Friday, March 4, 2011

Scylla and Charybdis - or - Female Sexuality American-style

My favorite Philosophy professor ever of all times would often start class with this phrase: let me tell you a story.

So...let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time there was a beautiful sea nymph named Scylla. Everything was all sunshine and rainbows for Scylla until one day Poseidon, the god of the sea fell in love with her. This angered his wife, Amphitrite, who poured a poison into the pool that Scylla bathed in. The poison turned her into a monstrous multi-headed (yet perky-breasted) creature who lurked forever after under the rocks in the Strait of Messina (between Sicily and Italy), nomming on sailors who steered too close to the rocks.

Meanwhile...

Once upon a time there was a beautiful sea nymph named Charybdis. She was the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia. Everything was all sunshine and rainbows for Charybdis until one day Zeus became angry with her. It seems that she habitually helped her father reclaim land from Zeus by riding the high waves Poseidon would stir up in his storms, consuming land and houses. For this Zeus turned her into a monstrous creature in the form of a whirlpool that lived in a cave across the Strait of Messina from Scylla. Three times a day the gaping hole (get it?) of Charybdis' whirlpool would open up and consume any sailors who steered too close to her cave.

Together Scylla and Charybdis created a terrible hazard for sailors passing through the Strait. If they steered too close to either monstrous female, they would be devoured.

There's a lot to be said about female sexuality and Scylla and Charybdis. In the ancient Greek worldview, women could endanger (in the male view) men in oh-so-many ways. They could endanger them by being beautiful and seductive, or by remaining loyal to another man. The simple act of being (or appearing to be) available to a man could bring down destruction on a woman. The simple act of being (or appearing to be) unavailable to a man could bring down destruction on a woman. And the hazard of both scenarios lent itself to this myth in which somehow the men had to find a way to navigate a careful path between the two dangers.

So here we are in America in 2011, and what could this have to do with us? Well....

When you have young daughters you suddenly become an especially keen observer of the forms female sexuality takes in our culture. No matter what message you try to convey to them, your voice is practically drowned out by the multitude of messages (both explicit and implicit) they're constantly exposed to. And as others have pointed out, there are basically two different ways to be a female sexual being in our culture. You can be the pornified sexual object who exists solely for the male gaze and to fulfill male desires but has no independent sexual desires of your own. The other option, of course, is to be the prudish gatekeeper required by the abstinence-only, purity types. This kind of sexual being also has no desires of her own, but only engages in sexual acts to please her man. Since she doesn't have the uncontrollable sexual desires that her male counterpart does, it's her job to "just say no." Of course these are extreme versions of the options available, but a survey of the images of female sexuality that are ubiquitous in our culture reveals that these are by far the most prevalent and powerful.

So these are the Scylla and Charybdis of contemporary modern female sexuality*. And somehow our daughters have to navigate a course through these hazards as they grow and explore their developing sexuality. They must not be too available to men. They must not be unavailable either. They must be pleasing and accomodating. They must not give in to male desire, thus defiling their pure bodies, but must charm and cajole men into being a "better" versions of themselves. On the other hand, they must not be too charming and accommodating or they might get themselves raped. And so it goes.

I wish I could believe it was possible for my girls to avoid this particular Strait of Messina altogether. I wish there was a way for them to navigate through calmer, less hazardous waters, as they grow and develop and learn about themselves and the world. I wish there was a place that was open yet safe, where female sexuality wasn't rigidly scripted, and girls could approach their sexuality free of guilt or shame or coercive cultural narratives, but with caution and respect for the power of sexual experiences. I wish, I wish, I wish....



*And even when female sexuality is portrayed as anything other than hetero, these paradigms still dominate. In the pornified version of female sexuality, lesbian desire is merely a performance for the male gaze, and in the purity version it's an unnatural perversion which one can learn to overcome.

7 comments:

  1. Anonymous3/05/2011

    and girls could approach their sexuality free of guilt or shame or coercive cultural narratives, but with caution and respect for the power of sexual experiences.

    This.

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  2. Brandywine3/05/2011

    This really is an awesome metaphor for female sexuality in our culture.

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  3. dirtyhippie3/10/2011

    Great post!

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  4. feralCat3/14/2011

    Love this post!

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  5. Anonymous3/15/2011

    This is honestly one of the things that makes me scared to have kids. Girls have this to deal with, and boys are immersed in the hyper-competitive, often violent "boy culture." It's hard to get excited about dealing with either one.

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  6. Anonymous4/11/2011

    "You can be the pornified sexual object who exists solely for the male gaze and to fulfill male desires but has no independent sexual desires of your own."

    This caricature is not quite true. For a variety of reasons, many young women have an urgent need to sexualize their appearances. Aside from twisted pop culture in general, they get it directly from their hormones, other girls, and adult women in their immediate life. Contrary to some feminist doctrines, young women are sexualizing their appearances thinking to look cool and adult and powerful in front of their female peers, often more so than drawing the attention of young men. They often have a much stronger motive to look teasy and porno-ed and feel a certain way internally and with their peers, than actually ever having sex with a young man.

    If you're looking for people and/or institutions to blame, it's not men and their 'male desires' programming the female gender. It's the messed up fashion, marketing, and entertainment industries which are well acquainted with the obvious formula: sex sells. Which clearly involves just looking sexy. It's exciting to look naughty and it'll cost ya too. Cha-ching. Sexism? No. Business. Yes.

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  7. Right. Where did I say it's the men doing this to women? Of course, in the ancient Greek world I referenced there was a lot of male policing of female sexual behavior (as there still is now, in various forms). But I think it's fairly clear that when I refer to things like marketing and the abstinence-only crowd, I'm talking about larger cultural forces.

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