Naomi Wolf & Women of the World festival, Southbank

Wolf got in trouble for revealing too much of herself in her latest book entitled ‘Vagina’. Controversy, talking about her own vagina. She says that word a lot, as well as describing its different quadrants, outer and inner labia, clitoris, G-spot and perineum. She learnt a lot about vaginas since she had a spinal injury which cost her sensation in that area, and also layers of consciousness she says. She felt sad and didn’t know why till the injury was diagnosed, then corrected and sensation returned. This made her aware of what she missed when normal use of her vagina was restricted. The incredible euphoria accompanying orgasm that added meaning, direction to her life. She got to researching vaginas and found some hidden material, which explained something of our sexist culture which loves to mock the vagina. About how there is a brain to vagina connection or relationship, and that the range of euphoria and energy that the vagina may release is immense. The clitoris and G-spot are opposite poles of an axis simultaneously capable of reaching each other. The suppression of this research speaks volumes.

It is well known and addressed that erectile dysfunction affects or is related to many areas of a man’s life, altering his performance. Naturally there is a similar relationship for women and their vaginas, but that is less discussed.

When a woman seeks out sexual pleasure and is supported by her culture in doing that, dopamine is released in her, she becomes more confident and her oxytocin levels rise. Creative hormones move her forward with positive energy. Dopamine makes a person less easy to push around, to subjugate. We have internalised the idea that women’s sexuality is ridiculous. In her book ‘Fire with Fire’  Wolf asserts that women are on the route to equality, and to achieve it they must stop being victims. During the ‘sexual revolution’ in the ’70s, a survey in which women self-reported, showed that 30% of women did not reach orgasm when they want to. It seems there has been a sort of plateau reached as this statistic has hardly changed in the last 40 years.

So the bottom line is female sexual pleasure makes a woman powerful, so information about how to maximise this is not popular with patriarchal systems like religion. Hence sexuality and also Love can be very subversive.

In the rape culture of war people are dehumanised, and women’s bodies respond negatively to rape reducing their chances of enjoying sex. The autonomic nervous system which leads to activation of good orgasms, is inhibited by anti-erotic impulses such as fear, stress and anger.

Wolf grew up in San Francisco around her lesbian Mum in the ’70s. She observed how her Mum’s friends became shining and integrated in a culture that supported their sexuality; she’d seen the same people previously more withdrawn, before they found their place. This was an environment which emphasized women’s fulfillment as an entitlement. It ought to be on the national curriculum!

What else did I take from Naomi Wolf’s talk at Women of the World festival on Saturday evening? That western feminists have a lot to learn from our sisters in developing countries because she reckons they are at the vanguard of feminism today, really pushing boundaries. That we ought to be kinder to each other – it’s not about judging others because they have had surgery or don’t wish to call themselves feminists. That women hold emotional trauma in at least one quadrant of the vagina and this can be released through sexual healing. None of us are heterosexual, we all respond to a variety of stimuli despite what we say (well I knew that anyway!) And finally women generally need to learn how to receive pleasure better, as this has been suppressed in favour of male sexuality for too long. I resonate strongly with this, finding it hard to really let go most of the time. On the few occasions when I have been least inhibited, either alcohol, drugs or sometimes the euphoria of love have facilitated it. But to reach that high on a more regular basis, I am still working on that.

Going to put up some recent pictures from classes I have modelled in. There is a lot more to say about the WOW festival Lucy and I were at last weekend, like how many celebrities Lucy failed to realise she was chatting up because we’d reached that point in the weekend where she could no longer recognise faces. And how everything worked out for the best despite several drop-outs, because we had so many Spirited Bodies models present to help at our stall so some were able to step in and model too. That when the plan to film the event collapsed this was a blessing because our models gave the most precious and powerful testimonials we could have imagined which might easily have been inhibited with the presence of a camera. Similarly when I asked the audience how many would like to try doing a pose there and then, about half of them put up their hands, no doubt encouraged by the models’ words. The artwork will be up soon.

I went to a workshop about body image by the ‘Endangered Bodies’ group which I also want to report on, and the last event – Alice Walker introducing her film – was the perfect finale, so moving and inspiring. We will be following up our WOW contacts for some time and learning from some of the advice suggested. Becoming a charity may be a good choice for us, but so too might a business which is a social enterprise. The atmosphere at WOW is electric with so many women on fire!

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a glimpse of vagina! I think these pastels are by Jo Parmenter from the session at Richmond Adult Community College

a glimpse of vagina! I think these pastels are by Jo Parmenter from the session at Richmond Adult Community College

quick poses

quick poses

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by model and tutor Hugh

by model and tutor Hugh

Docile Bodies Rising Up

First I want to thank Deirdre, the feminist sociology professor I met at a viewing of a film about a legendary life model last year. She recommended ‘The Politics of Women’s Bodies; Sexuality, Appearance and Behaviour’, a selection of essays collated by Rose Weitz. Weitz explains how historically women were expected to separate their maternal and sexual aspects, as men were unable to accept that the women they wanted to be nurturing their future generations might also have needs. To a large extent this still stands. Hence the duality, the double standard; a woman is either a Madonna or a whore.

