07/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Man, the Myth, the Ms.

There's a Greek myth that goes like this: On a mountaintop in the Peleponnesus peninsula of Greece, a man, Tiersias happened upon a pair of copulating snakes. Fascinated by what he saw, he stayed on the mountaintop for hours to watch them. After a while, the snakes sensed his presence and attacked him. Tiersias killed the female snake with a powerful blow. For this act, the gods changed him into a woman. Tiresias became a priestess of Hera, living as a woman for seven years. During this time, she married and bore children. When one day she went walking on the mountaintop, she discovered another pair of copulating snakes. This time Tiresias killed the male, and the gods changed him back to a man.

Because Tiresias had lived both as a man and a woman, he could offer the gods unique insight. For this reason, he was called in by Zeus and Hera to settle an argument: who enjoys sex more, men or women? Tiresias replied that women receive the greater pleasure. "Of ten parts a man enjoys one only."

Now I'm not one to think of sex as competitive sport, but come on, that should make women feel pretty good. The reality of it is, an alarming number of us don't feel like Women On Top. There are many troublesome ways contemporary girls and women are experiencing sexuality and their sexual identities. Why is this happening? After all we're women of the 21st century, we're savvy, smart, and sexy; we're daughters, even granddaughters of feminists who've come before us.

Still, boys will be boys, you know, because of their "raging hormones." Although the conception of gender is more fluid in its 21st century carnation than in postwar America, when it comes to desire, gendered stereotypes are pretty rigid. Reigning supreme is the belief is that little boys get to experience desire as sexual predators. In this way, girls need to be protected from boys; they need to be sexually attractive for boys. An interesting addendum, these days, women can become "cougars" (the hunted becomes the hunter) or "MILFs" (sexual attractiveness need not end with motherhood), yet if you examine these identities closely, you'll see they're variations on the same script, not an attempt to flip the script.

As girls become women and boys become men, conceptions of desire remain problematic. We live in a culture where sexual imagery is ubiquitous, mostly in order to sell goods, yet at the same time, we place restrictions on sexuality, have phobias of deviant acts, and do not honor sexual pleasure in and of itself.


Furthermore, our culture puts limits on what a woman can say about her sexuality without being cast out of the garden. She's likely to gain a "reputation" (implied as a slut) if she's too loose of lip, and in some cases, a woman risks danger if she sends the "wrong" message about sexuality, hers in particular.

I'm troubled by some of the things we're doing to our bodies/ourselves because we haven't found the right words to name our sexuality and to really own it. Call it a somatization, an unconscious process by which we act out psychological stress upon the body. It's normal for a woman to be unhappy with how she looks, how she finds love, how she has sex. There's even a term for this: it's called normative discontent. Of course the flip side to this is equally damaging. If a woman is happy with her looks, she's vain. If she owns her sexuality she's promiscuous. If she profits from sex, she's a whore. Some may say this is just a case of semantics. These are just words; where's the harm? Despite our culture's super-saturation of sex and the influx of high-tech communicative devices, there's still no real satisfying way for feminists to talk about sexuality, unless they actively fight hard to go against the grain.

About a year ago, I spoke with Gloria Steinem about my dilemma at a talk she was giving at Baruch College. As a writer whose made millions off the semantics of feminism, Ms. Steinem didn't surprise me she looked at me deadpan and said, "Women have been dealing with this problem since the beginning of time." But, much like the message of her talk that day, Ms. Steinem radiated with optimism for the future of feminism. And as for how she saw the face of feminism today, she said, "Every self-respecting face is a feminist." Then she reminded me about Tiresias.

As feminists investigating a dialog on sex, gender, the body, and beauty, our work might be trivialized, but when looking at a problem -- the problem that feminists will face until there exists true gender equality -- we can't ignore anything. Because like Tiresias, men can do what women do; women can do what men do.