change the metaphor, change the world

For reasons it would be otiose to name, I am rereading Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

He describes the ways in which cultural proverbs can function as “means of discovering and revealing truth” in predominantly oral cultures. Essentially his claim throughout the book is that the metaphors we use – and the media we use are in themselves metaphors – sculpt how we understand life.

And I’ve spent the last three or four years on the blog looking for the right metaphors to use to describe sex.

We know that “hunger” is a failed metaphor that falsely circumscribes the mechanisms of drive, homeostasis, need, etc. It is a metaphor of WANTING without space for LIKING. And yet it is pervasive – Daniel Bergner was so beguiled by it that even though he spent four years researching the science of women’s sexuality, he couldn’t see the plain fact (more later on this idea of a “plain fact”) of it before his eyes: sex is not a drive, not a “hunger.”

We know that male sexuality is a failed metaphor for female sexuality, though it’s so pervasive that it has influenced research (and funding for that research) for the last decade and a half, in the quest for a “female Viagra” – a quest guaranteed to produce SOMETHING, since when a hammer is your only tool, everything looks like a nail, but not something useful.

We know that “fertile soil under the plowman” is a failed metaphor – the implied passivity falls hopelessly short. We know that “the virgin and the whore” is a failed metaphor – it describes nothing more than a patriarchal construction, with no reference to how bodies actually work.

I’ve tried plain description, eliminating all metaphor, but the failed metaphors of the past are so noisy that they disrupt people’s understanding of that plain description. The language around gender and sexuality has so many centuries of metaphor laid over it it’s virtually impossible to use words to talk about it, without someone taking the wrong meaning.

For example: human males are fertile more or less every day – indeed, almost every hour – of their reproductive lives, something in the vicinity of 20,000 days. That’s a plain fact. Human females are fertile for rather less than 500 days total. So for 20,000 days out of his life, a man has SOME CHANCE of moving his genes into the next generation. And for rather less than 500 days, a woman has SOME CHANCE of moving her genes into the next generation. That’s a plain fact.

What it tells us is that males may have the potential for greater reproductive benefit from having sex on more days with more partners.

But it’s really hard to hear that plain fact and not build bridges to all the things you’ve ever known about humans and their motivations for having sex.

“But Emily!” you cry, “That’s essentialist!”

Well, what’s essentialist? The plain fact of our biology?

No. Because what I’ve learned in the course of writing the blog is that there’s no such thing as “plain facts.” That fact exists in relation to lots and lots of other plain facts, and unless I also immediately add all those other facts, your cultural metaphors will kick in to fill in the gaps. Plainly and precisely though I may endeavor to write them, on their transit from my keyboard to your consciousness, they pick up all manner of detritus: patriarchy, bad science, bad feminism, bad schooling, misplaced morality.

Clearly, plain fact is not going to work.

So I need a better metaphor. Analogy. Simile. Story.

Cake. Women’s sexuality is like cake. Is like bees. Is like a mass noun. Is like an accent.

We need a better story of women’s sexuality. I’m lookin’ fer ideas, if you got any.

What is women’s sexuality like?