Patriarchy and female sexuality, Part 2

In Patriarchy and Female Sexuality Part 1, I talked about how when women do not want to have heterosexual intercourse, they are thought of as disordered by the male-run medical establishment. In Part 2 I will talk about how female sexuality is actually active, not passive.

A conversation over on Hot Flanks’ WordPress blog illustrates how women with an active sexuality come to believe they have a “male sexuality.” Hot Flanks is a lesbian detransitioner. (There’s starting to be a lot of those women around, isn’t there?) Here are some important quotes, but reading the whole post is a good idea.

“The way that I relate to my genitals and the way I want my body interacted with intimately is something that I have experienced as being the “active” or “insertive” partner and have therefore drawn the easy connections to male sexuality in the past.”

“The more I realize that experiencing my Clit as an active participant and driving force behind intimacy is a healthy female experience, the less disconnect I feel from it. The more I internalize the idea that I am far from the first Lesbian in the world to desire and derive my primary pleasure from interacting with my genitals in the way that I do, the less I want to describe these feelings as “dysphoria” because it has stopped feeling like a “non-female” or disconnected way of expressing myself. If I can wrap my head around the idea of the Clit as an active player in both giving AND receiving pleasure, then I can more easily come to accept the way I relate to my Clit as a healthy way to relate intimately with my female body.”

“I threw out the idea that I was “stone” early in my social transition when I realized I wanted to be touched and to be intimate, but “not in the way that one touches or is intimate with women.”

Another lesbian with dysphoria who commented on 4thwavenow posted this:

“What if the sexual preference for a natal female is for a female, but only if the natal female were male? That is, what if the natal female does not self-identify as lesbian, could not conceive of being a female having an intimate sexual relationship with a female, but desires an intimate sexual relationship with a female as a male? I’ve yet to see this addressed by critics of “transition,” and yet I have seen this expressed by those considering FtM transition. Perhaps this is generally dismissed as “oh this person is just a ‘closet lesbian/gay,’ and therefore it’s not actually examined. But if it is a real issue for someone who identifies in anyway as having difficulty with their birth assigned sex, and such a person does indeed express desire for intimate sexual relationship (not homosexual), then what is a compassionate and logically sound response to such a person?”

The main problem with a female human wanting to have sex as a male is that it’s impossible. I’m not saying so because I’m an “evil transphobic TERF who wants people to die,” I’m saying it because a surgeon cannot construct a fully functioning penis on a female human. The only one who can construct a penis is Mother Nature. I think the “compassionate and logically sound response” to a female who wants to be an active partner in sex with another female is not to perform surgery on her to construct a pseudo-penis, but to help her to become a happy lesbian. As a lesbian, she can be honest about her sex instead of pretending to be male, she can have the sexual relationships she wants (provided she finds compatible partners of course), and she can live her life in her natural body without being made into an artificially constructed member of the opposite sex who is dependent on a lifetime of cross-sex hormones.

Take a look at these two sentences from the above quotes. “I wanted to be touched and to be intimate, but not in the way that one touches or is intimate with women,” and “what if the natal female . . . desires an intimate sexual relationship with a female as a male?”

These quotes reveal some underlying beliefs about female sexuality. These women want to be an active or insertive partner and they cannot reconcile these feelings with the genitals they have. That’s because they’ve been taught that only men are active/insertive partners, and that one must have a penis in order to have this role. This is not true—you can be a woman who enjoys being on “top,” and no male genitals are required.

Our friend This Soft Space commented on the post by Hot Flanks, and said that when her friend found out she was a lesbian, she immediately told her to buy a dildo, but she wasn’t interested in that at all. Her friend likely made this suggestion due to the belief that all women enjoy being penetrated and that female orgasm is universally experienced in the vagina. It will be further assumed that lesbians necessarily have to use a dildo since they are not using a penis. Since humans living in this particular era are primarily learning about sex from porn, it seems likely that they believe “lesbian sex” means two women stuffing each other with silicone dongs. Although it’s possible that somebody out there is doing that—there’s somebody in the world doing just about anything you can think of—that has never been my experience of lesbian sex.

