Let’s read books – Sex is Not a Natural Act, con’t02/02/2010 at 8:06 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
Tags: academia, books, experts, Feminism, media, medicine, psychology, sex, sex is not a natural act, sexology, Sexuality, social construction
When last we encountered the non-fiction feminist book on sexuality by sexologist by Dr. Leonore Tiefer, Sex is Not a Natural Act and Other Essays, we had just wrapped up reading the first section on my new-to-me (slightly used) Kindle. The book is a real challenge, heavy on academia & theory as it relates to feminism and sexuality. However I’m relieved to say that the chapters in the second section, Popular Writings on the Theme feel less academic, and so it’s a bit more accessible to the general public. Although it contains 6 sub-chapters, Popular Writings on the Theme is shorter and feels shorter than the first section – I didn’t have to use the Kindle’s built-in dictionary feature as often, and I didn’t need to re-read as many passages to absorb their messages. In these essays, Tiefer was writing for a different audience, so she decreased the frequency with which she used postmodernist language.
I also found this second section of the book funnier than the first section, but unfortunately, the humor is not because I found Tiefer’s writing in and of itself funny… No, rather, I often found it funny due to the large gulfs separating Tiefer’s reality and the one in which I live. The grins I made were due to my jaw cynically clenching, my laughter a hoarse, half-choked “Lolsob.”
The first chapter of the second section consists of a series of sexuality columns written for the New York Daily News back in 1980-1981. That’s 30 years ago, waaaay before the internet was readily accessible and long before printed media started to enter its death throes. Most of these essays would probably be helpful to someone who is brand-new to studying sexuality, or who is looking for general sex life advice. Unfortunately, as of the book’s second printing in 2004, these columns are showing their age, and provided very little new material to me. By the time I got around to reading the essays re-printed from the newspaper, I had already encountered elsewhere most of the ideas contained in Tiefer’s old columns. Yes I know sexual spontaneity can be hindrance to a fully enjoyable sexual experience, yes I know that when we (and especially the media) think of “Sex,” our definition is likely very intercourse-centric and that it’s helpful to expand the definition of sex, etc. etc. etc.
But I found myself getting hung up on some changes that have happened since the essays were first printed. For one example, (There’s several other examples I could pick out…) when Tiefer talks about the joys of petting, she states, “It’s joyless and burdensome to cuddle and embrace with someone you neither know well nor want to know better” (Location 875.) But wait, aren’t there cuddle parties nowadays where folks who have never met before can come together and learn to do exactly that? Cuddle parties are designed to be non-sexual, but they may still involve embracing, and that’s not meant to be joyless at all – quite the opposite, from what I understand.
One of the funniest newspaper essays is “Free Love and Free Enterprise,” and the humor comes from how dated the situation described now is. (This essay might be worth burning through your available Google Book preview. You need to be careful with how much you use the GB previews because eventually it will prevent you from going any further. I’ve been able to “Go-around” this limitation by using a second computer or my mobile device, but not everyone has that option…) Tiefer takes the reader through a hypothetical tour of “A sex show at the New York Coliseum“ (location 934,) with the goal of showing the reader who stands to profit from the sexual revolution and how… and that includes sex toy retailers, by taking advantage of consumers. Oh, consumers may well benefit, she concedes at the end of the essay, but only as a side-effect.
As I was reading, I thought to myself, “That hypothetical sex convention sounds awesome! How do I get in on that? How do I RSVP for the next show?” Then I remembered – we HAVE a sex & sex toy convention open 24/7 – it’s the internet! Just replace the use of the word “Booth” (used over & over again) with “website/GoodVibes/Babeland/Craigslist.”
Plus, some of the fears Tiefer expressed in this chapter didn’t come to fruition even 30 years later, while others were prescient:
“The next booth moves us into the world of stuff. Under the banner ‘Bare-handed sex is boring,’ we find equipment to enhance the senses and the imagination. Massage oils and flavored lotions lie next to vibrators and dildoes. Alarming displays of bondage equipment are shown along with phony organ enlargers. There are life-size ‘sex partners’ in different colors of plastic” (location 944.) [It goes on in that manner for a few more paragraphs.]
