Conversations on Diversity Parts Ainít Parts: The Lives of "Not Men"


Lyndall Ellingson, Health/Community Services (photo KM)
How does our experience with gender and sexuality affect our relationship with our bodies? How does that relationship affect the care we give our bodies? In a recent of the CMGS-sponsored Conversations on Diversity, Professor Lyndall Ellingson, Health and Community Services, shared some of her research as a health educator, behavioral scientist, and sexologist.

Ellingson is fascinated with the multi-dimensionality of gender and such questions as how the psychosomatic experience of a penetrator differs from that of the penetratee, how we establish intimate dyadic and interpersonal relationships, and how our social, cultural, interpersonal, and intra-psychic scripts determine the way we live our lives. Focusing on the latter, she said, "I'm looking at how the lived body experience of being female and experiencing that body sexually impacts how women feel about their bodies in our society."

When Ellingson researched women's attitudes about breast self-examination, she found there existed a profound ambivalence between their notions of the breast as a site of erotic pleasure and as a site of death. "Breasts are the most highly eroticized part of the body we have," she said. "The phallus is a pretty strong contender," she joked, "but, you don't see the phallus used to advertise cars.... If we're trying to encourage women to take care of themselves by practicing self-examination, we then have the issue of masturbation because this highly eroticised body part is not supposed to be touched. The assumption is that women are able to interpret non-sexual health education messages and apply them, and I think that assumption is false. I want to say, parenthetically, that I think we're dealing with that same issue in the era of AIDS, where sex is now both pleasure and death."

Quoting from Kaschak, Ellingson explained that the body, as much as the mind, carries the memory of its experiences. "Living in a culture that assigns maleness as the norm extracts a psychological toll. Rather than creating a sense of identity based on female experience, women learn to see themselves as `Other.' And this sense of otherness involves a sense of denial at a very deep level. I think that living as a gay or lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual person in a culture where heterosexuality is the norm incorporates a sense of otherness."

Moving to a discussion of her own work, Ellingson elaborated on the body-versus-self paradox: "What I found was that the women in my study who failed to meet very traditional images and definitions of femaleness—women who were very, very obese, who were disabled, who were lesbians, who were ill as children, who were athletes, and those who consciously avoided motherhood, had a really amplified somatic style. They had powerful words [for their bodies]—not necessarily good words; their relationship to their bodies wasn't necessarily positive—but they were very vocal. They had a rich vocabulary, very dynamic. Self-touch was part of their tool kit in terms of pleasuring themselves. They were more likely to have breast stimulation be part of their sex life. They had really elaborate self-care regimens. Women who actually met the traditional imagery [of the feminine norm] had a very diminished somatic style. They didn't have the words, and the words they had were muted, were less colorful. They took their bodies for granted and weren't able to overcome the masturbation taboo in terms of sexual stimulation and in terms of breast self-examination." Most of these women, she said, were thin and met cultural stereotypes for feminine attractiveness. Many of them were also mothers. That they didn't have a vibrant relationship with their bodies surprised Ellingson, who said, "I would think that motherhood would be a pivotal experience in recognizing my body and having language for it." Unfortunately, she added, neither group practiced self-examination with any regularity.

The discussion that followed her talk ranged freely from why bisexuality might seem more threatening to people than homosexuality (a, if instead of a polarity between gay and straight there's a spectrum, we might be uncomfortable with where we locate ourselves within it; and b, bisexuality might seem more promiscuous), to the reasons parents "worry for" a child who deviates from sexual norms, to the ostracism and special categorization in some cultures of sexual others, to the suggestion that there might well be more than three types of sexuality. As always, the conversation on diversity raised many new questions worth investigating.

BA


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