Commenter Kat Outta The Bag wrote, on Hot Flanks’ post:

“I remember reading a forum for trans men where the people there were talking about just this sort of thing, how they had a “male sexuality” and “male sexual responses” because they wanted to penetrate, because they thrusted/humped during sex, because they didn’t have a desire or propensity to arch their back and wiggle around… I think I ate this stuff up totally, hook, line, and sinker, because I became neurotic about it. I believed my desires to do these things were proof of some innate tendency in me that made me less female, and I also started being frightened that any tendency to do the opposite, the so-called “feminine” thing, secretly meant I was a straight girly-girl underneath it all. I couldn’t enjoy solo sexual activities anymore because I developed a self-monitoring problem where I was constantly wondering about the gendered implications of what I was doing.”

Oh, my! This is where endless navel-gazing and gender scrutiny leads us. Its leads to people being unable to even masturbate without considering the gendered implication of their sexual response and whether they wiggle or thrust. But anyway, what I want to highlight here is that groups of dysphoric women are convincing each other that they’re men because they like humping and thrusting and want to penetrate. You can do all these things as a woman.

It’s not just porn that teaches people that female sexuality means being a passive receptacle. Regular sex education materials designed for youth present sex as a mechanical activity where the man is active and the woman passive. This Soft Space made this comment on Hot Flanks’ post:

“When I was a kid my parents had this set of medical encyclopedias, and being a curious twelve-year-old I received a good portion of my sex education from a cross-section diagram within. The accompanying text stated factually “During sexual intercourse the man inserts his penis in the woman’s vagina” and there it was in a detailed black and white drawing. That was how it was done, apparently. That was sex.”

I remember that diagram too. It’s legitimate to show this diagram to young adolescents in the context of talking about how to prevent pregnancy, but this is a very limited idea of what sex is. First of all, homosexuals have sex all the time and it doesn’t look like that at all, and second of all, heterosexuals do a lot more than just that and some heterosexual women don’t enjoy penetration and prefer other activities.

The quote by radical feminist Catherine MacKinnon illustrates that diagram perfectly: “Man fucks woman; subject verb object.” We are never taught anything other than this narrative, unless we are lucky enough to encounter some good quality comprehensive sex education that presents sex as being an activity between two subjects neither of whom is objectified.

Female humans are not passive receptacles—and that includes females of all sexual orientations. We have our own organ of sexual pleasure and we have our own desires and preferences. I will refer you to The Internal Clitoris, published by the Museum of Sex, which I have linked to before, because it provides everything you need to know about the clitoris. The only part of it we can see and feel is the glans—which is the outer button with 8,000 nerve fibers, and is so sensitive some woman cannot touch it directly. The clitoris continues inward where we cannot see it, and it contains erectile tissue that fills with blood during arousal, and it wraps around the vagina.

In my blog post about lesbian lust I quoted a YouTube commenter who said the following:

“When you dont have a dick but you feel like you have an erection (?) Like literal. I’m so serious. Is this almost what you mean. Cause I swear everytime I read porn I feel my no dick rise. I kid you not knowing that I will never get a blow job upsets me.”

This woman has learned that what she feels when aroused is a “male” feeling, but that’s not true. The clitoris has erectile tissue and it fills with blood during arousal. This woman does have an erection, in fact—an erection of the clitoris. This doesn’t mean she is male. She is a normal female. She doesn’t have to lament not getting a “blow job.” She could accept oral sex from a partner who wants to give it and it will feel good on her female genitals. Having her female genitals surgically modified to resemble a penis is not the way to have a satisfying orgasm.

Also worth noting is that the clitoris wraps around the vagina. It’s entirely possible that women who enjoy vaginal penetration are getting extra stimulation to their clitoris that way. Different people’s bodies respond in different ways to stimulation. Some women might only enjoy stimulation of the outer clitoris and some might enjoy stimulation of the internal clitoris. Women can have an orgasm without any penetration, and some women can orgasm without directly touching their genitals, by doing things like crossing their legs or activating their pelvic muscles.

There is no way to experience sexual arousal of the clitoris that is wrong for a female or that indicates that one is supposed to be male. Any sexual arousal a female feels is a female feeling. If her arousal makes her want to thrust or hump or be on top, that is a female feeling. And this is not just for lesbians, heterosexual women can feel this way too.

It’s heartbreaking that women are going around believing that the sexual feelings they get from their female bodies is an indication that they are “male.” The reason women are convinced of this is because our culture is patriarchal, and women are supposed to be sex objects for men. Human sexuality is constructed as men being active and women being passive. A woman’s role in sex is presented as being nothing more than looking pretty and spreading her legs. This is nowhere near what female sexuality is actually like. The fundamental reason that sexuality is constructed in this way is to preserve men’s dominance over women.

