Contemporary Thinkers Redefine Sin and Re-vision the Erotic
by Deborah Grenn-Scott
The Lilith midrashim or reinterpretations written by Judith Plaskow and Ellen Frankel, the Lilith poems of Lynn Gottlieb, Alicia Ostriker, Susan Sherman and others, the writings of Carter Heyward, Anne Bathurst Gilson, Audre Lorde, Marvin Ellison, Jalaja Bonheim and other theologians and scholars help to re-frame the definition of ‘erotic’. Their work is an important pathway towards Western cultural healing, a mandate we all share.
It is empowering to learn that our best sense of the erotic can be found in our work, in music, in dance, in poetry, in song, and as Betty De Shong Meador (1976) has said, in family relationships. The erotic is our shakti, our passion, our sexuality, our kundalini energy, our creativity—our very lifeforce. Contrary to the way our culture has defined it, the erotic is not the connection of sex with violence, nor is it the celebration of bloody wounds incurred or inflicted on the battlefield.
We have seen the killing of men and rape of women portrayed as both entertaining and erotic in film and art, from the throwing of Christians to lions to the rape of the Sabine women; even our language abounds with metaphors reflecting our fascination with death, such as ‘sudden death’ plays in football. The rape of the Amazons, the horrors of the Inquisition, the killing and rape of plantation slaves and Nazi camp prisoners, the unimaginable crimes perpetrated against Rwandan women several years ago and against Afghani women today, the creation of Bosnian rape camps—all are variations on the same inhuman theme: ‘man’ at his most savage. To see these events treated as erotic is one of the greatest sins of humankind; that they occur at all is itself the biggest sin.
Sadism—which certainly played a role in all these activities–is greeted as erotic in the literature and life of the Marquis de Sade; and in the Malleus Maleficarum, the handbook of the self-appointed judges who ran the witch-hunts, when sadism and the demonization of women took on new meanings and proportions. Sadism, one of the primary factors driving persecution, torture and the use of rape as a political weapon is perhaps the cruelest of all dimensions of the ‘power over’ paradigm. It appears and reappears throughout history, often under the guise of religious and civic authority, and is made all the more heinous when the perpetrators accuse the victims of either deserving or enjoying the pain involved.
Yet it continues to titillate. How can such twisted views of the erotic self persist while we mock and even outlaw natural expressions of love?
My own interest in re-defining the erotic crystallized as a direct result of reading Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic” (Lorde, 1984); her powerful words had the immediately recognizable ring of truth.
“The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives” (Lorde, 1984). Is it any wonder women have such trouble locating our own power? Is it any wonder that we give it away so easily? We are never taught that power belongs to us, and if we feel the slightest hint stirring, we immediately deny it or squash it as a “bad” or “dangerous” feeling. It becomes easy for an oppressor to steal what we feel guilty about owning. For those of us who enjoy power, there is guilt and often an inability to claim our rightful share.
There is danger to women in ignoring such erotic impulses. If we instead learned to appreciate and enjoy both our sexual pleasures and our ambition–which we have often been taught are selfish or inappropriate for women to pursue–they would energize and enrich us. To suppress our shakti, the primal energy which is our very core means resigning ourselves to lives of emptiness and frustration; without a healthy outlet for our erotic juices our minds atrophy and our spirits wither.
“As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge,” says Lorde. Indeed, men used to dismiss “women’s intuition” as either silly or irrelevant. They no longer laugh at the concept; instead, they build entire management systems around it. We must remember that “the erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough”. She follows this statement by pointing out that the erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women; that “pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it…emphasizes sensation without feeling” (Lorde, 1984).
“The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic or intellectual forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference” (Lorde, 1984). Lorde’s description of how a sense of the erotic opened up her capacity for joy is in complete alignment with my own thoughts and experience. Yet without her words I might never have identified my own human potential as being tied to the erotic in all its senses.
On a visceral level I had identified certain activities and feelings as erotic, but I had not named them as such on an intellectual level before reading Lorde’s work. My view of the erotic was a much narrower one limited to sexual references, physicality and sensuality, bereft of intellectual or emotional dimensions. I knew instinctively there was nothing erotic about what most in our society casually and automatically term ‘erotic’; I knew, too, that I often found those activities offensive, invasive, empty, demeaning and lacking in humanity.
As Vicki Noble writes in Shakti Woman (1991), for example, we live in a culture that perceives rape as sexual. “We are inundated with imagery and advertising that use women’s bodies and our erotic energies as lures to sell products and to lull people to sleep”. She speaks of the ancient caverns of the Paleolithic era in 30,000 BC, when “the vulva was the first religious symbol, representing the doorway, our entry into life…our ancestors carved vulvas on cave walls, on rock, over doorways, and finally in temples”; she writes of the sacred sexual rites and dances which people used to perform for the Goddess. All this beauty, this awe, this respect for the Great Creatrix represented by Lilith and Life in all its aspects has been taken away, distorted, corrupted and shamed. “Scholars tend to project their own ideas about sexuality onto the figures and paintings of early people expressing a kind of sexuality we know almost nothing about. Women in ancient cultures were free in ways we can’t imagine. Their sexuality was innately connected to their spirituality. How can this wholeness be understood by a people in whom the two are irrevocably split?” (Noble, 1991).
