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Well, today I saw a list of jobs with the highest divorce rates. The top of the list was “Dancers and Choreographers,” followed by “Bartenders.” My sister was a Dancer who married a Bartender! They have been married for about twenty years now – defying the odds.

And here is a photo of a butterfly I took today.

Polygonia interrogationalis. A Question Mark. "Question Mark" is the name of butterfly.

Polygonia interrogationalis. A Question Mark. “Question Mark” is the name of butterfly.

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As everybody can probably guess, I just love love love Dan Savage. I’ve definitely disagreed with him on occasion, but he’s right far more often than he’s wrong. More than anything, I grew up in a culture that was not ashamed of sex, where I was told that sexual pleasure was normal, natural and good, and I love that Dan Savage unapologetically continues advocating for that when so many other people have become mealy-mouthed on the subject.

My mother very much wanted to raise strong, independent minded women who were not ashamed of their bodies or normal sexual desires. Needless to say, she wasn’t anything like Michelle Duggar. We didn’t have “rules”, just advice and suggestions.

No one is going to put my mother on the cover of any magazines soon because her opinions on sex are highly commonplace for women of her generation. As the old saw goes, Dog Bites Man is not news, Man Bites Dog is news, and the Duggars are better than twenty-one men biting twenty-one dogs in tutus and tiaras. Consequently, Michelle Duggar, with her highly unusual opinions about women’s sexual behavior gets her own tv show and magazine covers announcing “Our Rules for Sex and Love.”

Really, you almost have to feel bad for Dan Savage, sitting in a barber shop, having the two eldest Duggar daughters smiling at him over that come hither headline. The man has made a career out of being a bold advice columnist writing primarily about relationships and sex and here are two young women, living in a religious cult version of Plato’s cave, talking about their parents’ rules for sex and love. It’s almost like a provocation.

(Note to Dan Savage’s barber: Get better reading material.)

As Savage notes in his column, the Duggars are not just a few individuals with quirky ideas. They are a politically active family that would like to remake the rest of us in their image.

One of the rules for marriage they are promoting is that a woman can never say no to sex. Via Savage:

And once a Duggar girl is married, says Mom, she is never allowed to say no to sex. “Duggar women don’t get headaches,” Michelle told Us. “You always need to be available when he calls.” And if you’re not always available—if you do get a headache, or you’re just not in the mood one night, or if turns out that your husband prefers Dad’s auditions—then you’re to blame when your husband cheats on you.

Sometimes, I am under the impression that we in the United States are a little bit naive. We have lived in a modern society for so long that it really doesn’t register in our minds what the full impact of these ideas might be. Michelle Duggar is not horrifying to us because we know that she lives in the U.S. and if she wanted to leave Jim Bob Duggar she could. There is little preventing her legally, or in society as a whole.

Shortly after reading Savage’s opinion of the Duggars, I came across a blog post that put Michelle Duggar’s comment about how she must always be sexually available for her husband in context. It was an email from a woman who lives in a culture where wifely submission is the norm. It was written to Pakistani-Canadian illustrator and blogger, Eiynah who writes about sexuality on her website Nice Mangos. In this email, the writer, who lives in Pakistan, says that she’s sharing her story because “so that other women may speak up if this is happening to them.”

The writer, who reports being intimidated by her husband, was in labor with her second child. Her husband went to a friend’s party while she went to the hospital alone. Eventually, however, he showed up.

Immediately after the birth of my child he spoke to the hospital staff, stating that our first born was still a toddler, and that I was needed at home because of that. I was discharged within 6 hours.

I don’t know what is the norm, but it is clear that she was discharged according to his needs, not hers. Afterwards, she was in excruciating pain from the episiotomy.

As soon as I got home, I was expected to care for all my in laws, cook and clean for them as well as look after my two children. An impossible feat when one can barely stand. The first days after child-birth, you need pampering, as any new mother will tell you. You need to be looked after and you need to recover. You need all the help you can get. And to have two children under four, is extremely exhausting. To be expected to cook and clean and wait on people as soon as you enter the house, borders on some sort of abuse. It is abuse actually, now that I look back on it. I don’t know how I managed. But somehow I did, because I had no choice. I was expected to take over the house work, because I was the ‘daughter-in-law’ and that was my role. If I refused the consequences could have been worse. I got through it somehow, but I would never wish it upon anyone.

Then we see the result of a society in which women are not allowed to ever refuse sex to their husbands.

On the third day after my delivery my husband tried to initiate intercourse and I told him (hesitantly) that I had stitches, and that the doctor had told us to refrain for 40 days as well. Then he got mad (as he often did) and I was terrified of him going elsewhere to satisfy his sexual needs so I decided to just let him do what he wanted. He said he ‘needed’ it, and that nothing would happen.

