Bringing Inequality Back into the Bedroom

Bringing Inequality Back into the Bedroom

I came to marriage by a circuitous route. As a radical feminist, I avoided it, certain it was for unintelligent girls who had no aspirations to travel or write books. I was never going to be ‘given away’ or called ‘Mrs’ Someone Else’s Surname. Working with abused women, I witnessed how marriage can do to good women what Chinese foot binding does to a healthy foot. Around me, I saw very few ‘happy marriages,’ between mindfully individuated people who were together because they deeply wanted to be. Even in people who seemed content enough with their spouses, I seldom saw that one ingredient I knew I could never live without: passion. So instead I determined I’d have lovers that came and went, the relationship equivalent of a sushi train, where you can pick what you feel like as it comes past. That way, I’d never get bored, and I’d never be stuck.

But then I grew up. I met a nice guy. We had kids (yes, out of wedlock). And twenty years later, I find myself in what seems to be a very stable and long-term marriage. My husband and I are good friends. He respects me. We are equals in the truest feminist sense of the word. He is non-violent, entirely supportive of my creative and economic development, respectful of my privacy and encouraging of my independence. But I’m starting to understand why good marriages flounder and why no-one is to blame. It’s got to do with a flaw we don’t often talk about in marriage – that love and passion struggle to co-exist.

The closer and more familiar my husband and I are with each other, the less sizzly we get. At times it’s like we’ve become the best room-mates and our raunchiness has puttered into abiding fondness. I don’t want to watch our sexual relationship fizzle out in bed- death, to become an erotic casualty of our familiarity and companionship. I want the person who knows me better than anyone else, to want me in that aching way we want someone we can’t have.

And if there’s any value to monogamy, there are important questions for us to grapple with. Like: is passion is sustainable long-term.? Does all this love, intimacy and equality make for good sex?

In her book Mating in Captivity, the sex therapist Esther Perel explains that love and passion’s agendas are often at loggerheads. Love brings security, respect and commitment, whereas passion invokes adventure, conflict and uncertainty, even domination and power. To reignite the erotic imagination, she says, we have to shelve ‘equality’ and enter the murky shadows of the erotic underworld.

My problem is that my entire identity has been shaped by feminism’s diet of egalitarianism, democracy and women’s rights. Have these starved me of the ingredients for long-term erotic subsistence? Will I have to abandon what I believe to discover something about myself I find confronting to admit?

My husband, bless him, wouldn’t think of taking an envelope out my drawer without asking my permission. But seriously, if he asks in that same considerate voice if I want to have sex tonight, he’ll get a gold medal for thoughtfulness, but a zero on the ‘bonk-me-now-baby-ometer.’

I’m intrigued by this conundrum. Why doesn’t respect translate into the erotic?

Perel says it’s because in love we merge with the other, and the erotic works through separation. We have to be able to see the ‘stranger’ in someone else to desire them. It’s why people have affairs – to keep the erotic charged in their lives. This has given me a new sympathy for adulterers, when I realize that to be truly erotically alive, we have to be imaginary adulterers, seducing our partners like Erica Jong’s nameless stranger in Flying High, to invoke their otherness, their inaccessibility.

 

Your Story - How to write it so others will read it - out now

In this no-excuses book, written for aspiring writers and emerging authors, Joanne Fedler shares her original techniques, frameworks and strategies for life writing to ensure that your story connects with readers and doesn’t bore them to switch to Facebook scrolling.

 

So, I do an experiment one night. When he walks in the door in his business suit, I imagine my husband isn’t the person who strokes my hand when I have a headache or makes me a hot-water bottle when I have my period. No, he’s some strange businessman who’s wandered in and grabs me, pushing me up against the kitchen counter and talking the kind of dirty feminism taught me degrades women. And though the feminist in me fumes: Bingo, baby. Those floodgates open. Hallelujah. There is a monsoon.

I feel ashamed even admitting this, knowing that it’s neither PC nor how it should be. But feminist theory isn’t helping me have orgasms. Even if it’s true that having a man handle me roughly and speak to me like I’m a sex object is a function of my ‘false consciousness’ in which I’m ‘desiring what patriarchy has taught me to desire’, I don’t care. Right now, I want hot sex with my husband. And I’m looking for clues. And here’s one: the hottest sex we have is make-up sex after a nasty fight. When I like him least.

Another clue: once when a divorced friend confessed that my husband was ‘the sexiest man she knew,’ I pounced on him when he walked through the door.

Some of the yummiest sex of my life was with a man I didn’t want to date, wake up next to or even remain friends with. But to deny how turned on I was by our encounter would be disingenuous if I want to truly understand the shape and texture of my own erotic landscape.