Bonus material: An adorable YouTube video of a woman drawing the internal clitoris:

Having breasts while living in a patriarchy

This post continues from For the Love of the Female Body. It discusses breasts with information from Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier, and it also gets into body dysphoria and sexual objectification related to breasts.

There are two chapters in Woman: An Intimate Geography that focus on breasts. One chapter focuses on milk and milk production, which is a very finely-tuned and brilliant process. The other chapter surprised me, because it mostly talked about the fact that human breasts are biologically unnecessary. That is, they could be much smaller, more like a mammary gland attached to a nipple, and they would still be functional. The extra fat that gives human breasts their large size and roundness doesn’t actually need to be there in order to feed a baby, which is why women with small breasts can produce as much milk as anyone else. Of course, humans, particularly male ones, have plenty of philosophical ideas about the existence of the extra flesh.

The female body is very smart about milk production. It only produces as long as the baby is suckling. It’s amazing that the mechanical sensation on the nipple can stimulate milk production within. Also, the female body is smart enough to find ways to produce good quality milk even if the mother’s diet is unsatisfactory.

“If a woman is not eating what she needs to maintain that perfect formula, the mammary gland borrows from her body stores, the 7-Eleven that never closes. At the same time, the woman does not sacrifice quite as much as might be expected, for breast milk has evolved through compromise. The mother gives, but she does not give to the point of risking her future health and fertility. Breast milk is designed to be maximally exploited without maximally exploiting. A nursing woman does not need to lose her teeth or watch her spine shrink so that her baby can get enough calcium; the lactose in the milk ensures that every ion of calcium will be used instead of just peed away, as is much of the calcium you get from drinking, say, fortified orange juice. The baby digests the proteins in the milk down to the last amino acid, which is why a suckling infant’s used diapers hardly smell: there’s very little waste matter, very little excreted protein, to lend a stench. A nursing woman does not have to become anemic to give her baby iron. Human milk has very little iron in it, but it has lactoferrin, a protein that allows the iron to be thoroughly absorbed.”(Angier, p151)

Absolutely brilliant. Although I will never be pregnant, I still appreciate the amazing nature of the female body. Somewhere in my DNA is the knowledge of how to properly gestate, birth, and feed a baby, a very complicated process that my brain will never fully understand. It’s always surprising when daft internet commenters claim that if we say that women can gestate and give birth to young, that means that women who never become pregnant aren’t women. I have a female reproductive system, and whether or not I ever use it to make a baby, it’s still a female system.

Natalie Angier calls the human breasts “aesthetic breasts,” because as far as we can guess they are there to look appealing. The other mammals do not have breasts that swell as ours do, even when lactating. Ours swell at puberty and stay large all the time, even though we are not usually lactating. Tons of cultural meanings and metaphors get attached to breasts, and the fascination with them knows no limits. That fascination is not usually based on a respect for the creation of life, it’s usually based on the erotic appeal of the breasts and in particular, the way they appeal to men.

This leads me into a rather depressing realization—despite the mammary gland’s brilliance in the task of milk production, I find that I understand why some women hate their breasts and want to cut them off. As soon as our breasts develop, which can be as young as 9 or 10, the sexual harassment begins. Men believe that simply presenting in public while owning a pair of breasts makes a girl or woman sexually available—even if she’s only a child. Girls have no control over when their breasts grow or how large—our DNA decides that for us, and then men interpret what they want from the evidence they see in our shirts. Large-breasted women are considered slutty, regardless of their actual sexual feelings, and treated accordingly. Small-breasted women are considered less feminine and less attractive, and treated accordingly. Women can’t win in a patriarchy—we are punished either way.

In her post, “Transition as Self-Harm,” blogger Destroy Your Binder (DYB) writes about how she felt like her body was a siren announcing her femaleness to the world, and she wanted it to shut up. The breasts certainly announce one’s femaleness, no matter what one is wearing. A woman can look almost like a man by shaving her head and wearing men’s clothes, but one of the main reason her femaleness is still visible is because of her breasts. And to think the protruding flesh is not even biologically necessary! For girls with gender dysphoria, growing breasts must feel like a terrifying betrayal of her body, a loud announcement of a message she doesn’t want to express.

