Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On Cows and Bear Traps

While out for breakfast with my sweetheart a few weeks back, I overheard (okay, eavesdropped on) a conversation of a pocket of women on the table nearby. They were young and single, talking about their and others' dating escapades; it was all very Sex and the City, minus the cocktails, designer labels and $300 haircuts. I heard the most boisterous of the group say, "Well, he's not gonna buy the cow..."
Okay, I know they were talking about men, and not about the Illinois state fair. This remark was, of course, a truncated reference to the timeless adage, he's not going to buy the cow if he can get the milk for free.
I was horrified, absolutely horrified to hear this remark come, without a grain of irony, out of the mouth of a presumably modern woman, whatever the hell that means.
I was most certainly one of millions of girls who was told repeatedly from the bottom of her mother's terrified heart to wait for marriage, not to allow myself to be... milked, until I had a binding commitment. But not because sex might be an amazing physical and emotional connection that would heighten the intimacy in my marriage; or not because sex is so powerful that if I share it with some tool who can't handle it or would mistreat me, I could wind up wrecked and feeling like shit about myself; or not even because sex with a partner who's pledged me his honesty and fidelity would be safer and healthier. I was told to wait because, why would a man ever want to marry me if I'll lie down with him without requiring it?
Hearing these words as a girl, they just seemed cliche; but now, now that I am in a healthy, stable and (praise God) incredibly satisfying intimate relationship, I am able to consider that warning, cloaked under the guise of good advise, for the sexist, offensive drivel that it is.
Since when is it appropriate for women to consider themselves cows? No, I mean, really. Even when our nation was at its most agrarian, women were women, not livestock. I recognize that my ancestors weren't actually considered human until the U.S. Government told white people that they had to treat them as such, and even then it was an uphill battle. (Arguably still is.) But we didn't need Uncle Sam or President Lincoln to assure us we were people and not animals; we learned to read, we fought tyranny, we jumped the broom and raised families just like the masters did, we just did it in spite of being worked like animals.
My point is this: a woman who may be with a man, as his wife or his lover, is never to be considered something who will just give a man what he wants. We don't need, nor should we try, to trick a man into committing to us before he can try out our goods. Thinking like this completely devalues female sexuality, turns it into something that is just at the service of men, and that certainly isn't true. Hasn't the myth of the frigid wife been debunked enough already? Don't we believe that women love the sweat and the smell and the rhythm and the climbing and falling, the POW and the twinkle afterward, and the connection of sex, just as much as men do? We want sex; we like sex. When it's is good, it's really, really good, and we like that just as much as they do. We don't have to hold our vaginas as ransom to lure some unsuspecting fool into lifetime commitment. Our vaginas' aren't bear traps, closing around the ankle of he who will do; it's a treasure to be shared and explored with the person (he or she) that we choose.
I can concede that marriage used to be about joining clans and family names and building strength in the community, and also about ensuring that women who were denied the ability to learn a skill or trade would be cared for. I hate it but I know it's true. It makes me want to gag, thinking that if a woman didn't marry well, she was perhaps destined for a protracted life; either to be taken care of by her father until she just can't take it anymore (ahem, Lizzie Borden) or to be jilted, pitied and shunned as the village spinster (ahem, Emily Grierson). Much as I hate it, I know that marrying well did not mean marrying a man who loved and appreciated and respected you, who wanted you as his partner by his side, but instead meant marrying someone with decent earning potential, theoretical virility (never tested, after all he is as virginal as you, my dear), and a good reputation.
But we don't live like that anymore. We educate our daughters, teach them how to speak and think for themselves. We (hopefully) teach them how to love and respect themselves, how to know and care for their bodies, and hope that they select a partner who will love, respect, and care for them as much as they for themselves. Our daughters are executives, attorneys, physicians, artists, educators and administrators. They don't need men to pull them out of financial holes and assure them security.
So why, why are we still teaching them that they are chattel, and that they should use their sexuality to trap the man they want?

God help us, there is so much injury around sex. So much: he said he would call and he didn't call; I've been married almost twenty years and never had an orgasm; he never looks at me the way he used to; I said yes because I was tired of saying no; he told me never to tell anybody; another fake phone number; she told me it was too small; he never asks me if it hurts; I want to stop looking but I can't help myself; I know he likes it but it makes me feel so bad about myself; the list goes on and on. Perhaps rather than deal with the injury, we try to prevent it by teaching our children to avoid it altogether: if they don't have sex until they're married, they won't have to worry about anyone saying they're a whore, or being abandoned over and over, or whatever hurt we live with that we try to protect our loved ones from. But I don't think this is better. When we teach women their sexuality is a possession with which to bait a hook, and not a vital, living part of themselves to thoughtfully, wisely and joyfully share with their loved one, we teach them to reduce themselves in their own eyes. We teach them that men will never value them in any way except as the spigot sex comes out of, and we teach them to consider themselves the same.


Nyactorgirl said...

Eloquent argument, but I completely disagree. And maybe we are on opposite sides of this because we are in different places romantically.

You see, I just split with someone, and I can't tell you how emotionally denigrated I feel after having given myself to a man whom I now know was not deserving of my body. I think you are lucky in a way that alot of us girls wish that we could be. You found that one in a million man who deeply cares for your mind and spirit, just as much (if not more) as he does for your body. But for the rest of us its a tough dating world....and I'm starting to realize that you can't just give yourself to a man because you are feeling delicious and sexy, and because you are a new millennium woman and in charge of your life. Its got to be something more than that. Sexuality is a sharing, a giving and receiving. And how can you tell what the person you are in bed with is giving? 'Cause they could be just selling you a crock of bull. How do you know they are genuine and worthy of the gift that is your body? Only TIME can tell that. So waiting to have sex is not about wielding power over men. Its about affording yourself the time to allow someone's true character to reveal itself. And if you rush that process then you are rolling the dice with your own body.

In my case, I chose to roll the dice...and I got the shaft. And I wish I could say that this was the first time its happened to me. But its not. Maybe I am starting to sound like my mother, but I am starting to feel the effects of having given away a little bit of my soul every time I've taken a man into my bed. And when he leaves, I wish that I could get that bit of myself back. But I can't. And all that power and bravado I used to strut around with is dwindling into something that feels an awful lot like shame.

As a society (and as women), we have not been honest about the cost of our sexual freedom. And I agree that maybe the quote about the cow and the milk is archaic, but it is only trying to give voice to the notion that nothing is free. Not even sex.

Jessica Young said...

What a deeply honest and difficult comment. Thank you so much for sharing that. I'm so sorry for your loss.
In no way do I mean to imply that our sexuality requires or allows us to give ourselves away, to jump into bed with any partner thoughtlessly or hurriedly. It is absolutely true that sex is costly, whether it is with a person you can trust and admire, or with someone who, after all is said and done, is simply not worth the price. I, too, have repeatedly made the shitty and painful mistake of rushed intimacy with men who wound up really hurting me, and what that cost me I can never get back. I only mean to say that we as straight women should not use our sexuality to manipulate men into commitment. We are amazing women and the men we choose who choose us should do so out of the fabric of our relationship, not because we'll screw them once the diamond shows up. We deserve men who want not to take from us, but share with us, just as we deserve men who will wait as long as we need to, whether it's a week or a year.