2016-01-18

Katherine Ripley Rediscovers The Conventional Wisdom

Katherine Ripley of the Huffington Post writes,
By my fourth year of college, I had finally managed let go of all our society's misogynistic, heteronormative ideas about sex. But I'm left wondering--why did it take me so long?
Elsewhere in the same article, Ripley alludes to her having pursued heterosexual relationships. She does not, by contrast, make any allusion to her pursuing same-sex relationships. So it's probably safe to assume that she spent over twenty years of her life believing heteronormative ideas about sex because, as a participant in heterosexual relationships, those ideas are genuinely normal for her.

The real question is why a heterosexual would ever reject heteronormative ideas about sex. It's certainly a fair question to ask, but a truly attentive reader will be more specific: What happened before Ripley's fourth year of college that made her reject "misogynistic, heteronormative ideas about sex?"

A Jarring Perspective

The passage I quoted above was the fourth paragraph in Ripley's article. Here are the preceding three:
I recently finished reading Inga Muscio's Cunt. I'll start by saying that no matter who you are, you can learn something from this book. The first and most interesting thing I learned was this:
The word "vagina" comes from the Latin word for "sheath," as in, for a sword. 
This was one of those, "how did I never learn that in four years of liberal arts education?" moments that I've been having since I graduated in May. Of course. Women's genitals are defined in terms of men's genitals. And that's a problem. A woman cannot take ownership of her sexuality when the word for her sexual pleasure center implies it is her job, first and foremost, to please men. This is one of the many reasons Muscio rejects the word "vagina" and replaces it with "cunt."
Ripley wonders why, during the course of her college education, she never learned the etymology of the word "vagina," something she could have learned by looking it up in the dictionary.

Ripley now believes that the only clinically useful word for the female genitalia we have is an act of real misogyny. What could cause a person to take such a hateful view of oneself and one's sexual identity?

A Few Turtles Further Down

Why would one be inclined to first, reject every norm that genuinely applies to oneself, and second, to only ever use the most hateful term in the English language for one's own private parts? Think about it: What the hell would make a person feel that way? 

Ripley continues:
I remember being surprised when one of my girlfriends told me in high school that the first time she had sex didn't hurt at all. I was jealous of her. Because for me, it was still hurting. 
When we're left to figure out sex on our own, we accept whatever information we have available as true. Everything I read on the Internet told the same old story we've been telling for thousands of years: For girls, the first time you have sex is going to be painful; you need to just get it over with, like ripping a Band-Aid off; and once your vagina gets stretched out, it will be fine. 
I kept waiting for it to be fine. And it never was. Not until I understood that basically all of the information I'd absorbed was a lie.
Pause for a moment and reflect. I don't dispute what Ripley says about physiology, but that isn't really the issue here. We are reading about the thoughts of a sexually active high-schooler who, despite consistently feeling pain during intercourse, continued to be sexually active. Does that sound like a mentally healthy person to you?

Ripley next claims that "society" (who?) is "obsessed with this concept of 'virginity.'" (Scare quotes in the original.) For the record, I'm not aware of anyone who even thinks about virginity, other than virgins. The reason virgins seem to be obsessed with "this concept," I wager, is because transitioning from a sexless child to a sexually active adult is one of life's most profound stages of maturation. But Ripley says we're "arbitrarily holding vaginal intercourse up on a pedestal."

She claims to "loathe" (her word) virginity. If she merely loathed it, that might be the end of the story. But take a look at the bizarre story she claims that "society" believes (emphasis mine):
The "virginity" myth and the myth that a woman's first time having penetrative sex must be painful go hand in hand.... Pain during that intercourse is just a physical manifestation of the punishment you're about to endure (i.e. - burning in hell).
What?!? Who thinks this?

Next Ripley makes an empirical claim: That there are "tons" of pornographic videos that depict "'deflowerings.'" (The quotation marks are hers - who is she quoting?) I don't know whether or not this is true, but even if it is, I'm not sure it buttresses the claim that society has a violent infatuation with virginity, or that sex should hurt. After all, there are "tons" of scat-porn videos out there, and I'm pretty sure society in the main is not obsessed with that.

She hastens to add that she's not arguing against pornography, that pornography can be "safe." Safe? Why safe? Why does she use that word as a defense for pornography? Why doesn't she use a word like "healthy" or "normal" or "fun" or "appropriate?" Why safe?

Anyhow, at this point we finally come to Ripley's thesis statement: "we need better sex ed." Okay, fine, but now step back and observe the steps in her chain of reasoning:

  1. The etymology of the word "vagina" is sheath, therefore women's sexuality is defined by men's, therefore we should only use hateful, ugly words to refer to genitalia in order to sever this relationship.
  2. Therefore, society is dominated by misogynistic, heteronormative views on sexuality.
  3. Ripley's high school sexual activity was painful, because she was taught that physical pain is her punishment for sexual activity.
  4. This all relates to the fact that her boyfriend watched a lot of pornography, and consequently she learned everything she "knew" about sex from pornography.
  5. Ergo, we need better sex education.
This sounds less like an argument and more like a session she had with her therapist. In fact, it sounds like the sad ramblings of an unbearably wounded person.

Lucky Guess?

