Thursday, October 6, 2016

True Striptease

Claire and I decided to increase our popularity as future eBook authors, by...wait for it...uploading nude pics of ourselves. Just kidding. As two women, who have been around our fair share of naked bodies, that isn’t necessarily what turns us on or piques our interest. If anything, traditional sexy pictures and porn-style choreography provide their own “armor” between the subject and the audience, while at the same time conveying a false sense of universality and availability. Men look at these sexy pictures of women and think “Wow, what a delicious slut, I bet she really wants my dick.” The reality may be that she wants anonymous (aka “your”) dick. Or, she may want her lover, boyfriend, or male object of desire’s dick. In all likelihood, random male onlooker, what this woman wants from you is your Facebook “like,” and your validation of her as a sexy, desirable being.

When money (as opposed to “likes”) is the desired currency, think of the very bored dancers at the local high-end strip club, as they yawn and flex the occasional glute, trying to upsell you for private dances. Ironically, the dancers in low-end strip clubs tend to work harder for the money...But back to the high-end (and mostly unavailable) dancers. These beautiful, but not terribly sexy, because they can’t hide their boredom, unless you start flashing the Benjamins, women might as well be blow-up dolls. They sell the illusion of availability, but the reality; unless you are “Brad Pitt,” their boyfriend, or willing to pay a lot more money than the typical guy drops at a strip club, is that they are simply selling you a mask and choreographed flesh. 

This “mask” is not limited to the “sex” world per se. Most of us do not always feel perfect, invulnerable, beautiful, or morally superior and we have a hard time relating to people who portray themselves as such. However, our social media interaction paints another picture. In the vanilla space, these social media posts and pictures are edited, choreographed, and scripted to uphold the poster’s desired public image as a caring, empathetic, successful, politically and socially engaged individual, leading an exciting and adventurous life, with fun friendships, superior offspring, and a never-ending honeymoon with their significant other. This public persona is often a character we play in the rough and tumble world, where we fear other people’s judgment and desire their validation. Only rarely do we glimpse the person behind the public persona -- in fleeting moments of vulnerability, love, desire, sadness, joy, and loss.  In those moments, we may feel more connected to the other person because they feel more “real” to us. And, in the world of sex appeal and sex, the best sex is inevitably about connection, even if it’s only an ephemeral connection -- a one-time experience shared with another person -- in the Here and the Now.

Jung’s Shadow and the Witches’ Sabbath

Art by Steven Kenny
Claire and I wonder if the LS represents, for many people, a way of expressing the “Shadow” side of their personality and social and cultural identity. Psychologist Carl Jung believed that both individuals and Society have a “Shadow” side. As we grow and mature from childhood on, we choose to emphasize certain aspects of our personality, while repressing others. What a person chooses to emphasize or repress is not universal. It may vary depending on the individual and their cultural influences. Some people choose to identify with their prevailing culture; others rebel against it. One person may focus on being a “team player” while another person validates being a loner, outlaw, or maverick. We declare some characteristics “me” and others distinctly “not me;” despite the fact that both categories are parts of our personality. The parts that we declare “not me,” include characteristics that we deem undesirable, or feel that others will deem undesirable. The Shadow may also include some positive qualities that we just don’t associate with ourselves, but, nonetheless, form part of our being. The characteristics individuals or Society disown as “not me,” whether positive or negative, represent the Jungian Shadow.

The Cultural Shadow often survives in traditions and ceremonies that exist alongside (or have been subversively absorbed) into mainstream Culture. For example, long after the Christianization of Europe, the tradition of the “Witches’ Sabbath” prevailed and provided a release valve from the repression of medieval Christianity. Fertility festivals that often coincided with seasonal solstices and equinoxes would be conveniently paired with Christian high holidays. The Church fathers timed Christmas right before the Winter Solstice, Carnival would precede Lent, All Hallows Eve (Halloween) precedes All Saints Day. Meanwhile, pagan festivals would be re-branded with the names of Christian saints, such as the German and Scandinavian “May Day” fertility festival, Walpurgisnacht, which is named after St. Walpurga. The characters and practices in these pagan festivals celebrated the opposite, or the “Upside Down,” of the social and cultural norms that prevailed during the rest of the year. If the following paragraph sounds familiar it’s because the description isn’t too far from the modern day LS.

