So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

11 June, 2008

Examining Desire

Oh look, it's another discussion of how to examine one's sexual desires. To which one party has responded with raising the question of what the problem is with examining and analysing this stuff, anyway.

So here's the thing:

No amount of "examination" will make any form of sexuality ideologically correct.

Sexuality does not have an ideology.

As people said in various places in this blowup, a penis in a vagina is a penis in a vagina; it's sex, it's normal/natural/biologically common/whatever, it doesn't have an ideology. The meaning is something that people create, attach, ascribe.

I've been chewing for a while about the occasional "just because a woman chooses that does not mean it's a feminist choice" thing that crops up, and have come to the conclusion that the concept of 'a feminist choice' is meaningless. And, in fact, that the notion that there are 'feminist choices' and 'non-feminist choices' is one of the major factors that drove me the fuck out of feminism.

It is possible to tune one's level of analysis to make every possible choice wrong, when "examining one's choices". It's easy. It is certainly, given my socialisation and upbringing, the level of analysis that I will automatically gravitate towards: it is so easy to slide to whatever level of analysis will frame me as defective.

I mean, I've written a couple of times before about the white knight who was sure that I needed to be rescued from the horrible fate of having the love and support of some wonderful men. There's a level of analysis there, that looks at the socially known patterns of multiple relationships and finds a lot of abusiveness there, that knows about problems with women with low self-esteem being likely to get into bad situations, and so on; there's not enough "examination" to notice the paternalism or listen to the actual perspective of the other people involved, but that's par for the course. And saying, "Examine more!" won't make a difference; it's all fully examined, even if the analysis is obviously defective when viewed by people outside the system.

But what's the system?

Take this one, for something that isn't obviously some man telling a woman "UR DOIN IT RONG":

I'm a housewife.

This is one of those things that gets a lot of handwringing "examine that!" responses. Lack of financial independence, check. Short resume in the event that Horrible Things Happen and I need to be supporting myself, check. In this situation in part because of being a dropout and thus in the ranks of the undereducated-for-modern-employment, check. Buying into patriarchal norms of appropriate womanhood, che--

Well then. I've written before about how the norms of "appropriate womanhood" where I grew up had a lot more to do with getting into the boardroom, the tenured faculty, and the White House than housewifery. And how attempting to conform to that standard despite my poor suitability for those roles was, shall we say, rough on me. So there's a little more examining to throw into the pot. And when I examine that far, I wonder if maybe Doing What The Pat Says Not To Do Reflexively is maybe another Controlled By The Pat thing, like a teenaged rebel who hasn't thought this through.

And then the little self-analysis mode goes into maybe being lazy and too entitled to go work outside the house, which I can stew in for months at a time if I'm not careful. Never mind that my time supporting myself left me feeling used and abused and actively unclean at times, not to mention the number it did on my mental health. And I examine a little more and find the bit where the work done at home is not socially marked as actual work (unless one does it in someone else's home, in which it's work only fit for poor women), and for that matter the creative work that I do is not socially respected as real work (see also, "But what's your real job?" directed, at some point, at just about every writer in the universe). And examining down another layer, well, that's all just an excuse, isn't it?

And if I keep examining, I wind up at "That's all just an excuse to justify doing what you want. Doing what you want is being a selfish bitch by definition, you selfish bitch." No matter what I examine, I wind up there. Protestant work ethic, a thread in there, and examining that one which runs so deep goes straight back at "selfish bitch", even when I am ideologically committed to an abundant universe.

There are no "win" choices. I choose this place to give myself time to pursue my callings -- my religious work, my creative work, eventually my mothering work -- and support my family in non-financial ways, not only because I have the option to choose it but because I am ill-suited to many other choices. Someone else may choose the same thing because of ideology of some sort, which I may or may not personally approve of or consider adequately enlightened or whatever.

