I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure (I do, I do, I do)

It is time, she said upon waking up this morning, to blog about sex at Feministe.

I talked about falling in love, falling wildly in love, but I didn’t really talk about sex. Because they’re two different things, obviously, but maybe I was a little bit afraid?

I used to blog about sex all the damn time. Back on my personal blog which has been largely unupdated other than links to things I’ve written elsewhere for over a year, sex is still the first subject in my tagline (which, if you don’t feel like clicking over to look at my pretty design that I worked hard on for a blog I don’t use, is “sex. politics. rock’n’roll. film. comics. lipgloss. monsters”).

That’s still a fairly accurate description of what I write about, except you could possibly put in “Pop” for rock’n’roll because, well, y’all read my pop music post, right?

So, sex. Sex and guilt. Because guilt is still such an issue for most people when dealing with sex, and I’m not just talking women here. Or religious reasons.

I’m still searching for completely guilt-free sex. There are so many layers of baggage, some of which are particular to women. Some of which are particular to feminists. I’ve seen far too many blog posts in which we are told that certain sex acts are wrong, unfeminist, etc. To which I say: No. The only sex that is unfeminist is sex that any of the people involved don’t want to be having. There is no particular meaning in a blowjob. You are not sending a political message by having anal sex. What I do in my bedroom is not preventing the Revolution from happening.

For me, personally, this issue has been loaded even more by a relationship I had where guilt colored all of our sexual interactions. I’m not going into details, but it did an absolute number on me. It killed my desire for that person, and while it wasn’t the only thing that killed our relationship, it was a huge part of it.

Talking to a brilliant friend the other day, I said that I think my particular feminist project is getting to a point where women (and all marginalized people) are able to fully articulate their desires. You can’t always get what you want, as the Stones sang, but just being able to identify what you do want can be incredibly liberatory.

Many of us know what we DON’T want, but I think guilt often comes in from the gray area between what we know we don’t want and what we aren’t sure if we do want–and external cues from the world that tell us what we should want or do. The things you feel guilty about come from your family, your religious background, your friends and peers, your past relationships and current, your promises and commitments.

I want no guilt in desire. Sometimes the things we want, for various reasons, are not things we should actually have/do (see above promises and commitments, etc), but there’s nothing wrong in the wanting.

The last time I took on this subject at my blog, I wrote:

Sexual desire isn’t the only thing that women have been limited on. We’re expected to be restrained about food, about power, about love, about friendships, about everything. Even I worry constantly that I’ve crossed a line, that I’m bothering someone if I call too much or email too much, and I think that stems from the same place: feeling that I’ve made the fact that I want something too clear, too obvious.

One of the things that bothers me especially is the “He’s just not that into you” framing for women, particularly heterosexual women: we are supposed to worry about whether we are desirable, not what we want. The “No means no” model works the same way: we are consenting to something, not desiring it. The “she wanted it” rape excuse: our wants are not our own to define.

There are lots of feminist projects, but this is mine. Looking back at what I’ve written about, much of it fits into this frame. Desire. Getting rid of guilt. Learning to articulate those desires and not compromise on them or let other people’s baggage color them. Making space for our pleasures as well as fighting the good fight. After all, what do we want a just world for if not for space for all of us to be happy, to have what we want?

The Yes Means Yes model–I like to think of it not as enthusiastic consent, but as pursuit of desire. Mutual desires.

And what do I want? I want to be excited by someone again.

And what I want to do with said person who excites me? None of your business.


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21 Responses to I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure (I do, I do, I do)

  1. Natalia says:

    You are not sending a political message by having anal sex.

    WHAT?! Goddamit, Sarah, thanks for RUINING it for me!

  2. chava says:

    Abso-fuckin-loutly.

    And I mean that quite literally, in this case.

  3. groggette says:

    awww, you just made me realize that there’s only been one person I’ve ever had completely guilt free sex with. Fuck, that’s sad.

    There are so many layers of baggage, some of which are particular to women. Some of which are particular to feminists.

    I think this points to why this one particular partner has been so good in the guilt free aspect. While neither of us knows the details of the other, we both know that we’ve both been raped in the past and that makes us both more vigilant about boundaries. He also self identifies as feminist and walks the talk.
    There’s no pressure when I’m with him and he really watches out and listens for my verbal and nonverbal cues.

