The ‘Ideal Marriage’ And Its Painful Sexual Ignorance

In Making Love: An Erotic Odyssey (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1992, pp. 32-33), Richard Rhodes writes:

Somehow I acquired a copy of Dutch physician T. H. van de Velde‘s Ideal Marriage, published in the United States in 1926, the most popular marriage manual in American until The Joy of Sex came along. Ideal Marriage was wise and tender about love abut euphemistically vague and sometimes criminally misinformed about sex. Van de Velde promulgated the sexist conviction that both partners in an act of intercourse should come to orgasm at the same time. “In normal and perfect coitus,” I read in his book and believed for years afterward, “mutual orgasm must be almost simultaneous; the usual procedure is that the mans’ ejaculation begins and sets the acme of sensation in train at once.” Impossible to measure how much pain that single ignorant sentence caused. It must have baffled hundreds and thousands of men and agonized hundreds of thousands, at least, of women. I took it for God’s truth when I read it–wasn’t it printed in a book? How did Van de Velde arrive at such a bizarre conclusion? From his own experience? From unsupported theory?

Color me baffled too, even if I cannot, like Rhodes, blame Van de Velde for this state of affairs. I did lay my hands on de Velde’s book as a pre-teen boy–a furtive glance or two at a copy that my parents owned, tucked away in some secret hiding place, which I had miraculously uncovered. My heart racing as I realized I was dealing with an illicit text that purported to reveal the secrets and mysteries of an increasingly intriguing and alluring zone of human interaction, I quickly leafed through its pages before hastily replacing it in its sanctum sanctorum and backing away. I promised to return when I had more time, when I was less worried about being caught, but that moment never came again.

But the myth that de Velde sought to perpetuate made the rounds anyway; perhaps in the softcore pulp fiction that I read like a maniac in my pre-teen and teen years, or perhaps in the way that sex was depicted on screen where matters proceeded smoothly between two equally competent partners with nary a touch of awkwardness, anxiety, insecurity, clumsiness, or dissatisfaction. An education–in many dimensions–awaited me in my sexually mature years. Euphemisms and bravado would count for little; only the right kind of hand waving would do.

Note: I own a copy of Alex Comfort‘s The Joy of Sex; a girlfriend and I bought it as a giggle many years ago, and we took turns snickering at its artful pencil drawings and sometimes purple prose. It had dated a little too quickly and now seemed corny (and sexist in all too many of its recommendations and observations.) As I browsed its pages, I was reminded of the computer nerd’s response to Comfort’s catchy title: a guidebook to the X-Windows System titled The Joy of X. I don’t own a copy of that but I wish I did.

The Perennial Allure of Utopian Sex

In Margaret Atwood‘s cautionary, speculative tale of a genetic engineering run amuck, Oryx and Crake, the Snowman observes the Crakers are unusually and refreshingly sexually enlightened:

Off to the side, from what is probably a glade where the tents and trailers used to be set up, he can hear laughter and singing, and shouts of admiration and encouragement. There must be a mating going on, a rare-enough occasion among the people: Crake had worked out the numbers, and had decreed that once every three years per female was more than enough.

There’ll be the standard quintuplet, four men and the woman in heat. Her condition will be obvious to all from the bright-blue colour of her buttocks and abdomen….

Since it’s only the blue tissue and the pheromones released by it that stimulate the males, there’s no more unrequited love these days, no more thwarted lust; no more shadow between the desire and the act. Courtship begins at the first whiff, the first faint blush of azure, with the males presenting flowers to the females….From amongst the floral tributes the female chooses four flowers, and the sexual ardour of the unsuccessful candidates dissipates immediately, with no hard feelings left. Then, when the blue of her abdomen has reached its deepest shade, the female and her quartet find a secluded spot and go at it until the woman becomes pregnant and her blue colouring fades. And that is that.

No more No means yes anyway, thinks Snowman. No more prostitution, no sexual abuse of children, no haggling over the price, no pimps, no sex slaves. No more rape. The five of them will roister for hours, three of the men standing guard and doing the singing and shouting while the fourth one copulates, turn and turn about….It no longer matters who the father of the inevitable child may be, since there’s no more property to inherit, no father-son loyalty required for war. Sex is no longer a mysterious rite, viewed with ambivalence or downright loathing, conducted in the dark and inspiring suicides and murders. Now it’s more like an athletic demonstration, a free-spirited romp.

