Sex is an important part of life, so it makes sense that it would have a starring role in a lot of fiction. A good sensual sex scene can be a joy to read and an explicit or even an ugly one can be integral to a story.
Generally, though, stories whose only purpose is to describe sexual encounters bore me. I gave up on Laurel Hamilton’s Anita Blake books after they became more about screwing vampires than hunting them. While I can appreciate the pleasures of what Nicola Griffith calls “one-handed reading,” the stories that are only about sex get repetitive and it’s always hard to find ones that fit my own flavor of sexuality. (I am so not turned on by vampires.)
But I’m beginning to think there’s a feminist perspective to this outpouring of sexy stories. Most of the people I know who are writing erotica are women. While I’m sure some of their motivation is financial — I know several indie writers making a full-time living off of erotica — I suspect some women are writing books with lots of sex in them because they want to celebrate female sexuality.
The road to this conclusion was both personal and intellectual: After [mumble] years as a happy spinster, I have a lover, which is giving me a wonderful perspective on sex. And he gave me a copy of Naomi Wolf’s new book, Vagina: A New Biography. After reading it himself.
He and I have been discussing it. Truth be told, it’s a frustrating book. The first few chapters inspired me, but by the time I reached the end I was ready to throw the damn thing across the room. I’ll get to the problems with the book in a minute, but first I want to talk about how it celebrates female sexuality.
Wolf summarizes some research showing that orgasm increases dopamine, testosterone, and oxytocin in women’s brains. She says that if you are a woman with optimal levels of dopamine:
[Y]ou will be confident, creative, and sociable. You will have strong opinions, clear boundaries, and you will take pride in your own work.
She goes on to suggest that dopamine is “the ultimate feminist chemical” because it makes women powerful. In fact, she indicates that the patriarchal objection to female sexuality has something to do with the connection between good sex and power in women:
Patriarchal societies … have, I contend, noticed the link between sexually assertive, sexually self-aware women — and focused, motivated, energized, biologically empowered women.
Wolf goes farther with this idea than I would, arguing that good sex leads to great levels of creativity. But I think she’s onto something when she discusses the relationship between being sexually confident and empowered in the world.
Although second-wave feminism owes a lot to the Pill, Roe v. Wade, and the real right of women to control reproduction, it was often a rather prudish affair. Some of that was due to a real need to redefine the sexual relationships between men and women, but some of it was due to the level of patriarchal fear raised by powerful, sexual women. Many men were frightened that the presence of women in their world would change things and many women did their best to fit into the male world without posing too much of a challenge. This applied to sexuality as much as it did to law firms.
But guess what? The presence of women in places that were once male-dominated did change things — and changed them for the better. Women owning and acknowledging their own sexuality has the potential to make some real changes too. In fact, I’d be willing to speculate that acknowledgement of women as sexual beings on their own terms — not on the fantasy terms invented by the likes of Playboy magazine — will eventually do more to eliminate violent, woman-hating porn than any laws we can come up with.
While I am an optimist, I don’t expect such changes to happen tomorrow. Still, it’s a positive thing that more and more women are acknowledging their sexuality in both their writing and their lives. So I’m glad Wolf wrote this book and put her ideas out there.
But — and it’s a big but — this book still drives me crazy. Wolf gets too caught up in the idea that the male and female brains are very different, relying on the work of Louann Brizendine. Unfortunately, the flaws in Brizendine’s work have been pointed out by a number of other scientists and reviewers. I did an essay on several books that demonstrate the errors in Brizendine’s point of view in The Cascadia Subduction Zone awhile back.
And there’s something else: for someone who has some very radical (and interesting) ideas about women’s sexuality, Wolf appears to assume that there’s nothing new to discover about male sexuality. Her instructions to men on how to keep their women sexually happy sound like a male version of The Rules: Value her, help her to orgasm, hug her, cuddle her, talk to her, etc.
Please! A real relationship between adult human beings shouldn’t require that kind of advice. And it’s all about what a man can do to please a woman, not what two people can do to please each other.
So this is far from a perfect book. Knowing that Wolf relies on Brizendine for some of her theories makes me worry about the other experts she uses. I’m not sure I see much difference between Tantric sexual healers and the Victorian doctors who used “uterine massage” to cure “hysteria.”
And I don’t like the idea of being a goddess; I’d rather just be a woman.
But read it anyway. It’s opening a door that’s been welded shut for a long time.