take up space in the public arena for the erotic body

I miss my early morning company — there are no owls here to accompany me into this early morning writing time.  I had strange dreams, and they’ve faded now. My body is still in need of help, but it’s better.

This weekend I started thinking again about offering a sacred sexuality class, a group for women (to begin with) where we can write about the pleasures of the flesh and how exactly holy they feel to us — how much it matters that we are in our desire, that we feel our longing body, that we discover how to allow pleasure to bring us all the way open to another person, and, more importantly, to ourselves.

Right now, it’s hard to think about how to justify such a group, just as it’s been difficult to do a lot of promo for the fundraiser for Sex Still Spoken Here, the Erotic Reading Circle anthology — there are wars and violence all over the world. Israel has invaded Gaza, and hundreds of people are dying. The rebels in the Ukraine are shooting planes out of the sky. The people of Syria are dying in thee hundreds. People are sending their infants and children across international borders, alone, in order that they might be safe and free. The people of Sudan find themselves in the middle of a civil war. Every paper I open is filled with stories about sexual violence and atrocity. How can this be a time to speak about erotic pleasure and investigation, about sexual delight and recovery? Isn’t that the last thing on our minds: our own joy?

I spent awhile yesterday reading a story in the New York Times Magazine about the former president of Penn State, who can’t understand why he is being held to account for his lack of action in the Jerry Sandusky case. I avoided the main section of the paper, filled not just with stories about war violence but also about sexual violence. Last week there was a story about young woman who brought charges of rape against her perpetrator on a college campus, and now regrets having done so, given the terrible mess the college has made of the whole thing. I couldn’t bring myself to read that story.

I am grateful for the (apparently sudden) increased attention to sexual violence across the globe, and for the reporting about the way rape is used as a war crime, as a tool of control and isolation, the way sexual violence shows up on college campuses, in church settings in families, in shelters and so-called safe zones, in children’s homes  — how many children’s charities like the one run by Jerry Sandusky are simply either organized by or targeted by criminals to use as corrals of prey? I am grateful for the increased awareness of the prevalence and pervasiveness of sexual violence — and I mostly can’t read all the stories about it that show up in the newspaper or in my newsfeed these days. I turn off the radio. I close the paper. I close the tab on my web browser.

A couple of months ago — have I written about this here? — I broke my car after listening to the beginning  of an NPR news story about a mob rape at a rally somewhere in the middle east or northern Africa (Egypt, I think), and the broadcasters played an excerpt of a recording made of the assault. No warning, no heads-up, no note to listeners: hey, in the next thirty seconds, you might hear something that will take you back to your childhood. Given that we know how prevalent sexual violence is, in homes and in other settings through out an individual’s life, here and around the planet, does it not make sense to assume that a vast percentage of your listening audience might be profoundly and negatively impacted by playing such a recording? I get it that you can’t give a warning in front of every news story — but if you’re going prefix other stories with warnings to your listeners that there might be language in the coming story that they might find offensive (the n-word, the f-word), then don’t you think you might want to use that same logic and apply it to stories about sexual violence, especially when you are going to be unleashing the sounds of someone actually being violated? If it helps, keep in mind that you have male survivors in your audience, too. Maybe that will help you to take survivor sensibility into account — for goodness’ sake, you don’t even have to just worry about women anymore. I hit my radio’s power button so hard with the heel of my hand that I ended up sending my radio back into the bowels of my car’s dashboard — now there’s a little hole in the dashboard, reminding me to pay attention to what I’m listening to.

