Written by Vanessa D. Fisher
“There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling….
The erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough…. Of course, women so empowered are dangerous. So we are taught to separate the erotic demand from the most vital areas of our lives other than sex…
This is why the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all. For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with our deepest erotic knowledge and joy. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.
I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience…. And then, there becomes for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love.”
The above quote is taken from a longer seminal essay entitledUses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, written by the late feminist writer, poet and activist, Audre Lorde. At the time of its publication in the 1989, Uses of the Erotic was a potent and provocative exposé, delivered with passion and clarity by a radical black lesbian feminist, and aimed to provoke a deeper look into the need for an integration of the erotic into every aspect of women’s lives.
Lorde’s vision of the erotic was not merely sexual, nor was it meant to be a titillating transgression; rather, Lorde’s call to the erotic was deeply hard-hitting, clarifying, sensual, expansive, and directed at integrating and clarifying the deepest a-rational and non-rational energies of the erotic into every dimension of women’s lives, from the sexual to the political.
As Lorde states:
“The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects – born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the life-force of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our work, our lives.”
Lorde argued that when not suppressed or distorted by the many forms of cultural repression, consumerism, and pornification, the erotic could actually become a primary liberating force and a source energy for our most potent joy, knowledge and discernment as women. When clarified, the erotic impulse could actually support us in making the most courageous and informed moral, as well as aesthetic, decisions about our lives.
Lorde argues that despite the fact that patriarchy can eulogize certain forms of pornographic and exhibitionist sexual expression, patriarchy at its core actually perpetuates an anti-erotic and anti-feeling culture. It does this by distorting or making women fearful of their genuine erotic impulses, because the liberation of that genuine erotic impulse in women would, Lorde believes, be powerful enough to dismantle the very foundations of the patriarchal system itself.
As Lorde notes, “The fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance. The fear that we cannot grow beyond whatever distortions we may find within ourselves keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined, and leads us to accept many facets of our oppression as women.”
Lorde was an erotic provocateur of the highest order, calling for an integration of eroticism’s clarifying fire into all areas of life, so as to transform women’s personal lives, as well as the wider socio-political world.
When I came across Lorde’s vision of the erotic, it was her sensual intuition alongside her intellectual depth and provocative sensibility that activated an incredibly deep turn on within me. Reading her words felt like taking in a long-awaited breath of fresh-air, and I knew I had stumbled upon something that I had been searching for for a very long time…
A Reflection on Where I’ve Come: Shadow, Individuation & Emergence
Anyone who has been following my writing as an author here on Beams and Struts, knows that the questions of sexuality, eroticism, feminism and female empowerment have been a constant inquiry for me as a young woman, and have been very intimate and vulnerable to my own journey. My other two articles Pop Culture, Porn Stars and the Mis-guided Revolution, and Envisioning Young Women’s Leadership for the 21st Century, have offered in-depth critiques of the problems and confusion I have observed with much of the contemporary postmodern landscape when it comes to understanding and representing young women’s empowerment and sexual liberation.
Both of my articles have critiqued specific individual young women (former porn star turned actress Sasha Grey and spiritual RedVolutionary Sera Beak), whom I saw as individual embodied examples of much of the cultural confusion representative in our notions of liberation and sexual freedom in a postmodern world. My last article on Sera Beak ignited quite a potent online discussion here at Beams, as well as a vulnerable exchange between Sera and I, as she responded to my critique of her work in the comments.
The article, alongside the interactions between Sera and I sparked some great dialogue on the site, as well as stirring some great conversations between myself and other women. The whole experience was also very vulnerable for me and ignited new questions about these topics within myself. Therefore, I felt called to write a follow up article in order to integrate some new insights, to dive a little deeper, and to open up the inquiry.
I wanted to start with a moment of reflection on what has brought me to this article, as the past few months have been quite a potent and powerful time for me.
