The Feminist Family and its Discontents

Before Jamie concludes his serialization of "Peep Show," I just wanted to interject with a brief psychosexual autobiography because a.) it doesn’t seem fair to drop the autobiographical burden entirely on Jamie, and b.) we’re both the products of feminist, liberal households, which have their own not-always-so-obvious psychosexual pathologies (is the vagina dentata above too subtle a symbol?).

My parents were not quite as ideologically consistent or insistent as it sounds as if Jamie’s were. They didn’t police our use of the word “sucks,” for instance, and their attitude towards pornography was pretty tolerant (I was caught at school, in 6th grade, with some nudie mags, and though my parents promised the school that I would be harshly disciplined, their advice to me, after we got home, was just to make sure that I didn’t bring the magazines into school anymore).

What characterized our house was an intellectual openness about sex and sexuality that was belied by my parents’ aversion to sexualizing anything or anyone–including each other–in our presence. My father, like Jamie’s, never leered at women and never made lewd comments to or around us. My mother disapproved of women who dressed too provocatively, and very much disapproved of mothers who dressed their daughters too sexy; she never said anything so academic as “they’re objectifying themselves for the male gaze,” but it’s certainly what she meant when she talked about these things, and when I got to the classes in college in which we talked about such things, I felt pretty well-schooled in some aspects of what I’m pretty sure is called first-wave feminism.

Above all, my parents didn’t sexualize us. They didn’t treat us as sexual objects, and though I’m mostly grateful for that, sometimes I suspect that if I was sexualized just a slight bit more I would have gotten a lot more poon* in high school and college. Which is to say that my response to all this non-sexualization was to become someone who was pretty uncomfortable with the seeking and the having of sex at the same time that I was pretty comfortable talking about it. I wanted it, of course, but I was also scared of it, and managed to consciously and unconsciously avoid quite a few opportunities to get "the sex" much earlier, and much more frequently, than I did.

There was, for instance, the very cute girl at the hippie-ish, Unitarian-ish summer camp who confessed, during a game of Truth or Dare–a day or two before the session-ending, get-yer-freak-on, “no curfew night”– not only that she liked me but that she had already spent some time at, and presumably was willing to return to, “third base.” My response, later that day, was to tell her that, though I liked her, I really wanted to spend my last night with my friends.

Ack! My fear (of appearing inexperienced with her, of exposing my precious bodily fluids, of failing to slide into third base with the proper suavity, etc.) was greater than my desire, and so I missed out on summer camp nookie, which, as we all know, is one of the best kinds of nookie.

I could go on—the girl during my summer internship in Atlanta, for instance, who came to my hotel room at midnight to "say goodnight" who I didn’t make a move one because it didn’t occur to me, until a few minutes after she was gone, that maybe she wasn’t just interested in saying goodnight**—but I’d rather not. It’s too painful even now.

I’m not sure where that leaves us in our discussion other than to agree that the explicit sexual politics of a family always condition, but never determine, how the kids’ sexuality will evolve, and that the whole thing often plays out in counterintuitive ways (maybe not so counterintuitive if you’re Sigmund Freud, but counterintuitive to most people). This point is not a new one, but it tends to be made more often about politically conservative people who try too hard to repress their sexuality only to see it burst out in destructive or exagerrated ways—preachers who cheat on their wives, priests who abuse children, etc. It’s less often pointed out, I think, that there are plenty of liberal families in which an intellectual openness about the topic of sex co-habits comfortably with a prudishness and reserve about the actual thing.

*My wife, who’s been reading over my shoulder as I write this, wants me to acknowledge that I didn’t get any poon at all in high school, but I believe that if we construe poon broadly, so as to include blowjobs, then I did get a wee bit of poon in high school, though no intercourse.

**The reason I was so dense, in this case, was less a matter of fear than a matter of race. It didn’t occur to me that a good-looking but otherwise pretty nebbishy Jewish guy from the northeast, like me, might be sexually attractive to a working class black chick from Georgia who’d never even been friends with, much less fooled around with, a white guy before. But race and masculinity is a subject for another day…

Author: Masculinity and Its Discontents

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