He said that I shouldn’t refuse him sex because then he would have to go elsewhere for it. He could tell that I was in pain and he continued anyway, my body had tensed up, I told him that I was worried my stitches would tear, and he told me it would be ok, because he would be careful.

After that experience I was bleeding excessively and had to continue doing the housework for the whole household including waiting on my in-laws. At my next doctors visit, I told my doctor that we had had sex on the third day and she was very shocked and upset. She told me that we had to refrain. But even after that we continued having sex every four or five days (not my choice). I have never refused my husband sex, ever. Its just not an option. I was raised to keep the peace and please my husband.

She concludes:

Many years later, we obviously don’t have a great relationship. But I continue to do what I need to, to keep my marriage going.

Even in cultures where men are clearly dominant in a relationship, there are kind, caring men who would never dream of behaving in this way. However, if someone has the misfortune to be married to someone who is not, she has no recourse. The ethos the Duggars are promoting can only seem benign the context of the United States where we know that the wider society does not enforce these beliefs, but let’s not kid ourselves about what this would mean for some women if it were widely embraced. We have moved away from these attitudes because over the decades women have agitated to change them.

 

You know that day when you realize that your period really is late? I didn’t keep track of things on a calendar or anything like that. There was just a sense that it had been a while and I was mulling it over and trying to remember what I was doing the last time I got my period so I could peg a date on it. Was it three weeks? A month? I’ve always been absurdly regular. So I got off my ass and headed down the hill to the nearest drugstore. Walking back carrying the pregnancy test kit, I was calculating how we would make it all work out. I’d taken a year off from graduate school. Maybe that would turn out to be a good thing. Certainly having a child would rearrange our previous ideas about who would go to school and who would work and when. Cheri working while I went to school and took care of a child would make sense. Then, by the time I was done with school, the child would be old enough for daycare or nursery school. Without a graduate degree, I wouldn’t earn more than we’d spend on daycare anyway. On the other hand, could I manage school and a child at the same time? Maybe there was a way I could take on extra work during the next few months so we could save up a little money for the future. What a shame Quebec scrapped the baby bonus only a year earlier. It was hard to figure out an ideal plan, but it seemed to me that there were at least two or three workable plans. I wasn’t quite sure exactly how we’d handle it, but I arrived home with the home pregnancy test feeling pretty comfortable with the notion that we could handle it.

Cheri was home when I walked in the door. I went upstairs and put the bag on the platform next to the tub. I don’t remember if Cheri was already upstairs or if he followed me upstairs, but I remember sitting down on the edge of the tub as we talked. I told him where I had been, what I had gone out to buy and why. He raised his eyebrows and gave me the sort of look a parent or a teacher gives a child who has done something wrong. “You’re going to have an abortion, of course.”

The phrase “of course” came crashing down on me. Of course seemed like such a strange thing to say. And why the declarative sentence? At least if it was an imperative it would have had some honesty. When we married we discussed having children and we both agreed that we wanted them. It was odd for me because, before meeting Cheri, I never really wanted them, but he loved children and wanted them. With him, for the first time in my life, I could see having children and I changed my mind. We were still trying to get on our feet, still trying to get our careers launched, so children were not part of our immediate plan. At the same time, over the years we had gone beyond being imperfect in our use of birth control. We had essentially abandoned it. True, we were not trying to conceive, but we were doing nothing to avert it either. We were married and we wanted children, or so I thought.

Had he said to me that this was an especially bad juncture in our lives to have kids and could we talk about whether or not it was really what we wanted to do, I would not have been so startled. Ironically, I probably would have agreed to whatever he wanted anyway if he had approached it in that manner.

“No, not of course,” I said.

He raised his eyebrows again.

“I thought you wanted children.”

“I changed my mind,” he said.

“When?”

He shrugged. “A while ago.”

“And when where you going to tell me about it?”

He shrugged again.

“You could have at least put on a fucking condom then.”

“How likely do you think it is that you’re pregnant?”

Now it was my turn to shrug. “Not very, but I figured why speculate.”

“Then there’s no reason for us to discuss this until we know.”

The next morning the test came out negative and a few days later I got my period. The ultimate confrontation was deferred, but it was another crack in the foundation of our marriage. How could he make such a major life decision without consulting me, or even informing me after it had been made? That he could go on having unprotected sex with me seemed to display a callous disregard for my general well being.

“Of course.” I kept hearing his voice saying “of course” over and over again in my mind.

