I kissed a girl, her lips were sweet,
She was just like kissing me
I kissed a girl, won't change the world
But I'm so glad
I kissed a girl
Jill Sobule, "I Kissed a Girl," Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp., 1994
I kissed a girl and I liked it
The taste of her cherry chapstick
I kissed a girl just to try it
I hope my boyfriend don't mind it
Us girls we are so magical
Soft skin, red lips, so kissable
Hard to resist, so touchable
Too good to deny it
Katy Perry, "I Kissed a Girl," Published by When I'm Rich You'll Be My Bitch (ASCAP), administered by WB Music, 2008
Warning: Some persons may find material in this essay offensive. For those disturbed by sexual content, please begin by reading about decadence.
Kissing Jessica Stein is the story of a love affair between two women. It is a romantic comedy. The lead actresses are Jennifer Westfeldt (playing Jessica Stein) and Heather Juergensen (playing Helen Cooper). They wrote and co-produced the movie, as they also wrote and starred in the play upon which the movie was based. In the recently released DVD (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2002), audio commentaries, a featurette, and deleted scenes give a great deal of extra information about the background and making of the movie.
The movie is very good -- funny, charming, touching, clever, and sweet -- and bittersweet. It begins, after the first scene at a Yom Kippur service that I've seen in a movie [note], with a montage of (male) dating disasters of the eponymous Jessica Stein. These are hilarious, with many great out-takes available in the deleted scenes. Although with some Annie Hall mannerisms, Jessica lives very much in her mind, alone in an apartment stuffed with books, an insomniac who sits late into the night reading the likes of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). We see that her taste is not entirely discursive, however, with a scene of her painting. After these bad dates, something catches her attention when a co-worker at her New York newspaper (a marvelous supporting role by Jackie Hoffman) reads some of the offerings in the personal ads.
Meanwhile, Helen Cooper works in a Greenwich Village art gallery, seems to be closest to her gay male friends, and juggles three male lovers, who all seem to be, awkwardly, at the same gallery opening (the "library" lover also appears later, between Helen's legs, but is hard to recognize). While she seems perfectly content with this, such multiple and shallow relationships may indicate that something is not quite right. A long look from an apparent lesbian at the opening is followed by an announcement to her gay friends that she is going to place an ad for a woman lover. She says that this is just because it is something she hasn't tried yet, but one may suppose that some deeper unease or dissatisfaction is behind it. Her friends advise her on the ad, even providing her with a suitable quote....from Rilke.
This is what Jessica hears, and when she learns that it is from the "women seeking women" section, we gather that she is immediately intrigued and considers the possibility of answering the ad. After a rather cruel roasting by her current boss, also an ex-boyfriend (the cynical-in-his-professional-disillusionment Josh Meyers, played by Scott Cohen), who accuses her of not being open to new relationships, Jessica decides to take a chance on the ad. The first meeting between the women almost doesn't happen, as Jessica flees from it twice, and is only retrieved with difficulty by a pursuing Helen. This establishes the dynamic that then plays out. Helen, although inexperienced herself in this kind of relationship, is confident and perfectly ready to plunge in, while Jessica shies away repeatedly. This gives Helen something like a traditional male role: When the couple embrace, Helen indeed puts her arms around Jessica's waist, as a man would, while Jessica puts her arms around Helen's neck. Otherwise, however, there is little overtly masculine about Helen, who, of the two women, actually has the fuller lips and softer features.
We don't get anything steamier here than kissing, though all by itself this may have been enough to have earned the movie an "R" rating. The women seem to go through long periods of necking or petting without losing much in the way of clothing. The seeker of a more explicit woman on woman sex scene in a mainstream Hollywood movie (disregarding the tons of lesbian action in pornography) needs to go to David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.
The relationship survives both Jessica's reluctance and Helen's impatience because they genuinely seem to like each other, and the affair is finally consummated, through amusing misadventure, in Jessica's own childhood bed and bedroom. The next phase is while the active love affair remains secret. A crisis ensues that results in a brief breakup and then the revelation of the relationship to friends and family (meaning Jessica's; we don't see Helen's family). A touching scene occurs when Jessica's mother (played by Tovah Feldshuh) guesses what is going on and gently disarms her fears and secrecy. In the same sequence, we get to see how much Helen and Jessica have come to mean to each other, as both are deeply distraught at the breakup.
