aug sept 99
- What?
-Women to Watch
-Word: Intimacy
-Just the Facts
-The Naked Truth by Sondra Zeidenstein

-The Opposite of Sex
interview by Moira Brennan

-Sex Ed: How Do We Score? by Carolyn Mackler
-Morning Becomes Prophylactic
-Profile: S. Jean Emans, M.D.
-Health Notes
*Supremacy Crimes* From Jonesboro, Arkansas, to Littleton, Colorado, amid all the commentary about violence and "our" youth, the obvious common denominator remains unacknowledged. by Gloria Steinem
-What's the Deal, McBeal?
-He Gives Us the Creeps


-Taslima Nasrin: A Writer Banished
-Boldtype: Trina Robbins

-Editor's Page
-Uppity Women: Hanna Ingber
-Poetry: "Pre-emptive
" and "A Virgin's Last Day"
-Connections: Proud Granny
-Techno.fem: Buffy's New Gigabyte
-Ms. Marketplace
-Lastpage: White Noise
-No Comment (inside back cover)
*Going Ape*
Primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's daring work with bonobo apes challenges everything you may think you know about what separates us from them. by Claudia Dreifus

Kosovo, Women & War:
-Tracking a Century of War
-Cynthia Enloe and Vivian Stromberg on Militarism and Making Peace
-Igo Rogova from a Kosovar Refugee Camp in Macedonia
-Lepa Mladjenovic and Zarana Papic from Belgrade
-Women's Peace Organizations Worldwide

-Mexico Gets a Feminist Lobby
-A Venerable Women's Organization Faces Serious Charges
-Opinion: Last Rights
Rough Justice in Zimbabwe



ahhhh, sex
The Opposite
of Sex
The Naked
Sex Ed
The Opposite of Sex
Photographs by Cherry Kim
A provocative conversation about sex and society with a sex therapist who takes nothing for granted
The sexual experience notoriously defies clear-cut categorizing. What constitutes pleasure, what turns a person on, when and why--these are some of life's kaleidoscopic questions. In the best of circumstances, it can be a hell of a lot of fun trying to answer them. In the worst, it can be a source of tremendous frustration and anxiety.
leonore tiefer
Which is why last February's announcement by a University of Chicago team of medical researchers that 43 percent of women and 31 percent of men are suffering from sexual "dysfunction" prompted concern. On one hand, the numbers seemed alarmingly high. On the other, the question quickly arose, "Says who?" It's the nature of sex to "function" on many levels--physical, emotional, intellectual, among others. Were scientists looking at all these aspects? And if not, which one were they looking at when they pronounced judgment? And what were their criteria? If someone told them, "I don't climax with my partner but always do when I masturbate," did that make the respondent dysfunctional, or was her partner just in need of education?
Questions about sex are charged with anxiety, defensiveness, and a few centuries of shame thrown in for good measure. But as feminists know all too well, the more you search for the "normal," the more you box people into narrow lives and narrow expectations. So not surprisingly, feminists are among the leaders in the effort to redefine sexual function and take it away from the medical establishment--a group still predominantly led by white men who seem to believe biology is destiny. Looking for someone to comment on the Chicago study, and the larger, insistent questions about sexuality so many of us obsess about, we turned to . . . well, a doctor. But a doctor with a difference. Despite her own long career as a psychologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, and a sex therapist in private practice, Leonore Tiefer is an iconoclastic feminist thinker who takes nothing about human sexuality for granted. Her approach is to question everything--and to be as provocative, encouraging, and daring as she can be in the process. In her latest book, Sex Is Not a Natural Act, (Westview Press) she points out that Western industrialized society is in love with the scientific method--to the detriment of our sex lives. This perspective leads us to break sexuality down into analyzable parts, and to see it as a merely biological drive, causing us to miss the immense impact of culture on our desires. Tiefer has even gone so far as to argue that there may be no biological sex drive at all: what influences people's desire most, she says, is the culture that surrounds them. In Tiefer's view, sex can be ecstatic or boring, but it can also be something in the middle: a way to comfort others, to find relief from the drudgeries of our lives; an affirmation of our ability to please someone else, as well as an affirmation of our own desirability. Her goal is to decrease people's anxiety about sex, to put its importance into reasonable perspective. This kind of approach highlights the dangers of medicalization and the mania for "quick fixes" like Viagra. Of course, the feminist and lesbian and gay rights movements have been challenging the masculinist, coitus-centered definition of sex for decades--often successfully. But Tiefer reminds us that there are many struggles yet to be won, and that we need to remain vigilant in a world where the power to define things still rests in the hands of white, heterosexual men.
"It's not about whether someone can achieve orgasm or get an erection, but what are the forces--the social forces, the economic forces--at play?"

