The Myth of Women’s Masochism–An Essay by Stephanie Cleveland


A few years ago, I read an essay in Boston Review on sex education in the U.S. public school system. In that essay, poet and Harvard lecturer Maureen N. McLane praised self-proclaimed “sex-radical” Pat (now Patrick) Califa as a sexual revolutionary. McLane identified Califa’s “infernal trinity—family, conventional sexuality, and gender,” as the fundamental institutions “sexual conservatives wish to defend” (30). She then assured her readers that, although, “From one angle, Califa’s work [] feature[s] defenses of man-boy love, [her] sex-positive embrace of critical sexual thinking, wherever it might lead, remains, if not a model an incitement” (30). My question at the time of reading McLane’s essay remains my question for those who identify as sex radical while simultaneously claiming an allegiance to feminism to date—namely, what exactly is a defense of “man boy love” an incitement to? Put another way, if feminism involves a commitment to social justice, equality, and respect of persons, and if it also involves a commitment to the emancipation of women and children grounded in a rejection of sexual abuse and patriarchal sex (Bar On 76), how then could any incitement toward acceptance of child rape be consistent with a feminist approach to sex?

Far from radical, I would argue that the practice of sexualizing the bodies of children for adult men is actually fairly conventional, as old as patriarchy. Feminism, conversely, affirms the radical (and comparatively new) idea that all practices which violate the rights of women and girls to determine what can be done to our bodies are morally and ethically unacceptable (Bar On 76). I bring up McLane’s essay here because I think it highlights the ways in which, in recent decades, feminism has been co-opted by a school of neoliberal individualism which aims at preserving—or at least making peace with—the sexual status quo. When pondered thoughtfully however, the fact of child sex abuse throws a pretty big wrench into the liberal argument that the right to individual expression in one’s sexual conduct needs to be upheld at all costs, as does the fact of rape. Our sexual relationships take place within a given social context, one under which all people do not have the same access to power. In order to deny a rapist the ability to “express” his sexuality on or in her body, a woman needs political, social, and economic equality with men; we currently have none of these. This means that a refusal to make judgments about sexual choices and sexual ethics, weather consciously intended or no, is a tacit endorsement of male-supremacy and a boon to those with the most power in contemporary culture—that is, white men.

Perhaps more importantly, abdicating the right to make ethical judgments about sex translates to an abandonment of the vulnerable and comparatively weaker; it is an extremely effective way of silencing victims of child rape. Critical sexual thinking on the other hand involves maintaining an awareness of the material context within which our relationships take place. It means choosing which versions of sex fit with the world we would like to create as feminists. This cannot be reduced down to simply following wherever sexual thoughts might lead—particularly not if they lead to acts of violation on or in another person’s body. That sort of following has more to do with cruelty, privileged laziness and irresponsibility than it does with revolution.

Sadly, I write at a time when postmodern ethical relativism has all but silenced critical thinking about sex in the academy. Many women working within the university system seem reluctant to challenge male-supremist ideology on sex directly; at a time when the predominant philosophical mode holds that nothing really means anything apart from the way we choose to interpret it, overt questioning of social inequity and misogyny do not win a female author any popularity points. But, if as Erik Anderson optimistically writes, “postmodernism as a loose set of aesthetic principles (or loosely principled aesthetic, or principally loose aesthetic) [may have already] ended or is ending” (1), I would argue that women’s poetry ought to be used as a weapon to help hasten that decline.

Instead of defiance however, in my reading of contemporary women’s poems I frequently find male dominance eroticized, masculinity deified, and the sexual subordination of women and children embraced or symbolically “played with,” but seldom challenged. The conventional notion of women’s supposedly innate sexual submissiveness seems to have saturated much contemporary poetic work as well, especially among women. We write as though we are afraid of creating anything that might dampen the erection of a male colleague. Men after all—even the sensitive, literary ones—have frequently laughed at our gentler, more egalitarian versions of sex; they’ve explained to us repeatedly that making love is dishonest, while fucking is truth. And we believe this, groomed to doubt ourselves, determined to prove we can succeed in the male dominated upper echelons of the poetry community. Thus, as women have relinquished the feminist goal of tender, humane intimacy, female poets such as Sarah Manguso explain for us on Here Comes Everybody how, “booze, rough sex, and rock and roll” are all essential for writing good poetry.

Before any kind of rebellion against this celebration of male supremist sexuality could take place, women would have to overcome both an internalized belief in our own inferiority, and the tendency among the relatively privileged among us to ignore the plight of women outside the elite world of professorships and poetry MFA programs. Postmodernism has had the effect of burying both poetry and feminism underneath mountains of terminology only a select few have access to or can even understand. As Catherine MacKinnon insightfully puts it:

Women have become “an ongoing discursive practice” or, ubiquitously, “the female body,” which is written on and signified but seldom, if ever, raped, beaten, or otherwise violated. [] Abuse has become “agency”—or rather challenges to sexual abuse have been replaced by invocations of “agency,” women’s violation become the sneering wound of a “victim” pinned in arch quotation marks. Instead of facing what was done to women when we were violated, we are told how much freedom we had at the time. (55)

This flight from reality is, of course, only available to those women fortunate enough not to have to face more overt forms of sexual violence. It discourages or ignores activism against the sexual violation of women and children by men, and in particular, it trivializes activism on the part of survivors who speak out about the pain of being raped. It denies that sexual violence is harm, or that the harm is even there. It is this denial, and the overwhelming complacency about it among contemporary poets, that makes Carla Drysdale’s Little Venus from Tightrope Books so shocking. Her tight, often sparse little poems turn out to be potential starting points for revolution. And in fact, if women cannot find the courage to reject the patriarchal fuck within the relatively safe spaces of our poetry, where on earth will we ever hope to find it?

To be clear, Drysdale’s work falls short of an out-and-out rebellion against patriarchal sex; her poems do however represent an overdue step in that direction. If one acknowledges openly what radical feminists have long noted, that as women, “we have become reluctant to be labeled as moral crusaders in an age when human potential has degenerated to ‘doing your own thing’ [and we] are numbed to the point of being at home with cruelty and despair” (Hein 88), then Drysdale’s poetry begins to appear incredibly daring. Her poems reject postmodern detachment in favor of reconnecting with the more accessible, heartfelt tradition of political poetry that characterized feminist writing of the so-called “Second Wave.” Drysdale is unafraid—well, at least part of the time—to make judgments, even judgments about sex; as it turns out, she judges some forms of sex (those that involve eroticizing women’s powerlessness, those that involve father-daughter-rape) unacceptable. This is very brave, given that criticizing any sexual behavior these days seems to mean a woman risks being labeled anti sex. In their lyrical accessibility and brutally straightforward precision, these poems hearken back, albeit a little timidly, to the feminist demand that we confront male sexual violence against women and children head-on without being coy.

