In recent years, as I continue to fiddle with my women's studies syllabus, I've moved away from emphasizing certain themes and towards others. One theme that has become more and more important to me: tracing the cultural history of women's shame in America, particularly in regards to sexual pleasure, food, and other "selfish" desires.
I've emphasized this many times before, but my students are, overwhelmingly, non-white. They are, overwhelmingly, first-generation college students. And in my women's studies class, overwhelmingly female. But whether they are black, Latina, Asian, Armenian, they've almost all been raised with one enormously important -- and colossally destructive -- discourse: pleasure comes with penalties.
I tend to focus on the close relationship between attitudes towards eating and attitudes towards sex, largely because they seem so often to be inextricably linked. The pleasure of food is our first pleasure; when we were tiny infants, it was what we screamed for and it was gave us comfort and delight. Long after many of our other appetites may have faded, we will still take pleasure in what we eat. (I've spent a lot of time with the elderly; my experience has been that in nursing homes, the subject of lunch tends to dominate conversations.) Throughout our lives, in groups or alone, eating has the potential to be one of our greatest physical delights.
And we do not live in a world where women are permitted to eat to satiety without a considerable degree of shaming. While their brothers are often encouraged to eat to excess, the majority of my female students grew up with a sense that they had to monitor what and how much they ate. Many were first introduced to the idea that "pleasure has penalties" by mothers who warned them, as they moved into puberty, "don't eat so much or you'll get fat." Others grew up with parents who were happy to have them eat all they liked, but as they transitioned into puberty, found themselves under the crushing influence of the broader culture, which idealizes a female body type at odds with healthy, indulgent eating.
Bottom line: few students get to college without a considerable amount of shame surrounding their eating. Most, if not all, have incorporated specifically moral language to refer to their food habits. When I ask them "What does it mean when you hear a friend say 'I've been good today'", all of them know that that refers to a particularly successful period of restriction. When another friend says "I was so bad at lunch today", that never refers to skipping out on a restaurant bill; it's always a reference to prioritizing pleasure over self-denial. And as a feminist, few things make me sadder than to see so many of my students caught in that trap of oscillating between self-denial and indulgence, between bouts of puritanical pride in their own restriction and crushing guilt for giving into the basic desire to be sweetly, pleasurably, full.
I always connect this struggle around food to sexuality. Just as my students vary in their eating habits, they vary widely in their sexual mores. I've posted before about just how diverse they can be; I've had porn stars sitting alongside those who insist that kissing before marriage is a sin. But if I can make some generalizations, I can say with confidence that most have been raised to view women as "gatekeepers" who must carefully guard their bodies against lustful, predatory, men. Too many have grown up with a sense that lust is a one-way street in which women are objects but rarely subjects. Many were taught by their mothers how to be pleasing and desirable; they were taught how to attract men while at the same time keeping them at bay. For far too many, male sexual desire is a tool to be used with great care. But few were raised with any sense of their own sexual agency (at least in the service of their own pleasure.) During a discussion a few semesters ago about the "discovery of the clitoris" by the male-dominated medical profession, one bold young woman said frankly:
"I'd sooner admit to sleeping with dozens of guys than admit that I masturbate. Bringing pleasure to men is always easier to cop to than bringing pleasure to yourself. It's almost like masturbating for yourself makes you more of a slut -- it's like you can't control your own desires, and that's bad."
While some students vigorously disagreed, it was clear that that comment had struck a familiar chord with many of the young women in the room. (Nota bene: I do NOT ask students to disclose details of their private sexual lives to me or the class; I do, however, try and create a safe environment where those who wish to take such risks can do so.)
Many of my students seem to have a sense of their own sexuality that reminds me of many folks with eating disorders whom I have known. I've known quite a few women who regularly starved themselves. And yet, rather than avoid food altogether, they became marvelous cooks. I once dated a woman (briefly) who wanted to cook for me every weekend. She made full-course fattening meals; she spent hours in the kitchen. And she ate virtually nothing. It became incredibly uncomfortable for me to eat in front of her, as she watched me with tremendous interest, constantly asking if I wanted more. Obviously, she took some vicarious pleasure in watching someone else eat, but she clearly also had a perverse sense of personal agency. For this woman, pleasure consisted solely in the capacity to bring pleasure to another. She had no ability to enjoy food for herself; her delight was entirely contingent upon mine. It was absolutely awful.
I've told that anecdote to a few of my classes, and seen many nods of recognition. And it seems evident to me that for far too many young women, that attitude of "contingent pleasure" seems to carry over from the kitchen to the bedroom. Even in our hypersexualized culture, most of my female students are taught more about how to provide pleasure to another than to experience it for themselves. The agency that they are permitted is the agency that comes with mastering the male ego and the male body, learning how to flirt, learning how to seduce, learning how to bring delight and pleasure. They see porn everywhere, but rarely do they see a storyline written for them, one in which their own ecstasy is central rather than something feigned to soothe male anxiety.
I don't tell my students that they must masturbate without concomitant shame in order to be good feminists. I don't tell them they need to eat cheesecake without guilt in order to be liberated. It's not the place of a feminist professor (particularly a male one) to prescribe specific steps for transformation and growth in such profoundly personal arenas as sexuality and food. But at the same time, I am clear that there are few areas of life where it is more important to live out our egalitarian values than eating and sex. I am not advocating uncontrolled gluttony or destructive promiscuity. I am advocating an ethic that respects women's pleasure as an a priori good. I am not advocating selfishness. (Heck, I'm a monogamous vegetarian; I understand the importance of balancing one's own desires with one's commitments to others.) I am challenging my students to see physical joy as their human birthright.
Though not all of my students are yet sexually active, all of them are "food active." They've been eating for as long as they can remember, and will do so for the rest of their lives. Part of beginning a feminist journey is making a commitment not merely to self-indulgence, but to the principle that all human beings are entitled to seek out pleasure. It's one thing to say those words aloud, another to live them out. And since feminism is never merely about transforming the self for the self alone, it's vital that men and women commit themselves to being advocates for shame-free pleasure in the lives of their friends and family. Though our understanding of when and how we seek pleasure may be informed by our own spiritual beliefs, and though we ought never seek pleasure at the expense of another's happiness, we can still boldly, loudly, and continually proclaim the God-given right to delight in our bodies.
Creation, in all of its messiness, is a good thing.