idea of oversexed as equivalent to overachieving is so subversive and beautiful.

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  6. Thank you, Sacchi, JP, and Annabeth!

    I've heard of male professional athletes who brag about the number of women they've boffed, assuming that more is better. I don't know of any culture in which women would be admired for making similar claims.

    I supposed that's part of the reason we write: to describe things we haven't seen in the real world.

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  7. From now on, Jean, I'm going to tell everyone I am a sexual overachiever!

    Great post!

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