Lesbians certainly seem to have "arrived." For the first time in American history, we are visible in mainstream politics and culture. After centuries of passing marriages and deep closets, we are out in front agitating for domestic partnerships and same-sex-couple adoption rights. And we are reclaiming our sexuality with a vengeance. Denying that any aspect of sexuality is off-limits or the exclusive prerogative of males, lesbians have been very noisy about sado-masochism, dildos, harnesses, vibrators, pornography, role playing – you name it, lesbians do it But in our insistence that we will not be silenced or censored sexually ever again, are we silencing and censoring a voice that may well be on the cutting edge of our next revolution? I think we are, and I am here to make a case for that voice being heard. It is the voice of the lesbian for whom sex is not the primary metaphor for intimacy.
I am a dramatist, which is to say a storyteller, and so, not surprisingly, when I sat down to write this essay, I began to look for the stories. And I found three of them, three stories about women who customized their relationships to accommodate their spiritual missions – whether that mission was about personal commitment, spiritual activism, or realizing a dream. Each of these women lived or is living a spiritually radical life in which the choice to practice non-genital intimacy is or was the key element responsible for her success.
The first woman I want to talk about is Karen Thompson, the heroic woman who fought for eight and a half long years for the right to bring her partner Sharon Kowalski home, after Sharon suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of car accident in 1983. Karen had to battle her partner's homophobic and deeply ableist parents for guardianship in a legal system that repeatedly refused to recognize the legitimacy of a lesbian partnership – while her partner was suffering from inadequate treatment and care, and during a nightmarish period of three years in which she was not allowed to visit Sharon at all.
Needless to say, during these eight and a half years when it looked like she was just spinning her legal wheels, Karen was actually undergoing a series of progressive revolutions. She went from being a closet lesbian, even in the closet to herself! (she considered herself an average heterosexual who just happened to fall in love with a woman . . .) to becoming a national spokeswoman for lesbian rights. She went from a conservative Nixon Republican to a radical activist, making connections between racism, ableism, classism, ageism, sexism, and homophobia. She grew positively militant about disability rights.
The first time I met Karen was in 1989, at a women's music festival on the West Coast. She was recruiting support for her legal battles, and offering workshops to educate lesbians about the need for wills, health care proxies, powers-of-attorney, and living wills.
At the same festival, there was another woman concerned about lesbian relationships. This woman was the emcee of the festival. In 1989, she was considered the foremost expert in the Western world on lesbian relationships. Her credentials for that title? She was a former heterosexual sex therapist who had made a recent, but rapturous conversion to lesbianism. She was bringing her version of the sexual revolution of the '60's to lesbian-feminist culture. She talked about body parts, shocking many, liberating others; she talked about role playing and especially gendered role-playing as a recipe for rekindling the sexual spark in relationships. She was very big on romance as a key ingredient to lesbian relationships. She encouraged women who were not as sexual as their partners – for whatever reason – to get themselves some help with their problem, offering all kinds of techniques for getting them back up to speed in the bedroom. In her book, literally (she was the author of several books on lesbian sex), healing from sexual abuse was synonymous with enthusiastic participation in sexual activities. She considered the partner wanting more sexual activity justified in owning her feelings of deprivation. She taught us that we had a right to be sexual, and that we need not feel guilty for leaving a partner who could not accommodate our natural and healthy desires to express ourselves sexually. Careful to avoid any shame/blame terminology surrounding sexual practices, she made very free with the term "lesbian bed death," an ableist, ignorant, offensive, profoundly judgmental, and extremely derogatory characterization of relationships where sex is no longer the primary metaphor for intimacy.
I could not help comparing this woman's definition of a lesbian relationship with the one that Karen Thompson was living out so publicly. Karen never discussed her or Sharon's sexuality. Somehow it just didn't seem relevant to considerations of traumatic brain injury. But she did discuss Sharon's condition. Sharon now has short-term memory loss, which means every time she meets someone - unless she knew them before the accident – she experiences meeting them for the first time. Most of Sharon's communication is non-verbal and she relies on a device called a "speech pack" in order to communicate. Because she had been in a coma for six months and because she was denied access to physical and occupational therapy during the early years of her recovery, Sharon suffered considerable loss of mobility. Today, she requires a wheelchair and lifts. Originally confined to nursing homes, she now attends adult day care.
Prior to the accident, Karen and Sharon had only been partners for four years – hardly a long-term relationship. If the celebrity relationship expert was encouraging breakups over differences regarding sexual practices, what must she have thought of a woman who had tabled her entire career, revised all of her life goals, spent all of her savings, and given up her privacy to dedicate her life to fighting for the right to be solely financially, physically, and emotionally responsible for a woman with overwhelming needs, a woman who could no longer perform most of the functions of an able-bodied person, and whose brain no longer functioned like an able-bodied brain?
It occurred to me that we, as a culture of lesbians, should have made Karen Thompson our expert on lesbian relationships. Her comprehension of the power of love, the spiritual dimension of it, and the awesomeness of its responsibility utterly eclipsed the sound-byte clichés of the so-called relationship expert.
