An open letter to my women friends at Sewanee: Musings from a middle-aged mom who’s been there, done that.

By Courtnay Zeitler

Contributing Writer

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.

10 thoughts

  1. Well-written and brilliant as always. Thank you, Ms. Zeitler for standing up for those of us who have a different opinion at Sewanee. It’s nice to know that we are not the only ones thinking differently.

  2. Ms. Zeitler, maybe this art installation struck me in a much different way because I’m male – and maybe that speaks to a major problem with it (or with my perception of it). However, I want to make a case for it, hopefully as part of this ongoing campus discussion of which I hope I too can be a part. You say that if you believe the artist, “sex is, first, a political act through which justice and equality can be measured and meted out.” While Ms. Wallace prioritizes the political in her artwork, isn’t artwork is about looking carefully at one aspect of a thing, whether a human face, a grouping of flowers, an arrangement of color, etc.? Sex IS (among other things) a political act through which justice and equality can be measured out, and, to me Ms. Wallace suggests, by focusing on it, that people need to be capable of reading it that way (i.e., (c)literate). But I don’t see how that implies that it MUST be read that way first in our own experience, or that it is a choice between reading it in that way and in another (such as in love, in partnership, in fidelity, in reproduction, etc.). In my own relationship, one which is (I think) loving and faithful, caring about my partner’s pleasure is certainly a part of how we maintain equality. I know that I need to be able to see her with care, and in terms of her pleasure, but I didn’t learn that until recently. Nowhere in my sex ed classes was I taught anything about the ethics of actual sexual relationships. I was simply told, over and over again, that any pre-marital sexual relationship, or even desire, was immoral, and that sex in marriage was always great, and that the only thing I needed to do was wait. Without an ethics of pleasure, I think it is all the easier for men (and I include myself) to see sex as nothing but personal, to not think about it in terms of the other person – to see sex as the interaction of their penis and some object. It becomes just an individual indulgence, cut off from the rest of one’s ethical life, and its alienation risks both making it cruel, especially for women, but also empty and painful for both. One doesn’t even know, in the light of day, how to look at the hookup from the night before! No matter how one feels religiously about pre-marital sex, it is tragic that what should be intimate ends up being alienating. Ms. Wallace’s work, to me, is about making up for what we (men and women) weren’t taught about the ethics of actual sexual relationships. If I think about the other person, even in casual sex, in terms of what is just and right for them, I am thinking about them in terms of their humanity, in terms of their gender, in terms of their equality. To me, that makes intimacy possible, whether fleeting or lasting. No matter what kind of intimacy one values, intimacy isn’t possible without an ethical relationship to the other person.

    Now certainly, Ms. Wallace’s project overstates some things – but, I think, usefully, if uncomfortably. The design of the sculpture is illustrative of the reason: if this sculpture had been put up on campus (or in a museum) and was simply called “Untitled 3,” would anyone have recognized what it is? Perhaps a few pre-meds, or someone’s parent who is a gynecologist. However, every time we see something that is longer than it is wide, or wider than it is long, we (perhaps boys especially) see a penis. Supposedly, when McClurg was built, students covered its “turrets” with garbage-bag “condoms.” It seems to me that there is an inequality in our vision, and by placing the clitoris literally before our eyes, Ms. Wallace forces us all to reckon with the ways in which we might support gender and equality and ethics in abstracted or distant political situations (our concern with equal pay, or the treatment of women by ISIS and Boko Haram), but fail to do so in our most intimate relationships, and possibly because we know more about Lilly Ledbetter or a niqab than we do about our own partner’s pleasure. And I don’t equate Boko Haram with going one’s whole life without your partner caring about your pleasure in sex, but both are terrible, both are evil, and I don’t want my partner to look at sex with me as something fearful or painful. I worry that by not learning the ethics of sexual relationships, we create pain, oppression, and fear where we should be intimate and loving. That pain isn’t on the same scale as Boko Haram’s horrific treatment of women, but just because our situation could be worse doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be better. Making me think about it in those terms reminds me that as a man, I have the privilege of not living with a certain kind of fear. I can walk the streets of Nashville at 3 AM, and I might get mugged. I can get really drunk, and I might do something embarrassing or have a terrible hangover. I don’t fear that someone will use me as a sexual object with no regard for how I feel – and I don’t want to be a source of fear, no matter how much or little.

