Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Penetration: The Eroticism of Sacrifice and Feminine Jouissance

Bernini's Saint Teresa of Avila
Anyone who has been dropping in to my fiction blog for the past six months has probably had a rough time of it.  I'm not apologetic; my blog was always meant to be a place of experimentation and that has only intensified since I began my doctoral studies.

What has been intriguing me, maddeningly, in the last little while is the subject of 'Feminine Jouissance' and how to represent it in contemporary erotic fiction.  The French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, identified three types of what he called jouissance. Originating from the French verb 'jouir' (to enjoy) but also translated as the slang for having an orgasm, Lacan began by interpreting the word in the vernacular sense: sexual enjoyment. His definition evolved over time, becoming more complex and nuanced until it came to mean a type pleasure that causes pain.  One of the best, easiest ways to get one's head around this is to think of what you feel like, both in body and in mind, about 10 seconds before you reach orgasm.  At that point it is not an entirely pleasurable feeling.  Inherent in it is both the anticipation of great pleasure, the frustration, discomfort, and sometimes even the agony of not having quite reached it yet and, finally, the sometimes wistful sadness of the knowledge that it is over so fleetingly even before it has arrived.

Lacan identified three types of jouissance: phallic jouissance, the only kind experienced by most men (the state of pursuing a desire which, once arrived at is never quite the absolute bliss one dreamed it would be, which can also be experienced by women); the jouissance of the other (a form of yearning, exiting, and bitter envy in which one believes that the other person's pleasure is somehow more perfect than one's own) and feminine jouissance (which Lacan said could only be experienced by females and mystical men).  Interestingly enough, both Bataille and Lacan chose the image of Bernini's Saint Teresa, being pierced through the heart by an angel, to illustrate what they conceived of as a type of bliss most often described as ecstatic experience.  I'm simplifying the explanation of these types of jouissance and especially how they pertain to gender because when Lacan spoke of 'masculine' and 'feminine' he is not referring to biological gender identifiers and, in my opinion, never did a very good job of explaining exactly what he meant. This is exacerbated by the fact that he kept insisting that it couldn't be described in language.  Perhaps because he himself was very much an unmystical man? Admittedly, as you read on, you're going to notice that this IS very difficult to write about, but I think it can be written around. I think it is possible to call the inner knowledge of most readers into the service of a mutual understanding of what we are talking about.

This idea of feminine jouissance intrigues me greatly because I think it drives the deepest erotic desires of many more people than we think.  And , again, I want to underscore that although 'jouissance' always contains an aspect of pain, I'm not not referring to traditional definitions of masochism (where the masochist enjoys the sensation of physical pain).  My gut says that this jouissance is present in some erotic romance writing and a lot of D/s erotica - if there is any internalized thought or dialogue present in the text - and refers to what is often described in purple prose as a 'sweet pain' or 'delicious agony' or 'surrender.'

Not always overtly sexual, it is always erotic. The stimulus might originate in the brain, but it has physical reverberations. The pain/pleasure involved cannot be situated only in the body or only in the mind; it must take place in both. One of the reasons why I think the statue of Saint Teresa was used as an illustration of female jouissance is because it so literally and radically exemplifies the 'sacrifice' of penetration.

At this point I don't want to even contemplate how much politically correct shit I'm pulling down on my head, but before you start to throw bricks at me, let me explain.

In the first place, sacrifice, as it pertains to women, always does come with a lot of sexist historical baggage.  However, the baseline concept of sacrifice has to do with relinquishing something (a fatted calf, the village virgin, Christ, one's bodily integrity, one's individuation) for a specific purpose. You're giving something in anticipation of getting something more important back. So what I mean by the 'sacrifice of penetration' is not that something is given up altruistically, but that it is a sort of metaphysical trade.

Secondly, I am speaking about penetration in either the physical or metaphorical sense. To be penetrated physically is a breach of the boundaries of the body.  But I want to underscore that metaphorical penetration is just as radical an infringement of the integrity of the self.  I disagree with Lacan that only 'mystical' men experience feminine jouissance and I'm not implying that he was leaving out gay or bi or trans men who enjoy being penetrated or submissively kinky men who like it also, because he didn't. But I have witnessed both dominant and sadist males experience 'feminine jouissance.' It occurs when they allow the erotic entanglement to transgress their own boundaries - whether physical or ethical or emotional. The ways in which we are penetrated metaphorically in the midst of eroticism are many but I think, it always entails the pain, the pleasure and the exhilaration of a radical change of state, an undoing of the zipper of the hermetically sealed self. To find yourself in a state of genuine instability is to find yourself penetrated, and in the clutches of feminine jouissance.