If I can be honest with myself, what I desire doesn’t play by the rules of equality. There’s an excitement that comes from a secret place in the body which has no ideology. It’s a complex undisclosed sinew of myth, dream, fantasy, conditioning, upbringing, biology and mystery. What I imagine, in the sacred shadows of my erotic kingdom, is irrational, inexplicable, and a little scary. I don’t really want anyone to tie me up or make lewd comments about my body parts. In the safety of my marriage, I desire experiences that would shock me in real life. If I cannot speak this truth, then it will have to be repressed and tamed into the ever-after of erotically flat-lining marriages. Two thirds of which end up in divorce.

I used to believe good sex was courteous. But back then I was single and I wanted respect. Now I’m married and I want excitement. I want passion. I want it in the place I also come to for love, support and comfort. I’ve fought my political battles and now I want to fight for a passionate marriage. Feminism has made me a strong enough woman to face these strange and disquieting forces that tremble in the darkest forests of desire where the trickster antics of erotic imagination frolic freely.

I’ve protested against inequality all my life. I’ve marched, I’ve signed petitions, I’ve appeared on behalf of women’s organizations in constitutional courts, I’ve debated moralistic right-wingers who degrade women in the name of God and I’ve debated the pornographers who don’t give a damn about real women’s lives. And I will die fighting for the right of every woman to be treated as an equal in the boardroom, in the workplace, in her marriage – I want the safest and most generous world for my teenage daughter and every woman on this planet.

But behind my closed bedroom door, I reserve my rights to be someone’s skanky little slut.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

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Make Sure Your Story Is a Story

Make Sure Your Story Is a Story

The biggest mistake I made with the first draft of my first novel is that my main character Mia was passive. She did nothing – lots of shitty stuff happened to her. The problem is that characters who do nothing make us feel nothing. And if your reader doesn’t care about your character, you um, don’t have a reader because there is no incentive to turn the page.

In a story, something has to happen (sometimes called the inciting event) – there has to be action, usually something pretty horrible, which backs our character into a corner. That’s when they have to become active and do something revealing their complex, flawed personhood so we can watch them make mistakes, try, fail and try again.

When we write memoir, this is particularly challenging. We tend to write about all the things that happened to us without ever engaging ourselves as an active player in the story. When we are the protagonist in our own story, we have to make storytelling decision about where to start the story and how to engage the reader in all the ways that keep readers’ connected. The fact that your father died when you were seven is obviously relevant to your life, but it may or may not be relevant to the story you’re telling. There’s a difference.

Ultimately a story has to move us from point A to point B – and something has to change either in the character or in the reader.

 

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of writing that lacks ‘story.’ The characters are passive or  uninteresting and I find myself not caring one way or the other whether they survive or die a horrible death. The story is suspended in a timeless place, unanchored and without context so I don’t know where the story takes place or why. The character doesn’t transform, is exactly the same at the end and so… why did I bother?

A story is not a collection of beautiful descriptions. Or a series of internal ruminations, even if you have 100 000 words. A story is shaped by a series of decisions the author makes around a few key factors.

Generally, every story needs a WHO (character/s), a WHAT (theme), a WHEN (setting in time and space); a WHY (plot) and a HOW (structure that supports the story).

Without this internal invisible architecture holding the narrative up, what you have is some writing, but you do not have a story.

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That Dear Little Smear

That Dear Little Smear

When that big spunk of a Phys Ed teacher broke my virginity at eighteen, my mother did two things: she put me on the pill and sent me for a pap smear.

I didn’t like the sound of that. (Who gets smeared? What is ‘pap’?)

Next thing, I was on my back, feet in stirrups with a floodlight bearing down on my by-appointment-only parts which prefer the subtlety of dusk, as a man in a white coat and gloves chatted to me about the cricket while inserting a cold metal speculum up there, assuring me (as only he could know) that ‘this won’t hurt at all.’

Since then I’ve always treated pap smears, like dental check-ups and tax returns, an annual nuisance on my to-do list, an inconvenience wrapped in an indignity. Frankly, I wouldn’t know a cervix from a pancreas, having never actually seen mine. All I knew about my cervix is that mine refused to dilate during labour in my first pregnancy, getting to three centimetres and stopping in mid-stride like it suddenly remembered something and lost concentration.

The cervix is a shy little spot of the female anatomy, tucked inside us, like the toe of a sock with a hole in it, if the vagina were a sock, yet is rather important in our anatomy, connecting the uterus to the vagina, allowing menstrual fluids to pass and stretching during childbirth with staggering generosity to the size of a baby’s head.

