Thursday, December 18, 2008

Our Most Naked Selves

Gustav Klimt's Danae, posted on Flickr by freeparking, used under a Creative Commons license.

A couple of weeks ago, Cosmo got piled on - deservedly, in my opinion - for a headline on the cover of its December issue that reads "Your Orgasm Face: What He's Thinking When He Sees It." I haven't read the article. I'm loathe to buy the magazine. I was even more loathe to read it while waiting to pay at the supermarket while my little Bear (age 9) reads over my shoulder. So I'll rely on the précis of it from a long discussion thread on it at Open Salon, where someone who actually had seen the article weighed in and noted that it was relatively benign, apparently intended to reassure women that men like their O-face.

That still didn't make the cover okay! Isn't it just typical of Cosmo that whatever the article's content, its headline fans women's insecurities?! I mean, we all know that the lure to buy the magazine isn't desire; it's fear of what our partner might be thinking. And if the article is eventually reassuring, well, then it's responding to a need that the cover headline helped create in the first place.

On one level, of course, Cosmo is tapping into the way women's pleasure is viewed more generally in our culture: as something to be performed for a male partner's benefit and not just enjoyed authentically in its own right. This is only the latest salvo in the objectification and commodification of women's bodies and pleasure. It totally deserves the snark it got from commenter CrossWord at Jezebel:
Please. He is waaaay to busy being grossed out by your pubic hair/shape of your labia to notice your O face.
Heh. If he's got a kebab fixation, he doesn't deserve to notice anything else.

All snark aside, I also think there's a vulnerability in orgasm that's not entirely reducible to social conditioning. And this, I think, is far more interesting than Cosmo's foolishness. Now that I've got that mini-rant out of my system, I'd like to ponder this vulnerability from a more philosophical angle.

For me, at least, there's an element of trust and intimacy in letting a man see me at that moment, naked in every sense, which I hope would be appreciated, enjoyed, and never treated casually or with contempt. Thankfully, I've never been teased about it; I've never felt judged. Appallingly, several of the commenters at Jezebel mention exes who actually did give them a hard time. The right retort to that comes from their fellow Jezzie commenter Swashbuckling: "If a guy can't deal with an orgasm face, he's well within his rights to give up sex." Indeed.

However, in my chequered past I have experienced partners who did a quick disappearing act, which felt too much like disrespect for my vulnerability (and perhaps for their own). In one case, the guy's retreat was literal and almost instantaneous, as he leapt off of me, into his trousers, and out the door. Other times, the guy conspicuously avoided me once everyone's clothes were on again. Either way, I found it hurtful and bewildering. Note that these were situations involving friends where I wasn't pressing for any deeper involvement. I assume that their reactions had more to do with a general fear of intimacy or unresolved inner conflicts about their own boundaries, but that's all conjecture since, after all, they didn't stick around to explain.

Nonetheless. Even in a supposedly low-commitment situation, when I allowed myself to be that naked and my partner's reaction was a rapid retreat, it felt like a breach of trust. And I think this has to do with the vulnerability of having been seen with every defense down, exposed in every way.

Now, I suppose one solution would be to avoid such vulnerability. The only problem? I think that really wonderful sex, whether with a long-term partner or just a partner-for-tonight, requires precisely this vulnerability. In my experience, anyway, there's a deep need to be really seen, for a partner to look at my exposed self, with all its messy desires and pleasures, and to embrace it anyway. No, more: to be embraced because of that wild nakedness.

If this isn't just my personal quirk (and if I really thought it was, I'd shut up), it sheds some light on why "casual sex" is so often not really casual and even less often meaningless. I also imagine that this is one reason why so many people are sexually unsatisfied even where the mechanics of libido, arousal, and orgasm work just fine. It might help explain why some people seek out affairs or prostitutes. (For me, it suggests why I find commercialized sex so unappealing, but I know it's true that many men seek more from a prostitute than just physical release.) It illuminates why solo sex apparently strikes so many of us as a wholly inadequate substitute for coupling with another person.

And so sex is about much more than just pleasure and orgasms, or even love and affection; it's about the need to be seen and embraced in our orgasmic vulnerability.

I don't for a minute believe that long-term relationships hold a monopoly on this sort of connection. It can happen in the shortest-term liaison as long as there's mutual regard and a willingness to take emotional risks. It can occur between friends with benefits as long as the friendship is real and not a mere fiction. It can be absent in long-term relationships, even in otherwise loving and intimate ones. In fact, familiarity may tempt us to think we know our partners fully, to stop seeing them afresh, and to carry this jadedness over into routinized sex that feels "safe" in all the wrong ways.

When this sort of vulnerability is nurtured over the long run, its rewards can be greater, I think. But this requires a willingness to take risks.

Whatever the relationship context, people may tend to default to emotional pseudo-safety in sex because the need for shared, perceived, embraced vulnerability collides with another need: to protect ourselves against possible rejection. Because what if your partner sees you in your naked neediness and is repulsed - or just alarmed at the too-muchness of it? What if your partner beats a quick retreat (see above)?

This pushme-pullyou of vulnerability and fear isn't only about gender, though it has some gendered dimensions. In the Western world, throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, women were held to be more carnal than men: voracious, sexually aggressive, and just plain out of control. Kochanie recently suggested that
By attributing such power and malice to women, men became, by default, the submissive class. A resentfully submissive class.
This puts a new spin on why men put (respectable) women on a pedestal in the nineteenth century - and why, despite its ongoing costs to all of us, so many men persist in claiming women are the less lusty sex. This historical legacy also suggests that men may put more at risk in letting themselves be vulnerable, sexually, because vulnerability can edge into loss of power and privilege, if not necessarily submission per se.