Today Karen Thompson lives in what she calls a "family of affinity." She describes her process in forming it: “I was on the road, speaking and fund-raising, and between that and my teaching job, I literally lost who I was. I was wishing my life away from one court hearing to the next. I finally realized that, to survive, something had to change. I had to give myself permission to move on with my life. I didn't know if I was ever going to see Sharon again, and if I didn't, was this the way I was going to live the rest of my life? I made the decision that I would start dating and be open to another relationship, but that I would never walk away from Sharon. Whoever came into my life would have to understand that my commitment to Sharon was a lifetime commitment. Sharon and I would always be a package deal. If anyone could learn to love me, they would have to love us both." (Brownworth, 13)
Patty Bresser had known Sharon and Karen before the accident. This is an important point, because it meant that Sharon would be able to remember her. Because of her short-term memory loss, she would never be able to recognize or become familiar with anyone she met after the accident. Patty and Karen began to live together, and Patty worked to build a relationship with Sharon before Sharon came home. When Karen asks Sharon if they should sent Patty back to Connecticut, Sharon always says, "No."
Karen's relationship with Sharon is a model for customizing the definition of intimacy. Karen is careful to include her relationship with Sharon in any definition of her relationship to Patty. She uses the expression "family of affinity" because it includes Sharon. She refuses to privilege the sexual relationship over the non-sexual one, but she also refuses to infantilize Sharon by referring to the caretaking relationship as a guardianship. Patriarchy has no simple term for these relationships. "Partners" and "couples" imply twosomes. "Family" means birth or adoption. "Lover" connotes sexual activity. None of these define the very intimate dynamic between Patty and Karen and Sharon. They are a family of affinity. That is a family of choice based on their love and commitment toward each other. It is simply beyond the closed circles and binaries of the patriarchal model.
So that is what Karen Thompson is doing today. And what about the celebrity expert on lesbian relationships? I understand that she has left the community and married a man.
This first relationship deals with disability as a sexual issue. The disability movement has worked long and hard and rightfully so – to dispel the notion that people with disabilities have no sexuality. Lesbian culture has been supportive of this effort to re-educate. I am thinking of Tee Corinne's erotic photographs two decades ago of nude lesbians who use wheelchairs, and the many anthologies of lesbian erotica that always include stories by women with disabilities.
But, again, in the rush to join the sexual revolution, are we silencing or muting an important voice? Disability can be one of the reasons why lesbians choose asexual partnerships. There are many medical conditions that render sexual activity painful or onerous, or just plain low-priority. Sex drive can be lowered or eliminated by certain medications, by depression, or by treatments or syndromes associated with fatigue. Sometimes sexual activity can result in a neurological backlash or a fatigue hangover. There can be many reasons why sex as a metaphor for intimacy might need to be re-examined in light of disability.
When sex is accepted as the universal metaphor for intimacy, which is certainly the message we get from every aspect of the mainstream and even lesbian popular culture, it becomes the criterion for a relationship as well as the index for how well the couple is doing. The disabled woman may feel a need to either fake an interest in sex or resign herself to a life without primary intimacy, which may well mean without family. These are poor choices for an able-souled woman who longs for partnership. And what does it mean when our primary cultural metaphor for intimacy requires disabled women to lie or be excluded? I would like to suggest that the relationship model of the sexual couple on perpetual honeymoon is an unrealistic and oppressive model, and one that does not take into account the ever-present possibility that neither partner - or both - can become disabled in any number of ways, for any number of reasons, at any time.
Karen threw out that model in order to hold onto her love. Refusing to see her situation as an either-or, martyrdom-or-abandonment binary, she created a third option, the "family of affinity," honoring an ongoing commitment to intimacy in light of the fact that sexual expression was no longer the appropriate metaphor for this intimacy.
But if sex is not the index for intimacy, then what is? In her poem "Silence," Marianne Moore wrote, "The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence:/ not in silence, but restraint." Restraint . . . what about that? What about substituting restraint instead of passion as the measure of love in a relationship? Sounds good to me. Passion may be little more than an index of hormonal activity, emotional neediness, or conditioned response. Restraint, on the other hand, shows up when the needs of one partner conflict with the needs of the other on the proving ground of a relationship.
Restraint means sitting with uncertainty, confusion, and anger to the very boundaries of your comfort zone, and even beyond, in the faith that there will be a way, that there will be a light, that there will be grace at the end of the day. I am sure the world will never know the most courageous part of Karen Thompson's eight-year struggle. We can all read about the court cases and the fights with social service agencies, but we will never know the hours and days and months of Karen's most significant work - the questioning of her actions, of her motives, of her sanity - an inquiry into the very foundations of what it means to love and what it means to have a commitment. Karen's quest also entailed a deep, metaphysical examination of what it means to be human, of who we are and what our life means when we lose our achievements, our intellect, our mobility, our hobbies, our habits, our ability to communicate. When our appearance is altered, our perceptions, our personality, our sexuality - what is the essence that remains? Most of us will have to wait until we die to answer that question. Karen Thompson lives in the grace and challenge of answering that question every day.
The next story is the story of a lesbian whose decision to practice non-sexual intimacy had its roots in a political and historical reality, a story that took place more than a hundred years ago, in 1862, in Philadelphia. The story is set in a house on Erie Street, a house where twelve to twenty African Americans, mostly women, are living communally. It is a Shaker house, and the leader, or "eldress" is Rebecca Jackson. Her partner, another African American woman, is named Rebecca Perot and she lives with her. When Rebecca Jackson dies at the age of seventy-one, Perot will change her name to Rebecca Jackson, Junior and take over the spiritual leadership of the community.
