Category Archives: Uses of the Erotic

The Erotic in Prison

The scene in Bitch Planet which stood out to me in terms of Lorde’s “erotic” was one of the moments in the showers. Right before Kogo Kamau drags the spying guard out of the wall, we see Penny and Meiko in the background, naked (or nude?), celebrating their victory in the in-world sports game. This stands out to me in relation to our discussions of nudity and the male vs female gaze, but it also seems striking in terms of the sheer joy and humor of the scene. Penny lifts Meiko up from around her waist—the motion is celebratory and excessive, and both women are shouting and praising themselves/each other for their teamwork in the game. I don’t usually see or expect naked women to touch each other in such an unrestrained yet platonic way; even though the women are in prison, and being watched by other women and guards, they seem completely free from external expectations and self-conciousness or shame. I think maybe this is a facet of what Audre Lorde defines as the “erotic”—deep emotions, voice, and physical movement which defies oppressive limitations and the white patriarchal gaze.

The combination of this scene and Lorde’s theory brings me back to movements and concepts that I’ve heard in social justice circles before—specifically the idea of the “carefree black girl.” There are black women and nonblack women of color who say that to exist as a woman of color is radical in itself, since the great powers of the world work constantly towards their oppression and death. Both Audre Lorde and Bitch Planet put forward this idea; that to survive emotionally as a woman of color, to live joyfully, is radical in itself. Within the material confines of the prison, I think the questions of how to express free emotion, and how to decolonize the mind, are key to resisting both mental and emotional oppressive limitations.

Embracing Eroticism

Audre Lorde explains and explores the idea of embracing erotism for mankind, but more specifically for women. She immediately breaks down the public perception of what the term “erotic” means. For example, she speaks to the fact that we mainly access eroticism as limited to the bedroom and to sex as one way in which the hierarchy of power within our culture is supported and enforced. Thus, eroticism as a possession belonging to the bedroom extremely limits the way in which an individual woman is able to feel about, control, and explore her own body. Lorde emphasizes the constant denial of the erotic as a source of power; “We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused, and devalued within Western society” (88). The most immediate and relevant example of this devaluing is in the roots of the teaching of many religions, mainly those pertaining to Christianity. The fact that a lot of “American culture” has adopted aspects from religion further allows this view of eroticism to become a wide-spread cultural norm. And this negative connotation for the idea of eroticism can still be viewed in various ways such as the continuation of the word “slut” used in a demeaning manner or the fact that female masturbation is still viewed as a somewhat taboo topic, or the idea of sex for women can be compared to the “way ants maintain colonies of aphids to provide a life-giving substance for their masters” (88). Lorde also understands religion to be a motivating factor of this oppression in stating; “such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife” (89).

However, Lorde want women to understand that the term “erotic” needs to be reclaimed. It is not eroticism that is demeaning, but rather pornography because it ignores feeling. This emphasis on feeling is how Lorde re-examines eroticism. It is not limited to sexuality, but as a word of empowerment in a more holistic sense. For example, Lorde explains, “The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference” (89). Thus she illustrates the erotic in a whole new light, than what we have been taught to interpret idea as. She demonstrates that it is a power that allows one to understand satisfaction and the true meaning of feeling. Further this empowerment can be found with the help of another or by oneself; “That self-connection shared is a measure of the joy which I know myself to be capable of feeling, a reminder of my capacity for feeling” (89). Thus we must allow ourselves to live fully and utilize the feeling that accompanies eroticism. We must embrace this new definition of erotism and find the power that it provides for the individual. Lorde fully delineates how, “As women, we need to examine the ways in which our world can be truly different” (89). By reclaiming, embracing, and understanding eroticism through a new lens, we can start to do so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lorde Response

When I first started reading this, I was a little worried that it would attempt to posit women’s liberation and progress as dependent upon their embrace of their sexuality in a way that focused almost exclusively on the body and seemingly heteronormative relationships. I was pleased that it did not. While there are some things the chapter said that I would say don’t necessarily need to be grouped in the ‘erotic,’ I liked how Lorde defined erotic and how she focused on the idea that women need to find intrinsic fulfillment in their work and life. One quote I found particularly interesting was “for once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of” and how once this happens, women become “less willing to accept powerlessness.” I thought that this was interesting in terms of contemporary politics. I sort of saw the ideas playing themselves out via how a realization of external enforcements and standards would force the subjugated to look internally for senses of worth and value, that, to a certain degree, if your state, society, the people around you aren’t going to support or protect you, to do so for yourself or to demand that it be done is a revolutionary act. While this idea doesn’t relate directly to Lorde’s ‘erotic,’ this is sort of how I see it presenting itself or realizing itself, perhaps. 