I had an interesting experience a couple months after publishing the article on Sera. I was sitting at work with my laptop open to my website, which had pictures of both Sasha and Sera on that screen promoting my articles. One of my male co-workers, whom knows absolutely nothing about the work or writing I do, looked over my shoulder at the pictures of Sasha and Sera and asked me, “Is that you?”
(Left to Right: Sasha Grey, Sera Beak, Vanessa Fisher)
It was an interesting and somewhat jarring comment from a person who had no awareness of the kind of work that I do. As I took a deeper look at the pictures of Sasha and Sera in that moment, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that they did both look a little like me—well, actually, a lot like me. Sera had also commented on our similar appearance, and it really hadn’t occurred to me that we shared some similar attributes until she mentioned it. The similarity hit me deeper and undeniably harder when my co-worker mis-took both Sasha and Sera’s photos for me.
The reason this realization was interesting to me was because it suddenly turned a mirror back on myself and caused me to want to probe a little deeper into why I had chosen to focus on these two specific young women for my articles. As I looked deeper within myself, I realized that there was something that both these young women represented; something that they reflected in me as a young woman in postmodern culture that I was trying very deeply to work through and understand myself. My unconscious choice to pick two women that looked similar to me was admittedly a bit of a humorous reflection of my own narcissism, but it was also more than that. It exposed a deeper reflection of my own ongoing quest to understand and articulate what an authentic and fiery, yet dignified and mature eroticism and sexuality might look like, both for myself, and for a wider culture of young women.
I hadn’t been satisfied in encountering either Sasha or Sera’s work, and I’m still not, but there was something in what they were trying to express that I did resonate with and even felt some desire and attraction to. There was some similar rebellious fire, and some common interest and yearning that we all shared, even though we were each expressing it in very different ways. Ultimately, I saw that we were sisters in this collective struggle, and I believe this is also a yearning and struggle that is representative of our times, and representative of many of the conflicts and tensions about women, sex and empowerment that have yet to be resolved for my generation by feminism, spirituality, or contemporary culture.
That is why for this essay I decided to deepen my inquiry into this topic by getting a little more undressed myself. Seeing as I spent a lot of my energy in my last two articles digging into and turning a discerning eye on Sasha and Sera, it seemed appropriate to now take that gaze and turn it back on myself. This seemed valuable not because I think I have all the answers to these questions, but rather because by being willing to get undressed enough to begin to clarify, expose and embrace my own deepest erotic spark, I hope to encourage other young women to do the same. And perhaps together we can open an emergent space for visioning into a more mature, dignified and fiery eroticism that could really quench the thirst for depth, discernment and embodied sensuality that I sense many young women are still deeply yearning for.
The Difficulty of Erotic Empowerment: Setting the Context for Discernment
Before I dive into some reflection on my own journey with the erotic, I want to offer a small preamble that I think is important for framing some of the context for this overall inquiry. To start, I want to make clear that I’m not only interested in supporting young women’s sexual empowerment (although that is definitely a part of it), but also in empowering a deeply erotic sensibility and dignity that can branch out into all areas of our lives as women.
I am staking my foundation for this inquiry based on Lorde’s definition of the erotic, which she ties to the force of Eros itself. Since ancient Greece, Eros has been recognized as the fundamental life force surging through all of creation. At its essence, Eros is powerful, radiant, unselfconscious and unadorned. It is the force of creative fire and love that resides within each one of us as our sacred birthright and has no preference for race, gender, sexual orientation or physical appearance. For Plato, Eros was the force of love that helped the soul remember beauty at the deepest level, and it was the remembrance of that beauty that contributed to an understanding and enhancement of our spiritual nature. Therefore, as we align more with Eros and the erotic impulse itself, it increasingly becomes a force of desire, discernment and clarification in all aspects of our lives.
As Lorde states:
“I believe in the erotic and I believe in it as an enlightening force within our lives as women. I have become clearer about the distinctions between the erotic and other apparently similar forces. We tend to think of the erotic as an easy, tantalizing sexual arousal. I speak of the erotic as the deepest life force, a force which moves us toward living in a fundamental way. And when I say living I mean it as that force which moves us toward what will accomplish real positive change.”
