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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Proud doesn't need to be loud

This Thursday, the second annual Female Orgasm Workshop will be taking place (Nov 3, Emerson 105, 6:30). Last year's female orgasm workshop drew a crowd three times the size of Adams LCR, clearly showing the need for this kind of dialogue on campus.

I completely support the female orgasm workshop, those organizing and the effort and passion that has gone into this, but the ads circulating have prompted some thoughts about how this pride and celebration of a traditionally taboo (or not even existing) subject has been presented.

Being proud does not mean you need to be loud. While it is completely someone's right to express their pride in whatever way they may choose, sometimes it's overdone to the point that if you're not willing to yell vagina in a crowded dining hall, you must not be comfortable with your body. (more in expanded post)

I'm exaggerating, of course, but often, when people try to frame traditionally taboo subjects in a more accessible way, the counteraction of traditional silence is taken to the extreme and takes away from the cause. Proclaiming one's love for female orgasms publicly is meant as a defiant gesture, showing that the taboo means nothing, and that there is nothing to be ashamed of, and instead it's something to be proud of; unfortunately, however, it's too often taken to the opposite extreme and instead alienates those who may agree or wish to learn more but are hesitant to be associated with those who they may see as blurring the lines between treating an issue seriously and being so vocal that the issue becomes sensationalized and devalued.

As a speaker who came to my high school to speak about breast cancer and breast exams said, you can be proud of your breasts and confident about them, but that doesn't mean you need to go around talking about them like I do. In the case of this workshop, it's probably likely that people who want to go will laugh and appreciate the ads (which use slogans like "When I think about you, I touch myself! and Wanna Come Again?), and those who don't like them probably wouldn't have gone anyway. But what about those who want to go, maybe for more personal educational reasons, but are turned off by the ads and how they don't emphasize in any way the importance and the educational value of the workshop. I think this goes for a lot of things in life: if you're not willing to proclaim yourself a feminist, are you not really one? If you refuse to talk freely about sex, are you not comfortable with your sexuality? If you refuse to argue, are you afraid to stand up for your beliefs? There is a time, place and way for everything, and those appropriate times and places and ways of doing things are particular to each individual.


At 9:55 PM, Blogger andrew golis said...

I just thought I'd throw out this link, used by RUS in advertising the event, of RUSH LIMBAUGH!

At 12:23 AM, Blogger katie loncke said...

Deb, while I see your point that talking too brazenly about sexuality in a manner that tramples all sense of social decency runs a high risk of turning some people off, I think the I Love Female Orgasms Workshop has done a great job of balancing that risk against the benefits of encouraging candid, self-conscious, positive discourse.

In the first place, based on the resounding success of last year’s workshop, organizers hardly need worry about scaring people away with avant-garde advertising when they can’t even comfortably accommodate all the people who turn out for the event (hopefully I’m not jinxing this year’s attendance!).

Secondly, in my view the organizers have done an outstanding job of keeping the advertising light-hearted enough to spark excitement yet tasteful enough to maintain a sense of dignity. For instance, while the vagina emblem adorning their facebook invitations might freak some people out (perhaps in part because we’re much more used to seeing cartoon penises and testicles than clitorises and labia), I would hope that most people would confront their own initial discomfort and try to see the beauty and artistry in it, rather than shunning it as disgusting, offensive, or extreme.

Thirdly, in reality, there's nothing all that 'extreme' about public discourse on women's sexuality anyway. We hear about it in popular music; we witness and participate in it at social gatheings; we study it in human sexuality and biology classes; and we see it in the H-Bomb, pro-choice, and pro-life literature. I think a large part of what makes the workshop seem 'extreme' is that the female sexuality it proposes renders men unnecessary. (This is a pretty contentious statement, I realize, and I'll substantiate it in a later front-page post, but my main point here is that certain kinds of highly explicit discourse on female sexuality are already considered socially permissible, so we ought to be careful in placing the workshop on the "opposite extreme" of a hypothetical spectrum of socially acceptable discourse.)

Finally, and most importantly, we can choose to view the candor characterizing this event as a virtue unto itself to the extent that it unsettles and shifts norms of discourse. Do we want to be able to talk openly, positively, and explicitly about female sexuality to a greater degree than current norms allow? If so, then this could be a beginning. It's difficult to tell at this early stage whether the workshop will be successful at shifting discourse; as we know, cultural change is slow-going. The workshop might cause a few flushes of embarrassment at first, but hopefully the increase in informative and celebratory dialogue about female sexual pleasure it aims to foster will lead to a rising incidence of flushes of a different sort. :)

As I said, I’ll be posting my own thoughts about other aspects of the workshop soon, but I just wanted to throw these ideas out there. Thanks for providing a ‘grand opening’ to discussion on the topic!

At 9:26 AM, Anonymous paloma said...

Actually I like this post a lot... I wholeheartedly agree that there are times and places for self-expression, and that different people have different ways of being comfortable with themselves, their beliefs, their bodies. Nice one!

At 1:51 PM, Blogger deborah ho said...