If pretending that submission has its thrills has been revamped as feminism, Drysdale bucks that trend, speaking through the voice of the survivor. Her aim is not to coddle those who are powerful, and she writes, not out of a submissive, rigidly posturing femininity, but from underneath the silences of father-daughter rape. When the poet tells us how “Rising from the indifferent foam of his semen,/Little Venus learns from dad’s pen/graphic acts of Fucking,” she does not spare the reader by trying to make the picture seem erotic. In her poem, “Rape Is Not a Poem,” June Jordan wrote of the ways in which men’s sexual contempt leads both men and women to “this dismal place where (your arm/raised and my eyes lowered)/there is nothing left but the drippings/of power and a consummate wreck of tenderness.” (79) It is this wreckage of tenderness from which Carla Drysdale’s poems bleed; she writes to piece back together an authentic sexual identity in the aftermath of male sexual violence. Though the poet falters, and sometimes fails, there is courage here as well. It is this fighter-truth-teller-eerie-little-girl with the gumption to say, “You stuck your penis in me, and no, it did not feel like my emancipation,” who calls into question the privileged vantage point which allows men (and some women) to rename sexual abuse and subordination “transgressive,” rather than a reinforcement of male dominance. Little Venus is the poetic voice of the woman survivor of child sex abuse and adult objectification. She chases after, tries to recapture, sometimes remembers, sometimes shoves herself under a stifling heterosexual script for fucking first learned from her stepfather Ray, but ultimately, she succeeds at creating a poetry that is stronger than her abuser.

In Our Blood, Andrea Dworkin noted the ways in which “Sexual masochism actualizes female negativity [in the broader culture], just as sexual sadism actualizes male positivity. A woman’s erotic femininity is measured by the degree to which she needs to be hurt, needs to be possessed, needs to be abused, needs to submit, needs to be beaten[,] humiliated[,] degraded” (104-5). Women are shamed for failure to live up to this cultural standard of femininity, its perpetuation being so crucial to the continuation of the sexual status quo. Particularly, depicting sexual trauma as such is off limits to a woman writer, since, according to patriarchal culture, women are meant to enjoy being on the receiving end of men’s aggression during sex. Women’s writing about emotional events therefore—pain not called pleasure, and particularly the pain of rape—has frequently been trivialized as whining, and promptly written over.

Some of us respond to the wound of this trivialization by adopting a more sophisticated poetic approach, one under which we assure male readers that, as women, we enjoy humiliation. Many men, for their part, revel in hearing this lie, (or they certainly seem to, judging by what work they choose to publish). Learning to experience the pain of sexual violence as pleasure can be one strategy women choose to cope, and to secure male approval; it is a stance that assures men they need not examine anything about their own attitudes towards women in personal relationships. Thus, at a time when women are told we have achieved liberation and that a women’s movement may no longer even be needed, many women poets are creating poetry that celebrates highly traditional cultural assumptions about female masochism. In her poem “I Am the Supernova of Your Psalmistry,” Noelle Kocot gives us a female narrator who, in the style of a cheerleader for the sexual sale of women, eagerly proclaims, “I want to scream with aggravated pleasure/Like the woman with the pierced clit in the porno flick” (6). Fetishizing women who work in the sex industry, (despite the fact that many suffer horrible abuse there), the poet lets men know that she likes what they like—that is, a woman’s scream, transformation of women into consumable sex commodity, female genital flesh penetrated, pierced by metal.

Katy Lederer has her own version of this woman-as-sexual-masochist shtick:

Slick in the yellow light [h]e is wanting to fuck./[…] He must straddle her ass. We are patient. Here, his organs begin to swell—/[…] we have here/Great depths—trimmed by delicate vulvic folds. Flesh dangles, cut…Her hand…grabs at his…polished cock…He is raping her. The situation is complicated…He slaps her. She grabs at his ass….The episodic nature of her pain is obscured by the sublime action of his cock. (43-44)

The poet mocks the feminist claim that women do not enjoy rape. She does that which garners men’s approval, celebrating sexual brutality and choosing to hold herself accountable, not to women victims of sexual assault, but to those male readers who can experience the idea of forcing a woman into sex as erotic. She chooses the word “rape” specifically, a word which speaks to her female character’s lack of consent. Her narrator worships the penis as “sublime,” the ultimate symbol of male power. The woman in this poem is cast as fragile, a delicate, pain-loving hole. We have here nothing new or remotely original—not even the betrayal by which one woman has her fun at the expense of others (that is, women raped for real) is inventive. Women have long been encouraged to sell each other out under patriarchy, yet, what the poet fails to grasp is that rape can serve as her sexual toy only because male dominance continues to exist, because rape continues to be carried out by real men in the bodies of real women.

If, as its defenders might claim, this type of writing is meant as parody, it should also be noted that

any ideology which presupposes the context of dominance and submission (masculinity and femininity, master and slave) is hardly capable of breaking free of it…while those parodying authoritarianism may expose it for what it really is, they are hardly able thereby to release themselves from it and so are not rebels in the sense either of resisting or striving for change.” (Hoagland 159)

Lederer evidently feels she has little responsibility to women and girls who have experienced sexual violation. Instead, she seems eager to prove how well she has learned the standard patriarchal script for sex. Although with a poem like this, a poet may successfully desensitize readers to male violence against women, she also ensures that questions of what happens to those women who do not enjoy rape are never asked.

In another poem eroticizing power, Kim Addonizio writes, Some men will want to fuck your poems, and instead will find you./…Some men, let’s face it, really are too small./ Some [] are too large, but it’s not usually a deal breaker./…Some men will slap you in a way you’ll like” (APR). This is female masochism with a twist, for although the poet makes clear that she embraces being sexually done to, she also implies that women are equally able to wound men via digs about penis size. The penis continues to be worshipped as a symbol of male control—Addonizio simply allows herself the luxury of making fun of men with small ones. This, the poet would presumably have us believe, is representative of an empowered female sexuality. Are the men she ridicules—those who lack massive dicks—more pathetic and worthy of sexual contempt, not “real men” in the poet’s estimation? If so, what is effectively being said here is that, with a small penis, a man will not be able to fuck, stretch, plug, tear up or otherwise show a woman’s “hole” who is boss—and “real women” want to be stretched, plugged, torn, dominated. The idea is that a woman gets the most sexual fulfillment when a man abuses or injures her; the poet assures us that she likes being slapped, has no need for tenderness during physical intimacy with a man. As with any subordinated class of people, some women do attempt survival through cozying up to power. Men have been thrusting into us, ridiculing our pleas for connection and love during intercourse for so long; it is little wonder that some of us may eventually try learning how to get off on that violence.

The poet explains that, if a penis is too big “it’s not usually a deal breaker.” What does too big mean here? Is this when a man’s erection is large enough to cause discomfort, even vaginal tearing? Addonizo tells us that women enjoy this sort of pain. And make no mistake—the poet is not saying that she alone enjoys it; she addresses her reader directly—you will enjoy it; you and I will make peace with violent sex, eventually accepting that, when a man slaps or beats us, that is pleasure. Perhaps the poet has come to the conclusion that brutality is inevitable in sexual relationships with men, given that, as far as most men are concerned, no other offer is generally on the table.

Men who enjoy feeling they have the power to cause a woman pain during intercourse exist. Thoughtful examination of some of the lines generated by male poets might even lead a female reader to conclude that such men are in the majority. “A birthmark which I mistook for a drop of blood/on the body during an affair and proud/of myself for working you that hard/and specific,” writes Joshua Beckman (49). Richard Meier creates a male narrator who, remembering a longed for sexual encounter, recounts listening to his female lover ask to be thrust into with greater force: “arms pass through and listen to harder,/exactly, more” (69). Addonizo is simply writing the female counterpart to these male poems of eroticized dominance. A man prefers to hear his woman say, “fuck me,” so she says it obligingly—harder, more, exactly. He puts the words in her mouth in his poetry, that there should be no confusion about the fact that he is he, while she is Other, different species of human who enjoys subordination. He likes breaking the skin, watching what his dick can do; she surrenders, pretending to be less than he is, letting him turn her vagina into something bloody—defeated pierced flesh beneath his working prick. She murders her soul in this way, letting him fuck out any trace of a desire for sexual dignity. For her, the possibility that she may at some point have wanted sex to be different than this eventually vanishes.