The two Rebeccas lived together, worked together, and slept together in a celibate relationship for thirty-five years, and Rebecca Jackson's commitment to Rebecca Perot was integral to her commitment to liberation and to spirituality.
Rebecca Jackson's life spanned a period of tremendous social upheaval for African Americans. Born in 1795, she lived in a world of contradictions. She was a free Black woman in a country where enslavement was legitimized by a white government. She was a woman preacher at a time when most of the churches banned women from the pulpit. She was a married woman who would not put her husband above her spiritual calling at a time when obedience was one of the marriage vows for women. And she preached the sinfulness of marital sex when the prevailing theology taught sexual submissiveness as a sacred duty of women in"holy matrimony."
Like Karen Thompson, Rebecca Jackson did not start out her life as a radical activist. Her mother having died when she was thirteen, Rebecca was sent to the home of her older brother Joseph Cox, a widower with six children and a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal, or AME, Church. She lived with her brother until she was forty-one, managing his household, raising his children, and working on the side as a seamstress. During these years, she married Samuel Jackson, who had been a tenant in her brother's house, and after the marriage, they continued to live with the brother. Jackson's writings indicate that, prior to her spiritual awakening, she had been a traditional housewife and care giver.
Her awakening was catalyzed by a betrayal. In 1831, she discovered that her brother, who had reneged on his agreement to teach her to read, was altering the wording in letters she dictated to him. When she confronted him, he rebuked her with a vehemence that reduced her to tears. But, in the very moment of her shame and humiliation, she heard the voice of a radical new consciousness. She described how this voice came to her and told her "the time shall come when you can write."; (Humez, 107) In obedience to this inner voice, she picked up her Bible and began to pray. To her amazement, she discovered that she could read. This was one of Rebecca's first "gifts of power," as she called her spiritual experiences and visions. She was to receive many over the next four decades.
Rebecca Jackson pledged absolute obedience to this inner voice, and as she continued to listen and obey, she found herself, like Karen Thompson, being led further and further away from the traditional values with which she had been raised.
Rebecca Jackson was being called to preach, a calling that scandalized her minister brother. Because women were not allowed to preach in AME churches, she became an itinerant preacher, holding renegade "Covenant Meetings,"typically comprised of women. Eventually the power of her preaching began to attract whites as well as blacks, and men as well as women. She began to receive invitations to preach in other towns, and was even, on occasion, invited to speak in a church.
African American spirituality has always been deeply engaged with questions of liberation, and Rebecca Jackson's engagement with these questions included the added dimension of gender.
One of Rebecca's most astounding revelations – the one that became the cornerstone of her philosophy of liberation and the principal text of her preaching – was that sexual intercourse was "of all things the most filthy in the sight of God, both in the married and unmarried, it all seemed alike."
Now, before we jump to conclusions about Rebecca's puritanical values or sexual repression, let's look at her revelation in the context of her being an African American woman in the early decades of the 19th century.
The history of the African American woman is a history of ongoing, horrifying, universal, nearly inconceivable sexual torture and violation. The case can be made that rape, not lynching, should be the metaphor for race oppression in this country. Because she was enslaved, and because the law deemed the"fruit of her womb" to be the property of her owner, regardless of paternity, the African American woman was sexually abused not only to gratify her white enslavers" sexual appetites and domination impulses, but also to increase his so-called property. She was paired off with African American males on the basis of genetic traits, and she was also prey to every white male with whom she came into contact. Being considered chattel, she had no recourse to law, and an enslaver could hardly take issue with a sexual assailant of any color whose actions might increase his so-called property. Captive African American women suffered from serial pregnancies, sometimes as many as fifteen and twenty. In the words of one planter, "An owner's labor force doubled through natural [his words] increase every fifteen years." The violation done to a woman by forcing her to bear and nurture unwanted children is neither recorded as "work," nor as "punishment" or "torture," but it was all three.
Pregnancy was a risky business in the 18th and 19th centuries, and these serial pregnancies took their toll in terms of child mortality, insanity, suicide, and exhaustion. The enslaved woman had absolutely no recourse when faced with sexual violation. Any displays of resistance to white rapists were met with violent reprisals, to herself and to her family. If she protested assault by an enslaved man, she risked loss of support within the community of captives. She had access neither to medicine, doctors, or hospitals. To add to the inconceivable horror of this situation, the captive woman had no control over her children at all. She could not protect them from torture, rape, slave labor, murder, sale at auction, or transport.
But it is important to remember that, in terms of sexual vulnerability, the so-called "free" African American woman in the early 19th century was almost as vulnerable as her enslaved sister. The majority of jobs for Black women were domestic service jobs, and because of this, most African American women were compelled to work in the homes of white families, where they were usually isolated from other workers, and where opportunities for rape were plentiful. When domestic servants were raped or sexually harassed, they had no recourse except to quit the job. Publicizing their violation would only redound in charges of slander or loose morals.
