Book review: The Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Strap-On Sex

01/28/2012 at 10:07 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments
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I recently picked up and finished reading the sexual guidebook, The Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Strap-On Sex, by author & blogger Violet Blue. It’s exactly what it sounds like – an in-depth guide to integrating strap-on sex toys and techniques into partnered sex.

Why are we reviewing a book about pegging on a blog about sexual dysfunction? For much the same reason cited last time we read a book by Violet Blue: Personal reasons + it was in the book queue. Besides, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Sometimes when you have sexual dysfunction, you gotta get real creative, real quick.

The short version of the review is…
Well… I liked the Ultimate Guide to Fellatio better…

The Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Strap-On Sex – let’s call it TACG from here on out – the book is short. I was able to burn through the book start to finish within just a few hours. The Kindle edition I read has 1568 locations (sentences, I think,) which translates to about 160 pages in paperback format. There aren’t any pictures in the Kindle version – there’s not even one of those cut-away academic diagrams of male pelvic anatomy. All of the descriptions of anatomy and how-to are written out in paragraph form.

TACG‘s target audience is cis, heterosexual couples interested in pegging – and pegging, by definition, takes place between cis, het partners. But strap-ons are used in LGBTIQA communities too – so to me, it was weird to see so little coverage of strap-on use outside of straight sex. There was a lot of reassuring the reader that an interest in pegging does not necessarily mean you or your partner is gay. Definitely a book aimed at cis, het couples primarily.

The book includes just about everything you will need to know about strap-on sex and maybe some stuff you hadn’t thought about – anatomy, history, myth debunking, what gear to look for, how to go warm your partner up and then go through with pegging, and safe sex. Actually, I would have preferred to see the section on making strap-on sex safer close to the beginning of the book, instead of at the very end, but there is precedent for saving the best for last – Sex Toys 101 did it that way too. Remember that anal penetration is a risky sex act in terms of passing along infectious agents between partners, because the tissue is delicate, and there’s a lot of bacteria behind the anus. Blue includes a table detailing your risk of infection from anal sex, pegging and related activities and describes tools like condoms & dental dams you can use to reduce the risks.
Remember also that if you’re inserting objects anally, they really need to be designed specifically for that. If you just grab whatever’s handy, you or your partner could wind up with a toy lost inside the body and/or a serious injury – either scenario requires a trip to the emergency room. Blue addresses what kind of butt-friendly toys to look for. Shape, size, and materials all matter, so shop smart. Don’t forget the lubricant, since the anus can’t produce its own secretions the way a vagina can.

Where TACG really shines is when Blue talks about the importance of communication. Pegging isn’t something you can just spring on your partner, and a desire to engage in it isn’t something you can just pantomime out using secret code gestures (no matter what Cosmopolitan tells you.) If you’ve been slacking off in the sexual communication department, Blue lists a few suggestions for how to bring strap-on sex up in conversation – most of these suggestions can easily be applied to other various sex acts as well. Blue also reminds the reader to think about their partner’s perspective, since talking about sex can be (but doesn’t have to be) nerve-wracking. Blue suggets a few areas for exploration if one partner or another is reluctant – what are you the most uncomfortable with, the potential for pain? Insecurity with flipping around gender norms? Cleanliness/messiness/poop? You don’t even know where to start or what else there is to do during? There’s ways to address these concerns.

I liked the section about the history of the terminology of strap-on sex and why you may have noticed a glimpse of pegging here and there in mainstream sex shops, films and discussions. I was also pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of a chapter on how to have strap-on sex with a third party. Opening up a relationship is a little too advanced for me but the book is clearly polyamory friendly. There’s a lot of coverage about various reasons couples might want to try strap-ons during sex in the first place – some reasons include (but are not limited to) the potential for prostate stimulation, aesthetics, and/or fantasy fulfillment.

TACG contains a little information about strap-on sex and disability. Author Blue suggests using a double-ended dildo if you have a wrist injury or mobility problems (location 1188,) and she suggests a vendor from which to procure a harness designed for cis men. (Specific item is here; NSFW; similar products may be available elsewhere.) Why would someone who already has a penis want a harness for a dildo when their equipment is already present? The idea is double penetration of a cis female partner, but in my mind I’m imagining something like it might actually come in handy for couples dealing with erectile dysfunction – especially since Blue states that an erection is not required to use a double harness. TACG describes other harnesses as well; there’s one kind that the wearer can strap onto their thigh or even their head.

A couple of considerations for folks with pelvic pain issues who might be interested in harnesses:

Blue writes that “If you worry about [your pubic bone] getting sore from thrusting, you can buy a specially made pad of thin foam to cushion your pubic bone” (location 1159,) though where exactly one might buy such a pad is not explicitly stated. If this type of pad has a specific name, I don’t know it.
One of the double-ended dildos described in TACG is the Feeldoe, a double-dildo with one bulbous end. It’s designed to have the bulbous end inserted vaginally, leaving the phallic part exposed, for your partner’s enjoyment. However I don’t know how accessible this toy is to folks with pelvic floor dysfunction and/or pain – It looks like something I would find uncomfortable, if not outright painful, to the point of impossible to use as intended. Supposedly it can be used with certain harnesses with some adjustments, but it’s designed to be inserted in the wearer’s vagina.

In general, I would recommend some of the other dildos from Tantus, because I own one I’ll vouch for, they’re silicone & many have a flared base suitable for a harness and anal stimulation – including a few smaller models and plugs.
If you’re a pelvic pain patient interested in a harness, I strongly recommend  sticking to two-strap harnesses only. Or harnesses that are worn over some other body part, like the thigh. The problem is that single-strap pelvic harnesses have to be worn between your legs like a thong and thus cover up more of the vulvar area. Two-strap harnesses go around your thighs and butt instead, leaving more area exposed. The distinction between single and two-strap harnesses is described in further detail in TCAG.
Also, Blue doesn’t mention this part, but beware of harnesses with a pouch for a vibrator… Harnesses with a bullet vibrator are supposed to make the experience more pleasurable for the wearer, but depending on how the vibe rests against you, it might just feel like a foreign, hard something digging uncomfortably into your pelvis. It’s like something out of the Princess and the Pea. I personally find it more comfortable to use a vibrator separately either before or after wearing the harness.
If you’re worried about causing your partner pain, then remember that anal stimulation doesn’t have to – and if you’re doing it carefully, shouldn’t – hurt. You might be tempted to share your prescription lidocaine or OTC novelty numbing gel with your receptive partner but that’s actually a bad idea: numbing gels dull everything, which makes deriving pleasure more difficult… and if you can’t feel what’s going on, then you won’t know if you’re getting injured. The book will tell you how to adjust your techniques to minimize discomfort & maximize pleasure.
Remember also that you are by no means obligated to peg if you’re thinking about getting a harness. After talking with your partner, you may decide instead to just wear it around for awhile or to engage in some other non-penetrative activities with a dildo equipped, just for show.

Overall, The Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Strap-On Sex is an okay book. It will be most useful for straight folks – especially cis women – just starting to consider strap-on sex, who don’t know what’s involved. Likewise, it will be useful for straight men who want to be on the receiving end, but never tried it before.
TACG becomes less useful if you’ve already had exposure to strap-on sex, either through experience or though some of the free how-to guides available on sexuality websites. The trick is, if you’re thinking about trying strap-on sex, then chances are you’ve already looked at those free how-to guides before picking up the book.
I wouldn’t recommend TACG be your first book purchase by Violet Blue. My overall impression is that IMHO I think she put more effort into some of her other stuff. There’s nothing wrong with the book; It contains good factual information & encouragement! I just liked some of her other sex guides more. Franky I thought that some parts of the book were drawn out longer than necessary – I basically skimmed through the chapter about male anatomy because I’ve seen it all before… And I skimmed over the erotic vignettes. The short stories are fine; I have no problems with the writing, though they are several pages too long. They’re just not my taste. Obviously, YMMV!

In summation: the $10-$15 retail price investment will be best for newcomers, with less bang for buck the more experience & knowledge you already have about strap-on harnesses & how to use them. More experienced readers may find it useful as a reference from time to time.

Disclaimer: As with all products reviewed on Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction to date, I had to pay for this book out of pocket with my own money, and I don’t get any compensation for writing this review.

Book review: The Ultimate Guide to Fellatio

04/07/2011 at 9:53 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Case in point from the recent Shorties II post: Presenting a book review for the purposes of sex education + product evaluation. The book in question at this time is, The Ultimate Guide to Fellatio: How to go down on a man and give him mind-blowing pleasure, by Violet Blue. Now in case you’re wondering, “K, why is there a book review regarding fellatio on a blog about female sexual dysfunction?” The answer is, “I decided to read & review this book now, mostly for personal reasons. Also I need to clear away some stuff in the book backlog before I can justify making any new literature purchases.” I read the Kindle version, second edition, which tops out at about 2,400 locations or 256 pages. Here’s a Google Books preview to get you started if you want to look at it.

The Ultimate Guide to Fellatio covers a lot of ground. It’s not just a book of tips written just for people who perform oral sex; it’s for the recipient of oral sex as well. For both the giver and receiver, there’s a lot to think about – what to do, what’s happening to you and your partner, and ways to make sure both parties feel physically & mentally comfortable during the act.

The book provides a detailed anatomical explanation of the relevant body parts – mouth, tongue, throat, penis, testicles, and yes the anus, prostate and pubes. Body fluids are described in frank terms. Blue does present some bullet point lists of tips, but she also provides detailed, how-to instructions that wouldn’t have fit in a short list. She also addresses the cultural baggage and negative attitudes around fellatio – sexuality, especially men’s sexuality, tends to get oversimplified (“Insert tab A into slot B…”) and fellatio in particular is often associated with dominant & submissive gender roles. It doesn’t have to be that way. On the other hand, for some folks, D/S gender roles are a turn-on, and Blue acknowledges this flipside as well in the discussion of BDSM and fellatio towards the end of the book.

The Ultimate Guide to Fellatio is particularly helpful when it comes to safe sex. There’s a chapter talking about ways to make oral sex safe between partners (the pros and cons of various barrier methods are discussed at length,) and the safe sex chapter even includes charts detailing the probability of contracting STI’s from giving or receiving oral sex. One interesting feature about the charts was the inclusion of the probability of contracting vaginitis (a vaginal infection not necessarily caused by STI pathogens,) from giving or receiving fellatio – the risk, according to the chart is, “N/A,” (location 661) or not applicable. Still I thought that was neat to remember it at all. I guess a chart including the risk of contracting vaginitis would be more relevant in the related Ultimate Guide to Cunnilingus book. Which I should probably also read and review.

Throughout the book, Blue addresses erectile dysfunction and disabilities – not just limited to physical disabilities; she explicitly wrote a paragraph on Attention Deficit Disorder, for example. I appreciated the inclusion of these topics. Blue makes it clear that, even if you or your partner are dealing with erectile dysfunction, chances are that fellatio will probably still feel good. (If you’re not certain, ask – the book emphasizes over and over again that communication is important.) Interestingly, Blue points out that certain disabilities may make sexual stimulation painful, even when there’s a penis involved rather than a vulva – she focused on Multiple Sclerosis in particular as a potential cause of sexual pain. With disabilities, erection, orgasm and/or ejaculation may be impaired, but that does not necessarily mean that the penis is non-responsive and that the owner of it does not feel and react to sexual stimulation. For people with disabilities such as spinal cord injuries, she also mentions “Phantom orgasms,” something I’ve seen talked about elsewhere – orgasm isn’t just a body reaction; the body is a shortcut to the brain. There’s still some parts about disability we can push for improvement on though; for example she uses the term “ADD sufferers” (location 1445) which implies that ADD equates with suffering, and at one point she says “You should never consider a disabled man asexual” (location 1432,) by which she probably means that it isn’t fair to de-sexualize people with disabilities… but then again with this quote, you get the whole asexual erasure thing going on. So it’s probably better to not make assumptions about the sexual orientation of people in the first place.

The last part of the book covers resources for learning more about fellatio, and these resources often coincide with learning more about sexuality in general. For example, the contact information for sex-positive retailers is printed (some of it may be outdated at this point though, because the book was originally printed in the early 2000s – you may have to Google some information to confirm if its still current.) There are some suggestions for pornographic yet educational films and how to enjoy them.

For the most part, I felt the book was written with a cis-gender heterosexual audience in mind. The book does talk about how to give and receive fellatio when performed on a strap-on dildo and how the act of fellatio can be subverted into a means to bend gender roles, but for the most part, penis = man = cis man. Most of the illustrative vignettes sound like they were provided from the point of view of opposite-sex couples, although I did see some gay and lesbian content as well. Speaking of which, there are some illustrative sexual fantasies described between chapters – these erotic short stories did nothing for me, but I am certain that is a personal thing. Your mileage with the written sexual fantasies will vary.

One thing I did not like about the book at all was the drawings. The illustrations are just terrible: The line art is shaky and near the end there’s an illustration of a guy receiving oral sex on the beach and one of his eyes is all like 0.- and it just looks weird. Technically speaking, Amazon isn’t supposed to sell pornography, (enforcement is another issue,) so I think the drawings maybe had to be below optimal in order to get the book past the censors.

So who might be interested in pursuing the pages of The Ultimate Guide to Fellatio? Who would gain the most benefit from reading a how-to on how to give or receive “Mind-blowing pleasure?”
Well for starters I’m actually becoming skeptical & jaded when it comes to any guide that promises such a claim. I know that book sellers gotta be able to move stuff off the shelves, but there’s so much human variation that it’s too hard to guarantee that anything can create that kind of sexual pleasure.