In other instances, women poets try making peace with masochism against inner misgivings. These are poems in which women, having accepted that men enjoy feeling powerful during sex, negotiate to tone the roughness down a bit. “You should have put your hand over my mouth/at least once/preferably lying behind/this is not an erotic disclosure/you can take it however you like,” writes Lisa Fishman in her poem “Strewn” (61). The pun on a man “taking” his woman, possessing her through fucking, is less overtly violent, but the image of a silent woman, effectively sealed at both ends by her male lover—whose penis blocks her vagina and whose hand covers the place where she breaths, speaks—is heartbreaking. The narrator cannot quite bring herself to say she wants this: “You should have,” she thinks, but never actually speaks it. She knows what excites him, wants to please, would if he pushed, but her pride won’t quite let her suggest this. Similarly, Sarah Arvio writes in “Neck,” “That isn’t done Grabbing your girlfriend’s neck/….I love you with all my soul/….Grab my neck my shoulder or my breast/but sweetly if you must” (62-63).

Women frequently fall in love with men, and oftentimes we will go to great lengths to win love back from them, or at the very least to keep them in our lives. Any woman socialized into contemporary American culture has been told throughout her lifetime to varying degrees, that without male approval she is of significantly less worth. In these poems, the sadness of female narrators trying to reconcile themselves to sex “men’s way,” wanting to be approved of, or at least close to him, is palpable behind a mask of “chosen” degradation. I am not suggesting women be ridiculed for embracing sexualized violence or female masochism. Nor am I saying that a feminist-identified woman cannot have sexual responses to such material. I do think however, that it is important to ask why patriarchal scripts for fucking which eroticize female powerlessness feel so compelling to so many presumably intelligent women at this point in time.

In The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis explore some of the ways in which

the context [] we first experience sex [in] affects us deeply. Often there is a kind of imprinting in which whatever is going on at the time is linked together. So, if you experienced violation, humiliation, and fear at the same time as you experienced arousal and pleasurable genital feelings, these elements may have twisted together, leaving you with emotional and physical legacies that link pleasure with pain, love with humiliation, desire with an imbalance of power. (263)

Though these words address female survivors of child sex abuse specifically, given the misogyny of patriarchal culture and persistent social inequality for women, they lend insight into the situation of women as a class as well. Yet, as Bass and Davis also note, “it is possible to change [one’s sexual associations] …to create a truly chosen sexuality that embodies passion and excitement” without inequality (263-64).

If we allow for the possibility that sexual masochism is not some innate part of women’s psyches, but a conditioned response to male-supremacy, then we can begin to ask questions about the implications of our sexual choices and the motivations behind them. I think these questions are important, particularly if we plan on putting our sexual politics forward as public statements via poetry. Linda Phelps has suggested that, if we

Think of the erotic themes of all the novels, comic books, movies, jokes, cartoons and songs you’ve ever experienced. The major theme which appears over and over is the drama of conquest and submission: the male takes the initiative and the female waits, [but] when he takes the initiative [and] maneuvers her into the bedroom, [w]hat is it that makes such descriptions arousing?” (13)

Phelps answers this important question by observing that women live in “a world whose eroticism is defined in terms of female powerlessness, dependency, and submission” (13). For the majority of heterosexual men, masculinity and dominance during sex may feel familiar too, even if not initially chosen. Women are encouraged to value male opinions above our own in the realm of the sexual; if men are encouraged to see themselves as dominant, we hesitate to challenge that experience. Instead, we write, and act out, the masochistic compliment to male sadism. We can become quite adept at this. Unfortunately, it does little to transform male supremist culture or empower individual women who seek an integrated sexual identity that includes sexual dignity.

Good feminist art can challenge oppression and inequality. Jennifer Moxley has written of women’s poetry as, at least in part, the project of answering the question, “‘how given chorus/a she complete’? My ‘she’ meant to stand for women in general: i.e. how sing a fully realized female life?” (56). As women poets, we need to ask ourselves if a woman can ever truly sing a fully realized female life while a male hand presses over her mouth. Appreciating what is most remarkable about Drysdale’s poetry—that is, her reluctance to make sexual submission for women seem an inevitable pathway to erotic release—requires putting her poems in this broader context. Contrast Little Venus’s unapologetic rage in a poem like “Revenge Fantasy #1: Oh to Chop with a Guillotine” for example, in which L.V. unabashedly tells about how “Beets Seethe on a plate made to carry/his severed head” in reference to her stepfather Ray whose gaze is already on her even as a four year old, with Katy Lederer’s rape fantasy poems. Drysdale’s poetry breaks with the tradition of eroticizing men in power positions over a female body. Little Venus channels her energy not into trying to enjoy Ray’s masculinity, but instead, into reclaiming pleasure for herself via passionate dreams of violating him.

If we think of non-violence for women as partly about doing that which is necessary to resist male violence, then L.V.’s revenge fantasies, which repeat throughout the first section of the book, form a valuable line of resistance. She gives herself permission not to feel guilt over her anger or for refusing to forgive. Instead, she thinks gleefully about decapitating Ray, whose blood could be pouring from his neck or the shaft of his penis; in this way the rapist’s genitals, used to effectively kill off any sense of sexual wholeness in L.V., are themselves violated. Although men’s sexual fantasies of violence against women have been widely accepted as normal, the idea of women sexually violating men is generally met with great hostility. The realization that rape can be carried out on a penis however, challenges the notion that female submission and men’s rape of women are natural or biologically predetermined.

Women have typically been expected to adapt our sexual desires to those of men, rather than the reverse; Drysdale offers unique insight into this situation, writing about how incest shaped L.V.’s sexuality before she had the chance to build it. These poems highlight how little choice many girls have about what form their sexuality will take. Drysdale bravely implicates manhood and masculinity, with their emphasis on power and women’s wild, animalistic “Other” sexual nature: “He didn’t read Shakespeare/thought he was John Wayne, a man/to tame the tiny slut.” L.V. relates how, as a young girl, she wanted, “to grow up/to be a lady with a Barbie tan/and black hair like the ones/in Ray’s Playboys,/under his bleached shorts/in the top drawer.” The confession is startling. Having learned as a child that sexual touch is the only attention she merits, L.V. looks to the most easily available model for how to be sexual as an adult woman; she finds it in her step-father’s Playboys. This direct mention of pornography as having been implicated in L.V.’s abuse is a gutsy move on Drysdale’s part, given contemporary support in many artistic circles for pornography as liberation for women. Drysdale does not shy away from drawing our attention to the fact that, beneath the clean, bleached façade of the “good Dad,” L.V.’s stepfather is a man who feels entitled to purchase sexual access to women’s bodies. Interestingly, the father who looks at “normal” pornography of presumably adult women is not dissuaded from raping his step daughter by being given other female bodies to use. Instead, he imposes early on L.V. a view of what women are expected to be—Barbie-ish, exposed, always available for sex, stripped of individuality and bodily privacy. Drysdale’s feelings of needing to conform to this standard bring up questions about how many girls begin even in early childhood to apprehend that serving as sex for men will be their prescribed adult role in life.

Notably, Drysdale never mentions L.V.’s rape as a “complicated,” potentially enjoyable experience a la Lederer. In rejecting this more capitulatory stance, the poet points to ways in which privileged women who have not had to endure child rape may feel the luxury of being able to fetishize other women’s violation only because they themselves have been lucky enough to escape it.