Noble asks, “How are we ever going to find our way back to the garden [of female-centered sexuality]?” (Noble, 1991). I think one of the most important, effective ways in which we can find our way back is by trying to remember with our cellular memory how it felt to view sexuality as spirituality, and the sacred as erotic. Seeing the world through those mindsets again could bring major change, and would certainly be one step toward healing the artificial, unnecessary split between Eve and Lilith, “good girl” and “bad girl” and then, one hopes, the chasm often dividing men and women.
Respected feminist theologian, professor and domestic violence activist Rita Nakashima Brock defines what many of us would call erotic power in her book Journeys By Heart, A Christology of Erotic Power (1995). “In the feminist vision, Eros is both love and power”, she notes, and this Eros encompasses the “life force”. This is in dramatic contrast, as she shows, to the patriarchal definitions – in which, for instance, love and intimacy are tied to aggression, possession and domination – and in which Eros is often equivalent only to lust or sexuality. She points out, and I wholeheartedly agree, that “Eros is a sensuous, transformative whole-making wisdom that emerges with the subjective engagement of the whole heart in relationships….Erotic power is the power of our primal interrelatedness.”
To allow the continued theft of what Rachel Hillel (Redemption of the Feminine Erotic Soul, 1998) calls our ‘erotic soul’, to know that it is disguised, disfigured so terribly we cannot recognize it—or to be penalized when we do find it in our lives and celebrate it—these are the true sins, the crimes against humanity. If we view life as sacred, they cannot continue. Our consciousness, and our actions, must undergo major shifts if we are to create a culture based on respect instead of fear, peace over violence, eros instead of exploitation.
Rape is one of the clearest examples of a crime against humanity, of an instance in which not just eros but soul life is instantly killed in one party, dead in the other. Transforming A Rape Culture (1993), an excellent anthology, presents a disturbing but clear picture of how great the need is for increased awareness and strong, immediate action. In the essay “I Just Raped My Wife!” – The Church and Sexual Violence” Carol J. Adams looks at the problem of denial of such violence by the Church, and why the naming of marital rape and other violence has taken so long. Another chapter, “I Thought You Didn’t Mind” by Elizabeth Powell, speaks of date rape, the language of assertion and the importance of making assertiveness feminine.
I find great hope in the fact that “by critically reflecting on their own location within institutionalized biblical religions, feminist theologians are able to claim their own religious voice, heritage and community,” as Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza notes in The Power of Naming (1996). “Just as Jewish, Muslim or Unitarian, so also Catholic feminist “theologies” speak in their own particular theological voices to their own communities and traditions in order to change them” (Fiorenza, 1996).
“Our cultural view of masculinity is informed by men speaking and writing about themselves and their experiences. So, too, our cultural view of femininity is shaped by men speaking and writing about their experience of women…Until women speak and write with authority, cultural conceptions of men, women and humanity will be but pale ghosts of reality. Fortunately, women now are articulating and publishing their own definitions and descriptions of life, of children, women, and men, and of the relations among them. (Sterk, in Van Leeuwen, 1993).
Womanspirit Rising (1979), edited by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, was one of the first sources I read when I first studied Lilith in 1985. Plaskow’s scholarship over the years has been excellent, making her a wonderful role model; in 1998, she has expanded this model by being named president of the prestigious American Academy of Religion. Her inspirational midrash interpreting the traditional myth of Lilith, together with the work done by Aviva Cantor and LILITH Magazine, set the stage for later modern-day interpretations and a new attitude towards Lilith’s story and character. (1979), edited by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, was one of the first sources I read when I first studied Lilith in 1985. Plaskow’s scholarship over the years has been excellent, making her a wonderful role model; in 1998, she has expanded this model by being named president of the prestigious American Academy of Religion. Her inspirational midrash interpreting the traditional myth of Lilith, together with the work done by Aviva Cantor and LILITH Magazine, set the stage for later modern-day interpretations and a new attitude towards Lilith’s story and character.
Renee Rosen, creator of the online “Lilith Shrine” has also helped to bring this powerful goddess-woman into the light of modern day consciousness. She tries to present many sides of Lilith’s character by including links to sites offering standard historical material as well as her own feminist analysis and writing. In creating an ongoing online dialogue about Lilith, she has provided a space where old myths can be countered by new interpretations.
One of the most omnipresent myths pervading our culture is that of the “good girl” and the “bad girl”. Almost from birth, girls are faced with a constant dilemma as their personalities form: the paradox of choosing either to be “good” or “bad”. As Schaef, Steinem and many others have said, it is an artificial choice, a social construct which has been a no-win situation for both girls and women. Our only hope for wholeness lies in the integration of both our Lilith and Eve characteristics.
