ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

December 20, 2009

Tantra, Completion and Sexual Healing: Getting Physical by Jade Lee

“Didn’t it come straight out of the fifties phrase book? How to please your man and act like a moron in six words or less.”

– Lee. J., 2009, Getting Physical [Mills & Boon] p.172

That, right there, is one of the things that really annoys me about romance fiction – the regressive gender roles. I wrote my rant about Trish Morey’s The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge some time ago, and it really brought to a head for me what makes me so mad when reading romance fiction sometimes. Jade Lee is spot on (unintentionally, I think) when she starts talking about the fifties. Ideal happiness in romance fiction is domestic bliss – a man, a house, perhaps some kids and a dog. Take the end of Getting Physical:

“Then she laughed, the realisation hitting her broadside. She could had it all: career, family and love. Most especially love.” (Lee, p.211)

I felt like slapping Zoe, the main character, upside the head and asking her who told her she couldn’t. The reason she gives throughout is that ‘there isn’t time’. She’s working shit hospitality jobs in order to make ends meet while she pays her way through an MBA after a messy divorce. Good on her for striking out on her own after her life turned to shit and trying to make it solo, but ‘there’s not time’ really is not an excuse for avoiding relationships.

Not that I think people should have relationships for the sake of it – that came out wrong. But I’ve read a few romance novels now where the heroine always seems to think she has to choose between a man and, well, a life. Usually at the end she’s like, ‘duh, I can have them both’. Odd how the men never seem to have these problems.

Getting Physical is centred around the aforementioned Zoe and Stephen Chu, a Tantric master. Now, I don’t know where Lee did her research, but I’m pretty sure what she has in this book about tantra is totally messed up. It seems to be very much pop-tantra, completely ignoring the fact that sexual tantric practices are one tiny, tiny element of tantra and are not for seeking some kind of divine orgasm, which is what the book seems to suggest. I could write a lot more about this, but it’s not really serving my overall purpose… if I was going to write a thesis about the portrayal of tantra in romance fiction I don’t think it would be very long.

But considering this book is a book about tantra and in the light of what I was talking about before – the whole Foucault-sex-and-the-individual thing and the notion of sex as completion – I found this quote (courtesy of my good friend Mr Wikipedia) from Tibetan Buddhist Tantric Master Lama Thubten Yeshe very interesting:

“Everything that we need in order to be complete is within us right at this very moment. It is simply a matter of being able to recognize it. This is the tantric approach.”

– Yeshe, Lama Thubten, 1987, Introduction to Tantra:The Transformation of Desire [(2001, revised ed.). Boston: Wisdom Publications] p. 4

This is completely counter to the message which definitely runs through this novel, that Stephen and Zoe need to have sex to fulfil and complete each other. Of course, tantra is such a multifarious thing with so many incarnations it is possible that there are different texts somewhere. I am certainly not an expert – what I know of tantra I learned from a couple of lectures in some of my courses at uni. But it’s interesting.

Anyway, off the tantra, back to  the novel. Having read and written that stuff about the individual and sexuality this morning, I was really very interested when I got to one particular passage in the novel where Zoe actually heals Stephen through sex. Like, literally. He has all this mental pain and agony from having parents who didn’t love him and whatever blah blah blah, and through one tremendous night of sex, Zoe actually heals him of this pain. Through some mystical tantric connection/bond/thing she manages to express some kind of maternal love for him (incest ahoy!) and he finds that he doesn’t feel tha pain any more.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a romance novel where the hero’s pain (or heroine’s, for that matter) has been healed bam! like that through sex. Sure, it’s implied A LOT, but this was explicit. One day pain there, one day gone. The reason? Sex.

I found the way sex was encoded in this book a little troubling, to tell the truth. Stephen is a tantric master and Zoe, via a series of events, becomes his student. Sure, he’s all like ‘you’re not my student, I’m so omg important and advanced I don’t take students, only partners’, but considering he’s always bossing her around in the bedroom, she’s pretty much the pupil. (She actually calls him on this at one point. I cheered). Their sexual liaison starts off focused on ‘gaining heaven’ – again, I’m pretty sure that this is not really the goal of tantric sex, but whatever. This means that they are focused on each other’s mutual pleasure (as well as a whole bunch of other ritualistic stuff and opening energy channels and whatever – I found it pretty amusing that all Zoe had to do to guarantee an epic orgasm was what the author attractively called ‘breast circles’. Basically, this meant performing what was essentially a breast exam on herself. I laughed, I’ll admit it). And I was all over this mutual pleasure thing, and the language of partnership, even if it didn’t exactly play out that way.

