COMES NATURALLY #39
Spectator Magazine - October 20, 1995
(c) David Steinberg
Women Who Put Sex Before Marriage; Animation Joculation
The Woman Who Leaves for Sex
I have argued many times in this column that the suppression of sexual energy is one of the most conservative of social forces, that advocating support for diversely fulfilling sexual expression -- particularly sexual fulfillment for women -- is very much a radical challenge to the existing social order. If there is any doubt about the way that sexual suppression of women is a fundamental tool for the preservation of the traditional family and traditional gender roles, take a look at what happens to those women who dare to affirm their right to sexual fulfillment, the women who say that meaningful sex is important enough to them that they are ready to reorganize their lives, even to the point of overturning secure stable existence and family, even to the point of disrupting their lives and the lives of the people around them.
From the deep dark ages (not all that long ago, actually) when women
weren't even supposed to enjoy sex inside the boundaries of monogamous marriage, we have come to the point where women get to enjoy sex with their husbands without being considered suspiciously wayward souls. Married women who have discrete, secret affairs are still regarded with more disdain than their similarly-inclined husbands, but as it becomes public knowledge that more and more married women are having sexual affairs, it becomes increasingly difficult to demonize these women as examples of unbridled, undisciplined, unfeminine lust. Women now talk to each other about their affairs almost as casually as men tell each other about theirs, and there is a common understanding, at least in some circles, that an occasional affair here and there is a reasonable sort of sexual outlet for a woman who finds herself locked in a marriage that is sexually unfulfilling. There is even a school of thought, embodied by Dalma Heyn in her book The Erotic Silence of the American Wife, that recommends discrete affairs to married women as a means of preserving and bolstering their marriages, kind of a sexual safety valve that allows women to satisfy their sexual needs, in order to lessen bitterness and resentment at home without blowing the marriage to pieces.
On the other hand, for a woman to give her sexuality such primal import that she is willing to overthrow her marriage in order to make room for more sexual satisfaction than intermittent secret liaisons allow, well that's another story again. And the woman who is ready to put sex before marriage and who is not afraid to let others know precisely what she is doing (rather than hiding behind any number of more socially acceptable reasons for divorce) becomes the subject of a degree of social condemnation that reveals how close to the core of social stability this simple act of sexual honesty cuts.
These lessons were brought home to me several years ago when Helen, my partner, went through precisely this process of rediscovering her sexuality -- rediscovering that meaningful sexual existence was an emotional necessity for her, not just a luxury to be indulged when and if the rest of her life could be arranged to make room for it. Finding herself in a pleasant, comfortable, loving, financially secure, but sexually uninteresting marriage of almost twenty years, she chose to leave that relationship in favor of instability, uncertainty, and financial insecurity. She did so largely because leaving gave her the opportunity to rediscover and develop the strength and power of the sexual feelings she had reveled in as a younger woman, before she put much of her sexual drive aside in the name of marriage, family, and a somewhat unconventional version of the American dream. In the flush of sexual reawakening, she let it be known among the decidedly conventional, middle-class friends and acquaintances she shared with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, that the opportunity to be more openly and elaborately a fully sexual person was a major motivation for her midlife upheaval.
While she knew that she would provoke a certain degree of upset in her social circle, she was totally unprepared for the strength of the feelings she stirred up in just about everyone around her, simply by breaking the fundamental social rule that a woman simply does not put her sexual needs ahead of her needs for family and security.
Hindsight, of course, comes easy in situations like this, yet in retrospect it's really not so surprising that Helen became the focal point for the buried sexual fears of her entire community of friends. When even one woman deserts her stable placid existence for a more adventurous, more sexual life, the myth that marital boredom and sexual decline are the inevitable price a woman pays for being a responsible adult is shattered for all.
As soon as one woman dares to seek and apparently find a workable, if difficult, sex-affirming way of life, the women around her are forced to ask themselves more seriously than they may wish whether they are happy not only with their lives in general, but also with their sexual lives in particular. If they are not, they must question further whether they really want to accept sexual dissatisfaction for the rest of their lives, and if so, why.
