Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sex and the Patriarchy: Habemus






How about the Catholic Church's current, but not-so-new-now Pope? And how about the process that got him there? 

Of course, absolute secrecy being what it is, not a lot about what actually went on inside the cloister made it out into the public discourse, despite the best efforts of Anderson Cooper and the rest. 

And feminist though I am, I’ve got to admit that from the outside, at least, I was more than a little fascinated by the patriarchal lock-step kabuki of it all, the exclusive boys’ club ritual played out in lavish vestments of crimson and white.

But now close your eyes for just a tiny minute. As your mind settles down into the shaded blankness, let your brain imagine a solitary marble chair. Purple in color, large and hard, more like a kind of throne, really, its purpose to impart an aura of solemnity and conjure the heady scents of purpose and power.

Now. Imagine said purple chair with a big ol' hole in its center - like a birthing seat, maybe. Or an elaborate bedside commode. And while you’re at it, imagine the chair’s occupant as a new prospective Pope. Quiet, reserved. Smiling serenely at a few select and esteemed male colleagues.

But the purple chair in question isn’t simply some esoteric aid to sexual pleasure; so when someone reaches a hand beneath the hole in the chair’s middle, the logical question, naturally, becomes why?  So that the old man’s genitals might be vetted, of course. So that the Church might make perfectly, tactilely certain the person with whom it was dealing was, in fact, a man.

 So picture it, won’t you?

Penis? Check. Testicles? Check. All right then… as it's proclaimed from the balcony of the Sistine Chapel, “Habemus Papam.”  Translating from the Latin this means "We" (those in the Catholic Church) "have a Pope."

But enough of the disturbing imagery, I think… And of course, I’m certainly not asserting that this is what actually went down in Vatican City a couple of days before the Ides of March.  After all, the level of secrecy surrounding the whole affair situates age-old whispers about the purple marble chair, and the ritual touchy-feely stuff, firmly in the realm of speculation – nothing more.

Still, narratives of the chair and the reason for its existence cling to their place in religious historical secrecy, a shrouded part of the process of selecting a Catholic pope. And if you’re someone like me who believes that the nexus of religion, patriarchy and power has spawned a void in the historical record large enough to swallow a galaxy or two, there’s the irksome little matter of the legend of Pope Joan – a cross-dressing woman around AD 800, also known as English John.

As legend has it, she was the only female Pope, and while she's said to have held the office for a relatively short time, her existence has always been vehemently denied by the Church. No such person, the Vatican claims, dismissing stories of Joan’s rise to pontiff as the perverted fabrications of a pagan-hearted rabble over the long arc of time.

But really, what can you say about Joan, a woman in medieval England who cross-dressed her way through iron-fisted misogyny convincingly enough to survive and thrive in the super-secret shadowy halls of early Christian patriarchy?

In 9th century Europe, when women and girls were flat-out barred from education, the German-born Joan was a formidable scholar who outshined her male colleagues, at least as recorded by the historian Martin Polonus in the 13th century. According to religious scholars who’ve been doggedly on her trail, it was only through strength of intellect, moxie, and the ability to disguise her gender, that this female scholar, proficient in arts and letters, rose in the ranks of the Vatican, first as curial secretary and then, appointed as Pope. Even today, detractors of Pope Joan claim she was adept in the occult and in league with the Devil, no less. How else could she have managed such a grand deception? Born female, after all. How else, indeed?

Whether you believe in her existence or not, I suppose the way she ended should come as no surprise. Legend has it that during her papacy she got pregnant with the child of a close and trusted companion. Unfortunately, she gave birth in the street during a papal procession. She and her newborn infant were stoned to death on the spot, in the street between the Coliseum and the Church of St. Peter.

So what do we make of the legend of Pope Joan? A cautionary tale, perhaps, especially if we buy into the notion that murder-by-medieval-street-mob is in the due course events, when presumptuous penis-less pretenders overstep their bounds. And wouldn’t you know it? It was the waywardness of that wanton female body that proved her undoing, of course!

Still, there’s plenty of gnarly stuff to go around when it comes to organized religion’s often contorted view of us; it’s not just the Catholic church. In some places, menstruating women aren’t allowed to touch certain images of the Buddha. Female members of some Jewish sects are still required to visit a mikvah, a special ritual bath believed to cleanse them, body and spirit, after their periods. And as troublesome as some of this seems, the inherent implication that there’s something faulty, lacking, and hopelessly deficient about female bodies is what troubles me the most. After all, most of what we believe about the perimeters of our sexuality is couched in the religious doctrine we’ve been marinating in over time.

But even now, as the new Pope Francis attempts to lead a world-wide church racked with scandal and abuse - a church steeped in a flat-earth view of women that’s based upon a notion of bodily fault and deficiency - the tale of Pope Joan endures, troublesome, outrageous and deliciously resistant. I hope she’s watching.





