Like so many women, I grew up reading Mills and Boon and Harlequin romances. I particularly liked the ones with sheiks and the slender, but rebellious, women they took captive; I liked how these women would fight before eventually submitting to the men who claimed and, in some cases, captured them. The last time I tried to read a Mills and Boon or Harlequin romance, was, I don't know, maybe five or six years ago. I didn't get too far. The book was far different from the "mind candy" a friend of mine, who still religiously reads them, told me it would be. "Go ahead, Jacqueline," I remember her saying to me, "it will take you right out of that funk you're in. Romance novels are the best kind of mind candy."
It did not work out that way for me. The truth is, I could not believe that I had once devoured and, sometimes, even got myself in trouble for reading those books under the desk, during class, at the all girls' high school I attended. Now, I honestly can't understand what I had loved so much about those books. Oh well. The travails of growing up and growing wiser. (Although I'm sure there is still that girl somewhere deep inside, that firebrand who wants to be tamed by a rough but tender sheik à la Janet Jackson!)
I start this article talking about romance novels because one comment in particular to my first female desires post caught my attention. A commenter asked: "Have you read any romance novels? That genre is designed to explore and celebrate female sexual desire. For the most part, it's heteronormative, but even best-sellers are starting to explore a more fluid sense of desire. Let me know if you want some suggestions." Because I have a pretty active life outside of my monthly Huffington Post articles, I did not, until now, get a chance to engage directly with this and the other comments the first article generated, all of which, in one way or another, addressed how female sexual desire is always a metaphor, a stand-in in fact, for the real thing.
This issue came up again recently when I was at dinner with five smart, talented women -- all of us artists; four of us authors. I found that even there, in the company of a diverse, extremely opinionated and liberated group of women, we ended up talking around women's sexuality and sexual desires instead of talking about women's sexuality and sexual desires. This was in response to my talking about the work on female sexual desires that I'm doing. I started to realize then that female sexuality is phrased within allusions, with butterflies and flowers, and is among the most well-known metaphors that stand in place of women actually naming and speaking our desires, often even to ourselves. Indeed, in a pretty animated discussion I had with one of the women -- heavily pregnant and absolutely glowing -- we argued about why it was that more women didn't address sexuality more directly in their work. She was of the opinion that women who did this would immediately become rock stars. I however was less sure of this, and, indeed, neither of us could name women artists who had actually taken on the issue.
And then there was the tangled issue, for me in particular, of how one could honestly differentiate between a healthy discussion about female sexual desires and female sexuality and one that was simply voyeuristic and puerile.
All of this is not to say that there aren't perhaps too many ways in which the female body has been staged and appropriated in sexual acts and sexuality. I am thinking now of Jeff Koons's "Made in Heaven" series of photographs with his then-wife, porn star Cicciolina. I believe that female bodies are too often sublimated to male desires. So much so that I can't easily claim a single image of female sexual desires within my own mind. Especially in the visual arts. What's more, different female bodies are sublimated in different ways. Though the images of butterflies and flowers and even the colors blue and purple -- all of which I love immensely myself and utilize in my own work -- keep recurring. But I recognize this as a metaphor for something I do not yet have the words to name, or even the images with which to show.
As women, our sexuality is an integral part of who we are. And, yes, it is diverse. For those of us who choose to be sexual, our sexuality is part of us living as full and satisfying a life as possible, all other things being equal. I believe that naming and picturing our sexuality should be one of the ways in which more women begin to liberate ourselves, as we have sought, as women, to liberate so many other areas of our lives.
What has been fascinating to me, as I have begun this journey to visualizing female sexuality, is not only the generosity of the women who have taken the time to share their desires with me in the hope that I can make something useful of what it is they are sharing -- this gift that they are entrusting to me -- but of the clean blank slate in my own mind, outside of my own desires, of course, where female sexual desires should be. As a group, women have worked hard to demystify the female body, to retake it from all the allusions and metaphors and appropriations. Slowly but surely, we have begun to find our voices and to define our visions. Let's hope we can do the same with reclaiming and visualizing our sexuality.
I certainly hope that I am up to the challenge of finding the right way to honor all the women who have already taken, and are about to make the time for my anonymous survey here.
Until next time.