This would be a very good book for people who have not yet had any experience with oral sex, or who have had only limited exposure to it, yet who nonetheless have an interest in being the recipient or provider of such an act in the future. Because it covers such a wide berth of content, from Anatomy to X-rated films, (I couldn’t think of anything that starts with a Z – unzipping pants, maybe?)  the book will provide plenty of  information with which to brace yourself. I would suggest reading the book start-to-finish if you’re on the newer side. If you do not yet have a partner but expect to find one later, Blue makes some suggestions for practicing fellatio in a solo setting. (You won’t get the body language feedback but you’ll be under no pressure while tweaking your own techniques.)

One potential problem newbies may have with the book though, is that since it’s so detailed, it can seem overwhelming at times. As I was reading through some of the how-to suggestions, I found myself asking at points, “How is anyone supposed to remember all this?!” So if it’s too much to take in all at once, you may have to go back and skim parts of the text again later.

It would be an okay book for people who have some experience with fellatio and expect to continue participating in it, but do not yet consider themselves to be experts. If you are such a reader, then you can probably skip around to whatever parts you’re most interested in.
So for these two kinds of audience members, the book is most worth it.

I think the book would be less useful (and thus less worthwhile) for people who already have a lot of experience with oral sex. So if you think of yourself as “Advanced” in fellatio, (even theoretically!) then The Ultimate Guide might not be worth it. At that point, chances are you’ve already seen & heard most of what Violet Blue talks about. It’s still worth something; because it’s so dedicated to its topic, there may still be a few things you can pick up here and there… However, I think you’ll eventually pick up on those few things that you didn’t know about, by reading sexuality & sex education blogs, for free. Just hang around a few favorite blogs long enough (try some of the ones listed on my blogroll) and you’re bound to see the same subjects pop up, eventually.
For example, since I have read a lot of related sexuality material elsewhere, I found myself anxious to speed through the stuff that I already knew. I felt obligated to read everything for the purposes of this review but there was a lot of stuff I could have just passed over without a look back.

The Ultimate Guide to Fellatio may or may not be of use to people who do not expect to give or receieve fellatio in the near future. This is because if you have decided that it’s an act with no appeal to you, then the book may still provide you with insight into what’s on the minds of folks who do engage in it and why such folks will often defend it. But if you’ve already made up your mind that fellatio is off the table, then chances are no book will be able to change your mind and in some cases it will just be a waste of time. It could be irrelevant to you in this case.

I am not sure if this would be a good bet for sexual abuse survivors, because there is only a very brief mention of fellatio and past abuse.

So if price is a factor, then I think the $10 for the e-book version or ~$15 for the printed copy is worth the investment if you are new-to-medium in fellatio. If you feel that you’re advanced, then I think the $10 for an electronic copy is cost-effecient only if you are already heavily interested in sexuality books. Otherwise, if you know what you’re doing, then save your money and read some blogs instead. And if you know that fellatio isn’t going to happen then whether you would benefit from the book depends on your political or philosophical inclinations.

Shorties II

03/21/2011 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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In the same spirit as the original Shorties, I bring you: A series of posts which were each too small to constitute blog entries on their own. Divided we are weak, but together, we are strong!

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The National Vulvodynia Association’s newsletter for 2010 is posted on their website, here. It includes updates on research and funding, and profiles of researchers who have received NVA-related grants. There are also profiles of medical professionals working towards a more comprehensive understanding of vulvodynia. There’s also updates on educational materials and programs provided by the NVA.

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There’s a couple of reasons I like to post book reviews on this blog. I may post product (vibrator, dilator etc.) reviews in the future; I haven’t decided yet. Again, a reminder: Any reviews I posted here so far, I had to pay for the product in question & I haven’t gotten any compensation for my services.

It’s a blog about sexual dysfunction, especially that greatest bone of consternation, female sexual dysfunction. One of the common themes I read in feminist analysis of FSD is that a lot of it is actually sexual insecurity which stems from ignorance and lack of education. The idea goes something like, men & women are socialized differently and grow up with different expectations & pressures when it comes to sexual behavior. (In other words, differences in sexual behavior between men & women aren’t necessarily inborn.) Women are discouraged from learning about sex & pleasure. Combine this with shitty sex education and you have a pretty good chance of not understanding the influence of gender roles and how your own body works. This in turn is misinterpreted by the individual as “There must be something wrong with me” when experiencing a normal, understandable reaction to sexual stimulation. And the cure for this is better sex education instead of medication. Go read a goddamn book or something!

Improved sex education is great, so that’s one reason to post reviews of sexual guides and products. So every one in awhile you’ll find such a review here – it’s my way of saying, “Hey, here’s something that’s good and worth your time,” or, “Hey, here’s an overrated product that isn’t worth the packaging it came in. Save your money.” Or I’ll post something more nuanced –  “This is good, this is bad, and this part I don’t understand at all.”

However there’s another reason I post the reviews here…
Sometimes all the sex education in the world cannot fix a sexual problem.
Because it doesn’t all come from sexual ignorance.
Many of the sexual guides I’ve read, some of which come highly recommended, do not do a good job of addressing my problem in particular – pain. Maybe it’s because they’re not medical advice books so they can’t recommend treatments. Liability issues, maybe.

I’m doing what I’ve been told to do. I’m getting better sex education. I read the blogs. I buy the sex toys from the feminist sex shops. I have explored my sexual fantasies and will continue to do so. I masturbate to orgasm. I am in love with a supportive partner (the feeling, I understand, is mutual.)

The lady with sexual dysfunction is reading a goddamn book or something.

So why do I still experience dyspareunia?
Why do I still have vaginismus?
Why does my vagina still take so long to recover from vaginitis?
Why is medical intervention the treatment that best addressed the sexual and chronic pain?

Hey wait a second, this isn’t working. I still want to have some penis-in-vagina sex over here and that’s still like, really hard to do. Maybe I’m just not reading books and trying to learn hard enough.

The sex education helps – it’s definitely worth something. But it’s not comprehensive enough for me.

Now we could say here that I am the special snowflake exception to the general rule that FSD is a fake invention designed by Big Pharma and evil doctors; Dr. Leonore Tiefer, organizer of the New View Campaign, said as much when she wrote, “Dyspareunia is the only valid sexual dysfunction and certainly the only important one,” in response to the suggestion that dyspareunia might be better considered a pain condition rather than a sexual problem.

So hypothetically I suppose I could say, “Fuck you all; I got mine.”

Hypothetically. I have no desire to actually do that and in fact I feel dirty for having spelled such a phrase out in text. Excuse me while I swish some mouthwash and/or wash my hands. Is that what I’m supposed to say? Is that the way I’m supposed to feel? Is this the signal that, as someone with dyspareunia, I’m supposed to shut my pie hole when I see folks with other dysfunctions belittled for it?
I maintain that elevating one or some forms of sexual dysfunction as more real than others creates and crystalizes an artificial hierarchy. And it throws folks with sexual dysfunctions other than or in addition to pain under the bus.

And if, for me, all the sex education in the world fell short of actual medical help from professionals, then why should I believe that it would be any different for all of my friends who have sexual dysfunctions that are not painful?
Not that sex education has been completely useless; far from it. I have taken advantage of the information I found useful. (I also tripped over the parts that were counter-productive.) But to deny medical options to women with sexual dysfunction is to remove an important potential treatment, which for some folks may very well be necessary to find sexual satisfaction. And I find it highly disturbing when such options are removed through means of threats & intimidation, shaming, or ableist comments.

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Speaking of dyspaerunia being “The only valid sexual dysfunction and certainly the only important one,” I made this Privelege Denying Dudette meme just for you:

[Picture: Background: 6 piece pie style color split with pink and blue alternating. Foreground: White girl wearing a green t-shirt, featuring an African-American Sesame Street muppet with nine different hairstyles, subtitled, “I Love My Hair.” Has a smug, arrogant facial expression and plays with her long, brown hair. Top text: “ [SEXUAL DYSFUNCTION ISN'T REAL, YOU DON'T NEED MEDICAL INTERVENTION IN YOUR SEX LIFE] ” Bottom text: “ [WAIT, YOU HAVE DYSPAREUNIA? YOU BETTER GO SEE A DOCTOR.] ”]

What? Wait, what’s it going to be, do I trust my doctors or not? Do they know enough about sex to help me or is it an exercise in futilty to even bring up a sex problem? Am I allowed to go to one of the heavily-marketed sexual dysfunction clinics Dr. Tiefer mentioned in Sex is Not a Natural Act when my regular gynecologist gets stumped and refers me to such a clinic? If I take a prescription for sexual pain, am I just feeding the Big Bad Phama Beast and looking for an easy, quick fix? If I get treatment for dyspareunia, does that count as medicalizing sexuality?

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I recently came to a revolutinary conclusion. If your definition of sex positive does not include sexual dysfunction, then your definition isn’t positive enough.

I want to go out of my way to explicitly include sexual dysfunction in sex-positive discussions. Because ignoring it, outright denying its existence, or claiming that looking at sexual dysfunction = focusing on the negative, will not make it go away. Insisting that sexual dysfunction is a lie erases people who actually have sexual dysfunction. As a result, people with sexual dysfunction are excluded from sex-positivity – and I hate that. There is push-back against excluding people with a history of STIs from the sex-positive community by means of negative, stigmatizing language – why not push back for people with dysfunction?

You know what? I have sexual dysfunction. I exist. This is a long- term thing for me that I do not foresee changing any time soon. It will not go away just because you are uncomfortable with dysfunction (and, by extension, disability. These two phobias tend to go tovether, possibly because dysfunction may be viewed as a sub-type of disability.)

Yet even with the dysfunction, somehow, in spite of everything, I am sex-positive. I have made peace with it – or, at the very least, I have made a truce with myself until I can figure something better out.

Insisting that sexual dysfunction isn’t real or that medical options are unwarranted is just going to make it harder to get the care that I and my friends need. It’s true that most people will never experience sexual dysfunction, and so will not require medical options to address it. Nonetheless, inevitably, some people are going to develop sexual dysfunction. Isn’t there a way we can focus on getting support to such folk, instead of trying to sweep ‘em under the rug?

Sexual dysfunction and sex-positivity do not need to be mutually exclusive.

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Sometimes, I worry a little bit about my reliance on a vibrator for orgasm. I think that, with enough practice, I probably could masturbate to orgasm using only my (or my partner’s) hands. But until then, I orgasm easily enough with a battery-powered vibrator.

I’m not worried about spending money on vibrators and thus supporting a capitalist system. I’m not worried about using my vibrators during sexual activity with my partner. I’m not worried that he’ll feel inadequate compared to my vibrator. I’m not worried about becoming addicted to masturbation. I’m not worried that I’m supporting the tyranny of orgasm.

The real reason I sometimes worry about using my vibrator is…
…I have this paranoid fear that some day space aliens or a freak accident or a Hollywood movie-esque disaster will unleash an electromagnetic pulse over the USA (home) and all elecronics will lose functionality.
Including my vibrators.
And then I’ll have to find a techno wizard to SteamPunk some kind of hand-cranked or steam-powered vibe for me. Possbily incorporating or inspired by one of the old-time antiques like those found in the Museum of Sex. And it’s just going to be really awkward and frustrating and I’ll probably have a lot of other important things to worry about post-EMP.

Obviously I don’t really know how EMPs work and I don’t really care. Everything I learned about them, I learned from movies.

I think about this with about the same frequency that I think about the Zombie Apocalypse as a real thing. Which is to say, not very often except for maybe after watching a movie about a zombie apocalypse or a post-apocalyptic setting.

Compare and contrast

12/02/2010 at 9:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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My last post presented a review and critique of the feminist sexology text, A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems. It’s a different kind of review. The book was inspired by the efforts of the Working Group on the New View of Women’s Sexual Problems, a group of about a dozen North American women who came together to present an alternative view of sexual problems and dysfunctions, just in time for a  medical conference held about 10 years ago. A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems, the book, builds upon the original New View manifesto.

Today I’d like to present to you a different kind of feminist response to sexual dysfunction – a response from another woman who is intimately familiar with gender studies, feminism… and vaginismus.

As I noted in the New View book review post, I felt like some elements were missing from the essays – notably, it remains unclear to me whether any of the contributors to the original manifesto or the book actually know what it’s like to live with sexual dysfunction – to be torn between what you “Know” is the “right and proper” feminist response to sexual dysfunction vs. the daily grind of living with and responding to it, sometimes just managing. It’s possible that one or more of the contributors did have some kind of sexual dysfunction, and just didn’t disclose such status for whatever reason. But since I can’t know for sure, I still feel like I’m left on the outside of a circle of folks who are not me, yet who nonetheless decide my fate for me.

Alas, my time available for blogging is shrinking, and will continue to do so until some time in January! So instead of presenting another dissertation-length blog post, I’m just going show you an essay today and give some reasons as to why I liked it.

The essay is, A certain remoteness telling vaginismus, by Fulvia Dunham. I thoroughly enjoyed this essay. If you usually like what you see here on this blog, then I would strongly recommend that you read it. It’s one essay in the anthology Illness in the Academy, published by Purdue University (whom I would like to thank, along with Google Books, for making A certain remoteness in its entirety available to me as of today. I did have difficulty viewing it on my mobile device, however, and I am not certain if Google Books format can be picked up by all screen readers. Keep in mind, allocate your page previews carefully if you want to read the essay in full online.) According to Amazon, Illness in the Academy:

investigates the deep-seated, widespread belief among academics and medical professionals that lived experiences outside the workplace should not be sacrificed to the ideal of objectivity those academic and medical professions so highly value. The 47 selections in this collection illuminate how academics bring their intellectual and creative tools, skills, and perspectives to bear on experiences of illness. The selections cross genres as well as bridge disciplines and cultures.

Other essays in the book talk about life with chronic illnesses, conditions, and disabilities – to mention a few, some contributors have or are close to someone with diabetes, endometriosis, depression, autism, cancer.