In terms of defining the erotic, I thought that is was really important that Lorde made the distinction between the pornographic and the erotic. In doing this, I thought that she was trying to say that pornographic is more in line with the external, or societal expectations enforced on women, whereas the erotic is originating from within. This was a large part in getting rid of my initial apprehension to this text. 

Overall, however, while I did enjoy this reading, I found it to be more of an abstraction than anything else. I realize it was only one chapter, and perhaps there are other instances where this idea gets greater elaboration, but I would like to see more instances of application to progress and how this idea cold potentially situate itself within different demographics, etc.

The Uses of the Erotic and Bitch Planet

This article resonated with me an incredible amount. While I felt and understood much of it on a personal level, I also found myself making many connections to Bitch Planet and other texts from this course. The thought occurred to me, are all the reasons that women were sent to Bitch Planet based in the erotic? I see the erotic, as I think Lorde also does, as being in tune with one’s sense of self and being able to express it fully and authentically. This is how I see many if not all of the women who were sent to Bitch Planet. They were themselves and acted not within the cultural norms that were supposed to govern them.

Lorde notes “But this erotic charge is not easily shared by women who continue to operate under an exclusively European-American male tradition. I know it was not available to me when I was trying to adapt my consciousness to this mode of living and sensation.” This I think describes many of the women who were not sent to bitch planet and were compliant. I think non-compliance is when you are able to move outside of this system. This can be violence, sexual promiscuity, and subverting standards about motherhood, among other things.

I also have been thinking about non-compliance in my own life and at Whitman after reading Bitch Planet. I think it’s complicated because certain types of non-compliance are praised at Whitman while others are shamed like they are in most parts of society. I think a good deal of this comes from uses of the erotic. I dealt with a lot of issues in high school of slut-shaming and when I came to Whitman I was very excited by the possibility that this would be a thing of the past. It was definitely less pronounced but just manifested itself in different and insidious ways. This is one very literal example of the erotic, but I think it can also be expanded to being an outspoken woman. This is occasionally praised on campus as going against a societal norm and seen as taking control. In many cases it ends up being critiqued though as being “bitchy” or “bossy” or whatever. This seems to be the criticism most commonly of women of color, who do the most emotional labor and are simultaneously the most critiqued on this campus.

Reading this right before election day also got me fired up about civil disobedience and social change as modes of non-compliance. I hope we see some of this tonight in the election results. The record numbers of women and people of color who are running for office show the erotic and non-compliance. It’s moving outside of our old systems and try to move towards the building up of new, which is incredibly exciting.

“Only now, I find more and more women identified women brave enough to risk sharing the erotic’s electrical charge without having to look away, and without distorting the enormously powerful and creative nature of that exchange. Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.”

The Erotic and the Pornographic

I’m gonna say that this is NSFW (Not Safe For Work [AKA Explicit]), as I don’t want to censor myself when talking about porn, so be warned.

So I’ve always been someone who has high hopes for pornography, not in terms of just getting off and having different ways of doing so, but instead as ways for change. Pornography can tell a lot, both about people, their likes, their dislikes, what society thinks, etc. But, it can also be really empowering to different people.

In its current form, pornography is not empowering to women, at least most of the time. There is a lot of porn that’s made by women, for women, and I think this is a step towards making pornography something that could actually mean something, rather than just a way to get off. And when I’m saying get off, I mean pleasure yourself, whatever that may be.

When most, if not all, men make porn, they make it usually in very specific ways. The story line is usually non-existent or completely crazy (i.e. How to Fuck Your Dragon). The way that they frame different shots is very specific (not many faces, mostly just penises and vaginas). And the way that the actors have sex is also very similar to each other (vigorously, not very passionate with very few kisses).

All of these things are not really erotic, at least in the way that I think about it. I think that Lorde differentiates pornography and eroticism well when she says “…pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.”