But the choice has no opinion on the matter. It's not representative of an ideology; it is, at most, an emerging result of the interaction with ideology and reality. And the same ideology will lead to different choices when running into different bits of reality, and different ideologies will produce indistinguishable choices in various circumstances.

So back to sex.

Where the things that produce arousal come from is one of those deep mysteries. There's evidence that sometimes, they come from traumas, imprinting, juxtapositions that made an impression of the mind, sometimes they have biochemical origin points in part, and that sometimes they just come from somewhere and fucked if we know. Thinking about where they came from can be an interesting thought exercise, but I've found that the only intellectually honest answer I can present for some of them is agnoticism: I don't know, and I don't believe it's knowable.

"Why don't I just lie here anyway? Why don't I climb out? Why don't I just go zootlewurdle. Does it matter? Even if it does matter, does it matter that it matters?


Zootlewurdle, zootlewurdle, zootlewurdle...."

-- Marvin the Paranoid Android, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio broadcast, episode eleven, by Douglas N. Adams

Examining sexuality in the light of ideology seems to me to consistently come up with pernicious results. Mostly because it's generally framed not as "What sex do I want to have?" but "What sex should I want to have?"

When asking the question "What sex do I want to have?" all this stuff reasonably goes into the pot -- what is actually desired, what is acceptable to one's sensibilities to act upon, and so on. And this is quiet, personal stuff that has to do with one's own consent and desire to consent, one's recognition of the differences between fantasy and reality, and is only the business of anyone else if they're expected to participate. At which point they get to decide if that particular thing is sex they want to have for whatever reason they choose to do -- which may or may not include ideology at all, and they don't have to say why.

"What sex should I want?" goes into all kinds of ugly directions pretty much immediately -- slut-shaming kicks in on any female desire for sex at all, internalised homophobia chews up anyone with queer attractions and spits them out, anyone remotely pervy winds up wrestling with the possibility that they're some kind of monster, huge swaths of fantasy sexuality get shrinkwrapped and sanitised for your protection in the name of Practice Safer Wanking, and shame and guilt over sexuality are the rule, not the exception. It engages the prurient parts of ideologies, the invasive attention that expects someone's political to be everyone's personal, the creepy social stalker that wants to grope inside people's underwear before letting them get married.

Swapping from the default sex-negative culture's ideological perspective on acceptable sex to a different ideological perspective on acceptable sex doesn't fix the problem. It doesn't even change the problem. It just comes up with a new way of examining sexuality in order to determine who's having the wrong sex. To which the answer is, unsurprisingly: usually women, usually the people who aren't having mainstream sex for reasons of number, gender, or activity, usually the people whose sexuality is unacceptable to the dominant paradigm already. And the fact that these new ideologies pretty much paint the same people as unacceptable as the things they're supposedly critiquing ... goes unexamined.

But the examination, the taking apart of desire in the name of ideology, it mostly just makes people ashamed. It doesn't go anywhere rewarding; it ponders the unknowable until people get disgusted with themselves or their desires, or blow it off as useless, and if they blow it off as useless they get told that they're shallow, not thinking things through, saying "Whatever gets me off is okay."

I got asked the other day whether 'my feminist beliefs' had problems with me being submissive.

I just ... was too tired to get into how angry I get at that question.

(Added: A link to another instance of a post I linked up there somewhere, because there's conversation happening there.)


Tziyonah said...

This is...actually something I've been thinking about for a while, and may post about at some point, when I'm feeling up to it.

Viewing the world so thoroughly through X philosophical lens that everything you dislike can be vilified for Noble Reasons... not sane or healthy for anyone.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this. I think that you've stated eloquently just what is so creepy about that Feministe post and especially the comment thread.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I made the mistake of going back and looking at the comments on the Feministe thread, which have gotten even worse than they were when I looked before.

One of these days I'll get over wanting to kneecap everyone who assumes that submission or masochism are equivalent to humiliation or degradation, but I'm afraid it'll be because I'm dead.

SunflowerP said...