In ‘Believing is Seeing’, Judith Lorber discusses how 1 in 2000 births are in fact intersex (hermaphrodite) but this is covered up immediately by “corrective” surgery (which turns them all into females as it’s easier) as well as by a society that doesn’t wish to acknowledge what is outside of its binary vision. Our whole idea of ‘male’ and ‘female’ is a complete farce! Intersex people frequently report feeling trapped in the wrong body, so physically and socially constructed as our lives may be. Karin A Martin describes how we become gendered bodies; what we assume as nature is not just decided by surgical tradition, or nature; but by long held cultural beliefs. In primary school we learn how to behave and move like boys and girls. Girls are taught to take up less space.

In ‘Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernisation of Patriarchal Power’ Sandra Lee Bartky takes Foucault’s assertion that our bodies are insidiously controlled by the most subtle means, i.e. by the fear inside our own minds, which makes us into ‘docile bodies’ only too willing to move to the beat of the elite; and takes it to feminism’s logical step further.

“Subjected and practised bodies”

In ‘Daring to Desire’ Deborah L Tolman debunks a myth which supposes that women are less sexually inclined than men (where did they get that idea?), by showing that teenage girls feel anxiety about showing the true extent of their sexual feelings because of fear about what others will think of them. Written in 1994 this is somewhat out of date and I would like to see the updated version. When I was popping my cherry and bursting my bubble in the early ’90s, if I held off behaving like a total nymphomaniac at all times it was because I only liked goths! Rather I was kind of picky, and liked to be in control. I felt safe in a scene which allowed my sexuality and independence to be exercised. If I thought a guy was hitting on me I lost interest; I wanted to make the conquest. I wasn’t typical in a mainstream way, but on the goth scene I was not unusual. In ‘So Full of Myself as a Chick’, Amy C Wilkins examines a West Coast American town’s goth population for their unique standards of women’s sexuality as demonstrated during the ’90s. This is comparable to what I grew up with. Women on top and in charge, up to a point, which is the message Wilkins has. Polyamorous relationships as frequently exercised by goths still favour male sexuality in the end. Women’s bisexuality is used as an excuse for allowing lesbian relations yet somehow denying women total autonomy. That was then. I am not a practising goth now but sometimes visit. Not being among them it’s hard to see where they are at. I see the younger women as triumphant as ever riding a wave of freedom, at the same time I know how age can catch up with you, and pull you down (as the drugs wear off?)

‘Designing Women’ looks at how women who undergo elective mammoplasty corroborate existing patriarchal hegemony. They are simultaneously pawns and free agents who recognise their enhanced power as women with breasts of a certain shape and size, in a culture predisposed to appreciate such. “…the hegemony of beauty is exercised less in one-on-one interactions wherein a significant other expresses dissatisfaction with a specific woman’s beauty than with women’s internalisation of the generalised other, communicated through the hegemonic gaze.”

Injuries of class; like deviants tortured publicly in the 17th century, poor women bear bodily marks of their crime to remind us what could become of us. “The bodies of poor women and children, scarred and mutilated by state-mandated material deprivation… work as spectacles… for socialising and controlling bodies…” Branded with Infamy, Vivyan C Adair

Letting go of the Internalised Male Gaze

We (women) each have a censor inside of us judging us from a (perceived) man’s perspective. Not bad since we are often trying to attract them – good to be on top of what they may think of us. One step ahead of them. Yet debilitating when taken to an extreme so that concern over our appearance and behaviour dominates our lives, taking up far too much time, and at the cost of far more important issues – like getting equal pay and decent maternity rights. And when our perception of the male gaze informs us that we must relentlessly diet or modify ourselves this is doubtless damaging for health mental and physical. Our internalisation of the ‘male’ gaze is not fictitious though – we glean it from media’s obsession. We women are not supposed to take up physical space – or by extension power space; we’re not supposed to have our own voices.

In ‘Letting Ourselves Go’, Cecilia Hartley exposes how fat women are the only real feminists. For my entire adult life I have had a body that is deemed acceptable as a woman’s; a little pre-pubescent in form but not without curves, I don’t have to diet to remain a healthy size 8, in fact I eat quite a lot of what I want. I don’t go to the gym, but I am a compulsive cyclist and if I don’t get that buzz racing round the city I start to feel restless. And I hold tricky poses day in day out because that gets me high too. Natural expression and genetics. What am I doing pushing body confidence? Sharing a good feeling; and besides it’s more than just bodily boldness; confidence spans so many realms. If I can give something I take for granted to lots of others, maybe the universe will show me what has previously eluded me.

There is so much more I could say about this thought provoking book, but I must to bed and finish reading it!

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The Pieta at Spirited Bodies 10; 8/2/13, photo by Gil Limor

The Pieta at Spirited Bodies 10; 8/2/13, both photos by Gil Limor