This could have been the "happily ever after" point in the movie, but all does not go well for the women. They move in together, but then through some short scenes we see Jessica quite content with amusing herself much of the time with her painting and reading, while Helen becomes increasingly frustrated at the low level of sexual activity. Helen has presumably given up with her male lovers, though we are not actually told that. In the end, Helen leaves Jessica, who is crushed and tries to argue, as Helen herself ironically argued earlier in the movie to her gay friends (in a part that unfortunately was cut from a scene), that a relationship is a package with more than just sex. The truth seems to be, as Helen had said in frustration during their long courtship, that "she just isn't into it." The attraction of a homosexual experiment for Jessica, although conducted with sincerity and genuine love, seems to have faded, while Helen discovers that her primary sexual interest does indeed seem to be women. In the end, we see Helen with a new lover (not, I would say, as fetching as Jennifer Westfeldt); and Jessica, having quit her editing job and gone seriously into painting, encounters Josh, who has undergone his own personal transformations. The movie fades out on Helen and Jessica, still friends, discussing this reconnection with Josh, with the implication that Jessica and Josh may have come around to places where they can connect again.
This is a story with some serious undertones, but it is light years from being a heavy political tract about lesbianism or homosexuality in general. It could even be said to be politically incorrect, since the actresses are not actually lesbians themselves and play characters who are consistently feminine to a degree that to some would bespeak a lack of consciousness about the oppression of women by the "mystique" of femininity. In short, Helen and Jessica, if lesbians, are just the sort of lesbians that men like -- "lipstick" lesbians. Indeed, there is a long scene, retained by the women over the objections of their director, just about lipstick. This is not the way to expose the hetero-sexist hegemony of the patriarchy, and it is an implicit rejection of the grim anaesthetic moralism that characterizes the political crossroads of radical lesbianism and feminism. Having examined some pretty strident lesbian publications myself, to which a (not so strident) lesbian friend subscribed, it is not too much to say that some number of lesbians simply hate men (as some feminists would add that men, as all potential or actual rapists, "objectively" hate women). These personal or political attitudes and passions are totally absent from Kissing Jessica Stein. As a story about lesbians, it thus might be regarded as a sellout, or as the virtual prostitution of the subject to male fantasies. Helen and Jessica come together as they both seem to feel they are not getting something they need from men, but this implies no animus towards men -- Jessica even leaves Helen in one scene so that Helen can get from her lover Greg what she is not yet getting from Jessica....sex.
The lesbian movie with the right hard hitting politically correct overtones would be Boys Don't Cry (1999), with Hilary Swank. She plays a lesbian (or a "trans-gendered" person) living as a man, who ends up murdered when the truth is discovered. Now that exposes hetero-sexist oppression. Since it is basically a true story, it is an excellent vehicle for a cause célèbre. Kissing Jessica Stein is simply not in that genre, and doesn't try or pretend to be. If it has any serious message -- and it does -- it conveys it with a very deft and light touch.
Despite full length commentaries on the movie by Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen, we never do find out about why this particular topic suggested itself to the two women, or why they felt so strongly about it that they pursued the project of the play and movie, through so many obstacles (the development hell of Hollywood), so persistently. Where many have commented on the covert homo-eroticism of, say, football, one might be excused the speculation that several years of working closely together on a project explicitly about homosexuality, in which the women got to kiss night after night in the performances of the play, and insisted on reprising their roles (over Hollywood objections) in the movie, bespeaks an undercurrent of homo-eroticism that was itself attractive to the women. At the least, they would seem to fit the phrase used by one of the gay men in the movie, "bi-curious straight girls." That the form of the ending of the movie seems to have been thrown together rather late in the process, might show that the development of the relationship was always what was of greatest interest.