And yet vaginismus – a sexual problem, a sexual dysfunction, a variation of normal, a medical condition, a gynecological disorder, a disability, a symptom of a relationship problem – what is it really? – is included right alongside these more readily-recognized health conditions – though certainly the conditions included have varying degrees of public awareness and social acceptance. The editor of the anthology, Dr. Kimberly R. Myers, did not excise the essay on vaginismus as too titillating due to its sexual nature or as irrelevant due to being a relationship problem. Here, it is unquestioningly given the same treatment as any other medical problem. Seeing vaginismus included in the same place as more readily recognized chronic conditions was a shock to me. And this book was published in 2007, so it’s ahead of the curve! I find myself asking if, because vaginismus was part of this collection, if that means there’s openness to the idea of looking at sexual dysfunction as disability even offline…

Clearly, there is a need to understand vaginismus as a matter of health:

Exchanges with family members were uncomfortable; people were usually tentative and shy, occasionally asking if I’d fixed “my little problem,” implying that it was a bad habit of aversion I had to correct rather than a problem or illness with which I needed help… I think the unspoken assumption in many of their minds was that if you can’t perform normally in sexual terms, you’re unfortunate – but not in need of a hand, as you would be if you had a recognizable illness (151).

All the emphases in the quotes are in the original.

The author of the essay in question talks about how she sought assistance from professionals trained in treating vaginismus, though she herself does not appear to be an expert herself – there’s no pH.D or M.D. or M.S.W. or other certification given next to her name. She’s a regular person, like me. Much of what Dunham writes about appears to have taken place while she herself was a student (which makes sense, given that the anthology is titled Illness in the Academy!)

What I like best about Dunham’s essay is that there’s no filter in A certain remoteness. Dunham was given the opportunity to speak in her own words. No one is presenting snippets of what she said in the greater context of some other theory. She’s just saying: What she did, what she went through, what she saw and heard, and what was on her mind when it happened.
I suppose right now, I’m creating a lens, an artificial filter, just by framing this post the way that I have chosen. But that’s what the link to the essay is for – you can see for yourself.
In contrast, in the New View book, short statements from women with sexual dysfunction were presented by professional women, as case studies in support of the New View manifesto. When someone says or does this, she really means that.

Because there’s no filter, there is a stream-of-consciousness, indicated by italics and bolds in the text, which weaves throughout A certain remoteness; usually flitting under a sea of text, always near the surface,… then *Boom!* it pops out for just an instant, and is gone… only to leap out again a few paragraphs later, a brief flash of uncensored turmoil over a carefully constructed treatsie.

But here and there we can catch a glimpse of it, Fulvia’s free stream-of-consciousness,  jumping out of the formal, the factual, and the philosophical:

and if your body is closed, if you can’t let anyone in, if you can’t talk about it easily because no one knows what you’re talking about, if you’re obligated to remain closeted because people often forget what you’ve told them, then you’re simply repressed – closed – out of the loop – out of circulation – unable to come out because you can’t let anyone in, because there’s no language with which to come out, and because nobody cares (149)

(As a side note, some of my unedited draft posts look like this before going live!)

Another interesting feature of Fulvia’s essay is the way she addresses language. In an eerie coincidence, frequent commenter Flora and sometimes contributor left a note here last night addressing how Dr. Tiefer in particular treats language – it’s a very important tool. It has power. Words mean things. But not everyone thinks that way, and to emphasize language over other modes of communication can create new, unique hurdles.
And sometimes, words have limits. Sometimes, language isn’t as powerful as it should be – because there are no words to express what you are really feeling:

Then they ask me about the man with whom I have parted ways two months before, after having been with him for two years. I say that things are fine; everything’s amicable enough, and he usually calls me every couple of weeks from Los Angeles. when he told me, it was new year’s eve, and then waking up in the middle of the night just after, him near me, trying to tell him that he was all over for me, that i’d never have intimacy with anyone now, because no one would have the patience, that this was the last dance, impossible, that he was relegating me to life among those who remain alone – trying to explain – the words were broken – that although i wasn’t sure i wanted children, i wanted the possibility I say that we’re exchanging emails and phone calls fairly often. and it would never be possible again and doomed and no access cut off a certain remoteness – his looking at his watch to see if it was midnight yet They have to catch me as I begin to fall backward off the chair. (153)

Dunham explicitly says, “The words were broken.” Fulvia was trying so hard to articulate everything she was feeling at the time of her breakup. But she just didn’t have the words available. How do you talk about vaginismus when you’re not even supposed to talk about vaginas, about pain, about sex? So you grope around looking for words, looking for something that comes close to expressing what’s on your mind in a way that another person can understand but the language that’s available doesn’t match what you want to say, so you wind up saying something that maybe has a totally different meaning. Maybe what really conveys the emotion is a scream, or a work of art, or a song, or something that does not yet exist.

Dunham herself may even be familiar with the New View’s work:

Given my later training in gender studies, it became tempting to try to believe that this wasn’t a “problem” or “dysfunction:” it was simply a “difference.” But given the imperative we receive in our culture to express ourselves as sexual beings, the messages we’re sent that suggest we’re incomplete, uptight, wound-up, or repressed if we can’t or don’t, it doesn’t feel like merely a difference; it feels like a defecit. It also doesn’t feel like just a difference when the desire is there, but the means of expression are not. It feels like an insurmountable obstacle. (151)

Being familiar with gender studies and possibly with the New View’s work in combating the medicalization of sex, Dunham struggles with questions about what that means for her, as someone living with vaginismus; as someone who needed and sought medical assistance to address it:

am I succumbing to compulsory heterosexuality, the heterosexual imperative, the pressure to become more valid through an ability to participate legibly in the sexual economy? Their sign says “No passing zone.” Rather than seeking to overcome this, perhaps I should use this with which I have been fated to disrupt the usual equation between “intimacy” and “penetration.” Should I question the usual assumptions about what constitutes sexual success and fulfillment? – challenge the commonplace equation between sexual fulfillment and fulfillment? (154)

She knows. She knows she knows. You know? Dunham is familiar with gender studies and feminism. She’s heard it all before. The critiques of sexual dysfunction from a social construction perspective are there. But she also knows that there’s something more going on… something that even feminist-informed social construction sometimes cannot breach:

Is it wrong to want my vagina to open? (154).

This simple question. This one, simple question… is the same one I find myself asking after reading through books like Sex is Not a Natural Act and A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems. Am I doing something wrong? Am I now obligated to expand my sexual horizons rather than having that available as an option? Is it okay for me to get medical help for vulvodynia & vaginismus, and whatever else I may encounter in the future? In so doing, am I medicalizing sex and making it harder for TAB women to enjoy sex as they are? Or do I have the one and only free pass to sexual medicine, because dyspaerunia is the only valid and important sexual dysfunction? But if that’s the only valid sexual dysfunction, then what about my friends? Dunham seems to understand what it feels like, to be stuck in the middle.

And open her vagina did. Dunham continued to seek help addressing her vaginismus, and eventually, after 15 years, she did find satisfactory resolution through physical therapy in Montreal, Canada. She no longer needs to talk about vaginsmus – “Perhaps I am at the point where I can – and even should – put all this to rest” (154). But Dunham still remembers the whole experience, vividly – and much like Susanna Kaysen, it has left her sexual identity fundamentally changed… Dunham, in the end, came out of the experience, as Q for Questioning, or possibly even Q for Queer, inspired by a definition proposed by Eve Sedgwick. Dunham now has the option to engage in heterosexual PIV intercourse, if she so chooses… will she so choose? Even if she does not exercise this option, Dunham does not express resentment towards the doctors who helped her reach this point; she has nothing but gratitude towards them. I suppose the social system of medicine available in Canada helps – in the USA, she may have faced a different set of challenges with the cost treatment and insurance.

There’s a lot more to the essay I didn’t address here; I just picked a few parts that resonated with me. Reading A certain remoteness alongside A New View presented a refreshing contrast, and I would like to see more essays and creative works like it.

Book review: A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems

11/16/2010 at 10:14 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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Several months ago, over the course of a five-part series, I reviewed sexologist and feminist activist Dr. Leonore Tiefer’s nonfiction anthology, Sex is Not a Natural Act and Other Essays. It presents her critique of contemporary discussions of sex, sexuality and sexual dysfunction, from a social construction perspective. (Basically that means that Dr. Tiefer gives significantly more weight to cultural influences on the formation and expression of sexuality than to biology.) While reading it was certainly an informative experience for me, it was also rough – at several points I tripped over apparent contradictions between what Dr. Tiefer had written in one chapter vs. another and multiple instances of disablist language. Overall, while I learned a lot about social construction and criticism of female sexual dysfunction as a diagnosis, the book left me feeling isolated and unsatisfied since biology and the availability of medical options have a strong impact on how I have sex.

So for awhile I and guest posters wrote about other stuff in the wide world of female sexual dysfunction. And then I had to take a hiatus from blogging so I could deal with real-life chaos. After settling into a new routine, I felt motivated to read something… Now seems as good a time as any to pick up A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems, another nonfiction essay collection detailing an alternate model for looking at women’s sexuality and dysfunctions. A New View doubles as an in-depth manifesto for the New View Campaign, complete with examples of how the New View model can be applied to real-world women’s sexual complaints. Let’s see what it’s all about.

Overall Impressions:

A New View is and feels significantly shorter than Sex is Not a Natural Act – it’s about 218 single-spaced pages, divided into three parts. Each chapter is short, ranging from just a few bite-sized pages up to around thirty, so it’s easy to digest. Each chapter was published simultaneously in the journal Women in Therapy, volume 24, issues 1 & 2, so you’re actually reading academic journal articles. Except for a few essays towards the end of the book, most of the time it’s generally not heavy on academic jargon.
Downsides unrelated to the writing: A New View is not available in e-book format and at about $30 on Amazon (new) it’s a little outside my sweet spot price range for something sans illustrations. I went in to the book hoping for a list that would explicitly spell out which biological problems get the green light for medical treatment but I’m still not clear on exactly when sexual medicine is appropriate (and why.)

On paper, the New View looks good. Overall, the book is nuanced and presents the perspectives of many professional women familiar with sexology, sexuality, women’s studies, feminism, psychology, health, and related fields. The responses to the New View manifesto illustrate its merits and practical application…
On paper.

In practice, I’m still wary of the manifesto and the eponymous organization. Reading the entire body of work has not sufficiently addressed my apprehensions.
Because in practice, I’ve seen the New View’s positions and activities turn into another prescriptive theory, one that creates new complications and restrictions for women even as it attempts to free them. For example, in practice, the strong emphasis on relationship problems can also oversimplify women’s sexual problems and turn into partner blaming. The New View’s insistence on referring to “Female/Pink Viagra” further obfuscates understanding the difference between arousal and desire, even when drugs like flibanserin do not work like Viagra. I was horrified to see New View organized petition to stop FDA approval of flibanserin, since I felt like the petition organizers overlooked whatever small number of women might actually benefit from such a drug, questionable though it is. Anti-Big Pharma arguments can easily turn into anti-medicine rants and rampant disablism. Looking for the deeper meaning behind sexual problems can turn into so much ‘splainin and Freudian analysis. And I think that by questioning the very existence of such a thing as female sexual dysfunction, the New View contributes to the further stigmatization of FSD. Basically, when used irresponsibly, the New View lends itself to Bingo Board fodder.

But on paper, the ideas are great. There’s even wiggle room for medical problems and biological factors as causes of women’s sexual problems (though the contributors are less interested in examining biological and health problems.)

In practice, the New View raises new questions and creates potential problems that warrant further examination.

Reading between the lines, you may notice some elements missing…

The New View Manifesto which guides the campaign was written from the perspective of professional women – psychologists, anthropologists, sexologists and related fields; however none of the original twelve named contributors to the succinct document had qualifications in medicine. There were no physicians, gynecologists or obstetricians involved in drafting the original manifesto. However, the document has subsequently received endorsement from several medical doctors and many therapists.
None of the contributors to the New View book disclose whether or not they have personal experience dealing with sexual dysfunction. The only clue we have as to whether an author with sexual dysfunction was included in this anthology may be found in Gina Ogden’s essay, which said, “I have been able to relieve much personal relationship angst by understanding sexual dysfunction as a manifestation of cultural dysfunction” (19). So there’s an “I” statement that touches upon sexual dysfunction and Ogden probably meets the New View’s definition of having had “Sexual problems,” but it’s not clear to me whether she ever considered herself to have a dysfunction. However even this statement ultimately rejects sexual dysfunction as an actual bodily phenomenon that women experience in and of itself. The rest of the book is likewise resistant to the very idea of sexual dysfunction as a valid medical problem.

There’s an expression in business, “Management sets the tone,” which means upper management, through actions and words, dictate the general atmosphere of an organization. It was Dr. Tiefer who pushed for the New View Campaign to come together, and throughout Dr. Tiefer’s essay, she consistently keeps the words female sexual dysfunction in “Scare quotes.” A footnote details the reason why: “4. I will put “FSD” (female sexual dysfunction) in quotations in this paper to indicate its questionable legitimacy” (92). Based on this, it seems highly unlikely to me that the contributors to this book would have actively reached out for feedback directly from women with sexual dysfunction. After all, if a condition is not legitimate and real, then who has it? There isn’t anyone with it to recruit.
Women who definitely had relationship and sexual problems and/or dysfunctions are presented as case studies in support of the New View model. Sometimes these women are quoted briefly, other times a contributor presents a summary of what brought a client in. Our words are presented through the filter of professionalism.
The omission of responses by women with sexual dysfunctions is a problem since such women are critical stakeholders in the New View model of sexuality and sexual problems. The New View is meant to be applied to women who experience sexual obstacles. But did anybody run the New View by the women who it most deeply effects before going to print? Based on one of Dr. Tiefer’s essays, it looks like the answer is No – the New View was drafted by about a dozen North American professional women based on their interactions with clients and with feminism (87); women with sexual dysfunction were not explicitly solicited for feedback. This is especially ironic in light of Peggy J. Kleinplatz’s essay, On the Outside Looking In: In Search of Women’s Sexual Experience in which she says, “Women’s sexual experience is conspicuously lacking from popular and sexological discourses of female sexuality” (124) and,

“Alternative models of female sexuality are called for which embrace the entire range of female sexuality from the vantage point of lived experience… A new epistemological stance is required which features women’s subjectivity at the center of inquiry. Female sexuality is best understood by listening to women’s own voices rather than attempting to peer from a safe distance and have our views filtered through the distorting lenses of conventional and sexological images of sexuality and female sexuality” (130).

