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

-The Opposite of Sex
interview by Moira Brennan

-Sex Ed: How Do We Score? by Carolyn Mackler
YOUR HEALTH:
-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
ARTS:
-What's the Deal, McBeal?
-He Gives Us the Creeps
-Artswatch

BOOKS:

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

-Editor's Page
-Letters
-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

NEWS:
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
-Clippings



 

 

ahhh, sex
The Opposite
of Sex
The Naked
Truth
Sex Ed
The Naked Truth
One woman's determined journey to
sexual autonomy--and its sweet rewards

I am a white, middle-class, married woman with grown children and growing grandchildren, one of them about to enter college. I have been married for 46 years. For most of my life, I rarely talked about sex to anyone. But my recently published book of poems, A Detail in that Story, which openly addresses aspects of my sexual history, including affairs I had during the second decade of my marriage, has changed that. I had no trouble writing the poems. Having become a poet late in life, after a long silence, I never censor my muse. But I had great trepidation about publishing them, as if I were violating a taboo by claiming my sex life as my own to make art out of, not the exclusive property of the mythic creature Married Couple. I've talked very little about sex to my married friends, beyond a sentence or two that we almost never follow up or explore. I know that Marybeth once barked at her husband when he was poking her as she woke up, "What am I, just a hole you can stick yourself into? Why don't you go jack off in the shower?" I know that Ruthie can't have orgasms from her husband's efforts, just from a vibrator. That Florette's husband is wonderful with his mouth and fingers, which makes all the difference now that he is impotent after surgery. Some of my friends know that, long ago, I had lovers, or that I've had a period of celibacy in my marriage. But we don't go into the details.

In all my years of therapy, I hardly talked about sex at all. Once in a while my therapist would ask how my sex life was, and I'd squirm and say "Oh, fine," hoping we'd change the subject right away. In the meantime, with her unfailing support and creativity, I worked through core problems with self-expression and their roots in my upbringing.

I talked about how much I had liked sex once my body matured, about having had "hot pants" in college, about the bewildering unresponsiveness that had overtaken my married sex life...

One exception to my inhibition was a two-hour interview taken by a friend of mine, 15 years younger, in preparation for a book proposal. My sense that this was work, with a serious purpose--though we did a lot of laughing--must have given me permission to talk. I remember the exhilaration I felt sitting across the table from her, looking into her engaged, receptive eyes. It was the first time in my life that I'd told my "secret story," as Naomi Wolf calls it in her wonderful book Promiscuities. I talked about how much I had liked sex once my body matured, about having had "hot pants" in college, about the bewildering unresponsiveness that had overtaken my married sex life, how unexpressed anger over my husband's style of parenting, among other things, had turned my skin numb as rubber, about my affairs, almost always with men I didn't respect, who were not good for me, and whom I would never have considered living with. I bemoaned the fact that though I loved and respected my husband, I felt no sexual desire for him.

I gave this interview at a time of transition, just as the four-year period of celibacy in my marriage was coming to an end. I don't remember exactly how my husband and I came to agree that not having sex was what we needed. Memory of events over such a long stretch of years is imprecise, and, besides, we each have our own version of the story. I do know that the initiative was mine, but my husband was definitely ready for change. It was years after my affairs--about which we were never able to talk after the initial drama. We were happy with each other for the most part, but our physical relationship was troubled--in fact, it was a source of misery.

All I understood was that I was afraid of my husband's sexual overtures. If I pulled away from his approach, I felt unhappy with myself for not being a generous, responsive woman. He felt hurt and withdrew. We were cool to each other, sometimes for days. I didn't even feel free to be affectionate; I was certain that he would interpret my hugs or caresses as foreplay. These reactions were very deep-seated in both of us; we had been married 25 years and still we had no language for them. In fact, we had never talked to each other about anything sexual; we communicated in moans and grunts, pushing and pulling like baboons. We both knew we needed a way to express our love for each other that was not genital sex.

Our sweetest times were afternoon naps on a narrow couch, lying nose to nose and toes to toes, holding each other, falling asleep to the rhythm of our breath. We had never experienced this kind of pleasure.
.

What relief we both felt during our years of celibacy. What a restorative oasis it was. We had eliminated the source of most of our pain; we had substituted a range of affectionate behavior that soothed and connected us. Trust could grow again. Our sweetest times were afternoon naps on a narrow couch, lying nose to nose and toes to toes, holding each other, falling asleep to the rhythm of our breath. We had never experienced this kind of pleasure.

After several years, I began to feel ready to reestablish a sex life with my husband. I wasn't feeling much desire, but I loved him, I loved our hard-won honesty and affection. And I couldn't imagine giving up sex for the rest of my life. My husband was worried that returning to genital sex would rob us of our new-found peace. He preferred to stay celibate rather than risk the old misery. I took the initiative: I found sex books, simple "exercises" we could try.

