Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse has been making the rounds among the feminist blogs, as those who’ve never read it tackle the contents and those who have read it discuss how it’s impacted their lives. I’ve been plugging through the book myself, though between my children and Dworkin’s thick writing, it’s slow going; I’ve gotten more out of the internet debate surrounding the book than from the book itself (so far).
One of the ideas to come out of the discussion of the book has been that heterosexuals especially should evaluate the role of penetrative sex in their lives. Why is there an idea of “foreplay” that isn’t itself “sex”, the ultimate goal of which is to lead to sex – penetrative sex, specifically penis-in-vagina (since penetrative oral sex is also part of “foreplay”)? What would sex be like without penetration?
Part of what it’s gelled for me is that male sexuality is nothing without penetration in modern society, because all other forms of sexual activity are dismissed as feminizing, except for masturbation – which itself is only okay within certain constraints: you must still be experiencing regular penetrative sex; you must be using porn or otherwise engaging in objectification; you may not have any emotional or spiritual investment in your sex life at all, and especially with masturbation, and your sex life likewise cannot enter your emotional and spiritual life.
One of our strongest definitions of a man is someone who has the power and position to be dismissive. If we’re going to redefine men, we’re going to have to stop being dismissive – of women, of “feminizing” qualities, of our own spirituality and sexual natures. We’re going to have to reclaim sex in the name of spirituality even as we reclaim spirituality itself.
Male spirituality must exist within a female spiritual framework. All its referencing points to female spirituality; all its guides and brakes and hanging pegs are rigged from the natural arrangement of female spirituality. Male spirituality is a modular attachment to female spirituality.
Since we’re doing this with an eye toward separatism, let’s firm up our concepts a bit. Male separatism should consist of two ideals: the recognition that we must stop crowding women out of life, and a focus on healing our own wounded masculinity within the context of a female world. The second part is really a corollary of the first; the first is really a reflection respective to female separatism, the idea that women must sever their ties to male culture as a whole and individual men specifically in order to fight the cancers we’ve perpetrated upon them. So it will be helpful to consider our processing here in terms of our role in the greater frame of female separatism.
So the title of this post is “Celibacy”. The traditional use of the word has been dual-natured, referring not just to abstinence from sex but also to being unmarried; the word could mean either or both. I’m going to try on a new definition for size:
cel*i*ba*cy, n.: abstinence from penetrative sex and any other sexual expression which impedes the development of intimacy.
If men have sought to control women through sex, through power imbalances and rape and all the problems tied up in penetrative sex, then the first step to relinquishing our idea of control is to stop engaging in penetrative sex. With women and with each other. Penis stays out of everyone’s orifices, including other men’s. There’s just too much power-play bullshit involved.
Notice that I’ve been using the term penetrative sex rather than just sex. I’ve been doing so for several reasons.
- First, since male sexuality has been the tool we’ve used to beat women into submission, we can’t simply stop having sex and say that we’ve done our part. Even if we don’t exercise sex as a physical mode, our sexual identities are still propagated throughout modern culture. We use sex roles as our basis for interaction, whether with women or with other men. We must therefore rebuild our sexual identities (once again, understanding that it must be within a female framework).
- Second, sex is part of who we are. Just like spirituality, it’s a presence which affects our thoughts and actions, whether we get metaphysical with it, address it as a purely biological phenomenon, or ignore it altogether. Asexual people still possess a sexuality. The same goes for those who might ordinarily be considered (or consider themselves) “exempt” from sex or sexuality: those afflicted by hormonal disorders, major physical disabilities, certain grievous injuries, some mental or developmental conditions, and so on. Sexuality runs deeper than simply the will, desire, and ability to seek gratification through physical stimulation.
- Finally, sex itself is not necessarily problematic, especially when separated from penetration, with its power issues and goal-oriented pursuit of (male) orgasm. Sex without expectations is powerful. Unlike the tale presented by modern culture and its vanguard, the sex-positive movement, sex is meaningful. It has great capacity to strengthen bonds, deepen communication, and remove barriers.
On the other hand, sex within a dehumanizing context (penetrative sex within rape culture is the big culprit) severs, obfuscates, and obstructs. Either way, sex has consequences; it is never a neutral act. It must be handled carefully. This is why I advocate abstaining from penetration as the first step.
