Culture Magazine

Nina Paley on Sex and Life

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Nina Paley reflects on sex and her complex experience of it in, My Sex-Positive Memoirs, 4W, January 14, 2020. It's mostly about her years in San Francisco in the 1990s. Near the beginning:
A horny, childfree, sex-loving, non-monogamous (that’s another story) heterosexual young woman should have had no trouble finding sex partners, yet this was not the case. I did find a few men to have sex with—once. They would have sex once, then I’d never hear from them again. Even finding such men was difficult.
Why was I pursuing non-committal, “empty” sex anyway? Sure I loved sex, but I didn’t understand it.
I had received plenty of sex education: my mother worked for Planned Parenthood, and my childhood was filled with earnest Liberal sex-education books like “How Babies Are Made” and “What’s Happening to Me?” Throughout my teens and young adulthood, I was encouraged to talk about sex, to “communicate,” so I would be spared the repressive hang-ups of my mother’s generation. I was naturally drawn to the Sex-Positive circles of San Francisco, where we talked and talked and talked about sex. But this “sex education” - all the Liberal discourse around sex - unwittingly encouraged dissociation: we could only talk about the body as a thing that does acts. Much of our intellectualism was a defense against vulnerability and what we dreaded most: shame. We separated sex from love and relationships; we thought that was progressive and empowering.
Overall, I wish we had shut up about sex more, and mediated it less. Mechanics aside, sex is a mystery, to be experienced directly and personally. Talking about sex is as useful as talking about God. Mediating spiritual experience does nothing to enhance such experience, but it does allow manipulation of seekers, giving rise to cults.
Toward the middle:
Was I supposed to save myself for Love? I’d already been in love, several times, and my lovers imploded and left me. Men found me “too intense.” No one wanted my love, not even me. The idea of men loving me for who I actually was was long gone. No one wanted my soul, but some wanted my body, which was thin at last, and with makeup, a wig, and high heels was literally a hot commodity.
I was well aware I was supposed to be cautious, and took precautions; I only responded to solicitations specifying “no nudity” and “no sex” (both of which turned out to be laughable, and are tactics still used to this day to recruit young, vulnerable women). I was also aware that I was supposed to feel ashamed. I spent a lot of time considering shame, and rejecting it: I wasn’t harming anyone (ha!), my choices were informed, my eyes were open. Sex was nothing to be ashamed of. Objectifying my own body was nothing to be ashamed of: all the strippers, prostitutes, and porn models/directors who spoke at SFSI made that clear. It was work, it was art, it was expression. No shame in objectification: we are all objects, we live in a material world. Nothing wrong with exchange for money, either; we exchange all kinds of goods and services for money, why are bodies and sex any different?
Now-me knows sex is different, and bodies are not commodities. Then-me simply wouldn’t have believed it. The body is sacred? Nothing is sacred in this world. Was I supposed to just cloister myself, be abstinent until Mr. Right came along? There is no Mr. Right, there was no one who would understand and respect and love me the way I needed to be loved, and time was ticking away while my very temporal body was at its peak of beauty and my hormones were screaming “fuck! fuck! fuck!” [...]
A hot body is often the biggest asset many young women have. We are lucky if we have hot, conventionally attractive bodies. All my years developing my mind and talents meant nothing compared to my brief moment of hot-boddedness. Men who were never impressed by my art would fall over themselves to buy me drinks and otherwise attend to me when I went out in a wig and makeup. I actually felt sorry for these men, so helplessly conditioned they were to respond to stupid gender cues, their feeble minds taken over by mediated programming. Do I pity them still? As much as I pity anyone who surrenders personal responsibility and critical thinking in favor of unexamined social programming. Such people are pathetic—and authoritarian, dangerous enablers.
For about a year, I enabled them myself, by dressing up as the male idea of a sexy woman: drag.
Toward the end:
My 20’s were hard. So was my childhood. So is right now. I’m not entitled to a do-over of childhood, youth, or last week. Do I regret the choices I’ve made? Yes, in the sense I wouldn’t make those same choices again. But no in the sense that all of those choices made me who I am, and I like myself. I did stupid things because I didn’t know any better, and the only way for me to learn was to do the stupid things I did. It’s not like “sex work will hurt you” was any secret. Warnings against it were plentiful but not persuasive, and besides, I’d found my way into a kind of cult. The herd I homed to was all about sex work, porn, objectification, and “non-judgement”; who was I gonna listen to, them or a bunch of repressed prudes?
Now I’m in menopause, and have hardly any libido anyway. Whether that’s due to the permanent scars of my “sex-positive” 20’s, or the natural exhaustion of my ovaries, I do not know. Many or most women slow down a lot sexually in their 50’s, yet sex is still worshiped throughout our culture. Much of our population couldn’t care less about sex, even while it permeates all media as the be-all and end-all of life. Sex in advertising, sex in novels, sex in movies, sex on television, sex, sex, sex — and most women over 50 don’t give a damn. Many women under 50 do, but we have to see sex from the male perspective all the damn time, because men still make most media. We objectify ourselves.
It is a relief to not be horny all the time any more. It’s also unnerving, because in this society we’re supposed to be horny. Except when I was horny, men didn’t like that either. Women are either out-of-control nymphomaniacs, or dried-up prudes.
Or maybe, just maybe, women’s sexuality doesn’t exist to please men.
I just wish it had pleased me.

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