Without follow through, calling out for the voices of women is little more than lip service. Nothing about us without us. (This is a continuing problem in the wide world of feminist writing, and writing in general.)
On the other hand, even if women with sexual dysfunction had been consulted when the New View document was first drafted ten years ago, I doubt it would have raised many objections or concerns. It looks fine on paper; it’s when and how you use the document to guide your activism that problems become are either solved or manifest.

I was surprised to see some criticism of the New View contained within the book’s pages: according to Gina Ogden, it may not have much to offer women who are extroverted in their sexuality. Jaclyn Friedman comes to mind, because Ogden says such women are labeled “Sluts” (19) and Friedman self-identifies as a slut, in the best way possible. So what does the New View, which focuses on negative sexual outcomes, have to offer her if she experiences sexual dissatisfaction? Good question.

The New View does a better job looking at causes for sexual problems than it does at offering guidance for what anyone should to do about it. I suppose that’s true of the DSM too though. One thing that’s clear in the New View is that medicine should generally be avoided, since medicine won’t address social forces, and it has been hijacked by for-profit entities.

And unfortunately the book doesn’t say anything about the grieving process you may go through (I went through it…) when it turns out that your sex life is not, and may never be, anything like what you had expected.

The book itself:

The first part of the book is the shortest – it’s the New View Manifesto document itself, which you can find online if you know where to look. It has been re-published on the Our Bodies, Our Selves blog supplement. (A later chapter goes into more detail about Dr. Tiefer’s connection with the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which I was curious about.) The document itself, not so bad. It does not use the label “Sexual dysfunction,” instead using the term “Sexual problem,” which is defined as, “discontent or dissatisfaction with any emotional, physical, or relational aspect of sexual experience, may arise in one or more of the following interrelated aspects of women’s sexual lives,” and then there’s the whole bulleted point list of stuff that makes sex hard for women to enjoy. This alternative definition is similar to the DSM’s criteria of “Personal distress” in sexual dysfunction since it acknowledges the importance of personal dissatisfaction, but it’s more flexible in acknowledging what causes dissatisfaction, and the language is supposed to be less hurtful. It’s meant to acknowledge social influences and reassure women that there’s nothing wrong with them if they experience sexual problems. To the best of my knowledge the document has remained unchanged since the final draft was put together in 2000 (88).

The second part of the book consists of 10 contemporary responses to the New View. Professionals read it and wrote in about how it could be applied to their practices and/or demonstrating ways in which women’s sexuality is shaped by local culture – often with negative outcomes for the women, since culture is frequently patriarchal. Throughout this section, there is a strong emphasis on relationship factors as being the main culprit for women’s sexual problems. So what about all the single ladies who are not in a romantic/sexual relationship? Well, you still got a relationship with your friends right? Or your parental figures, or if you’re reading this blog then surely you have some kind of relationship with the media. Relationships! You can’t get away from ‘em.

The essays have merits, yes. But there’s flaws too. Here’s some examples of what I mean…

In the first essay response to the New View model, Dr. Lucy M. Candib presents a case study of a patient with sexual problems and lists elements of her problems that fall under all four of the main areas of the New View classification. It’s a compelling case. Yay! But then Dr. Candib says,

Practitioners may attempt to address the anger that women hold about both the division of labor and the experiences of abuse, but such anger is usually chronic, and many women develop symptoms in relation to it – headaches, chronic pain, fatigue, or depression – especailly when the relationship appears to be an inescapable trap (13).

Emphasis mine…Wait, what am I looking at here? I don’t think I like where this is going… didn’t DW user beautyofgrey talk about looking at “Unresolved anger” as a way to explain away what was actually a chronic, invisible illness? And didn’t she talk about how people interfere with her treatment decisions out of fear of Big Pharma?

Beth A. Firestein’s essay, Beyond STD Prevention: Implications of the New View of Women’s Sexual Problems talks about how a strong focus on sexually transmitted infection prevention fails to address the concerns of people who have or have had a STI. Prevention is great, but what happens if it isn’t enough? What happens when prevention fails and you catch a sexually transmitted infection? This chapter explicitly mentions the role of STI (or the fear of them) s in developing vaginismus, and this is the only chapter that explicitly mentions vulvodynia. Yay! However, this is the context:

3. Women who have partners that suffer from recurring outbreaks of a viral STD, such as veneral warts and herpes, or neurological pain disorders, such as vulvodynia, that cause pain with sexual activity or penetration, need to be helped to seperate fear from fact and to determine a personal range of safe and pleasurable sexual behaviors – behaviors that allow for sexual satisfaction of both partners while decreasing the risk of exposure to their partner’s disease. Such women could also benefit from coaching in ways to deal with a partner’s STD that protects the woman without eroding their partner’s sexual self-esteem or healthy sense of sexual self-expression (30).

I’m actually not put off about talking about vulvodynia in the same chapter as STIs, because Firestein’s view is meant to go beyond STIs and take away some of the stigma associated with them. This paragraph is somewhat awkward though, since vulvodynia is not actually an STI and it is not contagious, my partner does not need to worry about being exposed to it. A simple grammar tweak would likely strengthen this passage. I’m more concerned that this passage does not provide guidance with what to do if you are someone who has a chronic condition or infection… and you still want to go beyond your current safe range of activities. I already know facts about vulvodynia, probably more than the average sex therapist or general practitioner. My fear does not come from ignorance about my own health. Some women with vulvodynia still want to, or do, have sex even if it is painful, and this paragraph does not address what steps might be taken in those situations.

Dr. Lisa Aronson Fontes’ essay on Latina sexuality, The New View and Latina Sexualities: Pero no soy una maquina! compares the New View vs. the DSM classification of sexual problems and where each classification schema centers the causes of women’s problems: Within the individual vs. with external forces in an individual’s life. She provides examples of Latina women with a history of sexual abuse or shame for whom the DSM does a poor job addressing the causes sexual problems, and she shows how the New View fits better. Yay! One client, Sarita, told Dr. Fontes her frustration with her pushy priest and doctor – they were urging Sarita to have sex with her husband, even though she was dealing with abuse triggers which made her uninterested in sexual activity. (Sound familiar to anyone?) This experience resulted in the expression contained in the title, translated as “But I am not a machine!”
So Dr. Fontes’ comes down pretty hard on a diagnosis of sexual dysfunction, at least for sexual abuse clients:

The “dysfunction” categories of the DSM-IV imply pathology as a variation from a theoretical normal pattern. It is more helpful to use an injury model – that connects suffering with the environment in which it occured an dthe person who caused it – than an illness model, which locates the source in the sufferer (Lamberg, 2000). An injury model implies recovery for victims of abuse. Yolana is on the mend – being labeled as “dysfunctional” at this time cannot help her recovery (36).

So for another client, Yolanda, a diagnosis of sexual dysfunction is a poor fit or outright counter-productive. But what about women like me, for whom incorporating the label “Dysfunctional” is part of my recovery – if you can call it a “Recovery” at all. At what point are you recovered, knowing you can never go back to the “Normal” which you once had? It may be worth noting here that according to Dr. Fontes’, Sarita did not meet the criteria for PTSD (35). But what about if she had? We get a clue as to Fontes’ feelings regarding an illness model in general with the following line:

“Using the New View, we are able to consider and treat Sarita’s discontent in its historical and current relational contexts, without reducing her to a body with a dysfunction, as if she were a broken machine” (35.)

Emphasis mine, because the problem with this statement is No no you know why am I even still doing this I am not doing this anymore I should not have to explicitly spell this out: If you think that diagnosing someone with a sexual dysfunction reduces them to a broken body, like they are a broken machine, then that’s your problem! Except that then it becomes my problem because then I have to struggle against this idea that there’s something wrong with me not just for having sexual problems but for needing medical help addressing them. You can have a sexual dysfunction and still be a rich, individual person. There has got to be a way to support abuse victims without using disablist language, especially since some abuse victims may very well have chronic illnesses – in fact, folks with chronic illnesses are more likely to be abused.

The third part of the book details the origins of the New View and contains more supportive materials. It’s the biggest and the most difficult section.

The longest chapter in the third section is Dr. Tiefer’s essay, Arriving at a “New View” of Women’s Sexual Problems: Background, Theory, and Activism. It’s very similar, even parallel, to Sex is Not a Natural Act. If you don’t have time to read all of Sex is Not a Natural Act, you could probably get a good idea of what it’s all about from reading this colorful essay. Dr. Tiefer shares her perspective of the history of the medicalization of men’s sexuality (and by extension, women’s,) the influence of Masters & Johnson’s human sexual response cycle research, criticism centering orgasm as the endpoint of sexual research, etc. This essay provides a lot of background information about why and how the New View Campaign came to be in the first place at about the turn of the millennium – with Viagra approved and prescribed, Dr. Tiefer and feminist colleagues wanted to challenge the supremacy of male-focused medicine defining what constitutes female sexual dysfunction, (no skeptic quotes from me) but they had to do so under time constraints – there was a sexual dysfunction conference a-brewin’.

Remaining chapters in this third section address gender and gender roles, sex education and coming of age, lesbian sex therapy, female sexual dysfunction, etc. The essays on lesbian sex therapy were interesting and they draw attention to this often-marginalized group, but even the authors seem disappointed by what they have to offer to their lesbian sex therapy clients. Much of sex therapy is informed by the work of Masters & Johnson and is heterocentric. You may think the same principles in heterosexual sex therapy should apply to same-sex couples but in practice, it frequently cannot. In response to the failures of Masters & Johnson’s sex therapy models, Marny Hall once tried a revolutionary therapy with lesbian clients that she called “Anti-sex therapy,” (168) with disastrous results.

As was the case in Sex is Not a Natural Act, I found myself tripping over problematic elements in these later chapters, which made it difficult to find redeeming elements. Jennifer R. Fishman and Laura Mamo in their essay What’s in a Disorder: Cultural Analysis of Medical and Pharmaceutical Constructions of Male and Female Sexual Dysfunction (about exactly what it sounds like) describe prescription drugs as,

…fast becoming popular consumer products, a capitalist fetish, where one is encouraged to think of such drugs as a means through which to improve one’s life. The shift to the biomedicalization of life itself is indicative of a cultural and medical assertion that one’s life can always be improved” (182).

(Emphasis original.) There is no consideration here for folks who need prescription drugs for mental illness or chronic pain or for folks who cannot afford much-needed medication. What stung me the most was the complete erasure of my existence as a once-adolescent young lady with sexual dysfunction when Deborah L. Tolman explicitly stated, “Female adolescent sexual dysfunction is an oxymoron” (197.) How am I supposed to react to that? Is this slap in the face supposed to snap me out of my reverie? I came away from many of the later chapters feeling very much as though some of our bingo board squares were staring me right in the face.

Overall, it is a challenging book, esoteric, though for readers of this blog it might be one worth reading. But it should be taken with a grain of salt — The New View may not be the panacea for women’s sexual problems it was hoping to be. In breaking away from the problems contained in the medical model, the New View stumbles into and creates new, different problems. It could be strengthened with revisions following a deeper understanding of disability activism and the potentially harmful consequences of stigmatizing both illness and medicine. The goal of the New View is to recognize that sexual problems are often caused by forces outside the body, and then to work for social change to address the causes for these problems. But social change takes time, and some of us cannot wait that long for revolution, especially when there are so few support structures in place to begin with. Some of us genuinely do have sexual problems that originate from within. Some of have problems that are so complex, we cannot isolate the body from the social, and we should not have to choose between social change or medicine. This really isn’t an either-or situation; people want better sex education with which to make good sexual choices and access to medical options. Others face problems so widespread that even feminism can’t fix everything. We have problems and dysfunctions now. While I can see some merits to social construction in looking at sexual problems and dysfunctions, overall with regard to the New View, I remain unwilling to co-sign.

Guest post: GUILT, FAILURE AND A PRE-ORGASMIC FEMINIST

10/17/2010 at 1:30 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments
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[Dear internet, we have a guest poster today! This is a post by pro-BDSM activist Clarisse Thorn, who blogs at Pro-Sex Outreach, Open-Minded Feminism.]

I’ve been working on a long article about my experiences with sexual dysfunction. It’s a project that’s been in the making for quite a while, but now that I don’t have so many distractions I’m ramping it up.

This is a complicated and difficult subject for me. I have a satisfying sex life now — I’ve gotten pretty good at communicating with partners, setting boundaries, seeking what I want, and masturbating to orgasm. It took me a long, long time to get here, though, and I had to get through a ton of confused feelings. Not just about coming into my S&M identity, though that was certainly a factor, but also dealing with feelings around the orgasmic dysfunction itself — for example, feelings about how my apparent inability to have orgasms meant that I was broken. (I had and still have some vaginal pain, too. Not every time, not even most times, and nothing overwhelming — but enough that I’ve developed coping mechanisms.)