And, finally, all married women - white or Black - in the early 19th century were legally slaves to their husbands. Historically, they could not own property, collect their own wages, or own their own children. They could not vote, hold elected office, or serve on juries - a key point in the prosecution of rapists. They were banned from educational and career opportunities. Jobs open to them were menial and low-paying. And they could not deny their husbands sexually. A wife was compelled by law to submit to her husband's sexual demands, regardless of how untimely, unwelcome, repellant, or brutal. Husbands had the legal right to batter their wives, wife-beating being considered humorous and a form of "discipline." What we today would call marital rape was considered a wifely duty in the 19th century. Refusal to comply with a husband's sexual demands was grounds for divorce, with the attendant loss of children, property (her husband was entitled to everything that was hers when she married him), shelter, and financial support.
As with the more overt enslavement of women, marriage was likely to result in serial pregnancies and the Number One cause of death for women was from complications in childbirth. Perpetual motherhood for the duration of her childbearing years - for women of all races - resulted in poverty and overwork for married women, again increasing mortality rates for both mother and children. The only form of birth control available to these women was the extended visits to friends and relatives. Rebecca's own experiences and observations had taught her that so-called free women were enslaved by their relations with men, and that heterosexuality was not only the ideology, but also the mechanism of their oppression. Her discovery would be elucidated more than a century later by poet and author Adrienne Rich in her classic feminist essay, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence."
But Rebecca Jackson lived in an age before women's studies and feminist theory. Seeking support for her revelation, she turned to the one text available to her: the Bible. And here she found the passages that supported her preaching:
I Timothy: "She shall be saved in childbearing, if she continues in faith and charity and holiness, with sobriety."
I Corinthians: "He that is married careth for the things of this world, how he may please his wife."
Luke: "The children of this world marry and are given in marriage. But they that are accounted worthy to obtain that world and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage."
I Corinthians: "She that is unmarried careth for the things of the Lord, how she may be holy, both in body and in spirit."
When Jackson preached the gospel of celibacy in marriage, she did so with considerable scriptural authority. She argued that man's sexuality was more unnatural than that of animals, otherwise why was it not practiced, as the animals practiced theirs, in the light of day? Describing the sexuality of animals as taking place in an orderly fashion in "times and seasons," she decried the sexuality of men which took place in "confusion, in fear, in shame, in darkness, through lust, and to gratify themselves, by the influence of the Devil and not to multiply the earth and glorify their Maker." According to Jackson, "In this respect they have fallen below the beasts, for these know times and seasons, and after that they remain still, until the time of nature's season returns. And in that, they answer the end of their creation more than man."
Rebecca Jackson was a powerful and persuasive speaker, and what she was advocating was nothing less than an uprising of enslaved women. And married women were eager to embrace a doctrine that gave divine sanction to their natural aversion to compulsory sex and childbearing. Far from being dismissed, the threat posed by Jackson's preaching was taken very seriously by the men in the communities where she was fomenting revolution. Her autobiography Gifts of Power makes frequent mention of the "persecutions" with which she was met. Although she does not elaborate, the narrative suggests that, on more than one occasion, these so-called persecutions took the form of conspiracies against her life.
Rebecca left her husband in 1836, when she was forty-one. Sources indicate this was the same year in which she made the acquaintance of Rebecca Perot, although they did not begin to develop their relationship until about seven years later. What little we know about their relationship is found in the recorded visions of both women published in Gifts of Power.
Here is Rebecca Jackson's description of a vision of Rebecca Perot:
I saw Rebecca Perot coming in the river, her face to the east, and she aplunging in the water every few steps, head foremost, abathing herself. She only had on her undergarment. She was pure and clean, even as the water in which she was abathing. She came facing me out of the water. I wondered she was not afraid. Sometimes she would be hid, for a moment, and then she would rise again. She looked like an Angel, oh, how bright! following ones. (225)
And here is an interesting vision that could be read as a lesbian subversion of the so-called Fall of Eve:
After I laid down to rest, I was in sweet meditation. And a beautiful vision passed before my spirit eye. I saw a garden of excellent fruit. And it appeared to come near, even onto my bed, and around me! Yea, it covered me. And I was permitted to eat, and to give a portion to Rebecca Perot, and she ate, and was strengthened. (261)
And what of Rebecca Perot's visions? Here's one of them:
I dreamt that Ann Potter and Rebecca Jackson and myself were in England. And Ann Potter took us to the Queen, and she crowned Rebecca King and me Queen of Africa. I then saw Africa with all her treasures of gold, together with all her inhabitants, and these was all given into our charge. (308)
These two women encouraged each other to indulge in ecstatic and empowering visions that celebrated their love in sensuous and Afro-centric metaphors, and that challenged each other to experience themselves as favored daughters of a beneficent female deity.
Later the two Rebeccas embraced Shakerism, a utopian, communal religion based on principles of celibacy. After several years of struggle against the racism of the white Shakers, and her own personal struggles with the leader of that community, the Rebeccas received authorization to found their own community for African Americans in Philadelphia.
Obviously, Rebecca Jackson and Rebecca Perot reflected the values and experiences of Black women living in a country where enslavement was still practiced. But I think that their visions and their choices have much to say to any woman who has experienced loss of sexual autonomy through child sexual abuse, rape, harassment, or sexual pressures within a chosen relationship.
I am including this story of Rebecca Jackson, because it is one that gives a historical context to an individual's perception of sex. Since the birth control pill freed sexuality from an automatic association with pregnancy risk, there has been a concerted effort on the part of the popular media to represent sexuality as apolitical and ahistorical. It is, in fact, neither.