The second section of Drysdale’s collection opens with what the reader might think of as Little Venus unfiltered—a fierce indictment of male sexual abuse of women and girls. This is Drysdale at her best, speaking directly about the too common self-destructive patterns women survivors can fall into: “Debbie grew an armor of fat to keep her dad away/Give this man a bullet in the head, let him die.” There are no apologetics here about the importance of forgiveness, no survivor guilt, only righteous contempt for the rapist. The poet continues to directly accuse men who rape:

Helen’s father made her pregnant twice…Kaye’s father licked between her thighs/She still fucks strangers in her middle age/….Chris’s father sucked her infant genitals dry/leaving holes in her mind, red drawings of rage/Let [these men]take a bullet and die.

This sort of poetry, in which a woman writes clearly and directly against male sexual violence, is fantastically refreshing. Rather than suggesting those women with perhaps the most profound ability to understand male-supremacist sexuality on its deepest level—that is, women who have been raped, incested, or prostituted—learn to experience being sexually possessed as pleasure, Drysdale takes the tremendous risk of calling out the abuser. She does not apologize to men, but rather, tells us that those who rape inculcate women with a broken, humiliated sexuality. For this affront to women’s humanness, she considers that these men deserve death. Feminist psychologists have long noted that anger can be a great motivating force for women, particularly if we learn how to direct it outward (Bass & Davis 150). Drysdale taps into this kind of unapologetic rage in order to challenge the rape of women, for if men who rape meet no resistance, why on earth should they change?

Unfortunately, Drysdale is not immune to pushing down her anger, at times re-inscribing on her adult relationships the kind of self-loathing sexuality her step-father gave. And in fact, how could any woman speak about being raped without shame or self-hate, given that her rape will, in all likelihood, be sexualized in the minds of any men to whom she tells her story? If, as Dworkin suggested, feminism is hated because women are hated then our refusal to keep silent about the pain of sexual violation may be hated even more. Men often do not care to hear about how a rape permanently damages a woman’s spirit, particularly if they have experienced arousal over using some degree of force during sex with women throughout their lives. For many men, male poets included, part of the thrill of fucking is the charge of overpowering a female Other, being able to act on her and control her responses. Men conceptualize themselves as the active principle during sex; he gives her an orgasm, experiences his manliness via her reactions. He does to her; the reverse is never true. The doing can be written as comic, titillating. In “The Great Submarine Race,” Mathew Rohrer describes penises as metaphorical submarines (that is, warships) which slumber in the bloodstreams of all men. These “submarines” want desperately to “burble [i.e. shoot off] in shallow slips.” Erection and ejaculation are the primary focus; the woman’s vagina becomes passive, a port where the poet docs his sub:

A man in the square nudged his wife/and told her they were Mammary clouds. Everyone’s bloodstream burbled faintly./ The wife loved the lumpy clouds, the man’s submarine slipped its mooring/and nosed her coral arches. Simultaneously, all the world’s submarines exhaled and plunged deep into the shifting water, with their little engines racing (65)

Men fuck women as a collective entity, bonding through what Tony Tost has aptly poeticized as “the ancient male ritual of penetrating” (49). Some envision themselves as charming submarines who “enter her” magnanimously. For women, to reject this image of being plunged or parted by a man’s ship is to hurt men’s feelings, to risk making a male partner feel less substantial, less like a man, and potentially less willing to stick around. Every one else is fucking this way, every other woman in the world waits eagerly to be nudged by her partner’s penis; the male poet assures us this is so; every woman is happiest in her natural role of passive port directed were to look by an erection-wielding husband. So too should we be, (unless we are frigid, prudish, undesirable). The cherished man-fucks-woman paradigm is preserved for male readers, but the poet cleverly sugar-coats things in order to make them more palatable for women. This presumably is his idea of granting equality. A wife likes it when her husband thrusts into her—a male poet has created her, so it stands to reason she would endorse his preference. Man still gets the all-important sensation of penetration and powerfulness while his woman should also be happy, because her degraded role is now less overt. The woman who finds herself unable to obligingly spread her legs in order to act as meek water split by his U-boat is effectively written out of existence.

At other times, men go to less trouble about making the fuck look sweet. In “Violence and Love,” Tomaz Salamun writes of the female body during sex: “You are in two bodies [presumably the labia are referred to] as in two bowls [empty space needing to be filled, even created incomplete without him]. I am/a mushroom. I erase the blackboard….Gondolas. They are on their backs” (19). Here, woman is allowed to see herself in the eyes of a man as he fucks her. To his mind, her vagina is space to be conquered; he claims that she has always been like this, hollowed-out boat made specifically for him. Her body and sexual organs are certainly not her own. Female genitalia are places to be done to, erased by him; he is the doer; he will therefore push in his mushroom.

In order to enjoy this kind of sex (the kind most men are accustomed to) a woman must learn to eroticize her comparative weakness. There is something deeply humiliating in this. In “Sacred Hen. La Notte Di San Lorenzo,” the poet again returns to the patriarchal image of a woman’s body as “split in two,” bringing violence into the very definition of femaleness. Using more overt cruelty this time, the narrator, a sadist, indulges an obsession with his prick. The violence it can do, according to his view, is normal, the natural use of her. “Poof! I send a train,/ a steam engine. [up you is implied] It runs to widen you, finally you/split in two” (38). The woman is stretched, widened, ultimately sliced into two pieces by his fucking; this is violence, yet she is supposed to desire it. Some instruments typically used to split are weapons—knives, axes, daggers; Men envision themselves cutting through women’s flesh with these—and how could women be expected to find sexual dignity, or not grow to hate our own bodies, knowing that even the “normal” male thinks of consensual sex in this way? “Hooked to your body, it goes no further” (38). The narrator continues to pierce, though his focus is not so much on her as on it, his all important erection. Her humiliation is total; she is depicted as putting up no resistance, perhaps enjoying this contempt. The narrator’s penis becomes a hook, lacerating her, doing harm; and she likes this, because women are like that, different. “The steam engine leaps. Only it should come out at the neck./I would like to keep the head clean, the skull with all the skin, all the hair, all your arranging of your hair.” This image, for all its lyricism and poetic beauty, depicts a man literally fucking through a woman. The poem’s narrator will use his penis to push into her genitals so far and with such force that he eventually ruptures her neck, bursting through her skin. This would, of course, cause death.

And in fact, men frequently equate sex with dying, insisting women must also have the same experience. Donald Hall writes, “She died a dozen times before I died,/…I plunged, I plugged, I twisted and I sighed/While she achieved death’s Paradise routinely” (New Yorker 90). Valuing this erotic death ethic above love or compassion—certainly above women’s need for self-respect—the narrator of Salamun’s poem turns his female lover into a joke, sacred chicken. Femininity and all her time spent arranging her hair only heighten his pleasure at destroying her. This is the final insult, the ultimate gesture of contempt. He will leave that part which she objectified for his benefit, pushing his erection through just beneath. The poet does not seem to condemn the narrator’s cruelty, but rather, reports, in great detail, on this man’s perceptions. The woman he brutalizes noticeably remains voiceless. This is male-generated poetry about sex elevating male-supremist ideology about women to the level of the sacred. It is part of why bitterness and reluctance about being fucked are reviled and deemed inappropriate to women’s poetry.

