What are We Doing with Sexual Education?

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The title for this manual on sexual education for schools in Mexico says ‘What are dad and mum doing?’ The design of the cover shows a couple of siblings curiously spying on their parents intimate life, and incites to what could result in extremely dangerous practices. There are indeed big issues with the cover and the title chosen to teach children sexual theory (we should be aware of the difference between sexual theory and practice). Independently of the contents of the book, this cover introduces the topic through a transgression of sexuality and domestic space that can have psychological consequences.

First of all, sexual curiosity is addressed towards the parents. But is not sexuality, when it appears consciously, usually addressed towards another object than the parents? Spontaneously, the first sexual feelings appear between girl and boy without need of establishing any relationship to the parents. Nature is an agent clever enough to start working by its own. Girl and boy – I will only refer to heterosexual attraction -, as human beings, contain in their biology all the necessary mechanisms that will allow sexual attraction appear at some point of their lives with a clear object. To readdress this sexual curiosity towards the parents implies a change of view within family relations that opens a door to sexual approaches among all family members. And indeed, the door is open. The cover of the book constructs the desire of children to see their parents lovemaking, and that cannot but strike me enormously. The next question the cover introduces is easy to infer: should parents allowed their children to look? Maybe offering a chair in the bedroom before starting the performance?

It is clear that the cover, supported by the title, incites to highly polemic questions. In our culture, there is a clear boundary regulating sexual issues within family members, especially, from parents to children. The bedroom door should indeed be close and lock. Suggesting the transgression of sexual boundaries within the space of the nuclear family in a book called of sexual education is highly reproachable. Besides, no one has the right to sexualize family relationships in what is a total disregard of the parents’ opinion.

What mum and dad do is indeed their problem, and considering that they act as authority of  that space, which is a private space, no one should feel with the right to invade it. This only shows the need to think through a proper sexual education.

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Rethinking Colonialism: The Post-Bourgeoisie in Mars

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Almost three hundred years have passed by since Daniel Defoe represented the colonizer’s experience embodied in the enlightened bourgeois Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Remarkably, these three centuries have seen the process of decolonization and the birth of post-colonialism. Robinson Crusoe is widely considered the first bourgeois novel: the detailed reproduction of the domestic realm in an unknown, untamed space stands for the expression of the settlement of a new social class, and culture: the bourgeoisie. Robinson Crusoe not only strives to reproduce his domestic space with its rooms and functions, or collection of objects, but he also reproduces its domestic rituals around food and eating, time marking, and especially, the writing of the self in a diary.

Robinson Crusoe is no less formidable for being a representation of a process of domestication of foreign lands, strongly attached to an imperial era. Enlightenment, and its strong belief in education and reason, carries with itself the responsibility of knowing the world, and sharing with it the glories of the Age of Reason. The relationship between Enlightenment and the bourgeoisie is especially seen through the importance of free thinkers and the raise of liberal professionals. Colonization and  cultural imperialism are well understood in this context.

Surprisingly, a film such as The Martian (2015) finds a wide and massive reception in an era when post-colonialism have shown the shames of colonization for decades. The ‘complex’ of the white man being charged with a shameful responsibility, cannot however stop him of feeling admiration in front of a potentially new era of colonization: the conquest of space. The Martian presents a new Robinson Crusoe, a man lost in Mars, a hostile land, who strives to survive through the colonization of this new space. The lost astronaut indeed domesticates this land through his technological devices and knowledge, as well as Crusoe did until being saved by his compatriots. What this film puts into question is the still present culture of colonization and the ‘white man’.

Let us go a step further: what if in this new planet the ‘white man’ finds a new being? What if it happens to be a being pretty similar to himself? Would then be so difficult to imagine our discussions on this new man’s soul? His inferior, or superior culture? Would we strive to impose him our education system? Taking a new form, curiosity for the unknown and anxieties of conquest merged into a new direction, relegating decades of critique, and showing, perhaps, that little has changed in this born conqueror?

