Tag Archives: pornography

Embodied: From the “Obscene” into the Daylight

Debbie says:

The headline on Anita Rao’s HuffPost article, “I Started A Public Radio Show About Sex And Listeners Were Not Ready For It” is somewhat of an exaggeration. The show has clearly been controversial, but is still on the air and has been extended into a podcast.

Rao starts the article by talking about how listeners have responded negatively to her voice.

While I do have a college degree, I am neither white nor over the age of 55 — the main defining characteristics of our station’s core audience. I also do not sound like the NPR voices they grew up listening to, which irritates some listeners.

As a committed podcast listener, I checked out a fragment of the podcast. She sounds completely fine: clear, comprehensible, pleasant. For what it’s worth, she does not have an Indian accent (which would also be fine). The only way she sounds noticeably different from “the NPR voices” is that she sounds young. People who have complained (and she quotes several complaints) should be ashamed of themselves.

Then there’s the topic, which has also been controversial:

for one month, my producers and I would create a new series around topics I rarely heard on public radio: sex, relationships and personal health. Not only did we dive into conversations about the science of orgasm and female pleasure, fertility and intimacy and aging, but we went beyond featuring the typical voices you might expect on an NPR station to create space for more intimate, personal stories.

Hosting these taboo conversations on a midday live talk show introduced a whole slew of challenges and new kinds of critiques. Some vocal members of our audience wrote in with big concerns that topics like body hair and sexual pleasure are obscene. Others shared reflections that our content choices are irrelevant to the news and trends of the day, and it is irresponsible and unprofessional for us to give these topics time and attention.

Body Impolitic readers know how I feel about this: the topics are only obscene because they are literally obscene (the words means “offstage”). They cease to become “obscene” when we talk about them.

As for irrelevant, as long as we all live in bodies, these topics are directly relevant to the news of the day. Our newest Supreme Court justice has five biological children and two adopted children from Haiti, so she is an undeniably sexual being who faces daily issues not just of bodies but of bodies categorized into different races. Our White House resident is proud of his track record paying for both sex and silence–an unabashedly sexual being. Covid-19’s reliance on video calls is creating embarrassing situations for other sexual beings who don’t know when to shut off their video, or what not to do when the film camera is running. Draconian laws affect sex workers and pornography producers every day.

This is why Rao’s article, and by extension her show and podcast, are important.

I have no desire to throw the listeners who do not like my content under the bus, nor do I aspire to change anyone’s mind about pornography or sexuality. But what I wish they could hear is this: The reason I want to have conversations about these topics in the middle of the day on live public radio is not to be salacious. It is because I firmly believe that the longer that we keep conversations about sex, relationships and health in the realm of “not for public discourse,” the longer we’ll stay locked into singular narratives that keep us from really knowing ourselves and each other more deeply. If we can recognize that humans are sexual creatures who are wired to have desire and seek pleasure, we can have meaningful dialogue that could serve to integrate aspects of our identity without contributing to the harm of other people.

The fact that the topics on “Embodied” are making people uncomfortable is precisely the point. If we put subjects like porn and sex into a bucket of things that are too “explicit” to talk about, we cut ourselves off from nuanced conversations about fundamental aspects of our humanity.

Laurie and I could have written something very like that paragraph, except that it would be about bodies and nakedness, not directly about sex. Talking about it in Rao’s case, making it visible in Laurie’s photographs, is precisely the point. Rao denies being brave, and I get that. She’s following her sense of what’s right, and that brings a kind of comfort, along with the public critique and the potential real danger. More important than bravery is her willingness to stick with her convictions in the face of opposition, and her clear awareness of why she does what she does.

We’re left, as so often, with James Baldwin’s wisdom:

Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.


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Writing about Writing about Sex

drawing of a heart with a kitten inside the very bottom
Image from writingourselveswhole.org

Debbie says:

Novelist Garth Greenwell writes about writing about sex in The Guardian thoughtfully and — yes — passionately.

