Apr 052011

March 21st’s wordsmith word of the day was: usufruct.

PRONUNCIATION: (YOO-zuh-fruhkt, -suh-)

MEANING: noun: The right to use and enjoy another’s property without destroying it.

Which I thought was pretty neat, since March 21 was also when I responded to an email (Yes!! I responded to an email!! Holy crap!! Apologies to those who are waiting to hear from me. I know I’m rotten correspondent.) from author Ian Ironwood (the other sex nerd) about masculinity and feminism.

I said:

I know a lot of guys who struggle with Being a Man and Being a Feminist. They want to enjoy HAVING a dick, without BEING a dick. The difference seems to have something to do with enjoying putting that dick into women, without experiencing penetration as conquest, ownership, or a badge of masculinity. It’s just two people enjoying each other’s bodies.

All of which got me thinking about this idea of “possession” and sex and relationships, the right to “use and enjoy” another person.

(There is an important difference, of course, between a body and other things an individual can own: when one living creature touches another living creature’s body, that other body has all kinds of reactions to that touch. Whereas if I borrow your car, the car doesn’t have any particular feelings about how I treat it, if I borrow your dog, she does have feelings about how I treat her. So “use and enjoy” has a special qualification when it comes to LIFE that you own: “without destroying” is not an adequate standard, it must be “without doing harm.” And also consent – usufruct – can be withdrawn at any point, for any reason.)

A couple summers ago I sat on a roof with my brother and sister, talking about relationships. My brother said he never introduced a woman as “my girlfriend” or even “my partner,” because he felt like that was claiming her primary identity only relative to HIM, as opposed to indicating that she has a complete identity separate from him.

To which I responded, however un-PC-ly, “But I like to be claimed.” I like to be identified as part of a unit, a member of a team. “This is the other half of my ‘us,’” I would have my partner say to people we meet.

I think there are probably some predisposing factors that give rise to this cultural construction of ownership. Part of it must be to do with attachment the biological motivation system that links us, infant to adult caregiver, and lover to lover. “Mine!” claims the attachment system. Because in infancy our lives quite literally depend on our adult caregivers, we have this bone-deep sense that the absolute loyalty of our lover is vital to our survival. Mine. And therefore not yours. My girlfriend, my partner, my spouse. Mine.

And then another predisposing factor, I think, is the nature of penetrative intercourse. Putting, say, your penis in someone else’s vagina… I mean, I can see how that’s like staking a claim, marking territory, like planting your flag on the moon. Add that to the nature of attachment and it doesn’t surprise me that our culture has generated a narrative of ownership in sex.

The fact is, our culture, for a variety of reasons, has constructed sexual relationships as possession – thanks to feminism, we’ve gotten as far as MUTUAL possession, rather than merely men possessing women, but it’s still ownership, still a sense of claiming and possessing another person’s body (another person’s self?) as one’s own, to use and enjoy without harming.

(There’s a whole post to write about what it might mean to “use” a body.)

And I am as steeped in it as anyone else. I want to be claimed by my partner, owned, possessed, had, kept. I do recognize the problems in it; intellectually I know that I am not property, nor is my partner. But I’ve spent nearly 34 years in a civilization that tells me that to be loved is to be claimed, possessed, and to love is to claim.

(And there’s a whole post to write about the relationship between mate choice, body image, and this notion of possession.)

emily nagoski

  18 Responses to “usufruct her? I hardly know her!”

Comments (18)
  1. Thanks for that posting! :) It is really something very interesting to think about.
    My partner and me use the “mine!” also frequently, but one day, we had a conversation in which I said that I always want to know that I COULD go and that I am still “free” and I am still living “my life” in a way.

    So I think, it’s okay to say: “You’re mine” – as long as there’s a “but by your own choice – thanks for that” in the back of your head. ;)

  2. “This is the other half of my ‘us’”, absolutely adorable and I will definitely borrow that one from you. That is exactly how I think about relationships, there is a me, a you, and an us.