Our sexual experiences do not occur in a cultural, social or political vacuum. My generation remembers when marital rape was still legal, when date rape was simply a "bad date," when sexual harassment was called teasing and the problem defined as women's poor sense of humor. We remember the time before rape crisis lines, rape victim advocates, before battered women's shelters. We remember when abortion was illegal, when incest was considered extremely rare, a subject for offensive jokes about Appalachia.
Times have changed, but where my generation remembers the brothels of Vietnam, and the mass suicides of raped women in Bangladesh, the rising generation has memories of Bosnia and the ongoing and rising sexual slavery throughout Asia — a slave traffic supported by both heterosexual and gay male Western businessmen and entrepreneurs.
Our experiences of sex also occur within a context of our sexual histories. According to a National Survey, 17.6 % of women in the United States have survived a completed or attempted rape. Of these, 21.6% were younger than age 12 when they were first raped, and 32.4% were between the ages of 12 and 17. (Full Report of The Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women, findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey, November, 2000). These figures are probably conservative. The FBI estimates that only 37% of all rapes are reported to the police. U.S. Justice Department statistics are even lower, with only 26% of all rapes or attempted rapes being reported to law enforcement officials. Rape victims often experience anxiety, guilt, nervousness, phobias, substance abuse, sleep disturbances, depression, alienation, sexual dysfunction, and aggression. They often distrust others and replay the assault in their minds, and they are at increased risk of future victimization (DeLahunta 1997).
Building on studies of post-traumatic stress disorder of Vietnam War veterans, psychologists have begun to develop a whole new field of research and theory based on the effects of trauma. This has led to specific research into the effects of child sexual abuse on the development of the child. Symptoms and syndromes that used to be lumped together under "hysteria" or "borderline personality" are now classified as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The abused child is now understood to have symptoms similar to those of war captives and torture survivors, only with more severe consequences, because the trauma occurred when they were children, without adult understanding of their situation or skills for coping with it. The understanding of Complex PTSD is just now beginning to enter the public discourse. And high time, too. I believe that this will be part of the next revolution, and that trauma studies will inevitably lead to a new area inquiry, "intimacy studies."
I want to look briefly at some of the ways in which children process sexual abuse, because this has a lot to do with how survivors experience sex as an adult. The child is dependent upon parental figures and, to a certain extent, on all adult authority figures, for her survival. Knowledge that parents or adults are dangerous or dishonest can be life-threatening to the child, and the child's mind develops elaborate strategies for protecting her against this taboo information. Some children repress the memories entirely, and sometimes permanently. Some women recover these memories, often in their late twenties or early thirties. Retrieval of these memories radically alters the sexual patterns and behaviors of the survivor, and some therapists mistakenly insist that the behaviors of the survivor prior to their recovery of the trauma memories — behaviors that may well have been hypersexual and dissociative — constituted the "authentic" sexuality of the client. The therapist may mistakenly direct her energy toward getting the survivor to return to these behaviors, when, in fact, they may have been syndromes of the trauma from which she is attempting to recover!
Some children undergo a process called "fusion with the perpetrator" during sexual abuse. Because they don't understand what is being done to them - often not even having words for it--and because it is too dangerous to experience their violation at the hands of their care giver, they will identify with the perpetrator and his arousal during the abuse. This can result in tremendous confusion for the survivor later in life. She may find herself aroused by scenarios involving her own pain, trauma, or humiliation, or she may find that she can become aroused only in the role, play-acted or real, of a perpetrator. Her fantasies and/or her sexual practices may run completely counter to her spirituality and her core politic - and yet, she may find it is difficult or even impossible to achieve the same kind of arousal with roles or fantasies more consistent with her values.
Fusion with the perpetrator is similar to the downloading of pornographic files into a computer, only the computer is the psyche of the child victim. Just as a computer virus can contaminate files and programs in the host computer, this involuntary importation of overwhelming sexual and emotional adult material can pre-empt and corrupt the child's natural development of her own sexuality. This projected affect from the perpetrator can become hard-wired into the child's psyche, where it may reside, more or less intact, as she begins to mature sexually. This kind of hard-wiring can be very difficult to take apart or rebuild later on. Imagine the pain and frustration of the woman with an evolved politic and spirituality, who, in her most intimate relationship, finds the program of some invasive pornographic perpetrator running - a program that she never intentionally imported, and one that is counter to everything she stands for and has fought against in the other areas of her life.
This woman will not find help with her dilemma in a popular culture that insists sex is apolitical and ahistorical, that tells her, "if it feels good, do it." What if what feels good, feels bad? Then, the culture says, learn to disconnect the politic and the spirituality that make it feel bad. Orgasm at any cost! For some women, this advice sounds suspiciously like the perpetrator's agenda, and it is to be achieved through the same technique: the woman's spontaneous dissociation.
Dissociation is another survival strategy for abused children. In repression, the child splits off the taboo memory. In dissociation, she splits off the taboo parts of herself - the parts that she was not allowed to express as a child. She may have split off all of her rage, so that most of the time she appears to be incredibly easy-going and non-confrontational, but when something triggers her, she can go into shockingly abusive behaviors. She may not have been allowed to set boundaries, and so most of the time she might appear to be a generous and devoted caregiver. Then, one day, she is gone with no looking back.