Now, I did a Google search for the term, “Bare-handed sex is boring,” and as of today, I got nothin’. (Chances are that in a few days one result will link back to this blog entry.) Who would try to sell sex toys under this slogan? Would something so negative even move any stock out the door? I looked up this expression, because in all my sex toy shopping, I have never encountered a sentiment like that from a retailer – have you?
I’ve definitely seen retailers push G-spot toys in particular… but in terms of tactile sensations & calling outright certain sexual activities boring?
Maybe I’m not looking at the right retailers, since I prefer to patronize organizations that market themselves as woman-friendly and sex-positive.
As for the rest – I’m not understanding what message I’m supposed to take away from these passages… am I supposed to be reluctant to explore my sexuality with what’s available to me now because of the motivations behind the companies that sell sexual advice and devices? Am I still doin’ it wrong? Am I supposed to feel sexually inhibited at the conclusion of this essay?
The next few chapters touch upon the symbolism behind sex, sexual acts and sexual medicine, notably Viagra.
Ily already beat me to the chapter on the anthropological approach to kissing, which also explores symbolic kissing in art. For anyone curious as to the contents of this chapter, a slightly different version appears for free at this Kinsey Institute page, so go knock yourselves out. I don’t have much to say on this chapter.
The next chapter talks about how hard it is to have frank & open dialogs about sexuality, even in a sexual relationship. I’m certainly open to talking about how hard it is to frankly talk about sex too, but, I’m still getting tripped up on some of the finer details, particularly the passage about the asexual couple.
Tiefer then goes on to talk about Viagra a a symbol – symbolically, it’s looked at as magic pill that can fix all non-pain sexual problems (Tiefer doesn’t mention anything about sexual pain in this chapter; location 1100.) In reality, the drug isn’t perfect, and it may cause unpleasant, potentially dangerous side effects.
I have no idea what Tiefer was trying to say about Viagra when she then included a Viagra user’s own words followed by her analysis of his situation, because the following passages threw me into rage-rage-rage mode. I think she was trying to make a point about side effects or something:
I am a 37 year old man with erectile problems for 2 years. I have used 50 mg. Viagra 4 times. All of those times have resulted in a very good erection and intercourse. The side effects are headache, upset stomach, stuffy nose, and facial flushing… About 30 mins after taking Viagra I take 2 Tylenol and a Tums and start drinking water. After about 15 mins I take another Tums and use a nasal spray for my stuffiness. I will continue this combination and it will work for me.
This sounds more like a Jackie Gleason routine rather than a romantic evening, but I think it is close to the reality of what life with these drugs will be like… How does his sexual partner feel about the whole drama with the Tums and the nasal spray and the Tylenol? (Location 1109)
Woah, woah woah, waaaait a minute. Hold the phone. Jackie Glea… Jackie…. Gleason? Like, from the Honeymooners?
What the f…
Is that supposed to be a joke? Is this Tiefer’s idea of humor? This essay was given as a lecture in 1999; did Tiefer pause for applause & laughter when she finished reciting this passage?
Since when is Tiefer is the arbiter of what constitutes a romantic evening? Didn’t Tiefer state not a few chapters earlier that actively thinking about and taking steps toward making sex happen is a healthy thing? Is this the same person who said “Some people complain that all this groundwork is too mechanical and time-consuming. Working at sex, they say, defeats the whole purpose,“ (location 853,) when she debunked the myth of spontaneity? What happened to that?
You know, for someone who claims to want to expand the frank & open dialog of sexuality, Tiefer sure doesn’t make it easy to talk about physical problems and potential treatments for them… that’s a hangup I’m having with her social constructionist approach, it sacrifices biology. I still have the impression that it’s “Either/or” for Tiefer, but not both, and both is what I need.
