The New York Times' Op-Ed columnist, Maureen Dowd couldn’t resist jumping into the conversation about women’s sexuality, S/M and why some very smart women enjoy surrendering to a powerful man, in her recent op-ed She’s Fit To Be Tied (NYT’s April 1, 2012).
Even with this article that openly discusses the legendary Story of O and the suddenly hot 50 Shades of Gray, we are still dancing around the lies we tell ourselves about sex. We are sex-obsessed. We are obsessed with wanting it in all its flavors, deny that we want it, and then hide it when we get it the way we want it. It’s takes a lot of guts to be a normal real person in the real world living a fully integrated life, i.e., embracing your sexuality.
It’s fine for creatures of fiction to go off the deep end à la Story of O or Beauty in Anne Rice’s contribution to erotica and have nothing else to do but devote themselves utterly to sex. But real people, the ones who dare to step outside the sexual box, are in fact indistinguishable from everybody else. They are housewives, farmers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, cops, factory workers and high flying financiers (oh how bodice-ripper writers love those financiers—thank you Goldman Sachs).
Even though sexual desires are absolutely normal, as soon we have the nerve to admit them, even to ourselves, we immediately have to plaster it over with shame and denial. Take Kathy, one of my sexuality coaching clients, who called me the other day filled with frustrated longing.
“I want to be shameless,” she cries. ""I" the professional, "I" the parent, "I" the daughter, and "I" the secret slut... I have denied myself so much for so long, that I don’t know what I want anymore. I want to be shameless. Yet without the scaffolding of shame, self doubt, second guessing and fear of failure, I don't know who I would be. Some days shame feels like all I have.”
Kathy’s misery echoes exactly the same anguish I hear over and over from women and men. We are confused by society’s multiple conflicting messages. Give into your desires; don’t you dare. Be faithful; try swinging. You don't need a partner; you are nothing without one. Be monogamous; try polyamory or open marriage. Then there’s the old standby: cheating.
It’s making us all a little crazy. We’re fragmented. We’re taught to box off our sexuality from the time we’re little kids (U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jocelyn Elders was pilloried for advocating masturbation). I mean, we’re talking about cutting out the core of one of the most basic and necessary of human behavior from the rest of our lives. That leaves most of us isolated, angry, anxious or in therapy trying to identify what’s wrong and then attempting to reconnect to what’s been sealed off. No easy feat. Most of us ping pong between salacious voyeurism and repentance and repression. We’re programmed to fear our desires, to treat them as alien invaders that threaten the very fabric of a “normal life.”
We don't have real language or real live people to help us even think about this in a rational context. All we have are fetishized images that keep us in perpetual heat while the gatekeepers of ‘morality’ slam the door on sex ed and information. We are a country at war with sex.
It takes the kind of courage needed to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, to live out loud. The truth is, we’re all at risk for becoming The Scarlet’s Letter protagonist Hester Prynne. If people knew what we did behind our closed bedroom doors or in private sex clubs that exist in every state in this great nation, we can be pretty sure that there’d be hell to pay. Anyone who’s been outed knows the stakes: lose a job, get booted from the PTA, and worse, publicly shamed.
I know whereof I speak on this one. I outed myself. I figured what was there to be ashamed of exactly. That I was happier? A better wife and mother when I finally unearthed my deeply buried sexuality? Yeah, well... I penned a funny memoir of my midlife coming of sexual age for a well regarded, crunchy granola, squeaky clean publishing house. They knew exactly what I was trying to say: I am "Everywoman," with two kids, a 30-year-old marriage, money problems, and my mother. That I could dive into the “sexual underground,” find out that I, a powerhouse of a CEO, really liked the freedom I found in “surrender” and l could get home in time to cook dinner and have quality family time. I found healing on my journey, and I wanted to share it with the world.
Not everybody found my journey or my determinatin to tell it in my memoir Shameless: How I Ditched The Diet, Got Naked, Found True Pleasure and Somehow Got Home in Time to Cook Dinner (Rodale) amusing. A lot of things most people fear will happen if they open up, happened. I lost my job. I lost some friends. I had my first anxiety attack. Some people called me names.
When a man recently asked me about the consequences of coming clean, the color drained from his face and he whispered, “It’s my worst nightmare.”
I set him straight. Yeah it was awful for a while. But I found new friends, reinvented my career, my family stayed intact and I’m content in ways I could never have imagined. I stopped hating myself. I love the sexually confident woman I’ve become. I love how that has infused everything I do with a joy I didn’t know I possessed. So there.
I also told him thousands of people contacted me and called my bravery inspiring. They asked me for advice. I’ve become a how-to maven on being a fully integrated human being. “Don’t worry so much,” I told him. “There’s a giant community of like souls out there. You just have to know where to look.”
We're permitted to express fascination with Shades of Grey but not the story of a real woman who reaches for desire and fulfills it without destroying her marriage or sending her kids into long term therapy. We can't seem to get morning television to cover any real people trying to figure this out, unless of course it's a big political or Hollywood scandal.
The closest we come to real people trying to figure this out is a quasi-freak show called Strange Sex on The Learning Channel. Isn't it fascinating that a farmer and his wife in the Midwest going to a sex club is “strange sex”?
I don't see an end to our cultural compulsion to talk endlessly about the "naughty and dirty parts" of sex. Until we stop telling ourselves lies about what we desire, and that it's okay if we are lucky enough to get it. We are going to keep pointing fingers and covertly lapping up the tales of the sexual renegades, fictional or real.
Let me be unequivocal: there is nothing politically correct or expected about sexuality. There are mainstream people out there, just like me, who are living the stories that we know people devour when we call it make believe. Because if it was “real” then what?
What if we could live sexually integrated lives? What if we could have all kinds of marriages and still be good people? What if our neighborhoods were made up of couples who were openly monogamous, monogamish, poly, or open in their containers? What if we knew that the Smiths like to play bondage games and that the Jones enjoyed nude beaches? What if it all stopped being “Strange Sex?”
I know what it is to finally become an integrated woman and live to my full potential. I want that for all people. We’ve got the science. We’ve got the social theory and the countless talking heads. We’ve got the porn, the novels, and the cable television series. We’ve got everything except real live people to identify with.
You know what I mean; people like me. A wife, mother, professional, who is a size 12 and just turned fifty. I also like to wear a lot of Eileen Fisher. I’m that woman. What about you?
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