Mad, Criminal, and Ambitious

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In late nineteenth-century, literary representations of the new woman approached her autonomy in political, and sexual matters in terms of madness and criminality. Texts such as Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), a sensation novel based on the real case of Constance Kent, and published in a serialized form in the magazines Robin Goodfellow, and Sixpenny Magazine, illustrate Victorian domestic anxieties in the form of a bigamous woman who desserts her child and domestic duties. Zola’s Nana (1880) was another example of female dangerous sexuality embodied in a courtesan whose customers, strongly seduced, follow their own destruction. Lombroso’s psychiatric text Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman (1895) aims at a scientific classification of woman’s nature identifying the ‘normal’ and the ‘perverse’ woman.

Women who wanted to divorce could also be considered as undergoing mental, or physical illness, as The Awakening (1899) illustrates through the relationship between Edna Pontellier and the family doctor who interprets her anxieties of independence from a medical perspective. Popular imagination had it that a woman who did not circumscribed herself to the domestic realm was socially dangerous. For the bourgeoisie and the Victorians, this danger took criminal forms which could involve sexual aggressiveness. The mad woman was another way to represent non-domestic women, and a well-know topic of Victorian literature during the whole of the nineteenth-century.

After sexual mores changed progressively during the twentieth-century, and the emergence of a post-bourgeois, middle-class society took place, the mad and criminal woman disappeared as a source of anxiety. However, popular representations of women today seem to point out to another type of ‘unsettling’ woman: the ambitious female professional. It is striking the number of TV shows – which can be seen as replacing nineteenth-century weekly fouilletons – which present a a young woman between 25-35 years old willing to dangerously do anything for her career. These characters are sexually attractive, and usually facing a choice between her partner and career. As with the mad and criminal woman, the ambitious woman is indeed a woman. These TV shows do not use to put into question men’s ambitions, for whom their profession and family life do not appear as contradictory. Instead, top men use to have a wife who responds to the popular needs of a post-bourgeois society.

The American show Damages (2007-2012) shows the life of a young female attorney, Ellen who, at all risks, decides to work for one of the most terrifying lawyers of New York, Patty Hewes – who also happens to be a woman whose adolescent son has paid for her 30 years of professional dedication. The paternalizing advice Hewes gives to Ellen, “most men don’t handle an ambitious woman. It will take you some trials, but make sure you find one”, aims at showing Hewes’ dark arts in trying to break Ellen’s actual relationship with her boyfriend.

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Damages follows a structure already found in the movie The Devil Wears Prada (2006), where a recent graduated in journalism starts working by Miranda Priestly, the most dreaded chief editor in the fashion world. Like Ellen, the young Andrea destroys her relationship with her boyfriend due to her ambitious career which is also mentored by the old Miranda, whose private life has been a records of defeats.

Andrea’s last move, her final renounce to become Miranda, is nothing but a social negotiation between the values of the post-bourgeois society, and the ways in which this is menaced, mostly, the professional top-woman. If it is true that Andrea changes her life before it is too late, she has already ruined her private life, and achieved what she wanted: a reference from Miranda which put her into a top newspaper. In both cases, however, Patty Hewes and Miranda Priestly embody a dangerous woman everybody is scare of, while their younger doubles represent the social negotiation between the acceptable and the non-acceptable, reminding us that the best choice for a young woman is still family.

These representations of contemporary women are, as they were in the nineteenth-century, structured around a male gaze, which constantly avoids the real solution to the family-work polemic: compatibility. The representation of the ambitious woman as monster in the twenty-first century does not help at all to understand that women do aspire to high positions as well as to build a family. Instead they send the message, ‘a woman who wants to dedicate her life to her career is a bad woman’. The mad, criminal, and ambitious woman is nothing but the a serial of different forms the same old tale takes. Now, indeed, it is ok that a housewife works but not that much.