  3. Being polyamorous gives me a slightly different angle on the possessive language of relationships. I do say “my boyfriend” as a matter of course, and I love being part of an “us,” and sometimes I put my arms around him and say “Mine!” But because of our relationship structure, it’s quite obvious to both of us that this is language of affection, not a description of the way our relationship is. It’s a way to express that sense of attachment.

  4. This is very interesting! I’ve always connected to the idea of owning/possessing my partner, possibly because I’m toppy in bed, but oddly never to the idea of my partner owning/possessing me. I think part of it is the idea that someone loves you so much they’re willing to sacrifice (some of) their agency and freedom to make you happy… a beautiful notion, if nothing else.

  5. Firstly, Emily, thanks for the quick response to the email, and then the elaboration in a posting. I feel honored!

    I found the post very interesting, but also begging some questions. Firstly, since the traditional ideals of marriage in most human cultures, from an anthropological perspective, traditionally revolve around a mutual-support pact involving the pledge of fidelity in exchange for sexual usufruct (LOVE that word!), that is, a contractual pre-consent for sex that was considered essentially unbreakable without divorce, and that sexual usufruct component of the marital contract was for all effects obliterated by feminism in most of the Western world, then does it follow that the other half of the contract, the presumption of fidelity, was likewise broken? I’m not speaking in legal terms as much as social terms. As you rightly observed, the modern ideal of marriage (or at least the modern ideal of ‘couple-hood’ in the context of serial monogamy) seems to have evolved into a mutual “possession”; yet there is an undeniable undercurrent in many relationships these days that seems to translate into a fundamental insecurity about fidelity. Without such basic sexual assurances in a standard-issue heterosexual union, does this not lead ultimately to a wide-spread cultural insecurity about the inherent stability of such unions in general?

    Secondly, I see an AWFUL lot of confusion, culturally speaking, from men who are confronted with this apparently dichotomous standard wherein their proud, independent womenfolk are adamant about maintaining their primary identity as an individual — which most of us are more than happy to respect — yet in time they begin to complain, sometimes bitterly, that they don’t feel “claimed” adequately in their relationship, and often attribute this deficit on the shortcomings of their menfolk. While of course some individual couples have managed to negotiate their way through this, I feel that as it stands that there are no adequate functional models or accepted and established social standards for a workable “modern”, post-feminist long term heterosexual relationship that grant adequate social, economic, and psychological security to both parties. Any thoughts on this?

    Thirdly, I take issue with the idea that pre-feminism that men’s possession of women was the sole dynamic of the traditional marriage. While chattel marriage, arranged marriage, and other atavistic customs undoubtedly allowed men to sexually possess their wives under the law and by custom, there was also a definite sense of possession, even legally recognized, that the wife enjoyed in regards to her marriage (okay, maybe “enjoyed” is too strong a term . . . ). While it had far more to do with securing offspring and support, such cultural artifacts as leverite marriage, alimony, dowry, alienation of affection, even wedding rings all support the idea that the wife’s “possession” of her husband within the bounds of marriage had definite value to be respected by the law and by society.

    And lastly, I guess I have to admit that I’ve come to terms with Being a Man and Being a Feminist. I’ve given up identifying with feminism, as so many of my male peers have, even while I applaud the social and economic advances of feminism. For most hetero men, identifying as feminist is a losing proposition, personally, and indulging in it rarely leads us to a happy place. Due to the political nature of the movement (or collection of movements) and the tendency towards male-bashing and emasculation among many female feminists, male feminists are put in the unenviable position of being intellectually praised (usually in a patronizing — matronizing? — sort of way) by women while being personally punished during mate selection. Quite frankly, there just aren’t incentives for us to do so anymore, and most of us are so shell-shocked from the meatgrinder of serial monogamy and wholesale rejection that we’ve succumbed to bitterness, resentment, and blatant indifference on feminist issues.

    In the context of sex, specifically, yes, we want to enjoy having a dick. We oftentimes do want to put that dick into vaginas, mouths, rectums, etc. until we orgasm. We cannot help the fact that there is an element of conquest and possession in the penetrative act that prohibits us from seeing sex as merely two people enjoying each others’ bodies (because even when we try to do that we’re often judged as ‘shallow’ and ‘callous’ by our female peers), and things get even more confusing when we are admonished away from such feelings of conquest and possession on the one hand, then are told by women that they want to feel “claimed” on the other. With that kind of perilous dilemma facing us, it’s pretty easy to throw up our hands, bag feminism in general, and just concentrate on our dicks. Our dicks, after all, aren’t nearly as confusing.