mb: In your book, you raise some very provocative questions about our understanding of sex--the very idea of its being "natural," for example. Why are these questions important for feminists?

lt: People come at sex with a variety of goals, and sex can be very useful in meeting a lot of different needs. But there is a tendency in this culture to view sex with a very narrow focus--simply as a biological act, or as the domain of the beautiful, or as shameful. I believe that sex is fundamentally a cultural phenomenon. It doesn't exist in a fixed way but is created in relation to whatever is going on in the culture at a given moment.

This is a valuable approach for feminists, because a lot of social issues converge around sex, from reproduction to violence to objectification to disempowerment in intimate situations. It's not about whether someone can achieve orgasm or get an erection, but what are the forces--the social forces, the economic forces--at play? It's rich territory for social criticism as long as we're asking the right questions.

mb: What do you think are the "right" questions that we should be asking?

lt: One of the problems I think we need to address is what sexuality is. People use the phrase "my sexuality" as though they are only sexual in one way. They say that really comfortably, but I'm not so comfortable with that, because the sexuality that I have with one person is very different than what I have with another person. My experience--I think everybody's experience as they get older--is one of enormous fluctuation in my sexual life. Sexuality is more situational, like friendship. You have the potential for friendship, but it's not like you walk around saying, "Gee, my friendship is really going strong today."

What you put in a category is an important part of how you experience it. When you see the gynecologist, who fiddles with your genitalia, we don't call that sexuality. There's no arousal. There's no orgasm. So what makes something "sexual"? The idea is always to ask, what is this? How does it work in my life? Who says so? Does the way I am looking at it make me happy?

"If your focus is on a particular body part as the source of the problem, it prevents you from seeing sex as an act that involves your entire emotional, sensual, intellectual makeup--your whole self."

mb: Is there any way we can increase people's understanding of sexuality?

lt: It's the same way as with everything else, through the discussion of real experience. The personal is political. And through much more comprehensive sex education, increasing people's knowledge. If people could know a lot more about sex in psychological, physiological, sociological ways, they would be more protected against misinformation and hysteria. The effects of advertising, for example. We don't teach that in sex ed, and yet it has a profound impact on the sexual experience. And pleasure for the sake of pleasure. Certain commercial interests promote pleasure when it's linked to a product they're selling, but very few people are really trying to bring about an understanding of product-free pleasure. This is an era where Pfizer, the maker of Viagra, is trying to wring every nickel out of every human being on the face of this globe. I want people to be prepared to deal with that.

Nor do I see any members of the clergy writing op-eds or sermons about how we need more comprehensive sex education so that people will be able to better launch into their adult spiritual capabilities, because sex is such a great avenue to spirituality. I recently gave a sermon at my Unitarian Universalist Church called "From Niagara to Viagra: Why Is It So Difficult to Just Talk About Sex?" and my point was that whether it's honeymoon jokes or jokes about Viagra, people can make cracks, but they can't just talk. I started off by saying that I'd been going to this church for 15 years, and I had never heard a single word about sex from the pulpit. I was really glad and really scared to be doing it. But the congregants were wildly enthusiastic. People are parched for this kind of stuff.

mb: On the other hand, we are inundated by talk of sex in the news, in the movies. That can also feel oppressive.

lt: Well, we live in a sexualized culture as compared to earlier periods of repression and inhibition. The overemphasis on sex by the media is a phase. The behaviors and feelings of people have not changed as much as the commercialization of society, which has exploded. The visibility of sex in the media and its influence on how we understand sex is only 30 or 40 years old. If we were better educated about everything that has changed--the way birth control has shifted the role of sex, the way divorce has done the same thing, the way a good sex life has become synonymous with "success"--maybe we wouldn't feel as oppressed.