I do want to argue that pornography does have the capacity to be erotic. I do not think that it has to be a “direct denial” of the erotic. Currently, I would accept that it is in its current form, as it does not focus on anything erotic most of the time. Instead, it focuses on the flesh, rather than the individual.

Either way, I think pornography as a medium has a lot of room to grow. But, we have to focus on making it better rather than continuing to let men run the industry and continue making it primarily for men and an extremely toxic environment for women.

If women could have ended sexism, I’m sure they would have.

Firstly, there are so many great great quotes when reading through this and every sentence is so beautifully written. I would expect nothing less from Audre Lorde. I now read this as a junior, woman of color, slightly-battered (but still chugging along) by this school and its unwavering ability to hurt women, poc, woc, queer folks, and other marginalized folks, with newer eyes than I did when I read this as a first year in Introduction to Gender Studies. Each sentence drips with empowerment and meaning. I want to letter some of these quotes and might share with the class/have my weekly comic this week be inspired from the reading. Here are a few of my favorites:

“Of course, women so empowered are dangerous.”

“The erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in doing.”

“When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.”

 

Although, at times, I was moved and educated, I was looking for something more radical on the basis of intersectionality. The beginning denotes the way that “Lorde erases erotic differences between straight, bisexual, and lesbian desire in order to promote such desire as a creative force for revolutionary change.” She does not address the ways that race, body size, ability, etc. factors into desire and eroticism. She addresses her own struggle with the acceptance of eroticism as a black, lesbian woman. However, the article only begins to describe the “universalized” experiences of women and eroticism. “The erotic has often been misnamed my men and used against women.” What happens when this erotic doesn’t apply to women outside the sphere of the idealized, Barbie-like, deity of female sexuality: white, skinny, straight, blonde, blow-up doll-like? What happens when eroticism and desire is on the opposite end of the spectrum, venturing into fetishization? However, I am pausing as I write this because it is clear that I am struggling to disconnect eroticism and sex.

 

Erotic comes from eros, meaning love in all forms. I believe that Lorde is arguing for the need to love ourselves firstly in order to create large social change. In fact, she argues that for women, once we recognize the healing power of accepting our erotic, “in honor and self respect we can require no-less of ourselves.” Lorde dreams and hopes for a future in which we begin to undo generational trauma inflicted by the patriarchy and break cycles of internalized oppression for women. We can create new cycles of dignity and respect by recognizing that our erotic, is a source of knowledge and power and satisfaction with our current state of life.

 

However, in my activist work here at Whitman, I am quickly realizing that we need those who are non-marginalized to assist in the fights against oppression. Women cannot end sexism themselves just as much as black people cannot eliminate racism; I’m sure both groups would have ended those isms if they could. I am wondering if there is room in the theory to expand to men recognizing, worshipping, and utilizing the erotic as a means of assisting in the dismantling of patriarchy and white supremacy. Men are just as shut out of their erotic as women I’m sure. Is the male erotic only employed as a weapon against women? Are they utilizing the erotic at all? Maybe tapping into the erotic is less gendered than we think.

The Nature of Oppression – Lorde

I read the whole essay, but my mind was stuck on an early sentence that really peaked my interest, “…in order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change”. Lorde designates the erotic as this source of power, of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. From my small amount of knowledge as a psychology major, the sway and importance of unexpressed or unrecognized feelings is heavy in human decision processing and interpretation of stimuli. So in the case of the erotic, for oppressors (systematic patriarchy) to stay in power, they need to limit an unexpressed and unrecognized power (eroticism) within the oppressed (women). Lorde describes the erotic as “a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane”.

 

This all made it suddenly and abundantly clear for me. If the erotic is this source of power, that can provide energy for change in the status of this systematic patriarchy, and women are a source of this erotic power, then that explains the standard of the patriarchy and the history of oppression against women and eroticism in general. Things like pornography bans, and censorship of eroticism in media, art, and education show how much the patriarchy still strongly persists, as it seems to have persisted ever since humans have evolved. I found it interesting that I could understand this persistence more through a philosophical look at the nature of oppression, and use that to understand how this concept applies in a real-world setting of eroticism.

