THERE ARE MANY KINDS OF POWER, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise.
The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female
and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed
or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression
must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the
culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women,
this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source
of power and information within our lives.
We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused, and
devalued within western society. On the one hand, the superficially
erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the
other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible
and suspect by virtue of its existence.
It is a short step from there to the false belief that only by the
suppression of the erotic within our lives and consciousness can women
be truly strong. But that strength is illusory, for it is fashioned
within the context of male models of power.
As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our
deepest and nonrational knowledge. We have been warned against it
all our lives by the male world, which values this depth of feeling
enough to keep women around in order to exercise it in the service
of men, but which fears this same depth too much to examine the possibilities
of it within themselves. So women are maintained at a distant/ inferior
position to be psychically milked, much the same way ants maintain
colonies of aphids to provide a life-giving substance for their masters.
But the erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force
to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the
belief that sensation is enough.
The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women.
It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the
plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have often turned away
from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of
power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic.
But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for
it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes
sensation without feeling.
The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self
and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of
satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can
aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling
and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require
no less of ourselves.
It is never easy to demand the most from ourselves, from our lives,
from our work. To encourage excellence is to go beyond the encouraged
mediocrity of our society. But giving in to the fear of feeling and
working to capacity is a luxury only the unintentional can afford,
and the unintentional are those who do not wish to guide their own
This internal requirement toward excellence which we learn from the
erotic must not be misconstrued as demanding the impossible from ourselves
nor from others. Such a demand incapaci- tates everyone in the process.
For the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question
of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing. Once we know the
extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction
and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors
bring us closest to that fullness.
The aim of each thing which we do is to make our lives and the lives
of our children richer and more possible. Within the celebration of
the erotic in all our endeavors, my work becomes a conscious decision
- a longed-for bed which I enter gratefully and from which I rise
OF COURSE, WOMEN SO EMPOWERED are dangerous. So we are taught to separate
the erotic demand from most vital areas of our lives other than sex.
And the lack of concern for the erotic root and satisfactions of our
work is felt in our disaffection from so much of what we do. For instance,
how often do we truly love our work even at its most difficult?
The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms
of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human
need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that
need - the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work
of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment.
Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by
which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love. But
this is tantamount to blinding a painter and then telling her to improve
her work, and to enjoy the act of painting. It is not only next to
impossible, it is also profoundly cruel.
As women, we need to examine the ways in which our world can be truly
different. I am speaking here of the necessity for reassessing the
quality of all the aspects of our lives and of our work, and of how
we move toward and through them.
The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification
of love in all its aspects - born of Chaos, and personifying creative
power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it
as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy
empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in
our language, our history, our dancing, our work, our lives.
There are frequent attempts to equate porn('graphy and eroticism,
two diametrically opposed uses of the sexual. Because of these attempts,
it has become fashionable to separate the spiritual (psychic and emotional)
from the political, to see them as contradictory or antithetical.
"What do you mean, a poetic revolutionary, a meditating gun-runner?"
the same way, we have attempted to separate the spiritual and the
erotic, thereby reducing the spiritual to a world of flattened affect,
a world of the ascetic who aspires to feel nothing. But nothing is
farther from the truth. For the ascetic position is one of the highest
fear, the gravest immobility. The severe abstinence of the ascetic
becomes the ruling obsession. And it is one not of self-discipline
but of self-abnegation.
The dichotomy between the spiritual and the political is also false,
resulting from an incomplete attention to our erotic knowledge. For
the bridge which connects them is formed by the erotic - the sensual
- those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest
and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared: the passions
of love, in its deepest meanings.
Beyond the superficial, the considered phrase, "It feels right
to me," acknowledges the strength of the erotic into a true knowledge,
for what that means is the first and most powerful guiding light toward
any understanding. And understanding is a handmaiden which can only
wait upon, or clarify, that knowledge, deeply horn. The erotic is
the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.
THE EROTIC FUNCTIONS FOR ME IN several ways, and the first is in providing
the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another
person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic,
or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the
basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and
lessens the threat of their difference.
Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is
the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy. In the way
my body stretches to music and opens into response, hearkening to
its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens
to the erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building
a book- case, writing a poem, examining an idea.
That self-connection shared is a measure of the joy which I know myself
to be capable of feeling, a reminder of my capacity for feeling. And
that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes
to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge
that such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called
marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife.
This is one reason why the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated
to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all. For once we begin
to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from
ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance
with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of Our erotic
knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize
all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects
honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And
this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us,
not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected,
nor the merely safe.
During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncolored
margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched
like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave
the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the
little pellet to break it inside the bag, releasing the rich yellowness
into the soft pale mass of margarine. Then taking it carefully between
our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over,
until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine,
thoroughly coloring it.
I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from
its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my
life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens
all my experience.
WE HAVE BEEN RAISED TO FEAR THE yes within ourselves, our deepest
cravings. But, once recognized, those which do not enhance our future
lose their power and can be altered. The fear of our desires keeps
them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth
is to give it strength beyond endurance. The fear that we cannot grow
beyond whatever distortions we may find within ourselves keeps us
docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined, and leads us to
accept many facets of our oppression as women.
When we live outside ourselves, and by that I mean on external directives
only rather than from our internal knowledge and needs, when we live
away from those erotic guides from within ourselves, then our lives
are limited by external and alien forms, and we conform to the needs
of a structure that is not based on human need, let alone an individual's.
But when we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power
of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform
and illuminate our actions upon the world around us,. then we begin
to be responisible to our selves in the deepest sense. For as we begin
to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity,
being satisfied with suffering and selfnegation, and with the numbness
which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. Our
acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered
In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness,
or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me,
such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.
And yes, there is a hierarchy. There is a difference between painting
a back fence and writing a poem, but only one of quantity. And there
is, for me, no difference-between writing a good poem and moving into
sunlight against the body of a woman I love.
This brings me to the last consideration of the erotic. To share the
power of each other's feelings is different from using another's feelings
as we would use a kleenex. When we look the other way from our experience,
erotic or otherwise, we use rather than share the feelings of those
others who participate in the experience with us. And use without
the consent of the used is abuse.
In order to be utilized, our erotic feelings must be recognized. The
need for sharing deep feeling is a human need. But within the european-american
tradition, this need is satisfied by certain proscribed erotic comings-together.
These occasions are almost always characterized by a simultaneous
looking away, a pretense of calling them something else, whether a
religion, a fit, mob violence, or even playing doctor. And this misnaming
of the need and the deed give rise to that distortion which results
in pornography and obscenity - the abuse of feeling.
When we look away from the importance of the erotic in the development
and sustenance of our power, or when we look away from ourselves as
we satisfy our erotic needs in concert with others, we use each other
as objects of satisfaction rather than share our joy in the satisfying,
rather than make connection with our similarities and our differences.
To refuse to be conscious of what we are feeling at any time, however
comfortable that might seem, is to deny a large part of the experience,
and to allow ourselves to be reduced to the pornographic, the abused,
and the absurd.
The erotic cannot be felt secondhand. As a Black lesbian feminist,
I have a particular feeling, knowledge, and understanding for those
sisters with whom I have danced hard, played, or even fought. This
deep participation has often been the forerunner for joint concerted
actions not possible before.
But this erotic charge is not easily shared by women who continue
to operate under an exclusively european-american male tradition.
I know it was not available to me when I was trying to adapt my consciousness
to this mode of living and sensation.
Only now, I find more and more women-identified women brave enough
to risk sharing the erotic's electrical charge without having to look
away, and without distorting the enormously powerful and creative
nature of that exchange. Recognizing the power of the erotic within
our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our
world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the
same weary drama.
For not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but
we do that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist,
patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.
Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde is the author of numerous books
of poetry and essays. She is an outspoken critic of racism, sexism,
classism, and other systems of domination, as well as a prolific creator
of nest, cultural possibilities. This essay was originally delivered
as a speech in 1978 at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History
of Women, Mount Holyoke College, and has become a feminist classic