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Monday, March 11, 2013

Sex Without Romance: On Our Own Terms




Romantic relationships can be wonderful, can’t they? Even the ones that eventually go south, as they say, often start out as heart-racing, soul-affirming, sunny affirmations that reify our place in the bittersweet swirl that is the human condition. Complicated sometimes and scary at their edges, at their steamy first-blush best, relationships convey the promise of human connection. Empathy beckons and the allure of bonding too, as we hope with all that’s in us for the companionship we crave, for that oneness under the skin that feeds the famished spirit and for that nuanced glimpse of our heart's own reflection as seen through the prism of another person’s soul.

At the age of 61, I’m apparently neither too jaded nor too cynical to believe in that miracle, since the thought of it - even now- makes me misty and clouds my view. But I freely admit what I do have trouble believing - the nagging, dusty artifact of a notion that women need romance and the promise of a true relationship, in order to fully realize their capacity for sexual pleasure. 

I mean, really. Did you ever?

Like so many other old chestnuts that have proved equally unpalatable over time, every so often, it seems, this one rolls round to plague me. Though, thankfully, not too frequently anymore, I sometimes hear it whispered by men and women alike, and the cringe factor, for me anyway, is always inescapable.

So let’s be real, shall we?

While romance and relationship are, indeed, what some of us crave, the fact is, there are a whole lot of women who, happily or not, live the balance of their lives outside of the bonds of romantic relationships. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course. I mean, gay, bi, trans or straight, partners die, don’t they? Folks get divorced, and some of us – lots of us – simply choose to fly solo. 

So what does that mean, exactly, if we’re to believe that troubling snippet of fiction? Does it meant that women who happen not to be neck deep in a current romance are somehow as dead and cold between their legs as a package of frozen trout? 

Moreover, the truncating narrative that underlies this view suggests that women whose desire reaches outside the bounds of relationship can't possibly hope to truly achieve the apex of sexual pleasure. Do we believe that as well?

For them, for you, for me, for all of us, let's get it straight once and for all, shall we? Certainly from a physiological, body-centered perspective, neither romance nor relationship are required to ignite our desire or to give us pleasure. Or might I add, to take us out of ourselves completely, carried clean away on delicious waves of bliss in the thin dark hours of the night. 


But wait… “Doing it” without romance? Without even a hint of it leading to a lasting relationship in the future? This is the purview of maleness, right? At least, that’s what we’re led to believe in the US anyway. But to wrap our heads around the fact that women don’t need to be bound up in the rigors of relationship either, and that women’s robust sexual response can be free, unfettered and autonomous as well…well, that’s another matter that can be destabilizing for some of us and for some of us, not so easily taken as truth.

But perhaps this can help: Some while back, a group of pioneering sex researchers, most of whom are women, set to work discovering vast amounts of new and exciting stuff illuminating the complex power of female sexual response.

One of those researchers was Dr. Meredith Chivers, professor of psychology at Queen’s College, Ontario and an editorial board member of the esteemed sexual research journal, Archives of Sexual Behavior. Much to her credit, Chivers developed a novel research protocol to assist her in with gathering data about what generates female sexual response. Not surprisingly, being in a relationship wasn’t a requisite part of the package, as Chivers’ amazing work makes more than abundantly clear.

In her well-documented study, Chivers showed both male and female volunteers a video of bonobos, a species of ape, having some pretty uninhibited, enthusiastic sex. Using a blend of methods to collect her data, including her volunteers' narratives and plethsymographs, which are instruments that measured blood flow to her volunteers' genitalia, Chivers’ results show that the female volunteers, rather than the men, had the strongest, wettest genital responses, even when they denied being sexually aroused. Can you believe it? Just by watching a bunch of apes having some rowdy sex. 

So.. women need romance, right? Relationship? Really?

Of course, most women know by virtue of their own lived experience that the sexual feelings they enjoy on their own, can and do happen without respect to whether or not they’re involved in a romantic relationship. Even when we fantasize about sex, imagining real-life people - past or present - with whom we may or may not have been romantically involved, this doesn’t alter the fact that women’s bodies are capable of responding to an enormous range of pleasurable stimuli that have nothing to do with relationship or romance.

The point is, the nature of female sexual response continuously defies the efforts of narrow-minded folk to police it, and that’s as it should be. Moreover, regardless of our relationship status, regardless of whether or not it resists the cultural norm, there's more than ample reason to take unfettered delight in our bodies and savor their ability to give us boundless pleasure on our own terms.


How has your relationship status impacted your enjoyment of your own sexuality? 



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Monday, March 4, 2013

Group Love: Looking at Polyamory




Like many people, I’m twice divorced, a fact of my life that I certainly don’t mind sharing. And when I talk with women like me who’ve been married more than once, it’s natural to hear them imply that, at some point anyway, they loved each of their husbands, no matter how many we’re talking about them having - two, three, four, even or more.

In fact, we expect it, don’t we? Even when there are other motives involved in entering into a new relationship such as wanting to have access to financial resources, or wanting someone to help raise the kids, or whatever, we nonetheless expect that there’s some emotion (love?) involved, no matter how many times this occurs in the course of someone’s life.