“It was believed that the Sabbath commenced at midnight and ended at dawn, beginning with a procession, continuing with a banquet, then a Black Mass, and culminating with an orgy in which uninhibited sexual intercourse with demons in male or female form was practiced. Consumption of hallucinogens and sometimes alcohol was often reported.”

To understand the Shadow and the LS, we have to take a look at what we are expressing and repressing in both worlds. As we do so, we ask ourselves if the LS is a microcosm of Greater Society or a transgressive space, that rebels against it?

Art by Goya

Male Identity and Sexuality

Before we even get to the subject of sexuality, we have to look at our cultural and social norms for gender. What does our society label and value as “male” and “female?" Our social construct of masculinity has been tied, by some gender theorists, to the Wizard of Oz. On the outside “the great and powerful Oz” speaks with a booming and somewhat frightening voice; his image is blown-up and projected onto the screen giving him a larger than life presence. If there’s one impression Oz gives to the viewer, it’s that he’s invulnerable.

In addition to male anxiety over penis size and sexual performance, men are socialized to identify as “providers.” Their public identity equals their job, their income, and their power in the world. On the physical level, their identity is tied to their physical strength and power over other men, including athleticism, as well as their “ownership” of and ability to protect desirable female partners. Male cultural and advertising icons such as “The Cowboy” - the Marlboro Man - alcohol, power car and truck, and technological “toy” ads are all geared to tap into male insecurity, by emphasizing the strong, silent, individualist, the maverick. Masculinity is often the Mask men live in, an artificial construct or “false ego” that men create to run interference between their real (and vulnerable) ego and the outside world. 

Art by Mikael Bourgouin
When men don’t conform to this Wizard of Oz metaphor for masculinity, they are policed by other men, as well as women, and called pussy, wimp, emotional, bitch, queer, fag. Anything “feminine” about the man is a put-down. Men are not supposed to have feelings or emotions. The Wizard of Oz demonstrates the challenge of maintaining this facade when, at the end of the movie, Oz is revealed to be just a man, and not a very large or foreboding one at that. The reality of who he is clearly does not match the image he has been, quite literally, projecting. He’s vulnerable just like the rest of us. Meanwhile, men are afraid to be real with women, because they fear looking “weak,” and perceived weakness is a trigger for feelings of shame.

Vulnerability is important because, without it, it is virtually impossible to establish deep and meaningful relationships. Vulnerability does not always equal seeing people naked or having sex with them. In reality, with most women, “real” vulnerability (as opposed to “poor me”) triggers empathy. It makes you human and relatable. Shame researcher BrenĂ© Brown put it best: “Shame can't survive being spoken. It just dies on the vine. The antidote to shame is empathy. Can he talk to you about the tough stuff? Vulnerability is not weakness — it's courage.”

The “male” mindset in mainstream culture emphasizes competition and scarcity. This often takes the form of competition with other men for material goods, power, or women. The scarcity mindset believes that there is a limited amount of these “commodities” to go around, and it is not enough for a man to “win,” other men “must lose.” In contrast, the cooperative mindset says there’s enough for everyone-- abundance. Power can be shared. We can have “power with” instead of “power over.”

Female Identity and Sexuality

The author of the book, “The Gift of Fear,” Gavin de Becker writes that, “At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.”

While men are socialized to need to “get” more; women are taught that they need to “be" more -- more beautiful, more sexy, more nurturing. Female advertising icons celebrate the housewife and good mother, or the “sexy chick.” Buy these clothes, make-up, or hair dye and men will desire you. In contrast, the sexy “beer babe” advertising is aimed at men. Drink this beer and you will get this woman. The sexy beer babe is meant to be consumed in much the same way as the alcoholic beverage itself. Ironically, the woman watching the “beer babe” ad is more likely to develop insecure thoughts along the lines of “If I drink too much beer, I’ll get fat, and I won’t be desirable to men. 

Another type of advertising aimed at women is the “food as substitute for sex” ad. In these ads, women are more likely to get amorous with a box of chocolates than a man: “Have just one Oreo and you won’t be guilty in the morning.” The guilt of eating “bad” food draws a parallel to female sexual guilt and tries to quell her “shame” by giving her permission to indulge her temptations. Ironically, the same companies that want her to eat all these “bad” foods will shame her in other ads for being too fat, resulting in conflicting messages that perpetuate a shame cycle. Cosmetics, fashion, and other beauty ads targeted at women present her with an impossible standard of airbrushed beauty that she can never live up to because it doesn’t really exist. While good looking men tend to be very self-confident about their looks; the irony is that even the most beautiful women tend to be relatively insecure, sometimes more so than their more “average” counterparts because so much of their identity is tied into being beautiful.  