All this is complicated by the fact that political conservatives have taken advantage of the anxieties created by this overemphasis on sex. The right, from abstinence education to attacks on Roe v. Wade, is very invested in not allowing a discussion about things that they think are morally impure. They believe the mere talking about it is permissive. And there is something about the power of secrecy to generate shame and the power of openness to reverse that. So they're right--if we just say words, or allow teachers or books to say certain words, we could be generating the kind of society the right is opposed to: relativistic, morally open, diverse. We're also inundated with the idea that sex is just biology and can be "fixed" by medicine. That causes a kind of fragmentation in people's thinking. If your focus is on a particular body part as the source of the problem, it prevents you from seeing sex as an act that involves your entire emotional, sensual, intellectual makeup--your whole self. The benefit of bringing a bigger picture to the act of making love is that it can remind you that it's you who is there making love, not some body part that does or does not live up to a medical norm. It's a perspective that honors uniqueness, which is one of the great things we can bring to sex. It's about allowing more humanistic values to be part of the discussion.

mb: Is it hard for people to apply those values to sex?

lt: We don't value our uniqueness in the sexual encounter partly because so much of sex is a secret. You don't see your mother and father making love, but if you did you wouldn't be so inclined to think that you need to look like Michelle Pfeiffer in order to have sex. The cultural messages, whether they are coming from religion or commercialism, are influential in part because they're not counteracted by your own observation. I'm not advocating that everybody watch their parents have sex. But if you stopped to think, you might say to yourself, "I've never seen ordinary people make love. What do they do with a big stomach? How do they undress each other?" I have films of every conceivable kind of person--able-bodied and disabled, fat and thin, old and young--making love, and I can't show them to my medical students because the climate now says any explicit image is pornography and it's degrading. But the lack of this kind of bridge between people's own experience and the culture serves to depress us about sexuality. I think people are depressed constantly about their bodies, attractiveness, and physical expression. It's not so much about what you do with your genitalia that's the problem--it's learning how to feel like a desirable person, and to see that other people are desirable.

mb: Do you think our understanding of sex also affects our understanding of gender?

lt: Gender affirmation is a phenomenally important element in the current construction of sexuality--at least for heterosexuals, who have been the bulk of my clients. Reproduction used to be the essence of gender affirmation for women. And for men it was employment. Now there are fewer and fewer ways of proving gender, and yet it's as important as it ever was. So how do you prove your gender? You've got to be able to have sex--not just any old sex, but coitus. Talking about this in the context of feminism is crucial. It's men's investment in a particular kind of masculinity that is fueling Viagra. Part of the work of feminists has been to question accepted notions about masculinity, whereas you could say Viagra is affirming them.

I worked in the urology department for many years and guys would come in and say, "I'm impotent," and I'd say, "So how is that a problem for you?" And they'd look at me like I was nuts. They'd say, "What? I can't have sex!" And I'd say, "And why do you want to have sex?" in an extremely conversational tone of voice, making eye contact, all of that. And they would say to me, "What do you mean? Everybody has sex."

They simply didn't have any answer for these questions. They couldn't answer them because the vocabulary is impoverished, profoundly impoverished. Sometimes somebody would be able to cough up a few words, and they'd say, "It means I'm normal."

Not being able to have an orgasm is like the epitome of not being normal. It's the epitome of not being a man or not being a woman. So I would tell them that there are ways to cope with this. Let's be a man in other ways. No, they couldn't accept that. To them, this was the proof.

I always say to people, orgasm is very American. Because it's a score. It's short. You know when you've had it. You can put the notch on your belt.

