NOT OF ONE MOLD: THE EROTIC LIVES OF WOMEN
Copyright © 1999 David Steinberg
The Erotic Lives of Women
Photographs by Linda Troeller, interviews by Marion Schneider
208 pages, $45
She also knew that she wanted a book that combined women's erotic stories with photographs that would add impact to the words, make them real, bring them home. "A photograph," she notes, "supports words when well-chosen. It makes it easier for people to get in the mood." To do this she would need to work with a woman photographer, someone who was as sensitive to the nuances of women's eroticism as Schneider was. In 1994, she met photographer Linda Troeller, an imaginative artist whose particular interest was in exploring how aging women kept their sexuality alive. It was a match. They decided to do the project together.
The book that Schneider and Troeller have produced, "The Erotic Lives of Women," accomplishes Schneider's simple, yet elusive, goal: to provide genuine, unglorified, personal information about how a wide variety of women experience the eroticism in their lives. As such, it offers a welcome antidote to the myths, exaggerations, and distortions about women's sexuality that inundate all of us -- women and men -- through all the sex-hyping, sensationalizing, fear-exploiting (and, of course, male-dominated) media machines.
Schneider and Troeller kept their method simple. They posed the same four basic questions to each woman they interviewed: What does the word "erotic" mean to you? What was your first erotic feeling? What was your strongest erotic feeling? Do you have any fantasies? They recorded what the women said. At the same session, they photographed the women in ways that illustrated some aspect of what they were saying about themselves. They let the women choose the settings and contexts that would let them feel most relaxed and comfortable. They let them choose what they wanted to wear. They let them review and edit the texts of what they had said, and to approve what would finally appear in the book.
"One could assume that an open atmosphere might be difficult to create," says Schneider. "This was not the case. The women got so involved in the interview that they forgot about their fear. Once they started to talk they lost their barriers and their inhibitions. Every click of the camera seemed to push them further. Many told us secrets which they had not told before. [They could] sense our compassion and support."
The trust that Schneider and Troeller were able to establish with the women they interviewed is what makes "The Erotic Lives of Women" so alive and meaningful. The 35 erotic portraits collected in the book are unglamorous and unpretentious, yet remarkably engaging. What will be fascinating, both for women readers and for men, is seeing how different the women are from each other, once they break free of the mold of social expectations and start to talk about their real feelings and experiences. The result is a confirmation and validation of women's eroticism in a grand variety of incarnations, a celebration of women's erotic individuality in contrast to some socially-dictated conception of what women's erotic perspectives "should" be.
Schneider and Troeller have deliberately chosen a broad spectrum of women to interview. The women cover the age range from 17 to 60, and represent a wide variety of nations and cultures. There are women from Israel, Brazil, and the Ukraine, as well as women from many nations of Western Europe and the U.S. Several Moroccan women add the distinct perspective of an erotic and gender culture radically different from our own. Some of the women have unusually worldly, even sexy, occupations that could be expected to make them especially articulate on erotic matters. There is a filmmaker, a make-up artist, an actress, a singer, several photographers. But many are more ordinary folks -- a student, a legal secretary, a shopkeeper, several housewives. Some are well-to-do, some quite poor. Some are quite sophisticated about erotic matters; others are much more naive. "Some of the women," Schneider notes, "had never heard the term [erotic] before. We learned to translate it into 'body feeling' or 'adult feeling' which helped them to find equivalent of closely related concepts in their cultures."
The impact of "The Erotic Lives of Women" does not come from the exotic content of the stories the women tell, or the fantasies they reveal. Taken individually, what most of the women say is hardly spectacular, although they do have some interesting tales to tell -- a surreptitious connection with a stranger on a train, sex with two men at the same time, sex in public and semi-public places, a bit of s/m. But collectively there is a power and richness to the women's feelings and perspectives that is unmistakable and captivating. So many different ways to think about and to feel what it means to be erotic. So many different stories of fulfillment and frustration. And such a difference between how the women talk here and how women talk and behave when they are being defined by the desires and fantasies -- or the imagined desires and fantasies -- of the men in their lives.
Some of the women speak of eroticism as being extremely broad and diffuse. Others see eroticism as a narrow and specifically sexual matter. "Everything can be sexual, everything," says Yifat, 37, an Israeli philosopher. "A light bulb can be sexual. You can touch a door knob as if you're stroking a dick." "Life is an erotic experience," agrees Maria, 30, an American filmmaker. "It happens daily. I live it, I breathe it, it's part of my life style, it's part of my art." But Patricia, 50, an American entrepreneur, says that for her, "eroticism means sexual passion, passion in the sexual parts of your body."
Sara, 35, an Italian actress, sees eroticism as "something mysterious, a little bit dangerous and forbidden." Likewise, Eva, 49, a Norwegian health counselor, sees the erotic as "something that is sexually suggestive, rather than blatantly clear." But for Samiha, 40, a Moroccan housewife, the erotic is much more concrete. "In the ten years we lived together," she says, "[my husband] pleased me as a husband and as a man. I stayed at home and waited for him every day, cooking a nice meal and dressing myself up to please him when he returned. I like to think of this time, because we were content, living a life of love, happiness and good food."
For several of the women, erotic anticipation is as important an erotic experience as its eventual fulfillment. "The feeling itself, without the actual doing, is a very strong erotic experience for me," says Patricia. "The desire for that person and that which leads up to it." Pal, 45, and American singer, agrees. "To me that period of 'wanting' is very special. 'Wanting' and 'desiring,' not so much 'getting' and experiencing.' I suppose the word 'arousal' sums it up."
