usufruct her? I hardly know her!

March 21st’s wordsmith word of the day was: usufruct.

PRONUNCIATION: (YOO-zuh-fruhkt, -suh-)

MEANING: noun: The right to use and enjoy another’s property without destroying it.

Which I thought was pretty neat, since March 21 was also when I responded to an email (Yes!! I responded to an email!! Holy crap!! Apologies to those who are waiting to hear from me. I know I’m rotten correspondent.) from author Ian Ironwood (the other sex nerd) about masculinity and feminism.

I said:

I know a lot of guys who struggle with Being a Man and Being a Feminist. They want to enjoy HAVING a dick, without BEING a dick. The difference seems to have something to do with enjoying putting that dick into women, without experiencing penetration as conquest, ownership, or a badge of masculinity. It’s just two people enjoying each other’s bodies.

All of which got me thinking about this idea of “possession” and sex and relationships, the right to “use and enjoy” another person.

(There is an important difference, of course, between a body and other things an individual can own: when one living creature touches another living creature’s body, that other body has all kinds of reactions to that touch. Whereas if I borrow your car, the car doesn’t have any particular feelings about how I treat it, if I borrow your dog, she does have feelings about how I treat her. So “use and enjoy” has a special qualification when it comes to LIFE that you own: “without destroying” is not an adequate standard, it must be “without doing harm.” And also consent – usufruct – can be withdrawn at any point, for any reason.)

A couple summers ago I sat on a roof with my brother and sister, talking about relationships. My brother said he never introduced a woman as “my girlfriend” or even “my partner,” because he felt like that was claiming her primary identity only relative to HIM, as opposed to indicating that she has a complete identity separate from him.

To which I responded, however un-PC-ly, “But I like to be claimed.” I like to be identified as part of a unit, a member of a team. “This is the other half of my ‘us,’” I would have my partner say to people we meet.

I think there are probably some predisposing factors that give rise to this cultural construction of ownership. Part of it must be to do with attachment the biological motivation system that links us, infant to adult caregiver, and lover to lover. “Mine!” claims the attachment system. Because in infancy our lives quite literally depend on our adult caregivers, we have this bone-deep sense that the absolute loyalty of our lover is vital to our survival. Mine. And therefore not yours. My girlfriend, my partner, my spouse. Mine.

And then another predisposing factor, I think, is the nature of penetrative intercourse. Putting, say, your penis in someone else’s vagina… I mean, I can see how that’s like staking a claim, marking territory, like planting your flag on the moon. Add that to the nature of attachment and it doesn’t surprise me that our culture has generated a narrative of ownership in sex.

The fact is, our culture, for a variety of reasons, has constructed sexual relationships as possession – thanks to feminism, we’ve gotten as far as MUTUAL possession, rather than merely men possessing women, but it’s still ownership, still a sense of claiming and possessing another person’s body (another person’s self?) as one’s own, to use and enjoy without harming.

(There’s a whole post to write about what it might mean to “use” a body.)

And I am as steeped in it as anyone else. I want to be claimed by my partner, owned, possessed, had, kept. I do recognize the problems in it; intellectually I know that I am not property, nor is my partner. But I’ve spent nearly 34 years in a civilization that tells me that to be loved is to be claimed, possessed, and to love is to claim.

(And there’s a whole post to write about the relationship between mate choice, body image, and this notion of possession.)