My wish is to facilitate and even help to ignite an erotic awakening in young women that can really open up the potentials for this force of Eros in their lives. I want to support young women with the strength, power, discernment and courage to uncover their own unique erotic flavor, and navigate their lives with an increasing autonomy, radiance, selflessness, relational attunement and embodied sensuality that can service the larger whole.
Of course, it must be stated that any discussion about the erotic, and any discussion about cultivating empowered sexuality is fraught with difficulty. Mainly because, as I’ve pointed out in great depth in my previous two articles, I believe our notions of empowerment, sexuality and freedom are deeply clouded and confused for many young women in contemporary postmodern culture. There is also a severe lack of depth and discerning nuance in many of the mainstream approaches that attempt to empower young women around their sexuality and eroticism. That is why, for me, developing a deep critical literacy on the wider culture and our history, as well as a discerning eye on the values and conflicts that mark our generation (see my previous two articles), must go hand in hand with cultivating our intuitive sensitivity to our own erotic yearnings and inner guidance as women. With these two practices in tandem, I do believe that following the thread of our most intimate desire can actually be a deeply clarifying and maturing endeavor, and can have positive and life-affirming effects that extend far beyond the confines of our bedrooms.
Unraveling the Erotic in Sexuality, Art and Service
The erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough…
The electrifying force of what I would call a very deep erotic impulse has been a strong underlying current in my life journey from a very early age. From as young as I can remember, I’ve experienced this force of Eros as both deeply compelling and confusing, and it has always charged my path with a force of energy and guidance that has felt largely beyond my personal will or control. The presence of this force has impelled me to make many life-changing decisions without really knowing why or where they were leading me. It has also pushed me in directions that have confronted me with painful, humbling and gut-wrenching trials—but trials that turned out to be essential for my own deepening and growth.
In some ways, I’ve always felt a slave to this strong and wild erotic force within myself, and in times when I have tried to fight the direction of its energy in favor of safety, comfort or ignorance, I have always ended up scorched by its unforgiving and clarifying fires. Thus I have learned after many intense experiences with this uncompromising energy within myself, that whether I liked it or not, I am here to serve it.
I had never interpreted this energetic force in religious or spiritual terms when I was growing up. In many ways, growing up as a pre-teen and early teenager, I was quite rebellious against anything religious or spiritual. Until I was sixteen years old, I was raised primarily by my mother whom had been a devoted nun in the Catholic church for 15 years before leaving the convent at age 32 to start her family. When I was twelve, I declared to my mother that I no longer believed in God and refused to go to church. Soon after that I spiraled into a world of intense partying, alcohol and drug abuse that led to the eventually flunking my grade 10 year.
Although I had felt this strong and wild force of Eros within myself at many different points throughout my early years, the first time I remember the energy of its erotic demand really taking center stage in my life was when I was sixteen years old. At the time, my life was going increasingly downhill and spiraling into cycles of addiction that could have become catastrophic. It was that year that I had a powerful dream. In the dream I got a very clear message and demand that I was to leave Saskatchewan where I was living at the time, leave my mother and all of my friends behind, and move to Vancouver to live with my father.
Without hesitation, and without really knowing why, I made the move to Vancouver that month. It proved to be a life-saving and life-transforming decision on many levels. In one year I completely turned my life around—I quit smoking, quit drinking and doing drugs, and worked my ass off to pick up my grades enough to graduate from high school. It was also during that time that I started doing a tremendous amount of emotional and psychodynamic work, as well as taking up weight training and meditation.
In my late teens and early twenties, this driving erotic energy started to became increasingly prominent in the forefront of my experience, instigating some strange and high state experiences, and compelling me into a deep philosophical and spiritual search for deeper answers about my identity, my purpose, and the meaning of my life.
