Sex, Lies, “Feminism”

February 13, 2011

(Note: dead links are rendered static strings of text!)

I read a piece today on Salon, How technology is really changing sex work: Prostitutes call foul on a recent report that Facebook is the “new Craigslist.” They give us the real scoop, and I followed a few links (here’s the Wired article: https://www.wired.com/2011/01/ff_sextrade/). I then wondered what Nightmare Brunette, who had a thought-provoking, beautifully-written, reflective post in Salon a while back, was thinking about this study, which apparently got seriously skewed in news reports (surprise, surprise).

So I went looking, and found Nightmare Brunette’s take on it [no longer there and not findable], which begins “What fresh hell is this?”

Reading her blog, I found that this isn’t the only brouhaha about sex and sex work going, and so I followed up on the recent swivet over an article in the Atlantic (supposedly) bashing pornography, particularly internet pornography. Nightmare Brunette’s comment is embedded in her take on another article by a guy who was using internet porn so much it was interfering with his ability to be sexually present with his girlfriend:

Another take on that article I mentioned, which has valid points amid its weirdly hypocritical (in the case of NVC, who just wrote a heavily criticized article in which she projected her own unpleasant personal sexual experience onto all men everywhere through all time) meanness. [The lost article linked to its sources/targets at nightmarebrunette.tumblr.com/post/3202462034/to-say-i-cant-keep-my-erection-when-my-penis-is. You can find an interview with her here]

Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s essay, “Hard Core” has apparently garnered widespread opprobrium, but the thing that’s really interesting in the Atlantic piece, to me, its central conceptual axis, is really this:

But the reactionary political correctness of the 1990s put forth a proposition even more disastrous to women than free love: sexual equality. With the rise of PC culture, the notion of men and women as sexual equals has found a home in the mainstream. Two generations of women, my own included, soared into the game with the justifiable expectations of not only earning the same wage as a guy, but also inhabiting the sexual arena the way a man does.
. . .
This is an intellectual swindle that leads women to misjudge male sexuality, which they do at their own emotional and physical peril.

A prof of mine, feminist and certainly not of the puritanical sex-hating variety, used to say that “free love” and “sexual liberation” meant that women didn’t get to say no anymore, without being called frigid or lesbian. Yet sexual equality, in terms of having one’s own desires and being able to act on them, doesn’t sound like a bad thing to me, nor does it sound like Vargas-Cooper lacks either desires or agency.

But a personal substratum of her critique of a kind of feminist utopianism comes a little later in the essay:

Never was this made plainer to me than during a one-night stand with a man I had actually known for quite a while. A polite, educated fellow with a beautiful Lower East Side apartment invited me to a perfunctory dinner right after his long-term girlfriend had left him. We quickly progressed to his bed, and things did not go well. He couldn’t stay aroused. Over the course of the tryst, I trotted out every parlor trick and sexual persona I knew. I was coquettish then submissive, vocal then silent, aggressive then downright commandeering; in a moment of exasperation, he asked if we could have anal sex. I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, “Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.” This was, perhaps, the greatest moment of sexual honesty I’ve ever experienced—and without hesitation, I complied. This encounter proves an unpleasant fact that does not fit the feminist script on sexuality: pleasure and displeasure wrap around each other like two snakes.

Throughout the essay one senses the often implicitly autobiographical in odd places, but the explicit paydirt is this: “men and women have conflicting sexual agendas.”

Surely this is not news to anybody (nor are men and women the only groups with “conflicting agendas”); as far as I can tell, from a lifetime of reading (and sex), most of the masterpieces (not to mention ordinary and awful pieces) of literature explore the fissure in and between desires, agendas, lovers, kin. That same prof of mine used to explain the carpe diem tradition,* generally voiced by a male poet to a woman who is the object of his lust/love, as “screw with me now while you’re young and beautiful, before you’re old and ugly and nobody wants you.” Garcilaso makes it sweet, with his “coged de vuestra alegre primavera / el dulce fruto, antes que el tiempo airado / cubra de nieve la hermosa cumbre” — “pluck of your happy spring / the sweet fruit, before raging time / covers with snow the beautiful peak,” but the underlying reality is brutally clear in Luis de Góngora’s sonnet CLXVI, which, after detailing the triumph of the woman’s body in competition with nature, ends

goza cuello, cabello, labio y frente,
antes que lo que fue en tu edad dorada
oro, lilio, clavel, cristal luciente,

no sólo en plata o vïola troncada
se vuelva, mas tú y ello juntamente
en tierra, en humo, en polvo, en sombra, en nada.
—-
take pleasure in your neck, hair, lips, and forehead
before what was in your golden youth
gold, lily, carnation, shining crystal,

turn not only into silver or violet cut short
but you and all that together turn
into earth, into smoke, into dust, into a shade, into nothing.

