“Do I dare/Disturb the universe?/In a minute there is time/For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”
-T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
Lines from this poem, this classic lament of the older man, wondering if he will be mocked for making advances to a younger woman, showed up in my day job this week and I found myself reciting them over and over in my head. T.S. Eliot might have been a man writing from the point of view of a man, but he captured here what it feels like being female and staking a claim to your sexuality. Admitting in public that you enjoy sex, you want sex, you pursue it and that you are not simply resigned to the consequences is so fraught with tensions that it feels like any admission, any momentary lapse, can haunt you forever.
A few months ago I wrote calling for a frank and open discussion of sexuality, from nuts and bolts issues (reference, yes, intentional) to policy issues like abortion. A discussion of abortion policy has been thrust upon us whether we like it or not, and I’d like to take this moment to blow the discussion wider open.
Women are angry right now and rightly so. But are we angry enough to stop with the cagey language and wade further into the mess? While we’re talking about what’s wrong with the Stupak amendment, can we talk about the way we’d like to see things go?
I’ve seen too many pro-choice politicians over the past few days, from President “I trust women” Obama to Senator Claire McCaskill, saying that what they want out of the health care bill is the status quo—maintaining the repulsive Hyde Amendment’s ban on federal funds for abortion. Is this what we elected a Democratic majority and Democratic president for? The status quo?
Frances Kissling called for overturning Hyde as a response to Stupak, and I think she’s on the right track. No more holding the line, that’s for sure. But these are still just steps towards undoing negatives, like Obama’s presidency, which seems to be having all it can do just to return to some Clinton-era idea of normal, when normal isn’t nearly good enough.
Not enough. I want positives. I want to use this moment to affirm our right to a healthy, joyful sexuality and to talk about how we can achieve that. A messy, unruly sexuality—hell, part of the beauty of it is that it’s not clean and neat. It is like eating a peach, in the last lines of Prufrock, juices running down your chin, sweet and tangy. Those decisions that happen in a minute are sometimes wrong, and sometimes unplanned things come out of them, but we don’t need to be saved from it, we need to have resources and support to deal with it, from a relationship gone sour to unfortunate STIs or Plan B for a birth control failure—or, whether Congress likes it or not, safe, legal, insurance-covered abortion.
This moment, brought about by male legislators, should be turned into a discussion of female desire. It’s either painted as scary or simply whitewashed out of existence, as if sex couldn’t possibly be something women want. Like the constant attempts to legislate women into having to view ultrasounds of their unwanted pregnancies, as if sex and pregnancy are something that just happened to us and we need to be shepherded along the rest of the way into the proper course of action, these men want to tell us that we don’t really want abortion—and by waving the option of a separate rider, they’re daring us to publicly say that we do want them. Because then they’ll KNOW who the sluts are, yes, the ones who spend extra cash to make sure they don’t have to carry a fetus for nine months.
After all, isn’t this just another way of trying to separate us into good girls and bad girls? The good girls won’t need abortion coverage, and the bad girls, well, they deserve to spend their own money on it, damnit! I refuse to countenance such a move. I don’t care if some reactionary legislator loses respect for me over the decision of a minute. My sexuality is an important part of who I am, yes, but it’s not all of who I am, and if you’re willing to judge me or other women based on sexual behavior, your opinion just doesn’t matter very much to me.
It’s time to stop arguing that we’re not like those other bad girls over there, the ones who are in porn or just go without birth control or are promiscuous, whatever the hell that means. Compromising and playing along only got us this far—holding to some thin line while all around us our rights are chipped away, sometimes in smaller doses or occasionally, like now, in one huge slap in the face that feels like it’s been saved up for a while. Hell, we’ve even bought into the logic, accepted as rational that we can’t be Playboy models and Congresspeople at the same time. But why not?
We’ve started to have this discussion—Jessica Valenti expressed her frustration with having to reassure readers of her work that no, she’s not trying to make young girls promiscuous, saying “I also think there something to be said for arguing strongly for pre-marital sex.”
Me, I hate the term pre-marital because it assumes that there’s a marriage coming at some point and that somehow the sex during that marriage is different, sanctified or justified or just legally permitted. But I agree with Jessica that we need to stop triangulating on the subject—let’s just say it. I’m in favor of people expressing their sexuality, exploring it, understanding it, and most of all enjoying it. (For the record, that includes asexuality—as an orientation or a temporary decision.)
What else do we want? Let’s take a moment to imagine some possibilities, both in policy and more broadly, in society.
I don’t just want women’s health insurance policies to cover abortion. I want men’s to as well. After all, as we’re constantly reminded, men have a part in the whole process too—so why shouldn’t they, or their insurance companies, help pay for it? And since I eventually want to see single-payer health care, I certainly want the government to pay for abortion—and birth control, and prenatal care, and family leave.
I want sexuality to be understood on a broad spectrum, not just the narrow, heteronormative, performative and most especially commercialized range of expression accepted now. I want true understanding of our different desires, and for them to be recognized as legitimate, real, important, life-affirming.
I refuse to let Bart Stupak and his cohort of small-minded, scared throwbacks to a puritan age further narrow the possibilities for us all. It’s time to use this moment to take back the ground we’ve conceded. Do we dare? Well, look where playing it safe has gotten us.