“A woman becomes a sexual object…because she is taught that it is only through her sexual attraction that she is permitted any influence,” notes Dale Spender in For The Record (1985). Women have known this for centuries, and many have taken this route to power and influence, only to be simultaneously damned for doing so. Surely the use and alleged misuse of sexual power is confronted daily by every female executive, every woman in Washington, every woman who is successful in pursuits outside the home. “Women are therefore given a most difficult feat to perform,” Spender continues. “On the one hand, they are enjoined to get a man, but on the other hand they are forbidden to do anything active about getting him” (Spender, 1985). This sentiment is echoed by Naomi Wolf in Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood (1997).
A wonderful description of the pitfalls awaiting girls and women who constantly strive to fit into society’s definition of “good girls” can be found in Good Girls Go To Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere (1994) by German author Jana U. Ehrhardt. Ehrhardt is right on target in her portrayal of the self-defeating mental models – such as “Learned Helplessness” and “Self-Fulfilling Prophecy” – that can govern our lives if we do not think critically about our own and others’ behavior. Ehrhardt also talks about how we can improve our job performance and general life satisfaction by being more cognizant of our inner processes and not getting caught in mental traps such as “Helpfulness Will Be Rewarded” and “Only Someone Who’s Exhausted Has Really Accomplished Something!”
Happily, she also proposes various strategies to counteract the cultural dictates that have lead many women to fear power and risk, inhibiting their development and progress in the workplace.
I believe women can be taught to assume power more easily and to enjoy risk-taking; one way of doing this might be to teach our daugters greater self-determination and pride in their womanhood at an early age.
Judy Grahn’s book Blood, Bread and Roses (1993) makes clear the importance of ritualizing and marking menstrual rites from menarche to menopause in positive rather than shame-based ways. In it, she states that our foremothers created what she calls metaform, an act that makes a connection between menstruation and a mental principle.
Grahn’s metaformic theory, which both women and men should learn, is one of the elements which could help us make a major paradigm shift. This might occur for two reasons: a) men might learn to honor and value women more and better understand their own rites of passage, and b) it gives women a clearer understanding of who we are – and teaches us that from a perspective we cannot ignore. That can lead us to value ourselves differently, far more than we were ever taught to in the past, and if we can impart that sense to our children, there is indeed hope. Grahn’s book turns the worlds we were shown upside down and inside out, waking us from a deep social coma. Reading it, however, requires a temporary suspension of skepticism and an open mind. It is worth the effort, for while some may disagree with Grahn’s findings, they are likely to view life/blood quite differently after the reading.
Another way we can change the future together is by becoming aware, even when it is painful or foreign to us, of exactly what young women face today–and forming coalitions with schools and other community organizations to change it. Though many things may have changed for adult women, especially for those consciously making change in their own lives daily, in many respects teenage girls face the same threats to their self-esteem that my generation did. I hear stories now and then that make me feel as though we have even regressed – boys and girls calling each other ‘ho’ (whore) and ‘bitch’, for example, at ages 12 and 13, or girls of the same age encountering dating violence.
It seems reasonable to assume that rap music lyrics are another threat to girls’ self-esteem and emotional independence. These lyrics raise such gender role and double standard questions as to be thoroughly confusing for any young woman or man. Both the words and the promotional videos are so blatant in their hostility towards and denigration of women as to require a mention here, though I only cite them in passing as a danger to our children’s development and as the epitome of dominator model psychology.
Central to achieving these goals is for women to be more comfortable with their sexuality. Sex professional Juliet Anderson [a stage name] writes in Women of the Light: The New Sexual Healers (1994): “I wish I could share my gifts with more women, to help empower them in their sexuality. It helps me to remember that throughout history, visionaries often have been vilified by the majority. My heroes and heroines have been those who rocked the boat” (Anderson, 1994). “One of the most important validations [of my work] came from the late Rev. Carol Knox, minister of a local Unity Church…[who] commended me for doing ‘missionary work’—by stressing the importance of not splitting spirituality from sexuality…” (Anderson, 1994).
In myriad ways, then, women–theologians, poets, writers, teachers, artists and artisans, clergy, sex workers, scholars and mothers–are setting great examples through their writings and in the way they live their daily lives, through the new niches they are carving out for themselves professionally, in their scholarship and creativity.
There are many lessons we can learn from these and other female leaders – whether we find them in our families, at our children’s schools, in the pulpit or in the workplace.
It has been very exciting for me to participate in the current women’s spirituality discourse and to contribute to this passionate body of feminist scholarship. Working to once again create new language and to redefine gender roles, wrestling with the reshaping of family structures and spiritual practices has been a tremendous challenge.
One key element in that analysis has been taking a closer look at the creation myths on which I was raised. The willingness to re-evaluate or deconstruct such myths is vital to all women and men living in contemporary society. As Bettina Knapp puts it, “Those who yearn to see may glean new insight and alternative directions for themselves by drawing upon and responding to the riches embedded in these myths” (Knapp, 1998). In Lilith’s case, I feel that those riches may serve as a warning, as a red alert directing us to read history–whether presented to us as myth or ‘fact’–with a keen awareness and a critical eye.
As we explore traditional texts and write new ones, we can reclaim what Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza calls ‘the power of naming’. It is only through such metamorphoses that our world can once again become an integrated whole.