Left Behind: Orgasmic Intimacy, Erotic Power, & Gendered Bodies
Writing about orgasms is not an easy task to accomplish for me for a variety of reasons, not the least of which involves my concern that my rhetoric not be construed as porn writing or as a confessional. Writing about Black female bodies, especially the body I own and inhabit, produces more than slight anxiety at certain moments—this is one such moment. I am aware of the ways in which Black women have been historically stereotyped as licentious and immoral on one extreme, as well as cold, pious, and ascetic in another extreme. Social pressures to be a “good woman” and “respectable” continue to produce certain tensions in my articulation of orgasmic experiences and sensual discourse. On the other hand, I do believe that as women of color, we should articulate in clear terms our experiences in order to break free from those constraints that would render us silent and would leave others who do not have our best interests intended or practiced to claim to speak for us.
To speak of myself as a desiring subject without the opacity of academic rhetoric risks exposure, ridicule, and loss of status, professionally. I struggle to move beyond such limiting extremes in order to assert erotic agency as a basic human right. Many of you reading this essay are probably familiar with Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic” where she asserts the sensual and the spiritual as positioned in the same space: “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire” (54). Experiencing and welcoming erotic pleasure in one’s life is essential to that agency.
Despite these assertions and despite my own scholarly writing that tends to focus on Black women, sexualities, and gender performance, I find myself struggling to resist the practice of writing about bodily experiences in abstract terms, or to somehow separate myself from corporeality through dense language. Despite personal and political tensions involved in discussing this topic, I am emboldened to speak on pleasure and the spirit by bell hooks’ inspiring discussion on Black women and love in her book Communion, where she argues that “self-actualized women should feel no shame when we speak of our longing for a loving partner, our need to be supported by a circle of loved ones” (155). This essay will have some personal anecdotes, but will focus on erotic gratification as being both a physical and spiritual need for women and men, despite social persistence of patriarchy and phallocentrism as a barrier to addressing human needs for experiencing and sharing pleasure, i.e., jouissance.
I titled this essay “left behind” as a trope to provide a reference point to the apocalyptic Christian novel series in order to frame what I see as a persistent issue in some heterosexual couplings, especially with regard to my own experiences with men. To be “left behind” in Christian terms is to witness the Rapture, or the departure of those who have been “saved,” while being “left behind” to endure the horror of the Apocalypse. One is abandoned, condemned to remain behind with the sinful masses while the few depart for Paradise. One need not be a believer in this story in order to identify with a common fear of abandonment and exclusion from individual and collective happiness and joy. In many ways, patriarchal paradigms of heterosexual erotic connections do not leave much room for women to experience sensual pleasure beyond those experienced by their male partners.
Being objectified by men or having sex with men does not necessarily translate to exercising erotic agency or developing intimacy with them. Further, ecstasy of the body and spirit may seem an ever-fleeting peak to be deferred or used as a means to uneven, male-centered sexual encounters. Five years of self-imposed abstinence after two failed relationships have allowed me to reflect on this question: what do I want? Who I want isn’t so much of a priority i as is what I want because I think it is a question many of us women, especially those of us who engage in relationships with men don’t ask, and if I plan to continue to continue to seek out long term relationships with men (and so far that is my direction), then I think it is crucial to have in mind the what as a major priority, if not the major priority to be fulfilled. Patricia Hill Collin’s seminal text Black Sexual Politics asserts a transformative notion of erotic power as being centered on being truthful about the self:
Overall, soul, expressiveness, spirituality, sensuality, sexuality, and an expanded notion of the erotic as a life force that may include all of these ideas seem to be tightly bundled together within this notion of an honest body that is not alienated from itself and where each individual has the freedom to pursue his or her sense of the erotic (287).
For me, being truthful to oneself about what I want has helped me to filter out and avoid relationships with men who are unable or unwilling to treat me as a full human being with feelings, desires, and needs.
Nevertheless, asking for what you really want from a man in clear, unequivocal terms involves the risk being ignored, neglected, or even rejected by him. Sometimes, it seems easier to accept what is available, rather than attempting honesty about one’s desires. To ask for satisfaction, to “want it” and truly ask for it produces the refusal to actually “be there.” This is about lack of intimacy, but this is also about being left behind. My first lover was ten years older than me, and far more experienced than me. I met him at a political rally as a part of Young Democrats. He was a graduate student at Emory who, as a graduate of Clark College (now Clark-Atlanta University), had been active in Black Nationalist politics of the 70s during his undergraduate years. I was 18, impressionable, and a rape survivor (by an athlete during the first semester of college–I do not consider being raped as my “first”). My first lover seduced me with his stories, then with kisses. The sexual pleasure was there, but not the intimacy, as he made it clear he was not interested in connecting with me beyond what we now refer to as FWB (the year was 1985). I felt that he was performing sex “on” me or “inside” of me, rather than with me, even as he was gentle with me. In turn, I felt trapped by what I saw as an endless cycle of physical pleasure that was soulless, experiences that left me cold and indifferent. The shame overwhelmed me. As the spring semester grew to a close, I ended it, quietly.