In February of last year, Ripley was the editor of her college paper when she wrote in an article that she had been the victim of a sexual assault. If there's anything that will completely upend a person's views of healthy human sexuality, that's it. In her article, she spares us the details of her horrible encounter, but she is clear about the psychological impact it had on her:
The worst trauma I experienced was not when one of my ex-boyfriend’s fraternity brothers tried to rape me at a date function. The worst trauma I experienced was seven months later, when I had a trigger while having sex with my ex-boyfriend, and he left. 
For those of you who may not know what a trigger is, it’s something that makes you remember your traumatic event, in a way that you feel like it’s happening to you all over again. You are disconnected from the here and now. You feel scared, your heart races, sometimes you feel like you can’t move or breathe.
For those of you who don't know, Ripley is describing the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In the wake of this horror, Ripley describes feeling a desire to reclaim the sexual promiscuity she described in yet another issue of the campus newspaper. Fair enough, but observe her reasoning (emphasis mine again):
You might say to me: why don’t you just wait until you’re in a steady relationship? And that’s valid. When sex is difficult because of traumas or fears, it’s probably best to do it with someone you know you can really trust. But I didn’t go that route because I wanted to return to a sense of normalcy. Taking a guy home from the party because I wanted to was part of my normal. After my trauma I continued to do it in order to convince myself that I was healed — that my past didn’t have to inhibit me.
Got that? The reason she didn't want to wait until she was in a healthy, steady relationship was because she wanted to feel normal. But what is more normal than a healthy, steady relationship? "Normal" for Ripley means separating emotional and physical intimacy at will, and choosing one or the other - not both. Normal also means not being bound by her past experiences, but rather being able to live as though she has never had them. It means living as though the same sexual history that lead her to physically painful intercourse in high school and sexual assault in college "didn't have to inhibit" her. That's her version of normal.

Once again, Ripley is ready to prescribe solutions. This time, it's communication:
Well, I have always believed you should do what you want to do, free of judgment or pressure from anyone else. Sometimes it’s hard to tease out your authentic desires from cultural standards, but to the extent you are capable of knowing yourself, listen to that instinct. And most importantly, in taking the liberty of doing what you want to do, take care that you don’t harm anyone — and that includes yourself. For survivors of trauma, this means waiting until you’re ready. And for those who haven’t survived trauma, it means being more aware of the fragility of your partners’ sexual selves. None of the men I took home with me had any power or responsibility to fix me. But they did have a responsibility to communicate — to check in every step of the way — because that’s what you owe anybody you share that level of intimacy with, no matter what their history is.
That sounds healthy enough... until you get insight into what effective communication looks like, in Katherine Ripley's opinion:
He had his hands on my hips as he led me upstairs, a trek I had taken already half a dozen times. He locked the door to his room behind him as he closed the door. He kissed me — a kiss that was starting to feel familiar. And in the moment right before I expected him to reach for the top button on my shirt, he stopped abruptly and said, 
“Doll, we’re clear right? It’s just casual sex.” 
It was the verbal summary of all the non-verbal communication that had taken place in the month since we’d met — the cheap drinks at night, the hasty exits in the mornings, the fact that he never texted earlier than 10 p.m. One thing was for sure: nobody was fooling anyone. And I kept coming back.
I mean... I put it to you, my readers: Does that seem like a healthy encounter to you?

Probably Not

If your answer is "no" - and, by the way, my answer is certainly no - then you'll be happy to know that after a few months, and many intensive therapy sessions, Ripley herself no longer believes that these encounters are healthy:
Hypersexuality is a common side effect of sexual trauma (as is avoiding sex altogether). I didn't know this at the time I wrote that piece. During that period of my life, I wasn't just, "taking a guy home from the party because I wanted to." I was actively going on Tinder and looking for guys to meet at bars and then bring home with me, because I felt like I needed to.
Ripley says she didn't want to stop being promiscuous until one of her casual encounters "went horribly wrong" and resulted in a major panic attack.

Just as she did with pornography, Ripley hastens to add that she isn't condemning "promiscuity" or suggesting that every promiscuous person has mental problems. Then she moves on to her conclusion. But if "hypersexuality is a common side effect of sexual trauma," then shouldn't Ripley be asking herself whether there is any benefit to embracing promiscuity as a sexual norm? Shouldn't she be asking herself whether she was right to defend "hook-up culture?"

No, she doesn't do that, but she does quote her therapist as having said something genuinely wonderful: "Society has all kinds of value systems for determining when sex is okay and when it's not okay. But the only one that really matters is the unity of mind, heart and body."

I agree!

Maybe Society Is Not So Misogynistic, After All

It's crucial - absolutely vital - to understand that Katherine Ripley writes feminist articles about sex for the Huffington Post. That puts her in the position of being more than some blogger recording her psychological development in a digital diary. She's in a position of influence, and she represents those voices arguing against "all our society's misogynistic, heteronormative ideas about sex," and in favor of hook-up culture, pornography, and casual encounters.

Rewind, back to when Ripley was discussing her sexual assault. I'll quote it again, because it's important: 
When sex is difficult because of traumas or fears, it’s probably best to do it with someone you know you can really trust. But I didn’t go that route because I wanted to return to a sense of normalcy.
Compare that to Ripley's perspective after a lengthy and intensive dose of psychological counseling:
I never went back to sleeping with random people. When I felt like I was ready to start dating again, I wrote in my new Tinder profile: "Do not message me if you are only looking for hook-ups."
I want to implore my readers to fuse all these ideas together into something that makes logical sense. For all the people out there writing in favor of being sexually libertine, of normalizing casual sex, of normalizing sex work (indeed, that there is "dignity in whoredom"), there are people out there who are genuinely attempting to live by that advice.

Katherine Ripley was one of them. She embraced pornography as sexually normal. She participated in "hook-up culture." She experienced promiscuity as "normal for her." She actively communicated about her expectations, or lack thereof. And the result of all of this was intensive psychotherapy and, ultimately, an embrace of committed physical and emotional intimacy with committed partners...

In other words, Katherine Ripley embraced society's norms and ideas about sex. Perhaps, one day, she'll be ready to ask herself whether those norms and ideas provide important guidance to us about what truly is safe and mentally healthy behavior.

Maybe there's something to tradition, after all.