To get along with the vast majority of men, a woman needs to learn how to adjust to this sort of sexual annihilation. She should consent, acknowledging the strength of cock. Never mind the fact that any woman who has looked at or touched an erect penis knows it has little resemblance to a fish hook (unless something is medically wrong with it). Never mind too that a woman may know, through touch, memory, her own perception, that the skin there is soft, warm, completely exposed, easy to scratch or make bleed even with something as insubstantial as a fingernail. Never mind that women may comprehend how vulnerable the male body becomes during arousal; completely muscle-less, an erection is noticeably temporary; it is blood-filled skin, easily used up or even hacked away. Many penises are small—all are, when compared with the muscles lining vaginal walls; these stay long after an erection vanishes, can clamp down with conscious force around it, choke it in their grasp, or alternately, push a child out into the world. Do men sense their vulnerability relative to women? Is this why so many seem so bent on warping women’s sexuality into something degraded and weak? Is this a form of self-protection via self-deception? If “the male’s normal compensation for not being female” really is, as Valerie Solanas quipped, “getting his Big Gun [or big submarine or big steam engine…] off,” then maybe he really does have “no compassion or ability to empathize or identify, [such that] proving his manhood [becomes] worth an endless amount of mutilation and suffering and an endless number of lives, including his own” (38-9).

Women have been reluctant to accept such notions of male inferiority, choosing instead to keep on believing in men’s human potential. Despite disappointments, we continue to search, as Robin Morgan writes, for our consort, for

the Man who is capable of acute sensitivity to [our] desire and vast tenderness for [our] need [,] capable of strength equal to [our] own. Man has feared his inability to succeed [at] understanding her, learning her, knowing her, [and] Woman, after centuries (years of one human life) of trying to reveal to Man or obtain from him the authentic response, begins to settle for [] pretense, finding it, in lack of what she truly wishes, somewhat stimulating. (118)

This “pretense” is the standard patriarchal way of having sex. He lazily (or fearfully) avoids knowing her as his equal, forbids her from knowing him, thereby skirting his own vulnerability. He insists on a mode of sexual expression through which he can experience himself as possessing her, conquering and degrading her, until she is finally brought down to his level. In order to survive this situation,

she must convince herself first of its relevance and then of its inevitability, and construct an effective pleasure out of that very situation. This is the only way she can retain any pride. She even feels an echo of some ancient, almost forgotten [] creativity in the way she has instinctively known how to divert her pain into pleasure. I know this. My cells remember. (Morgan 120)

Adopting this self-abnegating stance constitutes a traditionally feminine approach to sex. It does not ruffle men’s feathers, but it also locks both men and women inside a rigidly gendered charade, one that precludes both love and women’s emancipation:

All along, Man has not known her, not understood any of her real unshameful [] desires. Now that he has corrupted his own attempts to fulfill them [h]e glimpses that only she holds the key which can unlock them both from these postures. Yet all of his energies are bent on convincing her that, while she indeed holds the key, she has no power to use it. Because she may be wrong. Because I may not be as she is. Because I may not be capable…” (Morgan 120)

His worst fear is of not being able to match her depth of spirit, particularly during sex, where he is supposed to know everything, has convinced himself he must govern. He chooses to feel superior, at ease with fucking her; he is a “real Man,” one whose heart is safe-guarded. On some level, it may feel easier for her psychically to play along with this, to accept sexual subordination as her lot in life. This feels preferable to admitting that, despite her giving of her whole self—and despite even her love—he cares so little about her freedom, chooses not to fight alongside her, readily sacrifices her equality to his own cowardice.

It may be this fear of confronting men’s betrayal that leads Drysdale to shy away from the anger of her child narrator in the poems that follow. Whatever the reason, Drysdale’s poetry about sex with her husband feels colonized by comparison. With few readily available contemporary models for feminist sexuality, it becomes difficult for individual women to dream, write, or imagine alternate versions. Instead, women may direct our frustrations at one another. In “These Four Walls,” Noelle Kocot chastises a “Christian woman” who has experienced reluctance about sex with her husband. The poet writes off this woman’s doubt as puritanical and ultimately to the woman’s detriment:

The enemy fell through a trap door,/….So fast that the Christian woman/Didn’t have time to pray that it/Would get away. Then the woman/Felt badly for the Enemy,/….I’ve been praying for/You to leave for so long, and now/I’m lonely, and I want you back. (44)

Any feelings of humiliation a woman might have around being thrust into are portrayed as silly religious worrying. True, a failure to accept sex “men’s way” does often lead to abandonment and loneliness for women. But is it really fair to blame women for this? The poet continues to paint “the Enemy,” that is, the man, (and of course, referring to men in this way takes a sarcastic jab at feminist critiques of male dominance) as guiltless and affable.

‘Sure,’ the enemy replied, ‘Anything for you,’….So the woman and her/Enemy ascended through the many/holes in the universe, and broke/Bread together, and ate to their heart’s content. Driftwood fell/From the sky and the woman for once,/Didn’t blame the enemy, as the rigid/Fixings of a superior lunch left/Its seeds in her garden [and] the Enemy lived there forevermore,/Whispering curses, which she broke/Happily…like a string/Of wanton pearls. (44)

Here, the poet seems to be trying to demonstrate how comfortable she is with sex as male supremacy frames it. The penis is hard, rigid wood the Christian woman (finally having come to her senses) admits is superior to her own pliant body. She is mute soil in a garden, dull and incomplete without him, made for him to plant himself in. He will spread his seed there, ejaculating all over the place permanently. Women are expected to twist ourselves into all sorts of metaphorical knots in order to show men we appreciate their semen. Being a receptacle for it may feel more bearable if one pretends it is a string of pearls, and the Christian woman is portrayed as having been moronic to resent this wondrous treasure. How dare she have wanted anything other than to be sewn with his ejaculation like so much dirt? And yet, might a woman also dislike having to accept men’s subjective conception of her body as acted on and dug around in partly because this passivity feels pathetic? Her reluctance may have more to do with a desire for dignity than prudishness. Accepting that one’s body really is a kind of helpless space, and that, for such a person, surrender will be experienced as pleasure, represents a loss of self-respect. The irony of Kocot’s poem is that this unequivocal willingness to be sexually accessible is precisely what traditional patriarchal religious norms have always demanded of women. Under a Judeo-Christian religious ethic which women have historically had little say in shaping, husbands have long been expected to get exclusive sexual access to their wives. Wife’s in turn, are expected to let their husbands fuck them. A significant number of men on the Left have sought to secure for themselves greater public sexual access to more women’s bodies via “free love,” pornography, and legalized prostitution, but religious women have always been expected to supply their husbands with sex in private. It may understandably feel easier for women to critique other women than to look critically at the dehumanized role men have outlined for us.