In order to write this article, I’ve been going through a lot of years-old journal entries. One quotation particularly struck me:

[My boyfriend] comforted me the other night when I broke down and cried. I wept and wept and he said it was okay, you’re not broken, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s okay, he said, not to want sex. But I do want sex, I’m just sickened and terrified and disgusted by it, and I don’t want to be anymore. I want to be able to watch sex scenes and not be enraged and disgusted, to read sensitive ones and not collapse in tears.

I wasn’t entirely sickened and terrified and disgusted by sex, of course: I often liked it. Loved it, really. Sex usually felt good even before I could have orgasms, even before I’d found S&M, even before I’d parsed out my feelings and learned more about sexual media such as porn. And I’ve talked a lot about how awesome and sex-positive my sex education was.

But I knew I was missing something, something crucial and integral to my sexuality. And I hated the way society seemed to always be informing me how to sexually act: I felt crushed into approaches that obviously weren’t working, weren’t meant for someone like me. It was hard to walk the line between craving sex and being unable to stand it.

Here’s another excerpt from my journal, around the same time:

I really hate reading explicit sex scenes. I didn’t used to hate it as much as I do now, and since I broke down in tears during the last one, I guess it’s pretty obvious why. Jealousy and hurt and hatred of the ideals I feel like they’re trying to forge into me, [one ideal being] that love and sex and particularly orgasm are all irrevocably intertwined, and that by missing out on orgasm I’m missing out on not only an aspect of sex but of love.

But mostly I guess the discomfort does come from not wanting to read the intimate details of another’s sex life … and the jealousy for the orgasm, still there, too deep to banish. Christ, it’s fucking ridiculous. I shouldn’t be this miserable about this. It’s so fucking unimportant in the grand scheme of things. — but the tears that startled me in my eyes as I typed tell me just how unimportant it really is to me, I guess.

I started reading some sort of book on having orgasms and wept all through the first chapter because it was so miserably true. And because it was so miserably true I feel as though I ought to read the rest of the book, just give it a chance and go with it, and maybe make it that way, but it hurt so much and I’m so scared that it won’t work, and then I’ll be really unhappy. (A reaction the book even outlined, by the way. Yes, it’s about as true as it gets — the only thing I’ve ever found seems to understand how I really feel about this.)

The book that struck me so much is the monumental For Yourself, by Lonnie Barbach. It’s a famous book. I searched it out at the San Francisco library recently, and spent an afternoon sitting around the Mission branch, trying to locate the passages that once touched me so much. A few quotations:

Do you sometimes feel that you would be happier if sex were eliminated from your intimate relationships altogether? If so, possibly you feel abnormal in this regard, or like a misfit or not whole as a woman. Or, perhaps you just feel that you are missing something everyone else has enjoyed, a part of life that you’d like to have be a part of yours, too. You probably feel as if you are one of only a few women who have this problem. But the truth is that you are far from alone. (page xiii)

A real fear that can keep some women from doing anything to solve their sexual problems is the fear of failure. When Harriet joined the group, she didn’t believe she could become orgasmic. She said, “If I tried, I’d only fail, and then I’d be really miserable.” … Harriet eventually did defy her fears, as did all the other women mentioned. It takes time and effort to counteract these fears. It means saying “I’m afraid” and yet pushing beyond. (page 14)

Is it because you’re embarrassed to ask for what you want at a particular time; afraid your partner will refuse, get angry, or feel emasculated? (page 15)

Empathetic and accurate so far. (As it happens, the only lover I ever directly asked for help during this orgasm-discovery process refused and got angry, which just goes to show that being afraid he might react that way was not all in my head.) Merely confronting so much understanding was hard to face.

But, although I read it a long time ago, I think I’ve figured out what it was that made me unable to read further: the way Chapter 1 ends is a bit much. The last page of For Yourself‘s first chapter contains this:

You have to assume responsibility and be somewhat assertive. Our culture has taught us that a woman should depend on a man to take care of her, which means she can blame him for any mistakes. It’s nice to be driven around in a car, but it’s also nice to be able to drive yourself so you can go where you want to, when you want to. But to do that, you’d have to assume some responsibility.

Well, okay. Except that how do you assume responsibility for something if you have no idea where to even begin? If you know something’s missing but you’re not sure what it is? If you’re sure your partner will be frustrated and resentful when you ask for help?

This is especially complicated by the fact that along with the typical advice of “Take responsibility!”, the other typical advice is “Let go of control!” Over at Lady Sex Q&A, Heather Corinna writes:

Orgasm involves us surrendering to what we’re feeling, and really rolling with it, even if and when it feels very emotionally precarious. It’s control we’re letting go of, really, and that’s harder for some folks than others.

I’ve been an off-and-on sex & gender geek throughout my life, so I already knew these things intellectually. I’d already absorbed these ideas: that I must both take responsibility for my sexuality, and lose control in order to enjoy it. I think even then I knew that both of these ideas are actually good advice. But the problem is that they’re often put in patronizing and less-than-helpful ways. For example, “It’s nice to be driven around in a car, but it’s also nice to be able to drive yourself so you can go where you want to, when you want to. But to do that, you’d have to assume some responsibility.” Condescending as hell! To me, those words implied that I was making myself into a helpless child. Pulling a wounded-bird act and forcing other people to take care of me. I couldn’t stand the idea that I was doing that!

I am frustrated by the insensitive guilt trips that often happen, even (especially?) in feminist and sex-positive circles, where people will sometimes act as if these things are simple, as if it is oh-so-easy to stand up and take on one’s own sexuality and Just Deal With It. Especially when you’re in a situation where you know for a fact that some men you have sex with will resent you if you’re honest about not having orgasms, and yet you don’t know how to have orgasms and aren’t sure how to start on the journey. What then?

Some women end up faking in those contexts (I didn’t very often, back in the day, but once or twice I did). Of course, some feminists and sex-positive writers are especially unhappy about this:

I’m sure I’ll offend some choice feminist who thinks that it’s unfair to criticize women who make the totally autonomous choice to flatter a man with a fake orgasm instead of working towards a real one, but I’m taking a stand on this one. It’s un-feminist to fake, ladies!

I don’t advocate faking orgasms, and I actually also don’t advocate dating a man who gets angry and resentful when a female partner asks him to pitch in. (Oh my God, sometimes I have nightmares that I’m back in that relationship, and it’s been years.) At the same time, the idea that screaming “It’s un-feminist to fake!” will fix the problem is ridiculous. It’s the kind of idea that will just make feminists (like, say, myself many years ago) feel even worse about trying to figure out our relationships while not having orgasms. I see, so now not only am I failing to be responsible, I’m also un-feminist? Awesome.

This is not easy. It’s actually really hard. I get that people have to want to work on their sexuality, in order to do it — obviously I get that. But telling people that they’re being weak or self-centered or un-feminist because they aren’t sure how to do it? Or are actively pressured out of it?

Not okay.

Book review – The Camera My Mother Gave Me

08/31/2010 at 6:29 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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[Trigger warning for rape]

The Camera My Mother Gave Me is both one of the easiest and hardest books I have ever read.

Years ago, shortly before I received a tentative diagnosis of vulvodynia by my main gynecologist, I started looking for support and information about what causes vulvar pain. The Camera My Mother Gave Me is one of the earliest books I read about the topic. At the time, it was one of a very few books available that talked about vulvodynia with any amount of detail. Most of my other sources were scientific & peer reviewed medical journal articles or anecdotes from the internet. What sets The Camera My Mother Gave Me (henceforth I shall refer to it as TCMMGM) apart to this day is that unlike informational resources that talk about treatments, it is a memoir. It’s a first-hand personal recollection of author Susanna Kaysen’s life with vulvodynia over about two years.

Yes, you read that right, the author is Susanna Kaysen – this is the same author made famous for her previous memoir, Girl, Interrupted, which was made famous by Hollywood – though I understand the film distorted the facts in the name of artistic license. However, I have not read Girl, Interrupted and will not be talking about that today. Whether Kaysen’s experience with psychiatry in the 1960s has anything to do with her vulvodynia later in life, I cannot say.

So, TCMMGM is both an easy read and a hard read for me. How is this contradiction possible?

It’s easy because it’s short. It’s only about 150 pages with paragraphs double spaced. If you’re interested in reading it, it probably won’t take more than a few hours to finish; maybe a day or two tops. Kaysen uses everyday language instead of heavy academic jargon, so you don’t necessarily need to be a doctor or be familiar with vulvodynia in order to follow along.

But it’s hard because every time I read it, for all the progress I’ve made and improvements I’ve seen over the years, I am instantly transported right back to square one – that daunting, hopeless, barren place where the walls of pain obscure every available path. It’s hard because when I read it, I remember everything… the questions unanswered, the ignorant doctors, the uncertainty …the pain. I’m in my early 20s again and I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.

Another reason this book is so hard for me because no one understands this book unless they have vulvodynia. Perhaps I’m not giving folks enough credit. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration… but not by much. TCMMGM has received mixed reviews, many of them negative. The negative reviews usually contain some variation of gross-out due to TMI or frustration with Kaysen’s lack of progress in treating her pain medically. It’s TMI and gross because vaginas and vulvas are generally considered vulgar and gross – at least outside of feminist circles – sometimes even within feminist circles, because don’t talk about vaginas too much or else you reduce yourself to a big walking vagina – and thus it’s a shock to read such frank language and descriptions about the vagina. Frightening, too, to have to think about an area that’s supposed to be capable pleasure feeling instead only pain. If readers are frustrated with Kaysen’s lack of progress, that may be because Kaysen herself was frustrated and was deliberately trying to convey that feeling – trying treatments she felt comfortable with, avoiding the ones that she didn’t want but that were nonetheless pushed upon her over and over again. When she opened up about her vagina and all its problems, Kaysen also left herself open to invasive personal questions, “Why didn’t she do this, why didn’t she try that.” If the book feels unresolved at the end, that’s probably because vulvodynia is itself a chronic problem, often with no clear resolution. There are still loose ends by the time the book ends, because in Kaysen’s real life the struggle with vulvodynia was ongoing.

So what’s the book about?

The briefest answer is to say that it’s about Kaysen’s vagina. One day, mysteriously, “Something went wrong with it” (3.) Everything else follows over about a two-year period.

A more comprehensive answer is to say it’s about Kaysen’s experiences during a time when she had to re-evaluate her relationship and sexuality as she navigated the gauntlet of modern medicine in search of answers for her debilitating vulvovaginal pain.

Kaysen began experiencing vaginal pain that “Felt as if somebody had put a cheese grater in it and scraped” (3.) The reasons for this pain are never made 100% clear. We learn that Kaysen had a bartholin’s cyst surgically drained some 20 years earlier, and the pain felt intense at the surgical site – but the pain radiated to other areas of her vulva as well. She was approaching the age at which many women enter menopause (though I could not tell what her age was when the pain started.) Her gynecologist initially misdiagnosed Kaysen with a run-of-the-mill infection and prescribed some treatments that probably didn’t do any help. At some points, Kaysen explores the possibility of psychosomatic causes.

This pain interfered with her everyday activities like “Wearing pants” (8), “Taking a bath” and “Too much driving – it hates that” (146.) She maintains a pain diary, measured on a scale of 0-5, with her pain frequently hovering around a 2 and sometimes spiking above 5. She had good days and bad days.

The pain interfered with her sex life, to the point where her sex life and her relationship with her own body fundamentally changed. Very early on, Kaysen tells her gynecolgist,“Listen, I said, everything’s getting worse. I’m really having trouble with sex. My vagina hurts all the time now. If I have sex it hurts more, but it never doesn’t hurt” (9). Unfortunately an expanded definition of “Sex” did not adequately address Kaysen’s problems:

“I tried a lubricant named Astroglide that was more glue than glide. My boyfriend and I tried all sorts of varities of sexual activity: very quickly, so it wouldn’t have time to hurt; without moving, just in there; only fingers in there; nothing at all in there, only outside. Whatever we did, it hurt” (10).

She was not even able to enjoy arousal in and of itself, because “Just getting aroused hurts” (55).

When her pain first manifested, Kaysen visited multiple doctors specializing in different fields. She lived in Boston at the time, which is home to some real-life vulvovaginal specialists. She visited her gynecologist, an alternative medicine practitioner, an internist, a vulvovaginal specialist, and a physical therapist. Some of these doctors pass her off to other doctors – notably, when her primary gynecologist was stumped, Kaysen felt that he was “Washing his hands of me! After twenty years” (9). She was tentatively diagnosed with vulvar vestibulitis and tried multiple treatments – conventional western style and alternative – but none of them were right for her. Kaysen was acutely sensitive to side effects, and in some cases the side effects just made things worse. Even physical therapy, a treatment that I had very good luck with, only set her back farther. (Having a crummy physical therapist who ignored her wishes probably didn’t help.) Other treatments, notably surgery, she did not want to try, though the doctors and her boyfriend pushed and pushed.

The doctors left Kaysen with a lot of unanswered questions about vulvar pain…

With her gynecologist:

So what is it? I asked him.
I don’t know, he said

But what is it? I asked him. What’s wrong with me?
I don’t know, he said.
(9).

With the internist:

But why does it hurt all the time? I asked. Why does it hurt when I’m not having sex? When I’m sitting on the sofa?
I don’t know, said Doctor Matthew
(21).

With the vulvar specialist:

Why did this happen? I asked him.
Eh, he said. He shrugged.
What is it, anyhow?
Eh, he said. He returned to the stool and resumed his Q-tip (28).

What’s the matter with me?
You have a sore spot, he said
(30).

WELL THANK YOU, CAPTAIN OBVIOUS!!! A sore spot! Of course! Why didn’t Kaysen think of that?! That explains everything!!!

