© Gustav Klimt
For most of my teens, I suffered constant migraines. When I was nineteen, my first boyfriend took me to see a homeopathic doctor, who asked if I masturbated, as this was one method to relieve the tension of migraines. ‘What's that?’ I asked. He and my boyfriend looked at each other bemused. ‘It doesn't matter,’ the doctor said and instead prescribed a homeopathic remedy.
To say that I had been ‘sheltered’ with regard to my sexual education was rather an understatement.
I did have sex-ed classes in secondary school, where I learned about puberty and periods and the mechanics of how babies were made. But this was not an education in how to engage in sexual exploration. As I approached my twenties, I believed that sex was a vital component in defining who I was. To have a lot of sex meant being a liberal, emancipated, modern woman of the world; everything I wanted to be.
At the beginning of a romantic relationship, of course I experienced the heady mix of palpable excitement, the desire to take my clothes off as much as possible, and the urgency to touch the nakedness of another human being. However, any sense of simple hedonistic pleasure would soon turn on its head and be replaced with shame for having defied my upbringing. Pleasure very quickly became a need to please, because what I really wanted from sex was to feel worthy. I thought that if I could please my partner by being willing to have sex often, they would accept me and love me forever. In reality, my experience transpired into a downward spiral of worthlessness.
I admit that in my familial make-up, the idea of approaching sex as pleasure is just not wired in; the mere mention of the word ‘sex’ at home was a taboo. I don't remember my grandparents ever being physically affectionate with each other, and any romantic notion of kissing a boy at school or having sex before marriage, was forbidden. It was my mother's duty to arrange my marriage and thereafter, my own duty to my in-laws to produce a grandson (that girls are seen as a burden, while boys are highly prized, is based on a patriarchal culture of centuries that cannot be undone in one or two generations). Fortunately, for my own sanity I decided to rebel against the dictates of tradition, having neither an arranged marriage, nor children. Yet I acknowledge that my relationship to pleasure and sex remains a complicated one.
In her prize winning memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, Diana Athill states that no matter how much we change our conditioning and beliefs, a woman's biological function is to procreate.
“Having bodies designed to bear children means that many generations will have to pass before women are freed from the psychic patterns dictated by their physique, however easy it is for them to swallow a pill; and it is possible that they will never be able to achieve such psychic freedom.”
Resonating with what Athill says, I experienced lengthy periods between the ages of thirty and forty when I felt I had little control over my body. For example, in spite of having made a clear decision that I did not want to have children, I ‘accidentally’ became pregnant. During the weeks it took to arrange various check-ups and an abortion, it was as though my body had been invaded by Nature, whose sole purpose was to secure the survival of the species. The clearer my thinking and the more I resisted the idea of being pregnant, the more sick and nauseous I felt. I learned through this process that a simplistic insistence on the belief that men and women are ‘equal’ in pleasure and sex was a ridiculous delusion.
Looking back through history, it was women in ancient Egypt who had the most equal sexual status with men of all the major world civilisations, including medicinal concoctions that were used as contraception for avoiding getting pregnant. However, an ancient Egyptian woman's sexual attraction still relied on her fertility and capacity to bear children, which was of primary importance. The idea of ‘pure pleasure’ in relation to sex (without having to throw the body's natural behaviour out of gear by the chemical intervention of contraception, or deal with the consequences of getting pregnant) is a relatively new concept borne of the modern world, and it is not as easy to integrate the biological and chemical aspects of who we are as it may be to change our beliefs and definitions of pleasure.
In our modern world, a woman's sexual attraction is so intricately tied into her surface looks and external physical beauty (i.e. an appearance of youth and the promise of a fertile womb). We believe that men become more confident, dashing, and handsome with age (the silver fox), yet for a woman to stay sexually desirable for as long as possible, she must spend a lot of energy and money to ward off the ageing process. By constantly battling against wrinkles, sagging boobs, cellulite, and other aspects of Nature's beauty, she may in fact be missing out on an entirely crucial and fundamental plane of experience as a woman.
Athill also writes:
“I had started to have glimpses of myself earlier than most, as a result of being deprived of marriage and child-bearing, but not with the clarity I discovered once sex had fallen right away.”
Reading this sentence, where she's referring to the ebbing of her desire for sex, struck a chord within me of something I feel I have been struggling with my whole life, the wish to feel pleasure from sex without having to make it a conscious choice.
Having been in a relationship with the same man for a decade (previously the maximum length of my relationships was two years), it is the first time I am faced with the question of exploring the longevity of pleasure and sex with the same person. Gone are the days when I assumed that being willing to have sex just in order to please my partner meant that I was loved. To please a man without a reciprocal balance of emotional sensitivity to my needs is a recipe for resentment and self-hatred. However, to ask for what I need is still a challenge when sometimes I don't know how to.
We live in a time where pleasure and sex seems to be so misunderstood, yet as a collective society, we make it such an integral part of a ‘healthy’ relationship that if a couple do not have regular sex, we conclude something must be wrong. Athill's words echo back to me again, because the question of pleasure is first and foremost the pleasure of inhabiting the sexual and sensual body that is mine. It is not really about the sex, and once we stop hanging onto the illusion of youth, we can have a loving, accepting and appreciative relationship with our body, with all its warts and wrinkly bits. And then, perhaps, we will start being curious to what is evolving and unfolding at the physical-psychic level beyond Nature's instinct to procreate.