Madness and Domesticity in Eline Vere

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The Dutch novel Eline Vere (1889) is another late nineteenth-century bourgeois example of failed female domesticity. Eline is a young dreamy girl whose basic problem is, like Emma Bovary, a deep boredom; although Flaubert’s novel is in many senses superior to that of Couperus’- Emma’s psychological characterization is one of the best of the nineteenth-century together with that of Anna Karanina – , as well as influential to the latter, both Emma and Eline share a passion for romantic novels, high expectations which are always damned to fail, and a too restless character to conform to bourgeois domestic expectations. Even if Eline Vere is not a novel of adultery, it presents a lot of the classical elements Flaubert introduced to represent a mediocre and regional bourgeois society.

Homes and objects are overall represented according to a bourgeois approach and meaning: they signify, they keep memories and serve as a medium to introduce class and imperial topics. The reader can travel from house to house and see their inhabitants and objects, which accordingly to the novel’s milieu are totally interrelated. Eline Vere can be described as a novel of domesticities, and it is in this context that Eline can be better approached: she does not fit within the domestic network; she is homeless and presents a deep sense of the un-domestic. Eline cannot be domesticated even if she wishes so in order to conform to the house with the rest of its inhabitants and objects.

Domestic space is mostly perceived as a prison by Eline, who, as single woman has nothing to do, no one to care for. Interestingly, in this case is not adultery but hysteria – then wrongly understood as madness – what springs up in Eline in the last third of the novel – the best part of the text in terms of dramatic tension and psychological insight. Eline, as a late 19th C. female bourgeois belongs to Freud’s context and very well might represent some of his patients trapped between a social discourse and personal desires. The domestic setting surrounding the text thoroughly constitutes a static and oppressive spatial frame which emphasizes Eline’s stillness and incapacity to change direction:

 ‘She now spent hour upon hour racked with doubt as to what she could possibly do with her useless body and her useless existence, dragging herself from one spasm of coughing to the next on the prison of her rooms’

 Madness then comes out as a means to escape such physical and psychological pressure, and it is a quite widespread topic during the 19th C. including even a biographical text The Yellow Wallpaper (Perkins 1892). Rooms experienced as prison also affect the body, which, alongside with an obsession for covering it – the 18th C. was far more permissive in this topic -, amounts of clothes reproduced the same spatial domestic configuration, where the sexual body is suffocated.

Death is a common end for most of 19th C. heroines – or anti-heroines -. In Eline’s case, however, the border between suicide and accidental death is well worked out, although for a modern reader the accidental might be read as an unconscious wish given Eline’s previous thoughts on suicide. The room then ‘was transformed into a dark crypt, a mausoleum of blackness in which a lifeless body lay, ghostly white’. This last representation of the room is one of the most powerful: the room is not a room anymore but a crypt. Domestic space is not only able to become a prison but it can be death itself; Eline, one may say, is killed by the space she is forced to inhabit. If one takes Eline Vere as representative of Dutch bourgeoisie, then Bourgeois Dutch domesticity dies in this room.

Towards a Democracy of Space

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Contemporary theories on space make an emphasis on its lack of stability and perpetual becoming opposing classical theories of space such as those of Heidegger and Bachelard. Human Geography is a postmodern school on space which generally includes feminist, psychoanalytic, ecological, marxist or postcolonial approaches, among others. Besides their theoretical differences, there is an overall share idea based on new fluent and unstable spaces which do not guarantee a refugee from a speedy world. In opposition to the classical dichotomy time/space, postmodernism totally intertwines one with the other annulling binary oppositions such as: space-time  still/movement  emotion/reason  female/masculine  being/becoming, etc. Feminist geography especially criticizes these dichotomies claiming that woman is aligned to space, and so to domestic space, and argues that spaces have been traditionally defined by the white bourgeois male in opposition to an Other (female, black, low-class, etc.).