    Cliteracy, as I have understood it, is about learning a new language for sexual ethics, and maybe the difference in our approaches is about my lack of knowledge. I recently had to learn this language of female pleasure. At first it was like learning grammar, all mechanics and rules, and I had to ask a lot of questions, and trying to speak correctly was really embarrassing (much like my experience of learning French). But it also allows me to converse in a new way, one that is really enjoyable – which certainly requires the rules of grammar to be in force, but where following those rules are not the priority, not the “first” thing I think about. I don’t constantly think about my partner’s sexual rights explicitly, but because those sexual rights are essential to our physical discourse of pleasure (one which takes place intimately and in a faithful, committed relationship), I think I respect them; and the relationship we’ve built is one in which (I hope) my partner feels comfortable saying when their needs or desires, sexual or otherwise, are not being met. My partner already knows the language of male pleasure, but it seems right to learn her language too, and while I think both of us are too modest, for better or for worse, to go around shouting it from the rooftops, I’m glad it is being talked about publicly, and that someone is shouting it from the rooftops – if for no other reason than that, after all, our rooftops right now kind of look like . . . well . . .

  3. Man, I appreciate your thoughtful response and the time invested it took to write it.

    Much of it proves my point, or at least one of them. You and I don’t need to talk about orgasms and clitorises and the pleasure you and your girlfriend give each other. In fact, we shouldn’t. That’s private. I have no business knowing about your sex life, nor should you ever be privy to mine. It’s sacred to me. It’s between my husband and me. I know there are some of the mindset that everything is up for discussion, especially in the academy and if it furthers a particular agenda. I would totally support an exhibit that addresses sexual violence towards women or female genital mutilation. Bring it. But a giant sculpture of a piece of my anatomy that is so incredibly personal and intimate to me, and to half the population of the Sewanee community?And a sign that recommends I teach my daughter how to masturbate so she can have better sex in the future? (And here comes the facepalm: what in the world would that conversation look like, really?) No. No thanks.

    If you want to bring sex–yours, particularly–into the realm of academic discourse, okay. Just be aware that there are some of out here who ascribe to the idea of boundaries. There are some parts of my life, and yours, that have no place in public discourse, no matter how you might dress it up with labels like justice and liberty and terrorism.

    Again, I appreciate your perspective. Thanks.

    1. Courtney, I’m afraid that what you’re suggesting will only lead to more of the same: the view that sex is an act that you do not discuss because it is too shameful and embarrassing. And, as I’m sure you know, sex is neither of those things.

      To be more blunt, just because the idea of explaining to your daughter that masturbation is normal, healthy, and will make her future sex life better is uncomfortable to you doesn’t mean that you get to silence the voices of others open to discourse.

      1. Suitandtie, I think you’re missing Courtney’s point. Delving into the sordid details of individuals’ personal lives (i.e. someone’s individual sexual experiences) is not only off-putting for some but is futile in the efforts against sexual violence. What’s more constructive, as Courtney mentioned in an earlier comment, is taking those issues head-on rather than forcefully violating the parts of their lives that they choose to keep private. In other words, forcefully making an inherently private matter (someone’s own sexuality and sex life) a political “cause celebre” on public display, does nothing to address actual problems and frustrations faced by women. Again, I’m glad that people are carrying this debate on in a, relatively, civil and thoughtful manner. Long may it stay that way.

