In preparing a webcam presentation for Arse Electronika conference that took place in San Francisco this fall, I interviewed Lynn Schirmer with questions about her experiences in using art as a tool for expression and education around female sexual pleasure. Her responses were more than helpful for the preparation of my webcam presentation of the Euphoric Femme artwork, Her Pleasure, Her Desire; Remix. Schirmer’s insights on the challenges around sex education through art deserves to be shared. Below are my questions, followed by Schirmer’s honest, insightful and moving responses.
TA) Have you experienced any challenges in the sex education work you do with respect to female sexual pleasure?
LS) Absolutely. I found that most people, even those in the art community, who tend to have more liberal views, can be very uncomfortable and reluctant to address sex and sexuality in an open way. This is especially the case if they are confronted with the possibility in a less than private environment, even if the environment is positive and supportive. Centuries of religious teachings that associate sexual pleasure, especially women’s sexual pleasure, with degradation or sin, and other cultural practices that attempt to limit female mate choice, and control paternity, have left us with a legacy of repression and silence, with shame as its main operator.
In 2012, I created a multi-disciplinary art project [After Dinner Party] to help educate about the relatively recent re-discovery of the anatomy of the clitoris. At the beginning of the project, I expected that I would find support among feminist organizations, and volunteers from local Women’s Studies programs, but this did not pan out. A component of the project involved community participation, the proliferation of an innocuous drawing referring to shape of the organ. Despite reassurances such as, “It’s ok, it’s not dirty yet!”, finding people willing to do something as simple as wearing a button for a day was extremely difficult. Without having seen the image, many women, among them a feminist activist, derided the idea, and equated it to spreading pictures of penises around town.
I self-hosted the project’s art exhibitions in my building, which fortunately is a center for the arts in my city. If I had not had this resource, it’s unclear whether I could have found a willing venue. Although the project was given generous coverage in a local alternative weekly, the two major papers not only ignored it, they would not publish it in their event listings. There were also multiple reports about difficulty accessing the project’s website. The website presents an overview of the discovery and re-discovery of the organ throughout history, along with a selection of journal articles and medical illustrations. A friend found it interesting that she could order porn on her hotels’ cable service, but could not access the website, as filtering programs had labeled its content inappropriate. It is an odd world we live in when searches for teen sex are okay, but the word clitoris, and information about it must be obscured from sensitive viewers.
For the art exhibition, I made a 15 foot inflatable sculpture of the organ. I placed it outside the main venue on a public sidewalk. I noticed a very distinct pattern of interaction by passersby. They’d freely engage with the sculpture until they became aware of the adjacent sign, explaining the nature of the exhibit. They would then look around, shrink back and quickly walk away. A few young men took the opportunity to put on dominance displays for their friends, taking turns in mock-mounting the sculpture. Children were drawn to the sculpture as it looked in many ways like a giant cartoon character or bouncy toy, and many ran up to it to touch it. Once their caregivers became aware of the sign, they’d quickly grab the hands of their charges and briskly escort them away. There was nothing overtly sexual about the sculpture at all. There was nothing that needed explaining to the children, or to protect them against. I can only guess that it was an immediate rush of culturally conditioned shame attending the assignment of meaning that spurred these reactions.
TA) Are there stories (without revealing any persons) that you can share regarding challenges in finding one’s own desire and pleasure?
LS) For nearly 30 years, I’ve been involved in activist projects about child sexual abuse. I have met hundreds of survivors. I have had the honor of witnessing a number of survivors’ journeys through the difficult hurdles of recovery. I have seen them exit abusive relationships, confront their perpetrators, and work to reconnect with their bodies, and to their own sexuality. I noticed that many of the struggles faced by survivor friends and acquaintances in reclaiming their sexuality, especially those subjected to early and ongoing assaults by caregivers, hinted at a sort of imprinting process at work, with arousal tied to a referencing of the general scenario of the original abuse. One woman could not become aroused enough to orgasm without briefly accessing a mental image of her perpetrator. Another sought out role playing as a submissive as it subtly evoked the conditions under which she was abused. Each one who was ultimately successful in recovery was cognizant of the processes at work, and consciously set out to break the imprinting, eventually disconnecting the mental ties between arousal and the original abuse scenarios. This required a significant amount of time, persistence, and the support of loving and sensitive partners.
Other cases of sexual self recovery are much more complicated. My friend, author Janet Thomas, is a survivor of non-State torture and human experimentation. She was subjected to repeated, and organized group sexual assault throughout her childhood. Janet finds great solace in the wonder and beauty of nature. In her memoir, she describes with haunting vividness how she began to reclaim the pleasure of arousal and satisfying sexual response for herself. It came about through a communion with a Madrona tree, which offered smooth, red, de-barked skin. As you might imagine, working to heal one’s sexuality in an outdoor area can lead to comical situations as well. Read Janet’s full account in Day Breaks Over Dharamsala: A Memoir of Life Lost and Found.
Schirmer’s Drawings, Paintings, Sculptures, & Projects can be seen at LynnSchirmer.com.