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Highlight Reel: Sex and Relationships

Mating in Captivity, Pussy, and Gender Trouble

“It sounds as if you like talking about sex more than you like actually having sex.” -Friend at a polyamory mixer.

I swear I won’t get too personal, but I’ve always been pretty enthralled by the topic of sex. I remember reading Cosmopolitans as a kid in the grocery checkout line when my mom wasn’t looking. I knew the difference between a vagina and a vulva by age 11. I used to teach sexual health education to middle schoolers. I once got a sex story of mine published in Time Out New York about a hookup at the Metropolitan Opera when I was 17. My favorite YouTuber is Dr. Lindsey Doe of Sexplanations. The book that had the greatest impact on my life (even after listening to 100 in a month) is literally called The Ethical Slut. I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point clear: I think about sex a whole bunch.

When choosing which audiobooks to listen to during the 100 book challenge, I knew that I wanted to devote serious time to the subject of gender, sexuality, and relationships.

Here, I’ll be discussing a handful of those selections that really got me going ;)

Mating in Captivity, by Esther Perel

Listening to Perel’s advice is itself an act of eroticism.

Perel’s book touches on so many points, but one facet that really spoke to me was the necessity for distance in erotic love. It seems counter-intuitive, she argues, since we tend to think of relationships as the shrinking and eventual dissolution of barriers between two people. They meet, they flirt, they fall for each other, they get married, they’re together, done. Right?

Well, that may be the case for some monogamous couples out there, but Perel argues that it is the removal of those barriers that may ultimately be responsible for the millions of couples who are painfully unhappy in their long-term partnerships, and it could also be a contributing factor to the statistic that nearly half of all monogamous couples in the US will experience infidelity at some point during their time together and more than half of all marriages end in divorce.

I love this cover 😂

While the joy that closeness confers upon monogamous couples may contribute to their sense of trust, stability, and unity, that same closeness can often undermine the longing we all experience for variety, spontaneity, and surprise. As Perel puts it, “Eroticism requires separateness. In other words, eroticism thrives in the space between the self and the other.”

The challenge that many couples face, and that I have certainly faced in my past relationships as well, is the feeling that the “spark” is gone. So many clients would come to Perel complaining that they’d lost interest in each other, that they felt stuck in routines, and they were desperate for ways to “spice things up” in the bedroom. What we gain by committing to a long-term partner often comes at the cost (or at the very least, the risk) of losing the sense of mystery and uncertainty that is an essential ingredient in romantic love.

Perel writes: “[Total transparency] is also the kiss of death for sex. Deprived of enigma, intimacy becomes cruel when it excludes any possibility of discovery. When there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek”

When I listened to these words, I had to pause the audiobook and run to my journal. Besides the clever wordplay here, Perel touches on an issue that I’ve personally wrestled with in almost every relationship I’ve had: monogamy, as it is usually practiced, curtails the thrill of hide and seek — the necessary dance of desires expressed and desires fulfilled. When we fully know everything about our partners and forfeit the hope of being surprised romantically, sexually, and emotionally, the relationship can feel more constraining than freeing. To quote once more, “Trouble looms when monogamy is no longer a free expression of loyalty but a form of enforced compliance.”

Most of all, Perel helped me realize that the stability we often seek in monogamous relationships is a phantasm. When we use the words “my boyfriend” or “my wife,” they imply an ownership that simply isn’t achievable, let alone desirable. As Perel writes, “The grand illusion of committed love is that we think our partners are ours. In truth, their separateness is unassailable and their mystery is forever ungraspable.” It was only after I discovered and really leaned into polyamory that I was able to fully appreciate the magnitude of this sentiment: truly, we never own our partners, and it’s paradoxically the belief that we do that can be so dangerous to couples.

Pussy, by Regena Thomashauer (AKA Mama Gena)

We may not own our partners, but we can all own our pussies.

Pussy: A Reclamation is a tour de force. It was the only audiobook I listened to that made me cry multiple times.

There were so many aspects of this audiobook that I loved, but the one I’d like to touch on now is the concept of ownership.

In Mama Gena’s experience, far too many women have conflicting feelings about their pussies — both literally and figuratively — as the seat of their femininity and the source of their internal power.

In a literal sense, we as a culture are increasingly alienating ourselves and abstracting away the divine process of birth. I didn’t know this, but fully one third of all births are now done by C-section in the US. This may seem unimportant, but there are physical and metaphysical consequences of this shift. Where before the process of birth was a celebration of womanhood and a midwife who was schooled in the art of coaxing life into this world was called for, women have been increasingly sedated and almost clinically removed from the birthing process as an obstetrician (usually male) removes the infant under the sterile fluorescence of a hospital. This, Mama Gena argues, is not a trend to be happy about.