I'm not talking about Multiple Personality Disorder, where the survivor has developed a number of discrete personalities, with their own histories, names, and behaviors, and where the survivor is amnesiac about the actions she performs in one persona when she is in another. Women with dissociative identity disorders remember their behaviors, but they are often unable to understand them or be accountable for them. They feel shame and confusion about their inconsistencies, and many women with dissociative identity disorders have histories of serial failures in their intimate relationships.
Dissociative sexual behaviors are extremely common among survivors of child sexual abuse. These can include hypersexuality, emotional absence, dependence on drugs or alcohol, or childlike passivity during sexual encounters. They can include rage or abusive behaviors. Sometimes sexual activity will trigger somatic memories, and a survivor can experience the physical sensations with or without the emotional states that occurred at the time of her abuse. Many survivors cannot become aroused without alcohol, drugs, or intense role-playing.
Much of what the media portrays as women's sexuality looks suspiciously like dissociative identity disorder. Marilyn Monroe's behaviors, for example, bear more resemblance to those of a molested child trying to appease a male authority figure than an adult woman engaging in an empowering and mutually satisfying sexual interaction. And, indeed, why wouldn't they? Our pop cultural icon for female sexuality spent a fatherless childhood of sexual abuse and poverty in a string of orphanages and foster homes after her mother, who suffered mental illness, was institutionalised. By her own account, she was a survivor of multiple episodes of child sexual abuse. Shortly after her fifteenth birthday, her legal guardian brokered a so-called marriage for her. In other words, Marilyn Monroe was legally prostituted as a teenager. She made three attempts at suicide before she was twenty-five, and several more throughout the rest of her life. Marilyn called her first husband "Daddy," she called second husband Joe Dimaggio "Pa," and she called third husband Arthur Miller "Pops." Apparently it wasn't just her heart that belonged to daddy.
But this profoundly traumatized woman who died such a tragic, early death has become, not a symbol for a movement against child sexual abuse, but an icon of female sexuality. What does it say about male dominant culture that its sex goddess was a desperately unhappy, suicidal incest survivor who had dissociative identity disorders and who eventually killed herself? Can anyone really believe that Marilyn Monroe's sexuality was a transcendent phenomenon, somehow existing apart from her history of trauma, developed in a cultural vacuum? It was not. Her sexuality was no different from that of millions of survivors of child sexual abuse all over the world. At a recent auction of her personal affects, a pair of Marilyn's stiletto-heel pumps was sold for $48,000. A high price to pay for shoes, but the price is much higher for the woman who attempts to walk in them. And maybe that's the point.
"Hypersexuality" is a term you will never see in the popular media, although it's all over the literature about post-rape and post-incest syndromes. It has been suggested that sexual dissociation is so rampant in female populations that dissociative disorders have come to define what is considered normative sexual behavior for women.
Healing from dissociative states requires awareness and conscious integration. It means learning to identify when one is dissociated, learning which situations and dynamics trigger the flight into dissociation, and learning how it feels to stay present. It means going back and experiencing the frozen grief and displaced rage. Healing from sexual abuse, contrary to the books on lesbian sexuality, does not necessarily result in a renewed interest in sex. The survivor who no longer relies on dissociation to enable her sexual activity, may have become unwilling to indulge in the fantasies and scenarios that so clearly are not of her choosing, but that are necessary for her to achieve orgasm. She may have stopped repressing or censoring the disruptive somatic memories, so that sex is physically painful. She may become aware that this metaphor is so contaminated with traumatic associations, she is not able or maybe even not willing to redeem it as a metaphor for intimacy. She may have come to feel so trusting of her partner that, for the first time in her life, she is free to bring all of who she is into her most intimate moments, and this supreme gift of showing up with all of herself may be the very thing that precludes sexual activity. How painful for this woman to discover that her partner preferred her dissociative behavior!
Sexuality is learned. It is imperative that we begin to ask where we learned it and what were the motives of our teachers, before we accept these lessons as part of our identity and allow them to determine the shape of our lives and of our intimacy. Sexuality is not apolitical or ahistorical. In fact, sex may be the most political lesson of our lives, a primer for understanding the meaning of invasion, occupation, colonization. What more powerful tool for a colonizer to possess than the ability to cross the wires for pain and pleasure in a subject people at the very command headquarters of the central nervous system? What percentage of a population would one need to torture and brainwash in order to colonize the whole? What does it mean that 33% of girls are survivors of sexual torture, and many - or even most - have to some degree formed an identity around identification with and protection of the perpetrator?
We do not know whether or not Rebecca Jackson was a survivor of sexual abuse, but we do know from her writings that her overwhelming quest for liberation for Black women and her courageous confrontation of the facts of the historic sexual violation of Black women were too great for her to see any value in reclaiming sexuality as a metaphor for intimacy. In fact, it was part of her spiritual quest for liberation to keep the abuse of sexuality always in the front of her preaching and her mission. Instead of rehearsing scenarios of domination and enslavement with her partner, she chose to construct visions of goddesses, of healing, of abundance. For followers of Rebecca Jackson, the primary metaphor for intimacy was consummate respect for the chastity of the women they loved, a chastity that was a metaphor for the physical autonomy and integrity that had been so historically, so perpetually, so painfully, and so violently wrenched from her people. The greatest gift Rebecca Jackson could bring to her beloved Rebecca Perot was the conceptual restoration and celebration of her virginity, most rare and most treasured — an almost inconceivable symbol of liberation for an African American woman in the 19th century. And still a rare, treasured, and almost inconceivable symbol for freedom for any women of any color in the 21st century.