Vargas-Cooper isn’t all that condemnatory of internet porn, really, nor, apparently, a variety of sexual roles and acts, but of the disconnect between men and women, which she does blame on men, yes, but with the greatest bitterness, it seems to me, toward the “feminist” “intellectual swindle” that said that a “verbal contract” could fix the power disequilibrium and that men and women could be equal players in the game of sex/uality. Her piece is resolutely hetero, ’tis true, and I’m here to tell you that screwing other people, sexually and otherwise, isn’t confined to heterosexual pairs. Of course, there are multitudinous truths and positions and desires — and each of us can only speak from her own.

It’s not the physical act, nor the representation thereof on the internet or in film, nor even the intertwining of “pleasure and displeasure,” that are the problem for Vargas-Cooper, but a deeper emotional betrayal of the rest of life made worse by the feminist false hope of equality.

In fact, after declaring that men and women have different sexual agendas, she goes on to say that these conflicting agendas are made plain by internet porn, which is its real virtue:

Pornography, with its garish view of male sexual desire, bares an uncomfortable truth that the women’s-liberation movement has successfully suppressed: men and women have conflicting sexual agendas.

Pornography neatly resolves the contradictions—in favor of men. They fuck with impunity. Women never dream of staying. And if, God forbid, the women get pregnant, well, they can be used in pregnant pornos and then in an episode of Exploited Moms. What a marvelous means of delving into the heads of men. And for women peeping in on the Web, an important lesson—one that can’t be gleaned in a sex-ed class where condoms are placed over bananas, nor from poring over the umpteenth edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves—is that sex can be a bitter, crushing experience, no matter how much power you think you have.

That’s the navel of the dream, as Freud would say, or of the nightmare, the real hidden bedrock of this essay. It’s not sex, but its consequences for women and not men; it’s the fact that women want more or get pregnant, which, in the world of (internet) porn, just makes them a different kind of (pornographic) object. Which is not necessarily the experience of a woman in said situation. This isn’t just “weirdly hypocritical meanness” but out-and-out rage, perhaps deserved by some particular man, which is to say Vargas-Cooper does in fact wildly overgeneralize — though not from the date-gone-wrong that ended with the sexual honesty of wanting to make her uncomfortable. And I have to ask about that particular moment in the essay, reading beyond the frame, if the expressed seeking of discomfort was a superficial truth, standing for the desire to make Vargas-Cooper reveal herself, rather than running through (pornographic) roles trying to get her date off. In this, Nightmare Brunette’s words apropos of the article “He’s Just Not That Into It Any More,” resonate:

There will always be men and women who are resolutely themselves and demand a partner who is the same. I hope we all remember that when we are on the verge of succumbing to porn paranoia.

Though more or less direct and clear on the surface i.e. in its syntax, Vargas-Cooper’s article is baroque, in its way — indirect, ambivalent, overdetermined, deeply condensed (in the Freudian sense), intellectual(ized), allusive, disillusioned. I mean “baroque” as a stylistic and a historical concept: in 15th- through 17th-century Spanish literature, both a pornographic power struggle (in Carajicomedia) and an escalating series of male monologues of desire followed by a woman’s contestation (representative classic texts in the Renaissance and Baroque carpe diem tradition),** testify to analogous “conflicting sexual agendas.” Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz responds to Góngora’s sonnet (above) in a sonnet of her own demystifying her portrait and its implicit (sexual) praise:

Procura desmentir los elogios
que a un retrato de la Poetisa inscribió la verdad,
que llama pasión

Este, que ves, engaño colorido,
que del arte ostentando los primores,
con falsos silogismos de colores
es cauteloso engaño del sentido;

éste, en quien la lisonja ha pretendido
excusar de los años los horrores,
y venciendo del tiempo los rigores,
triunfar de la vejez y del olvido,

es un vano artificio del cuidado,
es una flor al viento delicada,
es un resguardo inútil para el hado;

es una necia diligencia errada,
es un afán caduco y, bien mirado,
es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada.

