Thursday, October 8, 2009

Woman as Sexual Dictator

So few women recognize the power that they hold over men. If women only realized how badly men wanted them, they would use their sexuality to get whatever they want.

A particular country-inflected pop star has been in the news as often for the fluctuations in her weight as for her musical successes. She was the darling of the entertainment magazines when she lost about ten pounds off of her already slim figure in order to have the tightest possible buttocks for a role in a movie that required her to wear tiny shorts. She was then chastised heartily by the same magazines when, several years later, she gained over ten pounds, bringing her five-foot three-inch frame from a svelte 110 pounds to a “chubby” 124 pounds.

She eventually lost that weight, but then recently made the cover of virtually every major entertainment magazine because, at a recent performance, she looked to have gained about twenty pounds. All of the photographs on the magazines were from the same single performance, as though she had only gained the weight for that one day. Now she has lost much of that weight, although one magazine recently noted that she was so distraught of the unexpected death of her dog that she had “stopped losing weight.”

Of course, by regular-people standards, this woman has never been close to overweight. Her low weight of 110 pounds, according to the body mass index (which is just a fancy name for a height/weight ratio), was at the low end of the “normal” range, while her gained-twenty-pounds weight of 135 puts her at 23, near the top of that normal range.

And BMI aside (it’s a poor judge of healthy weight at any rate), in the normal world, a 135-pound, five-foot-three-inch woman is what we would consider average.

I think of this woman, of her rise to hotness glory and her fall from hotness grace, whenever I hear people say that women have a deep, untapped source of power stemming from the fact that men want to have sex with them.

I’ve heard tell of this mystical power for as long as I can remember. I raged over it in my teenaged journals: this power that isn’t power at all, the power not to do something but of somebody wanting to do something to you, power that can turn on you at any moment and leave you ugly, undesirable and humiliated.

Now with more perspective, I’m still skeptical about my potential ability to lord despotically over men based on my chromosomes and anatomy.

As power goes, it’s a backwards sort of power, in the sense that it is conferred by the person who is supposed to be the subject of that power. When a dictator takes power over a nation, he does not need the approval of the people that he will lord over. If a Mafioso has the power to kill you and your family if you don’t seat him at the table he wants at your restaurant, your decision that this power is not real or valid will not change the reality of the situation.

So I suppose that sexual power is more like a democracy, where power is given willingly and can be taken away at will also. In a democracy, a leader must cater to the wishes and whims of his constituents, and that changes the kind of power that he has, which is why we more often call it service than power.

Likewise, the woman who wants to use her sexuality as power must cater to the whims of the men she seeks to dominate, in this case, maintaining her sexual desirability, which often lies in inverse proportion to her domineering nature. So for example, if a girlfriend wants to use her sexual power to make her boyfriend clean the apartment once in a while, he may just decide to cast his vote for a new challenger in place of the incumbent.

If a woman wants to wield her sexuality as power, and you decide that you don’t want to have sex with her to start with, her power is gone, instantly, and she is disgraced. Take the example of the famous pop star. As long as she weighs 110 pounds and wears tiny shorts, she is at the pinnacle of feminine power. But when she weighs 135 pounds and wears an unfortunate pair of unflattering jeans, she is humiliated, a laughing stock, she has let herself go, despite the fact that she is considerably slimmer than the average American woman.

When people talk about women’s sexual power, they are fantasizing that women could have dictator-like power over men, when in fact, at the very best, she is more like a civil servant.

This myth of woman as sexual dictator comes from the fantasy that male desire could be bottled and put to some use. I imagine the thought process, at least for men, goes something like this:

I am soooo attracted to Woman X and Woman Y and Woman Z. I don’t think those women could have any idea how much I desire them. But if they knew, they could use it against me in some way. And I wouldn’t even mind, because it would be erotically thrilling to have my desire used against me.

But of course, the power of Woman X, Woman Y, and Woman Z only comes from the fact that this fellow, Man XY, cannot be with them. The moment Woman X became the lover of Man XY, Woman Y and Woman Z’s power would skyrocket.

Not to mention Woman Q, who has been admiring man XY for years, but is not his type. She has no power over Man XY at all. Which is too bad, because she’s the only one who really wants it.

It reminds me of a scene in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Before Paul D. has sex with Sethe, he finds the web of scars on her back to be irresistibly compelling—a living, breathing tree growing on her back, calling to him with its powerful life force. But as soon as he has sex with her, it devolves into a grotesque, seething injury.

So as compelled as we are by the myth of the all-powerful pussy, this power is as ephemeral and undefined as the power of the British royalty, as unwieldy a weapon as those F-22 stealth jets whose production was halted because they couldn’t fly well in the rain. It is cotton-candy power, sweet and tempting until you put it in your mouth, at which point it disappears.


Krystal said...

I've always been confounded by this myth as well, except in that I think sexuality holds power over both/all sexes that we frequently fail to acknowledge. the tension between the power of each gender is like a complex and fragile dance. nice topic!

Krystal said...

and the drawing is exquisite!

Jessica said...

"Sexual power is more like a democracy." Awesome analogy-- really great.

Karin Spirn said...

Glad you guys like's been on my mind my entire post-pubescent life.

I like your point, Krystal--sexuality exerts power over everyone. Maybe what has annoyed me is the heterosexual-male-centric idea that women are like magical powerful creatures because they are attracted to us (you know, as long as we're hot), and we should just appreciate our sexual power and stop whining about those equal rights all the time! (and yes I have seen this argument many times, sigh).

M said...

which reveals how horribly sad it is to have your only power / livelihood be based on temporary physical attributes -i.e. using sex for power or working as model or actor and constantly have your "look" criticized.

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