Okay, someone needs to sit down and explain to me, in great detail, exactly how a guy who uses Viagra in order to maintain an erection for intercourse, and who has found ways to manage the side effects, is like re-enacting a Jackie Gleason comedy routine. I don’t get it.
We don’t have much else to go by as to the background of this person who left himself open & vulnerable by talking about his Viagra use. For all we know, he and his sex partner already incorporated an expanded definition of sex into their lives, and, like myself, decided that that definition was not completely incompatible with occasional intercourse. I say, using Viagra or other prescription drugs, treatments and devices is not necessarily in conflict with a healthy sex life. If using medical treatments leads to a satisfactory sex life, how is that an inherently bad thing?
And if it is an inherently bad thing, then what does that say about me? Is my sex life a big joke to Tiefer? Who am I to her – Lucille Ball? After all, when my partner and I decide we want to try PIV intercourse, I have to go through a routine involving pelvic floor stretching, lubricant and dilators. Am I supposed to feel embarrassed about doing this in front of my partner? Or about openly talking about it?
There’s not much left of the chapter after that Jackie Gleason bit. Which is good, because I remained in rage-rage-rage mode for the rest of the chapter and was unable to absorb anything more from it. Something about sexual education outside of the US, I don’t know.
The next chapter, The Opposite of Sex, is another free-to-the-public article originally published online. It consists of Moria Brennan interviewing Dr. Tiefer. It’s part PR for Sex is not a Natural Act, part feminist discussion, part sexuality discussion. The most interesting part of the discussion comes when Brennan asked, “Do you think our understanding of sex also affects our understanding of gender?”:
lt: Gender affirmation is a phenomenally important element in the current construction of sexuality–at least for heterosexuals, who have been the bulk of my clients. Reproduction used to be the essence of gender affirmation for women. And for men it was employment. Now there are fewer and fewer ways of proving gender, and yet it’s as important as it ever was. So how do you prove your gender? You’ve got to be able to have sex–not just any old sex, but coitus. Talking about this in the context of feminism is crucial. It’s men’s investment in a particular kind of masculinity that is fueling Viagra. Part of the work of feminists has been to question accepted notions about masculinity, whereas you could say Viagra is affirming them.
Not being able to have an orgasm is like the epitome of not being normal. It’s the epitome of not being a man or not being a woman. So I would tell them that there are ways to cope with this. Let’s be a man in other ways. No, they couldn’t accept that. To them, this was the proof. (Tiefer, online.)
This isn’t an unfounded idea – I’ve heard this sentiment elsewhere… there’s something familiar about it… I remember; it was that 20/20 segment on vulvodynia. One of the patients interviewed said something about, part of being a woman, is having female parts. Of course, it’s so much more than that. But it’s hard to get that message out, about gender, that it’s more than biology as destiny. So that’s something worth exploring.
The next chapter, the McDonalization of Sex, talks about the standardization (McDonalization – the description on this wiki page matches what’s in the book, so it’s probably a good place to start if you haven’t heard that term before) of the everyone’s sex lives. Although this chapter is not heavy on academia, I still needed to re-read it a few times before I could understand it… it’s not academic, but it’s difficult because Tiefer jumps around a lot in this chapter. It feels disorganized.
Tiefer identifies two forces behind the McDonalization of sex – mainstream media and medicine. Ever see very similiar but unrealistic sex lives depicted on TV or hear about it in song? There’s a right way & a wrong way to have sex & be sexy, and if you don’t match what’s in the media, you automatically have a dysfunction. If you’re familiar with this sort of depiction of sex in the media, then that’s an example of McDonaldization.
But in real life I’m not seeing medicine participating in this phenomenon… This is where the gulf between my reality & Tiefer’s is the most pronounced. For example, with regard to how McDonaldization comes from the medical profession, Tiefer claims that,
“There’s another source of the new standards that you may be less aware of. It’s the medical profession, with its new men’s sexual health clinics and the even newer women’s sexual health clinics. These things are popping up all over, almost as fast as new McDonald’s. And they really are fast-fod franchises that specialize in efficiency, predictability, numbers, and control. Everyone who comes in with a sexual complaint gets an expensive workup with genital measurements that seems superscientific. But nine times out of ten, the customer walks out with a prescription for Viagra, and since in the future there will be a dozen or two dozen such sex drugs – for both men and women – if the first one doesn’t work the patient – or is it now merely a customer – will be encouraged to try another and another.” (Location 1270.)
