There is an old question, "What do women want?" This is supposed to have been asked by Sigmund Freud -- Was will das Weib? -- of his friend and supporter Marie Bonaparte. There are, of course, different kinds of answers. One level is political and social, to be free of traditional legal and customary disabilities imposed on women (although Nietzsche, his apologists should note, says that these are good), as well as to be free of harrassment and violence, including getting pinched by Italians and even, evidently, hearing cat calls from construction workers. This is presumably the uncontroversial and bipartisan program of a generalized feminism.
The other level of the question is what women want in sex. Marie reportedly became a patient of Freud for a complaint of frigidity -- it is not clear whether Freud was actually any help there. The female body is a mysterious and alien landscape to a lot of men, especially young men; and the details of female genitals can remain obscure, not only to adult men, but sometimes even to adult women -- who need a mirror to examine themselves closely, and will need the help of a gynecologist, or textbooks, for interior knowledge. What feels good to women is something to which men may have no answer, even before they realize that different women like different things, and respond in different ways.
The Victorian cliché was that women have no sexual response, are not interested in sex, and only allow men to lie with them because it is their duty, and they want to have children, or they do want to please their man. Queen Victoria herself, apparently, was a lot more enthusiastic than this and was worried when, after nine births, her doctors recommended that she have no more children. She asked in alarm if this meant that she and her husband could no longer be intimate. I am unaware of the response from the doctor.
This notion that women are sexually inert seems to have not existed before the 19th century. The Greeks had no doubt that women had strong sexual desires, and Greek mythology featured the testimony of the sage Teiresias, who had been both a man and a woman, that women experienced more pleasure in sex than men -- for the disclosure of this secret Hera blinded him in retribution. The advent of Christianity did not alter the foundation of this; but we got the addition of the idea that through their desire, women tempt men into sin.
Thus, women might be seen as inherently dangerous, like Eve, and even potentially evil, without being carefully controlled. The ideal life in a corrupt world is to withdraw from it; and so monks and nuns live in the best way. If nuns were cloistered, their separation from men protected the women and the men. Men can be priests and mendicants, which puts them out in the world, but not women. Eventually, nuns become teachers and even nurses, which also exposes them to the world, and the world to them, but there is less danger with them mixing with children and with the sick than in other secular relationships.
The Victorian inversion of this placed all the desire, and so all the temptation, in men, with women naturally pure and virtuous. This inversion may be the result of the Protestant abolition of monasticism. If women withdraw from the world, it will only be into the home, while men are out in the world whatever they do.
A response to the latter might have been the historic opportunities for men to take off for the wilderness and for the East, accompanied only by other men. This may have had a homoerotic aspect to it, but the sexual outlet for exploring or pioneering men was usually with the local, non-Western women, whose own appeal and desires could be of a very different kind from white, European women.
The fantasy of European men with "native" women was something genuinely lived out by the original Nabobs in India, someone like Sam Houston, or the sailors who discovered that Hawaiian women might swim out to their ships, naked, and offer themselves for so small a consideration as an iron nail. Captain Cook had to set guards over the nails -- with sailors then sometimes prying nails out of the fabric of the ship itself.
|Paul Gauguin, Merahi metua no Tehamana, "Tehamana Has Many Parents," 1893; Art Institute of Chicago|
Since we know, from reports by Captain Cook and others, that Polynesians had few scuples about the youth of nubile (but not noble) girls, it is hard to imagine how Gauguin is supposed to have resisted. Artists are not famous for their celibacy or inhibitions. And while politically correct artists now pose as paragons and even prophets of virtue, racial and otherwise, the pose usually seems to be just that, a pose, suspicious in its self-righteousness and convenient social conformity.
Before long in Hawai'i, white men married into noble families and even royalty. The arrival of white women in India and Hawai'i tended to make "honest" Victorians of the men; but in a place like Hawai'i a local mixed class, the Hapa Haole or "Part Hawaiians" (to the U.S. Census), had already been created -- the extensive lands of the "Bishop Estate" derive its name from Charles Reed Bishop (1822-1915) but the lands themselves from his wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop (1831-1884). A similar story is told in the movie The Descendants .
I was on the fringes of this phenomenon myself in my first marriage, living with my wife's grandmother, who was born in 1893, and who said that people who wore shoes back then were ho'ohaole, "making like white people." Unlike the mixed population of Spanish colonies like Mexico (the mestizos), all the Hapa Haoles of Hawai'i have enjoyed an elevated status, shared with Hawaiian nobility and the monarchy. With that, of course, went Victorian morality, leaving us curious whether the inability of the Royal Family to reproduce itself, like Princess Bernice herself, was an artifact of Protestant sexual inhibitions.
