You Don’t Speak For Me

This morning I was listening to NPR as I’m wont to do, and an interview with Erica Jong, the author of Fear Of Flying came on. I’d never heard of her before, but they touted her as a feminist figure: she wrote for the first time about female pleasure and about the idea that women might actually enjoy sex. But oh my did the interview fall short of what I was hoping. It encapsulated so many of the ideas that previous waves of feminism are still stuck on, and often that the media is still stuck on. It reflected a wide variety of the problems I see in the way that older people tend to show in the way they approach young people and young people’s sexualities. And I am sick of hearing these same complaints over and over.

So first and foremost, my frustrations came to the fore when Erica Jong came out and simply said “Women want sex. Women enjoy sex.” There is a lot to unpack with this statement, and to my mind it reflects sloppy thinking and sloppy speech. Now first of all there’s a lot of gender binary crap in here that I’m not even going to go into because it’s mainstream media and I don’t expect any better. But what I do have a serious problem with is how Erica Jong apparently speaks for the experiences of all women. T

his statement would have been perfectly fine if she had said “some women” or even “most woman” or “many women”. Because yes, it’s true that women are perfectly capable of wanting and enjoying sex, but perpetuating the idea that all people want sex or they’re in some form not right? That’s uncool. Extremely uncool. I’m sick of sex being held up as always super awesome and great and peachy. Yes, sometimes it is. Yes for some people it is. But it creates a horrifically unhealthy attitude of “everyone should want this all the time!” when we don’t recognize that sometimes sex sucks and some people don’t like it much and some people are ambivalent. When someone writes about sex for a national audience, I expect them to have the nuance to understand that not everyone likes sex. Erica Jong does not speak for my experience, and I wish she wouldn’t presume to.

So now that Jong has decided that she knows what every woman likes she moves on to hook up culture. Her first comment is that she doesn’t actually think that sex with strangers is very enjoyable (bully for her!) and so hookup culture must be empty and depressing and women aren’t getting pleasure (also because Girls said so). This is one of my hugest pet peeves in the world: everyone who has not been a part of hookup culture really just needs to SHUT THE FUCK UP about hookup culture. I don’t know if hookup culture is good for people or not because I’ve never been a part of it. But until someone tells me that it makes them feel miserable, I’m not going to presume that it does simply because I wouldn’t enjoy it. Apparently Jong has not managed to understand the fact that different people like different things. In addition, I hardly find it acceptable to judge whether or not women in hookup culture are getting appropriate amounts of pleasure because let’s be honest here, women in committed relationships don’t always get what they want either. In fact VERY often they don’t.

So after that judgmental gem, Jung continues on to talk about men’s reactions to her book, and she quotes one man as saying “If I see that book on a woman’s nightstand I know I’m getting lucky.” Um…creepy rapey what??? Just because a woman likes sex or perhaps just likes reading a sex doesn’t mean she wants to have sex with YOU, and the presumption that she does is part of what makes sex for women really sucky a great deal of the time. How does Jung get off judging hookup culture as uninterested in women’s pleasure and then spout of something like this and giggle like it was a great service she had enacted for the public?

I’m surprised that someone who touts herself as feminist, someone who says she’s all about the pleasure of women, who doesn’t like to see sex that’s all about the man’s pleasure, would be so naive as to think she can speak for the experiences of every woman (oh I forgot, because you’re Experienced that means you know what the rest of us really want and feel), and that she thinks how well you know a person dictates whether they respect you or are interested in a woman’s pleasure. Let’s be honest: there are men who are asshats in hookup culture and men who are asshats out of it, women who are satisfied with their sex life in hookup culture and women who are satisfied out of it. The particular mode of sex doesn’t really have a lot to do with the larger cultural milieu that says women’s pleasure is only useful so far as it makes a man feel manly because that crosses all kinds of sex.

And then to top it all off, she decides to bring up 50 Shades of Grey. First of all the host of the show called the book an S+M book, which is blatantly false, it’s simply an abusive relationship book. Second, Jung proceeds to say that S+M is inherently bad because if a woman allows herself to be tied up she is the victim and is not taking responsibility for her sexual choices. I don’t know that I can express how many things are wrong with this, and once again, it’s someone speaking for a whole gamut of experiences without any real knowledge about those experiences. First of all, BDSM encompasses a great deal more than simply being tied up. That’s an extremely limited critique and doesn’t really hit at most of BDSM. Second of all, it’s not always a woman who is a sub (duh). And finally (and most importantly), BDSM should always be engaged in with the consent of both parties, with clear communication about what both parties want, and with a safe word so that both parties are responsible for when the scene begins and ends, and know what’s appropriate and desired in the scene. For the most part, people in BDSM sexual relationships actually talk more about what happens in their sex life and thus seem to take on more responsibility for their sexual choices than anyone else.

Now Jung’s description of a good fuck included lots of clothes falling off and “souls meeting through tongues” but I didn’t hear any mention of consent or talking to each other or checking in or anything else that might be good practice in a sexual environment, so apparently she thinks that people just tie each other up without talking about it, but this illustrates once again why it’s a very good idea not to comment on things that you don’t know about.