"I'm not offering a road map. I say you can use sex in all kinds of ways for any human motive. Solace, nurturance, celebration. And people do. They just don't think of it that way."

mb: How successful have you been when you ask people to reconsider these notions?

lt: It's very hard. I have to admit very modest success. I think my patients would say that I revolutionize their thinking, but from my point of view it's a tiny revolution compared with how I've revolutionized my own thinking. And they don't come for a course on radical sexual thinking. They come to learn how to have an orgasm. I start out by telling them, "Here are 18,000 reasons why it's not as important as you think," but you can't talk somebody out of wanting to have an orgasm. You have to teach them to have an orgasm, and then show them how trivial it really is. It's really a strong neurological twitch, like a convulsion. It's just a reflex. It's the symbolism that makes it feel so good. The symbolism imbues it with dessert and wedding and Nobel prize, all at once.

I try to give people the sense that what's valuable about their sexuality is their story--their own symbolism--rather than how closely they approximate the "healthy norm." People haven't been taught the words for their own stories. There's no vocabulary for anything other than technique. People have a very, very hard time describing the yearnings, the longings, the feelings of gratification surrounding sex.

I don't think there's any one way to experience sex. I'm not offering a road map. I say you can use sex in all kinds of ways for any human motive. Solace, nurturance, celebration. And people do. They just don't think of it that way. They look at S/M and they say, "It needs whips and chains, it needs rubber--it's weird." They don't realize that submitting themselves to another person's desire is just one form of pleasure, one that's available to all of us from time to time. Imagine coming home and saying, "This was a really awful day. I don't want to be in charge of myself anymore. You do it. Do me." That sort of subordination could be a welcome relief.

Ritual can work the same way. People go to weddings and things are familiar, they have a certain order and that's comforting. Sex is often ritualized without thinking about it, but I think it can be more intentionally ritualized. You might decide to celebrate the opportunities offered by a sexual encounter the way you'd celebrate the opportunities offered by a Thanksgiving dinner.

During the day, you rarely get an opportunity to express yourself, nobody listens to you, so you get home and you need some affirmation. Sex can do that. The stroking. The relaxing. Approval. When somebody touches you and kisses you and licks you and says you're beautiful, that's approval. The trouble is, for a lot of women it's very hard to accept that somebody thinks they're beautiful. Somebody wants to lick their whole body: what makes a woman feel entitled to that? You've got to feel secure in yourself first.

"You want pleasure? A lot of pleasure is conditioned. It's anticipation. It's not in the skin. It's not in the genitalia. It's what it means that imbues it with that sense of joy."

mb: Do you think part of the reason we don't talk more honestly about sex is because people want to retain some sense of mystery? And is that important?

lt: People have conflicting wishes when it comes to sex. They want unpredictability and control at the same time. So they tell themselves that if they know too much they will lose the mystery. But in my experience, that's not what happens. I'm an opera lover, and I've seen certain operas a dozen times--I can hum them. Why do I go? All the power and pleasure is still available, even in something you understand well. The idea that the best sex life comes from surrender to the unknown--like in the movies, being swept away by the waves--it's a myth. It's an image. When you talk to people about their sex lives, it's not the surrendering ones who seem to have the best time. Like with everything in life, the more you know about it, the more you enjoy it. So I want to open up people's minds. Explode those myths. Instead of just talking about an erection or orgasm, let's talk about pleasure. You want pleasure? A lot of pleasure is conditioned. It's anticipation. It's not in the skin. It's not in the genitalia. It's what it means that imbues it with that sense of joy. Otherwise, it's just like eating a peach in the summer. I mean, it's really nice, but it's not ecstatic--well, it depends on the peach, but it's usually not that ecstatic. It's the symbolic investment that makes sex ecstatic.

That's why the best approach is to educate ourselves about the symbolism. Sex is always changing. I don't know exactly what sex used to be like, and I don't know exactly what sex will look like in the year 2150. I don't mind that I don't know. It's not a problem. The idea is to prepare people to deal with the messages they are getting now. I can't stop Pfizer from plowing ahead with Viagra. I can't stop the efforts of the Right. And even if I could, we know from history that something else would pop right up in its place. The point is to educate people to be prepared to deal with these messages in ways that don't infringe on their enjoyment of sex, to keep an open mind and, if possible, to keep a sense of humor about it all.

Moira Brennan is the copy editor of "Ms."
The Opposite
of Sex
The Naked
Sex Ed

Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009