What makes writing about this type of jouissance in a contemporary setting so difficult is that it flies in the face of a lot of our post-modern understandings of what it means to be an erotic person.  We exist in a culture that celebrates the auto-creation and social inviolability of personhood. The modern sexual woman, we are told, makes no sacrifice. She comes to the erotic moment fully individuated, knowing all her needs and ready to ensure they are met. So, although she is gets fucked in any number of orifices, she cannot be 'penetrated.' This phallic jouissance; she may experience disappointment, but never the destabilization or breach of her identity.  So it is easier to set narratives that involve feminine jouissance in the past. Apparently we can female sacrifice if it's set in earlier times. Those poor women, they didn't know better. And, as readers, we can enjoy the nostalgia of their jouissance, their sacrifice, vicariously.

I hesitate to bring this up at all, but one of the reasons I think Fifty Shades of Grey was so popular was because, sexually at least, Anastasia Steel is almost the model of a Regency Romance virgin. And, as badly written and politically incorrect as it is, a lot of readers enjoyed the vicarious spectacle of her 'penetration' and her 'sacrifice.' For me, the problem with it is that was just such a cliched, hamfisted example of it.

Similarly, the idea of the 'penetrated male' as some lesser form of the gender has been around for thousands of years and, in the mainstream, continues to this day. It's probably why so many male protagonists in both male and female-penned erotic fiction seem so rigid and cardboardish and - haha - impenetrable.

I'd like to make a plea for a reinstatement of feminine jouissance, of sacrifice, of metaphysical penetration in contemporary erotic writing.  But please, let us not resort to the same old spectacles of sacrifice. Let us consider that this giving over, this destabilization, this surrender is not gendered. It is deeply human. It defies the material transaction and celebrates the metaphysical one. I believe there are new ones for us to explore.

12 comments:

  1. Dear RG,

    I don't even begin to understand most of this, probably because my PhD is in a empirical, scientific field... ;^)

    I do, however, think I get the idea of penetration as a painful/pleasurable relinquishing of barriers. The pain can come from a terrifying, sudden loss of individuation, the sense that one's ego has disappeared, or even been swallowed up in the identity of the lover. And yes, this can feel erotic. One loses the self but gains a sense of union.

    Romantic fiction adores the notion of sacrifice for the sake of love - and the lover. It seems that what you are saying is that there's a deep-seated reason why those scenarios are so satisfying.

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    1. I definitely think that's what I'm trying to say. Although I'd like to see other forms of sacrifice and surrender. The usual ones have been done to death. :P

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  2. An example of a man experiencing female jouissance: Bill Clinton holding back through several encounters with Monica Lewinsky, then finally surrendering, giving in, allowing her to breach his defenses.

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  3. Your post reminds me much of Osho when I read "The Book Of Secrets." He talks about sex ideally being the one time when one truly trusts another and lets go completely, experiencing a union of body, mind, and spirit. Now that would be the ideal, and he says many of us deny that pure experience because we do hold back, put up defenses, and worst of all, we analyze everything way too much. In a Kundalini experience, that orgasm is so strong and all-consuming, it leaves your hands tingling. It's a spiritual orgasm the whole body goes through, not just one part; but then again, you have to allow yourself the free-fall and willingness to experience it. We tend to forget there's a whole psychological and spiritual layer to sexual moments, and the physical usually overshadows much of it. It is said that once you learn the spiritual orgasm, you don't even desire the physical sex as we usually practice it. And with spiritual orgasm, the penetration happens to all of you.

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    1. I know almost nothing about Yoga beyond the usual sun salutation stuff. Interesting.

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  4. This is where I'm at because of my lack (of understanding, practice, discipline) of the metaphysical distinction between body and mind - this is a concession of an impotence, I realize, a feeling that I am less 'human' than something 'beyond' me I have grown superstitious about - it is as if everyone listening to me now knows everything - that their knowledge is absolute and I can never confess enough, I can never totally relinquish my baggage.

    I am oblivious to whatever it is I am penetrating right now, as I leave these comments... I know that what I do is transparent - that everyone sees me for I really am, a sadist who appropriates this discourse around theories of femininity as a kind of 'masochistic' surrender - a tomfoolery in which my relinquishing of power is what sustains their faith in that power. I find my position comedic. I experience anxiety, don't know if you're laughing at me or with me.

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  7. Beautifully written, compelling and thought-provoking. I think often (for whatever reason ...) about the eroticism of spirituality and religious imagery, and how it is so often tied into sacrifice. You have discussed many ideas which have engaged me for some time, but have expressed them in a way I couldn't attempt! Thank you.

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    1. I think that's because the 'passion' of religious ecstasy and eroticism are pretty much one and the same thing. So the language is the same, the 'transportation' of the subject is the same.

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  8. RG, the reason I'm posting a late reply is because your post is just so inspiring! Your comment that "the 'passion' of religious ecstasy and eroticism are pretty much one and the same thing" seems like a key to the widespread assumption in my childhood that all women (but not necessarily men) are destined to "Fall in Love" in a completely irrational way and thereby lose control of their lives. It was both an exhilarating prospect and a very scary one, especially considering the social penalities for "falling in Love" with the wrong person (a member of the wrong class, race, occupation, religion, or gender).

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