I’m so so sick of hearing people spout of these piles of crap. You can be respected by your longtime partner or by the person you just met, or you can be disrespected by any of those people, just like you can in any other context besides sex in the world. This may sound like I’m just really angry at one person, but I have heard all of these sentences from other people, from other feminists, all over the media, from family members, from friends. These things are not helpful. They are not teaching young people how to respect themselves better, they are not giving some deep insight into the feelings of young women. They are continuing a culture that demands women all feel and act a certain way, that eliminates choice, and that shames people who deviate by telling them that they’re hurting themselves. Please stop. Young women are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. We really don’t need anyone else butting in.

Immortality and the Female Body

Feminists spend a lot of time thinking about female bodies, the ideal female body, and how society constructs and approaches that body. However there is one element of the ideal female body that seems to be somewhat neglected, and that is the fact that it is often treated as a body that should be immortal. It’s common to hear that the female body should be without blemishes, but this goes beyond things that people simply find unattractive, and moves into the realm of a body that does not show that it could be injured or die. As a clear example, on a man, a scar is considered sexy, whereas women are expected to cover scars. We can see this in a variety of media, for example Bend it Like Beckham, in which Jess feels deeply ashamed of the scars on her legs, or many episodes of Say Yes to the Dress in which women with scars find the process of finding a wedding dress difficult and upsetting.


How else do we see the ideal female body constructed as something that should be immortal and outside the realm of the animal? A phenomenon that has been largely documented is the fear and disgust aimed towards women’s bodies as they age. The plethora of products and procedures aimed at keeping women looking young is overwhelming, and illustrates that something is driving us to prioritize female youth. The older we get, the closer we appear to be to death and the more fear we elicit. Another illustration of this is that women with cuts, bruises, or other injuries are often viewed as disgusting or embarrassing. As an individual with prominent cuts, I have become highly aware of the judgmental looks I get for having a body which is not smooth and unblemished. When a boy shows up with a broken leg he gets “boys will be boys”. Girls get looks of pity. Finally, female bodies are expected not to show any signs of being truly animal: women are supposed to hide that they pee, poo, fart, belch, sneeze, vomit, or do anything else that’s a sign they might do basic animal things like have a digestive tract or get sick. If you think that women aren’t policed on these fronts, watch a women the next time she belches in public and you’ll see what I mean.


But why is it that women are policed in all of these ways that signal mortality? What is it about women’s bodies in particular that make us anxious about our own death? While men are subject to some of these same stigmas, they are much more active when applied to women: why? All I can provide is a few theories as to why this might be.


In much feminist theory, people posit that women’s bodies are considered closer to nature. Male/female is often mapped onto other dichotomies such as culture/nature, rational/emotional, and good/bad. Some people posit that the fact that women give birth reminds others of the fact that we are born and thus we will die, and because of that it elicits anxiety over our animal nature. In previous posts, I’ve discussed how we often feel disgust towards things that remind us that we are animal and mortal. Taken together these two theories could give some insight into the idea that women’s bodies are viewed as disgusting unless they are heavily policed. If women’s bodies are a constant reminder that we are animals, whereas men’s are viewed as inherently more cultured, it makes sense that culture would try to “fix” women’s bodies by pulling them further and further from signs of mortality.


In addition, men are often viewed more as autonomous beings than females are. Women are viewed in relation to men: as wives or mothers, as daughters, or simply as vessels or objects. Because women are often viewed as a man’s other half or as a man’s property, the knowledge that a woman is fallible may reflect back to a man that he also is fallible.


The framework of mortality may be a useful way to bring together a number of the ways that women are policed, particularly women’s bodies, and it may be a useful front on which to challenge some of the inappropriate expectations of women. If anyone has further research on this topic or wants to flesh out some of these ideas, I would love more insight.

On Feeling Past My Prime

This morning I was reading an article about how age affects women more harshly than it affects men because of societal expectations of a woman’s “prime”. It’s interesting, because I never think about my age in terms of when I’ll be past my prime, or when I’ll stop being able to have babies, or when I’ll not be able to get a man anymore. Those things are not in the least bit important to me. The concept that at some point I will stop being relevant or sexy or loved or wanted because I’m old seems like the stupidest thing ever and I just don’t think about it.


But still, as a 22 year old, I often feel past my prime. I feel like I have lost the opportunities that I had and squandered what potential people told me was there. I’m certain I’m not the only one who feels like this, because I’ve been told by others that they feel like they’re behind or they’ve missed out or they haven’t done enough and they’ll never be perfect enough to achieve their dreams.


This cuts across genders, although I’ve personally seen it more in females. What has this generation been told that they somehow feel if they haven’t won a Nobel Prize by the time they get out of college then they’re useless? Because that’s the overwhelming sense I get from my friends and peers: no matter what I accomplish it will never be enough and I should have done it sooner anyway because I was supposed to be a prodigy.


