Saturday, March 14, 2009

A real vagina workshop?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Two people sent me this article within 20 minutes of each other last night. And even the New York Times' tastefully vague description immediately intrigued me - the article, entitled "The Pleasure Principle," profiles "a coed live-in commune dedicated to the female orgasm" called One Taste. The founder, Nicole Daedone, sees herself as leading “the slow-sex movement, one that places a near-exclusive emphasis on women’s pleasure — in which love, romance and even flirtation are not required."

Can we please just read that sentence again? Women's pleasure doesn't just have to be about love and romance? I could have an orgasm without chocolate and flowers and candlelit dinners and Valentines' gifts and deep, meaningful conversations about our feelings, and still be a woman? In the wake of the NYT's last foray into the world of female orgasm, which talked about oxytocin and narcissism and desire in very loose terms but came to the general conclusion that we don't really know what gets women off, this article is borderline revolutionary. The image of "a dozen women, naked from the waist down, lying with eyes closed in a velvet-curtained room, while clothed men huddle over them, stroking them in a ritual known as orgasmic meditation — “OMing,” for short," may be a little absurd, but it's in many ways a radical shift. And I'm afraid that it's going to get lost, because of the way that we dismiss crunchy-granola San Franciscans who may seem self-righteous or simply crazy, but sometimes have the right idea. Right now, they have the right idea. Describing her philosophy, Daedone said, "In our culture, women have been conditioned to have closed sexuality and open feelings, and men to have open sexuality and closed feelings. There’s this whole area of resistance and shame.”

One of my friends, a member of my Vagina Monologues cast, jokingly compared the article to "The Vagina Workshop," one of Eve Ensler's more bizarre monologues. During the dress rehearsals, the cast would fall apart backstage as Liz, the actress performing the monologue, first talked about her character's uncertainty and shame about her sexuality (well, they didn't laugh at that) and then described her experience in a "vagina workshop," which sounds uncannily like One Taste. The character looks at her vagina with a hand mirror, locates her clitoris, and is instructed to "be it." Liz was understandably unsure of how to interpret that line - but presumably Ensler is a fan of "being" one's clitoris, because the monologue ends with an orgasm, as the actress gasps, "The quaking broke open into an ancient horizon of light and silence, which opened onto a plane of music and colors and innocence and longing, and I felt connection, calling connection as on my little blue mat." The cast always fell apart around "ancient horizon." By the time they got to the plane of music and colors, they were gone.

Writing this now, I'm struggling a little to reconcile my excitement about the article, and my skepticism about the monologue. Honestly, I've always thought that the monologue was insanely reductive - don't we want not to be associated only with our vaginas? My vagina isn't just me, and that's the point! The overall message of the monologue is important, but it gets lost in sections where Ensler gets too cute, or too mushy, or too crazy (saying the vagina has the "innocence and freshness of a proper English garden?" Who wouldn't laugh?). It seems too simple, but I wonder if the language is the problem. I got suspicious when the NYT started describing the workshops as "mindful sexuality," because it seemed too overblown, too touchy-feely. I don't have a good reason for this reaction, but I suspect it's one that many people would have. Daedone says, "In our culture, admitting our bodies matter is almost an admission of failure," and I completely agree. We need more orgasms. We need more positive talk about sex. We need more talk about sex, period - sex that isn't rape, or shameful. But how can we do that when people are so quick to dismiss it as another crunchy-granola San Francisco fad?

This is not to say that I think everyone needs to be packed off to a vagina workshop. But maybe some people should. Even on college campuses, where a lot of sex is happening, the talk about sex tends to be pretty negative - at Princeton, people push abstinence or caution, or talk about the "1 in 4" statistic - which are all valid reactions to a sexualized culture. But where are the people talking about how great an orgasm can be? Where are the people asking men and women to think about what they really want from sex, with the possibility that it might be more good sex? And why aren't we telling people to own their sexuality, without the implication that this means celibacy?

A member of One Taste said that the process has given her "deep physical access to the woman I am and the woman I want to be." Another compared it to getting a massage - "you don't take the masseuse out to dinner afterward." Could we have it both ways - an orgasm that's meaningful, but with no strings attached? And if we can't, why not? And if you say oxytocin, I will scream.

Thanks to Lydia and Aku for the tip!

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