In the wake of this history, men can too easily conflate vulnerability with weakness. They are not the same.

What's more, the blurring of self/other boundaries that can happen when you risk sexual vulnerability challenges the very notion of the autonomous self. Men have more invested than women in the illusion of autonomy and self-containment. The autonomous and controlled self has been fundamental to Western masculinity. It was essential to John Locke's articulation of the modern political subject. Sigmund Freud saw it as the result of successfully navigating the phallic phase. Jean-Paul Sartre asserted the superiority of transcendence over immanence. All of these subjects were deeply gendered as masculine. And while Locke would probably be appalled, you could trace the association of masculinity with self-contained autonomy all the way up to the emergence of the "pick-up artist" and the Seduction Community, which as far as I can tell is largely about using sex to avoid real sexual vulnerability.

However. Vulnerability is scary for everyone, not just for men. I recently mentioned bell hooks' take on romance as consisting of people putting a false front, trying to impress their partner (and maybe trying to fool their very own selves, too). That false front doesn't just get in the way of love, as hooks notes. It also prevents us from letting our vulnerability show, sexually and otherwise. I tend to think that the people who maintain the facade most ferociously are also precisely those who may feel the most vulnerable under the surface - and who might gain the most from dropping the mask.

And this false front interferes mightily with good sex. This is partly because forgetting yourself is no small part of good sex, which is why anything that makes us judge our performance through external eyes is so pernicious. (Yep, I'm talkin' to you again, Cosmo!) It's also because vulnerability itself can be hot.

In the end, though, the imperative to drop the mask is about way more than just heat and friction. It's about an existential need to convince ourselves, if only for one peak moment, that we're not truly alone. That we're not ultimately disconnected and atomized. That we don't have to be self-contained.

If the existentialists exalted the transcendent, autonomous, self-directed man, they also recognized the anxiety (the nausea, as Sartre would have it) that comes with seeing ourselves as wholly alone and wholly free. If Sartre were around to comment on this post, he'd likely see me as either naively romantic or stupidly mired in immanence.

But Simone de Beauvoir (who I'm pretty sure would hate that Cosmo cover) might have thought I'm on the right track. Here's her final word in The Second Sex on sexuality in a world where women and men would be equals (my emphasis):
It is nonsense to assert that revelry, vice, ecstasy, passion, would become impossible if man and woman were equal in concrete matters; the contradictions that put the flesh in opposition to the spirit, the instant to time, the swoon of immanence to the challenge of transcendence, the absolute of pleasure to the nothingness of forgetting, will never be resolved; in sexuality will always be materialised the tension, the anguish, the joy, the frustration, and the triumph of existence. To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her; let her have her independent existence and she will continue none the less to exist for him also: mutually recognising each other as subject, each will yet remain for the other an other.
It's this mutual recognition that I think we yearn for - and that I believe we deeply, deeply need, women and men alike. It's neither utopian nor romanticized. It can only happen, though, when we drop the mask and pretense and allow ourselves to be seen fully, nakedly, as equals transfigured by desire.


hesperia said...

This is a fully, nakedly, WONDERFUL post! Thanks so much.

Sungold said...

Oh, thank *you* for the kind words. I felt awfully exposed publishing it, actually. It's not that the post trots out all the spicy details of my past love life, but it does reveal a lot about my psyche and libido - and that feels very naked indeed.

At any rate, I had to let the post sit for a few weeks before I felt able to hit the "publish" button. And even now, I'm very grateful for your affirmation.

Anonymous said...


Kudos on a most excellent post. I was researching labiaplasty out of interest at the phenomenon and came across your blog. I think you are spot on about the vulnerability issue and bringing in Sartre to show that our basic human need is to drag ourselves out of the despair of existential solipsism was priceless. Thank you for sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings!

Sungold said...

Thanks! I'm so glad you visited and left a comment. (I just glanced at your blog and can see I'd like to read more.)

Regarding Sartre: This is one of the pleasures of blogging, isn't it - that you don't have to be a world-renowned expert, you can dabble with ideas even if they're outside your field. I'm trained as a historian (including some coursework in intellectual history), I know something about Simone de Beauvoir, and I'm married to a philosopher - but Sartre is mostly outside of my field of expertise.

Anonymous said...


An historian! Close ties to we Lit majors. :-) I too dabble in philosophy and love to "dip the toe" as they say. Thanks for your blog! There's some good stuff here.

Sungold said...

Well, these days a lit degree can be so chock-full of theory, you might as well be a philosophy major.

And thanks for your kind words. I'm glad if you enjoy my dabbling. :-)

isabel said...

This is really a great post, and puts into words something I had only previously felt but been unwilling to articulate; this also explains why I find letting a partner give me an orgasm to be, yes, a much more intimate experience than giving an orgasm. Thanks for clarifying some things in my head.

Sungold said...

Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting, Isabel. Your observation might help explain why quite a few women feel more awkward about receiving oral sex than giving it. I don't have any scientific surveys on this; but based on a number of informal conversations, I do think it's true that women tend to feel more comfortable giving.