December 2011: Sex and the Stage
Winter in Albuquerque is cold and clear. The nighttime temperatures hover around and below freezing, but during the days, the skies are usually robin-egg blue and the air warms up to the fifties. I love the swings of temperature that bring the best of the season: nighttime curled up on the couch in front of the fireplace, wine in hand; daytime out and about, face turned up to the sun. Today, the sky takes a turn from clear to cloudy, so I tuck myself in and bury my head in end-of-the-term grading.
One thing about teaching women’s studies is that it keeps me thinking about current issues. This year Title X, which provides public funding for family planning services, has sparked an ongoing debate. Conservatives in Congress have attempted to defund Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of reproductive health services, by restricting Title X funds. Thinking of Planned Parenthood brings back fond memories for me. They helped me when I was in college, at a time I needed advice and direction as I became sexually active. Then, nearing the end of my Master’s degree, I thought I was vomiting every morning from nerves, but discovered I was pregnant and turned to them for an abortion. I don’t know where else I would have gone in either instance. Not long ago, I drove past the Planned Parenthood clinic and the ubiquitous protesters outside. The signs were gruesome as usual. I also saw a Catholic cleric (not sure which level) in white vestments, head topped by a mitre, crosier in hand, leading the group in protest. I resolved again to make my own sign in support of Planned Parenthood and spend some time out front.
While searching for information, I come across an interview with Terry O’Neill of NOW discussing the defunding of Title X planning clinics like Planned Parenthood:
“What we are seeing now is the proof . . . that what is at stake is whether women will have control over their own sexuality. This withholding of healthcare from women who are sexually active is really, I think, motivated by this strange but persistent desire to control women having sex.”
I haven’t thought about it this way—about women’s sexuality being dangerous, something to be controlled. As I consider it again, I am unsure why I haven’t looked at it from this angle before. Maybe I have been operating from a birdcage theory of oppression; if I only look at one wire, one thin little bar, I think, how can that possibly restrain me? But that overlooks the totality of the bars—every social norm, parental expectation and increasingly restrictive laws and legislation that surround women. It becomes obvious to me that women’s sexuality is a threat to many people.
Why? The idea that comes to my mind first might be that controlling women’s sexuality gives control over the paternity of children. Or is freely given sexuality too much of a reminder of our core, our very earthy humanity. Is the very way sexuality can open us, make us vulnerable, a challenge to the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter, body and spirit?
Many of my students over the last few years have commented that women have become “too” sexual. When I discuss sexual freedom in class, people often refer to women in skimpy outfits as examples of too much sexual freedom. Students also note that if women embrace sexual freedom, they will lower themselves in the esteem of others (both male and female) and be further objectified. Some of my students reduce sexuality to the act of having sex only. Sexuality is much broader than the act of sex, and certainly more profound than a tight t-shirt and push-up bra.
Human sexuality can be defined as the way the erotic is experienced and the way humans express themselves sexually. Many forces, such as culture, law and religion, attempt to hammer sexuality into a socially controllable shape. But sexuality is intrinsic to our being, generated from deep within ourselves. From the inestimable Michel Foucault’s treatise on sexuality:
Between each of us and our sex, the West has placed a never-ending demand for truth: it is up to us to extract the truth of sex, since this truth is beyond its grasp; it is up to sex to tell us our truth, since sex is what holds it in darkness. But is sex hidden from us, concealed by a new sense of decency, kept under a bushel by the grim necessities of bourgeois society? On the contrary, it shines forth; it is incandescent.
Incandescent—a glow that permeates the layers of attempted obfuscation. No matter what I am told I am supposed to be, or how I am supposed to act, or how I am supposed to experience the erotic, the bottom line is that who I am sexually radiates from within.
With two performances under my belt, now it is time for me to consider my next burlesque act, to work on how to render this incandescence so the audience can be warmed by it. I challenge myself to reach deep within, to develop an act that expresses my individual sexuality, an act that tells my story. This leads me to really look at the complexities of my sexuality. As Winter Solstice nears, I feel myself turn inward and give myself the time to examine these complexities.