While I see where you are coming from, I don't think the points you brought up address the crux of what I'm trying to say, Katie: being loud and suggestive in advertising will certainly be accepted by those who are more open or used to that manner of self-expression, but those who would come anyway are not what I'm concerned about--I'm concerned about those who feel ambivalent about the subject, those who are not directly involved (like men) and those who might want to know more, but are hesitant as yet to declare their love for female orgasms. I've been asked whether this workshop is "for serious," because the ads seem to make such light of it. As you point out, there is public discourse on women's sexuality (although I feel that there is still an extra jump between sexuality and talking about female orgasms in a social context) but it's found in more, for the lack of a better word, risque forums like H-bomb, or even the human sexuality course (which the cue guides cautions requires a liberal, open mind). I haven't seen a lot of pro-choice or pro-life literature that talks about orgasms, so I can't comment on that. What I mean to say is that speaking frankly about something like female orgasms that is traditionally not discussed may actually do more to overturn taboos than declaring one's love for them in suggestive ways. By being shocking, we affirm that there is shock value to be had--in a way, we're saying that yes, it is taboo. But speaking frankly simply shows that the brouhaha is irrelevant, because there shouldn't be one in the first place, because female orgasms are an important issue to be discussed.

I'm for sure not saying that the advertising hasn't been effective or fun, or that it should have been completely a different way. I am simply saying that there's value in a different approach. Moreover, it's important to realize that those who read cambridge common, for example, are likely to be more liberal and more accustomed to speaking freely about such issues, which is most certainly not the case everywhere at Harvard, and in specific ways, among ethnic/cultural groups, where being vocal is not necessarily interpreted as a positive expression of confidence. One of the most valuable aspects of the Female Orgasm Workshop is to reach out to those not already comfortable or knowledgeable about the issues. If we are satisfied with simply associating with and catering to those who already agree with our points of view, then no progress will ever be made. We can't shift norms of discourse if we simply solidify a norm among a group of like-minded individuals, which is different from the norm among others. I definitely think this is the beginning of more open and positive discourse, but I think that in order to do so, we must always be reaching out to those who do not agree with us. For someone comfortable with the idea of a female orgasm workshop, the ads would be funny. But for someone else, they are hard to understand, the implications confusing and the lightheartedness negative, thus affirming that there is something strange or shocking about a female orgasm workshop.

At 8:52 AM, Anonymous sarika said...

that was beautifully written deb -- thanks for bringing up this issue.

At 7:55 PM, Blogger katie loncke said...

hey everyone, just a note: i've been trying to convince jenna mellor, one of the masterminds behind the i love female orgasms workshop, to post her thoughts on how i went, what went well, and what she would like to improve for next time. hopefully she'll come share some insights with us soon! she's an extraordinarily wonderful human being and we would all benefit more from her thoughts than from my attempts to reconstruct what she and the other event planners were aiming for.

in the meantime, deb, i'm sorry if i misunderstood/mischaracterized your arguments; i think we're more in agreement than not. my point was simply that while of course not everyone has to openly declare their love for female orgasms in order to prove their sexual liberation, nevertheless, when it comes to a relatively taboo subject, someone being loud can help others to be proud. this semester's workshop may have been a little long on comedy and short on ideology, but in order for us to understand how and why it works and how it could be better, we also need to examine the strengths, as well as the weaknesses, of its particular strategic approach. basically, i think one of the reasons humor was so important to the event (although it may have been overdone to the point of detracting from the overall message) has to do with the psychological content of the presenter's message: she was trying to get students to relax about their bodies, have fun and take liberties with their sexualities and sexual practices, and relieve some of the pressure students tend to place on themselves as they strive to achieve sexual fulfillment (however one may wish to interpret that), especially since relaxing may actually help some women to achieve orgasm. for women in particular, it can be difficult to maintain a sense of humor about our bodies and our sexualities when American culture teaches us to obsess about our appearance and our sex appeal. sometimes we need other people to laugh (loudly) about sex so we don't feel so intimidated by it.

on another note regarding the workshop, my roommate pointed out to me that the event really focused on giving audience members the tools they need (literally and figuratively, since they gave out free condoms, lube and toys in addition to sharing knowledge) to improve their sex lives, so a lot of the people who came showed up for selfish reasons, not necessarily because they wanted to erase negative stigmas of female sexuality. while some of the messages in the presentation were empowering (stressing the importance of communication, self-confidence, creativity, and not relying on partners to give you sexual satisfaction), the overall question of why it's important to talk about female orgasms in a positive light seemed to be answered in somewhat shallow, simplistic terms: we talk about them so we can figure out how to get them for ourselves or how to help our partners get them. knowing the event organizers, this is clearly not the only outcome they hoped for. on the other hand, as my roommate noted, part of the reason that the turnout was so huge was precisely because of the instant-gratification, consumer focus of the event: students came out because they saw they had something to gain. immediate personal gains would be less evident if the event had explicitly and primarily aimed to de-stigmatize female orgasms and female sexuality in a straightforward intellectual manner. so we face yet another challenge of drawing a large turnout if students can't immediately see what's in it for them (a situation evoking the disgust and frustration expressed by the crimson staff when they noted that students will turn out in droves for free food but not for causes they believe in). fortunately, since the workshop has both times drawn more attendees than it can accomodate, jenna and the other planners have some wiggle room in redesigning the content and focus of the event without having to worry too much about killing attendance.


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