As she sees it, “Every single one of us exists because of pussy. It is time to listen to she who made us all possible.”

In the book, Mama Gena implores her listeners with pussies to grab a hand mirror and explore the parts of themselves that are so often unnamed and neglected. She explains that many women — especially those who have dealt with sexual trauma — are ashamed and embarrassed by their pussies, and that they can be a source of nothing but pain. This is deeply unfortunate, she believes, since pussy can be immensely empowering and restorative.

Pussy is vital in so many senses of the word.

Mama Gena hopes that by examining their pussies, both physically and spiritually, women can connect with themselves (and other women!) on a much more visceral level.

As a man, listening to Pussy felt conspiratorial — as if I weren’t supposed to be in on the secret. It was as if Mama Gena winked at me when I started listening and said, “Alright Aaron, we’ll let you eavesdrop, as long as you promise to spread the word with those fellow boys of yours.”

Listening as a man to a message that is clearly aimed at women is a humbling experience. There were chapters about masturbation and vibrators and extended orgasmic meditation that made me feel so utterly superfluous, which I guess is how many women probably feel when they watch movies where primary female characters are barely present, let alone portrayed with agency and autonomy. I imagine this is especially pronounced when watching porn.

But Mama Gena’s message isn’t exclusively for women. Yes, the book is about inhabiting our inner femininity and asserting ourselves with ownership and strength, but that applies to both men and women. The central message that Mama Gena leaves the listener with is about love. In her words, “The greatest ongoing love affair you will ever have is the love affair you have with yourself.” And I think we can all rally behind that.

Ultimately, Pussy’s message was a reclamation that transcends gender.

Speaking of gender…

Gender Trouble, by Judith Butler

Butler is a kickass philosopher, but she unfortunately writes like one.

Gender Trouble is one of those books that launched a movement, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Animal Liberation.

While Butler is often criticized for being opaque in her language, I actually felt a strange (vaguely masochistic) joy in reliving my college days of dense, weighty philosophical texts. If you’ve struggled to read Butler in print, try listening instead: the flows of academic discourse are often such that inflection and vocal tone really help elucidate the message. After getting used to her style, I actually loved her writing.

As for the message of Gender Trouble, it was revelational. It’s rare to feel witness to a work of genius, but that’s precisely how I felt. While this book is far from the last word in queer theory, it is its definitive first.

The main aspect I’d like to explore here is in the concept of gender as performance, which is one of the primary theories Butler is known for.

She asserts that we perform the roles of gender in much the same way that an actor performs the role of Hamlet. We are told that masculinity looks and feels and sounds a certain way, and so men adopt masculine postures and project masculine vibes onto the way they behave. So too with femininity.

People who are transgender are especially attuned to these differences in performance. There are subtle cues and expressions that transgender folks have to pick up on, and they face the challenge of not being accepted by either gender if they don’t perform adequately. People who are non-binary are carving out a new performance, choreographing a style that doesn’t conform to either masculinity or femininity. You’re likely already familiar with some of these practices (choosing gender neutral names, for instance), and I think the YouTuber Contrapoints captured these aspects very nicely in this video.

One of the non-binary characters in Contrapoints’ show.

Contrapoints notices some of the flaws with Butler’s theory, which ultimately make it a bit more complex than simply “playing the part” of one gender or another (or neither).

In queer theory, there are several competing definitions of gender. Some argue that it is entirely chromosomal, and that sex determined at birth assigns gender. Then there’s the argument that gender is determined purely based on identity, so someone who identifies as a woman is a woman, end of story. Neither of these are compelling, since one is too restrictive and the other is too fluid. Butler’s theory of gender as performance, which we’ve explored above, seems to solve these issues, but while it’s initially convincing, it is sometimes too exclusive and other times too inclusive.

Imagine a teenager in Alabama who is unable to transition and perform their gender with integrity for fear of societal reprisal. This, according to Butler, wouldn’t constitute gender performance, but that person is clearly still transgender. Similarly, a male drag queen does not become a woman in the eyes of the crowd when he is on stage, though he may dress and act like one for the time being. As someone who has done drag before, I can tell you that I very much maintain my maleness even when I’m performing femininity.

Ultimately, we may not be able to work out a substantive theory of gender, and there might be no way to precisely define what it means to be a gender. Butler sparked the conversation, and she continues writing and lecturing on the subject, but the discussion is far from over, and there may never be a last word.



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