 No description of a utopia–even one gone wrong, as they usually do–is complete without its particular vision of how sex is reconfigured in its arrangements. A utopia wouldn’t be one if it retained this world’s insane sexual  jealousy, its violence, its terribly asymmetric, hypocritical, chauvinistic and gendered understanding of sexual roles, responsibilities, virtues and sins. Unsurprisingly utopian visions of sex often run close together; most seek to describe arrangements that ameliorate the devastating effects current sexual politics have on our psyches and bodies. The relief we seek in these imagined worlds is similar: freedom from the terrible burdens imposed on us by the expectations of masculinity and patriarchy, moral superegos, religious guilt, the discomfort our fantasies evoke in us.

Most of all, utopias seek to demote and demystify sex, to knock it off its pedestal; in so doing, ironically, they make intractable the mystery of why something so common, so necessary, so essential, becomes so mythical, so elusive.

Beauvoir, Morrison and Gordimer on Sex

Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that a conceptual inversion of the sexual act was possible: perhaps woman was not merely ‘penetrated’ or ‘entered into’ by man, perhaps she ‘enveloped’ or ‘engulfed’ him instead. Sex was not an ‘invasion’ of the woman, it was an active seeking out instead. The change in perspective engendered by considering what could be a woman’s understanding of the act was radical indeed, and experienced as such by many of those who read The Second Sex. I understood this shift at one intellectual level and did not at yet another.

Till I read Toni Morrison‘s Sula (Knopf, New York, 1973). In it, when Sula has sex with Ajax, she “stood wide-legged against the wall and pulled from his track-lean hips all the pleasure her thighs could hold.” (pp. 125)  Now, I understood a little better. Here again, was woman active, possessing sexual agency, not the passive receiver of sexual attention but the active dispenser of it. She did not have something ‘put inside her’, she ‘pulled’ it to herself, the limits of that exchange only demarcated by her own desire and ability. It’s been some twenty-two years since I first read that line, and I have never forgotten it, so suddenly did it come on me as I read Sula, and so distinctive was the reconfiguration of sexual politics that it forced upon me.

Here is another literary take on the conceptual revision that Beauvoir suggested. In The Late Bourgeois World (Penguin, New York, 1966), Nadine Gordimer‘s narrator Liz Van Den Sandt ruminates over an interesting dimension of her sexual relationship with Graham:

Yet when he’s inside me–last night–there’s the strangest thing. He’s much better than someone my own age, he comes to me with a solid and majestic erection that will last as long as we choose. Sometimes he will be in me for an hour and I can put my hand on my belly and feel the blunt head, like a standard upheld, through my flesh. But while he fills me, while you’d think the last gap in me was closed for ever, while we lie there silent I get the feeling that I am the one who has drawn him up into my flesh, I am the one who holds him there, that I am the one who has him helpless. If I flex the muscles inside me, it’s as if I were throttling someone. He doesn’t speak; the suffering of pleasure shuts his eyes, the lids are tender without his glasses. And even when he brings about the climax for us–afterwards I am still holding him as if strangled; warm, thick, dead, inside. [pp. 37-38]

I suspect there are men who would find this description disconcerting–the more ‘sensitive’ among them might even be offended–and indeed, it was probably meant to be so. But hopefully, equally many men and women will find in this little passage echoes of the same species of altered perspective that Beauvoir urged us to adopt, and that Morrison so expertly captured and described.

Eagleton on Sex and Sexuality: Fun, and Not-So-Much (Respectively)

In yesterday’s post, I offered a couple of critical remarks in response to Stanley Fish‘s review of  Terry Eagleton‘s Reason, Faith and Revolution. Those remarks were directed at a pair of passages excerpted from Eagleton. Today’s  post features Eagleton too, but cast as reviewer, not reviewee, on everyone’s favorite topic: sex (and the considerably more serious business of sexuality).

In reviewing Hal Gladfelder’s Fanny Hill in Bombay: The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland (‘Grub Street Snob‘, Londong Review of Books, 13 September 2012), Eagleton writes:

Sexuality is not to be confused with sex. Sex is what people do, whereas sexuality is largely the province of the intelligentsia. Sex can be fun, but sexuality can be serious stuff. Academic writing about it hardly ever captures its amusing, even farcical dimensions, whatever it is that makes it such a perennial subject of curiosity and intrigue. Hearing that two people can be sleeping together can often provoke a spontaneous grin, provided neither of them is your partner. Even so, sex and sexuality are hardly on different planets. Most of those who write on sexuality have sex lives themselves, and thus tend to practice what they preach. Studying sexuality is always at some level self-study, rather as writing about popular culture, for most of the students who do it these days, involves watching movies and TV shows they would have watched anyway. There is thus a convenient continuity between’s one’s academic and one’s actual life, as with a psychiatrist who is an expert on his own psychosis.