If women were in control over our culture, we’d tell a different story about our breasts. The story we’d tell is that breasts are there to feed babies, and that they don’t communicate anything about a woman’s sexual feelings or fertility. Breasts could be a regular feature of people we take seriously as authority figures and professionals, a feature that is just there, and doesn’t warrant the focus of our attention. In a woman-centered culture, the breasts wouldn’t need to be propped up in underwire bras, they could hang freely and look natural. As Natalie Angier observes, naked breasts don’t touch each other, they in fact turn away from each other. How often do we ever see breasts that are hanging down and not touching? All women are expected to present uplifted breasts when in public. The lifting and bringing together of breasts for the male gaze is mandatory, despite our discomfort with it. In a culture created by women, it wouldn’t be.

DYB talks brilliantly about how women use self-harm to say “no.”

“Self-injury is a protest against the cultural shackling and strangling of girls, using the body as a site of resistance. According to patriarchal society, a girl or woman’s own body is the singular valuable thing that she has. Destroying it is a perverse way to give those that have violated her autonomy a huge “fuck you.”

Girls often have no voice or say over how their bodies are treated. When saying “no” doesn’t work, we have to resort to something else. We don’t have the option of saying “no” to men sexualizing our breasts, so some of us decide to remove the damn things, in an attempt to make it clear that we are not the sex objects they are looking for.

DYB also quotes Sarah Shah, and this is an important note:

Sarah Shaw, in a 2002 paper on historical psychiatric perspectives on women’s self injury, notes that “women may self-injure not only because they feel unable to articulate their experiences, but also when ‘language fails’… [it] is a last attempt to have others take them seriously… [it] may be the only form of communication that adequately speaks to the experience.”

A girl may not have been directly sexually abused to feel trauma over having breasts. She is taught her whole life through her culture that her breasts advertise her availability, that her body belongs to men, that submitting her body to men is sexy, and that her worth is based on how well her body attracts men. She may not have the words to describe her terror or revulsion at being treated this way, she may just have an overwhelming feeling of fear over the thought of anyone knowing she has a female body. A teenager doesn’t usually have the critical thinking skills to analyze her culture, and feminism is not usually taught to her—in fact, it’s usually hidden from her or condemned as “man-hating” or “bigoted.” With no language to describe her situation, self-harm becomes her vocabulary.

Natalie Angier mentions Amazon women in her chapter on breasts. “The Amazons are most famed for their self-inflicted mastectomies, their willingness to cut off one breast to improve their archery skills and thus to resist conquest by the male hordes surrounding them” (p133). Amazons are some of the “Strong Female Characters” from our cultural history, and are still the heroines of many lesbians and feminists. Their story begs the question: is it a legitimate strategy for women to cut off their breasts to make themselves stronger and better able to resist conquest by men? Maybe these women have it all figured out. They know what their breasts mean, in a cultural sense, and cutting them off is saying, emphatically, “fuck you, I will not be your sex toy.”

But ultimately, cutting off our own flesh is the strategy of people who have been defeated. Like I said earlier, women do this because simply saying “no” to objectification isn’t enough. We are like a fox in a trap who has to chew off its own leg to free itself, otherwise it will face death. We shouldn’t be put into this position in the first place.

I object to mastectomies for teenagers, because I think these girls are too young to fully realize why they feel the discomfort they’re feeling, and I know how often teens change their minds. Any of these young women who feel uncomfortable about their breasts during adolescence might grow to appreciate them later in life. They might end up having children and wanting to breastfeed, or they might find they enjoy sharing their breasts with a loving partner, even if they object to being sexualized by the wider world. Lots of the teen girls who are transitioning are lesbians who are too young to have ever had a lesbian relationship. They deserve the opportunity to have lesbian sex before deciding to cut off some of the parts they might share with a lover. Maybe I’m a dodgy person for thinking about that, but it’s a relevant consideration.

As long as we live in a patriarchy that systematically sexualizes and objectifies women, some of us will use mastectomy, breast reduction, and other body modifications as a strategy to cope. No matter how many times feminists shout, “Change the culture, not your body,” some women are going to find it necessary to change their bodies, because they live in the real world, not in the feminist utopia. But I’m not going to promote coping strategies, I’m going to promote fighting back. The long-term solution is not more access to surgery, it’s making surgery unnecessary by ending objectification and abuse of females.