That drive of Eros has stayed with me ever since, and it has continually shaped my life and choices in incredibly awesome, painful, beautiful and gut-wrenching ways. But despite the fact that I have always had some ongoing access to this very powerful erotic force within myself, that doesn’t mean it has always been clarified, conscious or healthily expressed. In fact, it has taken me many years to get some kind of conscious handle on it, and in many ways I still experience it as a wild fire within me that can, at times, become dangerous and consuming if I don’t find ways to properly contain and work with it.
One area that for many years remained a difficult edge for me to grow into in relation to this erotic force was how it showed up in my sexuality. Ever since I can remember, I have been a very potently charged sexual being. And with a lack of proper containers in our culture to understand or work with it, I’ve experienced a lifelong battle with how to express and relate to it. Having a mother who was a Catholic nun and whom lived under years of intense sexual repression within the church only added to the lack of a female role model and presence in my life that could reflect an image of what it looked like to be a healthy, embodied, sensual and integrated erotic being.
Therefore, throughout my life I found myself vacillating between poles of irresponsible hedonistic expression and fearful caged repression of my sexuality, both of which caused their own painful flavor of suffering on my body, mind and soul. My attraction to both Sasha and Sera was no doubt in part because they reflected that highly sexually charged energy that I had struggled to integrate within myself and that I saw neither of them, nor our larger culture, creating conscious and firm containers of responsibility or collective accountability for.
In my late teens, my own struggle with my sexual charge often showed up as a very dissociated and fragmented relationship to my body. And again, because there were so few role models in the culture of women who reflected a dignified and integrated relationship to their bodies, and because issues of objectification were still so contentious within feminism and women’s circles, I felt I had few places to turn to in order to inquire into and deepen a healthy relationship to my own body and sexuality.
I did experience a significant turning point in my struggle with my body in my early twenties when my stepmother, Barbara Bickel, a very talented feminist artist who invited me into a co-creative art process and ritual with her. On my 21st birthday she unveiled the final product of our artistic process together, which was a nude portrait of myself, called “Spirit’s Vessel” (seen to the left).1
Becoming the conscious object of art was an incredibly healing and transformative process for me on many levels, and re-calibrated my understanding of what it could mean to be objectified. My stepmother was able to facilitate a very powerful and conscious midwifing through her art process that allowed me to step more fully into myself as a consciously embodied object, as well as expanding my subjectivity as an erotically charged human being and “vessel for spirit.”
As one of my favorite body art feminists of the 70s, Hannah Wilke once said:
“In contemporary usage, the word object applied to a woman is considered negative. She is solely a sex object, a thing perceived without empathy or compassion. However, an object, defined as something that is or is capable of being seen, touched, or otherwise sensed, exists; thus, respecting object hood can be an assertion of existence… If you show your body and are proud of it, it frightens people, for then a woman exists, intensely.”
Because of the safe and conscious aesthetic and relational container that my step-mother created during our photo shoot, I was able to rest into a new home with my body and joyously claim myself as the object of the viewer’s gaze without loosing touch with myself as a conscious and empowered subject. This process thus provoked an important movement within me, aimed towards a greater body-mind and spirit integration within myself.
The Erotic as Practice
Being able to claim my objectivity as an empowered subject, and increasingly learning how to move sexual energy freely through my body without turning away from it or fixating on it, has indeed been a powerful part of my practice in regards to deepening my intimacy and an integrated relationship with the erotic force itself.
As Lorde states:
“Women must be brave enough to risk sharing the erotic’s electrical charge without having to look away, and without distorting the enormously powerful and creative nature of that exchange. Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can then lead to giving us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world.”
Indeed, because my own erotic force has always been particularly strong, and because I’ve had so little understanding or mentoring of how to work with it, my own journey towards integration with my body and sexuality has been a long and arduous one and is by no means over.
As I’ve become more intimate with the different flavors and movements of my own sexual energy, it has certainly supported my development and sensitivity to the larger energies of Eros itself. With increasing intimacy and attunement to my own internal erotic rhythms, I’ve found myself maturing in relationship to the more subtle and refined erotic energies of intuition, attraction and creativity coursing throughout my being and through the wider universe itself. The more open and comfortable I am in my own skin, the more I’m able to connect with the subtler dimensions of that powerful erotic force and relate to it all consciously because there are fewer blocks of resistance that would hold back that energy from circulating freely throughout my entire body-mind.