What I've learned today: "Examine" is a massively hot-button word for a lot of people, because way too many passive-aggressive control-freak asshats have way too often used it to mean, "You don't agree with me yet; you must be broken."

I despise people who abuse perfectly good words. (Just to be completely clear, that'd be the p-a/c-f asshats I despise, not any of the people who react strongly to those words because of the asshattery, nor those who later use the words without any such agenda, and in ignorance of the prior abuse.)

As you probably guessed, I read what I hope to hell is the whole fuckin' thing to date (on, um, one big-name blog, one email list, and at least four, no, I think five, personal blogs) and am a bit overwhelmed.


Erin C. said...

Lurker, here. As someone who used to read Feministe and Alas, A Blog every day, I think you're pretty much absolutely right, about all of this. And I say this as someone who used to be fairly anti-D/s, albeit quietly. I still have a lot of emotional issues and some ethical qualms surrounding some of what flies under that flag, but I think much of that has to do with experiencing my own personal submissive feelings as miserable and profoundly unhealthy. Emphasis on "my own personal" -- I'm not generalizing outward, here. A lot of what you and others have written have given me ways to sort of mentally simulate what being healthily submissive or dominant must be like. So for what it's worth, you've gotten through to at least one person.

It is possible to tune one's level of analysis to make every possible choice wrong, when "examining one's choices". It's easy. It is certainly, given my socialisation and upbringing, the level of analysis that I will automatically gravitate towards: it is so easy to slide to whatever level of analysis will frame me as defective.

This is most definitely my experience also. It's like how tziyonah describes it above -- "Viewing the world so thoroughly through X philosophical lens that everything you dislike can be vilified for Noble Reasons" -- but inverted. My OCD-riddled brain will very cheerfully supply me with all the ways in which my own interests are idealogically dangerous. And I don't just mean in terms of sexuality. I could probably write you a good long paragraph arguing that my botanical drawings are politically suspect and Not A Worthwhile Use of My Talents, and one of my college art professors would almost certainly be nodding along.

This is why I've dropped all the big feminist blogs and most of the political ones (Making Light being the major exception) from my reading list. I can spin arguments against who I am just fine on my own; I don't need to hear it from random strangers too.

Zeborah said...

And, in fact, that the notion that there are 'feminist choices' and 'non-feminist choices' is one of the major factors that drove me the fuck out of feminism.

I personally think that as long as she's choosing, it's a feminist choice.

And if one considers oneself obliged, in one's choices, to consider the impact it will have on other women's potential choices, then one ought to consider the impact on other women's ability to choose to work in the house as well as other women's ability to choose to work in the salaried workforce.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Hello Erin the Lurker!

I'm glad that reading some of my stuff has been helpful to you in sorting out where you're at. Though I'm sad that you so get where I'm coming from on the whole "cheerfully explain why whatever I do is Wrong" thing.

I suppose it's a not uncommon bit of socialisation, but it still stinks on ice, alas.

Anonymous said...

once upon a time, a lovely man married to a submissive woman told me that he noticed that most subs he knew were absolutely in control of everything outside of their CONSENSUAL (had to capitalize it, because apparently no one friggin' gets it) D/s relationships, and that being submissive was a way for them to give up that control and responsibility for a bit.

but whatever the hell the reason is, it's your life, your choice, and your orgasms. :)

Anonymous said...

I found your blog from the Feminist Carnival of Sexual Freedom and Autonomyl. I've been reading Feministe for years, and I posted in that comments thread. I focused on Jill's question: "are there any good resources online for sex from a feminist perspective? Not blogs, but more along the lines of info sites." The other points made me go "wha??" so I chose to not address them.

What interested me was that no one except for me and two other people (as far as I can tell, there were no others) posted links to some good sex resources online. Instead of just giving Jill what she asked for, the comments devolved into creepy arguments about sex and feminism. I thought it was interesting that no one save less than a handful actually answered Jill's question.