*headdesk*

It goes on like that in some fashion over the whole book. Just as it continues to go on day after day in real life for still all too many women.

[Trigger warning for rape]


Kaysen’s nameless boyfriend was not sympathetic to her situation or open minded about the kind of sex he wanted. For two years prior to the events described in TCMMGM, Kaysen and her boyfriend had enjoyed a sexual relationship. Her partner had a strong interest in sex - “It was one of the things I had loved most about him” (95), though they never say “I love you” to each other. But when sex hurt, Kaysen began to lose interest in sex. While they stayed together for the first year that she looked for treatment, the boyfriend nagged and coerced Kaysen to have sex with him – even if it meant she was performing against her will. Readers of this blog would probably recognize what Kaysen describes as rape. She didn’t say no, she acquiesced under pressure, but certainly she stopped giving any kind of enthusiastic consent. She spends days after sexual activity coping with the painful after effects. Kaysen herself never uses the word rape to describe what she went through with her boyfriend, even when it caused her to disassociate during the act and left her in physical pain for days afterward. When asked by a biofeedback specialist if she had ever been sexually assaulted, she answers “No,” but when the question is rephrased to “Have you ever had sexual relations against your will,” Kaysen says “Yes” (82). When she recounts the last straw to her friend, Kaysen questions herself, her boyfriend’s actions, her own fear at the time, and what actually happened.

[/TW]

Even after evicting her boyfriend, Kaysen continues to feel pain long-term. It wears her down over an extended period of time. “Low-grade pain is debilitating in a subtle way” (121.) Eventually she loses interest in sex, and this is a painful experience for her, but in a different way. When Kaysen talks about sex and eros, it’s clear to me that prior to these events, she really did enjoy sexuality in her life. For her, it was a source of unpredictability. At one point, after throwing her boyfriend out of the house and struggling to rediscover pleasure from what once felt only plain, she tells a friend, “When eros goes away, life gets dull. It’s as if I’m colorblind. The world is gray” (125.) She eventually decides that the best course of treatment is to stop treatment. Eventually she makes a limited, partial recovery… But by then her relationship with her vagina, vulva and her own sexuality are fundamentally changed. Maybe forever.

Kaysen’s language may be plain and easy to understand, but it’s not without criticism. She uses frequently the word “Vagina” even though a more accurate word is “vulva.” Or maybe it is accurate for her to describe her pain as vaginal, since with vulvodynia the pain can radiate and spread beyond the vulva. In practice, when the pain feels like it’s everywhere, it can be very hard to pinpoint. One social construction argument against female sexual dysfunction as a valid diagnosis is that women with sexual problems may not be educated enough to understand their own anatomy; however Kaysen demonstrates that she is aware of her own anatomical structures and function.

Overall though, I would hope that readers accept Kaysen’s idiosyncrasies and simplified language. She uses other inaccurate terms, most likely as deliberately as she chooses to forgo with quotation marks when recalling conversations. She refers to her doctors as the “Vulvologist” and the “Biofeedbackologist” instead of as “The vulvar specialist” and “the physical therapist.” But when you’re encountering these specialists for the first time, perhaps not knowing such fields even existed before, what else are you supposed to call them??? The title of the book itself is an error. The title is based on Kaysen’s memory of a scene in a movie, with some artistic license exercised. (According to this interview with Kaysen about TCMMGM, technically the title of the book should be The Camera My Father Gave Me.) She receives materials from the “National Vulvodynia and Vestibulitis Association” instead of National Vulvodynia Association. And so on…

But this is her story in her words. I hope we can forgive her for taking liberties with some of the language – though it does have some disableist moments that are questionable and perhaps not so flexible.

I don’t know if Kaysen ever found relief for her pain in the years since TCMMGM came out, though it seems unlikely. Around 2003, the following was written about her on Salon.com:

Though she lives in the Boston area, the doctor capital of the world, Kaysen never found a workable medical treatment. Today, Kaysen hasn’t so much lost or won her battle; rather, she’s signed a treaty, with massive concessions. “Celibacy is a great cure!” she said wryly in a recent phone conversation. “I wasn’t interested in having sex again. The only thing I was interested in was not having pain. Pain eclipses desire.”

So who might be interested in reading TCMMGM? Who might benefit from exposure to such a taboo subject and who should approach the book with caution?

If the reviews online are any indication, many readers will be disappointed and frustrated with the book, but a few will strongly emphasize with what Kaysen went through. I am one of those people, and would like to see more people read and attempt to understand Kaysen’s situation. The frustration that so many reviewers are left with may be exactly what readers most need to feel, to better understand the frustration that still too many patients with vulvodynia have to deal with when running the gauntlet of modern medicine in search of adequate treatment.
The book is a memoir of one woman’s experiences with what is probably vulvodynia, and therefore it should not be taken as an advice or how-to book. This is all stuff that happened to Kaysen. It’s not necessarily going to happen to you. Some readers with a history of vulvar pain may find the book depressing because at so many points, things appear hopeless. Others take comfort knowing that they are not alone. It’s been a few years since the TCMMGM came out too, so there have been some advances in treatment since Kaysen conducted her own research and treatments. Your mileage may vary.
TCMMGM is short and small, but it’s not light fare. Although it has moments of dark self-deprecating humor, it’s not something to read if you want to feel good (except perhaps through schadenfreude.) It’s kind of a downer, to be honest. Because Kaysen describes a rape and post-rape scene with frank language, the book may be triggering to those with a history of sexual assault.
TCMMGM is available online from several retailers and it is available in E-Book format for Kindle. If you’re still interested after reading all this, then may I suggest that you make a purchase through the NVA’s book list, since they have a referral program set up for financial support.

As with all reviews conducted at Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction so far, I had to pay for TCMMGM with my own money, and I receive no compensation for posting a review of it.

Symbolism, archetypes and stereotypes: What experts have said about vaginismus

07/21/2010 at 7:03 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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While browsing for interesting (and often outrageous) coverage of sexual dysfunction via Google Books, I’ve occasionally stumbled across experts (doctors, sexologists, laypersons, etc.) interpretations of vaginismus and the women who live with it. I’d like to present some of my findings to you now. Full disclosure: I haven’t been able to finish every book I’d like you to look at today.  But on the other hand, I’m not doing a full book review today either and I am not certain what context, if any, could redeem the following passages.

One of the points Dr. Leonore Tiefer made in Sex is Not a Natural Act (yes we’re returning to this title again) is that we need to look at sex symbolically. Sex has meaning beyond the obvious that we can see and feel, and to understand sex and sexual problems, we need to figure out the meaning behind it. Consider some of the following quotes with emphasis added by me (thanks to Kindle’s word search feature:)

“It’s the symbolic investment that makes sex ecstatic” (location 1215).
“The first [story about doing the 'Viagra tango,' as she puts it] is about how Viagra the pill, but more importantly, Viagra the symbol, may affect the sexual conduct and experience of women and men in many parts of the world” (location 1315).
“[Orgasm is] just a reflex. It’s the symbolism that makes it feel so good” (location 1195; available online.)

And it goes on like that at a few more points throughout the book. We need to look at the symbolism of sex, phalluses, the Viagra family of sexual medicine, etc. We need to pull the curtain back and understand the why behind a woman’s libido crash. Some contemporary examples of where understanding sex and symbolism would be helpful are with the very expression “Sex symbol” and with sexual imagery used in advertisements.

There’s just one potential problem: Some so-called experts on women’s sexuality have already done that – looked at sex, women, women’s sexuality and sexual problems symbolically – and the results haven’t been pretty. Sometimes the ugly things people say about FSD and the women who have it doesn’t come from hack journalists and misogynist comments on message boards. Sometimes – often times – it comes from the professional sphere and trickles down.

Let’s focus on vaginismus as an example. Vaginismus, if you didn’t already know, can be described as an uncontrollable spasm of the pelvic floor and vaginal muscles, usually during sexual activity. It’s most obvious when attempting penetrative activity, like sexual intercourse, but it may also occur with a dildo, tampon use, or during gynecological exams. The spasm may be strong enough to completely prevent an object from entering the vagina, or it may be possible to insert something, but with pain. As such, it can be the cause of dyspareunia (painful sex.) Vaginismus is often recognized as a sexual dysfunction, however, some sexologists question the validity of sexual dysfunction broadly as a diagnosis at all and vaginismus in particular. For some folks like me, vaginismus a chronic problem connected to medical issues, other times it’s situational.  Some folks say it’s purely psychological and can be treated without physical intervention, others say there’s a physical component and that it can be addressed physically.
Vaginismus does not necessarily require any treatment at all, but when folks with vaginismus do seek assistance to address it, that assistance may come in the form of talk therapy with a counselor or sex therapist, dilator use, learning how to kegel, or more extreme medical intervention such as botox injections (not for cosmetic purposes) or physical therapy.

And some sexologists have described vaginismus symbolically.

One of the first, if not the first, books to deal with vaginismus exclusively is 1962’s Virgin Wives: A Study of Unconsummated Marriages, by  Leonard J. Friedman. It’s out of print now, but you may still be able to find a used copy online or through your library. I first came across this title while slogging through Linda Valin’s When a Woman’s Body Says No to Sex: Understanding and Overcoming Vaginismus, a book about vaginismus, from the perspective of someone who has personal experience with it. Valins acknowledged Friedman’s contributions to her own book, but alas Google Books does not offer me the complete text of Virgin Wives or a preview version to pursue at my leisure.

However, because authors like Valins have referenced Friedman’s work, we can get a pretty good feel for what he thought about women with vaginismus. Valins is a big fan of his, so it probably isn’t all bad – but I found the following disturbing.

Last week, I tweeted one of my findings regarding symbolism and vaginismus, from Google’s preview of 1987’s Sexuality and Birth Control in Community Work, by Elphis Christopher. Based on what I can see in Sexuality and Birth Control in Community Work, Friedman described three archetypes of women who tend toward developing vaginismus:

(1) ‘The Sleeping Beauty': this occurs where the woman denies her own sexuality and waits for the man to awaken her sexually. Unfortunately, she often chooses a ‘safe’ partner, i.e. a man who is uncertain of his own sexuality and may suffer from impotence. He is often praised as a ‘good,’ nice boyfriend because he did not attempt pre-marital intercourse.
(2) ‘Brunhilde': this refers to the woman who is always looking for a man strong enough to conquer her. She usually chooses as sexual partners men whom she despises.
(3) ‘Queen Bee': this refers to the woman who manages to get pregnant without allowing penetration so that she can claim the pregnancy for herself.

What… the… fuck…?

I have no reasoned, rational response to this. Do I need to explain the multiple layers of Wrong with this picture to you?

We got here, above all, the assumption of heterosexuality, and according to these personality types, if you have vaginismus you are likely to be:

1. a woman who refuses to own her own sexuality and instead waits for some guy to come along and give it to her. But for some reason the author decides that a man with basic human decency who did not coerce his partner into sex simply must be sexually insecure and possibly “Impotent” (as if there’s anything wrong with having erectile dysfunction.)
2. I don’t know wtf this is – Some kind of Viking archetype I think where a woman who doesn’t settle down with any ol’ jerk and who doesn’t take shit is asking too much. Or else if she’s got vaginismus, it means she must hate her partner.
3. I don’t know wtf this is either. I think term is dated because I had to look it up. I think this archetype is supposed to conjure up images of a bossy lady who, frustrated with vaginismus, gets pregnant the “Wrong” way – minus the ejaculation of a penis inside of her.

So, what the fuck, which one of these archtypes am I then? Anybody here identify with one of these three archetypes? Does anybody here appreciate being described like this? Does anybody here in a relationship appreciate having your partner described like this?

“Now wait, K,” you may be saying. “That paragraph starts out talking about non-consummation generally, and then the next paragraph is about vaginismus.” Fair enough, so let’s make an effort to double-check and make sure that we’re talking about the same thing. Here’s a website that mentions the three archetypes of women who are prone to vaginismus, and it says:

Friedman (1962) describes three types of women inclined to vaginismus:
* the sleeping beauty (father-type relationship with partner and various feelings of guilt)
* the Brunhilde (the woman perceives sex as a battle between the sexes, and the male dominance has to be opposed)
* the queen bee (the woman perceives sex as dirty and sinful, she is afraid of pain in coitus and, in principle, she wants to get pregnant)

Again, what… the… fuck…?

Still don’t believe your eyes? I’ve got one more piece of evidence I can present, from the Science/Fiction of Sex: Feminist deconstruction and the vocabularies of heterosex. I’ve been picking it up and putting it down every once in awhile, browsing random passages – because every passage is so cerebral. This book is hard. Alas, unless you’ve got a copy of the book you won’t be able to read page 210 so let me fill you in. This is, as the title says, a feminist deconstruction of sex, so the author does not necessarily endorse what I’m about to show you.

Annie Potts references the work of Eve Adler, who submitted an article to the British Journal of Sexual Medicine in 1989. I have tried to access the journal article myself but have not yet been successful through my usual means. Adler described several archetypes of women with vaginismus, including one of particular interest to Potts:

Less commonly seen today is the primary vaginismic patient, Sleeping Beauty; an emotionally immature woman awaiting a sexual awakening without taking responsibility for it. These ‘good girls’ have often been brought up to believe that sex is bad or dirty; she had to save herself for marriage! This type can appear quite ‘little-girl-like,’ pristine, clean an tidy and very controlled generally; or she may look quite sexy, enjoy sex play and experience orgasm with clitoral stimulation. Her partner is often ‘a gentleman’ in every sense: an unassertive, gentle, literally non-pushy man who may well have hidden anxieties about his own sexual abilities (Adler 1989 in Potts 2002)

What… the… fuck… What is the meaning of this bullshit?!

