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Divorced from Desire
Relearning how to want
I was watching “The Lost Daughter” this summer, the movie based on the book by Elena Ferrante about a mother who dares to do the impossible and leave her young children. Leda eventually returns to them after three years away, but it is clear that this choice that she allowed herself to make haunts her even all these years later. She befriends a young mother, Nina, while on holiday and becomes her confidante. When Nina is considering having an affair, and she asks Leda about it, Leda says: “I think you should do what you want.”
It is a simple scene toward the end of the movie, but her sentence made me stop in my tracks. It made me realize how rarely we are told that as women.
I think you should do what you want.
Not what would be best for your family. Not what would make others happy. Not what would make you acceptable in the eyes of society.
I think you should do what you want. These are revolutionary words.
Women are not told we can do what we want. We are not taught how to discern what we want. We are not told that what we want even matters (case in point, the reversal of Roe v. Wade). Instead we learn that dissociation from desire is part of being a woman.
Sometimes I wonder if we’ve learned not to want because the story of women’s wanting has always been tied to Eve. She was the first woman who dared to want and look at what it got her: exile from the garden and the curse of childbirth. Is it any wonder that we too have learned to do without, squash our desire, subsume any trickle of want that might lead us astray? The state of the entire world is at stake.
How can it be that a story from one religious tradition founded thousands of years ago can still be leading our lives?
Because Eve is just one of a hundred stories that we are told to keep us in line, in check, in constant supplication to those who have the power to put us in our place if we dare to desire.
It is not easy to tap back into desire. And I don’t mean desire as simply wanting sex. Desire is wanting: to take a nap, to eat a peach, to go for a run, to take a vacation. Desire is tuning in to what feels good. Desire is the pursuit of pleasure. But like the word desire, the word pleasure has been sexualized, and it doesn’t have to be. Getting into freshly washed sheets at the end of the long day: pleasure. Eating a delicious meal: pleasure. Feeling the sun on your skin: pleasure. Cuddling with your kids at the end of the day: pleasure.
We have to reclaim pleasure as something we are allowed to pursue if we are going to relearn how to desire. Pleasure for pleasure’s sake, not self-care, which sometimes feels like a sanitized, commercialized version of pleasure, a way we can pursue pleasure but turn it into something that feels productive.
I, too, never learned how to want. Growing up in my childhood home, the purse strings were held tightly. My father was an academic and my mother a part-time musician, so I don’t know how much of this was because we truly did not have money to spare or how much was an atmosphere of scarcity that my parents inherited from their own parents who survived the depression. But I learned that when I wanted something, it could be met with frustration, a sense of “why would you ask for something you don’t truly need?” Wanting led to disappointment from my parents. Wanting made me a nuisance.
Wanting also often meant a series of negotiations with my twin sister (something I wrote about here). If what I wanted conflicted with what she wanted, we faced conflict. It became easier not to want.
Once ensconced in the world of evangelical Christianity during my teenage years, desire became dangerous. Desire was synonymous with sin. I came of age in the heyday of purity culture, the height of True Love Waits and later Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye. This was a list written in my journal when I was 17:
Products of human desire:
and ruthless greed
As a Christian, I was supposed to want what God wanted; Your will be done, not mine.
But I’ve become curious about how I can tune in more clearly to what I want. Not only so that I can create the structures in my life that will lead to peace and fulfillment, but also so that I can live a life more steeped in pleasure.
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We are sensual people, our body a fully developed blueprint for pleasure. Take a moment to pause what you are doing and place your hands on your thighs. Now rub your hands gently in circles. This is a very simple act. And yet, doesn’t it feel good? We dream of getting away, to have time for a massage, but at any moment in your day, you can give yourself a dose of pleasure by rubbing your own skin, which has 1000 nerve endings in just one inch of dermis waiting for you to awaken them. Now wrap your arms around yourself, like you are giving yourself a hug and rub your arms. Doesn’t that feel good, too? I’m honestly amazed at how good I can make myself feel (and I’m not even talking about self-pleasure aka masturbation which is a whole post in itself).
We are capable of feeling good, throughout the day, with no cost to anyone else and yet we rob ourselves of these moments. We get so caught up in productivity, crossing one more thing off the to-do list, throwing in one more load of laundry, that we forget to stop and tend to ourselves. What, in this moment, could I do to make myself feel good? How could I make myself more comfortable?
This is anathema to our puritanical society. Feeling good? What good does that do? How is that productive? Well, it creates endorphins for one, which improves mood. But also, can’t we just seek pleasure for pleasure’s sake?
We’ve learned to shame women into indulging in pleasure via the concept of the “guilty pleasure.” Men don’t talk about guilty pleasures, do they? I think it is an entirely gendered concept. Men are entitled to pleasure; it is their birthright. Pleasure is something women are taught to be ashamed of, secretly pursue, but a good woman wouldn’t want, wouldn’t give in to temptation, wouldn’t do something simply for herself.
A woman who wants is still deemed dangerous, like Eve.
Author Stephanie Land recently posted about her struggle to commit to the page accounts of her life as a young woman pursuing pleasure, knowing the backlash to come once her book is in print. Luckily she has an editor who understood her reticence but guided her thus: “Try to drop into your feelings at the time and stay with them. A woman enjoying her body is the most dangerous thing in the world.”