But then the second time they have sex, we get this delightful set of words:

“It was hard because she had brought him to his most primal self, the animal in him that pounded inside a woman, that took what he wanted and claimed it for his own. That primal man was infinitely powerful as he branded this woman with every penetration. Zoe was his.” (Lee, p.103)

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Steady on there, young one. No more mutual pleasure (though Lee does go to an effort to say that he makes sure Zoe has a good time as well). No more attaining bliss. This is all caveman throw-her-over-his-shoulder stuff. And this is presented as some sort of ideal response – that instead of wanting just to give her pleasure, he now wants to possess her as well.

This dialogue of possession has been running through literature for, like, ever – and not just romance fiction. Thing is, romance fiction is in a position to begin subverting this kind of dialogue. It’s fiction by women for women (most of the time), and as a woman, I don’t have a great desire to be possessed. I object strongly to this possession being some sort of form of higher love, while the mutual pleasure thing is somehow lesser, even though the mutual pleasure thing is certainly fairer and generally more awesome.

After a while, when Zoe follows Stephen to China, they start having ‘regular’ sex instead of (though not to the exclusion of) tantric sex. This is, in terms of story, anyway, something that makes sense –  they start having sex that’s all about them instead of attaining heaven or whatever. This is where the individual/completion thing really comes to a head. Previously, when they were having tantric sex, sex was about attaining heaven – and it was a very individual thing. The first time they have a sexual encounter, Zoe manages to go to heaven (some kind of sparkly shiny place, from the not-very-descriptive description) but Stephen does not. The second time, they both make it, but it’s not like they see each other there, and Stephen makes it to a higher level than Zoe does. This is the occasion on which she manages to heal him through the power of love or whatever, and it’s where the line really begins to blur. By the time they’re in China and are screwing for the sake of it, it’s no longer about this individual satisfaction and goal – it’s about completing oneself with the other.

The whole ‘two halves of a whole’ metaphor has been running through literature for years – and it’s compelling. Think of Heathcliff and Cathy (‘we are the same, he and I!’) or thousands of other couples. And I’m not against it, per se – though I think it’d be nice if Zoe and Stephen and assorted others could achieve some kind of individual realisation that doesn’t result in them being codependent. What I do object to is the way this is usually gendered. Getting Physical played out almost exactly the way I was talking about before. Zoe, a divorcee, has been subject only to Bad Wang and sex with Stephen is true initiation into the sexual realm for her. Stephen, on the other hand, is a tantric master (a dragon master, Lee calls him – somehow I doubt the veracity of this term, though the moment when he called his penis his ‘dragon organ’ had me on the floor in tears of laughter) who has been having good sex, for, like, ever. He is the teacher, the initiator, the high priest. She is the student, the novice, the one being initiated. He completes her through sex, fills a hole in her life. She also fills a hole in his life, but it’s one he didn’t even realise he had – he didn’t even realise he needed her Magic Hoo-Hoo until she’d healed him with it.

So it ends up being mutual – a kind of codependence. But it never starts out that way. And it’s insulting to both men and women, really. It suggests that a woman needs a man to be complete, and that a man needs to be fixed before he can love.

I’m going to keep an eye on this trend. It’s interesting.

I would, however, tell people to read this book, because it is totally freaking hilarious. The quote I posted a few hours back in only the tip of the iceberg. This book has some absolute pearlers in it. And the whole tantric phone sex scene absolutely freaking killed me. Seriously, I had cramps from the laughing.

There was one moment, though, which I thought was genuinely superlative writing. It was the beginning of a chapter – just one sentence, but it really stood out to me. It’s the night after Stephen and Zoe have first had ‘regular’ sex, and they’re waking up in bed together. The chapter begins with this line:

“Stephen woke to the sound of a page turning.”

I thought that was really good writing. Simple, but effective. Even if it can’t erase Stephen’s ‘dragon organ’.

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