My developing sensitivity to the erotic has also shown up increasingly as a desire to serve the larger whole through my work in the world. Whether it is my writing and art, or my volunteer work on the ground in different cultures as I travel, my increasing attunement to the movements of Eros have definitely extended far beyond my own sexuality. My own erotic force has increasingly converged with a sense of collective responsibility and an ecstatic desire to serve and make love to the world around me.
I’m in no way perfectly integrated and probably never will be, nor do I think perfect integration is the point. I am far from completing the process of unfolding the depths of my own journey with this wild force of erotic fire within me, but I do find myself growing into increasing intimacy and trust with it as a guiding force in my life; increasingly surrendering to it as the deepest moral and aesthetic compass for my artistic, spiritual and sexual choices.
Giving Sex it’s Place: Closing Reflections on the Place of Sex in Human and Spiritual Development
In closing this article, I feel it’s important to segue from my personal journey into a few final reflections about sex and its place in human and spiritual development.
Firstly, I want to reiterate that the kind of eroticism that Lorde was speaking to in her original essay, and that I have been speaking about in this article, is about much more than just sex. That said, I do believe (and I’m guessing that Lorde would agree) that a healthy ecstatic connection to the erotic in all areas of life is greatly supported and even dependent on the foundations of a healthy and joyous relationship to sex and the sexual impulse itself. I’m not saying that great sex is the most important thing in life, nor am I saying that we should turn to sex to try to solve all of our existential insecurities as modern and postmodern women. I don’t think that better orgasms will save the world, but I do see the sexual impulse as the bedrock of our foundational relationship to the erotic impulse itself. Thus, a healthy, sane and non-fear based relationship to sex is a significant building block for sustaining and stabilizing the entire arc of our erotic and spiritual development.
Unfortunately, cultivating healthy foundations for a joyous and conscious relationship to the sexual impulse for young women (and men) is extremely difficult in a culture like North America, which often perpetuates contradictory values and messages about sex to its youth.
On the one hand, the legacy of our Victorian, puritanical shame/fear-based roots around sex can’t be denied as still having a significant influence on some of the underlying strains of sexual values within our culture.
If we look at the roots of sexuality education itself, they can be traced back to the late 19th century, in a time when there was growing concern about the erosion of Victorian morality. Urbanization had created a new class of people called the “adolescents,” a group of young people who had more time between sexual maturity and marriage than their parents, and also more leisure time to experiment with sex.
As sex educators, Michele J. Eliason and John P. Elia, point out in their upcoming article, An Integral Approach to Sex Education, the aims of sexuality education from its inception was to stop the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases and reinforce sexual morality. These sexuality education efforts took place within a social hygiene movement that was essentially devoted to sexual purity, and from its original inception to the present day, sex education has remained the site of many competing and contentious political and religious agendas.
As Eliason and Elia note:
“There is very little writing in the sexuality education field about the developmental or spiritual dimensions of sexuality, how sexual development intersects with other lines of development, the intersections of sexism, racism and heterosexism that are imbedded in education, or what the consequences of focusing on sex as dangerous and disease-ridden might be on the quality of life and relationships of individuals who are given these messages in their youth. Current discourses about sexuality likely interferes with the full development of human potential, and leads to fixated levels of sexual development laden with guilt and shame.”
Due to an often lousy and fragmented sex education from our primary schools, many youth now turn to mainstream media or hardcore pornography for their real sex education. And this is where we find the other side of the contradiction in our sexual values and messages as a culture.