Drysdale too struggles with the pressure to accept that sex must involve female subordination. In particular, she seems to believe that as a woman, she must learn to eroticize some degree of sexual passivity on her part if she is to fulfill her partner. The poet adopts violent, patriarchal sex language like that men have traditionally been most comfortable with. Her narrator struggles to make relative peace with this pretense. Not only is it true that admitting male sexual violence causes pain means a woman risks being ridiculed as a victim; sexual abuse can also numb us to our own potential for experiencing pleasure in less destructive ways. Often men who find sexually dominating women erotic explain their behavior by appealing to the notion that sex is beyond political discussion, and must instead be focused on the release of tension and intense feeling. But as Sarah Lucia Hoagland notes,

It is important to remember that to simply relieve tension is not to address the cause of anger….When the relief of tension is then associated with orgasm, the recurrent building of tension and the need for release will not be perceived as a result of failing to address the cause of anger or oppression. Instead it will seem to be part of the natural recurrence of sexual appetite. The process will thereby be embraced in the name of sexual pleasure while those questioning the process will be labeled anti sex and puritanical. (160)

Women are sometimes told that healing means not remembering anything about the ways in which men can and do sometimes use sex to hurt. Such memories might force men to question their own sexual responses. Women and men both learn to think of sex as something enacted upon a woman’s body; we are even told that women may even have a residual, primal need to be forced. Denise Duhamel writes in, “A Nap on the Afternoon of My 39th Birthday,” about how a dream about sexual assault may be linked to “[some] primitive fantasy that I want to be taken, no matter how brutal” (276). Acceptance of one’s “instinctual” masochism is widely assumed to represent female sexual maturity. If femininity is constructed around the alleged allure of this acceptance of discomfort and male superiority, it stands to reason women should enjoy being propped up on high heels, hoisting our breast into cleavage, painting our lips and faces with cosmetics, and all the other masochistic cultural expectations for women in the West. For women survivors of child sex abuse however, the idea that female surrender is sex has profound implications. This ideology can take hold early, and women may feel guilt over the ways our bodies responded physically even to sex we did not want. It is thus frequently claimed that, for men, indulging sexually sadistic impulses can be cathartic, and that for women survivors of rape or abuse, submitting under circumstances a woman “controls” can bring about healing also. However, while this method of channeling rage and sexual trauma may

provide temporary relief, the recurrent pattern often leads to emotional numbing since there is no change or growth. (That there is sexual numbing is also suggested by sadists and masochists who can no longer enjoy gentle, affectional sex.) What is purged in this catharsis is one’s sensitivity to oppression, to domination and humiliation, not one’s internalization of it. (Hoagland 160)

Historically women have not had an equal say in defining the terms of sex. The ways we envision our bodies and what happens to them during sex (rarely what they are capable of doing to the body of another), have largely been defined for us by men in ways that eroticize female powerlessness. It is difficult for a woman who is not able to numb herself to this on some level to get through sex with the average man, let alone an abuser. For survivors of sexual assault, numbing may be the only readily available coping strategy. Section two of Drysdale’s book doesn’t begin from this numbed state per se, but the poems do highlight the wounds both life as a woman and a survivor have left imbedded on her narrator’s sexuality. In “New Home,” a love poem to the narrator’s husband, she tells us that she herself is now softer with a partner, though she never comments on whether or not her husband is also softer now as well. Still, “We lay down together where we wake from sleep” offers an egalitarian look at love minus the powerlessness L.V. knew in earlier years. In an interesting twist on the old patriarchal, biblical metaphor of woman as pierced flesh, Drysdale writes, “Blue skies over a place you love can pierce you.” Though the fear of abandonment is clearly present in these words, the reader may also imagine that the narrator is beginning to think about her body once violated as capable of piercing a male partner to the core. His love joins them; her love binds him to her, vulva, vagina, heart. If a woman’s body is typically thought of as a home for men where they can expect to receive succor, this inversion is unique for here the narrator’s new home or new sexual-self is responsible for cutting out a space in the heart and bodily embrace of a male other.

Yet, to overturn entirely the patriarchal metaphor for sex as man-occupies-woman risks alienating those male readers who have learned to operate their penises in a certain way. Drysdale, whether consciously or no, seems aware of this dynamic, and her sex poems gradually become more traditional. She first begins to assume a more capitulating tone in “Love Pitches Its Tent.” Proclaiming in Romance-Novel-esque language, “You tango me around the kitchen,” the narrator stands in awe of how her husband is able to twirl her as one might a doll. The highly conventional “Les Amants” progresses further down this path of meekness: “Ninety degrees in a Provencal kitchen/our bodies slick in the molten moment;” Drysdale seems to want us to feel as though inside this quaint kitchen we are about to find radical passion, but sadly, the sex that follows is traditionally hierarchical. “You sit alert green eyes fixed/on the feast of me.” Here, the poet demonstrates the extent to which women can be numbed to our own desires; rather than showing an awareness of what she enjoys and longs for about her lover, Drysdale’s narrator provides a description of what it means to be looked at by him; she thereby allows male readers to ogle her vicariously, conflating sexual seeing with being sexually looked at. The narrator’s husband’s gaze becomes the poem’s focal point, while her passion is rendered all but invisible; likewise, the male body remains forbidden to female readers here. The narrator accepts that her husband has a legitimate right to consume her through sexual use; she is not a unique human being recognized for herself, so much as a feast to sustain and nourish him. He for his part enjoys feeding on her; readers are meant to assume that this sexual offering-up of one’s self for consumption is different from L.V. being raped by her step-father because now the narrator is old enough to give her consent. We are not told, however, where this adult narrator is to find her own sustenance, or why she seems so timid about asking for it. Men have been feeding on her for so long that, through abuse, the L.V. who once wrote angrily about another woman being sucked dry by her father finds herself unable to face the similarities between that use and what her husband does with her body now.

Despite her best efforts, the narrator finds being visually consumed uncomfortable. She struggles to overcome this feeling, chiding herself for her shame and accepting that this is the way sex must happen between a woman and a man. The subordination of the female character in these poems is dismal: “I languish on the marble countertop, not sure how I got there, legs dangling, muscles taught./Your hands rub olive oil and strawberries/over my belly and breasts as I open to you.” These lines feel almost clichéd in their repetition of a patriarchal script for intercourse. The narrator does not act upon her male love’s body, but instead “opens” to him, her husband, the one who will penetrate while she pushes down any sense that this diminishes her. If women have historically felt discomfort about being sexually done to, we have also been punished for those feelings, encouraged to allow men to do whatever they allegedly need to do in order to orgasm. His body will not open to her; she would be foolish for expecting it to do so. This fear of ridicule may have much to do with why Drysdale’s narrator in these poems seems to be trying so hard to get comfortable with sex on her husband’s terms. And her husband’s terms appear to be traditional and old-fashioned. As Maeera Shreiber points out, the bible itself is rife with longstanding assumptions of female vulnerability and submissiveness, “textual example[s] of the widespread symbol of nation-as-woman, ever vulnerable to foreign invasion [;] women are cast as the ideal speakers of loss and rupture, [a] condition [we are understood] to embody.” (129) Under patriarchal traditions that have shaped Western sexual attitudes about women, we have been expected to make peace with the idea that our genitalia are predestined to be dominated; women are also expected to attempt orgasm underneath men’s sexualized rupture of our bodies. Yet, if we were to imagine a man languishing before a woman, his legs dangling, his flesh made sugary-sweet like ripe fruit for her consumption, her rubbing strawberry oil on his breasts, that is, his “erect nipples…hav[ing] no known purpose, and yet arous[ing] us none the less” (Moxley 56), and ultimately opening himself to a female partner, what would these types of images do? I would argue they could potentially challenge sexist assumptions about women’s bodies, while also helping to correct the “contemporary dearth of representations of female desire, especially towards the male” (Moxley 56).