These new approaches to space argue that space is not one but multiple, and they are not defined by fixed characteristics but by a multiplicity of interrelationships which configure space: the strong mix of ethnical groups in big cities is an example of the total presence of the other which is not other anymore. Ethnical, national, and gender boundaries tend to disappear, at least in space – even if, I think, invisible boundaries do exist in these same multiple spaces. However, it is true that the strong delimited boundaries of the 18th and 19th centuries are totally put into question: the other is host at home; nevertheless, we cannot deny that home has become uncanny (terrorism by Muslim British citizens is an example of invisible boundary and the existence of the other for both sides).

Feminism also relates boundless space with a new configuration of the family however it does not specify. Body and space are totally interrelated: the body is our first place and the most basic tool to establish relations of measure. If domestic space is meant to change in terms of boundaries, then the body will be conformed to another sexual morality than the classical one: bourgeois domestic space – which is still our predominant – belonged to an idea of space; the question is to know until what extend a new concept of space will – or is – conform a new concept of family.

The question of free spaces  is not resolved at all: feminism insists on defining female spaces: who owns the public and the private space in Western societies? This issue is related to the body: if men are predominant in the work space, for example, will they adjust policies to maternity? Will the space of capitalism leave room for the female body? Or rather this one should adapt itself to the market demands? The same might be said of class, race and religion. The configuration of spaces is then of high importance because it reflects the intentions of the powerful: the ones who build the space configure a particular society in terms of inclusion and exclusion. It is important to fight for a democracy of space build among all different groups inhabiting a town, or a city, even a company or a house. The space should be based, not in ‘powerful interests’ such as capitalist, neither the one white middle-class man -even if that is disappearing in favor of the bank world – but for all those involved in a particular space. Spaces should be adapted to the body and to emotional needs, and reflect a human and popular appropriation of that space.

D.H. Lawrence and Schiele on Eroticism/Pornography: a Modernist Debate.

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Last week Dr Gemma Blackshaw presented her paper “The Modernist Offence: Egon Schiele and the Naked Female Body” at the Freud Museum complementing the current exhibition “Schiele: The Radical Nude” at The Courtauld Gallery. Schiele was an Austrian modernist painter in Vienna around the 1910s and 1920s. His portraits and paintings are focused on naked female bodies with particular depictions of the genital organ which led him to big troubles with the Austrian law being accused of indecency and immorality. Vienna was a very important focus of intellectuality at the turn of the century, and also the most important producer of illegal pornographic photography of Europe together with Budapest (which also belonged to the Austro-Hungary empire).

Schiele’s arrest opened the debate around the difference between pornography and art; his supporters argued that Schiele did produce art, and he himself justified it emphasizing that the paintings were not intended to arouse the public. The same dilemma took place for D.H. Lawrence whose novels were sanctioned around the same time in the UK for being too explicit in descriptions of the sexual act. Lawrence in fact wrote an essay entitled “Pornography and Obscenity” (1929) stating the difference between art and pornography of what he was accused for Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). In the 1929 essay, Lawrence accuses Victorian morality of being pornographic in its obsession with negating sex and keep it aside because for Lawrence pornography consists on insulting sex and make it dirty, exactly what the Victorian puritans did, according to him. Lawrence understands sex as something mystical, sacred, the negation of which means a human negation, and, even worst, sex becomes then something to make fun of, to parody because it is kept secret. It is in this context – in the context of the forbidden – that pornography can exist. Indeed, secrecy is pornography, says Lawrence, and that might explain the strong pornographic sense of all 19th C. literature as far as it insists in avoiding it: the sexual obsession under-lives in bourgeois texts.

Eroticism, for both Lawrence and Schiele exists in the realm of art: it is an aestheticism of sexuality, so to say. According to this simple definition, the difference between pornography and eroticism is not found in the content but in the attitude towards the content both from the author and the public. The writer and the painter here had in common their views on the mysticism of sex, and hence its relation to human spirituality and need to represent it without falling into pornography. This attitude towards sex is common in Modernism, and probably Freud influenced on it: sexuality became a topic, and a very present element of the human being.