Art by Adele K.
When men (or women) want to put women down with traditional “female”-directed insults, they tell them: “You are fat,” “You are ugly,” “You are a bad fuck;” or, if the woman enjoys non-monogamous sex or participates in kink, she is a “slut” and “sick.” Back to the traditional male mentality, men who subscribe to this are not only threatened by powerful men; they are also threatened by powerful women, or women who are perceived as taking on male characteristics. If a man tells a professionally accomplished woman she needs more “stamina,” it sounds like a reference to male sexual performance, a traditional “male” put-down. Women don’t have a problem admitting vulnerability. They do this all the time with their female friends and male partners. Women have a problem admitting strength. Strong women in media are only acceptable if they are mothers -- think Sarah Connor in “The Terminator,” or Sigourney Weaver (adoptive mother to little girl) in “Aliens” or if they are the “Fighting Female Fuck Doll” Lara Croft-type, and sexy and sexual to men.

A drag queen is a man playing a woman. Women playing men, “drag kings,” often fall victim to the the same exaggerated stereotypes. For a woman to be strong, she must have had to sacrifice her femininity along the way. The most classic example is the bitchy female boss - like Meryl Streep’s magazine editor character in “The Devil Wears Prada.” When a woman is assertive about what she wants, for example a man that she desires, she’s often portrayed as terrifying -- think Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction.” Men pursuing women, even aggressively, are just part of the status quo culture norm-- think Dustin Hoffman refusing to take “no” for an answer in “The Graduate.” According to Gavin de Becker, the ability to give an affirmative “no” without justifying or apologizing is an important step for women to learn when setting boundaries. This can be hard for women who want to be “nice” and are susceptible to “bitch baiting”-- policing women through their fear of being labeled a “bitch.” Nevertheless, setting firm boundaries often requires a solid “no,” as opposed to statements like, “I would but…” which leave room for negotiation. If he’s a good guy, he’ll respect your answer.

The LS vs. Mainstream Culture

Very often things that appear to rebel against the status quo actually reinforce it. You are given a sanctioned amount of rebellion in exchange for your promise not to demand this right in your everyday life. It is a ghetto phenomenon, where you are allowed a freedom, but only within a limited space. There is a reason prostitution is called the “World’s Oldest Profession” and its existence coincides with societies and cultures that outwardly uphold the value of marriage as a monogamous family unit.

Jung saw the “Persona,” or desired image we wish to publicly project and the “Shadow” as being the two opposite ends of a see-saw. In the Bible Belt, the LS is a far more significant phenomenon than outsiders would imagine, often attracting people who outwardly adhere to very traditional social and religious norms. We wonder if cultural extremes (like religious evangelism and far-right wing social values) in vanilla society directly promote the opposite extremes (promiscuous sex, drugs and alcohol) in the “Shadow World,” or subcultures such as the LS. Jung felt that the individual and society’s goal was to bring these two opposite extremes into balance, or the fulcrum of the see-saw. In the case of sexuality, this would mean, consciously integrating sexual openness and diversity into our mainstream life, as opposed to reactively ghettoizing this in the LS.

Jung believed that integrating and assimilating the fragmented aspects of the personality into a whole, a process he termed “individuation,” was the path toward mental health. We have written about Christian and pagan holidays; interestingly enough, the word “holiday” comes from “holy day,” and the word “holy” means to “be made whole.” The function of religion has always been to address the incomplete and broken, what has been lost and make it whole again. To be “whole,” we must also transcend rigid gender norms and consciously integrate our “opposite” into our personality, pulling these aspects of our being out of the Shadow and into the light of consciousness. In the LS, we get “high” on sex and freedom we don’t enjoy in our daily life, in the same way that vanilla people get “high” on exercise, being workaholics, altruistic, or self-righteous. As long as we don’t hurt other people, there is nothing wrong with this high. The greater question is whether we can use the LS to transcend just getting high or use it to move toward getting “whole”?


  1. Wow. This is very well written, and profoundly insightful.

    1. Thank you very much. This was one of our favorites to write.

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