Since the authors do not speak much in their own voices about their interests or history, what we do have are the statements of the characters in the movie. Jessica goes to the relationship out of frustration with failures in other directions. Helen approaches it, lightheartedly (to appearances), as something else to try out in a generally pretty adventurous life. The emotional connection that they quickly establish, even in conversations that seem to involve a bit of conflict, is what draws them in seriously. They "click" and fall in love, certainly in a Greek or Platonic sense that may or may not have a sexual component. It is only in the latter that the two women end up diverging. Jessica, for all we know, may just have low libido in general. That is never clarified, though we are told at the beginning of the movie that she hadn't dated in a year, which is not going to happen with someone overwhelmed by their sex drive. Helen, on the other hand, finds the sex more appealing than she had previously found with men, and we have two scenes that express this. In one, she is explaining to Jessica's co-worker Joan (Jackie Hoffman), how sex with a woman is different than with a man. With Joan, who has just gone through a pregnancy in the first part of the movie, "bi-curious" is flashing like a neon sign. Helen, who at first says that kissing a woman is just like kissing a man, then changes her mind an says that it is different. A woman's lips are softer, her body softer, and there is something "nonthreatening" and inexpressibly attractive about it.
"Nonthreatening" is in an interesting word here. This implies that there was something threatening about male sexuality. While Helen certainly did not seem very threatened by her male lovers, her lack of emotional connection with them could indicate that she was emotionally holding at a distance something that was threatening. What feminism has not liked about male sexuality is the overtone of seizure, possession, and carrying off (the original meaning of "rape," Latin rapere, "to seize, snatch, tear away"). Helen, by the way she conducts her affairs, seems pretty immune to that, but at the cost of emotional distance. With Jessica as the blushing bride, Helen can make an emotional connection without the threat of being overwhelmed and possessed. We get a hint about something more to this earlier, as Jessica brought up the subject of the mechanics of lesbian sex. She has done her research on dildoes, but then Helen puts it all aside and says that they don't need that. They can have sex just like they have had with men, but simply "minus one thing." And, "Let's face it; it's the other stuff that works for women anyway." Now, women vary greatly in their sexual response. Some don't really enjoy sex completely without penetration, while to others, orgasms without penetration are quite sufficient and penetration is just something that men want. Since Helen ends up exclusively relating to women sexually, it is hard not to get the message that intercourse never did all that much for her. She was certainly not overtly put off by it, and it was not entirely inefficacious (or Greg would not have given any satisfaction), but we might also sense that Helen's emotional inhibition about male sexuality could inhibit her response to vaginal sex. She could either just be inherently less responsive to the latter, as some women can be stimulated, even to the point of orgasm, just through their breasts, while others' breasts are merely ticklish, or her response is actually suppressed by deeper fears and active inhibition [note]. Depending on one's ideological or moral attitude towards homosexuality, it might appear obvious that it would have to be one or the other. I tend to think that, with individual variation, it could easily be either [note]. With Helen, we don't have enough information, and perhaps never could, to pin it down.
What is the ultimate threat of being possessed and carried off by male sexuality? In the ordinary course of things over thousands of years, the threat was simply pregnancy and childbirth. This was less a threat than a natural and desirable order of things, except for the chance that the male might abandon the burdened female. The uncertainties of male commitment, as well as the literal weight and pain (perhaps even death) of pregnancy, constituted a more general threat, although no more than part and parcel of a life in which reproduction was an economic necessity and always regarded as a religious duty. In the individualism of modern life, however, where reproduction is more of an economic burden than a benefit, and where the purpose of traditional religious duties comes into question, the nature of the threat posed by childbirth on the one hand declines, with less danger of death, but also on the other hand increases, as interfering with the individual self-realization allowed by wealth and promoted by popular psychology and secularism. The idea that one individual might actually become dependent on another becomes disturbing, and the possibility that a woman might be dependent on a man becomes a thing of horror in feminism.