  4. Jadey says:

    Ahahahaha, yeah.

    As a sex-positive, highly sexual and physically affectionate, poly, and panamorous person, sex is one of my favourite *solo* pursuits. I find the stress that (for me) goes along with physical intimacy of almost any kind, short of hugs and a snuggle, makes the whole shebang less than worth it. Having been fortunate enough to have one partner with whom I could have fairly stress- and guilt-free sex, I do know what kind of experience I’m looking for now, but I’m having a hell of a time finding it.

    I could put more effort into looking for partners, but it’s ranking low on my list of priorities. The energy required to navigate 1) intimacy!, b) social anxieties and body image issues!, and iii) the risk of having to explain/justify my non-mainstream sexual identity to an uninformed partner (may or may not come up, but it kills me if it does), makes me wanna cry sometimes. I always feel like I’m too socially awkward, inexperienced, and unattractive for casual hook-ups, and I don’t want to fall in love and have a “serious relationship” just to get laid.

    I definitely have desire. I’m not even terribly shy about expressing it (my problem was usually too few boundaries rather than too many). But the baggage, the baggage… I haven’t found a pay-off that made it all worth it.

  5. Marlene says:

    I am sending a message when I give a blowjob. I am making a political statement when I have anal sex. I am living out my politics whenever I do whatever.

    Blowjobs and anal sex are framed in this post as inherently antifeminist acts that one can, if thoughtful, do anyway. I disagree. Any pleasure I have, including my personal taste for occasional humiliation and pain, is feminist. It is feminist because it is what I want and I am not being bound by cultural structures that discourage me from valuing my own pleasure.

    My asshole knows no guilt.

    All that said, I’d like to point to something I wrote about spending an evening with some lovely people who have a better handle on such issues than many:

    http://fukshot.com/2010/05/23/a-night-with-the-boys/

  6. Ami says:

    The only sex that is unfeminist is sex that any of the people involved don’t want to be having. There is no particular meaning in a blowjob. You are not sending a political message by having anal sex. What I do in my bedroom is not preventing the Revolution from happening.

    Yes, yes, yes. Thank you for so skillfully articulating this. It’s something I have come a long way toward understanding. I used to throw around judgments about other people’s sex lives and participate in a lot of both slut and prude shaming…then I came to feminism and I started to realize that my judgment came from my own guilt and curiosity, both of which I have to (and am still) working through.

  7. Sarah says:

    @Marlene

    Maybe I wasn’t getting my point across. My point was to say that blowjobs and anal sex and sex in general is not something that is feminist OR antifeminist. What you said here:

    “It is feminist because it is what I want and I am not being bound by cultural structures that discourage me from valuing my own pleasure.”

    Was what I was trying to get across.

  8. Shoshie says:

    YES.

    This?

    “Sexual desire isn’t the only thing that women have been limited on. We’re expected to be restrained about food, about power, about love, about friendships, about everything. Even I worry constantly that I’ve crossed a line, that I’m bothering someone if I call too much or email too much, and I think that stems from the same place: feeling that I’ve made the fact that I want something too clear, too obvious.”

    BRILLIANT. I spent my entire adolescence feeling like shit for calling up friends to see if they wanted to hang out. Because I couldn’t wrap my brain around the fact that I wasn’t bothering them. That they’d be just as happy to receive a phone call from me as I would be to receive one from them. And even now, with a loving husband with a wonderful sex life, I have trouble asking for him to focus on my pleasure. Way less trouble than he has asking me. Goddamn patriarchy, hurting my sex life.

  9. Tiffany says:

    “…I think my particular feminist project is getting to a point where women (and all marginalized people) are able to fully articulate their desires.”

    I definitely share this project! I live in Calgary, Alberta, which is not always friendly to expressions of desire, especially among marginalized groups. I spend as much time as possible in San Francisco and Vancouver, but I got tired of feeling so alone and constrained when I came home, so I decided to try to make a difference here instead of just waiting until I could move somewhere “better”. The Center for Sex and Culture runs a writing and reading circle once a month, and I thought that would be a great place to start.