The contrast between sex and sexuality, between the doing and the writing about it, is of course quite acute, rather as there is one between jokes and humor and their academic analysis. In the case of sex and sexuality the problem is compounded by the fact that sex is a pretty undignified business. Rarely, if ever, as we have found out for ourselves, do its physical expressions ever match the highly stylized, graceful, in slow-motion, couplings of the screen–whether large or small-or the novel. Academic writing about sexuality has thus had to put a wrap on these rough edges and cloak itself in stately (or incomprehensible) prose. This leads to the scarcely believable situation of academic talks on sex that do not elicit as much as a single giggle from their audience. The titles of talks and papers on sexuality attempt to make up for this–Eagleton helpfully provides ‘Putting the Anus back in Coriolanus as an example and I can point to ‘Unzipping the Monster Dick: Deconstructing Ableist Penile Representations in Two Ethnic Homoerotic Magazines’–but they might be fighting a losing battle given the overwhelming likelihood that the prose on display will be turgid and uninspired. In part, this is just because this is academic writing, but here, I suspect the subject matter induces reticence even in those bold enough to venture into its precincts.

A smart academic would find a way to write racily about sexuality. I’m not about to start, but I wish someone would.

Babies and Gender Construction

When I look at my daughter, my baby girl, I don’t detect her gender. I am aware of her sex, for it was announced to me, rather loudly and emphatically, by nurses and surgeons, when she was born, ‘It’s a girl!’ I am aware of her sex too, when I change her diapers. Other than that, I do not know if I’m dealing with a boy or a girl. At eleven weeks, it’s all baby all the time; no sexual difference manifests itself. Perhaps I’m not expert enough to know the difference between a boy’s wailing and a girls’ wailing, or perhaps there is some magic marker that I am not aware of. But I think I possess sufficient expertise in this domain; I am the child’s father after all. Why would anyone else know better than me? My daughter’s mother, my wife, agrees; for now, it could be just as well a boy; we don’t see the girl yet.

But there are times when we have seen my girl, accompanied by her gender. My mother-in-law, her grandmother, bought her a frilly white dress, sleeveless, complete with white fur stole. My wife dressed her up in it for an outing to a wedding. She was cooed and gushed over, and everyone told us how adorable she was. It was the first time I had seen her look so ‘feminine’; the clothes had clothed her in a gender. And then, just the other day, she wore a pink skirt, also a gift. Again she looked, suddenly, as never before, ‘like a girl.’ The clothes magically transformed her; immediately, the collected set of impressions associated with white and pink dresses, ‘pretty’ and ‘delicate’, forced themselves to the fore. We were looking, amazingly enough, not at a gender-neutral baby any more but at a creature with a very distinct gender. We had participated in an act of gender construction. (I had noticed inklings of this when her first pink gifts came rolling in after birth; before that, as we had asked the asked the ultrasound clinic to keep her sex a secret, her gifts had been gender neutral.)

I have been told for a long time that gender is a social construct. I have both read and taught feminist theory. (In Fall 2007, at Brooklyn College, I taught ‘Philosophy and Feminism’ using Ann Cudd and Robin Andreasen‘s anthology; I also assigned Ursula Le Guin‘s ‘Left Hand of Darkness‘).  But I don’t think I have ever experienced the truth of that theoretical claim quite as viscerally as I have in the past few weeks, by something quite as simple as my interactions with this gurgling, bawling, cooing creature, recognizably human for sure, and certainly of the female sex as far as her biological inheritance is concerned, but lacking any other mode of definition that would allow her to be slotted into our socially determined categories of ‘boy’, ‘girl’, ‘man’, or ‘woman’. Right now, she’s just a baby; she awaits definition, a process in which she will participate, and hopefully, leave her own distinct imprint.

Mozart on Constanze: Tepid but Frank

In December 1781, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote a letter to his father Leopold, telling him he wanted to marry Constanze Weber. He might have been a brilliant composer, but when it came to describing his beloved, his skills did not transfer so well.

[I] must make you acquainted with the with the character of my dear Constanze. She is not ugly, but at the same time, far from beautiful. Her entire beauty consists of two little black eyes and a nice figure. She has no wit, but she has enough common sense to enable her to fulfill her duties of wife and mother. It is a downright lie that she is inclined to be extravagant. One the contrary, she is accustomed to being shabbily dressed, for the little that her mother has been able to do for her children, she has done for the two others, but never for Constanze. True, she would like to be neatly and cleanly dressed, but not smartly, and most things that a woman needs she is able to make for herself; and she dresses her own hair every day. Moreover she understands housekeeping and has the kindest heart in the world. I love her and she loves me with all her heart. Tell me whether I could wish myself a better wife?