        Peace & Blessings,
        David

  4. I had mixed feelings about this display. My first impression, after researching the fact that it was supposedly an anatomically correct depiction based on recent research, I thought this would have been much better and more effective if framed as a scientific / anatomical / art display. I like the message about female awareness and the concept itself. However, some of the ‘play on words’ stuff seemed a bit childish (democracy without cliteracy is phallusy, etc… Kind of like, ‘don’t let your meat loaf, heh heh).

    I then began to ask my female friends for reactions. Even the most liberal feminist friends did not have wholeheartedly positive comments. One stated, “Hmmm…as much as I am for women’s empowerment I would prefer to highlight our BRAINS, not our sex organs.” Another said, “That sort of thing isn’t interesting to me. I don’t need to make my female self stand out more than it does just being a woman.”

    As a man, I can attest to the fact that women vary greatly compared to men in sexual function, and it is far more common to for women to lack the ability to orgasm then for men. Perhaps this type of initiative to create more sexual awareness and education could have been framed a bit more classy, serious, scientific… because of the somewhat brash, ‘in your face’ feminist-artist display. It has an undertone of men vs. women, and men with criticism of the installation of any kind are quickly reprimanded by the feminists as “they just don’t get it.”

    Reading this response from Zeitler, it is pretty much what I would expect from a conservative christian – anti-abortion rights – Fox News watcher like herself. I do find her comparison with terrorists a bit ironic since it is exactly those cultures – the Muslim theocracies – that share her rabid anti-abortion rights view.

    Overall, congrats to Sewanee for bringing Cliteracy, but it’s objectives could have been met a bit more effectively with a better presentation in my view.

  5. I had mixed feelings about this display. My first impression, after researching the fact that it was supposedly an anatomically correct depiction based on recent research, I thought this would have been much better and more effective if framed as a scientific / anatomical / art display. I like the message about female awareness and the concept itself. However, some of the ‘play on words’ stuff seemed a bit childish (democracy without cliteracy is phallusy, etc… Kind of like, ‘don’t let your meat loaf,’ heh heh).

    I then began to ask my female friends for reactions. Even the most liberal feminist friends did not have wholeheartedly positive comments. One stated, “Hmmm…as much as I am for women’s empowerment I would prefer to highlight our BRAINS, not our sex organs.” Another said, “That sort of thing isn’t interesting to me. I don’t need to make my female self stand out more than it does just being a woman.”

    As a man, I can attest to the fact that women vary greatly compared to men in sexual function, and it is far more common for women to lack the ability to orgasm then for men. Perhaps this type of initiative to create more sexual awareness and education could have been framed a bit more classy, serious, scientific… because of the somewhat brash, ‘in your face’ feminist-artist display, it has an undertone of men vs. women. Men with criticism of the installation of any kind are quickly reprimanded by the feminists as “they just don’t get it.”

    Reading this response from Zeitler, it is pretty much what I would expect from a conservative christian – anti-abortion rights – Fox News watcher like herself. I do find her comparison with terrorists a bit ironic since it is exactly those cultures – the Muslim theocracies – that share her rabid anti-abortion rights view.

    Overall, congrats to Sewanee for bringing Cliteracy, but it’s objectives could have been met a bit more effectively with a better presentation in my view.

  6. That’s awesome. I can’t remember the last time someone called me “rabid”! Here I thought I might be getting a little soft in my middle age….

    So, rabid, yes. I’ll take it!

    1. Courtney,
      On the positive, I agree with many of your points, especially the fact that this display was long on sexual gratification and short on commentary regarding meaningful relationships.

      Regarding the other comment, and very much in accordance with women’s rights and empowerment – the general theme of this display, you should be aware that many of the only societies in the world that share your view and don’t support women’s reproductive rights are those Muslim theocracies that you, I, and most of the rest of the world see as degrading to women. You are essentially are supporting the same policies as the Taliban. Simply put, they are terrorists and a prime example of why fundamentalist religious imperatives and have no place in our gov’t, laws, and education. So, I would be careful when using such groups as examples of terrorists, when they in fact share your view that abortion should be illegal.

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