Drysdale sadly opts out of this project: “Your lips drip with cinnamon liquid of me,” she continues, echoing Girls are sugar & spice & everything nice. Her poetry loses honesty here, conforming to femininity and rigid “beauty” standards which insist a vagina ought to smell like flowers or sweets. Honesty about the taste of vaginal secretions—learning to appreciate and experience them for what they are—acidic, tasting of the body of a human being—would seem to me a truer rebellion against male-supremist sex, and more conducive to healing from the history of contempt directed at our genitals. The poet’s comparison to ginger later is arguably less inauthentic, but it is worth noticing that nobody seems to care whether or not women pretend semen tastes like vanilla frosting or white truffle oil—women are expected to deal with the taste of it regardless.

The narrator says she hears sea wind across the red tiles of her kitchen, presumably as her husband lies on top of her. This line completes the image of consent to humiliation necessary for “female sexual health.” Woman is made to be fucked on the kitchen floor, and L.V., or whatever is left of her, tries to see this as satisfactory passion; her focus on what goes on outside and in the distance rather than the sensations of her own body however, bear striking resemblance to experiences reported by rape survivors who may have felt as though they were watching what happened to them during an assault from some place outside.

The theme of a woman not being allowed to look at her husband while he has total freedom to ogle her is further developed in the appropriately titled, “You Watch Me.” The narrator begins once again, not with a description of the trembling of her husband’s chest as he draws breath, or the way the colors and textures of his thighs, belly, penis, might change during arousal—instead, we see her through her husband’s eyes again, described voyeur-style. The poet carries out a kind of self-mutilation via self-objectification, using the male lexicon to speak about her body. Words like vulva and vagina, women are told, are too clinical to invoke passion. In truth, these words lack the excitement a word like cunt generates for many men, since cunt, via its continued use as an insult and frequent use in pornography, has connotations of violence and women’s alleged sexual filth. The man becomes aroused by the idea that, not only is the cunt a cunt, she even orgasms when called one. “Spasms criss-cross from my cunt to vocal chords” the narrator tells us; she moans dutifully for her husband, though we are not told anything about whether or not he is sighing, giggling, crying out. Again Drysdale references food to speak about her narrator’s body: “Scent of cardamom, sweat, and ginger root rises.”

In the poem’s first stanza, the poet chooses only passive verbs and sentence constructions to describe her sexual responses—spasms crisscross her, her scent rises, her muscles slacken; she is like a sort of phantom, used up by the end of sex. This contrasts with her male partner’s behavior: “your hands hold my face/your eyes open mine.” He holds all the strength in the encounter, holding her in place, opening her eyes as though she were not even capable of seeing without him. The L.V. of Part I who wanted to look, rebel, and take action, seems long gone in these later poems. In her place reclines femininity, with its prescribed sexual moaning. The narrator’s only actions are reactions to a male partner. “You say, ‘Do you know/how that was, watching you? Your head/turning side to side./ Your hand was a blur.” If sex, as De Beauvoir wrote, is an act during which human beings seek to be recognized, simultaneously knowing and being known by another, here is powerfully presented one way in which sexual dehumanization strips women in a broader sense. The narrator’s husband knows her, sees her react to his thrusts and is able to experience himself via her responses. He thrills at the realization of his power to make her tremble, yet the narrator does not get to see—or even know how to begin trying to see—herself as capable of acting upon him. “I close my eyes/shamed, loved/in your precise questions,” she admits, not without sadness. Sex with men will always mean shame and humiliation for women, so long as it involves being done to and acted on.

Yet, learning to take one’s pleasure from reacting and affirming men’s desire remains the prescribed model for women. The narrator, having already mentioned her fear of abandonment and the problems with trust many survivors struggle with, seems to be trying to demonstrate she has healed successfully by successful performance of femininity during sex. But can this gender role, with its fetishizing of female weakness and presumed willingness to submit to men, ever truly be empowering for women? Do we learn to conform to it because conformity brings freedom, or because we feel afraid of failing to win male recognition? In her critique of a sexual ethic that eroticizes inequality, Audre Lorde explained how the assumption that

there can be no passion without unequal power [] feels very [] lonely and destructive to me. The linkage of passion to dominance/subordination is the prototype of the heterosexual image of male-female relationships….Women are supposed to love being brutalized. This is also the prototypical justification of all relationships of oppression—that the subordinate one who is “different” enjoys the inferior position. (17)

Lorde further suggests that, “As women, we have been trained to follow [and therefore] must educate ourselves, at the same time being aware of intricate manipulations from outside and within” (18). The fusing of sexual response and sex itself with humiliation and self-abnegation is particularly relevant for women survivors of abuse, making it all the more important to question the ways in which women’s sexuality is constructed under patriarchy.

Lorde’s words stand in stark opposition to the postmodern ethic of reclaiming male-dominant/female-submissive sex roles. She urges the creation of a truly feminist sexual ethic instead, and views the patriarchal family not as a separate entity standing outside the woman-hating of the larger society, but a reflection of it, mirror and model for male-supremist culture on a smaller scale. When Drysdale’s step-father asks “do you like it,” in response to her noticing his rough beard, (and implicitly the roughness of his sexual use of her), he is not simply exemplifying, “the failure of some families” as Drysdale’s back-cover reviewers suggest. Rather, Ray embodies a specific, widespread cultural assumption—that women experience pain as pleasure. Drysdale’s reviewers claim she is “tackling the hard subjects of child abuse [and] sexual exploitation,” while skirting any direct mention of male sexual violence against women specifically. Laying blame on masculinity and male-supremist ideology can feel intimidating, given the celebration of “playing with gender” and “butchness” among queer theorists in the academy right now. But, as lesbian feminist Sheila Jeffrey’s has rightly pointed out, the problem with a refusal to question masculinity is

that [it] cannot exist without femininity.…the behavior of the dominant in a system of domination actually would not have any meaning, could not even be envisioned, if that system of domination did not exist; [to claim otherwise is to] essentialize[] masculinity into something which just is. (136)

Instead of using her marriage as a place to question the ways in which she learned to eroticize men’s power, Drysdale’s narrator seems to fall into old patterns, focusing on flattering her husband. For women who first experience being noticed or valued primarily through sexual use, it can be extremely difficult to challenge the men in our lives as adults on the ways they relate to us during sex.

Drysdale’s narrator thus treats the penis as the superior center of sex itself. When she dares to look at her husband’s body, it is only in terms he will presumably feel comfortable with—those that allow him to maintain a sense of machismo and hardness. “Your cock, absurdly jutting beneath your trousers as you, undisturbed walk across the room./On the bed, I crouch/in dark blue silk/ready to gorge on it—”. The narrator has transformed herself into a pornographic cliché reminiscent of Ray’s Playboys. She dresses up for her husband in lingerie, describes herself as crouching in front of him, a verb choice suggestive of both female animalism and willing submission. She wraps herself in silk in order to appear more fragile. He in turn strides across the room like a sadistic daddy, approaching her, the one whom he will prove his manhood through. She worships his penis, mindful of his ego, ready, not to engulf it as something tender under her own body’s strength, but to submit to it.

Drysdale’s narrator never once lets herself think of her husband’s penis as capable of potentially gentle motion, an internal caress—she has perhaps learned the difficult lesson that men are not aroused by such cuddly nonsense. Assuring her husband that she wants his dominance, she will not just kiss or touch, but gorge on his penis. The verb “gorge” suggests roughness, overt violence. The narrator sticks with what she knows, male aggression and fear-inspiring strength. “What’s beneath the rough cloth/held by a belt around your waist?” she asks, and indeed, this questions would seem more appropriate, not for a woman in love with a man who sees her as his equal, but for L.V., attempting survival under her step-father’s assaults.

