In the first chapter of Eastern Caribbean—Sylvan’s Story, Sylvan’s Inner Goddess becomes a sensual feminist. At the time I wrote that I was channeling the story onto the page and didn’t think much about it, but now I want to take time to more clearly establish what I mean.
A broad definition of feminism is the struggle to redress disadvantageous inequalities in the lived experience of women as compared to the experience of men. Specifically, feminism identifies and attempts to meliorate disparities that are established through patriarchy in religion, employment and culture, even language, among many other dimension of modern culture (search Gerda Lerner, 1986).
After some seventy years of study (search Simone de Beauvoir, 1949), the history and role of women in society is well researched and understood, validating the task of feminism. Progress has been made; much must yet be made, considering the misogyny being rooted out within the power elite (see nearly any news story reporting on male leaders in government, business, entertainment and religion, 2019). To have these behaviors, tweets and comments being recognized for what they are is progress, even if they still happen.
Some argue that disparities arose naturally from sexual dimorphism driven by evolutionary biology: everything was this way long before there was thought about society and culture, or much thought at all, for that matter. But somewhere in the age between the rise of intelligence and the rise of civilization, male characteristics such as size and strength floated to the top of the capabilities scale, turning physical prowess into power, while traits such as intelligence, nurturance and empathy became lesser abilities. Because the male of our species held the power, and presumably, a harem of females*, when labels were evaluated and applied, it was the male who crafted them, making male characteristics more affirmative, more desirable.
Unfortunately, having the power did not confer the knowledge, wisdom, nor, especially, the sapience, that would have been necessary to prevent the parallel rise of chauvinism. So here we are, some thousand generations into this social experiment and it’s time to kiss sleeping Beauty goodbye (see Madonna Kolbenschlag, 1981).
This essay addresses the issue of sensuality, one among the many dimensions of lived experience where women are treated as less a person than men. Other dimensions are as important, but repression of sensuality has been used in a much more insidious way—and for much longer—than professional opportunity, medical care or pay, for example.
For millennia, patriarchy, in particular religious patriarchy, has worked to demean sensuality, communicating that it is debased to feel such pleasures and indecent to express such feelings. But sensuality is ascribed to the feminine, so it is women who have become debased, indecent and denied, but not denied so much as shrouded with an altered reality.
The terms and concepts built into the very language we use carry negative connotations about sensual feelings and women’s experience; hear it enough and one begins to believe it. Religious teachings, in particular, denigrate the sensual as a wanton experience, to be denied to lesser persons by those who are sufficiently pious. This repression manifests as inhibitions, in particular as an inhibition for self-pleasure, confirming that pleasure from being a woman is for men alone. It creates fears of engaging new sensual adventures and finding new avenues for sexuality, so the man can be in charge of sex. It enforces an obsession over modesty that leads to self-concealment so women disappear, a primary objective among patriarchy’s goals. Because women are taught to grow up to become the ‘object’ of the affection of one man in a monogamous bond, even if that man is polygynous, when affection fades, it is because of a woman’s failings that this is happening, it is their fault: thus the ultimate gaslighting situation (see Patrick Hamilton, 1938).
At its inception, Judaism, and subsequently, Christianity and Islam, embedded the diminution of women into the very foundation of their doctrine (search Yaweh, 500 BCE), probably to provide a strong contrast between their lone male god and prevailing animistic religions that had female gods or gods of both genders. (As with Greek, Roman, and nearly every other early religion, people created gods in their image to keep things easier to explain. Can you imagine how hard it would have been to explain the gods of money, smartphones or social media in 1000 BCE?)
In this, the original woman (created from a bit of the original man) is blamed for pain and suffering, and for making nakedness shameful, among other things, as punishment for eating from the tree of knowledge. (At least the holy fathers got it right about which gender was the first to gain knowledge.)
Islam mostly, but the others, too, are obsessed with lust. Of course, only women can incite lust and a man is powerless to remain un-incited if he should see a woman’s ‘form’. He’s not to blame. It’s her fault to have that shape. Of course, this only applies in public. Even today, the patriarchs of some primitive societies require women to be covered in black sacks when out of their homes. Trouble is, it’s not only the men who demand this. Women are convinced to demand this of themselves to satisfy their male god. But at home a woman is free to show whatever incite-ful form she has to all the male relatives, maybe even encouraged to do so. Have I mentioned gaslighting?