I once heard a wonderful writer, addressing students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, say that her ideal of a sex scene would be the sentence: “They sat down on the sofa …” followed by white space. This is a prejudice I can’t understand. One of the glories of being a writer in English is that two of our earliest geniuses, Chaucer and Shakespeare, wrote of the sexual body so exuberantly, claiming it for literature and bringing its vocabulary – including all those wonderful four-letter words – into the texture of our literary language. This is a gift not all languages have received; a translator once complained to me that in her language there was only the diction of the doctor’s office or of pornography, neither of which felt native to poetry.

More than this, surely it is absurd to claim that a central activity of human life, a territory of feeling and drama, is off-limits to art. Sex is a uniquely useful tool for a writer, a powerful means not just of revealing character or exploring relationships, but of asking the largest questions about human beings.

He goes on first to explain what he means:

Sex is an experience of intense vulnerability, and it is also where we are at our most performative, and so it’s at once as near to and as far from authenticity as we come. Sex throws us profoundly into ourselves, our own sensations, physical and emotional; it is also, at least when it’s interesting, the moment when we’re most carefully attuned to the experience of another. In no other activity, I think, do the physical and metaphysical draw so near one another—nowhere else do we feel so intensely both our bodies and something that seems to exceed our bodies—and so our writing of sex can be at once acutely descriptive of bodies in space and expansively philosophical. Nothing exposes us more, not just physically, though that’s not insignificant, but also morally; nowhere am I more aware of selfishness and generosity, cruelty and tenderness, daring and failure of nerve, in my partners and in myself, than in sex. Finally, sex puts us in contact with our shared animal nature and is also inflected by a particular place and time.

and then to talk about what he tries to do.

What excites me in writing sex isn’t explicitness itself, but the combination of explicitness and a particular kind of sentence I’m attracted to, a sentence with a history one might trace from the great introspective English prose writers of the 16th and 17th centuries, through Proust and James to Woolf and Baldwin and Sebald. It’s a sentence at once expansive and recursive, plunging forward but also falling back to question and correct itself. I think of it as a technology for the production of inwardness, for putting on the page what thinking feels like. In writing Cleanness I wanted to find out what might happen when that technology was applied to sex of various kinds: tender and brutal, intimate and impersonal, joyful and abject. I felt there was an intervention literature might play, that it might reclaim the sexual body as a site of consciousness.

As a lifetime reader on a wide variety of topics, I thought I knew the kind of sentence he’s talking about, and I thought it might be easy to find an example. I opened Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to a random page, and found this one:

They had now entered a beautiful walk by teh side of the water, and every step was bringing forward a nobler fall of ground, or a finer reach of the woods to which they were approaching; but it was some time before Elizabeth was sensible of any of it; and, though she answered mechanically to the repeated appeals of her uncle and aunt and seemed to direct her eyes to such objects as they pointed out, she distinguished no part of the scene.

It’s entirely about Elizabeth’s private experience while things are going on around her which are far less important to her than her inwardness. And that makes me want to read Greenwell’s Cleanness, because I think he’s right. Sex can be written personally or impersonally, mechanically or tenderly, as private or public experience, but it is almost never written about as inward experience–and I feel sure I’m not the only person who can experience sex from that perspective.

Toward the end of the essay, Greenwell identifies himself as queer, and he ends with a paean to writing about queer sex in particular:

To write something, to make art of it, is to make a claim about its value. Even in our age of marriage equality, when as a culture we tell ourselves a very flattering story about gay liberation, it remains the case that our culture despises the queer body, especially the queer sexual body. To write about the queer body not just explicitly, but with all of the resources of the literary tradition, to write it in a way that foregrounds beauty and lyricism is, I hope, a way to cherish that body. It’s a way not to argue for its value but to recognise and proclaim its value, and to l

avish it with the peculiar, ennobling dignity art can bestow.

If Greenwell’s fiction is as good as his writing about fiction, it’s going to be a treat indeed.

(I found the illustration at the top on writingourselveswhole.org and that took me back to Laurie’s and my interview with Jen Cross. Greenwell doesn’t talk about writing about sex as a route to healing, but Jen Cross does.)

Follow me on Twitter @SpicejarDebbie.