From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").
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I first began reflecting on desire in March 2020, when England went into lockdown and a global pandemic brought the world to a standstill. My interest in the topic was sparked by a call from a friend, Stella, who was worried that I was spending lockdown in solitude. Her concern annoyed me. I was pleasantly single and Stella, I thought, knew that. Yet her worry was not entirely misplaced. Stella knows me as someone drawn to new experiences. I could be described as an extrovert-passing introvert, simultaneously expressive and withdrawn (a combination of characteristics which I half-jokingly attribute to my ethnic ancestry, to being both stereotypically Nigerian and stereotypically Finnish at once). But to the extent that the lockdown weighed on me, which was considerable, solitude was not the problem. The 8th century Sufi Mystic Rabi’a said, “My peace, O my friends, is in solitude.”
The word solitude has always borne a similar blissful undertone to me. I’m an only child who has moved between countries much of my life, often navigating new environments – physical, cultural, emotional – alone. The unprecedented opportunity for solitude in the otherwise ominous atmosphere of lockdown was, in some ways, the silver lining for me. It was a freedom not to be forced to spend twenty-four hours a day with anyone, no matter the ease I felt in their company. To be fair, Stella’s broader concern was not my relationship status; rather she knew that the side of me that hungers for the human touch – camaraderie, discussion, closeness – would feel famished in isolation. Months later, when I was reunited with a man I’d started seeing before the pandemic, I did indeed feel much of the lockdown heaviness lift. In the company of someone I would grow to love, my Weltschmerz during the second lockdown was less bleak. But at the time of Stella’s call, it bothered me that a favourable attitude to solitude such as mine did not even seem to be a considerable option. It was indicative of a pattern of social behaviour where regardless of a woman’s desires, a societal norm is imposed upon her. The atmosphere of the new pandemic made me even more allergic to such patriarchal conditioning than usual.
During that lockdown, I spent the days reading books by women who lived secluded lives such as Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence, Tenzin Pelmo’s Cave in the Snow, and May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude in which she wrote, “Solitude swells the inner space like a balloon.” Their words conveyed a subjectivity that I gulped as though from a deep well. It eventually became clear to me that I felt at home in these authors’ worlds not simply because they offered camaraderie, but precisely because due to being away from everyday patriarchal realities, they wrote about their lives, memories, and observations with a rare freedom. They were not appealing to male vanities and hierarchies about knowledge and performance; they were not constrained by what a woman can say or, more fundamentally, can even want to say. They were, in essence, the authors of their own desires.
In mainstream cultural discussion, desire is typically associated with sexuality. As Lana Del Rey sings in Burning Desire, “I drive fast, radio blares, have to touch myself to pretend you’re there … I’ve got a burning desire for you.” We connect desire to sexuality partly, and precisely, because sexual desire affects us physically (as in the Del Rey song). When a person is aroused, blood rushes to the erogenous zones, the heart beats faster, the skin flushes and burns, and is sensitive to touch.
But which other desires shape the common vocabulary? Can non-sexual desires also manifest physically? Is desire automatically erotically charged and, if not, then in what ways do non-sexual desires shape our realities?
Is desire automatically erotically charged and, if not, then in what ways do non-sexual desires shape our realities?
Philosophers have contemplated the elusive characteristics of desire for millennia, with Plato, the first philosopher to articulate a theory of desire in a systematic way, arguing that a life guided by desire is a flawed one, preventing us from living well and virtuously. As Rosalind Hursthouse notes, “Plato seems to think that ideally the appetites, or the desire for bodily pleasures, would be eliminated entirely [in the rational being].” Over the centuries, philosophers have come to engage with desire more seriously and sympathetically as a philosophical problem, developing theories of desire that distinguish between “action-based desires” and “pleasure-based desires” (among others), as well as between intrinsic and instrumentalist desires. As I began to think about and engage with the philosophical thinking about desire, however, I encountered a nagging sense that there is far more to desire than its notorious reputation as a “philosophical problem.” Coming from the feminist tradition, desire was not merely a metaphysical (and physical) phenomenon, but also a political phenomenon shaped by society’s power relations, structures, and beliefs. As with so many other theories about human drives and emotions, theories of desire overlook the crucial insights of a gendered analysis to their detriment. For example, Plato’s belief that the eradication of desire is the path to happiness and virtue is complicated by the fact that the systemic oppression of women is tied precisely to asking them to forgo their desires.
At the same time as feminist thought articulates the political dimensions of desire, it also focuses on the erotic dimension of political oppression. “Do some work! Transform Yourself! Look Better! Be more erotic! And through this command to meet the ideal, our society writes one message loud and clear across the female body. Do not act. Do not desire. Wait for men’s attention,” writes Rosalind Coward in Female Desires. The standard depiction of female desire in patriarchal culture suggests that women’s primary desire is to be desired by men. Consequently, as film theorist Laura Mulvey argues in her ground-breaking 1973 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (in which she coined the phrase male gaze): “Woman...stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of a woman still tied to her place as the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”
To the extent that desire is erotic, what would theories of desire be if women were makers, rather than bearers, of meaning?
