Aphrodite’s Daughters

Aphrodite’s Daughters: Women’s Sexual Stories and the Journey of the Soul
by Jalaja Bonheim

Sexuality as a sacred dance, as magic, as “our body’s way of opening to the life force.” With the testimony of the women she quotes, Bonheim encourages all women to regain our heritage of the spiritual energy of sex. Drawing on thorough research, Bonheim’s detailed descriptions of pre-patriarchal myth and practices glow with this joyful energy. In considering the dark side of sexuality, her compassion and insight offer the best descriptions I have read of how to grow from pain.

Several times Bonheim startled me with insights reframing my experience in useful ways. For example the difference between fantasy rape and real rape; why in our fantasies rape can be pleasureable: ”The imaginary aggressor is actually a part of the woman’s own psyche — the part that wants to break her resistance to receiving pleasure” (p. 343). In areas where I’ve felt lonely from bucking the culture, Bonheim gave me support — for example her discussion of relationship as path. On the other hand, she challenged my bah-humbug attitude towards romance, with stories of women in long-term romantic relationships. Most encouraging was to hear her testify, as therapist, to the effectiveness of deconditioning sexual distress patterns.

The only real problem: I’m just not comfortable with Bonheim’s talk about “essential qualities of the feminine spirit” and “what it means to be a woman.” Essentialism is a conceptual trap; Bonheim herself identifies the problem. Reflecting on Jungian psychology, she objects to its traditional classification of masculine and feminine qualities: “to reconnect with the sacred masculine, we must break ancient cultural habits of automatically identifying the feminine with matter, the earth, nurturance, and passivity, while linking the masculine with spirit, the sky, assertiveness, and activity. If … the masculine and the feminine are first and foremost fields of vibrating energy, this means that we can never define them verbally or conceptually, any more than words can convey the taste of a banana to someone who has never eaten one. To know the sacred masculine and feminine, we must directly experience their vibrational essence” (p. 120).

So how does one talk about this “vibrational essence” without concepts? I would prefer we refrain from talking about “masculine” and “feminine” at all, and focus instead on the human qualities available to every individual unique man and woman.

Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Sex

Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Sex: Every Woman’s Guide to Pleasure and Beyond

by Sandra Scantling and Sue Browder

This is a wonderful book — with flaws.  Scantling and Browder’s research recorded experiences of states like those Tantra cultivates — but in ordinary women, with no special discipline or unusual preparation.  They do identify conditions that contribute, but in language that’s down-to-earth.  They make “supersex” accessible;  this got me quite inspired.

Feeling safe is a required condition. But the authors don’t allocate all the responsibility for creating safety to a woman’s partner. “A woman creates her own sense of safety by being clear — both in her own mind and with her partner — about what pleases her and hurts her.”  I can use being reminded of this!

The book’s self-help style creates problems for me.  Although the authors encourage letting go of destructive “shoulds,”  and never use the word themselves, still “you can” and “you will,” and the instructions for what to do … all come off, to me, as another kind of should.  I prefer books that stick to testimony.  There’s plenty of that here, too, from their subjects… but none from the authors.  So when they speak in their own voices, but don’t talk of their own experience, a vibe of authority results.

If you experience something wonderful, and want to help everyone experience it, how do you write about it?  The natural inclination is to describe it with superlatives. Unfortunately, these authors have used so many that they lose force, cloy, and put me off.

Getting carried away with the wonderfulness of your subject … can also lead to overstating your case, overlooking problems. Scantling and Browder say “Paradoxically, when you and your partner each choose to do what you like, it results in a heightened sexual experience for you both.”  They’re trying to encourage women to let go of the overwhelming cultural programming to please one’s partner.  But we still need to be sensitive to our partners.  I remember vividly a time one sex partner got so carried away with his own enjoyment of cunnilingus that it was way too energetic for me.  It turned me off; I felt used.

All in all, however, I’m very glad I read this book:  it got me thinking about ways I limit myself.  I started playing again with fantasies I do feel good about, but had abandoned because I couldn’t make them take a clear shape in my mind.  I decided just to let that happen, to let it be a shifting montage and enjoy what was there.