Once the sex-doesn't-really matter-that-much monolith is broken, the inertia of blind acceptance and resignation is broken as well. New and disturbing sexual possibilities demand consideration which of course makes people very nervous. "Sexual happiness is simply not available to the loving wife and mother" becomes an inadequate answer to the subversive little voice that keeps asking, "Why don't you go for what you really want, sexually as well as in other ways." A disconcerting soup is being stirred, and not surprisingly one consequence is supreme hostility for the troublemaker in the group, the one whose choices puts others eye-to-eye with difficult feelings.
What Helen found was that the great majority of the women in her circle of friends turned against her with a vehemence that made clear how little they wanted to be reminded of the sexual possibilities they had given up in return for the predictability and security of monogamous marriage. It wasn't simply a matter of people simply saying, "Why is she doing that? I wouldn't want to do that for anything in the world." It was a matter of group condemnation and punishment -- punishment of the woman who dared utter the secret feeling shared by so many of her peers, the woman who dared say that the empress wanted to be wearing no clothes. Helen had broken the sacred mold of female sexual propriety and had thus become a palpable threat to every woman around her.
Fortunately, Helen also discovered that a smaller group of her women friends were enthusiastically (if privately) supportive of her sexual determination and courage. These were the women who were able to admit that there were major deficiencies in their own relationships, particularly with regard to their unfulfilled sexual desires.
It is an old saw men tend to divide mother from whore, and then marry against the grain of their sexual attractions in favor of a partnership based on predictability and safety. But women perform a parallel division, separating man-as-adventure from man-as-security, and pair with the safe men, even when it means giving up an ongoing life of sexual growth and passion. Not uncommonly, women choose sexually placid partners as a way of suppressing sexual urges that they are afraid will get them into emotional hot water, or that have gotten them into difficult places already. A decade or two later, the men these women consider husband material -- devoted, financially successful, safe, family men -- often turn out to be depressingly dull, emotionally and sexually. The sexual heat that once seemed so important to cool reasserts itself as a mix of fond memory and new possibility. Helen was surprised to find herself suddenly privy to the whispered sexual yearnings of many women friends who confided to her their own longstanding sexual frustrations, their secret affairs, their thoughts of leaving flat marriages for lives that they hoped would be more adventurous, more fulfilling, more sexually passionate.
The middle-aged women of the 90's are, after all, the same women who were young and single during the 70's, when sexual openness and exploration was nothing short of a pan-cultural explosion. Many of today's innocuously well-behaved, devoted wives and mothers have fond memories of unfettered sexual exploration, even though they later filed those impulses away under the heading of "something I did when I was young and had the room to be irresponsible."
For these women, Helen was a welcome provocation, a role model even, someone they in many ways dared themselves to embrace and emulate. They related to her as a sister seeker, an encouraging renegade, and watched carefully to see if she could actually recreate her life so radically and thrive. Of course, more of these women fantasized about their own changes than actually chose radical change, but the complacency of habitual, unquestioned, unfulfilled existence had been challenged for all.
This is why the woman who proclaims to herself that she is unwilling to go through the rest of her life without ongoing, meaningful, satisfying sex is by definition a threat to the established social order. This is why the woman who assigns this level of importance to her sexuality publicly -- the woman who, unwilling to pursue sexual satisfaction in secret, puts her sexual cards on the table for all to see without shame or apology -- is not only a sexual rebel, but also a sexual revolutionary: someone whose activity breeds desire for change in the people around her.
Challenging the primacy of marriage and family in this way has many of the same effects and consequences (albeit not as severe) as other, more widely discussed challenges to conventional sexual assumptions, such as being into s/m, cross-dressing, or coming out gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Assaults on sexual complacency take place at all levels of society -- in the heart of the beast as well as at the outer edges. With apologies to Gertrude Stein, a slut is a slut is a slut -- is any woman who refuses to allow herself to be controlled by a culture that stands ready to condemn and punish her for claiming her full, uppity, unrepentant right to her own sexuality on her own terms.
It started out as another of those roll-your-eyes newspaper stories. In the back pages of the Chronicle's Datebook section a couple of Sundays ago, there was a story about a group of Christians who were appalled at what they claimed were sinister immoral messages to children tucked away in Disney Studio's recent smash children's film, The Lion King. "Rightist Group Attacks Lion King" read the headline -- enough to give me a chuckle and get me to check out what the crazies were up to now.
