Culture has consistently litigated women's desire to the point of spectacle. But it's really not that complicated.
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In late 18th-century Louisiana, Edna Pontellier falls in lust, then love, and then ruin. This is probably the way it often went for women back then. In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the novel that struck fear in the hearts of Victorian heterosexuals everywhere, Edna’s petite mort becomes an actual death, and it takes on a dual meaning—the elusive bedroom climax, and the spiritual void that accompanies gendered social norms. Some readers loved it; many critics hated it; and the cultural litigation of a woman’s libido took place in living rooms and newspapers, behind closed doors and onstage podiums.
More than a century later, women’s desires have expanded the way art has, manifold, across mediums and genres. What do we want? To want openly and in complicated ways! When do we want it? Now, in the backseat of this car, or maybe later, when we’re sure you’re pro-choice and not an incel.
It’s difficult to spot the precise moment when our conversations about women’s desire began. There are archetypes about chasteness and virtue that stretch to the Middle Ages, if not before, but I’d posit a certain turning point in the current wave of sex-positive feminist depictions—explicit, often confessional, and willing to take on Brooklyn’s itinerant fuckboys—happened with Girls, Lena Dunham’s 2012–2015 HBO dramedy about four white millennials trying to figure their shit out. During its five seasons, the show became a sensation for its candor—Dunham’s unenhanced bare thighs, Marnie’s kitchen-sink rim job, and a bare confrontation of how the pursuit of desire isn’t a set of stairsteps to contentment but a slow and forceful shaping of one’s life, sometimes an erosion.
Close on its heels, series like Insecure and Orange Is the New Black reiterated these themes with more nuance, shading sexuality with other identities like class, race, and privilege, and these explorations of women or gender non-binary people getting laid helped usher in the contemporary dialogue that feels several steps ahead—the Fleabags of this world don’t position sex as a lure to draw in viewers, necessarily, but as an integral part of any main character’s identity. In this case, it’s a white cis woman who doesn’t flinch at anal and openly picks apart her unhealthy coping mechanisms with the fourth wall.
The sex lives of great and middling men have been fodder for serious intellectual engagement for ages—novelist John Updike made a career out of Rabbit, Run peerless horndog—but contemporary media is a corrective for years of suppression when women’s libidos were sidelined to radical activism or a product of the male gaze. What’s different now is that women are commenting on women; women are speaking for themselves and the work is being consumed broadly, not just by those with an activist bent. Fleabag exemplifies this notion: it’s an entire show about fucking, wanting, and riding the currents of desire until the nameless narrator is dumped ashore.
“I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning,” she tells the sexy priest in confessional. “I want someone to tell me what to eat, what to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, and who to love, and how to tell them.” Fleabag’s viral success comes in large part, I think, because it graphically embraces sex and desire without eliding its mess. There’s something romantic in pining for what you can’t have, but the reality many of us live is unromantic, self-loathing because our desires drive us further from the life we consciously want and towards the basest parts of ourselves.
It’s possible to reach orgasm and live up to your principles at the same time, but it’s difficult, and women often choose between those poles—good sex with someone we don’t particularly care for, or maybe a presentable relationship (like Fleabag’s Claire) that’s like a casket, structurally sound and resonantly hollow. There is the expectation that we should ascend towards a career, cultivate a fulfilling romantic life, maintain lasting friendships, and throw in a spin class or two, and that deck stacks higher and higher the more years we accrue—the more children Edna Pontellier has with her husband, the more responsibility becomes her provenance, and not his. We’re made to feel like failures when we can’t herd all of our wants and obligations into a sensible whole.
The women in Lisa Taddeo’s much-reviewed Three Women, an eight-year piece of reportage, are remarkable not for their distinctions but for what they have in common. Over the course of their separate stories, it’s like doom is written in the sky: Whether poor or rich, cloistered or cultured, ostracized or beloved, their desires get thwarted and they’re scorned for (or by) their sexuality. Lina, a suburban housewife with a stultifying marriage, Sloane, a restauranteur with a pedigree in Rhode Island, and Maggie, a North Dakota twenty-something who’s haunted by her high school teacher’s predation, all attempt to navigate the systems of power in which they live, and their diverse environments react as if from a Nathaniel Hawthorne template—for shame, you whores! “It felt as though, with desire, nobody wanted anyone else, particularly a woman, to feel it,” Taddeo writes. Lina ends her awful marriage only to end up as a redneck’s sidepiece; Sloane has her name smeared throughout town because of her participation in her husband’s kinks; and Maggie loses a court case and her dignity, shunned in West Fargo, trying to scrape together a new life. The year is 2019 (or 2018, whenever Taddeo finished writing) and the world still wants people with vaginas to be a cautionary tale. Excavating their desires as empathetically as Taddeo does, taking the reader through the choreography of people getting off, is itself a refutation of that storyline—that devastation is the only fair recompense for being a woman who wants this much. If Anna Karenina’s comeuppance was getting annihilated by a train, and Emma Bovary’s arsenic was punishment for rejecting a stultifying country life, then the least the moral police can do is make sure a trio of modern sluts end up unhappy.
Women don’t have a Helen of Troy story, a mythology about the forcefulness of our own aphrodisia, so contemporary works step into a certain void. Outright eroticism exists, but not usually on the BBC. Members of the LGBTQ community and women of color write mostly for audiences who are already attuned to or upset by imbalances of power, whereas Fleabag or Three Women slot in easily with Call the Midwife or Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: They aren’t reaching to make much commentary beyond their immediate characters’ lives. The most popular explorations of women’s desire fall squarely within the confines of white cisgender heterosexuality, as if we’re a herd of horses that might spook outside the fences of white feminism. And who knows; a certain “we,” the boomers who hid their 50 Shades audiobook in their SUV console, just might. Books like Larissa Pham’s Fantasian (and other titles in the New Lovers erotica series) tear off any gauze of propriety and plunge the reader straight into bodily viscera, which is maybe closer to a lived experience of sex—and yet the works that have achieved notoriety retain a sort of primness, less “pushing the envelope” and more of a nudge. It is, like everything, a reflection of who has power—which bodies represent us, and who consumes these bodies. “Palatability” just means acceptable to the largest base, whether progressive or not.
The latest batch of women-on-desire have begun a conversation that needs to go broader. Like desire itself, our experiences of it are innumerable, and the way our media reflects it should include as many options. There aren’t enough metaphors to do it justice: a sharp blade? A virus? “That’s the terror and also the holiness of a desire: It doesn’t actually have to do with the good,” Andrea Long Chu, author of Females: A Concern, muses in a recent interview at Lit Hub. In her book, she defines female as “any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another.” My hope is that women’s desire percolates like a kettle set to boil, and no matter how many men or prudes would try to quash it, it will gurgle up unbidden—as books, as films, as forays into the dark and titillating.
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