To the extent that desire is erotic, what would theories of desire be if women were makers, rather than bearers, of meaning? For example, when a woman is aroused and ready for sexual intimacy, she opens her thighs so that she can touch herself or be touched. The more aroused she becomes the wider she opens her thighs. It might be accurate to signal female erotic hunger with symbols of open thighs, such as in Utkata Konasana, the yogic Goddess pose. Instead, in patriarchal society, a woman’s open thighs are made to seem vulgar and shameful except if the act is gesturing to the male desire to penetrate, possess, and devour the female body. In all other instances, women are trained to firmly close their legs.
Yet the point here is not simply that women are encouraged to close their legs sexually, but that they are also encouraged to “close their legs” socially, culturally, and politically. Just as sexual desire manifests physically, so too does the repression of political desire materialise in gesticulation, gait, how the body ages, curls, bends, creates, and heals. By way of an example, think of a person claiming space: we typically envision movements that are broad, square-shaped, striding, wide-handed, angular. In other words, our space awareness is masculinised. By contrast, cultural norms encourage girls to be body-conscious – to hide behind their hair, cover their bellies, be ashamed in one way or the other over the fact of their maturing bodies. Such a political education that masculinises space awareness and social environment has a profound effect on women’s ability to claim space, that is, to express agency.
Both women and desire are of course complex social categories. To the extent that desire is a political phenomenon, women in different parts of the world, and women of different generations and persuasions, desire different things: suffrage, freedom from enslavement and colonialism, sexual liberation, worker’s rights, the right not to work, maternal leave, surrogacy, bodily freedom, independence, wealth. None of these desires are simple or straightforward. What one group of women desire infringes on what another group wants. Intersectionality certainly complicates the notion of “what women desire,” and attempts to formulate feminist universals generate strong critique from within feminism itself (for example, the “political feminism” defended by Vivienne Jabri). However, as Iris Marion Young famously wrote, “Without some sense in which ‘woman’ is the name of a social collective, there is nothing specific to feminist politics.” Women may not have the same desires, but they share the same repression of their desires. Women everywhere in the world, at every time, have shared a desire for self-expression, and self-expression for every group of women, at every time, everywhere in the world, has always been constricted by patriarchal structures. This deeply political truth complicates the way that we understand and analyse desire.
In Harry G. Frankfurt’s influential essay, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” he defines personhood as contingent on desire. What distinguishes humans from other species, Frankfurt argues, is that while “many animals appear to have the capacity for what I shall call ‘first order desires’ no animal other than man…appears to have the capacity for reflective self-evaluation that is manifested in the formation of second-order desires.” It is this reflective evaluation of our desires that is constitutive of true personhood for Frankfurt, such that a person “is not only free to do what he wants to do; he is also free to want what he wants to want.”
Male-dominant interpretations of desire don’t only restrict women physically and sexually, they compromise a woman’s personhood.
If the status of personhood means to be “free to want what one wants to want,” then a gendered analysis of desire reveals that women must not only be free to do what men can do, but free to have free desire. In light of Frankfurt’s analysis, we may conclude that male-dominant interpretations of desire don’t only restrict women physically and sexually, they compromise a woman’s personhood. Women’s first-order desires (what they want) are entangled with patriarchal norms, just as their second-order desires (what they want to want) are deeply interwoven with structures and narratives that shape society in men’s favour. The ways we think about how to love, have children, worship, work, and be of service, are influenced by the language and meanings of desire. There have always been, and there continue to be, times and places when to express one’s desires was a dangerous and oftentimes lethal act for women. The control of women’s reproductive systems, the imposition of male lineage, the denial of rights and education, the objectification of women’s bodies, violence, rape and sexual harassment, the denial of positions of power, of erotic agency, of goddesses, have subtly and overtly denied women personhood. This is as true when women have refused to worship an empyrean patriarchal God as when they expose sexual violators in a campaign such as Me Too. It is still absolutely the case in the modern world, even in the most progressive of societies.
“Our visions begin with our desires,” the black feminist poet Audre Lorde said. Her words offer a strong message to end with. The ancient roots of the word desire come from de sidere, “from the stars”. The etymology makes me think of how, when our wishes manifest, we feel bright and alive like a star. When our needs are unmet, their absences crystallise into disillusionment, regret, and sorrow. When a star has no source of energy, it eventually collapses on itself and forms a black hole from which life cannot escape. Women’s repressed desires make me think of collapsed stars crushed under the weight of the patriarchal order. Rethinking the language of desire has been part of the feminist project from the start but it may also prove to be the last (and murkiest) terrain of liberation for women. Reconfiguring desire may be the way to lift the crushing weight.
Minna Salami is a Nigerian-Finnish and Swedish author and social critic whose blog MsAfropolitan has won multiple awards. Her debut book Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone (Bloomsbury/Zed, UK and (Harper Collins/Amistad, US) has been translated into multiple languages. Her second book, Can Feminism Be African?, asks what happens when we consider feminism through an African lens, and Africa through a feminist one. It is forthcoming from Harper Collins UK.
From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").
We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.