Similarly, two decades later I found myself dealing with a relationship that was unfulfilling, emotionally and sexually, due to what proved to my ex-partner’s discomfort with what he perceived and labeled as emotional and sexual “intensity.” In many ways, it seemed as if I had returned to a familiar relationship pattern of attempting to connect with someone who was emotionally unavailable, while sexually available. Like my first lover, he loved to tell me stories and read poetry to me. He enchanted me with his eyes and soft voice, which seemed almost hypnotic. In contrast, he excited me with his unpredictable style of lovemaking, like a Green Man of the forest. I enjoyed his venturesome spirit in experimenting with his sexuality, as we were both exploring alternative expressions of sensuality and exploring the experience of being in an interracial/intercultural/inter-religious relationship.
Being in relationships with partners that entail or involve alternative perspectives on sensual/emotional practices do not excuse either partner of the need to be emotionally available and capable of developing true intimacy. What about people who just don’t understand real intimacy outside the bedroom? I see many bored, middle-class people out there buying sex toys and experimenting with the idea of somehow healing low self-esteem and low libido; a pill won’t work, and neither will that overpriced crop you bought to match the leather wrist and ankle cuffs for your lover.
That being said, alternative perspectives on sensual/emotional practices could not be blamed as the issue. We were the issue, our collective emotional problems were the issue, and those collective issues became collective when individuals walked into a relationship without properly dealing with individual self-esteem issues. A need to be spiritually connected had been fleetingly touched at crucial moments, especially when encouraged through my introduction of spiritual rituals to our couplings as a way of deepening our relationship, but I had not considered his discomfort with connecting sex with the spirit because of his cultural and religious upbringing. I was naïve and unprepared to deal with communication styles, culturally. He was unprepared to deal with the challenges of being with an African American woman raised as a Protestant who was not familiar with Catholicism with regard to gender roles and sexual mores. As an African American woman raised in a strict Protestant household, and as an adult living in a country plagued with double and triple standards waged against women of color who dare to exercise erotic agency in defiance of American racist patriarchy, I can relate to what sort of femininity invokes anger and hatred in those who are vested in male dominant hegemonies.
Significantly, I found myself dealing with a man unwilling to tolerate a woman who “wanted” to be touched and pleasured, who “asked” to be a part of that intensity and heat within the parameters and capabilities of my body, to allow me time to be right there, and not be “left behind.” He felt much more at ease with me as an object of desire to be acted upon, who performed without articulating emotional or physical needs that could require him to become just as spiritually vulnerable as I became to him. In order to take such a step he would have had to exchange emotional energy with me instead of merely taking it from me. Again, I find this to be an issue that crosses all cultures and social classes, in that those who are vested in phallocentric thinking (men or women) do not recognize or see women as equals because women are perceived as appendages of men, and therefore are deemed as unsuitable for such an exchange. Unfortunately, we still struggle to counter the legacy of logocentrism and patriarchy in our relationships with men in the 21st century. Here, I invoke Helene Cixous’ work “Laugh of the Medusa”: within a phallocentric context, we exist to serve a function or series of functions, not the least of which involves providing him with sexual relief.
Though my partner demonstrated initial openness to female sensuality, he became resentful at my expressed concerns about his distance from emotional intimacy. He began to belittle my physical appearance and criticize the Wiccan and Yoruba altars in my apartment. As I began to grow as a published scholar and professor at my university, and as he began to lose ground in the business he owned, he complained that I had more stability and a better income. As our relationship deteriorated, the playfulness and joy left our bed. I felt that coldness creep across my soul again.
Unlike my first relationship, this one ended with sadness and bitterness–but without regret, as I learned to forgive him as someone who also suffered as a result of his inability to move beyond the limits of patriarchy in order to connect with women as equals. On the other hand, I cannot ignore the lasting impact of Christian dogma on Western men and women who struggle to build intimacy and healthy erotic relationships with each other. I also cannot ignore the ways in which misogyny and fear of female sexualities continue to be fueled by religious institutions both here and abroad.
Accordingly, my next long term relationship’s arrival and progress will have everything to do with my ability to focus on my own emotional health and my ability to care for myself, even as I care for my lover’s needs. Further, intimacy grows from trust, loyalty, and friendship, all of the components we seek out in our quest for love and ecstasy. The spark may indeed be instantaneous, or the flame could take time to build. Sustained erotic connections strengthen through exchange and flow between two hearts, as opposed to one feeding and depleting the other of life force. Both must be willing and open to the unknown, to risk it all.
You won’t be bored, I’ll assure you of that one. We know that love does not die. In order to sustain ourselves in our relationships, however, we need to have a clear sense as to what we want, and, of course, begin with yet another question: why are we here? Answering the last question need not occur at the beginning, but you’ll have fun exploring it over the days, weeks, months, years, and decades you spend with your lover and partner.
These years have allowed me to heal my spirit from the wounds of past relationships, including my last relationship. I am ready to begin the process of connecting with someone, erotically. My sense of the erotic continues to deepen through self-exploration and self-transformation, as has my understanding of my need to have my next lover be connected to me soul-deep, not just vaginal-deep.
I end this essay with an invocation—and a promise:
I think of us staring at each other with our thoughts circling down like moons
I am thinking what you are thinking right now
an ache rides down between us like a warm shower
longing rocks and shudders through us as we watch the light of auras meeting
our thoughts are foresight and imagination
we hover and peruse
no longer enigmatic or occult
our hands meeting
we crawl to each other touching knees and thighs
To hear your breath quicken as we both fixate and tremble
To feel our lips crush together
tongue meeting tongue
your teeth smeared with my lipstick
my teeth nibbling at your throat
your tears falling upon my cheeks already wet with my tears
you whisper the declaration that both wish and manifest–Inamorata.
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