Selfishness, Sexual Desire and Women’s Empowerment

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From the Chronicle of Higher Education, this article on “The ‘Right’ Sexuality for Girls” by Sharon Lamb (Psychology, Saint Michael’s College):

Healthy sexuality for a woman thus got defined as an alternative to objectification, victimization, and female passivity. And healthy sexuality for a teenage girl has come to mean that she is knowledgeable about her own desires; uses her full reasoning ability in making choices; is uninfluenced by TV, books, or movies; pursues her own pleasure as much as her partner’s; and is a subject, not an object. She is never passive but always responsible, and she knows how to consent to and how to refuse sex. Even more important, she knows if she wants to consent to sex or refuse it.

But that is such an idealized notion of how to be sexual that no girl could achieve it. Do we really want to set girls off on yet another path to perfection?    * * *

An additional difficulty with empowerment is that it is self-centered for girls to look within to discover themselves and their true desires. Once a partner is no longer needed to look, approve, admire, or sexualize, a girl’s sexuality is disconnected from her interpersonal relationships. Instead of urging girls to look within, researchers might do better to recommend the goal of mutuality with a partner: mutual respect, pleasure, excitement, and interest. Choosing to give as well as to receive, to please someone else as well as being pleased, is not only a realistic aim; it would also reinforce the idea that a good sexual relationship should meet the same standards as other good relationships.

When we tell teens about the kind of sexuality we hope will be theirs, we ought to be careful to guide them toward something that is achievable. For instance, turning away from the subject/object dichotomy and the notion of authentic desire might lead teens and adults to develop ways of being sexual that are more individualized and satisfying than simply accepting what the culture and the media think is sexy, or an idealized alternative. And an emphasis on mutuality could redefine shame, attaching it to the mistreatment of others rather than to the violation of social expectations.

The full article is here.

Professor Lamb seems to imply that “empowerment” is a synonym for selfishness, and because selfishness is an obstacle to “mutuality,” we should not encourage young women sexual “empowerment.”  She assumes, fundamentally, that mutuality — or at least the illusion of mutuality — exists intimate relationships.  

In a culture in which women are valued for what their ability to satisfy (male) desires, “empowerment” is the language young women use in a post-deconstructionist, post-modern world to assert the existence of their own desires.  Lamb properly, in my view, questions the utility of empowerment-talk when women use it to justify their choices to subordinate their own pleasure.  But I am not sure that mutuality-talk is so different.  Sometimes “mutuality” is code for “getting along.”  For women, that historically has meant silence about pleasure and pain.  

-Bridget Crawford

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