Rachel Krantz on Tuesday, May. 22nd
What do you want? Unless they’re ordering coffee, it’s a question most women aren’t usually asked.
A new documentary web series called The Desire Project is looking to change that. The project is the brainchild of Victoria Floethe, an editor who, as her bio puts it, “believes sex is the best story, if you can tell it.”
And that’s exactly what Floethe is trying to do. Two years ago, well before Fifty Shades of Grey made female fantasies a trending topic, Floethe began interviewing women about their desires.
“It didn’t matter who it was. I found that women, when given the opportunity to talk about their desires, speak a new language, an almost spontaneous poetry,” Floethe said. “I asked myself, can people actually speak in full sentences on the internet? Is that allowed? Will it be compelling?”
As it turns out, yes. Watching these short videos, you realize something surprising: We’re not used to watching intelligent, articulate women speak on camera. Sure, Floethe’s subjects are well-lit, and yes, many are almost painfully beautiful. But the real reason it’s impossible to look away? These are real women being honest about their desires.
Take Emma. She’s freckle-faced and a member of the naturally beautiful, sans-makeup. She makes sincere eye contact with the camera as she speaks slowly.
“I like doing things knowing someone’s watching them, and constructing a narrative along with someone,” Emma smiles. “I think women are much better at mythologizing than men…so when I find someone who appreciates the small details I’ve cultivated — almost particularly for the purpose of being noticed by them — then that’s the greatest thing to me. It’s really precious.”
Not that desire is always about romance. Floethe said she’s done interviews where women define their desires professionally, even athletically. But most of the time, a conversation about desire means a conversation about sex.
“Desire’s a very powerful concept,” said Cindy Gallop, a noted TED lecturer and Desire Project interviewee. “And it’s a concept that doesn’t get enough credit, particularly when it comes to sex. Female desire, especially, doesn’t get enough credit. Because a lot of research on sex and sexuality has historically been done by men.”
Most women are not willing to admit to their sexual impulses. Which has lead to some media confusion over the sudden popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey. Katie Rophie tried to articulate the conflict in her recent Newsweek cover article.
“Huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming myriad and disparate fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace,” Rophie wrote. “We may then be especially drawn to this particular romanticized, erotically charged, semipornographic idea of female submission at a moment in history when male dominance is shakier than it has ever been.”
While she acknowledges that submission fantasies are “always there,” Floethe doesn’t believe that’s what Fifty Shades of Grey’s popularity is really about.
“I’ve been communicating with Elyssa Krietzer Stern of Diva Moms, one of the Mommy Bloggers who made the book big. She throws these parties for Fifty Shades of Grey,” said Floethe. “These women get together and talk about wanting to feel sexy, wanting to be sexual creatures, wanting to be turned on. And that’s what it’s about. It’s about sex.”
That’s not to say sex is simple. Floethe’s interviews revealed that women are grappling with conflicting feelings about their sexuality. One Desire Project participant, Alix, tried to explain her feelings about sex.
“Whenever it’s a little bit dark or demented, or inappropriate, I’m like, ‘Yea, let’s do it,’ ” Alix tells the camera. “But then I don’t necessarily act on them, because there’s the two sides that always pull: the Superego and the Id. Where I want to be slapped around and taken advantage of, but at the same time [I think to myself] that’s inappropriate, and I can’t do that, and I shouldn’t want that as a woman.”
Guilt over sexual desire is nothing new. But worrying how submissive fantasies relate to your post-post-feminist identity? Well, that’s probably a new one.
“It’s unique to our time. We’re very hyper-conscious of what we should be doing,” Floethe said. “For women, I think there is this divide between what goes on in your mind, and what actually happens in bed. And a divide between what you say you want in bed because you think you’re supposed to say you want it, and what you actually want.”
And to make matters more complicated, women usually learn what they’re ‘supposed’ to want from Disney movies. Nearly all the women in The Desire Project’s interviews trace their earliest sexual memories back to cartoons.
“I got caught masturbating by the babysitter. I was watching cartoons at the time,” said Julie, describing the fantasy she used to have surrounding The Little Mermaid.
“Prince Eric, as a cartoon — and in my imagination, he was a cartoon, not a real man — he would come save me. And I would be on the beach, and I was naked, and he would wrap me up in some kind of sailboat,” said Julie. “They were hot and heavy dreams for me. I was probably four or five.”
It might sound like a silly fantasy, but it’s one many women can relate to. To Floethe, the act of sharing these stories is nothing short of empowering.
“I think we’re often too polite. And in the end, we become victims of ambivalence. Should I stay or should I go? Must I manage my expectations? Should I go for excitement or respectability? We agonize over every decision we make, ” Floethe said.
“I think things can be simplified through storytelling; through the very act of fessing-up and saying what you want — how you want your life to be, and how you want sex to be. I mean, why not? What do you have to lose?”