Let’s try to put this into perspective through a few choice anecdotes. I have a friend who’s brilliant. She retains facts like nobody’s business and will excitedly tell you EVERYTHING about her subject of choice. She knows what she likes and is passionate about it. She’s on her way to getting a degree in that subject, and ready for grad schools following. And yet. And yet. She hasn’t gotten straight As. She’s in a difficult program and sometimes she struggles. She has a hard time balancing school and friends and family and mental health. Just like any other normal human being on this planet, she isn’t perfect. And whenever these things face her, I can see her melt. It’s the saddest thing in the world. I can see the voices talking to her and telling her that despite her plans and her dreams, and the fact that she is ON TRACK to live out those dreams, she’s useless and she hasn’t accomplished anything.


I have another friend who graduated from a small liberal arts college with good grades, played in the orchestra, held a job the whole time, is fit and talented and intelligent, got a well-paying job out of college, and now feels that his life is going nowhere. He didn’t get an engineering job straight out of school and isn’t sure what he wants to do in grad school. And so his degree suddenly becomes useless, his grades suddenly aren’t good enough, and nothing he does is worth anything. Even though he spends his time doing things like building cars and making a bike for his girlfriend, and doing things that he clearly loves, he feels his life is not good enough and HE is not good enough because there is some unspoken expectation of greatness for him.


And finally (not to brag, but to illustrate that I know what I’m talking about): I graduated in 3 years from a small liberal arts school after being admitted to every school I applied to. I graduated magna cum laude with honors in both of my departments (I was a double major). I held multiple jobs all three years and participated in a wide variety of extracurriculars. I now have a job, and I’m biding my time trying to decide what to do next. But when I think about where I am in life, I feel as though I have already wasted the best years of my life. In high school, I was told so often that I was smart, that I would do great things, that I would accomplish. I didn’t do that in college. I didn’t get published in major journals, I was never recognized for any sort of brilliance. I didn’t come to any great discoveries. I was just a regular student who got through. I’m not working at an amazing job, thinking Big Thoughts or moving towards a Bright Future. I don’t know what I want to do in grad school, and when I think about it I’m fairly certain that when I go, I won’t be held up as the best of the best. I’ll probably do well, but I won’t be richly rewarded. I’m trying to do what I love through writing and editing, but a piece of me still holds on to the dream that someday a publisher will stumble upon my writing and hand me a contract and I’ll suddenly be the next J.K. Rowling.


Now I know that in each of these examples, none of us are brilliant shining stars. None of us are about to cure cancer or write the next great American novel. But each of us are doing pretty well for ourselves. We’re smart, we’re relatively accomplished, we haven’t screwed up majorly in any way, and we’re all kind of following the appropriate path for our age group: going to college and then kind of trying to figure things out for a while. For those of us who are out of college, we’ve got steady jobs that allow us the freedom to figure out what we want to do in the future.


So why is it that we’re all convinced we’ve failed? Why is it that we feel we have not lived up to expectations, or that we could have been so much more? Why is it that in my mind when people told me “you have a lot of potential” I heard “if you don’t achieve fame and success by the end of college you suck”? Why is it that for all of my generation I get the feeling that we expected ourselves to be child prodigies who would excel at something from the time of birth and blow past every other person in that field by the time we were 18?


I can’t answer these questions entirely on my own. I don’t have sociological research to back any of this up, but I do have suggestions and possibilities. When I was young, I was told over and over of my own potential. I grew up in an era when telling a kid they could do anything was the norm. Dreaming big was expected and encouraged. I was told that if I work hard, I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to. Now I have no problem with parents encouraging their kids to dream, but telling me over and over that I can accomplish anything is simply a lie. Things are out of our hands sometimes, and wishing and trying and working doesn’t change that. I was propped up all my life: told by teachers that I was so smart, told by parents that I was special and amazing. I don’t regret for a second the support that I had from these people, but I wish that I had a piece of reality thrown in there: that as talented as I am, as smart as I am, as loved and supported as I am, things will still not always go my way.


I think of Dr Seuss’ book The Places You’ll Go. For a kids’ book this fucker is remarkably insightful. Because despite being full of support and love and excitement, it acknowledges that even someone as brainsy and footsy as you can get in trouble sometimes. I don’t feel like I had that. Somewhere along the way, my generation go the message that we could control our futures if we just worked hard enough and did things right enough. Which means that if things didn’t go our way, we must have done something wrong. We must have failed.


I see this in the way that we talk about college (always about getting into a top school, not getting into a school you like), the way we talk about jobs (how much are you making out of college), the way we talk about degrees (how many things did you major in? what’s your GPA? How many jobs did you have?), the way we talk about grad school (can you get funding for it? How much more will it make you?)…we don’t ask people questions like “are you enjoying yourself? Do you have good friends? Are you doing something you love?” So despite the fact that I spent 3 years studying something that I find absolutely fascinating, I’m a failure because I have not gone on to start a Ph.D at Berkeley, or because I have not published, or because I have not…xyz.


I wish we could stop feeling like we’ve failed. I wish we could change the dialogue from “what are you accomplishing” to “what are you enjoying”. I wish we could stop feeling we need to be the best. If I have any hope for the next generation, it’s that they’re empowered to know they have opportunities and abilities unlike anyone else in the world, but that they also learn to accept. Change always comes first from acceptance.