Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Women and Their Erotic Power

The body remembers, the bones remember, the joints remember, even the little finger remembers.  Memory is lodged in pictures and feelings in the cells themselves.  Like a sponge filled with water, anywhere the flesh is pressed, wrung, even touched lightly, a memory may flow out in a stream.

Last year I rewrote a chapter out of my thesis called “Women and Their Erotic Power” and sent it to S Factor magazine to be published.  Since then, I have not really revisited the topic (except briefly in my review of the play “The Why Factor”) and I think it’s high time.  If you managed to make it through my last article without your eyes rolling back in your head, then some of this might seem familiar.  If, however, you got to the first quote and quit (and I can hardly blame you), read on!

            In past blogs, we have talked about how there is a huge moral stigma associated with sex in the United States.  Female sexuality in particular has suffered from cultural oppressions such as the pervasively negative view of “The Whore”.  As a result of this oppression, many women are often forced to choose between either repressing the full expression of their sexual feelings and desires or openly expressing their sexuality and being criticized or shamed for this behavior. 
We have also talked about how sexuality is primarily experienced in the body.  While there are a number of ways to explore sexual repression in women, few of them address the body.  When one is to be “embodied” (present in their body both emotionally and physically) the exploration of sexuality can be significantly deepened and many of the underlying psychological issues related to sexuality and the body can be healed.  (This, by the way, was the core argument of my thesis for my MA in psychology). 
Finally, we have introduced the idea that dance can be an excellent way to explore sexuality and embodiment, particularly erotic dance.  The rising popularity of all-female erotic dance classes could be driven by any number of needs:  the need to feel something forbidden, to reclaim a lost part of one’s self, or simply to feel sexy.   Whatever the drive may be, the result is almost always that women are experimenting with reconnecting to a deeply feminine, primal place.  This place is where erotic power resides.  In this article, the importance of a meaningful connection to erotic power, as well as its implications for a healthy female psyche will be explored.

            In order to understand the erotic and how important it is for women to feel connected to it, it might be helpful to discuss the ideas of several female authors who have defined this primal female place and written about it.  Audra Lorde wrote an essay called “Uses of The Erotic”.  (She would probably have a heart attack if she knew I was using her essay to defend erotic dance, but then again, it doesn’t seem like she knows a thing about mind-body psychology.)  In her essay, Ms. Lorde gives us a brief history of the word “erotic”: The word “erotic” comes from the Greek word “Eros”.  “Eros” literally means the personification of love in all its aspects.  “Eros” comes from “Chaos”, and “Chaos” is the personification of creative power and harmony.  These two definitions – love and creative power and harmony- are key to defining the erotic. 
Lorde believes that erotic power, (which lies within each of us, male or female) is a very feminine and spiritual place.  It is rooted in the power of being, the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.  She goes on to say that erotic expressions that are superficial (that is, representations of sexuality that lack any sense of connection to our deeper, sensual selves) have been encouraged in our society. This is because they are comfortably interpreted as a symbol of extreme femininity or, alternatively, as signs of female inferiority.  However, true erotic power demands that we be in touch with our deepest longings, rather than shying away from them.  Lorde defines the erotic as “a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feeling.”  In other words, the “erotic” serves as an internal guide.  It acts as a bridge between our conscious mind and our most chaotic, subconscious emotions. It asks us to look at what we are choosing to do in our lives, but also to examine how we are feeling when we are in that moment of doing.  What Lorde is describing is a type of internal “knowing”, based on feelings and non-rational knowledge.  She asks us to consider the phrase:  “It feels right to me”.  This, she says, is an acknowledgement of the strength of the erotic as a form of true knowledge.
            Unfortunately, women have come to distrust this power that rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge.  The erotic has often been misnamed, and is often times used against women.  It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized.  For this reason, women turn away from their erotic power, and as a result it is rarely regarded as a legitimate source of power and information.

Another woman who writes about the erotic (but gives it a different name) is a psychologist by the name of Clarissa Pinkola Estes.  Estes trained as a Jungian analyst and has studied both clinical psychology and ethnology (ethnology is the study of groups, tribes in particular).  She has done extensive research of wolves, and in her book Women Who Run with Wolves she draws strong comparisons between women and wolves:  Their common traits as well as they ways in which they have both been misunderstood and persecuted.  Her name for women’s connection to this deep internal knowledge  (or erotic power) is “The Wild Woman”.  Estes argues that when women are disconnected from their wild psyche, they suffer.  To find themselves, therefore, they must return to “their instinctive lives, their deeper knowing”.  Estes has a novel approach for teaching her work, which is primarily through story-telling.  This allows her to bring alive various myths and archetypes that embody the Wild Woman.  She argues that connecting with this wild nature does not mean coming undone, changing everything, or going crazy or out of control.  In fact, she teaches that joining with our instinctual nature means quite the opposite. It means to “establish territory, to find one’s pack, to be in one’s body with certainty and pride regardless of the body’s gifts and limitations; to speak and act in one’s behalf; to be aware, alert, to draw on the innate feminine powers of intuition and sensing; to rise with dignity, and to retain as much consciousness as possible.”   Interestingly, this description of the joining with the wild woman is quite similar to Lorde’s description of connection to erotic power. 

