Sex, Power and Pleasure by Mariana Valverde


These are notes taken from this acclaimed feminist book.


       As a child: I was simply longing to be strong, tough, knowledgeable, and in charge of things. Being strong means you feel good and hence also look good. Whereas people want girls to look good first - and as a result feel good. And "looking good" is defined by external standards.


       Women tend to gain more self-definition from relationships than men do, and at the purely sexual level, women take a long time to become comfortable with their bodies and desires.


       In physiological terms, we could do just fine without sex (and masturbation has been proven to be physiologically more effective, at least for women) but the emotional component is difficult to replace. The emotional angle: the desire to truly know someone and be known by someone.


       "Perfect" mothers or "perfect" wives are selfless women who only live for/through someone else's desires and have no existence of their own. A sexist society pushes women into such submissive existence. The sex appeal of a man defined by his power - physical and/or social - and his use of it (through aggression and violence) and the appeal of a woman is defined by her lack of power, her helplessness, her surrender.


       Masculine power (or erotic power) need not be denied or rejected. It should be accepted as a fact. But if it is used in a way where it does not create humiliation, abuse, or powerlessness, it can add to true and sustainable sexual pleasure. In fact the power should be shared thru dynamic role-playing such that it becomes a "collective" power which both partners get to enjoy. With such treatment of the erotic power the subject-object relationship does not become problematic (because it is fully reversible), issues related "surrender", "submission", "domination" go away (because they are part of the play and not meant to humiliate).


       Men may have curiosity about women's varied sexual response, or their reproductive powers, but such curiosity need not create fear and hatred; it can be expressed instead of repressing and converting to desire to dominate.


       Men and women are clearly different, but they are not opposites and are attracted because of the "oppositeness", which makes heterosexuality a matter of fate and not choice. In fact, the attraction is often because of both differences and sameness, both familiarity and strangeness.


       Women are often pressured into male-preferred sexual practices (e.g. intercourse) by persuasion, by argument, by insult or by force. Often women are themselves to be blamed for not allowing their sexuality to be fully explored and discovered.


       Scarcity problem: "good men" who are not sexist, who are interesting, and who are interested in mature, 30+ age women are few. The pressure to find a partner is tremendous since society does not treat single women fairly. The sexual marketplace also creates challenging demands on the woman's attractiveness and most men prefer a cute 21-year old to a self-assured 30-something. Even though it is true that ageing does not have to be ugly and lonely, the rest of the world hasn't caught on with that idea!


       Casual sex does not work very well for women because it takes a lot of energy and the results are unsatisfactory even at the sexual level. This leads to the "last man in the world" syndrome and women are forced to compromise and decide to put up with bad guys. My own effort at finding such "casual sex partners" resulted in finding two creeps, one guy who could not handle it (he stopped talking), and one guy who decided to fall in love!


       It's important not to give up on exploration and on casual affairs, to keep an open mind to relationships, not to become too dependent on any one man, not to overload relationships with too many expectations, to separate emotional needs from sexual needs, to avoid defeatist attitude, and to build several other friendships for emotional needs.


       Modern women have contradictory expectations: freedom and autonomy vs. lifelong security and rights in relationships. These are difficult to achieve precisely because of the contradiction.


       Lesbianism: It is not purely sexual - it is a relationship between two women just like one between a man and a woman - it can have all sorts of flavors and degrees of intimacy. Lesbianism is not a physiological or psychological condition; it is a complex social fact. A woman need not be either lesbian or heterosexual - she could be both. Lesbianism must be an integral part of feminism.


       Pornography is not a thing or object, but a "social process" through which consumers and suppliers relate to each other and in which the consumer has the expectation to be sexually aroused. Thus, pornography very much has a social context. The objection to pornography cannot just be based on whether it causes sexual violence (the study of which is inconclusive) but also on how women - the main objects of pornography - feel about their objectification. Pornography

-        Reinforces the idea that male sexiness is in their power - physical or social, and female sexiness in their powerlessness, helplessness, surrender, and thus in their sexual availability.

-        Implies that the power imbalance must inevitably result in aggression and sexual violence.

-        Undermines existing social conventions and relations thru the relentless power of sex (e.g. milkman seducing a housewife).


       The main problem with pornography is that it eroticizes the male sexual and social domination. It eroticizes misogynist, antisocial, and cruel forms of arousal. As feminists, even as we try to educate and change male behavior, we must also try to examine the prevalent ideas related to feminine sexuality and sexual behavior. Any depiction of social domination (power imbalance) resulting in sexual domination is pornography, which is rampant in our culture. Most popular media reinforce these stereotypes of power imbalances creating sexual attraction, potential for actual sexual violence, and then domination.


       Typical scene in romance novels is this: a young junior female has a silver-haired boss who offers her a raise if she does some work, and simultaneously asks for a Friday date. The woman who seeks economic power through her career is shown to tremble at the realization that her sexuality attracts her boss. These books show marriage at the end as the valid justification for all the aggression and violence that precedes it.


       Marriage: For a lot of women marriage is neither sexually pleasurable nor physically safe. The ideology is that men are dangerous and so women can only "let go" with their husbands, because only their husbands have a duty to take care of them after they have screwed them. The woman gives up her social autonomy with gay abandon in the hope of obtaining the love, i.e. protection of an essentially dangerous male. Sexual surrender is tied to social and economic surrender. The woman, the romantic soul that she is, makes no demands other than the marriage itself, in that naive belief that her strong hero will love as well as screw her. If pornography is depiction of women as the willing slaves of men, then one can think of nothing more pornographic than a lifetime of formula romance.


       The "domino theory" or "slippery slope" is the myth that we are all born sinful, that sexual desire is an uncontrollable passion that, if not checked, will take the society into an unstoppable degeneration. This fear is what fascinates everyone about sexual aberrations/scandals including religious zealots and pornography producers. This fear creates the purported need to put people (especially women) in check as far as their sexual passions are concerned.


       It is actually consumerism that artificially paints sexual desire to be infinite and limitless. Sex has become an important lubricant for the smooth functioning of consumer capitalism.


       In a sexual interaction, active and passive desires constantly create each other as opposites and merge into each other. That is how it should be instead of having fixed unequal roles. The motion of desire itself decides who is passive/active at a given moment.


       "Consensual sex" is truly consensual only when both parties have equal information about the choices being made and equal power to decide whether to undertake those choices.


       If pleasure is viewed not as a purely individual uncontrolled "dark" thing, but a desire for community (with others), for giving as well as taking, AND if ethics is viewed not as a set of rules imposed from outside, but instead as something we evolve ourselves through discussion and understanding and develop a connection with them as ours, it would be possible to reconcile the needs of both "pleasure" and "ethics".



Compiled by: Abhay B. Joshi

Last updated30 June 2017