The third story begins in a parking lot in California more than thirty years ago. It is the parking lot of the Bel Air hotel in Los Angeles. There are two white women getting ready to take a five-day vacation trip up to Napa Valley. One of the women is a blonde and the other is a redhead. The car is packed with food, clothing, and cameras. The gas tank is filled for a five-day adventure. The two women get into the car.
This is the blonde woman's description of their trip:
We discovered some wonderful places. We explored the old missions around Santa Barbara. We were mostly alone as we traveled up the coast, with just the quiet trees looking down over the misty sea. Eventually, I remember tall, tall mountains looking down into magical valleys. To me, it was like stepping right in to the Old Testament. We were swept up in the spirit of the place. . . We were both just marveling at the overwhelming feeling of the place. And then, suddenly, we came back to our senses and found we were still in the parking lot at the Bel Air Hotel. I don't understand it. It was five days later, and it appeared we hadn't moved. Our luggage was still intact. The same gas was still in the tank. And our food was still warm. I don't expect you to understand, because even Judy and I have never been able to explain this experience. Maybe it was just something we both needed desperately. I do know that this was shortly before I went into a very dark depression. And maybe God was preparing me for this. I felt so close to him during this sort of spiritual trip that we took. Then in my darkest days soon afterward, he seemed so far away that I couldn't find him. But, maybe, through this journey, he had instilled in me an extra bit of strength, so that I could hold on. I'll never be sure. I do know that both Judy and I can still recall certain moments from that trip. And they seem to come back at the times when we need it the most. (Parton, 299-300)
The two women who took this spiritual trip together have been in a primary relationship for more than forty years. They met in third grade, and they remained best friends throughout their school years, years in which the blonde girl was scapegoated as a slut because of her large breasts and flashy clothes. The redhead, the daughter of an abusive and alcoholic widower, was hired out as child to do field work side-by-side with adult males. After high school, the redhead enlisted in the military, and the blonde began a career as a performer. When the redhead got out of the service, she came to live with the blonde, and has Been living with her ever since - except for a brief period of time when a crisis in their relationship drove the redhead to re-enlist. It was quickly apparent to both that they had made a terrible mistake, and the blonde, by then rich and famous, used her political connections to get the redhead honorably discharged.
The two women travel together, they create art together, they work together, they play together, they share a bed, and — as the Bel Air story makes obvious — they share a very deep and very personal spirituality. They do not have sex with each other, but the blonde has made a point of telling the press that she sleeps naked. These days, when asked if they are lesbian, the blonde woman will reply, "You can call me that if you want to."
Some lesbians would not call them that. The blonde has a husband, a man she married as a teenager, who lives with both women in a separate part of the house. The blonde also has had a history of heterosexual affairs from time to time, but always with the understanding that these would not jeopardize either her marriage or her primary relationship with the redhead.
The blonde is Dolly Parton and the redhead is Judy Ogle. Now, I realize "Dolly Parton" is the last name that might come to mind when one thinks of lesbians or celibacy. Dolly Parton has become a cultural icon for heterosex, and she has, through cosmetic surgery and extreme dieting, turned her body into a pornographic caricature.
So why am I talking about her in the same breath with the likes of Karen Thompson and Rebecca Jackson? Because she so beautifully exemplifies the problem of definitions that comes up whenever we try to talk about lesbian relationships.
The language and models that we have for our relationships reflect a male dominant culture and its interests - or obsessions. These do not serve us lesbians well. As Esther Rothblum writes in her introduction to Boston Marriages: Romantic But Asexual Marriages among Contemporary Lesbians, citing Naomi McCormick:
"Because women's sexuality is socially constructed by men, contemporary sexologists are inclined to demand genital proof of sexual orientation. Before labeling her as bisexual or lesbian, most researchers expect a woman to have had genital relationships with other women. Feminists have pointed out some serious shortcomings with this assumption. Female bisexuality and lesbianism may be more a matter of loving other women than of achieving orgasm through genital contact . . . The absence of genital juxtaposition hardly drains a relationship of passion or importance." (6)
I am talking about Dolly Parton here because she is an example of a woman who has had to customize her intimacy in extreme ways to negotiate a superstar career in a patriarchal culture that makes it extremely difficult for any woman to realize even small dreams.
Dolly Parton was a hillbilly woman, and where my generation of lesbians associated freedom with flannel shirts and work boots, for Dolly, those constituted the uniform and symbol of her oppression. Poor and poorly educated, she was a smart and ambitious woman. And she knew that her only way out of the constriction of poverty and compulsory heterosexuality/motherhood was through exploiting her sex appeal, a patriarchal common denominator that crossed all class lines. Short, tight skirts and sparkly, spangly tops to her were symbols of mobility, of ambition, of glamour, of big cities, of travel and adventure. Dressing with what were to her power symbols, she gained the unearned reputation of being a slut in her community. But outside her community, the manipulation of these symbols proved to be very effective.