Since in modern life, with infant mortality declining and people living longer, reproduction is less urgent and, with six billion people in the world, less desirable, the tendency of affluent people to avoid reproduction coincides conveniently with external conditions. Today, even in the some of the most populous and poorest (but quickly developing) countries, like India and China, the birth rate has declined precipitously. The postponement of childbearing, and even of the biological relationship that goes with it (male/female sexuality), in a sense is a continuation of a conspicuous trend in human evolution: neoteny, the retention of immature characteristics into adulthood. Big heads and hairlessness are a couple of the most conspicuous neotenic characteristics of humans in comparison to other mammals. Modern institutions have followed this pattern on a large scale. The increase of schooling has put off the day when people seriously enter the workforce, which itself postpones the day when the means are available for the inception of a family as an economic unit. Graduate education extends things even further. I did not finish my Ph.D. until I was 35, and then did not marry my present wife until I was 41. This is a little unusual, but not unheard of, and reflects a broader trend. The exceptions to this, that some people drop out of school in their teens, and have illegitimate children supported by the government, has produced considerable social chaos in different countries. The message simply to "stay in school" doesn't register for many people who otherwise see messages in the culture that "deferred gratification," a bourgeois value, is for suckers.
C.G. Jung commented that homosexuality was all but synonymous with adolescence. Humans, indeed, tend to form their closest and most durable friendships as adolescents and young adults; and in a period before durable romantic involvement, the friendships, which usually are with the same sex, can easily take on homo-erotic overtones. That this is nothing new is obvious from Greek homosexuality, which involved relationships with at least one adolescent in them. The celebration of the beauty of youth, which has returned in modern culture, was an aspect of this; and the homosexual connection was expected to decline with youth, as young men moved into family life. What seems the strangest now about Plato's discourse on love, and homosexual love, in the Symposium, is the statement that homosexuals make the best mates, since husbands will not be interested in other women nor wives in other men. This surprisingly reveals the irrelevance of love to marriage, a theme still examined by the troubadours more than a thousand years later. There is a single interesting reference to adolescence in Kissing Jessica Stein. Helen has been complaining to her co-workers and friends about Jessica being a reluctant "Jewish Sandra Dee," when Jessica actually telephones. On the phone, Helen's voice immediately softens and her breathing deepens, as they arrange their next date. After the call, one of Helen's co-workers says, "Is she 12?" All the breathlessness of young love.
Camille Paglia sees the threat of male sexuality a little differently. It is simply the threat of being overwhelmed, not by men, but by nature. As such, it is a threat that appears with identical strength, mutatis mutandis, to men. Thus, while the woman may fear being overwhelmed and carried away by a man, her body invaded and colonized with the burden of childbearing, a man may fear being overwhelmed, smothered, and anchored down with the burden of a dependent woman and child, suffocated with boring domestic responsibilities. As Schopenhauer said, "a married man will do anything for money." Even Homer Simpson talks about life crushing his spirit -- condemned to drudgery just to support a family -- not unlike the woman who feels condemned to drudgery to keep house and care for the children. Both want to get away, get free, and do what they like; and, in the circumstances of modern life, this is easier to do for more people than it has ever been in human history. For Paglia, like for Freud, culture is energy that is stolen from sexuality. Because of that, Paglia, who has no animus towards men whatsoever, has preferred a lesbian connection in her own personal life. Indeed, Paglia may be the only conspicuous, public figure out-of-the-closet lesbian in the United States, if not the Western World, universally regarded as an enemy by mainstream feminism. This is because, far from having an animus towards men, Paglia regards the "patriarchy" as the very principle of creativity and self-fulfillment, pioneered by men, who broke free from nature first, in which women are now able to join also.
While Freud thought that libido (eros) sublimated into culture would leave us feeling discontented, that is as far as it went, and he was forced to postulate a separate instinct, the death wish (thanatos), to explain the violence and destruction he was seeing early in the 20th century. Jung and Paglia need no ad hoc addition to their understanding. Suppressing nature does not defeat it. A sunny world of Cartesian rationality means that frustrated forces are gathering in the darkness. Those must be paid their due, and although they can be channeled in constructive ways, the attempt to ignore or suppress them altogether will result in eruptions of the most irrational and destructive forms. Again, the Greeks, or at least Euripides, had a strong intuition about this. A Hippolytus who shuns Aphrodite and retains his virginity out of devotion to Artemis (in the Hippolytus), or a Pentheus, who wishes to suppress the shameful orgiastic practices of the devotees of Dionysus (in the Bacchae), is simply destroyed by the power of the insulted god. Pentheus is torn to pieces by his own mother. Although Paglia usually quotes Freud, it is Jung who provides the theory for her sensibility. The Devouring Mother is the unconscious driven into ferocious opposition to consciousness. This is the point where Paglia parts company with the "womb & moon" female "spirituality" movement, again alienating feminists, many of whom valorize nature as nurturing and loving motherhood, while the male "conquest" of nature is of a piece with the rape and domination of women. Paglia sees the swollen and faceless "Venus" figures of the paleolithic, not as signs of prehistoric utopian matriarchy and nurturing motherhood, but as manifestations of the lack of individuality and lack of consciousness that attend human culture at that stage of development. The only comparable things in modern life were the totalitarian nightmares of the 20th century, when individual existence and individual expression were crushed beneath a uniform state ideology, justified, of course, as the good and the truth of the whole. Getting down to cases, what this means to Paglia is that something like prostitution, although representing some of the darkest and most disturbing of human impulses, cannot and should not be suppressed. Indeed, in its illegal underworld, prostitution now constitutes much of the modern slave trade, a slave trade in women and children. Paglia would say, as I would, that only the legalization and legitimization of prostitutes can protect them from the horrors of the illegal demimonde.