The covert identity of the cervix is partly what drove women in the 1970’s, in groups, mind you, armed with torches, mirrors and a speculum to lie back and examine their insides. Annie Sprinkle, a porn star in the US invites the audience to come up and have a look at her cervix, ‘because it’s beautiful,’ which is true if mini glazed donuts do it for you.

Recently I got a call from my doctor to ‘come-and-discuss-my-pap-smear-results.’ On my way there, I made a mental note to tell my husband to marry our babysitter if I died, the kids really like her.

The doctor told me I had CIN III.

Was that good? Bad? Fatal?

I learned that on the cervix is a small patch of unstable cells known as the ‘transformation zone’ (TZ), where changes occur frequently but relatively slowly. It is a sample of these cells that is collected in a pap smear revealing normal, abnormal, CIN I, CIN II, and CIN III or cancerous changes. Cervical cancer is most often caused by infection with the sexually acquired Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Many of us become infected with the virus without knowing it. The virus can sit dormant for a long time before cellular changes show on a Pap smear.

The best news is that unlike many kinds of cancers, cervical cancer is easily preventable because of the Pap smear in which a layer of cells is scraped off the TZ and examined for changes.

The Pap smear is the invention of a Greek doctor, George Papanicolau in the 1940’s who studied the sex differences in the water flea. He and his wife emigrated to the US, with no English and very little money and worked at Gimbels Department store selling rugs before finding a job at Cornell University in a department researching the effects of alcohol on guinea pigs. Borrowing a few spare female guinea pigs to further his study of sex differentiation, Dr Pap figured that to obtain their eggs before ovulation, he needed to extract their vaginal discharge, (I mean, that’s obvious, right?) Using a small nasal speculum, he scraped off guinea pig vaginal cells, smearing them onto a glass slide (hence the name Pap Smear) to examine under a microscope. Because of the expertise he had gained by working with the water flea for many years, he detected patterns in these vaginal cells.

Here’s where it gets interesting. At some point in all this study of the vaginal cells of guinea pigs, a version of the following conversation must have taken place with his wife:

‘My dear, I wonder if I could prevail upon you for a small favour after dinner.’

‘Certainly, George, what is it?’

‘I was wondering if I might scrape some cells off your cervix?’

 

Your Story - How to write it so others will read it - out now

In this no-excuses book, written for aspiring writers and emerging authors, Joanne Fedler shares her original techniques, frameworks and strategies for life writing to ensure that your story connects with readers and doesn’t bore them to switch to Facebook scrolling.

Mrs P. agreed. Not once. Not twice. For twenty years, almost daily, she submitted to these examinations, as a result of which Dr Pap observed normal changes in the cells in different parts of the vagina through a menstrual cycle and then from one menstrual cycle to the next. This research was the beginning of a scientific journey into examining the abnormal changes in cells. What began with a water flea has led to the most successful pathology test to prevent cervical cancer, a disease with which approximately 1000 women in Australia are diagnosed annually.

When it comes to taking responsibility for our health, these days we are fortunate to have a range of options. Regular check-ups – mammograms, pap smears and colonoscopies can literally be the difference between us living to see our grandchildren or not.

Using condoms in sex is still the best way to avoid contracting HPV. The yardstick is that if it’s not sterilized, it shouldn’t be going up there in the first place. Most tampons are not sterilized, though a new sterilized tampon (Pureste) has recently come onto the market which is lovely and all, but remember you can’t catch HPV from a tampon.

Secondly, cancer research has yielded some miraculous breakthroughs including the world’s first cancer vaccine against cervical cancer involving three doses over a six month period, recently introduced in Australian schools for girls from the age of 12 as part of the federally funded National Immunization Programme. In November 2006, the government offered those who had already left school (up to the age of 26) a two year ‘catch-up’ period which ends on 30th June 2009 (unless the first vaccine has been administered in which case the remaining boosters will be available until 31 December 2009). This vaccine immunizes young women before they become sexually active against HPV types 16 and 18, the two strains associated with 70% of all cervical cancers. Interestingly, a third of the female school going population has elected not to have the vaccine. Some parents perceive it promotes sexual promiscuity by giving the impression the vaccine makes unprotected sex safe and are anxious about the side-effects of the vaccine.

Because HPV causes cervical cancer, it makes sense for us to know whether or not we are carriers. Recently a new test kit called Tampap (in similar style to home-pregnancy tests) makes it possible for women to test themselves at home for HPV by inserting an ordinary tampon, and sending it off to a lab where it is tested for the presence of the virus.

