This post is about women’s sexuality: one denied, the other explored. What caught my attention this past week was a small news item printed on July 21, in the New York Times’ “World Briefing” section, which summarizes events that have occurred in various parts of the world. In one short update the paper informed its readers that in Ivory Coast, nine women were sentenced to two years in prison each for carrying out Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) over an extended period, a practice that has been banned in that West African country since 1998.
That barbaric cultural practice has been performed on young girls between infancy and age 15, usually by elder village midwives, who use rusty razors, scissors or broken glass to cut out the females’ clitoris and the labia, to permanently eradicate the women’s ability to enjoy intercourse, thereby ensuring fidelity to their husbands. The procedure, which is often performed without any type of anesthetics, is excruciatingly painful and dangerous. Occasionally it causes death as a result of bleeding or infection, but also infertility and life-long pain, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn mortality. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM.
Some observers believe FGM to be a case of cultural relativism, for many young girls in the countries where the practice is either legal or banned, choose the procedure, believing that unless they go through with it their chances to get married in their communities lessens dramatically. But that’s hardly a choice.
While the United Nations and some Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are doing important work on FGM, and while some African and Middle Eastern countries have banned it, the practice still continues, violating the human rights of women on many levels, among them their ability to discover and enjoying their sexuality.
While the subject of women’s sexuality is by no means new, it gained a renewed interest in the United States with the publication in 2011 of E. L. James’s erotic trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey. The books, which sketch the relationship between a young college student and a rich businessman, are notable for their explicitly erotic scenes involving bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism, and more. Taking America by storm, it sold tens of million of copies, becoming the fastest growing best seller ever, granting its author over $1,000,000 a week, or $160,000 a day, according to some statistics. Because of its unprecedented popularity it’s been the subject of numerous debates on television and the printed media; women have organized special events, occasionally with the author as a guest speaker, to discuss the book and the effects it has had on their lives.
I have not read any of the books and I don’t know if I will. But as a writer who is experimenting with a new Women’s fiction, I was curious at the lasting effect, if any, the book might have on publishers’ choices. On Wednesday evening I therefore joined a large crowd at McNally and Jackson Book store in Soho, to hear what a panel of authors and other experts had to say on the book and its effect on American culture.
The panel included the writers Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying and twenty-one other books, Daniel Bergner, whose book The Other Side of Desire was described by the sponsors as "an open-minded exploration of fringe sexual cultures," Melissa Febos, former dominatrix and author of the Memoir Whip Smart, Ian Kerner, sex counselor and author of She Comes First, and Roxane Gay, a writer for Salon and The Rumpus.
There was disagreement within the panel as well as between panelists and members of the audience concerning how poorly the book was written, though the consensus was that its writing style was insulting to the lovers of literature. Almost everyone present agreed that the book discovered nothing new. Erica Jong made the point that there were excellent books, which have been written on the subject long ago, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lovers by D.H. Lawrence.
There was also disagreement between feminists, who thought the book was a poor example for young female readers, who may accept the abuse the young heroine suffered as a new threshold unacceptable to feminists, and those who argued that because the mistreatment was consensual and even enjoyable, it was not abusive. And, there were those who thought that the book had empowered women, who after reading the book, have begun to fantasize and to explore their sexuality. There were those who objected to the class difference of the protagonists, and those who thought nothing of it. But by and large, the agreement was that contrary to popular belief Fifty Shades of Gray did not change the lives of women, single or those who have mates, and that it definitely has not change the American culture, literary or other. I was glad to hear that.