It turns out that there's a Christian watchdog group called the American Life League that has been going over all the recent Disney films with a fine tooth comb, ever since the Disney Studio released the film Priest. Priest, as you may remember, is the quite moving story of a young, intensely devout, Catholic priest who happens to have a closet life in the gay leather scene. Throughout the film he wrestles with the contradiction between his impossibly high moral standards for those in the priesthood (he is aghast that the lively older priest he works with is having a rollicking affair with the parish housekeeper), and his irrepressible desire for men. It's very much a film worth seeing.
The American Life League, however, takes Priest to be nothing less than "an attack on the Roman Catholic Church and the priesthood and God," according to ALL spokesperson Tracey Casale, who explains further that the League's concern for the good name of the Catholic Church stems from the fact that "the Catholic Church is the largest voice for unborn babies in the world." You guessed it, we're back to the abortion issue one more time.
Well, after the release of Priest, the League instructed its 300,000 members to scrutinize any and all Disney products to see what additional evidence they could find of Disney-sponsored moral decay and degradation. (Think of poor old Walt, turning over and over in his grave!) After god knows how many millions of hours of investigation, they claim to have found three moral outrages tucked into recent Disney children's releases. They claim, first of all, that in The Lion King, when Simba the lion at one point falls to the ground, the dust he kicks up spells out S-E-X. Furthermore they say that in The Little Mermaid, when the minister is in the process of marrying the bride and groom, he gets an erection. And finally, they say, there is one scene in Aladdin, in which a background voice whispers insidiously, "Good teenagers take off your clothes."
Right, I laughed to myself, and when you play the old Beatles record backwards it tells you that Paul is dead. I cut out the article and gave it to Helen's 15-year-old son Jesse, who loves to make fun of the paranoid excesses of the Christian right. When he read the piece, Jesse was not only hysterical laughing but anxious to check out the supposed offenses for himself. Since we happen to have all three of the morally suspect animation classics (please don't arrest me, officer...), we whipped out the videos to see what the American Life League could possibly be talking about.
Well, guess what? The S-E-X smoke puffs are pretty bogus -- overly imaginative interpretations of rather amorphous dust clouds that rise and disappear into the sky. But the priest's erection is undeniably present, if anyone cares. (It rises and falls in a fraction of a second under the minister's white robe). And if you listen really really carefully you can catch the "good teenagers take off your clothes" audio riff as well, though nobody would ever notice it in a million years if it weren't for the trumpet-sounding of the good keepers of childhood purity in Stafford, Virginia. Jesse and his 9-year-old brother, Daniel, were beside themselves with laughter, and I'm sure lost no time in passing the naughty information delightedly to their friends.
Looks like somebody's been having fun at the Disney animation lab. Adolescent maybe, but harmless enough. I mean, no sweet innocent child is going to notice (let alone be bothered by) the minister's momentary erection. No teenager is going to be goaded into flashing by the subliminal whisper. No psyche is going to be damaged. No insidious salacious energy is going to be absorbed by young Disney enthusiasts. Not from these minuscule celluloid pranks, not even from the more widely known and circulated giggle among kids in the know that one of the castle turrets on the Little Mermaid box cover is shaped somewhat like the head of a penis.
But in the Satan-fearing 90's, serious politics actually hinge on these most ridiculous of exaggerated concerns. The frenetic anti-abortion mission of the American Life League is actually gaining credibility among people who watch the priest's little penis bob up and down over and over again while they cluck their tongues at the decline of the entire country's sexual morals. The League has organized a very real boycott and letter-writing campaign against Disney Productions, which will at the very least make that studio a bit more cautious the next time it considers releasing a film like Priest that addresses the real human foibles of the religiously ordained. Will any Senate and House votes on the Communications Decency Act be swayed by the little bulge in an animated minister's pants? Will another doctor at an abortion clinic take a bullet from some deranged lunatic who takes these little quirks to mean that he is called by somebody's Lord to defend to the death the decency and honor of America's women and children? Unfortunately, nobody knows for sure.
[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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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