Faire l’amour, ou la cuisine

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Michel de Certeau (1925-1986) in his two volumes work L’invention du Quotidien (1980) widely explores a range of topics such as the relationship between space and discourse, psychoanalysis, semantics, the body, etc. Indeed, the first volume does look like a miscellaneous where order is difficult to follow from chapter to chapter. The second volume however is far more focused on the activities of inhabiting and cooking as the two most characteristic human activities, belonging to everyday life.

Certeau dedicates extensive pages to the activity of cooking stressing its importance configuring domestic space, a sense of belonging to a particular family, and to tradition. He acknowledges the importance of this repetitive but creative activity which has traditionally belonged to women and has been disregarded, in a similar way Bachelard talks on the ‘wax civilization’ referring to housekeeping work, and its importance on keeping alive memories and an habitable space. Certeau’s poetic text on cooking is worthwhile to consider:

‘Pourquoi être si désireuse et si inquiète d’inscrire dans les gestes et dans les mots une même fidélité aux femmes de mon linage ? […] Peut-être est-ce cela même que je cherche dans mes bonheurs culinaires : la restitution, au travers des gestes, des saveurs et des compositions, d’une légende muette, comme si, à force de l’habiter avec mon corps et mes mains, je devais parvenir à en restaurer l’alchimie, à en mériter le secret de la langue, comme si, de ce piétinement obstiné sur cette terre mère, devait un jour me revenir la vérité de la parole’ (1994: 217).

Certeau, in a certain Barthesian way, establishes the semantics of space, gestures, and the body, also of cooking: ‘légende muette’ where the whole ritual of choosing, buying, preparing and configuring the ailments in a particular way was impregnated by narrativity. The kitchen is the place where this ritual takes place; it is a feminine place on which the whole of the home is sustained: the old hearth of the house was the fire which both cooked and warmth up, all the space (which at the beginning used to be conformed by one single room) was articulated around the fire.

Fire is what might bring together cooking and love – explored in some way also by Bachelard in La psychanalyse du feu (1937). Certeau notes the function of the mouth and the hands in eating and sexuality: ‘Nous mangeons avec notre bouche, orifice corporel dont les parties (lèvres, langue, dents, muqueuses intérieurs) et les fonctions (gouter, toucher, lécher, caresser, effleurer, saliver, mâcher, avaler) interviennent au premier chef dans la relation amoureuse’ (1994: 276). Moreover cooking has always been a tool of seduction, a good dinner – with wine included – is a kind of activation of the unconscious analogies eat and sex have in common, as well as the table and the bed:

‘La nappe est aussi, déjà, le drap du lit ; ses taches de vin, de fuit font penser à d’autres marques. L’odeur accentuée de la nourriture chaude, la proximité du corps de votre invité(e), son parfum éveillent l’odorat, stimulent ses perceptions et ses associations, vous font imaginer d’autres odeurs séductrices, parfums secrets du corps dénudé, devenant enfin tout proche. L’invité rêve, il songe, il espère déjà’ (1994: 279).

Erotic and love language is full of culinary metaphors: ‘L’échange amoureux transforme par instants le partenaire en comestible délectable […] le « dévore du regard, de caresses », le « mage de baisers ». L’aveu des amants séparés reste dans le même registre : « Tu me manques, j’ai faim de toi, je voudrais te manger »’ (1994: 277). Naturally, Certeau reminds of Manet’s painting where this relationship is strongly insinuated:

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The naked bodies and the food in a picnic evokes the image of the bed – also the semi-reclined position of one of the men relates to a laying down with a naked woman in front of him. The depiction of the food suggests they just have eaten, the food is slightly untidy suggesting relax, as well as relax of the body. The viewer is left to end the narrative.