Indeed. Perhaps the mystery of why Mozart was so enamoured of someone whom he could only bring himself to describe in such modest terms as above finds its solution in what preceded these words. For in the first part of the letter Mozart had written:

The voice of nature speaks as loud in me as in others, louder perhaps, than in many a big, strong lout of a fellow. I simply cannot live as most young men do these days. In the first place, I have too great a love of my neighbour and too high a feeling of honour to seduce an innocent girl; and, in the third place, I have too much horror and disgust, too much dread and fear of diseases and too much care for my health to fool about with whores. So I can swear that I have never had relations of that sort with any woman.

If such a thing had occurred, I should not have concealed it from you; for, after all, to err is natural enough in a man and to err once in this way would be mere weakness–although indeed I should not undertake to to promise that if I had erred once in this way, I should stop short at one slip. However, I stake my life on the truth of what I have told you. I am well aware that this reason (powerful as it is) is not urgent enough. But owing to my disposition, which is more inclined to a peaceful and domesticated existence than to revelry, I, who from my youth up have never been accustomed to look after my own belongings, linen, clothes and so forth, cannot think of anything more necessary to me than a wife.

When the ‘voice of nature’ is to be heeded, then perhaps little else matters. Even for a man as gifted as Mozart.

Source: Francis Carr, Mozart and Constanze, Avon Books, New York, 1983, pp. 34-36.

John Donne’s Paradoxes and Problems

A short while ago, I provided, here, excerpts from Aristotle’s Problems; in particular, I quoted two questions that Aristotle raises about alcohol and sex. Then,  I wanted to showcase the colorful framing of the question and the answer; the latter was made especially interesting because of the serious spirit of inquiry visible in it, one which, even if it seems to have gone off-mark, still impresses because of its earnestness.

Today, in the same spirit, I want to quote from John Donne‘s ‘Paradoxes and Problemes‘. The titles of these should indicate the mood in which they were written.

First, the Paradoxes:

I. A Defence of Women’s Inconstancy.
II. That Women ought to Paint.
III. That by Discord things increase.
IV. That Good is more common than Euill.
V. That all things kill themselues.
VI. That it is possible to find some vertue in some Women.
VII. That Old men are more fantastike than Young.
VIII. That Nature is our worst guide.
IX. That only Cowards dare die.
X. That a Wise man is known by much laughing.
XI. That the gifts of the Body are better than those of the Minde.

Then, the Problemes:

I. Why haue Bastards best Fortunes?
II. Why Puritans make long Sermons?
III. Why did the Diuell reserue Iesuites till the latter Dayes?
IV. Why is there more Variety of Greene, than of any other Colour?
V. Why doe Young Lay-men so much study Diuinity?
VI. Why hath the Common Opinion afforded Women Soules?
VII. Why are the Fairest falsest?
VIII. Why Venus Starre only doth cast a shadow?
IX. Why is Venus Starre Multinominous, called both Hesperus and Vesper?
X. Why are new officers least oppressing?

The online edition lists only the first ten of these; my copy of John Donne: Poetry and Prose (Modern Library Edition, Random House, 1967) includes an additional two, numbered XI (Why doth the Poxe soe much affect to undermine the Nose?) and XVI (Why are Courtiers sooner Atheists than Men of other Conditions?).

As a sample of Donne’s answers to the Problemes, here is his response to Probleme I, one that I’m sure has perplexed many over the years:

Is Nature (which is lawes patterne) hauing denied women Constancy to one, hath prouided them with cunning to allure many, and so Bastards de iure should haue better wits and experience. But besides that by experience wee see many fooles amongst them; we should take from them one of their chiefest helpes to preferment, and we should deny them to be fooles; and (that which is onely left) that Women chuse worthier men than their husbands is false de facto, either then it must be that the Church hauing remoued them from all place in the publike seruice of God, they haue better meanes than others to bee wicked, and so fortunate: Or else because the two greatest powers in this world, the Diuell and Princes concurre to their greatnesse; the one giuing bastardye, the other legitimation: As nature frames and conserues great bodies of Contraries. Or the cause is, because they abound most at Court, which is the forge where fortunes are made; or at least the shop where they be sold.