This week, I attended another screening at Clarisse Thorn’s Sex+++ Film Series at Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago. Two documentary films were featured. The first one, “Sex, Disability & Videotape” (Beyondmedia Education) was about women from age 16 – 24 with disabilities claiming and exploring their self image, self worth and sexuality. The second feature, “Orgasmic Women” (Marianna Beck) is a film of 13 women interviewed about masturbation, with demonstrations.
(Cross-posted at The National Gadfly)
I did not initially sense how these two films would pair with each other around any central theme or related conversation. The first film was about a group called Empowered Fe Fes, which is a support group for young women with disabilities. The film focused on two relationship conversations.
One was a look into the day to day relationship of a woman with disabilities who was dating a man with full use of his limbs. They both discussed how their courtship and daily lives and romance together. In their discussions about sex, they both demonstrated that all human relationships reach intimacy when communication and relatedness are present. She described her daily ritual of getting ready as a sexual act, which surprised me – and at my age & perversion level, surprises don’t come easily. The reason it surprised me was that my own prejudiced unstated or unacknowledged views of disabilities tend to be poorly informed and largely comprised of my own unease around the topic.
“We are all born sexual”
The other focus of the film was to show the Empowered Fe Fes meeting in groups to discuss self image, sexuality, relationships, health care and how they choose to hold themselves in respect. They discussed, in frank terms, Eugenics in the past and present tense as a very real demonstration of the horror we inflict upon each other, the instant that we dehumanize someone. It is a grim truth that individuals with disabilities see every day. One statistic they discussed is the 20k plus women that have been sterilized in California between 1900 – 1960. One woman in the group had been tricked into a hysterectomy, but realized before it was too late what was going on and was able to avoid it. She described being given a consent form to sign for the hysterctomy and having been instructed to not read it before signing.
“Sexuality is a civil right”
The women discussed abusive relationships, orgasms, sex, masturbation, make up, courtship and child bearing. At one point, they all went to a sex-toy shop in Chicago, Early to Bed. This was a scene of such innocence and grace as these women experienced a space where sexuality is not only something to be claimed, but celebrated. The laughter and joy of that moment was an intimate moment unlike many that I have seen or may see again.
There was some footage of the Fe Fes out on sidewalks, engaging the public to raise awareness. They had microphones and were interviewing passers by. One woman in a wheelchair asks a young man walking by what he thinks when he sees a disabled person on the street.
He said that he sees them “just like any normal person”.
The audience reacted in gasps and cynical remarks at the boy’s obvious prejudice. The director stayed right with the woman as she asked him in return
“What do you mean when you say normal?”
The boy, nervously stammered, trying to undo his awkward admission of his own prejudices.
The director didn’t turn away from that moment and the result was an unblinking look at the very real dynamics of how people deal with their judgments of each other as well as the impact that our judgments have on others and ourselves. The all too scary truth about dehumanization is that it can begin with our discomforts, fears and shame. I realized that my prejudices, hushed voice and averted face are at the very least a denial of the humanity I share with anyone and at the very worst – a step in the direction of the cruelties and malice that all dehumanization leads to.
Claiming one’s sexuality and personal identity can be a difficult process for anyone. How much harder is it when society injects value judgements and restrictions into the very personal nature of sexuality and identity? This is a very intimate film. Intimacy built from the honesty of these young women and the filmmaker’s long look at the places where a woman with disabilities will carve out her identity and the struggle she may face by simply asking for society to see her as she defines herself.
The next film, hosted by Betty Dodson, was a horse of a completely different color. Women from all walks of life agreed to be interviewed about masturbation. They discussed their first orgasm, their relationship with masturbation, their self image and the effect that sex with themselves has had on their relationships and self esteem.
These women touched on every aspect of their sexuality in frank, unassuming terms:
“I wish I was the kind of person that would devote more time to it (masturbation)”
“Being raised by an orgasmic mother is a blessing”
The women each brought in whatever toys they wanted in order to masturbate. The process was, in many cases elaborate. The sexual energy was not simply overt as they masturbated at length until orgasming, but overwhelming. Several women had multiple orgasms and the camera spared no detail as women touched and entered themselves in pleasure and self awareness.
Their relationships to masturbation were all over the place as well. One woman described being raped at 11 y/o and that masturbation allowed her to safely deal with hormones and to enter a healthy sexual adulthood. Another woman described it as what she does to calm herself at the end of a rough day.
Almost all of them described their first orgasm as something they suddenly experienced in their childhood. Each recounting it in terms that made it clear how natural and human sexuality is.
There were some surprises here as well. One woman used stones and this gave her a sense of relationship between her life, her Self and the places where she had gathered these stones. Water, lubricants, latex toys, vibrators were all used. However, they almost vanished as each woman’s sense of arousal became almost this external entity in and of itself. One woman didn’t know how to orgasm with her fingers or hands and instead ground herself onto a rolled up blanket. I have seen some hot scenes in my life, but let me tell you now that watching this woman grind it out onto a rolled up blanket was just about the hottest sex scene I have ever seen. The muscles of her back, butt and legs were grinding and gyrating in a dance where she used her body and mind to meet the surface of the earth, playing with gravity and time. Unbelievable.
They spoke to the camera, touching themselves in the means of comfort and arousal. There was often an almost Zen flow from a wom
an touching herself in matter-of-fact absent mindedness and rhythmically focused drive toward pleasure.
Let me tell ya something, folks – it is not easy to sit through watching 13 women take me through a tour of their bodies, their lives and their selves en route to an orgasm. About halfway through, I was looking for a plank of wood to use as a bite block. I ordered this movie to watch with my wife.
One woman stated:
“Masturbation helped me take control of my own orgasm”
This film walked back from orgasm into self definition, while the first film came from the opposite direction. They both provided a view of intimacy, individuality and a person’s path to define one’s self in one’s own terms and for one’s own reasons. These films are about being human and all that it entails. They are about being related to ourselves and each other.
The discussion afterward was somewhat abbreviated and seemed awkward. There was a nervous energy in the room and I thought people were spending a lot of time defending their views or reacting to some slight or insinuation. But, nobody really was saying anything negative, so it just seemed like a bunch of people taking differenct exceptions to phantom negative comments.
There was one man that just started talking and it didn’t seem like he was going to stop – ever. A man right nexgt to him kept going on about how it’s not bad to be shy or private about sexuality. I wondered if he might have found the experience of watching 13 women naked and orgasming – distasteful.
As I was riding home, it occurred to me why the discussion group was so stilted. We had all just watched and experienced deep intimacy and intense sexual expressions for over 2 hours. The last 90 minutes was a parade of women’s genitals in full bloom. There was all this sexual energy in the minds of us all. Our limbic brains had been playing at 78 speed for 90 minutes. And now, we were all trying to disconnect that motor and switch over to conversation and analysis.
I think an appropriate thing to say, to break that tension would have been an admission so that we could all just be with that for a minute and not pretend so much that it was not in the room at all. Something simple, like the very thought I had in my head:
“I don’t know about you folks, but after watching that movie – I gotta go home and fuck my brains out!”