The Erotic as Power

Women in the 21st century have much to contend with when it comes to claiming our sexual agency and erotic power. Many of us have grown up in environments were sex was shrouded in secrecy and taboo, and our parents, teachers, religious leaders and other authorities steered us away from asking questions or being too curious.

Left to navigate our own sexual awakenings, we stumble through our formative experiences, many of them confusing and painful, and arrive at adulthood expected to “just know how to do it” or figuring that “it should happen naturally”—that sex ought to take care of itself once you find “the right partner,” and that things will fall into place after enough time, or within the context of a loving relationship.

Only to find that it’s not that simple–that fulfilling sexual and intimate relationships rely on knowing who you really are, what you want, and how to ask for it, and that these most valuable skill sets are almost never explained to us.

So how do you create the kinds of relationships and sexual experiences you truly desire?

And how do you even find out what you want? After all, we are bombarded every day by narratives in the media, in movies, in magazines and stories that tell us who to be sexually, what to want, who to want, who to partner with, how to dress and how to have sex ‘the right way. That cultural story is based on an inauthentic idea of sexuality—not on the real sexuality of women. It’s created, packaged and sold back to us and becomes a vaguely attainable ideal of sex and sexuality that most of us never have or even want. (And let’s be clear on who benefits from these ideals—a multi-billion dollar global “beauty” industry that thrives on prescribing Who We Should Be as Women. Certainly not us. It’s never us.)

But OK, at this point I’m probably preaching to the choir. You’re a woke feminist lady who has read the Beauty Myth and watched Miss Representation — but who still has struggles with her body.

You have the critical analysis to see all the sexual “white noise” in our culture, and you want to filter it out to find what’s there for you underneath of that — what it’s like to experience your own pleasure and erotic power free of judgment, shame or anxiety (from others or yourself).

You read feminist news and see the misogynistic BS that permeates our culture every day, and you yearn for something deeper, something that goes beyond the absence of violence and exploitation and chauvinism and oppression — a place that’s more deeply sourced, where power is not about “power over” but “power with” or “power to,” and from which real, positive justice can flow like a life-giving stream.

I would call that the Erotic. It’s what Audre Lorde, in her seminal essay, called “a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.” She wrote, “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves. ”

Lorde pointed out that “As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge.” Why do we distrust it? Well, most of us learned about sexuality largely in terms of the dangerous things we should avoid: rape, sexual assault, unplanned pregnancy, abortion, an infection or a disease. Abstinence-only education is proven to not work the way its proponents claim, and yet American sex education remains largely rooted in emphasizing sex’s painful consequences, not in teaching young adults how to safely explore.  So we arrive at adulthood with a repository of confusing or shame-filled experiences that we relegate to the sidelines of our psyches, and do our best to appear “normal” (whatever that means), all the while navigating a world in which we still face systematic economic disadvantages, are expected to do the bulk of emotional labor in our relationships, and are disproportionately vulnerable to sexual assault and violation.

And of course, when we struggle with sex, when we don’t feel that level of desire we think we should feel, we are so often without real resources that can address the root of the issue. Low libido? You must be frigid–take a pill. (Remember the Addyi controversy?)

Some of us have continued to be sexual explorers and erotic adventurers despite all of this, because the Erotic is always there — pulling at us like the moon pulls the tides. We yearn to experience sexuality to its depths, but the exploration takes us into all sorts of strange territories, and so often you don’t know where the line is until you cross it. And none of us are immune to these external forces — to some extent we have allowed our sexuality to be commodified and defined from the outside by other people.

But in a world rife with sexually explicit imagery that claims to display empowerment, how do you tell what’s real and what’s play-acting? I would suggest that the difference is not so much seen, but felt; it’s something that can be known by the heart.

I think we are hungry for a vision of sexual empowerment that’s led by the heart. One that sets aside “power over” in favor of “power with,” and in doing so, can heal all the ways we have been harmed by the misuse of power and sexuality.

Love flows from this place.
Justice flows from this place.
Community flows from this place.

But I’m trying to put into words something that can’t really be described — it has to be experienced.

All the feminist theory in the world will not help us if it stays in the abstract realm of our minds and does not help us peel back the protective layers, to shine the light of awareness into our hearts.

We need language to form the analysis of our world, but at some point we have to go beyond words, and find the courage touch all the places inside where we have been shamed, and hurt, and gotten twisted and angry without realizing it.

There is so much to be angry about. And deeper than that there is so much to believe in and to love, to love, to love.