Boy, do we live in a schizophrenic society or what? I’ve been trying to get a post out for most of today. After reading one by Holly over at Love and Heretics, I wanted to write something to the effect of “Speak for yourself. I love sex. It doesn’t have to be a big emotional thing at all.” That seemed a little too short, so I followed all the links in her post trying to find something more profound to say, or, failing that, at least interesting, or longer.

The first link led me to Holly’s initial post in which she discusses what she feels are the negative consequences of being a virgin on your wedding night. She discusses it pretty frankly and I have to give her a lot of credit for that. It of course put me in mind of my wedding night, which was some of the best sex I ever had. Despite the fact that I was far from a virgin, our wedding night was still pretty special. My now ex did one of my absolutely most favorite things which, as able as he was, he only managed to succeed in doing on a handful of occasions. It’s a real shame that he turned out to be an emotionally stunted mess, because he was great in bed. I can’t help thinking that that might be one of the drawbacks of “kicking the tires” first. Sometimes the tires are so damned good, you don’t notice that the rest of the car is non-functional. Of course, the real reason I made such an oversight is because we were having a long distance relationship. I used to joke that we got married on our fourth date. It was the fourth time we met in person, although we’d been writing letters for over a year and a couple of those visits lasted a week. The relationship reached a point where it was jump in with both feet or end it, and we jumped.

Afterwards, he held me in his arms and was crying and said, “That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced.” That statement validated my own feelings. Sometimes after sex, when I’ve had a particularly intense experience of what I can only describe as being of a transcendental nature, I find myself wondering whether or not the other person experienced the same thing. Usually, they do. Still, sometimes you find yourself brought back down to earth wondering how much of what just happened was real. As a wiser man than I once said, the sexiest part of the body is the brain. Yes, there is physical stimulation, but a large part of what makes the experience so intense sometimes is in our heads. It can also ruin the experience.

It’s ironic that our wedding night was so intense because the first discussion I ever had with my soon-to-be husband when he was still a stranger on a park bench was about how neither of us believed in marriage. But governments do, so we got married.

After reading Holly’s initial post I followed her link to an article on the Huffington Post, which reminded me immediately of why I never read the Huffington Post. It’s so trashy that I feel like I need to take a shower afterwards. Beneath the article there was a painfully stupid “quiz” about which celebrities postponed sexual intercourse with their significant other until they got married. I was actually relieved that I’d never heard of half the people in the quiz. I don’t like to be totally clueless about popular culture, but I don’t want my head to be totally in the gutter either. The article itself was barely an article. It was a short video clip of interview with a woman who wrote about how taking a purity pledge as a teenager wrecked her marriage. There was a link to an article she wrote that appeared in Salon, which the Huffington Post with its usual low quality incorrectly identified as Slate.

This is where the world gets schizophrenic. Salon may not be as trashy as the Huffington Post, but it’s not exactly the New York Review of Books either. I could barely read the article that had brought me there with the title of another article staring out at me from the side bar. The Worst Porn Ever! Really! Ooooh. Don’t rush over there. It’s sounds pretty banal. Backdoor Teen Mom. Apparently there’s a television show that makes z-list celebrities out of women who have children at a young age and – don’t be too shocked now – one of them has cashed in on her celebrity by making a porn video. Guess what, the acting is bad. You’re shocked aren’t you. And here you thought that Backdoor Teen Mom would be the film that cements pornography as a legitimate art form.

Meanwhile, in our schizophrenic culture, Jessica Ciencin Henriquez was recounting her experience at a bible camp where she pledged herself to Jesus and received a purity ring.

And it wasn’t just the ring. This was a movement with T-shirts and hats and the added bonus of superiority over kids in school who couldn’t keep their clothes on, those sinners.

Missing out on sexual pleasure during her teen years made her feel “superior.” What can I say? It’s a big world and it takes all kinds.

She then goes on to say:

After an intense and very detailed sex talk with my mother , where she stuttered and I blushed and we both used the word “flower,” I was terrified of sex.

This reminded me of an incident that occurred the last time I went to the hairdresser’s. My sister came with me. The hairdresser is about my age and still absolutely beautiful. She is tall and thin, has a huge head of wild hair, rides a motorcycle and just has a look that you expect her to be pulling out a guitar rather than a pair of scissors. Unsurprisingly, she had a story about how the previous night she had gone with a friend to hear a band and ended the evening making love to the guitar player half her age. I said to her, “You say that as if there’s something wrong with that.”

“You don’t think so?” she asked with a leading high note on the last word.

“Well, was it good? Did you enjoy it?”

