On Sex and Silence

I was having lunch with a magazine editor who wanted me to write a piece on extramarital sex. I’d written about it often– “Infidelity” placed prominently on a cover of a magazine means “Cheating Husbands”– and that’s a topic that inevitably means success at the newsstands. I told the editor I was interested in a quieter phenomenon, one I was hearing a lot about from women, even newly married young women: Not husbands’, but wives’ affairs. “Good luck,” she said. “We can’t seem to get real information; readers have trouble relating to women who talk about it.”

Why, I wonder, do we have trouble relating to women–our friends, our mothers, our daughters, our sisters–when they talk about extramarital sex? We can read endless tales of men’s infidelity–as told by men and by women; we can listen and respond to and understand their reasons and excuses and justifications and rationalizations about all aspects of their sexuality. We can go on, even, to blame ourselves, if we are their girlfriends or their wives, for failing to keep them under control or for not being “good” enough to keep them faithful. Yet wives’ own experience of their own sexuality outside marriage remains largely untold.

With whom do we think straying husbands have been having sex all these hundreds and hundreds of years–a small pool of 11 tired, tawdry, exclusively single women?

What is it that we are so afraid to hear? That women have a capacity for pleasure that is as great as men’s? That women are sick of pretending to be the morally perfect creatures the patriarchy has insisted we be? Or is it that we fear that if women behave as men have always behaved, there will be moral chaos, with no one there to oversee the family, no one to control everyone else’s morality?

Yet women’s silence has bred a deep and distressing lack of knowledge about women’s sexuality, and has encouraged the perpetuation of the bizarre double standard that suggests, at its core, that men are innately sexual beings and that women are not. It is a silence that I believe can have devastating consequences for women, in time effecting an incalculable loss not only of voice but of feeling.

The social imperative that women keep silent about their sexuality begins when young girls become most clearly, obviously sexual–at adolescence. Oddly, at that precise moment when girls are blooming into women, when their sexuality is as inescapable and as dramatic as the hormones surging through them, they stop saying what they feel–a discovery made by American psychologist Carol Gilligan. Now that they are the objects of male worship; now that their own feelings are so much about desire, pleasure and sex, they sense–correctly–that these feelings must not be spoken; that what is valued in a young girl, by boys and by parents and by teachers, are modesty, quietness, sweetness–in a word, goodness.

Studies in schools prove the point: Girls are called on less frequently than boys are; girls are encouraged to stay quiet in the classroom and to hand in homework that is neat and orderly. Boys, on the other hand, are called on more often to speak up, say what they think, and be…boys. Too, girls, must learn how to convert their sexuality into something pleasing to parents, teachers and boys–to look sexy, but not be sexy. Because the girl who is unabashedly sexual–who actually carries her erotic feelings through or even looks as if she might–is still called a “tramp,” and will be scorned by her peers as well as by the adults whose approval she craves. Boys, quite simply, are permitted their sexuality; girls are not.

Girls will hear lectures about being ladylike and being careful; about boys’ raging sexuality and the importance of not stimulating it. They will hear, above all, about chastity (their own)–for the “good” girl is specifically the chaste girl–and about how it is their job to insure it. But they will hear little about their own sexual pleasure, even from their mothers, and certainly not from anyone else. And they will greet the silence in kind: The sound of young women’s voices speaking out about their sexuality is as unfamiliar a sound as that of older women’s voices speaking out about their extramarital affairs.
In fact, what we have to announce the moment when girls become women is not the sound of their own voices telling us how it feels, but rather the sound of men’s voices observing them. We’ve long heard male writers and researchers and psychiatrists and sociologists judge women’s sexuality, interpret it, fear and hate and praise and condemn it, in what appears to be an overwhelming desire to control it. We know how it feels to want women, to need them, feel them, smell them, touch and taste them. We have the words of D.H. Lawrence and Vladmir Nabokov talking about men’s lust and love; the coming-of-age novels by writers like Philip Roth in which young protagonists speak out achingly about their own explosive sexuality. But the unwritten story, the one largely absent from western literature, is the tale of a young woman’s own eruptive sexuality, her own coming of age, as told by her.