A woman who wants can so easily be portrayed as too much, desperate, unseemly. Meaghan O’Connell describes this state in And Now We Have Everything:
“We were city dwellers, and we were dating if you could call it that - in a pool of men who always had other, better options. There was always someone younger, someone who expected less. We knew how to play it, how not to need anything. We could almost convince ourselves. Most of us swore we were not interested in having children and those who might be were supposed to act blasé about the idea…Wanting to have a baby was a desperate quality in a woman, like wanting a relationship multiplied by a thousand, and it got more desperate with age.”
When we learn not to want, we learn not to hunger. We tamp down our appetite - for food, for pleasure, for freedom. We deny our hunger to stay small and acceptable to fit the world’s standards for what is beautiful. But when we learn to turn off our physical hunger, we learn to deny our hunger for all kinds of things. Maybe we are unfamiliar with pleasure because we haven’t allowed ourselves to be hungry.
Instead, women are prescribed what we should want. Marriage and children, full stop. Once we have those things, we should be satisfied. Our wanting days are over. Jessamine Chan captures this poignantly in The School for Good Mothers as the instructors teach: “A mother who is in harmony with her child, who understands her place in her child’s life and her role in society, is never lonely. Though caring for her child, all her needs are fulfilled.”
Diane di Prima writes this heartbreaking scene of her 82-year-old mother acknowledging a tidbit of desire and then falling back in line in Recollections of My Life as a Woman:
“Isn’t it a shame,” she said fiercely, “that we leave this earth without seeing everything there is to see on it?”
It was then, in that eighty-two-year-old woman, that I recognized something of myself…fierce hunger…I saw mom standing on a peak of the Himalayas, peering at plants in Amazonian jungles, rounding the cape (whatever Cape) in a skiff. My heart jumped.
“Of course,” she said, coming to her senses. To her neat and cheerful world. “Of course I don’t really want to see anything but you and the children.”
To dare to desire is to go against our conditioning that tells us that we are receptacles of wanting, rather than the generators of desire. It starts when girls are dress coded for distracting their male peers. Girls learn that they hold the power to make others want (and this is clearly very bad). Girls are not taught that within them they have the potential for the very same desire. The message of our society is that boys chase sex, and girls ward them off. Not that girls can also be curious about what kind of pleasure is available to them.
Even how we define sexual intercourse is centered around male pleasure and arousal. How often is sex still defined by penetration, no matter that half the population does not require penetration to experience sexual release? In this setup, women are simple vessels, passive, they grant access, gift a man their body, rather than pursue pleasure in their own right.
This messaging is pervasive and it impacts every one of us. Nona Willis Aronowitz published a powerful excerpt from her book Bad Sex in last week’s New York Times. In it, she writes: “A liberated woman was expected to dodge the roles and rules prescribed to her and replace them with her own desires - the discovery of which often involves unraveling a lifetime of learned behavior….Extracting what we actually want from a mess of cultural and political influences can still sometimes feel like an impossible challenge.”
Yes. Yes, it can.
But detachment from our desires might be the key to a lot of our unhappiness as women (aside from the patriarchy, of course). I have written about how perhaps at the root of our anger is unacknowledged wanting.
“People often describe anger as a secondary emotion, that underneath anger you might discover something more vulnerable, something harder to express. Sadness or fear or hurt. But I think underneath anger, at least for women, you often discover wanting. A desire unrealized. A desire unsatisfied. A desire unquenched. Because women have been conditioned to be uncomfortable with their desires, we have learned to ignore them. And then we wonder why we are angry.”
I have also explored how the core of resentment is something that we are not allowing ourselves. “I denied myself the very things I wanted. In fact, I didn’t even admit to myself that I wanted them.”
So what would it look like as women to get comfortable with our desires? To feel like we deserve to go after what we want? To do away with sacrifice and selflessness, and instead lean full into a life filled with pleasures of all kinds? What if all of life was an invitation to feel good?
This work is not easy. Emily Nagoski writes in Come As You Are: “We shut down pleasure so intuitively we don’t even notice we’ve done it…Many of us have been taught that pleasure is selfish, sinful, a waste of time, or something to be ashamed of. How dare we attend to what feels good, when we ought to be attending to other people’s needs or our partner or making sure we meet other people’s expectations?”
But I know for me, in order to break free from the patriarchal structures that surround us, I am tuning back in. I am seeing myself as the source of everything I seek. I am looking for ways that I can, right now, feel good. Not later. Not tomorrow. Right freaking now.
So if you are waiting for someone to give you permission, here it is:
I think you should do what you want.
“Today more than ever, I am aware of how much a woman needs… an embracing, open-armed space where she can dissolve, go to seed, and regerminate. A place to be still and tend new roots. She needs a place away from every man-made thing where she can cry, even shout if she wants to. In a place like that she can begin to heal what is wounded, recover what is lost. She can remember herself.”— Sue Monk Kidd
The Pernicious Myth of Maternal Instinct, Chelsea Conaboy, The New York Times.
The Work-from-Home Revolution Is Also a Trap for Women, Anne Helen Peterson, Bloomberg.
What to Actually Do About Unequal Partnership: An Interview with Kate Mangino, Anne Helen Peterson, Culture Study.
I’ve just started the book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good by adrienne maree brown. I’ll report back soon!
Orgasm: Pleasure as the Final Frontier with Dr. Lori Brotto: We Can Do Hard Things Podcast, Glennon Doyle.
Unraveling the Source of our Sexual Shame: Jay Stringer Deconstructs Purity Culture. For the Love with Jen Hatmaker.
The Principles of Pleasure: Netflix.
P.S. I have a Bookshop.org store with recommended reading lists. If you purchase a book via my store or via the links included in this newsletter, you not only support independent bookstores, but I receive a small portion of the sale! Thanks, as always, for supporting my work.