Discovering Eroticism Within Myself

When I first started reading Lordes article, I was instantly able to relate to her writing not only because I also believe that in society, women’s sexual desires are suppressed and rubbed off as not “womanly” or “ladylike” or any other demeaning term that people choose to use, but because before I came to college I was ashamed of having any sort of sexual feeling or of exploring my sexuality in any way. But coming to college and getting out of my tiny town where everybody knows everybody opened up a new world for me even though Whitman sometimes does seem like a tiny town where everybody knows everybody. Coming to Whitman showed me that because so many people are comfortable talking about sex and because it is not a topic of conversation that should be avoided or is made to feel people uncomfortable, I was slowly able to break out of my shell and start to realize that it is ok and normal for women to have sexual tendencies because it is not and should not be portrayed as just a man’s world.

I agree with Lorde that “the erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, not succumb to the belief that sensation is enough.” because coming to terms that it is normal and encouraged to develop sexual feelings made me confident in myself in ways that I can not describe. It made me confident in my body because I fully embraced myself for everything that I am, disregarding the stereotypical body image that would just sit in my mind and would be there whenever I ate anything, went to the gym, wore a swimsuit, etc. Welcoming eroticism into my life allowed me to accept who I am on the inside and the outside.

I really enjoyed Lordes expression of the ways that erotic functions for her. I had never thought of the word “erotic” in the way that she is expressing in this article. For example, when she says, “The erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy.” I was able to relate to her reasoning but it was amazing because I had never thought of joy as being erotic. But now that I am reading this article, I can see that I have a sense of self-connection when I do certain activities such as using watercolors or reading as a way to de-stress it is in a sort of funny way, a measure of my capacity for feeling and a reminder of this capacity. Doing these activities that allow me to de-stress allow for me to say yes to myself and to allow myself to do what I want at that moment instead of listening to the busy life of society around me. Then, when I do go back to my busy life, I am able to feel empowered and I know that I have a place that I can go if I am feeling powerless at all.

Redefining the Pornographic

This article is amazingly rich in just about every sentence, and I was continuously impressed and inspired the entire time I was reading. I’m really interested in Lorde’s distinction between the erotic and pornography as “opposites” (88). I think she makes a strong case for that distinction, and that her argument is an important one for us to keep in mind as a society. Her definition of ‘pornography’ is not ‘media portraying sex.’ Rather, the definition of pornography is that it emphasizes sensation without feeling, and that it ultimately looks away from the very human needs and desires that give rise to it – which I take to mean that while it creates a space to revel in what society deems to be inappropriate, it fails to affirm the desires that it invites.

I think this is an interesting definition because while certainly a form of media can be visually/temporally composed such that it ‘looks away’ from its own content, it is also true that the ultimate act of ‘looking away’ lies with the viewer. This suggests that there is a liminal space where one person’s pornography (that which they view, but also look away from) could be another person’s erotic, a powerful force shaping their own identity and enhancing their understanding of their own desires. A young woman secretly checks out a dime novel from the library and reads her first explicit sex scene – she finds it informative and exciting, and with the help of media like this, is able to shape a kind of sexual identity for herself in a sex-negative society. I would argue that although dime novels are considered ‘pornographic material,’ the girl’s story is not a story of pornography. Her experience is far from sensation without feeling – it is, in fact, deeply personal and packed with feeling, with surprise and anxieties and excitement.

Pornography, as Lorde describes it, is not necessarily a certain kind of material, but rather a certain kind of interaction with the erotic. The pornographic is an event, not a medium. It is a denial of the legitimacy of one’s own feelings and those of others. This is honestly a very satisfying explanation for something I have been wrestling with for a long time – how is it that some manga, for instance, feels ‘dirty’ to me, while other, equally explicit manga can feel okay? It is not a question of what exactly is shown, but more a question of how it is shown – does the work ultimately stand at a distance from its characters, othering them and their desire while at the same time offering us a peep hole through which to watch? What does that do to you, as a reader, if you see your own desires reflected in that othered space? What shame, and what disavowal of one’s own feelings! This, indeed, is the obscenity – to cut desires adrift from the humans who have them and put them in an ‘out there’ that no one quite takes responsibility for, an ‘out there’ without a shred of human feeling to warm it. Those obscene images then have a high potential to do damage – not because they are images of sex but because they exist separately from all the better parts of human nature.