Women And Their Erotic Power by Claire Sterret
In lieu of a Book Club selection, we are thrilled to share a very special essay written by S student, Claire Sterrett. Ladies, this is required reading, conceptualizing all we have always known, in scientific terms: this S that we have found has a deeper meaning deeply rooted in our primitive survival instincts. Read, be wow'd, and enjoy!
Women and their Erotic Power
by Claire Griffin Sterrett, M.A., L.M.T.
Marginalization of the body is one of the inevitable by-products of living in a society that both glorifies and condemns the freedom of sexual expression. On the one hand, American culture is saturated with images of sex and suggestions for what constitutes “sexy." Yet there is a huge moral stigma associated with sexual activity in the United States. Female sexuality in particular has suffered from cultural oppressions, such as the pervasively negative views of the temptress archetype. As a result of this oppression, many women in the United States are often forced to choose between either repressing the full expression of their sexual feelings and desires or openly expressing their sexuality and being criticized and/or shamed for this behavior.
While there are a variety of methods for exploring sexual repression in women, many of them do not address the body. Sexuality, however, is primarily expressed and experienced through the body. When one is able to be embodied (present in their body both emotionally and physically), the exploration of sexuality can be significantly deepened and many of the underlying psychological issues related to sexuality and the body can be healed.
One possible vehicle for exploring both embodiment and sexuality simultaneously is dance. For many centuries dance has been a reflection of the culture from which it was born. According to Judith Lynne Hanna, a cultural anthropologist, dance can also provide a medium for humans to “identify themselves and maintain or erase their boundaries” with regards to sexuality. In the United States, Britain and Australia there has been a recent surge in the popularity of all-female exotic dance classes. These classes are aimed at increasing a woman’s confidence and comfort level with her sexuality by providing a safe space in which to explore a very sexual movement-based practice.
The rising popularity of these dance classes could be driven by any number of needs: the need to feel something forbidden, to reclaim a lost part of one’s self, or simply to feel sexy. Whatever the drive may be, the result is almost always that women are experimenting with reconnecting to a deeply feminine, primal place. This place is where erotic power resides. In this article, the importance of a meaningful connection to erotic power, as well as its implications for a healthy female psyche will be explored. In future articles, the connection between this exploration and the process of embodiment will be examined.
In order to understand the erotic and how important it is for women to feel connected to it, it would be helpful to investigate the ideas of several female authors who have defined this primal female place and written about it. Audre Lorde states in her essay “Uses of the Erotic," that the word “erotic” comes from the Greek word “Eros." “Eros” literally means the personification of love in all its aspects. “Eros” was born from “Chaos," and “Chaos” is the personification of creative power and harmony.
Lorde believes that erotic power, which lies within each of us, is a very feminine and spiritual place. It is rooted in the power of being, the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. She goes on to say that erotic expressions that are superficial (that is, representations of sexuality that lack any sense of connection to our deeper, sensual selves) have been encouraged in our society. This is because they are comfortably interpreted as a symbol of extreme femininity or, alternatively, as signs of female inferiority. However, true erotic power demands that we be in touch with our deepest longings, rather than shying away from them. In Lorde’s own words:
The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction… which once we have experienced, we know we can aspire to. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves… This internal requirement toward excellence which we learn from the erotic must not be misconstrued as demanding the impossible from ourselves, nor from others. Such a demand incapacitates everyone in the process. For the erotic is not only a question of what we do; it is a question of how fully and acutely we can feel in the doing.
In other words, the “erotic” serves as an internal guide. It acts as a bridge between our conscious mind and our most chaotic, subconscious emotions. But according to Lorde, the erotic never demands perfection – perfection undermines the very chaotic messiness from which the erotic is born. The erotic not only asks us to look at what we are choosing to do in our lives, but also to examine how we are feeling when we are in that moment of doing.
Lorde goes on to describe the erotic as a type of internal “knowing," based on feelings and non-rational knowledge. She asks us to consider the phrase: “It feels right to me." This, she says, is an acknowledgement of the strength of the erotic as a form of true knowledge. “[Feeling] is the first and most powerful guiding light toward any understanding. And understanding…can only…clarify [any] deeply born knowledge. The erotic, then, is the nurturer of all our deepest knowledge.”
Unfortunately, women have come to distrust this power that rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge. The erotic has often been misnamed, and is often times used against women. It has been made into “the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation.” For this reason, women turn away from their erotic power, and as a result it is rarely regarded as a legitimate source of power and information.
A psychologist by the name of Clarissa Pinkola Estes, trained as a Jungian analyst, has studied both clinical psychology and ethnology (ethnology is the study of groups, tribes in particular). She has done extensive research of wolves, and in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves she draws strong comparisons between women and wolves: Their common traits as well as they ways in which they have both been misunderstood and persecuted. She has a different way of naming women’s connection to this deep internal knowledge (or erotic power): she calls it “The Wild Woman." Estes argues that when women are disconnected from this wild psyche, they suffer. To find themselves, therefore, they must return to “their instinctive lives, their deeper knowing." Estes has a novel approach for teaching her work, which is primarily through story-telling. This allows her to bring alive various myths and archetypes that embody the Wild Woman. She argues that connecting with this wild nature does not mean coming undone, changing everything, or going crazy or out of control. In fact, she teaches that joining with our instinctual nature means quite the opposite: It means to “establish territory, to find one’s pack, to be in one’s body with certainty and pride regardless of the body’s gifts and limitations; to speak and act in one’s behalf; to be aware, alert, to draw on the innate feminine powers of intuition and sensing; to rise with dignity, and to retain as much consciousness as possible.” Interestingly, this description of the joining with the wild woman is quite similar to Lorde’s description of connection to erotic power.