Estes also describes, in women’s words, some of the symptoms that arise when a woman is disconnected from her wild psyche, her internal guides: “feeling dry, fatigued, depressed, frail, confused, gagged, muzzled, unaroused, frightened, weak, without inspiration, without animation… without meaning, shame-bearing, chronically fuming, stuck, uncreative, compressed, crazed…powerless, blocked, overprotective of self…inability to pace one’s self…to be self-conscious…to fear to venture by one’s self or reveal one’s self, fear one will run on, run out on, run down, cringing before authority, humiliation, numbness, anxiety…afraid to bite back when there is nothing left to do…sick stomach, cut in the middle…becoming conciliatory or nice too easily…superiority complex.  These severances, she says, are not a disease of an era or a century, but become an epidemic anywhere and anytime women are captured, anytime the wildish nature has become entrapped. 

In one chapter of her book, titled The Joyous Flesh, Estes talks about the body as a vehicle for reconnection with a woman’s wildish nature.  She describes the body as a “multilingual being” that speaks through color, temperature, its subtle movements, and its internal sensations such as a leaping heart or a pit in the stomach.  She argues that the importance of the body lies not so much in its appearance, but in its vitality, its responsiveness, and its endurance.  A woman who constantly must monitor her body and its form is robbed of her joyful relationship to her given form.  Estes encourages women to take back their bodies by ignoring the popular ideas about what constitutes happiness and the oppressive obsessions with body shape.  Taking your body back means not waiting or holding back, not restricting your appetite for anything - sex, love, work - because society tells you that you are too hungry, but instead living your life full throttle and with tremendous joy.  The body, once reclaimed, becomes a tool for gathering information and a source of strength, joy and knowledge for a woman, rather than a source of shame or embarrassment.  The purpose of the body and what constitutes a healthy body, says Estes, is that it responds; it can experience a spectrum of feeling, work as it was meant to, and it is not permitted to be anesthetized.  In her own unique way, Estes is describing a form of embodiment.  She beautifully illustrates a connection to a deeper knowledge within a woman that is possible for every woman, a knowledge that could also be described as erotic power.

This knowledge, this erotic power, can be deeply threatening to some people.  Lorde argues that one reason why the erotic is so feared is because it empowers women; it becomes a lens through which women scrutinize things, which forces women to evaluate what is important to them honestly and in terms of its meaning in their lives, rather than settling for the convenient and the conventional or the safe.  She echoes Estes’ concerns about living on external guides rather than from internal knowledge and needs.  She warns that we should not ignore these “erotic guides”, lest we conform to certain societal structures that are not based on human need.  She also agrees that when a woman begins to live from the inside out, and is in touch with this deeper knowledge within her, she begins to be responsible for (and is therefore able to reclaim) herself.

Through these teachings, we can begin to see how connection with not just the body, but with the erotic, the wild woman, that deeper knowledge within is both deeply nourishing and essential to the healthy psyche of a woman.  A woman’s authentic connection with her erotic power requires her to be embodied.  That is, it requires her to feel all the sensations in her body as they arise, along with the inherent emotional notes that accompany these sensations, and it demands that she consciously acknowledge them.  Embodiment also requires that we be able to listen to our body’s experience and notice the areas that are numb or aching, as well as the areas that are open and filled with pleasure.  Sexual embodiment demands that we engage in the sensual pleasures of our bodies, acknowledge the accompanying fear and shame and let it go. 

It seems that one of the most effective ways for women to gain an authentic connection to their sexuality and their erotic power or potential is through working directly with, and through the body.  Because dance is an avenue for working with the body, and because it is inherently sexual, it is a natural tool for helping women to achieve this connection.  Specifically, because erotic dance is overtly sexual, for centuries it has served not just as an entertainment venue for men but as a way for women to express their inherent erotic power to each other, to the gods, and to themselves.  Unfortunately, it has also been subverted into a practice that exploits women and encourages shallow representations of extreme femininity and of the act of sex itself. 

But what if the movements of erotic dance, the art of the striptease, were removed from the public venue and put in a different environment—an all-female one?  How would this change it?  This is exactly what is happening across the country with the widespread popularity of all-female exotic dance classes, and the result thus far has been nothing short of a modern-day female awakening.


  1. Claire,
    I may be repeating myself, but I think my first comment got swallowed up.

    I came here after reading your comments relating to the second of Cuban's posts about feminism. What you had to say challenged my perspective about pole-dancing in particular, and the freedom of women to express themselves erotically in general.

    Just wanted to say how articulate and interesting you were both there and here in this post. It made for fascinating reading and gives me much to think about.

  2. Hi Deborah,

    Thank you, so very much for you comments. The thread on Cuban's post did not end so well and I lost my patience a bit. However, I deeply appreciate both your willingness to re-examine your perspective on pole dancing and your kindness towards my writing. It means a lot to me. xo

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