“Emotionally immature?” “Little-girl-like?” “Unassertive?” This is in print, people! This is how women with vaginismus and their partners have been described. In books and journal articles. What about descriptions like “Creative and resourceful?” Or “Resilient?” How about some of that?

Don’t be too angry with Annie Potts for re-printing that passage above though; she analyzes it, though you may not agree with her analysis either…  It gets far out there when she starts talking about vaginismus as a form of political resistance against a phallocracy, and hey did you ever notice how phallic your fingers and a newborn baby are.

Let’s go a little deeper and focus on Sleeping Beauty since she keeps popping up re: vaginismus. The myth of Sleeping Beauty has been reinterpreted by various authors. According to one interpretation by Joan Gould, when Sleeping Beauty pricked her hand and fell into an enchanted sleep, the spindle that cut her represented a phallus and sexual maturity; the blood that came out of the injury represents menstruation. Sleeping Beauty was protected from spindles (sex and puberty) by her royal family up her 15th birthday – the age by which many girls reach menarche. The sudden appearance of sex and adulthood upon her (and Snow White, too, for that matter) was too much to bear all at once. The sleep she fell into was not necessarily a passive time; she spent the century mulling over impending adulthood and all the responsibilities that came with it. At a predetermined time, a prince came to wake her up and she was transformed into a woman ready to act as an adult. Usually we think of the awakening as romantic, stemming from a kiss but some versions have her shocked out of her sleep by rape or nursing her babies – conceived in sleep during rape, the perpetrator long gone (Gould, 86-126). Gould’s explanation of the myth of Sleeping Beauty, coincidentally, also addresses the myth of Brunhilde. However we cannot ignore the well-known 1959 Walt Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, in which Aurora was at last rescued from an evil witch’s spell by an active, handsome prince – who she was scheduled to be married to anyway. We need to think about that version too, especially since Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was released by the time Virgin Wives was printed.

Edit 7/22/10 – The boyfriend suggested I add more pictures to the blog. Here’s a picture of Disney’s Princess Aurora, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

Disney Aurora

Disney Princess Aurora

[Image description: A picture of Disney's Princess Aurora wearing an iconographic pink dress.]

Is this the true face of Vaginismus? What the hell does she have to do with vaginismus? You think of vaginismus, what’s the first thing you think of, Disney, right? No. (Via.)

But wait, there’s more! Last week, when I Tweeted a link to my findings about archetypes of women with vaginismus, @NevillePark responded back with a very good question:

Wow. Uh, dykes, genderqueers, masculine folk, trans guys, etc., can’t have vaginismus? NEWS TO ME #youreadthisstuffsowedonthaveto

Indeed, good point! Because Friedman was looking at unconsummated marriages back in the 1960s, the most likely scenario is that he wasn’t interested in anyone who wasn’t cis- and heterosexual. After all, marriage was then (and remains to this day in the US on a federal level) defined as a legal union between man and woman. I would love to get my hands on a copy of Virgin Wives just to confirm that he had no interest in queer sexuality and vaginismus.

Alas, I cannot offer a complete answer to the question @NevillePark raises. However, we can turn to another body of work for partial credit.

Last week on Google Books I found Sexual Salvation: Affirming Women’s Sexual Rights and Pleasures, a book about women and sex, with an interest in often marginalized groups of women. I’m surprised to report that it does have a Kindle e-book edition (though the Kindle version is out of my price range right now! $63?! For a sex therapy textbook!? That’s not on the budget!) Overall it sounds interesting and potentially valuable – the Amazon summary says the author spends time talking about feminism and marginalized groups of women, including seniors, disabled women, and sex workers. And I can see from looking at the indexes to Sexual Salvation and (once again for the millionth time,) Sex is not a Natural Act that the authors, Naomi B. McCormick and Dr. Leonore Tiefer, respectively, reference each others’ work. Hmm…

The discussion of vaginismus starts on about page 190, preceded by a discussion of dyspareunia (painful sex) and followed by a discussion of sexual dysfunction, especially in men, and then sex therapy.

There’s a lot we could talk about with this one section of the book, but for now let’s focus on the following:

Taught that the only “real sex” is sexual intercourse, heterosexual women are susceptible to two sexual problems that are largely unknown to lesbians, dyspareunia, painful coitus, and vaginismus, involuntary spasms of the vaginal musculature which prevent penetration. (McCormick, 190).

Well there’s an answer. This leaves room for the possibility of lesbians to experience painful sex and vaginismus, but according to McCormick, that’s almost unheard of. (An unfortunate side effect of establishing profiles of ‘typical’ patients for diagnosis of problems though, is that if you don’t fit the profile, you may have to work even harder to get a caretaker to take your complaints seriously.) She does, however, go on to describe situations in which a lesbian may find herself in a heterosexual relationship and experiencing vaginismus, and some pages later, she describes a lesbian couple coping with cancer and sexual problems including genital pain. Meanwhile, the Vaginismus Awareness Network goes on to address two myths about vaginismus and sexual orientation (Emphasis mine):

A woman MAY be a lesbian if she has vaginismus, just like she may be a lesbian even if she was able to have painfree intercourse with a man.

This myth seems to spread from the belief that lesbians won’t have penetrative sex. Though that may be true for some of them, others will use strap-ons etc and have ‘intercourse’ too. So clearly vaginismus has little to do with one’s sexual orientation since so many heterosexual women in love with their partners have it. It has more to do with lack of knowledge of one’s private parts, lack of information on their PC muscles, lack of sexual education and lack of kindness…

You know, I don’t always agree with the VAN. I have the sexual education I need to understand my own anatomy and how to do a kegel, and my partner is kind to me, yet somehow I still have vaginismus. Maybe we shouldn’t paint all women with vaginismus as one big homogeneous group. But compared to the other Freudian analyses described above, even I prefer this. I’m very uncomfortable by the way women with vaginismus have been described in literature like what I’ve shown you today. For how long were these archetypes and stereotypes repeated and used in clinical settings? To what extent do the myths and stereotypes about women with vaginismus still exist, and what effect do they have now?

Shorties

07/06/2010 at 7:35 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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Submitted for your approval: A series of posts which were each too small to constitute blog entries on their own. Divided we are weak, but together, we are strong! Caution: TMI/NSFW content alert, for frank description of 1 sexual act towards the end. The one TMI/NSFW anecdote included will go behind a WordPress cut, so if you are reading from the main page, you’ll need to click through to go on when the time comes. Everything should still appear in your RSS feeder though, so scroll at your own discretion. Thanks!

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The National Vulvodynia Association has released a new e-newsletter! It’s been months since the last one was released in January 2010. Keep in mind, this is not to be confused with their regular newsletter. You need to be a member of the NVA to read their regular newsletter, but the e-newsletter is a .PDF available to the public.

Some highlights I found interesting are below; do check the whole newsletter for more when you have a chance:

The NVA is adding three new self-help booklets to their web resources, available to NVA members. The topics may be of some interest to readers here – First up will be Vulvodynia, Pregnancy and Childbirth, then My Partner has Vulvodynia – What Do I Need to Know? and How to Apply for Disability Benefits. Personally I’m very curious to see what the Partner booklet looks like – the e-newsletter does not use gendered pronouns so here’s to hoping that it doesn’t take an exclusively heterocentric view. But of course I’d like to see the other two booklets as well.

The e-newsletter also goes over some updates in the wide world of vulvar pain. There’s a new clinic open in Miluwakee, Wisconsin. Research and grants remain ongoing. One of the research topics is on vulvodynia and pregnancy, so women with vulvodynia may soon have some rigorous science available to help make decisions, in addition to anecdotes and stories of support presently available. There’s going to be a vulvodynia conference for researchers later this year, in October 2010. Findings from the conference will be published in a medical journal, but the e-newsletter does not say which journal yet, or when. Hm, that’s interesting. I’d like to keep an eye on that. I hope no one stages an anti-vulvodynia researcher conference outside of it.

The last page is dedicated to summarizing the Campaign to End Chronic Pain in Women. You may remember not too long ago, the Overlapping Conditions Alliance went to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness of chronic conditions that disproportionately effect women. There’s links to some videos related to the conference, and the e-newsletter says that representatives met with political representatives, including Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. There’s also a request in the newsletter for readers to send an e-mail urging select US government representative to get on board with the Campaign – I’ll just let you click through to that form via the e-newsletter.

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Thoughts on a Dear Abby column, in which the writer, a elderly man, writes in asking for advice on communicating about his Viagra use to his female sex partner. My thoughts are: What an interesting way to phrase a question about communication and what interesting assumptions everyone involved seems to be making.

So “Vital Man” writes in because when he went away on a week-long trip, his sex partner “Demanded” that he leave his Viagra with her. Apparently he and his girlfriend are comfortable with him using Viagra during sexual activity, but they don’t communicate about it openly. Vital Man assumes his girlfriend assumes he needs to use it each time he has sexual activity, therefore Viagra is like a tether. If he can’t maintain an erection, theoretically he won’t have sexual relations with another partner.

My thoughts are: Well did he outright lie to his partner and tell her “I need it,” or otherwise deliberately mislead her into thinking something along those lines… or did they not talk about it and he assumes that’s her assumption? What makes this guy think that she doesn’t already know that Viagra is optional for him?

My other thought – maybe she wants to try the Viagra out herself, while he’s out of town. That way she can find out if it has any effect on her, and if not, then no pressure to perform! (That’s what I’d do anyway. That was my first thought!)

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In my free time, for fun, I’ve been reading rule books for Dungeons & Dragons. I’m having some difficulty finding a local group to play with, but I’ll keep looking.

Perhaps there’s a deeper meaning to my choice of book types – Dungeon Master rulebooks rather than the player handbooks. Maybe casual players read DM books, too, I don’t know. Or maybe it means I secretly want to control a whole imaginary world and be a level-building world-destroyer.

I once read or heard an axiom that stated something like, any time a new technology comes out, it will always be adapted to sex. I don’t know if that’s an actual expression or who first declared it, (any ideas?) but it sounds about right to me. So of course as I read the D&D rulebooks I started thinking if there was any way to incorporate sex & sexuality into campaigns. Does any group ever do that? Surely I couldn’t be the first one to think of that…

As it turns out, I’m not the first whose thoughts turn to adult situations in roleplay games. I won’t be the last. I’m not going to post a full review of this book, because it’s too embarassing even for me, even on this TMI blog. But I bought, and read everything in the Book of Erotic Fantasy, compliant with D&D rules (3rd edition…) which means the rules are outdated already, but I’m sure they can be adapted to 4th edition rules by a creative DM.

What’s funny besides the bad Photoshops used as illustrations (instead of drawings) is how seriously the book takes itself. Very serious about the rules of sexual roleplay, complete with charts and tables for decision-making and dice-measuring. Very serious and complicated even though in this case the roleplay is done entirely in players’ imaginations, and not performed on each other in the flesh. I think…. in most cases it would not be performed in the physical realm. The exception, I suppose, would be for LARP players. That might be fun to watch.

Since the rules are now outdated and many (if not most) of the rules can’t be applied to real life situations (even one-on-one partner bedroom play – unless you’re really creative,) the Book of Erotic Fantasy is purely For Novelty Purposes Only.

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I e-mailed Durex & Lifestyles about the lubricant used on their non-latex condoms (Durex Avanti/Avanti Bare & Lifestyles Skyns.)

According to the e-mailed responses, both brands are coated in silicone-based lubricant. Just FYI for you.

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And this is where it gets TMI/NSFW-ish, so here’s that WordPress cut you’ll need to click through from the main page to continue forward at the time of your choosing.

Continue Reading Shorties…

Thoughts on “The New Bottoming Book,” dipping my toes into BDSM

05/18/2010 at 5:52 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments
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Ever since I first noticed some trouble afoot downstairs, I’ve been studying sex & sexuality above and beyond what I was granted access to in public school. I’ve learned a lot from different sources – journal articles, paperback books, websites, online support groups and blogs – and I’ve still got a long ways to go… and it’s going to take a lot of practice before I reach a point where I feel confident when it comes to sex.

Different sources try to sell you on different ideas, but I’ve been noticing a few common threads scattered throughout many (though not all) of the works by experts and advocates I’ve been reading. One of the common ideas I’ve come across in multiple sexuality books is that society (and many people in it) would benefit from a broader definition of sex, one which includes a wide variety of sexual activity beyond hetero PIV intercourse. And some of those books make a very interesting suggestion for exploration – BDSM. That is, bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism.

It sounds counter-intuitive at first – Isn’t BDSM painful? Doesn’t embracing and re-enacting power dynamics go against feminism? And to an outsider like myself, it can look scary. How can someone with a history of dyspareunia (painful sex) possibly incorporate pain and power dynamics into their sex life on purpose? Why would you do this? There are vocal critics of BDSM, including feminist critiques. How do you reconcile BDSM with feminist ideals, if at all?

Yet again and again and again in sex-positive communities I’ve been a part of (or at least watched from afar) and in the books I’ve read, I’ve seen arguments defending BDSM and kink, and opening the door for it as a healthy sexual activity.

Consider the following passages from some of the books I’ve read:

Returning once again to Sex is not a Natural Act,

The possibilities for pleasure include, for example, the capacity for eroticizing nongenital parts of the body through conditioning and symbolism. As Jeffrey Weeks (1985) points out, ‘In S/M,… the whole body becomes a seat of pleasure, and the cultivation of roles and exotic practices the key to the attainment of pleasure. A degenitalization of sex and of pleasure is taking place in these practices…” (p. 241) (Tiefer, location 2385, emphasis mine).

As someone struggling with sexual problems, I find this passage very interesting. In mainstream depictions of sex, there’s a very strong focus on genital activity & orgasm, but according to this, in BDSM you don’t even need to have genital contact to experience pleasure.