“Oh, it was great. He’s so good-looking, and he’s great in bed. And he’s funny. We just had such a good time. I haven’t had a night like that since I broke up with my girlfriend last year. It was just what I needed.”

“So, then what’s the problem,” I asked, sensing a negative note in her tone.

“Well, I’m not looking for a relationship with him.”

“So….”

“Well, it’s my precious flower.”

In perfect unison, the muscles controlling both my and my sister’s jaws relaxed and our mouths slowly opened hitting the bottommost position at exactly the same time. Together, our heads swiveled on our necks, hers to her left and mine to my right, and we said, “Your… flower?”

The hairdresser took a step backwards, visibly defensive. Later my sister told me that she felt bad about her reaction but she had just been so surprised to hear a grown woman talk that way. “Yes,” she stammered, “my mother told me not to give my precious flower to just anyone.”

“Look,” I spat out, “you’re divorced, with two kids. You just ended a relationship with another woman. Please tell me you’re not still thinking of the advice you mother gave you when you were thirteen and everyone’s biggest worry was that girls would have babies before graduating from high school. We’re both of us baring down hard on fifty. If you don’t want Mr. Twenty-Something Rock-n-Roll, send him my way. He sounds like what I need, too.”

I sat down in the chair. As she cut my hair, I tried to reassure her that there was nothing inherently wrong about casual sex. It seemed that her only qualms about the night before had to do with what she was told by her mother over thirty years ago.

Unfortunately, Ciencin Henriquez’s story lacks any truly satisfactory introspection. We learned that she married young, had boring sex for a few years, then got divorced. As a coda, she tells us that she has since had good sex, some casual and some with a new husband. I do believe, do to my own experience and discussions with both male and female friends, that our beliefs about sex shape our experience of it.

What prompted this post to begin with is that in Holly’s otherwise fine post she says:

I think the distinction was made that waiting for sex until you are older and more mature, and the realization that having sex does indeed do things like give an emotional bond between people, and is more than just “causally having a cup of coffee” as sometimes it is tried to be made out to be is an important observation.

Truthfully, I often feel like the sour note in the chorus when I talk about sex because I do think it can be great if it’s casual. Looking back from the perspective of a woman in middle age, I’m glad I first had sex when I was fourteen. I know other people think it’s irresponsible to say that out loud, but that is the truth. I agree with Anthony Bourdain that, “Your body isn’t a temple; it’s an amusement park.” True, sex can be an opportunity for an emotionally bonding moment, but so can sitting up and talking until dawn. Finding a man I can enjoy fucking is easy. Finding a man I like talking to is hard. Everything in society tells me that I’m supposed to be stingy with my body and generous with my heart. Sex, they seem to say, is never an end in itself.

So, everyone seems to worry whether or not being a virgin on your wedding night is good for, or bad for, your marriage. The presumption, of course, is that marriage is the goal – for everyone. To me, sexual pleasure is a good in and of itself. No one asks if this crazy pressure towards marriage has a negative effect on your sex life. It’s marriage that is everything. Your pleasure is nothing.

Towards the end of Ciencin Henriquez mentions that her wedding dress cost more than the family car. This put me in mind of another episode in my life. My sister was getting married. They did have a real wedding. They were even married by a minister since my brother-in-law’s brother was a minister and he agreed to perform a non-religious ceremony. My sister and I had both sometime earlier agreed that spending a huge amount of money on an official “wedding dress” made no sense. If you just go to your favorite store and buy the prettiest white dress you can find without checking the price tag, you will probably wind up buying something that costs a fraction of a dress marketed as a wedding dress. So, one day I went to the store and I saw a pretty dress. I phoned my sister and told her about it. She said buy a size 8. I put it in large envelope and mailed it to her. She looked as lovely as any bridezilla and was a lot more fun to be around. Despite her lack of concern about her dress and the details of the wedding, she’s still happily married.

After all, your wedding day is still just one day. Your wedding night is still just one night. Marriage isn’t for everyone. Sex isn’t even for everyone. I don’t think there’s any one right way to live. I know I’ve done things that I’m supposed to feel ashamed of, but I don’t. One day, I’m going to write all of them down. There’s something out there that lies between thinking sex is not an experience to be valued in its own right, but only a means to an end, and Backdoor Teen Mom.

Oh, yeah, and the hairdresser, as she finished cutting my hair the phone rang. It was that guitar player. Guess he’d had a good time too.