I talked to a sex counselor, nervously telling her my story, thinking she would judge me inadequate for my lack of desire. No wonder I felt no desire, she told me instead, if every time my husband approached me sexually, I was scared that our deepest feeling of connection was at risk. I was so touched at being heard and sympathized with that I wept with relief. She also told me how much fury she sensed I was carrying around under a deceptively pleasant surface--which made me so angry, I didn't schedule a second meeting. How precarious any kind of communication about sexual matters was for me! Still, what she told me fit what I had learned about myself in therapy: how I had been unable to feel, let alone express, anger; how I had erected many layers of defenses to guard against a loveless upbringing. Now that I could see the link to my feelings about sex, I could find my way. It was as simple as that. And as complex. For the next ten years, aware of what we wanted, slowly, with setbacks and scary times along the way, my husband and I created a new love life. As we rediscovered our sexual pleasure in each other, every aspect of life seemed to brighten, as if under sunshine. But there were times when, in bed, wounded or anxious in the old ways, knowing only how to turn away for succor, we struggled to keep each other from withdrawing. We lay silent for long, agonizing minutes before we could make language out of our pain, before we could find the simplest words--I feel, I need. Other terrible times came when my husband entered therapy. I felt relieved that now he would have someone on his side for the journey inward--the way I had. But in the second or third year, as his feelings surfaced, we found ourselves at times in wild, raging arguments. Goaded, goading, we said terrible things to each other--everything, it seemed, we'd stored from our beginnings. Still, we came back together.

I had to break the mold of what attracted me most rabidly: the sadistic, sensuous, tyrannical man my father had been; the edge of danger. It involved, I'm sure, nothing less than changing the circuits of my brain.

Now, I have a new love life--different from anything I could have imagined. My husband and I make love by prearrangement once a week, on Sunday mornings. We meet as if we're lovers, outside of time, shedding the hundred obligations of our everyday lives. We go out for breakfast. We bathe. We sit a half hour in Zen meditation. We get in bed, always fresh, always hungry for each other. We make love and then sleep in each other's arms. We are enthusiastic, aroused, engaged, satisfied.

We never make love when we get in bed at night. During celibacy, I restored to my life the childhood luxury of reading in bed until I am ready to sleep. We don't make love when we wake up in the morning. I love the first moments out of a dream, holding on to its slippery fragments; I love thinking about the day ahead and how I'll organize it, before I get out of bed. I know a happy morning is not going to be sideswiped by his exploratory touch or my irritable, silent pushing him away with my hip. (How uncivil that gesture was, that subtext of our otherwise considerate relationship--I hated myself for it.) We don't make love at nap time; we sleep. We don't make love when he embraces me "in the middle of the kitchen / on a Wednesday afternoon / when we've just brought in four large brown bags / from Stop & Shop," as one of my poems describes. We don't do any of these things, because I don't like it that way. I am ashamed writing that sentence. I anticipate nasty letters to the editor about what a terrible woman I am. So be it.

Only two years ago, at an artists' colony, inspired by a display of art books that told intimate stories, I went back to my room and blurted onto paper a long declaration, illustrated with stick figures. For all its crudeness, it is evidence of what, getting down to the basics, sexual agency means to me: "It has taken me / 64 years to begin to know / that if I don't want / hands on my breasts, / fingers grazing my nipples, / a browsing, swollen cock / knocking at my groin, / I have as much right / to not desire / as he has to desire / and the not desiring / is positive, worthy of self-respect, / and is not failure / to be his good woman." Is this as amazing to the reader to read as it was for me to write? And as uncomfortable? Is it selfish? Uptight? Not spontaneous? It has seemed so to the part of me who always wanted to be the hot girl, the passionate woman. It also seems now--finally--just right. I am relieved of being caught by surprise. I don't know all the reasons why this is necessary for me. Whatever the explanation, the fact is it has taken me years to accept and then--even harder--to claim this need, without apology or self-blame.

I want what I have: sex that is the pure and simple physical expression of love between two people who know, because of how their bodies are changing, that they are not going to last forever

What does being older have to do with these changes in my sexuality? Above all, it has to do with the years put in, the time spent creating an alternative to the mute subjugation to patriarchy that I experienced from birth until I was 40. It has to do with having worked through so many layers of experience and learned so many lessons. I had to break the mold of what attracted me most rabidly: the sadistic, sensuous, tyrannical man my father had been; the edge of danger. It involved, I'm sure, nothing less than changing the circuits of my brain. What helped me? The luck of falling in love with a man who, strongly sexual, would never give up trying, and who-- miracle of miracles--was not going to walk out. I can't tell his story, but I know we agree that what we have now is the treasure of our lives. What else helped me? The luck of the right therapist, a feminist woman, and the luck of experiencing feminist literature at the right age, though I was older than almost everyone I read.

I don't look back on wild sex with longing--too acrobatic, too endlessly demanding, not for this old body, my poor back, my thinning tissues. I want something a lot more passionate. I want what I have: sex that is the pure and simple physical expression of love between two people who know, because of how their bodies are changing, that they are not going to last forever. Under my thickened skin, I'm as juicy as a ripe red grapefruit, but I have attained a sexuality--based on kindness, tenderness, and appreciation--that will not hurt me. At 66, I feel I am unstuck; I can move forward. I am proud of how far I've come, that I've continued to reach. Now, a feeling of authority coming from this change in my sexuality permeates my life. The primary evidence is my poetry. Poets tell me my work inspires them to write their own secret stories, or that they are bolstered in their decision to publish poems of similar openness that they have already written. Friends now write me long letters about their marriages. Relationships within my immediate family have become more honest. I read my poems in gatherings of women and then we discuss what we are afraid to write or say, and why. I am participating in the conversation at last.

Sondra Zeidenstein is the publisher of Chicory Blue Press, a small literary press that focuses on writing by women over the age of 60. For Chicory Blue, she edited "A Wider Giving: Women Writing After a Long Silence."
The Opposite
of Sex
The Naked
Truth
Sex Ed
 
 
           
     

Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009