Words Open Worlds II
Bill Long 12/4/07
In the Arms of Karezza*
[A reader's response to my essay is here.]
Well, after the journey into Georgia and Georgian studies, which I described in the previous essay, I wondered if I had enough fun for one night. But I pressed on, and here is what I found. First, I learned a new word--a word that describes Georgian studies--Kartvelology. The Kingdom of Georgia's ancient name was "Sakartvelo," and Georgia was a successor to ancient Colchis and Iberia east of the Black Sea. Now you can see the origin of the term. This web site tells us that interest in Kartvelology is growing, but in truth you wonder how it could be declining...
There is no entry either in the OED or the Unabridged for Kartvelology, but that really is no problem, because the "Kar" page invited me to check it out more closely. When I did, my eyes fell on karezza. Never did I think that I would be taken on such a journey....
Karezza, an R-Rated Word
Karezza derives from the Italian carezza, which is a caress. The OED defines it briefly as "sexual union in which ejaculation or complete orgasm is avoided." Instead of coitus completus, or coitus interruptus, it is coitus reservatus. You "save" the sperm, so to speak. The word was coined by Victorian-era writer Alice Bunker Stockham in 1896. She was an Ob-Gyn from Chicago, who this web site says was the fifth woman to become a doctor in the United States. It refers to the non-religious but spiritual sexual practices that drew upon tantric techniques of body control but were not indebted to the philosophies of the East beyond that. Let her explain in her own words:
"The ordinary hasty spasmodic method of cohabitation, for which there has been no previous preparation, and in which the wife is passive, is alike unsatisfactory to husband and wife. It is deleterious both physically and spiritually. It has no consistency as a demonstration of affection, and is frequently a cause of estrangement and separation," Karezza: The Ethics of Marriage, p. 23.
So, Stockham will develop her theory of sex in marriage in response to what she considers an unethical system of her day. Women, apparently were "passive" in sex; men were "spasmodic" and both felt cheapened by the experience. It would be interesting to learn to what extent this was a common experience of women and men in the late Victorian era. Seventy years later the "sexual revolution" was in full swing, but I dare say that a goodly number of women entering into marriage in the 1970s, and maybe even to this day, might fit under her term "passive" in bed.
So, what is karezza and what does it do? She continues:
"Karezza so consummates marriage that through the power of will, and loving thoughts, the crisis (i.e., ejaculation; she is using the term in its literal sense as "a vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything," OED s.v.) is not reached, but a complete control by both husband and wife is maintained througout the entire relation, a conscious conservation of creative energy," Ibid., pp. 23-24.
Now it is becoming clear what she is about. She is concerned to make marital relations more "equal" and "loving." How can one do this when you had a "passive" woman and a "spasmodic" man? Well, you could teach that partners were to abstain from sexual relations but, as the Shakers discovered, this has the effect of tending to stunt the growth of your movement. Or, as she suggested, you could reframe and redirect the coital act. Both parties would have to change. The man would not sprint to the goal, nor would the woman lie passive. Rather, they both, under the control of reason, would join in sexual intercourse, but they would not let it reach climax. In this way the sense of loving union between spouses could be celebrated but without all the huge feelings, many of them negative, that clustered around the orgasmic act. She goes on:
"The law of Karezza dictates thoughtful preparation, even for several days previous to the union. Lover-like attentions and kindly acts prophesy love's appointed consummation. These bind heart to heart and soul to soul. There should be a course of training to exalt the spiritual and subordinate the physical. This is accomplished through reading and meditation. The reading should lead to exaltation of spirit, and to the knowledge of the power and source of life, Ibid.
Advantages of Karezza, According to Stockham
Karezza's three advantages or goals were: (1) birth control; (2) social and political equality for women; and (3) marital pleasure and marital fidelity. She advocated Karezza as a cure for failing marriages. Key to it was the control of the orgasm response. If that insistent desire could be tamed, then we were on the cusp of healthy marital relationships and gender harmony.
Well.....what do you say? Maybe the fact that you never heard of Stockham is a good indication that her ideas didn't catch on. But was this a result of its "suppression" by men? I doubt it. There was, however, one avenue or possibility she neglected. Rather than having women be passive, or both equally be "loving" but not ejaculatory, a third option would be to make women as sexual in their expression as men. That is, encourage women to look at sex with as much gusto and focus as many men do (or is it just a myth that men are more sexually-focused?). But that was probably beyond the conception of Stockham 111 years ago, or at least beyond the ability of society to receive this message. A skeptic or cynic might even note that she was 63 when the book came out, and that at 63 most women, if studies from today are to be trusted, have pretty much learned to live without men.
And, one might add, every time the word "rational" or "reason" and "sex" is used in the same sentence, I want to laugh. Something about our nature just drives us crazy when intimate relationships are in view. Reason as a category is left, with the clothes, in the living room....
That was my evening. How did you spend yours?