Many women are reluctant to say what they like. One side of that, apat from just being shy, may be the feeling that men do not like to be instructed in such things. There will certainly be such men, who don't like being told because it implies that they don't know what they are doing, especially if they actually don't know what they are doing. The other side of the matter, however, may be the feeling of many women that men should know what they are doing, either from experience, or because men should naturally know, or because a man should be able to intuit, empirically or telephathically, what a particular woman likes. If he cannot intuit that from subliminal clues or telepathy, then he must not be in love with them. None of this applies, of course, if both lovers are young, naive, and inexperienced just because they have had no time in life for experience yet -- cf. The Blue Lagoon .
Experienced men know that different women respond to different things. Thus, they can test the waters and find out fairly quickly what particular women like. The woman may not be aware that this is what is being done, or they may realize that the man is trying different things. Women, of course, can also be ignorant of the male body. Although the penis is fairly obvious, which parts of it are responsive and which are not will not be obvious, and also may vary somewhat between men. I am not aware that testicles are sexually sensitive or responsive, but there is a general impresson that they are, which then may actually be the case for some men. And some men may just like the idea of their testicles in a woman's mouth, which can be arousing even if the glands are otherwise insensitive, except to pain.
We also have the perplexing case of what women would like men to want and what men would like women to want. This gets displayed and explored in a lot of erotica and pornography. Indeed, the large body of romance literature for women consists of little but fantasies of what women would like men to do and be like. The irony of this, as I have noted elsewhere, is that what goes on in a lot of romance literature looks a lot like rape.
Also, we now have the strange and remarkable popularity of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey , the first of three books, by E.L. James, a woman who originally wrote "fan fiction" about the Twilight series. But, where Twilight had simply been about a woman's romance with a vampire, and then becoming one, Fifty Shades of Grey is the "romance" of a relationship between the young, naive, and virginal Anastasia Steele with a worldly, rich, and controlling businessman Christian Grey. Indeed, "controlling" meant bondage & discipline (B/D) and sadomasochism (S&M). The first book ends when Anastasia, who has already been seduced, and tied up a bit, solicits a full rigor spanking, just to see what it is like, and discovers -- remarkably! -- that it hurts. She leaves -- for the time being.
The success of Fifty Shades of Grey, its sequels (Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed), and the 2015 movie, with sequels (all terrible), was extraordinary, not just considering the content of them, but also because the books seem to be examples of rather poor writing. Salman Rushdie is reported saying, "I've never read anything so badly written that got published. It made Twilight look like War and Peace." However, he therefore seems to have read it.
Why should bondage, submission, and sadomasochism be so popular to an international audience mostly, evidently, of women? One might think that such themes would only appeal to men. However, wrapping it in the "romance" package turned out to be the ticket to female appeal. There may also be the popular theme that a good woman can reform a bad man -- by way of suffering and devotion. Feminists must cringe.
This reminds me of an American woman I met in Beirut in 1970. She really liked a movie called The Collector , which is about a butterfly collector who, without much interest or experience in romance, decides to "collect" a woman. He does, and holds her prisoner, without, apparently, any particular sexual interest in her. After attempting to gain his trust so that she can escape, the misadventure results in her death. The movie ends with the "collector" looking for another victim.
I found pretty much everything about this movie unappealing, if not appalling. And I am not adverse to kidnapping or bondage fantasies. But this story lacked what I would expect to be the sexual raison d'être of any such story. But something about it pushed the right buttons with my friend. This still makes a lot less sense to me than Fifty Shades of Grey. If it is a "romance," the lack of erotic interest, consumation, or even affection would seem to contradict the premise. It would almost have made more sense if the collector had collected women the way he did butterflies -- dead. But then that would have been a very different, and even more horrific, movie genre.
The only thing that interests me about The Collector now is that it starred an unrecognizeable Terence Stamp, who was otherwise off my radar until I saw him in the The Limey , with, of all people, Peter Fonda. And a much better movie than The Collector.
What Fifty Shades of Grey, The Collector, and other questionable romance literature may have in common is "fantasy." Few might mind being tied up, or even "kidnapped," by someone they love and desire. But as I have also examined elsewhere, a lot of the bondage and discipline stuff starts to sound tedious and boring, with other pleasures or necessities of life conveniently ignored or forgotten. But in fantasy, all is possible.
The Erotic as an Aesthetic Category
The Girl in a Dress
Gender Stereotypes and Sexual Archetypes
Ethics, Critique of Feminism
Return to Autobiographical Statements