And so girls begin to see the world of women’s sexuality exclusively through men’s eyes. They “experience” the pleasure of male desire for women but never get to hear or share the sensation of women’s desire for men. Through the eyes of the patriarchy they are glorified and feared objects, but never feeling, thinking, pleasure-loving or god forbid! pleasure seeking subjects. Our culture has made it clear to girls and to women that the words they utter about their experience of their sexuality are unwelcome, just as it has made it clear that what we want to tell them about their sexuality is….nothing. No wonder we can’t relate to the few brave women who try to speak out–they sound as if they’re speaking a foreign language. In fact they are. The language of sexuality is a male language, and women who speak in that tongue do not sound like women to our ears. They sound–to use the words always pinned on women who speak up when we don’t want them to–“shrill” or “strident” or “aggressive.” And so, as my editor friend said, “Readers can’t relate to them.”

And here the danger begins. Learning to “see” from the vantage point of the patriarchy just what it is female sexuality might be, our girl witnesses something totally unfamiliar–not at all what it is she feels. Think of it: While the term “male sexuality” conjures up potent images of desire and conquest, the term “female sexuality” invokes nothing but a huge gynecological textbook, a dry, scientific, clinical tome detailing the mechanics of women’s wombs and vaginas and other parts of their reproductive systems. “Female sexuality,” rather than a phrase that evokes pleasure, already, before she is even a grown female, has begun to have a scary and scared ring to it.

Nor will she read anything about male sexuality as experienced by women: A young girl’s observation of young boys is largely unrecorded in literature–as if girls don’t note with precisely as much accuracy and interest the blossoming of male sexuality; as if the growth of a man’s biceps, or the development of his chest, or the size of his penis, are of no concern to them. Girls do observe boys’ development with as much rapt attention and fascination as boys observe girls’–and yet, and yet….silence.

The muting of women’s voices will become part of her “understanding” of love, and in their place will exist only the voice of the culture telling her not only what it is she feels, but what it is she should feel, and do, in order to get and maintain love. She will learn, for example: Women are by nature monogamous; women do not desire a variety of sex partners; women must love a man to have sex with him; women fall in love with any man they have sex with; women can’t love more than one man; women dislike casual sex; women like married sex better than unmarried sex; women can’t separate sex from love; women who have sex with men other than their husbands feel overwhelming guilt about it; women are not aroused by men’s physical appearance. And so forth.

In the absence of other women’s voices to define what women’s real sexual nature is, she will believe the above. She will learn to mistrust her own feelings, if they are contrary to what she’s told she feels and, worse, to judge herself “wrong” and “bad” if she feels them. She will assume that other women feel the way she “should” (but does not) feel–and she will become sad and isolated and, eventually, numb. Her own erotic voice–the voice that comes from her soul–the authentic voice that says “I need” and “I feel” and “I know,” will be stifled–because how can she express what she’s told she doesn’t and shouldn’t feel? It will be replaced by a tentative, self-judging voice that says, “I don’t know what’s the matter, but I don’t feel what I should feel.”

Because a woman, like a girl, is asked to not see what she sees; to not speak what she knows–to not know what she knows about her own sexual feelings– her own desires, her own understanding of relationships, literally go underground, as if buried alive. Because she is forced to superimpose on her own knowledge and feelings those of society’s–which have told her only that she must control her impulses and be “good”–she will experience a profound loss, a loss I think contributes greatly to the disproportionately high depression statistics for women–particularly, married women. Why are more married women depressed than their single counterparts–when most women want marriage so much? Because, I believe, at marriage, just as at adolescence–the two junctures where women’s sexuality intersect with the culture–a woman is asked once again to “see” through the eyes of men; and, doing so, to once again hide herself, mute her observations and her needs in order to aspire to become a better person than she is–more giving, loving, selfless–the idealized, perfect wife. She is asked not to be too needy, to greedy, too sexual. She is asked to put her husband’s needs (and then her children’s) above her own and, further, that doing so is what’s most pleasurable for her. If she doesn’t feel this way, she is called “selfish” and not a “real” woman at all.

A wife, even today, even a young and vital and sexually experienced and assertive one, may find herself entering a relational world in which her goodness is valued more than her authenticity, in which the role she plays–her idealized self–is more important than her real self. She may well find her feelings are deemed less important than the rest of her family’s. And in response she will–again, just as she did at adolescence–not only stop saying what she feels, but stop feeling what she feels. This is what erotic silence does; this is what it is: A numbing, stifling goodness that is good for everyone else but her. And it will take a desperate act on her part to smash that framework–in my book, that act was adultery, the most flagrant transgression possible against the institution of marriage, but an act that broke the erotic silence that was killing her and her relationships.