    Thanks again, Emily! LOVE your blog!

    • Hello Ian. I hope you don’t mind if I reply to your post, since it’s not really addressed to me.

      On your first question, whether feminism has undermined the social assumption of fidelity, I certainly hope the answer is “yes”. I think it’s important for people entering into committed relationships or unions to have open and honest dialogue about their expectations (regarding exclusivity or other terms of the commitment), without relying on assumed cultural norms. It certainly leads to healthier relationships – unfortunately, honesty is a hard skill to develop.

      And I think that’s related to your second question; I’ve also known a lot of men who were unsure about what role they should play in a relationship with a feminist woman. It’s certainly confusing to have unlimited options, but in my limited experience, this kind of confusion can usually be sorted out with honest communication and mutual experimentation.

      I think you’ve certainly got a point with your third question, that possession in a relationship has always worked both ways. Otherwise it would be hard to talk of a man being “a good catch”, for example. I’m also curious what Emily or others might have to say about this. My personal opinion is that mutual possession doesn’t mean equal power in the relationship – I can call someone “my father”, “my boss”, or even “my master”, using possessive pronouns with someone who has social power over me.

      Finally, I think the element of conquest and possession in the penetrative act has probably been put there by people with dicks who liked being in charge. There are plenty of examples of more submissive male sexual symbolism if you look at classical literature – metaphors about worshippers to goddesses, or bees to flowers – and I can only assume that they’re less relevant because they don’t support the established social order. Maybe we can’t help the fact that the element of conquest and possession is already there, built into our culture, but we don’t have to keep spreading the idea that a penis can only be a weapon.

      • Hmm, maybe it is rude to reply to comments that aren’t addressed to me? Well, I have no idea. Sorry if any offense taken, not trying to be a troll. Very interesting comment, Ian, thanks.

  6. I guess “staking your claim” works for penises and possession. Even though penises aren’t actual “stakes” at all. But “pocketing your prize” would work for vaginas and possession. Even though vaginas too are only “pockets” in the metaphorical sense.

    So it’s funny how we easily we grasp the former but not the latter metaphor for sex.

    Anyway, perhaps speaking only for myself, the moment of “possession” for has nothing to do with genitals. It happens when I put my arms around a partner and pull her close… and she lets me. That can happen as easily on a ballroom floor as in the bedroom. By the time we get to penises and vaginas, or even just lips to lips and tongues to tongues, it’s no longer about the property it’s about the deed. :-) I strongly prefer looking at it that way because we already tend to overload sex with so much other meaning. Why load it down with ownership as well?!?!

    @ian: “Due to the political nature of the movement (or collection of movements) and the tendency towards male-bashing and emasculation among many female feminists,” Eh. I’m going to challenge your premise first because I’m pretty sure you don’t think feminists like Emily “male bash” and “emasculate” men, and second because I’m pretty sure you’re not saying Emily’s not a feminist. And as long as Emily feels comfortable saying she’s a feminist I see no, zero, none problem with acknowledging that I’m a feminist too.


  7. I was that way until a) “my” perfect college girlfriend ripped my heart out by leaving me for “her” fiance, then b) meeting a MENSA Englishwoman who could make “polyamorous” sound sexy as hell. 5 years later I met my wife-to-be who was bisexual and latently polyamorous. After a deacde of fooling ourselves and being miserable we got divorced but lived together as great polyamorous friends with benefits. Eventually I had to leave New York, but my latent bi-paratrexuality (transgender admiration) has emerged thanks to the internet which has also greatly fueled my polyamory.

  8. I think Ginny has a big point – “my” doesn’t just mean possession, it also means relation. These are my eyes, they belong to me, yes, because they are inextricably connected to me. This is what I think of when I say “my” boyfriend. He’s in some way related to me. Besides, it’s simply good manners, in my opinion, to let people know who your plus-one is/why s/he is there. Then they at least have a starting point for conversation. “Oh, her boyfriend? I’m so sorry about her cooking, I tried to teach her….”