If homosexuality is characterized as neotenic adolescence, some might regard this as insulting or hostile, but it is neither. A "mature" heterosexual relationship simply means that natural reproduction is possible (i.e. without artificial insemination and sperm or womb donors). It can also mean a confrontation with the incomprehensible Otherness of the opposite sex -- even something like the distinctive scent of the mixing of the fluids that in China can be delicately called "essence of yin" and "essence of yang." Some gay activists see homosexuality as freeing oneself from the artificial constraints of gender roles, but it is actually an escape, an escape from deep, dark, and terrifying forces. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Like flight, it has its benefits. But powered flight does not meant that gravity ceases to exist. Nor does prolonged adolescence in any form, homosexuality or mere independent individualism, mean that the Darwinian bottom line goes way. Survival is survival, and survival is reproduction. As humans, we tinker with everything, and we even tinker with this. But it is a dangerous business, and no one should be surprised how nature strikes back, like Aphrodite, if she does not get her due.
As with the Greeks, however, there is no reason why homosexuality and nature could not be mixed together a bit. One area where this comes up in Kissing Jessica Stein is when a couple of men try to pick up the women in a Chinese restaurant. Helen makes the most of this by inviting the men to sit with them and then asking what they think of straight women getting involved with other women, and why this kind of thing seems so exciting to men. This cleverly gets the men to describe and extol the practices that Helen is trying to get going with Jessica, and it does get Jessica turned on more than we have seen her previously. But it is a good question. Why does Howard Stern go into raptures over lesbians? Why would two women having sex be attractive to heterosexual men?
One reason, I think, is that, just as all a woman needs to get a man's full attention is to be good looking, such a woman in a sexually aroused state is all that is needed to give a big evolutionary "Go!" signal to men. A sexually aroused man, even not a bad looking one, does not mean nearly the same kind of thing to most women. It is a bit like this: a naked man walking down the street is probably a pervert. A naked woman walking down the street is a goddess. Then there is this thought experiment....
Given a regular heterosexual couple, what would happen if:
My guess is that most women would find the suggestion in #1 appalling, insulting, and degrading. It would be like her boyfriend was trying to turn her into a prostitute. Most men would find the suggestion in #2 the equivalent, or better, of dying and going to heaven -- if, of course, he found the friend attractive. This seems to be the case at the end of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story , when Vince Vaughn discovers that his new girlfriend (Christine Taylor) is bisexual and has a girlfriend. There are exceptions to all this, of course. The occasional woman might find two men appealing, as we see in the 1984 movie Heartbreakers, where Peter Coyote memorably tells his best friend, "She wants us both" ("she" being the buxom and sadly departed Carol Wayne) [note]. The reason for the likely responses, however, may not be too far to seek.
