By Courtnay Zeitler
So yeah. We’re gonna talk about it. And maybe that’s the point of Sophia Wallace’s installation, Cliteracy, will provoke conversation amongst students, both male and female. Some will like how words we might never say out loud are becoming part of the Sewanee vernacular. Or how Wallace’s words and which has emphatically announced itself in the Wright Morrow Reading Room of our library for a two-week tenure. The library is where I work, after all, and if anyone can attest to the fact that this event’s caused some big waves, it’s me. I’ve heard various words and phrases bandied about, things like academic freedom, misogyny. Sexual freedom. Justice. Liberation. And here’s my favorite: the tried and true perennial classic, The Patriarchy.
What’s Wallace trying to teach us with this piece? What’s your takeaway? I’ve considered this exhibition from various angles. I’ve truly tried to come back to myself as a college undergraduate, at a school not unlike Sewanee, in the late 80s, with nothing but choices before me. Before I was married, with children, a job or a mortgage. I imagine, even though I am old enough to be your mother, you and I had many of the same struggles and concerns and goals.
I’ve seen many of you come into the library, read the available literature, and take in the text, the neon, the sculpture. We’ve thoughtfully put a sofa in front of it so you can spend some time. There’s even an opportunity for you to write your thoughts regarding the degree and quality of Sewanee’s own cliteracy. I’m guessing that many of you will celebrate its placement in a high-traffic locale or the way in which it sculpture might encourage less-worldly women to explore their own intimate geographies, just in case. Plus, our men will never be able to say again that they did not know.
I can remember enough of my own college years to get that. It’s hip. It’s edgy. It’s art with a message about female empowerment through sexual expression. Plus, Wallace uses words like LUBE and PORN and GRATUITOUS EJACULATION. Cool.
But now I’m in my late 40s, with a family. My two oldest children are teenagers: my daughter, in fact, just did her Sewanee tour for 2016 admission, and my son, a freshman, is figuring out what it means to be a man in the world, though he’s still our boy. They are on the verge of encountering life as it is, on and beyond this mountain, and school-sponsored exhibits like this one scare the living crap out of me. Maybe I’m writing this for them as well as for you, Sewanee women. Consider the following points as one woman’s reflections, and know that they are given to you carefully, thoughtfully, and respectfully. This is my say, and my heart is breaking for you.
I want to take on Wallace’s depiction of sex though Cliteracy, mostly because it seems antithetical to what sex is designed for in the first place. If you would believe the artist, sex is, first, a political act through which justice and equality can be measured and meted out. Pleasure–specifically one’s own–is tantamount, and she’s pretty mad that men are getting more of that than you are because she’s keeping score, and one of the things you must know about hetero sex is that it is fundamentally unsatisfactory, and therefore historically and culturally degrading to women. She suggests there also may be a kind of conspiracy going on, this male to female orgasm ratio, woefully lopsided, involving the porn industry, schools, and of course, that amorphous but all powerful Patriarchy. Fulfillment, here, has been reduced to a five second muscle contraction. And if it doesn’t happen, then somehow we’ve been robbed and exploited, both.
OUR DEMANDS ARE SIMPLE, one rule reads, REAL ORGASMS FOR ALL. Then there’s this gem: FREEDOM IN SOCIETY CAN BE MEASURED BY THE DISTRIBUTION OF ORGASMS. (I hope to God she’s kidding. I just saw Selma.) But if you locate your clitoris, you can stop the injustice. I’m all for all us girls being comfortable with our bodies, in our own skin, as women and as sexual beings. I know excruciatingly well the pressure you must feel at 18, 19, 20 to be thin and sexy and competent at every waking moment. Education is important, certainly. But knowing our biology and what it can do is an incomplete story: there’s so much more. More imperative, though, is establishing an intimacy with our partners where any one of the issues the artist proposes can be visited openly, since trust in these matters matters.
Please believe me when I tell you that whatever kind of sex Sophia Wallace suggests in her provocative wall of words does not have to be your experience. It shouldn’t be. In fact, I am telling you in no uncertain terms that if you ascribe to her vision that sex is, at best, a power grab for pleasure, then you have missed out on—I hardly have the words here–one of God’s great gifts. Stay with me here.Let me suggest something truly radical: real, grownup sex is only a means to an end. It is never the end itself. Nowhere on these panels is there the suggestion of relationship: of friendship and passion, of kindness and reciprocity; of giving for the sake of giving, that sex is the joyous offering and natural expression of a mature, monogamous love. Because in all these words: statistics and outrage and sadness and salaciousness, where is the love? For Wallace and the outraged women she speaks for, it seems glaringly absent. And maybe that’s not important to her. But let’s ask ourselves: If sex is merely about taking the most pleasure I can, whenever I can, then isn’t my partner just a tool? Have we not, then, become, not reciprocal lovers, but reciprocal exploiters? Context, here—the who’s, the why’s and the when’s—is everything. I look at my own daughter, 17 in three months, and I look at you, Sewanee Women. I say with every good intention that a mom with her own war stories has: you deserve so much better than the five seconds.
The current rhetoric of Choice is at play here. As college women, you can certainly choose the pleasure. It may be that my old-school rules sound stale, even irrelevant, and I get that. I only ask you to be fiercely skeptical of the oft-espoused premise that all choices are equal. Here, as you encounter one of the most important experiences of your life, your skepticism is paramount. Ladies, some continued from 9 choices are just plain bad: bad for you and bad for your development as women and persons. Being cavalier with your bodies, believing the lie that sex without consequences is possible, can cost you dearly. It might make you angry enough to translate sexual dysfunction into a civil rights issue.
I want to give a shout out to my more modest sisters (and brothers) out there. There are some of you who feel embarrassed by the exhibit, and that’s okay. I promise you, you are not alone in thinking I have no desire to discuss the clitoris with you. Ever. I, like you, embrace the idea that sex is an intensely personal subject, best discussed privately with your healthcare provider or the one person you are with. This does not make you intolerant, prudish, or naive: it just makes you prudent and discerning. Own it. There is no shame in wanting to keep that part of your life unto yourselves.
And finally, I cannot go without addressing a “rule” of the exhibit that has dogged me since the day I read it: TERRORISM IS HAVING SEX YOUR ENTIRE ADULT LIFE GIVING BIRTH TO 6 CHILDREN AND NEVER EXPERIENCING AN ORGASM. Sad, maybe. A breakdown in marital communication, surely. But terrorism? Ask Malala Yousafazi, the 15 year old Pakistani girl who was shot for wanting an education; or the 200-plus Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, still missing; or check with the families of countless Christians in Syria and other nearby locales who are being executed on a regular basis, some of the videos worming their way into our cyberworld, ask them how their experiences of terrorism match up with the non-orgasmic mother blessed with six children. I dare you.