Of course, we’re expecting something else here, too. No matter whether there are two, three, four or more emotional attachments in a person’s romantic history, we’re expecting that they happened one at a time, as in serial monogamous relationships, right? When people do otherwise, as often they do, it flies in the face of conventionally acceptable relationship behavior. There’s inevitably talk of the “offenders” being sluts or dogs or cheaters and the like… the language does get ugly.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that human beings are possessed of a range of enormous capacities, not the least of which is the capacity to love, and the capacity to express our Universe-driven sexuality. And when you get right down to it, what else  besides the proscribed social order, says that loving has to be monogamous and sequential, serially one at a time?

Polyamory, or the practice of having multiple lovers at once, has long been heady and seductive grist for soap-opera writers and fans of sensational pop-psych talk shows. And no wonder? Poly meaning many, and amor meaning love, the syllables together quite literally mean “many love.” Got your interest?

But as a serious philosophical position adopted by untold numbers of relationship-bonded men and women, polyamory is a topic rarely discussed, at least non-judgmentally. This is unfortunate, since the polyamorous community world-wide is a large one, encompassing millions of decent, principled folk who care deeply for their poly partners and engage in caring, committed, consensual sexual behavior with all of them, sometimes all together and sometimes not.

So what’s the difference between polyamory and good old, garden variety group sex? It should be noted that as a daughter of the 1960s, I well remember the free love movement of that era – the make love not war sensibility that emblazoned a new (old?) notion of sexual freedom into the American consciousness. In some circles, ménage a trios arrangements, threesomes, were the most common, but there were also other, larger configurations. It wasn’t unheard of at the time for people to wind up at casual get-togethers and completely without warning, be invited to join in. And it was often the case that the group might consist of friends, romantic partners and perfect strangers with no particular personal or emotional connection.

Then as now, there’s a great deal of difference between polyamory and group sex, although the two are in no way mutually exclusive.

Polyamory exists when the partners - three, six, ten twenty - or no matter how many, have an emotional bond or love connection between each other simultaneously. Obviously, this emotional bond can and often does include sexual activity, hence the reality that polyamorous relationships can also include group sex. But don’t be confused. Group sex is not said to be polyamorous unless the participants share an emotional bond and care about each other in some sort of personal, loving way.




If you’re interested in learning something more about polyamory, then by all means, I’d urge you to take a peek at Dr. Leanna Wolfe’s essay, On Kittens and the Very Invented Culture of Polyamory.

In actuality, it’s the text of a talk she once delivered at a Poly Pride event in New York City, and it goes a long way in demystifying the nature of sexual relationship attachments, especially as it pertains to the way we humans decide between monogamy or polyamory.

Wolfe believes, as do most people in this culture, that the true default biological setting for humans is pair-bonding. However, she also argues that the physical attraction that characterizes new relationship energy – something she abbreviates as NRE - is brief and dependent upon large amounts of the brain chemical dopamine that is responsible for the new relationship’s feel-good effects that cause us to focus on one love. 

Poly people, argues Wolfe, don’t hold that feeling in such high esteem as does the monogamous community, since it’s relatively short-lived and inevitably levels out to something more sustainable. Once new relationship energy levels out and dopamine subsides, other brain chemicals, vasopressin and oxytocin, take over in the attachment phase of a relationship. 

For that reason, polyamorous people tend not to be afraid to allow their partners to experience new relationships; since they know the initial intensity of those relationships won’t last. Ask around and you’ll find that true devotees of polyamory are people who’re quite comfortable with the prospect of being alone. 

But this is counter-intuitive, right? After all, if the definition of a poly lifestyle includes the willingness to engage in multiple relationships simultaneously, one might argue that these are the folks who are LEAST comfortable with being alone. But in reality, true poly people know that being willing and able to release their lovers from the bindings of pair-bonded relationships to experience and explore the dopamine driven effects of NRE, or “new relationship energy” inevitably means that sometimes, partners don’t return, but rather move on permanently, and that’s okay.

All of this notwithstanding, polyamorous relationships aren’t for everyone. Ours is a culture of possession in more ways than one. The idea of mutually sharing the love, so to speak, throws most folks in the US into a convulsive tailspin. It’s just not something we’re used to, after all. But it pays to be open-minded about most everything in life. Even if only to ratify our existing views, it’s wise to hold them up to the light and see if they withstand a bit of scrutiny now and then. In the process, it pays to try our level best to consider a thing’s benefits and drawbacks free from essentializing bias and mindless prejudice – as much as we’re able.



It’s only with an open mind that critical contemplation inevitably generates the possibility of new perspectives. And in a culture such as ours, wherein love seems so often to be in woefully short supply, who’s to say that  polyamory might not open the door to more varied and more fulfilling possibilities for consenting adults at all stages of our lives? 

Hmmm…




Have you ever been a part of a polyamorous relationship? Might you be open to one in the future?