Human cultures display all forms of polygamy, but polygyny, multiple wives, is far more common than polyandry, multiple husbands. And where polyandry occurs, as in the legendary case in the Mahâbhârata, the common husbands tend to be brothers. In other literature, very close friends, partners, buddies, from Gilgamesh and Enkidu to Peter Coyote and his friend, might not be adverse to sharing a woman. With polygyny, there is a very interesting case in the Bible. Jacob wants to marry Rachel (Genesis 29:18) and serves her father for seven years for her hand. Rachel, however, is a younger daughter, and after the seven years her father gives the elder daughter, Leah, not Rachel, to Jacob. Jacob also gets Rachel a week later, but then also has to serve another seven years. So already we have polygyny with sisters. But it gets better. Rachel is barren, and so, resenting Leah (whom Jacob doesn't like as much anyway), who is having children by him, she gives her maid Bilhah to Jacob to have children on her behalf (Genesis 30:3). When Leah (temporarily) ceases becoming pregnant, she keeps up by offering her maid, Zilpah, to Jacob. So Rachel and Leah both make the offer imagined in the thought experiment above, and Jacob complies as a matter of course. Rachel subsequent conceives, as does Leah again. The sons of all four women became the ancestors of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. When Martin Luther took this precedent seriously, and recommended polygamy to a German prince who was seeking a divorce, he almost discredited and sank the Protestant Reformation.
A little bit of sociobiology might help here. In polygyny, the exact parentage of every child is known and all members are fruitful to the limit of their fertility. In polyandry, however, the exact parentage of every child may not be known, if all the husbands have sex with their wife with some frequency, and while the wife is pregnant from one husband, the ability of the other(s) to beget is simply on hold. Now, in nature, where brothers, like lions, service the same females, the uncertainty of parentage or the barren periods during pregnancy are of less evolutionary significance because the brothers represent virtually the same genes, all the common heritage of their parents. The genes of the parents get passed own one way or the other. Real trouble arises, evolutionarily, only if an unrelated male is involved. On the other hand, a woman sharing her husband with an unrelated female does not in the least decrease her own fertility, unless the husband loses interest in her altogether -- or they live under a legal regime in which the husband could not be married to both of them and would divorce the first if his affections shifted enough. Otherwise, a woman avoiding sex during pregnancy might even retain her husband's affection by providing another woman.
In those terms, women who loved each other, as well as desiring their husband, would make for the happiest family of all. Indeed, if the husband's arbor for a particular wife waned, she could still be comforted by the attentions of her co-wife (or co-wives) [note]. A lesbian friend of mine got enthusiastically into belly dancing, in part because she figured that the women in the harem used to do it more to amuse and excite each other (while the Sultân was off conquering Hungary, etc.). This all sounds a little strange now (outside of Utah), but it is obvious that such arrangements were not uncommon, as in the Bible, for thousands of years. The human responses that went along with them have not gone away just because human institutions have changed a bit. Modern men may be (relatively) content with monogamy, but it is not surprising if alarm bells go off when something suggests the older world. As noted above, marriage was rarely a matter of love or preference, and for any man in a position to see two women enjoying each other, there would be no moral or social reason not to take advantage of their excitement for his own gratification. We don't get any details about the ménage of Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah in the Bible, but it does not take much erotic imagination to picture the possibilities. Indeed, this is actually the kind of thing represented in stone sculpture in India.
The Bible, of course, is ferocious in the matter of male homosexuality. It doesn't even mention female homosexuality. That is not just an oversight, since it does mention and condemn female bestiality as much as male. The explanation must be that female homosexuality involves no compromise or waste of fertility. In the words of Monty Python, "Every sperm is sacred." When reproduction is less important, of course, as today, every sperm is less sacred.
At the end of Kissing Jessica Stein, we are left to imagine that Jessica, after manifold wanderings (to paraphrase Kant), has returned to the same Josh whence she began -- perhaps to know him for the first time -- and to go on to a conventional marriage and present some Jewish grandchildren to her mother. Helen we really know less about. She has reached an entirely new place, involved exclusively with a woman. This could be the end of her trajectory, or it might not be. It depends on the source of her preference, whether as a positive aesthetic valuation of the female, perhaps with a naturally low vaginal response, or a suppression of vaginal response to the male, for various possible reasons, including Camille Paglia's own, to retain psychic independence. Helen thus remains what she always was, the more adventurous.
Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1862-1863, Édouard Manet
Ethics, Critique of Feminism
The movie also contains the very beginning and the very end of a family Sabbath ceremony, something else not often seen in movies. In this case, a gentile viewer consulting the English subtitles on the DVD may be a little confused, since everyone in the movie refers to the celebration as "Shabbas" but the subtitles say "Shabbat." This is just the difference between the Ashkenazic (i.e. Yiddish) and Sephardic (Spanish/Middle Eastern) pronunciations of Hebrew. While the "th" sound familiar in English, and used in "Sabbath," occurs in ancient Hebrew, it came to be pronounced either "s," among the Ashkenazim, or "t," among the Sephardim. The accent is also different, with "Shábbas" stressed on the first syllable, "Shabbát" on the second. Since Jessica's mother uses the occasional Yiddish word, there is no doubt about the derivation of the Stein family (though the surname itself, which is German, gives that away). On the other hand, the Sephardic pronunciation was adopted as the standard and official pronunciation in Israel and now tends to be taught exclusively in American Judaism. When the subtitles were made up for the movie, the subtitlers (or whatever you call them) evidently did not want to dignify what some now might regard as a substandard pronunciation.
Curiously, similar sounds changes have occurred with words from Classical Arabic, which also has the "th" sound. In modern spoken Arabic, this tends to become a "t." For instance, the Arabic word for "three" is thalâthah. In Lebanese Arabic, this becomes tlâte. On the other hand, in Arabic loan words into Persian, an otherwise unrelated (Indo-European) language, "th" always becomes "s." Thus, although the Persian word for "three" is se, it has borrowed solâsi, "triangular, triple," and sols, "one third," from Arabic, still writing those s's with the "th" of the Arabic alphabet. Ottoman Turkish (an Altaic language unrelated to Arabic or Persian) also wrote the Arabic "th" in loan words but itself borrowed the Persian "s" pronunciation.
When I was growing up, the use of the Israeli Sephardic pronunciation in American Judaism seemed to me to threaten a cultural extinction of the Ashkenazic tradition. In 2006, however, I asked a rabbi at an Oxford Round Table session I was attending about this, and he reassured me that in Jerusalem, while people use the Sephardic pronunciation in daily speech, students at many rabbinical schools are taught to use the Ashkenazic pronunciation to read the Bible! While this curious convention otherwise doesn't make much sense, it does neatly serve the function of preserving the Ashkenazic tradition, and not just among surviving Yiddish speakers.
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It seems strange that at the beginning of the 21th century people are still arguing about the origin and locus of the female orgasm. The big debate seems to be "clitoral" versus "vaginal." If there are vaginal orgasms, the implication is that there is something for women's pleasure in actual intercourse, while if there is only a clitoral orgasm, then women would be just as happy have sex with women as with men. Clearly, this issue is now heavy with ideological baggage. Entering into this is the notion of the "G" or "Grafenberg Spot" (after Ernst Grafenberg), a place on the wall of the vagina whose stimulation is supposed to produce intense and, yes, vaginal orgasms. Anyone in the "women don't need intercourse with men" camp is going to stoutly deny the very existence of the Grafenberg Spot. On the other hand, it is now common to say that not all women do experience a response at the Grafenberg Spot.
My view is that it doesn't make much difference. That a male orgasm begins with stimulation of the penis is rarely disputed, but my own experience is that: (1) an orgasm during intercourse feels much different from only manual stimulation, and (2) what I feel during an orgasm are the contractions of the prostate gland. Since the homologous structure to the prostate in the female is at least part of the vagina (usually the G-Spot itself is claimed to be the homologue), and since the vagina does contract during orgasm, my guess would be that the vagina has something to do with orgasm, and that orgasm during intercourse tends to have a more systemic involvement than anyone, male or female, gets from masturbation. On top of this is the claim that male orgasm can be effected by the direct stimulation of the prostate, which can be reached through the anus. Perhaps I have lived an unadventurous life, but I cannot testify to the truth or falsity of this. I do know, however, that I had a girlfriend once who came to orgasm simply through the external stimulation of her anus. I've heard of women who claimed to achieve orgasm through anal intercourse, but I can't say that I've known a woman who made that claim, much less had that experience with me -- since I've never met a woman who wanted to try anal intercourse and have never tried to get women I did know to receive it. Nevertheless, my experience is that results can be surprising even with that external stimulation, at a place that is rather distant from either clitoris or vagina -- my girlfriend's only complaint about the payoff was that she did not have me in her vagina to grip during the orgasm, which she always found more pleasurable.