Her marriage to Carl Dean, a working-class man, when she was still a teenager was another career move, in that he was able to support her while she was building her career. More importantly, her marital status enabled her to market her sexuality as a commodity while retaining the respectability and protection of marriage. It also enabled her to share her home openly with Judy. Dolly Parton is very open about her affairs, and about the fact that she does not see Carl Dean very frequently, never travels with him, and does not share her professional life with him. Asked if she believes in living together before marriage, she quips that she does not believe in living together after marriage. Carl Dean accepts Judy as part of the family, rotating the tires on her car and changing the oil.
Had Dolly looked to Carl Dean for undying passion or companionship, she would have divorced him long ago. Had she attempted to live as a single woman, her affairs would have been regular features on the covers of the tabloids, and she would never have been able to walk the fine line between sex symbol and the wholesome purveyor of family entertainment and proprietor of "Dollywood." Had she lived in an exclusive partnership with Judy, the only albums she would have been allowed to record would have been with Olivia Records, a company not even founded until Dolly was over forty.
It's interesting to read the words that Dolly uses to describe her relationship to Judy: "pure," "sweet," "innocent," "fun." In her world, sex is a metaphor for power, glamour, performance, an altered and manipulated state of arousal, commercialism, artificiality – something not so pure, not sweet, not so innocent, and, possibly, not so fun. It might be worth considering that the kind of spiritual odyssey that Dolly and Judy experienced was a result of the fact that they had never invested their intimacy in sexual practices, which, although they may become more refined in terms of technique, remain relatively static in terms of transformative growth. Maybe it was specifically this investment in other forms of intimacy that allowed them to channel their love into what appears to have been another dimension altogether.
Dolly's choices reflect the kind of splitting required of women in patriarchy. She maintains separate relationships for all the functions of her life as a woman whose ambition has always been to be a superstar. That she did not end up like Marilyn Monroe may have something to do with the protection and stability she has experienced in her personal life, through her marriage to Carl Dean and her ongoing intimate, sleep-in, companionship with Judy. Both Judy and Carl Dean met her and loved her before she became famous. Dolly Parton chose not to privilege her sexual relationships as the place where she would entrust her primary intimacy, and possibly this is one of the biggest secrets to her success. Where Marilyn made the fatal mistake of identifying with her image, Dolly is open and articulate about how her body is a costume and her public persona an act. Maybe she is able to do that, because Judy, who knew her as a child, holds her identity, and Dolly always comes home to Judy.
So there is no language to describe Dolly Parton's relationships. Who benefits from that? In her essay, "A Matter of Language," Marcia Hill writes,"The language available to describe reality, particularly such a fundamental aspect of reality as relationships, serves as a method of social control." (Rothblum, 199) She goes on on to say, "If we can't say it, it's hard to think it, and even harder to enact it. That standard question of all political analysis, Who benefits? serves us well here." Who benefits?" Who benefits from our not making commitments outside of a sexual context? Who benefits from our limited ability to value nonsexual intimacy? From the poverty of our language of intimacy? What kinds of intimacy would we describe and value, what kind of commitments would we make and honor, if we based our definitions of relationships in the reality of experience?" (Ibid)
Mary Daly, radical lesbian philosopher and all-round rabble-rouser, has given us a new lexicon for bespeaking ourselves into being, and one of the expressions she coined was "pure lust," which she describes as "the desire to share pleasure." Surely that is the emotion that defines Karen Thompson's ongoing care of Sharon Kowalski, that describes the sharing of visions between the Rebeccas Perot and Jackson, and that would characterize the fourth dimensional spiritual journey that Dolly Parton and Judy Ogle took from the parking lot of the Bel Air hotel. This "desire to share pleasure" allows us the freedom to define for ourselves what those symbols of pleasure will be, and in doing that, we honor the possibility that our politic, our intellect, our creativity, and our spirituality may have greater gifts of intimacy than a sexuality so influenced by conditions out of our control and inimical to our interests.
* This essay was initially commissioned by the Unitarian Universalist Church in Madison, WI, in 2000, for their Annual Wartmann Gay/Lesbian Lecture Series on Sexuality and Spirituality. Please ask permission from the author to reproduce any part of this essay.
Brownworth, Victoria A. and Susan Raffo, eds. Restricted Access: Lesbians on Disability. Seattle: The Seal Press, 1999.
DeLahunta, Elizabeth A., MD and David A. Baram. Clinical Obstetrics & Gynecology. "Dystocia." 40(3):648-660, September 1997.
Humez, Jean McMahon, ed. Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress. Amherst:; University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.
McCormick, Naomi. Sexual Salvation: Affirming Women's Sexual Rights and Pleasures. NY: Prager Publishing Co.
Parton, Dolly. Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.
Rothblum, Esther D. and Kathleen A. Brehony, eds. Boston Marriages: Romantic But Asexual Relationships Among Contemporary Lesbians. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.
Biography Channel - Biography of Marilyn Monroe
about the author
Carolyn Gage is a playwright, performer, and activist. She was disabled with Compensated Idiopathic Cardiomyopathy (aka Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) for nearly a decade. The author of more than fifty musicals and plays, she has written five books, four of them on lesbian theatre. Widely produced and published, she tours internationally in her own work, lecturing and offering workshops on non-traditional work for women. Her catalog is online at www.carolyngage.com. As a survivor of sexual trauma, Gage is deeply interested in PTSD and how it affects and informs lesbian relationships and culture.
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