A while back, I wrote a little tirade about how irritating I found Ariel Levy and her limiting views on female sexuality to be. I also said that Levy, for all her wing-flapping, fell short of offering any real solutions to the problems she felt were plaguing our culture with regards to women and sexuality. And I suggested that I might have some solutions. Which I do. But first, let’s revisit a topic that dear Ariel and I can both almost agree on: pleasure and desire in young women.
In her book, Levy takes a chapter to talk about how “Raunch Culture” is affecting young women. She very astutely points out that female adolescents, who are already dealing with raging hormones, peer pressure, the need to fit in, etc. are being bombarded with images of sexiness in the media and being pressured to look sexy while simultaneously being told through abstinence –only programs in their schools, not to have sex. Confusing for anyone, I would imagine, but even more so for a teen. Levy points out that we are doing very little to help girls distinguish their sexual desires from their desires for attention. The sad thing about this, she says, is that from the beginning of their experiences as sexual beings, they regard sex as a performance that you give for attention, rather than something thrilling that you engage in because you want to. I couldn’t agree more.
Even more fascinating is Levy’s reference to Deborah Tolman, a woman who has researched and written extensively on teen girls and sexuality. Tolman talks to girls about their experience of “wanting” versus their experience of “sex”, which is more often than not about being wanted. Tolman (and Levy) use the phrase “silent bodies” to describe the sexual experiences of these young girls. Whether or not these women were having sex, they had a very difficult time feeling and expressing arousal and desire in their bodies. They instead chose to muffle these feelings, out of fear for where it might take them, shame and anxiety. Nevertheless, they were still engaging in sexual activities and more often than not, these activities were described as having “just happened” to them. Tolman points out that not feeling any sexual desire can put girls at great risk. “When a girl does not know what her own feelings are, when she disconnects the apprehending psychic part of herself from what is happening in her own body, she then becomes especially vulnerable to the power of others’ feelings.” Or, as Levy sums it up, you have to know what you want in order to know what you don’t want.
In her book Dilemmas of Desire, Tolman argues that sexual desire, in and of itself, is not dangerous, essentially masculine or monstrous. It’s a part of our relational world, a sign of our connection to our own bodies and our connection to other people. Basing her argument on Jean Baker Miller’s assertion that sexual authenticity (the ability to bring one’s own real feelings of sexual desire and sexual pleasure meaningfully into intimate relationships) is a key feature of women’s psychological health, Tolman says that the body is the counterpart of the psyche in the ongoing process of constructing a subjective sense of one’s sexuality. “Desire is a form of knowledge, gained through the body: In desiring, I know I exist.”
If what Tolman and Levy are saying is true, then a very real solution to the problem would be to educate young women on how to develop a subjective sense of their sexual selves. In other words, to teach them how to get in touch with what desire and arousal feel like to them, how they experience it in their bodies and how to express what they want and don’t want. When Ariel Levy talks about the pornification of our culture, I think what she is talking about is the extent to which she sees women, young and not-so-young, imitating or playing at being sexy. There is a difference between a woman who is “acting” sexy for the sake of wanting to be desired by someone or wanting to fit in to something and a woman who is “being” sexy, that is fully embodying her sexuality and fully aware of and owning her desires, without apology and without shame. The former becomes an easy target for other people’s desires, because her main objective is to please. The latter will pick and choose who she wants to share herself with and when based on her experience of what her body is telling her. But in order to hear her body, she has to learn to listen to it. Guess what we’re going to talk about now?
I dance at S Factor studios. You may or may not be familiar with S Factor’s curriculum, but one of the things they ask their students to focus on is how they feel in their bodies when they are dancing. They spend a lot of time on floor work, which gets you out of your head, they encourage you to slow down and pay attention to your breath, but most of all, they encourage their students to pay attention to what they are feeling in their bodies as they move. I feel a lot of different things in my body when I dance sexually: anger, shame, fear, joy, sadness, exhaustion. But desire is a part of every movement I make. I move my body in a way that feels good to me. I learn to touch myself and really experience the sensual pleasure of running my hand across my breasts or my belly. And by doing this, I not only awaken desire in my body, I become intimate with what desire feels like in my body. So here we have a very sexual, movement based practice, in a safe, all-female environment that encourages women to gain a subjective sense of their bodies through desire. Is this not exactly what these young women’s “silent bodies” are sorely in need of? A way to awaken, familiarize and de-stigmatize their experience of desire? So why is Ariel Levy getting her proverbial panties in a twist over pole dancing classes? If it were up to me, some form of all-girls erotic dance class would be a part of sex education for women in schools across the country. Teenage girls are already bombarded with images of what “acting” sexy looks like. It’s time to teach them what “being” sexual feels like in their bodies. The pitfalls of having inexperienced, uneducated, silent sexually active women are too great. Quite frankly, I think there are women well out of their teenage years who could also benefit from this type of education. Maybe that’s part of the reason the pole movement s gaining so much momentum in the world.