Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sex as Performance not Commodity

Summer has always meant lazing around with a good book on a long, hot afternoon, and this year I've discovered a fascinating and inspiring book called Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape (thanks to a recommendation from Emerald).

Last night I read an essay by Thomas Macaulay Millar called "Toward a Performance Model of Sex," which opens with a provocative description of a musician named Sally, a "music slut" who plays with two bands and will even jam with people she's just met. Scandalous! Millar immediately points out how absurd the paragraph is unless we immediately convert it to a metaphor for sex. I certainly agree.

Then he goes on to describe our society's "commodity model" of sex as "a substance that can be given, bought, sold or stolen, that has a value and a supply-and-demand curve." Women have it and men try to get it. I can't really cover all the thought-provoking points Millar makes about the abstinence movement, consent as positive affirmation rather than the absence of "no" and so forth. As the mother of a budding musician, I'll just jump right ahead to his refreshing alternative metaphor of sex as a performance and partnered sex as a musical collaboration. Makes sense to me.

In the commodity model, every time a woman has sex, she loses something of value. Sex earlier in her history is worth more than later in her life with virginity being the most precious prize. Compare this to a musican's performance. Would you buy a CD of a beginner's first halting scales? Her performance would be of value only after she'd practiced a lot, with different partners who were better than she was, after she'd gotten in touch with her own musical sensibility. She would "reach the height of her powers in the prime of her life, as an experienced musician, confident in her style and conversant in her material."

This description made me laugh, but it's also true--and it's true for writers as well as sexual partners. As a woman of a certain age, I certainly appreciate this view. For indeed, although the Baby Boomers are slowly pushing the boundary of the sexy woman into higher age brackets, our society's default model of sex is a twenty-two-year-old in a bikini. Lovely as she might be, I'd bet that any real woman with a few more years/decades on her would attest that the subjective experience of sex for women only gets richer with experience and a surer sense of one's preferences and power. And the more nuanced our experience of sex, the more we can convey that complexity in our fiction.

I'm looking forward to more from Yes Means Yes, lounging on the porch with an iced tea in hand. Hope your summer reading is equally empowering and inspiring!


Craig Sorensen said...

Fascinating stuff.

That casts a unique light on sexual dynamics and the commodity model. There is definitely resonance to it, though it seems a bit simplified. Number of partners doesn't necessarily enter into it; a musician can become a master by being in just one band, but there can be no doubt that "practice makes perfect."

Emerald said...

I loved that essay. So much. I still haven't finished Yes Means Yes, and what a lovely idea to do so this summer. :) I'm glad you're finding it interesting! I surely have as well.

Donna said...

Craig, it is oversimplified, first in my quick retelling and then of course because Millar was shaping the comparison to emphasize that when a woman has sex with someone, even if it's a one-night stand, she learns and becomes a more skilled lover, even if it's in the negative as in "I don't like casual sex/partners who don't care about my pleasure." (I know you realize all this, just spelling it out). My sense is he's emphasizing that more than one partner enriches a woman rather than ruins her. And surely most accomplished musicians do play with various teachers, friends, casually with another group, etc. Variety enriches and men always claim to need it. Why not women?

And yes, Emerald, although I'm just starting the book, it's quite a breathtaking switch of perspective on the question of consent and quite sad that women are really neither allowed to say yes or no to sex.

Erobintica said...

Very interesting. As an older woman, I appreciate the concept of having my "experience" valued, though unfortunately, it's not widely valued (yeah, I'm feeling old today).

And I would have to agree with Donna's comment that even negative experience is valuable. Ha! In fact there tends to be more of that in the younger years, speaking from personal experience.

Hope I remember about this book when I have time to read.

Donna said...

Good points, Robin. But you know, writing erotica is one way our sexuality can be valued, even if our readers aren't fully conscious of that, lol!