And I’m like… where do I find one of these geometrically growing sexual health clinics? Who are we talking about, what should I be looking for, and how do I get their phone number? Are any of these clinics local? If so, when is their next available appointment? How do I get in on this?
Tiefer doesn’t provide any hard examples of who she’s referring to so I’m left wondering – general OB/GYN practices? Vulvovaginal specialists? (Which, in my experience, are hard to find, especially if you’re not nearby a major metropolitan area…) Planned Parenthood? I typed “Sexual health clinic” into my Google Maps but the nearest results – which are questionable at best – would still take me close to two hours to get to at best.
I guess I’m the odd one out again, because if you consider the vulvovaginal specialist I visited to be a sexual health clinic, I never got a prescription for Viagra (I wonder how I can verify that 9 o ut of 10 statistic claim?) – but I did get a prescription for generic valium (no refills) that’s about $10 a bottle under my insurance plan, and I needed that for general anxiety anyway. At the specialist’s office, we didn’t take genital measurements… although we did use a device to figure out how much pain I was in; does that count? And a hormonal blood test revealed that the birth control pill I was on at the time certainly wasn’t doing me any favors. And I’m still wondering where my two dozen sex drugs are… right now vulvodynia patients, at least, have fairly limited options when it comes to oral medication, and at least two of those options are off-label use anyway. And I’m surprised Tiefer left out the mention of non-drug interventions that sexual health clinic doctors might suggest, including but not limited to diet & exercise, or, perhaps for a very few patients such as myself, surgery.
Indeed, the NVA lists several books of interest that do talk about expanding the definition of sex beyond biology. However the NVA is not in and of itself a sexual health clinic…
Tiefer’s solution is more comprehensive sex education.
The last chapter, Doing the Viagra Tango, is another free-and-available-to-the-public essay (I’m glad I paid only $20 for the Kindle edition of this e-Book instead of $40 for the paperback version! I’m finding several of the essays re-printed elsewhere.) The Tango in the title has two meanings – it’s referring to an old Viagra commercial featuring a couple doing a tango,and Tiefer frequently uses dance as a metaphor for sex. Here, she raises philosophical questions about Viagra – What effects will it have in many areas of life? She raises concerns about negative unintended consequences of Viagra (though I’m not fond of these passages, particularly the line that states that “In the worst-case scenario… The drug eliminates [women’s] sense of desirability and sexual efficacy,” (Tiefer, online) because if someone is taking Viagra, then isn’t it just possible that in a heterosexual relationship, the woman may already be feeling like she is not as desirable, due to her partner’s difficulty in maintaining an erection? Tiefer is not interested in exploring ways in which this family of drugs may be helpful, she is mainly concerned its potential dangers.) She also explores problems in pharmecutical research, problems with insurance in general brought to light by Viagra, and even politics.
And that’s the way the second section of Sex is Not a Natural Act ends. We’re almost 40% of the way done.
At times, passages from Popular Writings on the Theme seem to contradict statements that were made earlier in the book. For example, Tiefer explicitly uses the words “Effective stimulation” in the greater context of the passage that says, regarding sexual activity, “There’s no way but trial and error to identify forms of effective stimulation” (location 907.) But wait, at locations 672 and 684, didn’t Tiefer herself question the value of the terms “Effective stimulation” when used by Masters & Johnson in their Human Sexual Response Cycle study?
One of the biggest questions I’m left with is, if the essays were written today, would they look the same?
I’ve already started chipping away at the 3rd section, which goes into detail about feminism and sexology – it’s a return to academia so I’ve got a ways to go yet before I finish slogging through.
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