BDSM is explicitly stated as a possibility for couples to explore in Let Me Count the Ways,

“Just for fun, here’s a list – in no particular order – of outercourse activities that different people enjoy. Remember a self-accepting, nonpressured attitude make all the difference [...] Dominance and submission: holding your partner down, being held down, using a blindfold, spanking, using wrist or ankle restraints, playact at “forcing” someone to do something. Remember, this is very intimate stuff, so clear communication is essential.” (Klein & Robbins, 114, emphasis mine).

This same list includes several other activities that might fall under a broad definition of BDSM as well.

But wait, there’s more – The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability includes a whole chapter about S/M, in which among other things the authors define terms and talk about the difficulty of navigating the BDSM community while disabled. (I’ve heard PWD discuss this topic of BDSM & accessibility in detail on blogs.) Anne Sprinkle asks the reader of Spectacular Sex whether or not she (Sprinke’s aim was mostly women readers) might be interested in exploring BDSM. Chapters 8 and 9 in Sex Toys 101 talks about BDSM toys and activities, illustrated with lots of bright colorful pictures.
So there’s five examples in print I have personally seen talk about BDSM in a positive way, and the list goes on in published books and online.

Huh. Again and again and again I see the same thing. Perhaps there is something to this BDSM after all. I am intrigued yet apprehensive, and would like to know more. These books listed above don’t all talk about how to do BDSM in step-by-step great detail, don’t talk about how to reconcile it with feminism or a history that may include painful sex, abuse, or PTSD. So where do I start? How do I use this? How do I play this game?

Somewhere along the line, I can’t remember how at this point, I stumbled upon or was directed to a pair of books about BDSM, The New Bottoming Book and The New Topping Book, both by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy. It would be awhile longer yet before I could purchase them with my own money, only because I had no safe place to hide them from prying eyes. Luckily the authors and publishers saw fit to make these books available as e-books. One slightly-used Kindle, $20 and a few clicks later, problem solved!

And after chugging through Sex is not a Natural Act, I needed a break from tough brain work. Something a little lighter & friendlier with some positive affirmations in it. And so here we are… For an alternate review to supplement your reading of The New Bottoming Book this one is quite detailed, NSFW.

The New Bottoming Book is a revision of an earlier, shorter incarnation with the same name (minus the “New” part.) After the success of the first printing in the mid-1990s and growth in the kink community (especially online,) the authors went back and built upon their original work. Dossie and Janet (they refer to each other by first names so I hope they don’t mind if I do too,) are writing from the perspectives of a Bottom and a Top, respectively – although both authors have switched roles. It’s a nice, short, easy read, especially compared to some of the more theoretical books I’ve been slogging through. It only took a few days to finish cover to cover and about 1 single day to re-read.The Kindle version has 1656 locations, which translates to about 200 pages in print. I rarely used the highlighter & note taking features of the Kindle this time, although I did toy with the text-to-speech feature at a few juicy passages… While talking via webcam with my boyfriend. Mostly though, I simply went “With the flow” while I was reading.

The primary audience of The New Bottoming Book is bottoms, and anyone who is thinking about bottoming. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry – the authors define many BDSM terms throughout, which is great because I’d be lost otherwise. Dossie and Janet have a liberal definition of what they consider BDSM. “If the people directly involved in any given scene or activity agree that what they’re doing is BDSM, it is” (location 212.) That means that no one can tell you that what you’re doing isn’t “Real” – you and your partner get to decide. It doesn’t necessarily have to look like anything – this is a valuable lesson for anyone who’s struggling with the rigid rules of what mainstream sex is “Supposed” to look like. And whenever you perform BDSM, that’s a “Scene.” BDSM is synonymous with leathersex, and leathersex is “An activity in which one partner consciously, consensually relinquishes control to another in at least one of four areas: movement, behavior, sensation or emotion” (location 108). This exchange of power & control is temporary and all parties involved may set limits by mutual agreement. Dossie and Janet talk about the concept of “Power-with” vs. “Power-over.”

“Most of our culture’s systems run on power-over, with sexism, racism and militarism being some ugly examples. Power-over means that a person sees his or her power as the ability to control others, and thus always sees this power as relative, either greater or lesser than other people’s power” (location 266) … “Power-with is based on the idea that we can all become more powerful by supporting each other in being more powerful” (location 274)

So one of the main themes to understand about BDSM is that it’s about playing with power. The toys and roles used by participants are tools to feeling powerful, which is a reward in and of itself. (Gives new meaning to the old slogan for the Super Nintendo… “Now you’re playing with power. Super power.” Remember that? Best damn console ever…)

A bottom is “Someone who has the ability to eroticize or otherwise enjoy some sensations or emotions – such as pain, helplessness, powerlessness and humiliation – that would be unpleasant in another context” (location 89). Bottoms and the verb form “To bottom” have many synonyms, and you can perform bottoming roles without identifying exclusively as a bottom. Bottoms are the focus of the book, but I have no doubt that Tops – counterparts to bottoms – would benefit from reading as well. Tops “Can eroticize giving someone an experience that would be unpleasant in real-world interactions” (location 98) and likewise have many synonyms.

Speaking of synonyms and language – I noticed that several negative terms were used in reclaimatory fashion, particularly “Pervert.” The authors switch back & forth between masculine & feminine gender pronouns all the time. However there is also some ablist language re: mental illness – “Crazy” is explicitly used twice (not reclaimatory.)

For someone already experienced in BDSM, I’m sure much of the information in The New Bottoming Book will be basic 101-level review – an experienced person will already know about many of the principles and terms the authors talk about. It’s possible that experienced players will have already read The Bottoming Book. As someone who has basically zero real-world experience with BDSM though, I genuinely need that 101 level introduction and found it helpful. I’m so vanilla, I like to eat vanilla frosting straight out of the can and pour Kahlua French Vanilla over vanilla ice cream while listening to Vanilla Ice & Milli Vanilli. But I can be open minded…

Early on in the book, the authors state that The New Bottoming Book is not meant to be used as a step-by-step manual for how to be a good bottom in BDSM. This surprised me, since I had seen it recommended elsewhere – I expected it to be a how-to book. And there are sections and chapters that talk about how to do BDSM – almost the entire second half of the book is dedicated to describing various scenes. But the how-to descriptions are brief. It’s great for generating ideas and helpful pointers but there aren’t any diagrams of how to tie someone up in rope bondage, for example. In fact there are no illustrations save for a small Phil Foglio-esque happy person on the cover. (It’s not actually by Phil Foglio. I think… it’s copyright “Fish.” I don’t know who Fish is.)

Nonetheless, some of the ideas in the book go over my head. It’s not because of technical jargon or academic ivory towers I have to scale. I think the writing overall is accessible to almost everyone, and peppered throughout with plenty of positive affirmation. While not heavily technical nor theoretical, the writing style is nonetheless very philosophical. The book talks about the philosophy of bottoming, the motives behind it, the mindset, the rewards. If you do not understand why someone would choose to bottom, this book may help fill in the gaps in your knowledge. The New Bottoming Book talks a lot about why people bottom (and top,) but there’s not a lot of concrete hard facts, scientific laws or statistics provided. (A quick PubMed search reveals that there are some BDSM peer-reviewed studies… There were probably fewer at the time of printing though.)
For example, the authors discuss the rush of endorphins that probably comes from careful use of intense sensations, including pain. I say “Probably” because Dossie and Janet disclose, “At least, that’s what we think happens: this is a theory that fits our experience, and the medical establishment is very unlikely to subject this to scientific research, so we just have to believe in our own sensations” (location 1126).

I feel that sometimes Dossie and Janet were writing as though the reader already knew what the authors were talking about. Although the authors make it clear that all are welcome to join the BDSM community of their own free will, I sometimes felt left out for my lack of experience. I get the impression that The New Bottoming Book was written mostly for those who already had an draw to BDSM and who have already established what might be considered BDSM fantasies. But I don’t know where “Bottom space” (location 217) and “The forever place” (location 935) are and I’ve never been put in a trance. You had to have been there…

I’ve never been there before. For example, the authors sometimes compare their bottoming experience to flight. And they do not mean flying while seated in coach on a long plane trip cross-country – they mean mentally, the feeling of free flight as in a dream.
What was that Sandman line? Anybody else here read that series? Dream is talking and he goes, “If you do not climb, you will not fall. This is true. But is it that bad to fail, that hard to fall?” Todd Farber replies, “Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly.”
I remain earthbound. For now…

I’m coming from a position where BDSM is not an intrinsic drive for me – it’s something that I was told about later in life and am curious of now. I think I could get into this. My only other exposure to written BDSM material was the Claiming of Sleeping Beauty – an erotic BDSM novel that bored me to tears. I remember reading it years ago (I was still in high school and all my goth friends had read it) and being sorely disappointed. I was expecting literary pornography and got something else. I never bothered reading the other two novels in the series, not wanting to waste more money on something that didn’t do anything for me sexually.
In contrast, I’ve heard some activists talk about how their attraction to BDSM and kink is a variation of sexual orientation. This is something I’m actively building an interest in.

Yet I am not too worried about whether my newly budding interest in BDSM will make me any better or worse at it than anyone else. I’m new so of course it’ll take time & practice to figure out how, if and where BDSM will fit into my sex life. And I can understand why some of those sexuality activists and experts mentioned above offered BDSM as a suggestion in the first place – the way it’s described by Dossie and Janet makes it sound relaxed and flexible, yet ethical. Consent and choice are very important concepts to good BDSM players, as they should be to any good lovers. BDSM is a means to lowering physical and emotional barriers and thus experiencing intense intimacy. The trade-off is increased vulnerability and risk for the duration of the scene. That’s why it’s so important to negotiate limits and duration before starting a scene.

The authors make recommendations to stay safe and minimize your risk of getting hurt physically and emotionally. You don’t have to surrender all of your power over to a top all at once and certainly you don’t have to do so permanently. It’s okay to take small steps. And it’s very important to communicate candidly and frequently. And if something does go wrong during a scene, it’s okay to stop what you’re doing, usually by speaking a safeword. A violation after a safewording isn’t an extension of a BDSM scene – it’s abuse.

And, unless you want to, you don’t even need to have sex as part of a BDSM scene. It’s possible to keep genital stimulation off the table completely and still experience pleasure in a BDSM scene. This is very important to me, as right now I would definitely need to keep any and all vaginal penetration/insertion off the table when engaged in BDSM.

Speaking of what you want, the authors make it clear that you should want to get something out of BDSM. You’re not doing this just to please a top, unless pleasing that top is what pleases you most. What you want may be something obvious like an orgasm or something more intangible, like to explore negative emotions. Or you may want to be praised for doing a good job, or to feel an endorphin rush. And it’s okay to stop mid-scene if you’re having a problem. If the problem can be easily resolved, then you can pick up where you left off or take a break if it cannot be readily addressed.

So once you know what you want in the end, how do you go about getting it? The authors talk about making a BDSM checklist. This is a list of any and all kinky activity you can think of and deciding whether you have any interest in doing such activities. You can write it down from the top of your head, but there premade checklists lists ready for use online. (I still find it amusing that one of those lists includes vaginal dilators, since dilators are so hum-drum and clinical to me.) You can then compare lists with other people and come to mutual agreement on what you’d both enjoy. If you and your partner do not have much in common on those lists, you’re allowed to decline playing with them at all.

The authors strongly recommend joining the BDSM community, but it’s not clear to me from this book whether it’s sufficent to partake solely of the online community. One shortcoming of the book is that the authors don’t talk about is the risks of coming “Out” as kinky publicly. If you get caught doing BDSM, it can be a whole big stink especially if you’re a politician, for example. Another risk not touched upon is that, although the authors mention at several points that some issues would be better worked out in a professional therapeutic environment, not all licensed therapists are kink-friendly.

One chapter talks all about meeting new people, checking their references and using the internet; unfortunately this section of the book feels so outdated it’s almost quaint. That’s not the author’s fault though – technology just kept on chuggin’ along after the book was published. Luckily for me, I don’t think I need to look very far to find a good top.My partner has an interest in topping, and I’m fine with that – but I told him the only way I’m going to play with him is if he reads the companion, The New Topping Book! I did my homework, now you do yours!

At the end of the book, I understand why other authors and bloggers have placed BDSM on the table as an option for sexual activity, but questions remain. I have a better understanding of bottoming but not topping or switching – which is fine since I can read the companion Topping Book for that. But I still lack real-world experience, and it’s going to take practice to make perfect. The New Topping Book does not explicitly address feminist critiques of BDSM. Since I still lack that real-world experience, overall I have to give The New Bottoming Book a final grade of, “Middle.” Yeah we’re not using a number or grade letter scale today. It just feels middle to me. I’ll have a better idea of what the authors are talking about after I see it in person.

So who might benefit from reading The New Bottoming Book? I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in or currently involved with BDSM. I would suggest to anyone who is not necessarily interested in BDSM but nonetheless curious about it. I would suggest it to people experiencing sexual difficulties – maybe not so much for every single activity but for the sense of acceptance and creativity throughout the book, and for the frequent, consistent affirmations that yes, it’s okay to do this thing that you want (so long as you take steps to do so safely,) and yes it’s okay to not match a mainstream definition of sex.
One caveat though is that, some folks are triggered by descriptions of BDSM from having experienced abuse. People with a history of abuse may still be able to take something positive away from The New Bottoming Book, but should proceed with caution. If you are not getting a benefit from it at all, then in the spirit of the book, I would say it’s okay to put it down and do something else.

But you know what, I’m not sure a book alone is the only place I can get BDSM knowledge from… this is the whole wide internet. Maybe before I dive headfirst into the BDSM pool, I should check in with some more experienced advocates. I have a lot of questions left to ask.

Stay tuned.

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