The mainstream consumerist packaging of sex, alongside the impacts of an increasingly materialist, superficial, pornified, and sexually exhibitionist culture, have had their own negative effects on the healthy sexual development of youth. For example, it is interesting to note that despite the fact that Gen X and Gen Y have ample access to sexually explicit imagery and information, and are perhaps one of the most sexually “free” generations to grace the planet, recent studies report that as high as 58% of women still don’t consistently experience pleasurable orgasms during sex. The Hite Report, a national study done on female sexuality, also reveals that women are carrying increased feelings of disappointment, frustration and inadequacy in the bedroom.
Even more interesting, as cultural critic Laura Kipnis points out, is that sexual dissatisfaction is showing up at even higher rates among younger women, particularly those of Generation X and Y.
I would argue that this conundrum is largely due to the fact that my generation is still being given very contradictory messages about sex from our culture. Steeped in a culture of unresolved shame, an increased commodification and over-glorification of sex in both mainstream and spiritual marketplaces, alongside a piecemeal sex education at our foundations, is it any wonder that many of us young women are struggling with feelings of disconnection from our bodies, and disconnection from any sense of genuine sexual pleasure and dignity? As I’ve stated many times in this article, there really are very few role models in popular culture of women who exhibit a grounded, dignified and congruent sexual self-sense, never mind a deeply refined embodiment of the more subtle expressions of the kind of erotic energy that Lorde was speaking of. How are young women expected to navigate a healthy and sane relationship to their most genuine erotic impulses and yearnings in such a context?
This is why I argue in closing that any discussion about empowering young women into the fullest dimensions of the erotic has to include empowering them with a healthy, conscious and joyous relationship to their sexuality. Being empowered sexually does not mean you have to go out and prove yourself as a sexual being. It doesn’t mean you have to become a sexual wildcat, talk about dildos and butt plugs, or put on a mini-skirt that shows off half your ass as a statement of owning how sexy you are. Obviously, these behaviors can very easily just be part of a reactionary narcissistic/exhibitionist/addictive drive that has nothing to do with feeling deeply into ones own sexual and sensual depths.
That said, I leave room open for the fact that being able to use or talk openly about dildos and butt plugs may be a legitimate growth edge to lean into for some women at particular points in their development. I would definitely support leaning into that edge for those young women with whom it may be an appropriate step of growth in their own psycho-sexual development. I would just encourage them to create appropriate containers and conscious support for their inquiry and ask that they not make their own process into a mantra of liberation for everyone.
In moving forward, I realize that the topics of sexuality, eroticism and women’s empowerment are extremely complex, and something I could never do full justice to in one article. That said, I hope that this piece has offered some important points of integration from the insights gleaned in my last two articles, and also offered a more vulnerable and humbled perspective by weaving myself, my imperfect journey, and my own deepest vision for the erotic more intimately into the overall narrative.
I realize my own observations will always in some way be shaped and limited by my age (28 years old), my own development, my cultural context and my personal history. That said, I still believe that my cultural critiques thus far and my personal journey to date are a valuable resource that can offer an important piece to the puzzle and ideally support a deeper inquiry into these issues among a larger collective of erotically charged and soulfully engaged women (and men).
I wanted to end with a quote from one of my philosophical mentors, Ken Wilber. Although male-centered in its reference, it is a quote that I feel speaks to some of the highest potentials available to those of us (male or female) who do not shy away from the powerful force of our own erotic demand. It also speaks to what is possible when we connect and submit our own unique erotic calling into humble service to the wider collective, and thus weave it into the very fabric of Eros that drives the entire cosmic process…
“Think of the great yogis, saints, and sages–from Moses to Christ to Padmasambhaya. They were not feeble-mannered milquetoasts, but fierce movers and shakers–from bullwhips in the Temple to subduing entire countries. They rattled the world on its own terms, not some pie-in-the-sky piety; many of them instigated massive social revolutions that have continued for thousands of years. And they did so, not because they avoided the physical, emotional, and mental dimensions of humanness, and the ego that is their vehicle, but because they engaged them with a drive and intensity that shook the world to its very foundations.”
1. Barbara Bickel (copyright symbol) 2004, Spirit’s Vessel, 48 x 18 inches, mixed media drawing on wood. A co-creation with Vanessa Fisher.