To coin a convoluted analogy: If relationships with others – any relationship, be it romantic, familial, friendly, etc. – were a network of roads, then sex would be a part of the two-ton truck we each drive down those roads, and penetration would be the snide voice from the GPS unit, ramming us toward a destination that we didn’t even type, regardless of road conditions, map changes, or speed limits. Boom! Fireballs everywhere, wailing, gnashing of teeth, cops in pursuit, the truck’s flying off the bridge, plus you’ve got gonorrhea.
Our second step is of greater direct importance, but is perhaps less simply accomplished. But if we are to stop treating women as our fucktoys, we must eliminate expectations. For relationships to be meaningful, for us to exist as something more than selfish, grabby frat boys, we have to stop expecting to get our way. We have to stop having an “our way” altogether.
This is something larger than celibacy, but it overlaps celibacy, because for men sex is all about expectations. We expect to have sex pretty much on demand, whether it’s from a spouse, significant other, someone we pick up at a bar, or a prostitute. The entire sex services industry – prostitution, pornography, and therefore human trafficking – depends on that expectation, and it uses and destroys women to feed our consumption. (Just like how your cheap t-shirts can happen because of human trafficking for labor, only at least rape isn’t always a daily routine for sweatshop slaves.)
For that matter, you can trace the whole thing backwards. We expect sex from someone because we’re in a relationship (or worse, without a relationship at all); we’re in a relationship because of expectations and pressures placed by us and society as a whole on our significant other; we started the relationship with dating and all of the expectations there (e.g. the third date rule); dating comes out of an expectation that any potentially compatible pairing should be explored. From the moment that a man locks eyes with a potential sex partner, especially in a heterosexual context, every one of those expectations is in place.
Way on back up there (three prepositions – hell yes Southern upbringing) in the revised definition of celibacy, I included the word intimacy. That’s a term which needs to be shaken up. It seems loaded, but it’s actually unloaded; it’s been divested of meanings like “a close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person or group” and “the quality of being comfortable, warm, or familiar”.
Think back to the last time you felt that way about a female in your life. If you’ve got a sister with whom you’re close, or an aunt or grandmother, that’s great. Because in those relationships (hopefully) there aren’t any personal sexual expectations involved. There are sexual expectations involved; your female relatives probably expect you to not commit rape, and you probably expect them to not be “sluts” (or “prudes”, depending on which term you vilify more and how you define them). But with those aside, no sexual expectations get in the way of your close, familiar, comfortable, warm affection. Social bullshit about men and women, yes, but no personal sexual expectations.
Have you ever had a platonic relationship with a woman to whom you’re not related which has had the same quality? If so, was she in your age range (or in the range whose members you would consider for a sexual relationship, since men try to fuck twenty-year-olds regardless of our own ages)? Did you know her before puberty (though this generally doesn’t matter; you’ll try to fuck her regardless)? Was she in a monogamous relationship with someone else (though this generally doesn’t matter; you’ll try to fuck her regardless)? Did you find her physically attractive, or at least not repulsive?
A string of “yes” answers doesn’t mean that you necessarily had a relationship revolving around your desire to fuck her. But I guarantee it was a factor, and I guarantee that the timbre of your interactions was quite different than those between you and your female relatives.
Think back to some of your female friends from your past, particularly your teenage years and early twenties. If you can tell me that there’s not one friendship you felt was hampered by sexual expectations, even the most hidden, unspoken, impossible expectations, then I figure you can pack your bags and move to Jersey right now. For those of you who can at least manage a twinge of melancholy over some lost potential good that never came to be – something not centered on sex, romance, or any conflation of the two – then stick around. We’ve got something to work with.
This all holds for non-heterosexual men, by the way; not having sex with or dating women does not make us exempt from misogynistic behavior. We’re still part of a culture which decrees that men cannot be truly intimate. We’re still part of a culture which tells us how to treat women. “Fag hag” is just another dehumanizing term at the end of the day. Same goes for trans women, asexual men, and everyone else who’s male-assigned-at-birth. Misogyny is a cultural phenomenon, not a sexual one; even if you’re not expressing your misogyny through personal sexual expectations on women, it’s still in there, I pretty much guarantee it.
And for the firmly heterosexual men: what if your heterosexual male friends wanted to have deep, open, unbarred relationships with you, the kind which could be described as close, familiar, comfortable, warm, affectionate – intimate? How uncomfortable does that make you feel? Why? What does that say about the way you gender and sexualize those words, those relationships?
How would your life change if you gave up penetrative sex and sexual expectations placed on others? How would your relationships change? How would the women around you respond? And the men? What does that say about them, and about what your beliefs and attitudes mean to them? What do their attitudes mean to you?