Finally, there is the ultimate barbarism of sensual repression through female genital mutilation. Not required as part of Islam, it is still practiced as a means of purification in several Muslim cultures, usually by women against their female children. Another example of how the concept of sensual repression, once started, then encouraged, by patriarchy, is woven into the beliefs of a culture.
It seems to me that every god on earth would want their supplicants to be fruitful and multiply using the sensual pleasures of their sexuality as motivation to make more supplicants. But then, what do I know?
Well, what I know is a lot of men love sex but fear women, so rather than treat women as an equal, they rely on this handy system of repression.
Along with being trained to be inferior, women are trained to be less confident, less opinionated, demure in their dealings with men, but also to be less self-assured, to doubt their views, their perceptions and responses when challenged by men. Much of this instruction is delivered in the guise of protecting the fragile female from danger (more often ‘other men’), turning her into a possession and objectifying her into property. Just as importantly, it makes a woman easier to handle. Men (and women, too) are taught they should find a partner (of the opposite gender, of course) for this adventure of life, but the subtext presented to many men is they are really looking for an accessory to enhance their image, a housekeeper to do their laundry, a chef to make them breakfast and an incubator to make them children.
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There are two sides to sensuality: experience and expression.
We experience sensuality as pleasures: sounds, sights, smells, sensations on our skin, creating joy, stirring pleasant memories. Sensuality arises readily from the sexual experience, that’s how our brains are wired. For many who truly appreciate it, sexuality is the epitome of sensuality, experienced with great pleasure and great nuance, but it is not the only path to sensuality. Sensuality can be expanded to include any experience that is arousing, any sensation that creates a heightened awareness of the human experience and the glorious sentience of our bodies. Arousal is more than getting the girly bits hot, it is found in joy, in surprise, in wonder and in love. For many, this is the path to heightened eroticism.
We express sensuality with our body and behavior when we acquire the agency to be erotic. This is more than beauty because it makes beauty active, it is also behavior and attitude, an understanding of what erotic means for ourselves. More than to simply be objectified as something presented for the experience of another, we can be erotic as an expression of ourselves, to be experienced first for ourselves then shared, if we wish. Sensual feminism creates beauty as part of one’s self, just as a stream flowing down the mountain, over rocks and through the trees, is beautiful for none other than itself, we can be beautiful according to our own definition. We can define our own eroticism, our own sensuality, by expressing our self from within.
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What do you see when you look in the mirror? Too often it’s inadequacies, some apparent, mouth too small, eyes too close; some not, too scared to try, too old to dance.
What about beauty? Hair? Breasts? Waist? Right color? Right size? Right curves? What about sexy? Lusty? These traits are proscribed to the female as metrics of the male standard for desirability, but in a perverse twist of sexism, while these traits are desired by the male, women are trained to repress them for themselves. One is supposed to look sexy, act sexy but not live sexy. We are taught to look sexy for others, or the one ‘other’, for which young women are trained to prepare themselves (Pink Princess), but not for ourselves (Wonder Woman).
There’s that gaslighting thing again.
As feminism is an effort to gain civil, professional and domestic rights, sensual feminism is gaining the personal right to feel the pleasure of being sensual for ourselves, gaining the freedom to give pleasure to ourselves if we choose, gaining the autonomy to celebrate our sensual self without threat of violence or rebuke. Sensual feminism recognizes that we (women, and men, too) are sensual beings able to be as beautiful as any of the sensual elements of nature and the arts, free from artificial strictures of culture and religion put in place to degrade or deny self-actualization of the individual (see Abraham Maslow, 1943). To be clear, society needs moral, ethical and practical boundaries to maintain civil and private order. Sensual feminism speaks truth to those restrictions on appearance and behavior that do not apply equally and symmetrically to both men and women.
Sensual feminism clarifies one’s self-perspective to develop courageous self-expression, motivational self-esteem. It provides the agency to live sensually, always being ready and receptive to experience beauty in any form that presents itself, imagining the erotic, savoring the erotic, in everything we see, hear, taste, smell and feel.
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* From research into gender roles within a diverse array of mammalian species, we know that a greater discrepancy between the sizes of males and females correlates with the number of females within a social group headed by a single male.