A view of the St. Lawrence River looking south from Quebec City with the river partly frozen and snow on the ground.1994 – 1996

My French teachers may have taught me grammar and some basic vocabulary, but it was Dédé Fortin who taught me how to feel things in French. I don’t pretend to be a good language learner. If I’m inordinately proud of my modest abilities in French, it’s because it was such a huge effort for me to learn. Basic grammar came easily enough and my memory is good for vocabulary. I arrived in Quebec with these rudimentary skills. However, fluency eluded me. I could read a newspaper, but couldn’t hold a conversation. I could watch the t.v. news but not a sitcom. All those one to three word half sentences that make up a large portion of social interaction were like a verbal equivalent of shorthand, and were as indecipherable to me as shorthand is to someone who has not learned it. Quickly spoken sentences in which sounds, and sometimes entire words, were dropped were a total mystery. On top of that there were the occasional differences in pronunciation and vocabulary between Quebec French and French French. These differences are often exaggerated by snobby Francophiles, but they do exist and can add to the puzzle.

Beyond that, however, was another aspect. Words in French didn’t go to my heart. Certain turns of phrase have extra power, or musicality, or beauty. I couldn’t recognize that in French. The words had only their literal meaning with no resonance. It was like a world without color.

Going backwards a couple of years to the time before I even thought I might be moving to Canada, I drove there with a friend who was attending a physics conference at Laval University in Ste Foy, near Quebec City. Shortly after crossing the border, my friend turned to me and said, “Hey, I bet we can get a radio station in French.” A bit of fiddling with the dial and we had a pop music station playing songs in both French and English. A song came on that had lyrics that were spoken rather than sung. Of course we couldn’t understand the lyrics. Then, there was a break, a fiddle and some stomping that sounded like clogging. I looked at her and she at me. Interesting.

Later, in Quebec City, I walked into a record store and tried to describe the song. They looked at me a little funny. I asked other people including this long-haired guy that tried to pick me up while I was sitting on a park bench. No luck.

About two years later, I was married to that long-haired guy and had recently moved to Canada. On Saint Jean-Baptiste day, the Quebec national holiday, we went to the park where they had bonfires and music that went late into the night.

The next day on the news, they showed video clips from festivals around the province. Suddenly, “Hey! It’s them! It’s them!” I grabbed my husband. “Who are they? That’s the band I keep asking everyone about.”

“Huh? Them? That’s les Colocs.” He went over to his small but neatly organized stack of cassette tapes. He handed one to me. “You can keep it. I’ve only listened to it a couple of times. I don’t really like it.”

Yippee! Yippee! Yippee! Les Colocs! For the next month I listened to it obsessively every time I was alone in the apartment. I learned all the words to all the songs. I started trying to find other French Canadian music that I liked. I also began to discover a dark side the man I married. It was just a small sign at this time. He made fun of me for my taste in music. “Why do you want to listen to that stuff? You do realize that we mostly listen to American music. They only play that stuff on the radio because of the language laws.”

Despite his discouragement, I began to track down other French Canadian musicians I heard on the radio. Once, when my husband was away at an academic conference, I went to a nightclub in the old part of town to see les Respectables. One of the band members made several pretty good attempts to chat me up. Ah, but I was a newlywed and still in love… silly me. He really began to rib me when I started listening to Jean LeLoup. (“Ick, he’s weird.” “Well, that makes two of us.”) It was ironic because while I lived there he would constantly complain that I didn’t like Quebec well enough, but whenever I found something to like there, he’d put a damper on it. Whenever I’d start having fun, he’d dump cold water on me, then complain that I wasn’t cheerful. It was subtle at first. After all, we all tend to argue a bit about musical taste, taste in clothes, movies, books, hobbies. It took a few years before I realized that he disapproved of just about everything I liked, nor could he just shrug and say, “To each his own.” He had to needle and tease.

Finally, I saw a notice somewhere or heard on the radio that les Colocs would be playing in Quebec City. They were playing a place I’d never been to located on a bleak little stretch of Boulevard Charest, if I recall correctly. I wanted to go so badly, I put up a big fuss until the spousal unit agreed. The place was not especially large, but it was packed. Being short, I found a little platform or step up against a wall near the back. I squeezed on it next to a couple of guys a few years younger than I was, sensitive looking types who seemed as excited as I was. Watching the faces of the two next to me, I began to get an idea of which lines worked and which did. I could see the emotions registering transparently on their young faces. Then the first notes of “Juste une p’tite nuite” began. This was a song especially hated by Hubby. It was too “mou.” Soft. Wimpy. The boys to my right both closed their eyes. They mouthed every word along with the singer on stage.

Music, even without the meaning of the lyrics, carries its own emotional content. It was through listening to the songs of French Canadian songwriters, and above all André Fortin, that I learned, not simply to think in French, but to feel in French.