    In other news, I also don’t mind being possessed, to some extent. Consensual possession is the key, as well as mutual possession. When my bf asks me if I’m his (a little flirty game we play), I often say “yes, if you’re mine too.” That mutuality is what makes it alright. Maybe I’m undermining my own autonomy to some extent, but a) it’s because I trust you enough to make it worth it, and b) I know that you’re willing to do the same for me.

    And that’s sexy! I believe Ian when he says that feminist men are at a disadvantage as potential mates, but it’s not universally true. For example, my man somehow ends up getting more of what he wants (wink wink) during times when he’s standing up for me/women/other people who have it worse off than I do. I incentivize him consciously as well as unconsciously to be a feminist

  9. This is a typically useful discussion for Emily and followers.

    FYI The most common usage of the word “usufruct” involves Louisiana (and French) inheritance laws. Typically a spouse dies and the deceased spouse’s half of the community property (generally the couple’s total assets) is left to the decedent’s heirs (children) with the surviving spouse having a usufruct of the property until their death.

  10. Regarding the difficulties of “enjoying HAVING a dick, without BEING a dick,” I have to point you to Tim Minchin’s hilarious song Confessions. The first verse is the main one about that problem, but you should really keep listening…

    Also, proud feminist here. I can understand why Ian would have trouble with feminism, because I used to have trouble, too — at least until I came up with a coherent explanation for why it’s the sex-positive feminists that are (mostly) right, and stopped thinking a man could diminish me by desiring me. So, good luck with that one, Ian; we’re working on it. Seriously, Clarisse Thorn in particular has been throwing out some amazing thoughts on how to create a feminist theory that can view male sexual desire in a positive light. So maybe in a few years’ time you’ll come back to feminism and see that we’ve prepared a place for you, who knows?

  11. That would be lovely.

    I didn’t mean to imply that either Emily wasn’t a feminist, or that she was an emasculating, male-bashing feminist. Far from it. But note I did mention the many political and philosophical divisions in feminism, and please believe me when I tell you that the emasculating male basher is alive and well.

    @ figleaf: I would argue that “pocketing the prize” is indeed a well understood metaphor, if you translate it to “put a ring on my finger”. Women understand sexual conquest, too, they just have different values and metrics from men.

    @Lee: Thank you for the elaboration on usufruct. That makes a lot of sense, and I can’t wait to spring it on some unsuspecting reader myself sometime.

    @Lynet: Thanks for the lead, I’ll definitely follow up on Thorn. After living a lifetime in which male sexual desire has been pitched as an almost universal negative (“Every man is a potential rapist!” and such on one side, “bros before ho’s” and such on the other), with a fluffy layer of religiously-derived but culturally pervasive guilt and shame for dessert, you can imagine how a dude might feel squeamish about embracing a philosophy that has historically been seen as actively working to counter male sexual expression. Us gents are working towards a workable model of masculinity as well, one more suited to the post-feminist era, but in my opinion until the issue of male sexuality is taken seriously beyond ED commercials and gym memberships, we won’t even be able to have a productive discussion about it, I’m afraid.

  12. When I proposed opening up our marriage to my husband his possesiveness kicked into high gear as he responsed, “This is all mine, and I don’t want to share.” To which I responded, “Actually, this is all mine and I choose to share it with you.” It’s been a year and a half since that discussion and we are still in a monogamous relationship. Strained but monogamous. Getting past the whole “you are mine” thing is just a huge challenge for him, as I’m sure it is for many people.

  13. Can’t someone be “mine” without sharing too? “Mine” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “lock them up in a tower,” sheesh.

  14. Thanks for this very inspiring, found it while trying to research stuff on land ownership, commons, usufruct and gender, really good.

    Property, ownership, control, hey there 20th century concepts that don’t relate to ‘relationships’ (and need drastic rethinking in all areas of life)

    They are so ingrained that most readers will be hostile to your commons sense.

    I though love it, very helpful, thank you!

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