Once upon a time, I thought it was my responsibility to take in all of these stories, to read or watch or listen or otherwise consume whatever stories showed up in popular culture about sexual or domestic violence — it’s important to be informed, I told myself any anyone who, after listening to me ranting at the news, asked if maybe I wanted to listen to something else. I shouted at my radio while driving home from work and shouted at tv news broadcasters over my third glass of wine. I thought that, as an activist and victim’s advocate, it was my personal responsibility to listen and analyze and respond. But the trouble was that I didn’t respond (except sometimes in my notebooks, and in loud and angry rants that made it impossible for anyone to watch the tv news with me). Instead, I drank, trying to get away from what was already inside me and what was now also coming at me from the outside. I lived the life of a sexual violence survivor, I worked with recent victims and survivors, and I consumed stories about victimization — I didn’t think I had the right to get away, to take a break from the reality of sexual violence, its pervasiveness and use as a weapon of terror and control over folks of all ages, genders and ethnicities. I burnt out over and over and over again with this mindset.

I’ve let myself off that hook, though. These days, I don’t read most of the stories about sexual assault that I come across, and don’t believe that that decision makes me any less potent as an advocate for survivors. I am grateful that the issue of sexual violence is getting more attention. I am glad for the relative amount of space these stories take up in the front section of the New York Times these days — not, of course, at all because I am glad these crimes are occurring. The ideal situation would be for us not to need column inches for stories like these, because rape was no longer being used as a weapon, because men (and women with the same mindset) no longer acted on the belief that others’ bodies exist solely for their use and pleasure. But that’s not yet the case in the world I live in, so I am grateful that these stories now rank as “news” in the minds of news media. Yet, I don’t feel I need to consume each and every one of these stories anymore. I carry enough stories in my body and bones. I give myself permission to turn the news off, to turn the page, to read something else. I’ll be sitting with those stories later, in writing groups, responding to the powerful language of survivors who are finding words for their own experiences of trauma and resilience.

This started out as an apology for wanting to hold open space for the pleasure and the power of the erotic body at a time of overwhelming sorrow, violence, shame and loss. But when is it not that time in our culture? When is there not always something more important to think about and deal with than the tender and exquisite possibility of our erotic selves, the quiet and insistent voice that demands something more than devastation, that manages to hold on to our capacity for joy even in the face of betrayal and evil? Sex can be used to sell everything but our own piece of mind; sex is fine when it’s manipulated by the same hands that want bodies available for their own pleasure, when it’s manhandled in service of the buying public’s mindless consumpton — it’s not fine when it’s offered as a space of empowerment, deep embodiment, and true self-control. Sex can take up airtime when it’s used as a weapon, or as a means of selling cars or beer or electronics or clothes or anything else. Sex is censored when it represents only itself. Sex is viewed as trivial when its presented as a wholly healthy human capacity, or when we ask, how can those of us who have been harmed through sexual acts reclaim the body’s birthright to joy and pleasure? How can (noncommercial) pleasure be as newsworthy as pain?

And so I apologize, have been apologizing all the years I’ve offered erotic writing groups, at least internally: I know, this is frivolous, I’m sorry. It’s not as important as the real work you’re doing, trying to call attention to violence or “end” violence. I know, I’m taking about eros, and that’s so much more discomfiting to you than talking about violence.

Why apologize, though, for trying to change that very fact — for wanting to undo the violence we have so thoroughly inhabited that we find it easier and more comfortable to talk in public about hatred than about embodied love. Why is that our preference? Why is that the way we want our world to be?

The voices in myself that call me out, that clamor for apology, that tell me I have something to be sorry for becuase I want to make space for erotic voices, erotic language, erotic celebration, erotic joy — even and especially in the aftermath and the shadow of our sexually violent culture — are the same parts that have worked all these years to keep me safe by keeping me quiet and small: if we don’t rock the boat, maybe we won’t get hurt. Even with all lived evidence to the contrary, still these parts of my psyche want to pretend like this might be true.

I’ll let you know when I’ve scheduled that sacred sexuality writing group. In the meantime, consider the power and beauty of embodied and complicated erotic expression — particularly in the face of silencing and violence — and hold open some space for your own beautiful and layered erotic self. Check out Sex Still Spoken Here and other media that take up space in the public arena for the erotic body.

2 responses to “take up space in the public arena for the erotic body