Yet other women go directly to sexual fulfillment when they talk of the erotic. Suzel, 56, a French teacher tells of a stranger stroking her thigh on a train, and of her ability to have an orgasm through fantasy without actually touching herself.
Some women emphasize the importance of deep connection with a partner, while others speak equally strongly about separating sexual feeling from romantic love or the desire for an ongoing relationship. Yifat's erotic fantasy is "that a man knows me in a very, very concrete, very mundane, very worldly, very intimate way." But Carol, 46, an American photographer, says "I don't need someone to love me or like me in order to feel erotic. I think of erotic in physical and not emotional terms. [In fact] if the two were to go together it would be too great an explosion."
For several of the women, eros is related to power, but once again, different women see relate to erotic power in different ways. Valerie, 55, an American legal secretary, exults in the erotic power of triumphing over a man. "In order to get what he wants from me," she laughs, "he has to please me by doing everything I want. So, for instance, I will say to him, 'I need you to kiss me on my behind.' He may not like it, but he wants so badly to overpower me or get what [he wants] that he will do what I want." For Fatima, a 25-year-old Moroccan belly dancer, erotic power is about being economically self-sufficient. "Living by myself, earning my own money, that is most erotic for me," she says. "Having the freedom to decide about my work and my time, money and my room."
One after another, the women tell potent stories of erotic experiences, both as children and as adults. Warming to the interview experience, they reveal -- to the tape recorder and to the camera -- feelings and stories that many have previously kept entirely to themselves.
Some of the most touching and revealing stories come as the women search for their earliest erotic memories. Many tell of the first time they touched their genitals and found that touching brought them pleasure. "The feeling was great," remembers Baerbel, 26, a German social worker, "it warmed up my whole body." Many tell of sharing their discoveries with girlfriends, or even boys they knew -- touching each other, or just the delight of having their bodies be seen by others.
For some of the women, early erotic feelings are associated with the smallest of gestures: the smell of their own underarms, the feeling of having a thermometer inserted in their rectum. "I can still feel the smoke of my uncle's pipe on my skin," says Ute, 27, a German architect. For others, early erotic feelings involved their parents. "My first erotic memory was when I noticed that my father began to look at my breasts," says Yoko, 39, an American flower designer. "They were just starting to become a little puffed up. He was uncomfortable when I was becoming a woman. He created a distance."
Some of the women speak of struggling with guilt about their erotic natures, while others developed their eroticism surprisingly free from repressive restraint. "I come from a very conservative and Catholic family," explains Vanessa, 27, a Brazilian singer. "Eroticism always meant something that was prohibited to me, something obscene or vulgar." Raissa, 47, a gallery director from the Ukraine, can only imagine what it would be like "that a man kisses my pussy and I am not ashamed of it -- how it would be to present myself and he would love it." She describes this fantasy as her "strongest erotic feeling." In contrast, Suzel declares proudly, "I have never felt guilty about what happens to my body while with a man, never. Even the time I had an erotic experience with a woman, even with my twin sister, I did not feel guilty."
Linda Troeller's evocative and imaginative photographs are as diverse as the women themselves, as different from stylized expectations of what it looks like for women to be erotic as the women's words diverge from preconceived verbal and conceptual notions of women's eroticism. We see the women sitting, standing, dancing, moving, dressed in clothing that erotically appeals to them. Some show their bodies to the camera; some do not dare. Some are young and conventionally attractive, but more are older, heavier, and far from glamorous. In the context of their stories and fantasies, each illustrates the eroticism of its subject in a unique way -- some sexual, some sensual, some emotional, some dramatic, some simply and powerfully just present.
Barbara, 50, a German shopkeeper, poses in her underwear, smiling into the camera. "Yes -- I'm big!" she declares. "I cannot hide it. Although my husband often tells me that no man will ever be interested in me again, I've not lost my pride." Valerie laughs easily, standing in her teddy and stockings. Jamile is covered entirely by her black chador, except for the intensity of her eyes. A portrait of Yifat shows only her face, her eyes closed, her mouth quietly smiling with internal pleasure.
Fatima belly dances for the camera, her long dark hair sweeping across her face. Andrea, 27, a German disk-jockey, acts out a fantasy in an old barn. Samiha strikes a playful pose in front of her hanging laundry. Emanuelle, a 33-year-old French photographer, caresses her naked body on her bed. Kata -- a Moroccan girl of 17 who says "I do not know much about eroticism; I do not even know the word" -- laughs and shows us the hands she has painted with henna "to express my joy and happiness, to show my feelings to the ones I want to show them to."
In the case of some of the Moroccan women, the photographs are powerful statements of the women's erotic constraints as well. "I cannot give you my photo," explains Mafida, 45, a Moroccan housewife. "I accept that only Allah gives life and we have no right to recreate or picture his work." She tells the story of a pair of alligator shoes, the first erotically charged "women's" clothing she wore as a girl. Two photographs of that pair of shoes -- one with them standing alone in the middle of a long hallway, the other with them peeking out from beneath a curtain blowing in the breeze -- become Mafida's erotic portrait.
It is almost a cliché to call attention one more time to how much women's real stories continue to go untold. Certainly with the rise of the feminist movement and the growth of feminist publishing houses, writing from women's perspectives is now circulated much more widely than it was previously. And the growing popularity of erotic fiction written by women is an ongoing celebration of the broad range of women's erotic imaginations. But there are still far too few opportunities for women to speak honestly, openly, and on their own terms -- both to other women and to men -- about what constitutes the heart of their erotic realities. "The Erotic Lives of Women" is an important contribution to widening that conversation.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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