A Woman's Pleasure

ELLEN GOODMAN

October 29, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- Let's take this one more time from the top. The subject is men, women, sexual violence, sexual pleasure and utter confusion.

Some weeks ago, I wrote about Antioch College's new sexual-offense policy. At Antioch, consent is not silence, it's not the absence of a no. On the Ohio campus, a student has to ask for and agree to each new level of physical contact.

I wrote as well about Katie Roiphe's much ballyhooed book, ''The Morning After,'' which suggests that campus obsession with date rape is dangerously retro. It not only harks back to the days of sexual repression, she writes, it patronizes women as victims in need of protection from men.

Antioch has continued to be grist for media mills; it has even been the subject of a skit for ''Saturday Night Live.'' Young Katie Roiphe has gotten the bright lights, big sales often awarded to bright women who dis- sent from other bright women. (See Camille Paglia.) Both Antioch and Ms. Roiphe were part of a Newsweek cover story called, ''Sexual Correctness.''

The tone of these pieces and of my mail suggests the same thing. People in favor of exploring new sexual codes of conduct are seen as the New Puritans, unromantic, libido-squashing, hormone-hostile prudes. People who criticize the codes do so as the Ardent Sensualists, friends of uninhibited, unrepressive love.

Well, frankly, I think the struggle -- however awkward -- to rewrite the dialogue about sexual relations is a good one. But not because I am opposed to sexual freedom. Because I am, blush, a believer in sexual pleasure.

The point of the talk of sexual consent is, first of all, to protect women from violence. But the freedom from violence, from the fear of forced sex, is itself a first step toward sexual pleasure. Mutual sexual pleasure.

Remember the Palm Beach rape case? Mary Koss of the University of Arizona asked, mischievously and seriously, what would happen if the burden of proof in such a rape case were turned around. What if a man had to convince a jury that he went into the sexual encounter with the intention of having a mutually satisfying experience? What if a woman's pleasure were the standard of consent? Why is that the sort of question only asked by female stand-up comics?

This is what's being asked on many campuses. I am not suggesting that it's rape unless she has an orgasm -- though I doubt if any woman who had an orgasm Saturday night called it date rape Sunday morning.

But I am suggesting that women and many men are redefining sexual liberation. Sexual liberation is no longer a question of whether and how often a woman does it with how many men. It's a question of her own joy in the sex. It's being redefined by women who need to feel free from fear, free from pressure, to feel.

Nobody has done a poll on pleasure, but I wonder about the early sexual experiences of young women in the post-sexual revolution. How many actively chose their partner, their moment, and how many were pressured? How many of those women felt pleasure the first time? How many felt disappointment? These early experiences can set up an imbalance that infects the relationships of men and women, husbands and wives, years later.

The most quoted line in Katie Roiphe's book is that ''someone's rape may be another person's bad night.'' It's a line that not only trivializes rape but trivializes the effect of the bad night. It not only denies the reality of sexual violence and minimizes the old fear of pregnancy and the new fear of AIDS -- it also denies the desire for good nights.

One young man who read about the Antioch policy blurted out honestly and angrily that if he had to get verbal consent, he would ''never get to have sex.'' The checklist the Antioch students wrote is a bit much, but what he saw as an impediment to sex may be a prerequisite for a lifetime of mutual pleasure.

I'm not surprised that women who have assumed equality in so many areas of life are pursuing it in this most intimate place, nor that women who were given one definition of sexual liberation would want to write their own. Nor am I surprised that the men in their lives and on their campuses would join that process. Call it prudishness if you want. But at root, they are finally talking about the pleasure principle.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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