If some women can achieve orgasm through the stimulation of their breasts or anus, the clitoral vs. vaginal debate strikes me as a little silly. The only question then is whether intercourse can feel good to a sufficiently aroused woman, and I think now I have encountered enough examples of eager female desire for it as to put the matter beyond doubt. Whether an orgasm during intercourse is going to be different from an orgasm through clitoral masturbation I also think is beyond doubt, although whether it is actually preferred is going to be a matter of individual taste, perhaps complicated by developmental differences or the tenseness produced by personal experiences or even political beliefs. Since I have seen a woman's vaginal opening contract and expand during arousal ("winking"), as though matching the strokes of a penis, my guess would be that there is a great deal about a woman's sexual response that closely matches and complements what the penis does during intercourse. The feminist idea that "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" seems simply misanthropic, meaning not just hatred of men but of humanity in general -- and a good example of the atomic "individualism" that is promoted by leftist political practice, even while it accuses commercial society or capitalism of fostering just such an individualism. There is nothing atomic about loving intercourse.
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The movie contains snippets of debate (including out-takes) between Helen and one of her gay friends about whether sexual preference is congenital. The genetic evidence is ambiguous, but the evidence is better about fetal development. Since all women produce some testosterone, females in the womb can be dosed with greater or lesser amounts. Those with greater exposure may exhibit tom-boyish behavior as children, though it may have no more obvious effects than that. On the other hand, a statistically significant number of lesbians show effects of elevated testosterone exposure. One sign of this can be detected in a surprisingly easy and interesting way.
Male and female bodies differ in several obvious and many subtle ways. For example, the female elbow is articulated slightly differently from the male. When a woman's arms hang down at her side, the forearms angle out slightly from the body. This is a nice touch, all the better to avoid hitting the wider female hips, but scarcely noticeable. There happens to be a good image of it, however, in Kissing Jessica Stein. When Jessica steps out to hail a cab, she holds her right arm up, and the change in angle from upper arm to forearm stands out nicely.
In similarly subtle fashion, the ring finger of males tends to be longer than the index finger, while in females it is shorter. As it happens, the length of the ring finger is almost like a barometer of testosterone exposure. It varies in men, and in a significant number of lesbians the ring finger is actually, as in men, longer than the index finger. Since not all lesbians have this trait, there are clearly other factors as well, but it is a definite sign that there can be a physical component to sexual preference. As it happens, long before the ratio of lengths of ring and index fingers was noticed, there was a widespread belief (asserted to me once by a girlfriend) that the length of a man's fingers was proportional to the length of his erection.
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Lest anyone think that this is simply a male fantasy written into a fictional story in a movie, we now have the confessional testimony of Catherine Millet in her recent book The Sexual Life of Catherine M. [translated by Adriana Hunter, Grove Press, 2002; La Vie Sexuelle de Catherine M., by Catherine Millet, Éditions du Seuil, 2001]. Millet developed a taste for group sex with her earliest sexual experiences. In one episode, reminiscent of Heartbreakers, she visits a museum with two male friends. They notice an open door into a storage area and go in. With the excitement of possible discovery, she forms a standing "bridge" (actually, a flying-buttress, arc-boutant) between the two men, with one entering her from behind and the other in her mouth (l'un dan le con, l'autre dans la bouche). In a way, it is hard to believe that there are women like this, even intelligent and articulate women, almost harder to believe than that there is a Santa Claus, but evidently it happens.
Comparable to the image of the arc-boutant is that of the "finger cuffs" in the 1997 Kevin Smith movie Chasing Amy. This has rather a negative twist to it in the movie, and Ben Affleck's reaction seems foolish, finally even to himself (vide).
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In a recent interview and photo session for Maxim magazine (January 2003, p.80), teen pop idol Christina Aguilera (shown) said, "Guys just can't be sexy like girls can. OK? They just can't. I would rather look at Maxim than a magazine with naked guys in it." There otherwise doesn't seem to be much sense that Christina Aguilera is sexually interested in girls. Nevertheless, this statement is about as stimulating to men as the near naked images of her in the magazine, or as the "fuck you" gesture she makes at left.
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