Being with a man still feels frightening, masochistic, about emotional and sexual dependence: “I’m afraid of what you don’t give/Afraid I’ll starve, ragged for love.” The narrator intuits that being in this state of perpetual weakness takes vital energy away from her, but, estranged from her own desires, she seems terrified of working towards sexual egalitarianism. L.V. retreats and the narrator plays it safe, speaking the kinds of poems she assumes her husband wants. His erection, described in terms of its manliness, becomes proof that she registers. “Thick with longing, you stroke yourself/eyes hard on me.” That these lines typify a patriarchal script for sex becomes particularly clear when they are compared with a poem like Lynn Lifshin’s, “Years Later Lorena Thinks Of The Penis She Had For A Day,” in which the poet allows herself to experience male vulnerability, “how, in her hand, [a partner’s erection] was so much/less angry, more like a/sacred bird not the weapon/she’d known but shriveling,/scared, a wounded kitten coiled” (48).

I do not mean to ridicule Drysdale; her narrator’s assessment of her husband’s desire seems to hint that he views marriage as a kind of ownership of his wife and her sexuality. In guessing at his thoughts, she assumes he would say, “You: I want my wife, mi vida,” and though women are encouraged to experience this type of sexual possession as romantic, it does involve a forfeiture of one’s sexual self. If she is his life, is that because he has the luxury of “hiding from power in her love like a man” (Rich 11), feeding on her, despite the fact that she also merits sustenance? “I let you comb Brazil nut cream into my hair/ ‘Because I’m your husband’ you say.” The narrator accepts her passivity, lets him do this. No way exists for her to style his hair or quip, in the same way, “I am doing this to you because you are mine, because I am your wife”—“wife” has too many connotations of the one who serves rather than the one who lays a claim. The rigidly gendered nature of her marriage keeps Drysdale’s narrator locked in a pattern of repeating her relationship with Ray—a dominant male treats her as his sexual possession and she marvels at how powerful he is.

The poet thankfully redeems the collection, moving past poetic celebration of female masochism and admitting that these behaviors have not brought L.V. fulfillment. In Part IV, the reader finds even a rigidly self-imposed adherence to the role of wife/woman/fucked-one has failed to bring the narrator closer to peace. She continues to explore relationships with her mother (whom she never condemns, directing the brunt of her anger at her male abuser) and revisits mentally the house where her rape occurred. But healing still isn’t there, “The door unlatched and closed again, so God/could enter, spread her rage among debris, and lick the sutures clean between our ghosts.” In “House: Unlit” the narrator alludes to her female body, invaded by a man-made, male god, entering after each closing, constantly rupturing the sutures. But, despite the lower cased “h” in “her” here, the reader might wonder if this God could also be imagined as female, spreading Her rage around like fire to consume and finally burn L.V.’s old house to ashes. In that case, rage would transform a woman’s sex into a place for healing, inside herself, for herself—rather than a shelter men will dwell in.

Ending the collection with this series of “house poems,” the poet plays with the very old metaphor of a woman as an inanimate house of residence for men, where, as men have seen it, a man may presume the right to “[move into] the depths of a woman’s body….dismount at the door/and tie up [his] horse….nobody who enters ever leaves” (Montejo 70); Unfortunately, L.V. seems unable to get beyond the notion of herself as created for this sexual occupancy. “I understood how hearts could open if the knock were right,” she writes; her search is to find a normal, livable way to accommodate possession by a man, not to break free from it. The line, “How two might dine inside a heart like mine,” suggests the narrator equates her vagina with her heart, strength, self, but also a place made to be consumed and feasted on by a male partner. It never seems to occur to her that she too has a right to ask for access to the body of another—her husband—finding shelter and love there, dining inside a heart like his.

And yet, the narrator is being realistic too, knowing that asking for such a place to inhabit and be nourished and cared for by men is a request many males would be baffled by. Even those men who claim to care about women’s comparative lack of sustenance in the world often expect to be nurtured like little boys again eventually, taken back into a woman’s body during sex, as though women were interchangeable mothers. Man fucks woman, plants himself in a cunt; man is mothered by his wife; he does not mother her.

Drysdale’s narrator, like many contemporary feminists, ends disillusioned, unwilling or unable to let herself imagine other ways of loving. She mourns for this loss: “A heart like mine,/that wants to trust/But can’t hear laughter’s voice in rooms of rain.” Perhaps women can be broken down so early by sexual violence that to entertain the possibility of gentleness from men afterwards simply feels too painful. Surviving sexual possession and male dominance may require numbing on women’s part, but we must be careful not to lose ourselves in a learned passivity that persuades us we do not have the right to consider our own needs. If Drysdale’s poems prove anything about recovering from child sex abuse, they show that total healing for women may not be possible without larger, fundamental changes in the ways both women and sex are perceived.

For women who dream about ways of sexual relating that could embody tenderness and a constant respect for our dignity, many of us may choose to kill off those dreams, in a world where men continue to be socialized into masculinity. Rethinking patriarchal sex means admitting that our dreams are very far from the reality we have now. And that is painful, maybe more so than more physical forms of abuse. We live with the insult of being made into houses filled with rain, semen, men’s violence—everything that is left after a person is used rather than loved, fucked rather than allowed to assert herself. But, if we are ever to reach something different, women must not fall back on the familiar—the old belief that we secretly wanted it. Knowing and holding the laughter of true sexual joy in our lives will not be possible without men’s cooperation. It will also require a willingness to confront the lies women have believed about ourselves. This means a radical rethinking of the ways in which each of us relates during sex, and the ways our sexual relationships impact everything beyond them.

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Stephanie Cleveland’s poems have appeared in VOLT, Denver Quarterly, Women’s Studies Quarterly, LUNGFULL!, Conduit and others. She lives in Manhattan.

4 responses to “The Myth of Women’s Masochism–An Essay by Stephanie Cleveland

  1. The Tony Tost quotation is a bit imprecise. Tony was not talking about a ritual of penetrating per se. Here’s what he really said (or rather has “Agnes”, who recurs in the book as “the otherworldly force that silently and insistently explains my reason for being” and also “theorizes about the sanctity of airports, say): “The ancient male ritual of penetrating the public sphere only to stumble upon a penetration of the private one”. What that really means is much clearer in the context of the poem, of course, but this is hopefully already enough to correct the misperception that Tony is talking about how “men fuck women as a collective entity, bonding”.

  2. This is stupid!! What I am getting is that a women doesn’t own herself the man does. And that whatever the man wants goes. Meaning that even if a women doesn’t want to perticapate in sexual activities if the man wants to then she has to. Oh and by they I AM A CHRISTIAN and I care about myself. I RESPECT my self and nomatter what anybody says nobody can force me to perticapate sexualy. Not even my husband and not all males are wraped around “owning” a womens body. Some care. Some WAIT until marraige and that is what all of the people who think sex before marraige is okay should do. WAIT!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Oh well, These Four Walls is about a Christian woman who has a too-close relationship with the devil, not a MAN, as is common in Christianity and I am Christian, so I think I know what I am talking about. You must really have it out for me for some reason. I went to Oberlin College, too, and I headed domestic violence shelters, held vigils for survivors of rape, pornography, cult-abuse, and all the rest, right up until the present. One of the reasons you don’t see my name associated with activism is because I need to use an assumed name when I write, because of the nature of what I write about. Bye!

  4. A cheerleader for the sexual sale of women? You obviously don’t know anything about me, or for more than half of my life, I have been an activist against the sexual abuse of children. I won’t argue any further. It is a waste of my time. Good luck to you.