Estes also describes, in women’s words, some of the symptoms that arise when a woman is disconnected from her wild psyche, her internal guides: “feeling dry, fatigued, depressed, frail, confused, gagged, muzzled, unaroused, frightened, weak, without inspiration, without animation…without meaning, shame-bearing, chronically fuming, stuck, uncreative, compressed, crazed…powerless, blocked, overprotective of self…inability to pace one’s self…to be self-conscious…to fear to venture by one’s self or reveal one’s self, fear one will run on, run out on, run down, cringing before authority, humiliation, numbness, anxiety…afraid to bite back when there is nothing left to do…sick stomach, cut in the middle…becoming conciliatory or nice too easily…superiority complex. These severances are a disease not of an era or century, but become an epidemic anywhere and anytime women are captured, anytime the wildish nature has become entrapped.”
In one chapter of her book, titled "The Joyous Flesh", Estes talks about the body as a vehicle for reconnection with a woman’s wildish nature. She describes the body as a “multilingual being” that speaks through color, temperature, its subtle movements, and its internal sensations such as a leaping heart or a pit in the stomach:
The body remembers, the bones remember, the joints remember, even the little finger remembers. Memory is lodged in pictures and feelings in the cells themselves. Like a sponge filled with water, anywhere the flesh is pressed, wrung, even touched lightly, a memory may flow out in a stream.
She goes on to argue that the importance of the body lies not so much in its appearance, but in its vitality, its responsiveness, and its endurance. A woman who constantly must monitor her body and its form is robbed of her joyful relationship to her given form:
To malign or judge a woman’s inherited physicality is to make generation after generation of anxious and neurotic women. To make destructive and exclusionary judgments about a woman’s inherited form, robs her of several critical and precious psychological and spiritual treasures. It robs her of pride in the body type that was given to her by her own ancestral lines. If she is taught to revile this body inheritance, she is immediately slashed away from her female identity with the rest of the family… Destroying a woman’s instinctive affiliation with her natural body cheats her of confidence. It causes her to perseverate about whether she is a good person or not, and bases her self-worth on how she looks instead of who she is.
Estes encourages women to take back their bodies by ignoring the popular ideas about what constitutes happiness and the oppressive obsessions with body shape. Taking your body back means not waiting or holding back, not restricting your appetite because society tells you that you are too hungry, but living your life full throttle and with tremendous joy. The body, once reclaimed, becomes a tool for gathering information and a source of strength, joy and knowledge for a woman, rather than a source of shame or embarrassment. The purpose of the body and what constitutes a healthy body, says Estes, is that it responds; it can experience a spectrum of feeling, work as it was meant to, and that it is not permitted to be anesthetized. In her own unique way, Estes is describing a form of embodiment. She beautifully illustrates a connection to a deeper knowledge within a woman that is possible for every woman, a knowledge that could also be described as erotic power.
Lorde also describes the erotic in these terms. She talks about the way in which the erotic functions for her: As an open and fearless understanding for her capacity for joy. She believes that this capacity for joy demands that all of her life be lived with such satisfaction, but that this satisfaction does not have to look like the traditional markers of happiness society offers women (such as marriage). Lorde argues that one reason why the erotic is so feared is because it empowers women; it becomes a lens through which women scrutinize things, which forces women to evaluate what is important to them honestly and in terms of its meaning in their lives, rather than settling for the convenient and the conventional or the safe. She echoes Estes’ concerns about living on external guides rather than from internal knowledge and needs. She warns that we should not ignore these “erotic guides," lest we conform to certain societal structures that are not based on human need. She also agrees that when a woman begins to live from the inside out, and is in touch with this deeper knowledge within her, she begins to be responsible for (and is therefore able to reclaim) herself:
We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. But, once recognized, that which does not enhance our future loses its power and can be altered. The fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance. The fear that we cannot grow beyond whatever distortions we find within ourselves keeps us docile, loyal and obedient, externally defined, and leads us to accept many facets of our oppression as women.
Through these teachings, we can begin to see how connection with not just the body, but with the erotic, the Wild Woman, that deeper knowledge within is both deeply nourishing and essential to the healthy psyche of a woman. A woman’s authentic connection with her erotic power requires her to be embodied. That is, it requires her to feel all the sensations in her body as they arise, along with the inherent emotional notes that accompany these sensations, and it demands that she consciously acknowledge them. Embodiment also requires that we be able to listen to our body’s experience and notice the areas that are numb or aching, as well as the areas that are open and filled with pleasure. Sexual embodiment demands that we engage in the sensual pleasures of our bodies, acknowledge the accompanying fear and shame and let it go.
It seems that one of the most effective ways for women to gain an authentic connection to their sexuality and their erotic power or potential is through working directly with, and through the body. Because dance is an avenue for working with the body, and because it is inherently sexual, it is a natural tool for helping women to achieve this connection. Specifically, because erotic dance is overtly sexual, for centuries it has served not just as an entertainment venue for men but as a way for women to express their inherent erotic power to each other, to the gods, and to themselves. Unfortunately, it has also been subverted into a practice that exploits women and encourages shallow representations of extreme femininity and of the act of sex itself. But what if the movements of erotic dance, the art of the striptease, were removed from the public venue and put in a different environment—an all-female one? How would this change it? This is exactly what is happening across the country with the widespread popularity of all-female exotic dance classes, and the result thus far has been nothing short of a modern-day female awakening.