Feminist Desire Chronicles: the day I threw away my sex books
I’m a proper full-on geek at heart. Whenever I care about anything, one of my first responses is to start accumulating and absorbing the relevant literature. Given this, it’s perhaps not all that surprising that among others, I’ve also acquired a large number of sex books over the years. I don’t mean erotica particularly – more like a range of memoirs and “how-to” guides of various flavours. This is a post about my new and shifting attitude to sex, and, in connection, about the day I threw away my sex books.
Given the choice of the virgin/slut dichotomy, back in the day, I thought I had a pretty good idea what side I wanted to land on. I relished any chance to be knowledgeable about and ‘good at’ sex, and I did my reading and my research. I suppose that’s why I took to sex positive feminism so naturally as soon as I came across it. Liberation through agency, through conscious sexual desire – yes, that was me. I mean, it’s a very ‘cool’ way to be liberated. Some assurances that I wouldn’t have to give up high heels and femininity, and off I went, to a range of things from pole dancing classes to one night stands and rather sexually liberal communities. I don’t want to slag it off too much – I think that it was fun and a learning experience, and also that it was exactly the right path for me to be following at the time (much as that reflects a whole set of privileges that I had access to and was unaware of – but that’s really a separate topic). However, it’s also one that I diverged from significantly since, and it’s really that progression of change that I wanted to write about.
I kind of think that my past self did the best she could – I feel like I got offered a set of choices, and that I went for what felt like the more radical one at the time. I don’t think there was an option of skipping ahead, at least with the information, attitudes and messages that I had been exposed to up to that point in my life, combined with the way I react to things. I don’t think there’s a skip ahead option available to many people, if anyone really. I think the paths to feminist desire are winding and secret, and those of us who end up following them all find different routes to get there. And at the time, I really thought about it a lot, and thought I had things pretty sorted in my head. And then, as has happened before, and I very much hope will continue to happen again, cracks in my basic beliefs about the way the world works started to form.
The first crack was innocuous. Almost not worth mentioning, except I think it disturbed the foundations just enough to eventually lead to a full collapse. And that first crack came in the unlikely shape of a woollen rainbow hat. I had borrowed it from a friend, and it was cute, and I was wearing it walking down the street. And that all sounds normal enough, except that it wasn’t my style at all – there was nothing alluring, or attractive, or sexy about it. I ended up wearing it actively despite that, and noticing my own reaction, asked the question for the first time: “Why is it that I feel the need to look attractive *all the time*?” It wasn’t a date, or a special occasion, or even a situation where I had to interact with anyone at all. It was just me, in the middle of the day, walking down the street.
You leave that question to brew slowly for a certain number of years, and you find it leads to all sorts of other questions. Questions like “Why is the worth of women in general linked to their attractiveness?” and “Is there no other choice? What if there’s more to me than that? What if there’s more to us than that?”. But also other questions that come later, like “How does this continual need to feel attractive and wanted affect the sex I have?” and eventually the killer one: “How much of my sexuality is borne out of my own desire, and how much of it is performed?”
So I started paying attention, really paying attention to what I wanted. Not an easy project under the circumstances, since what I wanted didn’t seem to particularly feature in the choices I’d been previously presented with. I mean, I don’t think “wanting to be sexy dream girl” is really about my desires at all, but you need to get out of that particular bubble to really grasp that. But anyway, I bumbled around a lot (and still do) not quite knowing what I want most of the time, and doing my best to listen to my own reactions and communicate them. And I don’t know, I still wouldn’t say it’s easy, but little by little, it got less impossible.
One of the things I noticed was that some situations made it easier than others to listen to that quiet voice in my head that expresses my desire. If you imagine it as a compass – on its own and without outside influence, it would maybe spin around for a little while, but would eventually point in the right direction. However, as soon as a big societal magnet came anywhere near it, it would be drawn to it with such force that telling the original direction was close to impossible. I find heteronormative sexuality to be one such gigantic magnet. Sometimes it’s not that I specifically want or don’t want intercourse – it’s just that I just *don’t know*. I can’t tell if I want it, or I just want to want it, and I get into a whole confusing tangle. Because such a huge amount of pressure is focused around our proving our sexuality and sexual worth and desirability etc etc, and such massive stakes hang on the occurrence and ‘success’ of intercourse, I find that the ideas of sexual validity or approval can really throw off my internal compass. In contrast, for example – I’m rarely in any doubt as to whether I want to play with a vibrator. Either I do or I don’t, and it’s simple, because it’s sufficiently far away from socially prescribed norms that it doesn’t have lots of added hooks in it. I sincerely hope that vibrators stay widespread enough to be available, but never become considered a necessary component of performed female sexuality – I feel it would be a sad loss for genuine feminist desire.
I find that intercourse is pretty much the most powerful magnet, but by no means the only situation with magnets and hooks in. I have a phrase, “situationally appropriate sex”, that I use to describe the phenomenon of my own mind dragging me into a sexual situation because it’s occasion x or we’re in location y, therefore we ‘ought’ to be having sex. Also, because it’s what couples do, because it’s what other couples do, because we haven’t had sex for a while, because unless we do, we’re not normal, and because it’s required as proof that we love each other. How the hell are you supposed to react anyway, when those are the stakes? It’s not that my desire is even necessarily unaligned, but it’s sometimes unsurprisingly hard to tell, when your mind is stuck in a knot of “It’s occasion x/it’s been y days/weeks, and I want to want sex, because I love my partner, and I’ve been told that people who love each other have sex on occasions such as x/as often as y, while people who don’t have sex on occasion x/have sex less frequently than y are stuck in loveless relationships and should be pitied and condescended to”. Notice that the only personally relevant thing in that sentence is “I love my partner”. Everything else is a knot that’s built up of ridiculous one-size-fits-all social expectations. And as a rule, situationally appropriate sex tends to be rubbish and goes wrong more easily (something about intrinsic desire vs extrinsic pressure). The performed element removes the very core of what makes sexuality intimate – the genuine connection with my partner.
I threw away my sex books, because I don’t think any amount of sex tips, suggested positions and anatomical diagrams will give me that connection either. I think they were useful for me in terms of building up some essential basic knowledge, and normalising different sexual acts to the point of making me comfortable enough to talk about them directly. That having been done – right now, I feel the urge to figure it out on my own. I think any amount of sexperts and ‘oughts’ and suggestions from anywhere and anyone is at the moment just being noise that’s throwing off my internal compass some more. Same with any pressure to do anything, or situationally appropriate desires. I’ve been trying to train myself to at least spot them early, and whenever possible to just discard them altogether. Noise noise noise.
In excellent news though – when my internal compass is left to its own devices, it works just fine. I know what I want. I know what feels good, and what feels right. I know when my partner’s touch feels just perfect, and when my mind and soul are in sync with my body. I know when I have the sort of sex that makes me loved up, and emotional, and connected, and loved. I know what moments and touches take my breath away, what memories make me write love songs.
I might be a geek at heart, but I threw my books away when I concluded: when it comes to my own desire, the solution is in my body and my mind. And for once, not in a book.