Reading Audre Lorde’s essay “The Uses of The Erotic” as a senior in my high school feminism class taught by Ileana Jiménez has changed my perspective on life. What I find so empowering about Lorde’s writing is that she defines a feeling that has been inside me for so long and puts it into words. “The Uses of The Erotic” describes a loss all women face, which is the loss of ownership over our bodies and feelings.
“The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling.”
Women are robbed of our bodies and erotic desires every day through slut shaming, sexual violence, harassment, pornography, and the overall objectification of our bodies. Women are so often seen as objects that only exist to fulfill the needs of other people, especially men. The sexual patriarchy pushes women out of reclaiming our desires and feelings and, in turn, gives men and boys power over our bodies.
This kind of power dynamic can be seen at school, at work, in the media, and everywhere that disconnects women from feeling control over our erotic senses and our connection to our deepest feelings emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Our passion, pleasure, femininity, and confidence that comes from our deepest erotic sense of ourselves is so powerful that it is seen as threatening to the master’s tools.
Lorde writes: “The fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance.” Here, Lorde emphasizes the strength women lose and the power that men around us gain when we suppress our natural desires and our inherent senses of the erotic. She proposes the idea of building bridges against our differences by sharing our feelings of pleasure, love, and desire.
Reading Lorde’s essay has made me reflect on some of the earliest moments that I can remember noticing the dynamic between female and male sexuality, and the lessons I have received on how to express my sexuality. Throughout middle school, in particular, there was a notable shift in not only how I viewed myself, but also in the way that my classmates viewed me. At the time, the majority of my classmates and I were in the early stages of puberty. The boys always seemed entitled to make comments about how big a girl’s breasts were or whether or not they were attracted to us.
Of course, looking back I now know that they were mostly trying to emulate the messages they had previously learned about sexualizing women through social media, male figures, television, and more. As the boys got to explore their sexuality so openly and freely, girls learned how to adapt to the fact that we were going to be seen and judged by this version of the male gaze. While that started happening, I noticed how I and the other girls slowly grew quieter, and we were gradually taught to live in silence.
We were no longer girls, we became women. Women who are taught and told to repress our desires, women who were shamed for expressing our sexuality. Because women who do express their sexuality freely are not respected. I can now recognize that what was happening at my middle school is what Lorde is writing about in her essay. When girls reach an age where the people around us start to hyper-sexualized us, we are pushed out of expressing our erotic desires, whether that be in a sexual sense or spiritual sense or even in a creative sense.
In one article by Gabrielle Kasselm, she quotes Trimiko Malencon who says that “Culturally, manhood is in part built on encouraging free sexuality, while womanhood is centered on denying or controlling it,” Melancon says. This is often referred to as the “sexual double standard.” Noticing the shift in my classmates’ behaviors during middle and high school has shown me how male desires and fantasies are validated and encouraged by the people around them, while female sexuality is shamed.
I remember this moment in sixth grade when a few of my friends and I were talking about porn; it was a mix of both girls and guys. One of my male friends was gay and the conversation turned to talk about men-on-men porn. One of my friends said that she felt that men-on-men sex was normal, but girl-on-girl sex was not. I remember her exact words being along the lines of, “I can imagine guys kissing without feeling weird, but thinking about two girls grosses me out.”
I tried my best to make it seem as if I didn’t disagree as much as I did, trying my best to hide the fact that I felt so ashamed of being a girl who didn’t and still doesn’t think that girls loving girls is gross. At the time, I didn’t understand the reason behind why she said that but the more I learned about homophobia it became clear why she felt so repulsed by girls loving girls and women loving women. Maybe that kind of porn or media made her question her sexuality and that made her uncomfortable because queerness isn’t seen as a “normal” way to love. So many people develop immense internalized homophobia from a young age. This form of self-hatred stems from not wanting to associate with a part of our identity that is so frowned upon by the society around us.
I often question why being a lesbian is particularly stigmatized, and why lesbians are often left out of these conversations? Audre Lorde’s writing points out to me that this is because queer women break all the barriers of patriarchy. Lesbian sexuality does not revolve around pleasuring or fulfilling the fantasies of the men and boys around them.
The media fails to recognize and accurately represent female desires or to acknowledge that we have desires in the first place. Instead, the media tends to portray stereotypical male fantasies that feed into capitalistic distortions of the erotic. Through pornography, music, social media, and television, girls and women are seen as symbols and objects of another person’s desires, and not as equal participants in pleasure.
This is especially true in the role women play in pornography. Pornography depicts a false sense of eroticism, as it is a depiction of an unnatural, and oftentimes abusive sense of “pleasure.” In pornography, men typically play a more dominant role and women are more submissive; they are only there to please men. Porn objectifies women in so many ways, taking no account of our feelings and passions and ultimately uses our bodies to tell a false story.
In contrast, Lorde asserts that the erotic is so much more than sexual pleasure, it’s about passion and emotion for all of the things that give us joy, which can include sex but doesn’t have to. Lorde explains that pornography and the loss of the erotic in everyday life is a part of how the master’s tools work: “Of course, women who are so empowered are dangerous. So we are taught to separate the erotic demand from most vital areas of our lives other than sex.”
There is so much guilt that comes from women expressing our sexuality because when we do, we are called sluts or whores. In contrast, male locker room talk is glamorized and men feel not only entitled to talk about their sexual desires but also feel a social pressure to do so. This pressure on men to be dominant is influenced by toxic masculinity and sexism. Both stem from dangerous power dynamics that can lead to violence, rape, discrimination, and more.
Lorde writes, “When we live outside ourselves, and by that I mean on external directives only rather than from our internal knowledge and needs, when we live away from those erotic guides from within ourselves, then our lives are limited by external and alien forms, and we conform to the needs of a structure that is not based on human need, let alone an individual’s.”
This passage is important to me because it explores how in conforming to the repression of women’s desires, we do a disservice to ourselves. Audre Lorde has taught me that giving voice to and articulating these dynamics gives me the tools and power to reclaim my desires as they become clearer to me.
I was inspired to do a portrait painting of Audre Lorde for the cover of my blog post; see above.