The Poet manages to demystify the praise that truth (called passion) inscribed on her portrait

This painted deceit, as you see,
that shows off its refined art,
with false syllogisms of colors
is a wily deception of the senses;

this, for whom praise has tried
to excuse the horrors of the years,
overcoming the rigors of time’s passing
to triumph over old age and oblivion,

is a vain artifice of caring,
is a delicate flower in the wind,
is a useless safeguard against fate,

is a foolish and erring caution,
is a failed effort, and, looked at rightly,
it is a corpse, is dust, a shade, is nothing.

Vargas-Cooper’s final sentences reinforce the non-physical as key in sexuality for women, at least for her, and show that her essay isn’t about internet porn, really, or even sexual acts per se, but about the sometime consequences in life-after-sex, and the illusions promulgated by “feminism” that love is free and that men and women can be the same sexually (clearly the first problematic supposedly-clear-cut dichotomy is that one: “men” and “women” in hetero “opposition”):

The most frightening truths about sex rarely exist in the physical, but instead live in the intangible yet indelible wounds created in the psyche. Go try to find that on the Internet.

You will, however, find those not-porn truths in literature, on the internet as well as in the vast majority of our cultural heritages — there’s a reason they’re “classics.” In fact, take a look at another of Sor Juana’s poems, “Stupid men, who accuse [women]” at http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/24888-Sor-Juana-Ines-de-la-Cruz-You-Men, to see her take on the hypocritical puritanism of (some) 17th century men.

Make fun of lit crit all you’d like, think of writing as somehow frivolous, call for more and more “education” meaning only math and science, but you’ll never find in all that math and science anything to tell you what it means to be human, where we’ve already been and how to avoid repeating those disasters or to cultivate the good, and, in the long run, why to bother — which you will find in literature. Natasha Vargas-Cooper, may I suggest Celestina, a late-15th-century tale of lust, betrayal, and death?*** There you’ll find some of the shared roots of your despair in the struggle over sex.

All the more reason to keep reading, and writing.
__________
* Garcilaso de la Vega, “En tanto que de rosa y de azucena;” Luis de Góngora, “Mientras que por competir con tu cabello;” and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Este que ves engaño colorido.” Translations are mine.
** 15th c. is Late Medieval, though there is a strongly baroque esthetic in poetry; 16th and 17th c. literature and culture are called “Golden Age” for their rich and flourishing cultural production. The Spanish Baroque era is generally considered to be primarily the 17th c.
***The wikipedia article links to a translation (incomplete) in the “External References;” there is also a bilingual edition of Celestina published by Aris & Philips, which includes the 17th-century translation of James Mabbe, edited by Dorothy Severin; there is also a new edition here.

1.vi.12
Just a Note on “Hating” Sex
Well, it turns out that Cardinal Timothy Dolan, when archbishop of Milwaukee’s diocese, paid priests accused of sexual predation so that they wouldn’t oppose the defrocking process, as the posts to which I refer below suggest. I’m not sure that he was really rewarding them, rather than trying to simplifying getting the accused out of the priesthood and away from a steady supply of young men (and making it someone else’s problem), but it does amount to the same thing, in some ways. The current extraordinarily reactionary public position of the Mother Church toward sexual expression, expression which many of its priests have never managed to deny, is historically consistent with missing the very same boat in the 15th century on the same issue (clerical celibacy) — which backfired magnificently, I might add (as the Reformation). All of which makes this comment on the Religion Dispatches posting blackly entertaining: “So it’s safe to say the only recreational, non-procreative sex which is officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church is between a priest and an underage boy.”

But aren’t we glad that the very same Church is with it enough to declare St. Isidore of Seville the patron saint of the internet, computers, computer users, and computer technicians!

7.xii.12
And now, the Pope is tweeting as @pontifex. wtf?

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