    Carol Queen and Jen Cross from the Sex & Memory Writing Group and the Erotic Reading Circle were super helpful, and we’re just about to have the second meeting of our group here in conservative Calgary! If you’re in the area, come by – the event info is

    The goal is to create a safe, open, creative space for writers of any experience level or orientation.

    I love this post, as well. I would love to see sex become joyful, guilt-free, and enthusiastically consented to by everyone involved, every time it happens.

  10. Tiffany says:

    I totally messed up that link. I’m sorry!

  11. Thanks for a great post. I hope it’s not too “butwhataboutthemenz?!?” to mention that everything you would want for women regarding sex and desire and guilt, I would also want for men in this world, where (especially straight) male sexuality is currently often limited to stereotypes of male masculinity (e.g. men only want sex without strings, blowjobs and no intimacy, etc.).

  12. Ruth says:

    “I spent my entire adolescence feeling like shit for calling up friends to see if they wanted to hang out. Because I couldn’t wrap my brain around the fact that I wasn’t bothering them.”

    I call it the “I’m not worthy” syndrome and I haz it in spades. I’m much better now at 43 than I was when I was younger but yeah, asking for anything, not just sexually, has always been very very hard.

  13. Hot Tramp says:

    Actually, I think the He’s Just Not That Into You model IS about our desires — because it’s about learning to say, “This person is attractive, but this person is not going to meet my needs; therefore, I am moving on.” The alternative is fretting and hemming and hawing about WHY he’s not meeting me needs and WHAT CAN I DO to convince him to meet my needs or MAYBE I should just let go of my needs altogether! Gross. My needs are infinitely more likely to get met if I can recognize when to cut my losses and move on.

  14. Sarah says:

    @Hot Tramp

    I got totally distracted by the fact that your name and blog reference my favorite Bowie song ever. BUT!

    I think there was an attempt with the “He’s Just Not That Into You” thing to try to tell women to cut their losses. But it was still about whether HE was into YOU. That other guy who wrote the response “Let’s Face It, You’re Not That Into Him Either” is more what I want to see. Because I catch myself all the time getting worried about whether some person likes me–without having even decided if I like them all that much to begin with. I want to figure out whether I’m that into X or Y before I decide that it’s all about them being into me.

  15. Marlene says:

    @Sarah

    You were clear, I think, I wasn’t. It isn’t that you say these things are antifeminist. I just notice that you point this out; I notice that it still needs to be pointed out.

    It’s not really with you that I disagree, but the notion that we even still need to say that no sex act is inherently bad or inherently antifeminist.

    Sorry for writing too quickly and too much from the emotions of my own experience. That wasn’t fair to you or to what you wrote.

  16. Sam says:

    Hey Sarah,

    interesting post!

    I think guilt and desire will always be intertwined to a degree. I suppose that’s a matter of human nature – pleasure is in the moment, but as humans we’re also aware of past (baggage) and the future (consequences), so the moment is never *just the moment*. People have tried to reduce the influence of past and future on their present by all kinds of spiritual and chemical means since forever but with largely limited success. Maybe at some point they read Camus and accepted who they/we are, and how we deal with absurdity, but apart from that, I don’t have any ideas about how to deal with the abstract problem of guilt and pleasure.

    As for a more specific part of it, gender roles, maybe you’re interested in a theory about guilt and (cultural) value attribution when it comes to sex that I got from David Foster-Wallace’s “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” and tried to explain in a wonderful post about “manliness and feminism” on Clarisse Thorn’s blog. It’s mainly in comment #70 –

    http://clarissethorn.wordpress.com/2009/12/09/manliness-and-feminism-the-followup/#comment-795

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  18. Kaz says:

    This is a good post.

    I am genuinely surprised, because as an asexual person I figured reading your intro this would be meaningless for me at best… but if we widen the idea of desire far enough this resonates with my own experiences. Just that in my case it was my desire *not* to have sex that I had a great deal of difficulty articulating, because it’s also not considered socially acceptable for people especially women to just opt out of the whole deal (and definitely not in the very liberal German university town I lived in as a teenager, where not wanting to have sex equalled being prudish and repressed). Learning that I could say no, and more than that that I could say never, was a very powerful experience and I still think for this reason that my identifying as asexual is a profoundly feminist act.

    Soo you wrote a post about sex an asexual person got something out of. Be impressed!

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