Despite all these latest developments, the pap smear is still the best and most effective way of detecting cervical cancer (sorry, girls) and we’re all advised to have one every two years, unless we’ve had a bad result before, in which case we should go annually.

Now if ever I wince at the prospect of discussing cricket while pretending I don’t have a salad server in my delicates, I spare a thought for good old Mrs Pap, that great unsung heroine of women’s health who offered up her cervix to science and who, in her generosity, saved my life and the lives of countless other lucky women.  

Published in Vogue, Australia, July 2009

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

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How to Salvage Your Writing from the Crematorium of Cliche

Aspiring writers sometimes ask me, ‘How can I write like you?’

The answer is, ‘You don’t want to write like me, you want to write like you. You want to find your writing voice, and that will be nothing like mine.’

But I get what people are really asking me. They’re asking me, ‘How can I write better than I write now?’

Here’s a little trick: don’t write in cliché. Writing is limp and flavourless when it’s unoriginal. We have to consciously undermine our tendencies to write boring, wilting sentences. How? By feeling into paradox.

As soon as we feel ourselves slumping into easy stereotypes of ‘happy marriages’ and ‘broken hearts,’ that’s when we need to turn an experience over on its belly and investigate where it gets more interesting.

The engine of story is conflict. The meaning of things is revealed at the edges, not the soft centre.

Write about how love co-exists alongside grief; how envy creeps into friendship. Explore the revulsion that emerges in lust or the boredom that shows up in intimacy. Feel into the ambivalence in motherhood and the relief in death.

As writers it’s our job to work with these beautiful unruly tendrils that show up in experience. To write what is true and hard and real, we have to examine what we feel, remember, see and touch without judgement, to find out what it is like for us, and what meaning we make from it. Without the texture we bring to that exploration, our writing will just be same-old, same-old.

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

 

Don’t be afraid to invert. Writers must be brave in facing what is hidden. Our work is to bring light into shadow and shadow into light, to unsettle the obvious and startle the story.

Here’s a little table for you to practice exploring paradox. Have fun writing into the strangeness of these opposites:

BITTER                             SWEET
QUIET                               ROAR
ELEGANT                         WRECK
SAINTLY                           PERVERT
CREEPY                           GENTLEMAN
SINKING                           HOPE
ENLIGHTENED                GRIEF
GUTLESS                         WARRIOR
NEUROTIC                       MINDFULNESS
SELFISH                           GENEROSITY
PRECIOUS                       DUST
DELICATE                         STRENGTH
WISHFUL                          SPITE
EAGER                              INDOLENCE
PERFECT                          MISTAKE
REVERED                         CRIMINAL
SPECTACULAR                ORDINARINESS
SURPRISING                    DULLNESS
UNKNOWN                       CELEBRITY
PRECISE                           ELUSIVENESS
BROKEN                            BEAUTY
COMPOSED                      WILDNESS
WICKED                             BENEVOLENCE
INDIFFERENT                    CURIOSITY

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The Mystery of Inspiration in Writing

The Mystery of Inspiration in Writing

When he delivered his Nobel Lecture in 2005, entitled Art, Truth and Politics, the playwright Harold Pinter said the following:

‘I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.

Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word, or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.

The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ The first line of Old Times is ‘Dark.’

In each case, I had no further information.

In the first case, someone was obviously looking for a pair of scissors and was demanding their whereabouts of someone else he suspected had probably stolen them. But I somehow knew that the person addressed didn’t give a damn about the scissors or about the questioner either for that matter.’

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

He went on to say that he begins by calling his characters A, B and C – with no idea who they are until he begins writing, and they ‘reveal’ themselves to him.

This aspect of writing – the magical, the unplanned, the inspired part, is a relationship writers develop with a hidden part of themselves we learn to trust. Some of us like to know upfront how things will plan out, who is who, what is what, where the story is going, to have the structure all mapped out. I have met writers like this and they intimidate the crap out of me. Like they have a road map they’re following and simply have to fill in the narrative. I can’t tame my game like this. When I start, I usually have no idea where my story is going. I just have a feeling. I like not to know where my story is going and to discover my characters as I write.

If you are ‘waiting’ to know where your story is taking you before you commit words to the page, stop waiting. Start writing. The act of writing engenders the story, it tweaks open the valves and gets the juices flowing.

Start with a sentence. Any sentence. And pursue it quietly like a creature you’re following to its hidden lair.

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What Your Reader Doesn’t Want to See

I’m a novice writer. But I’m an experienced reader, as most writers (novice or not) tend to be. As I sink my teeth into yet another book, I find myself frustrated with the writing, but intrigued by the content. The author had a clear vision of what the story meant to...