De Beauvoir, Bridget Jones' pants and vaginismus.
This paper considers the relevance of de Beauvoir's work for
clients with 'vaginismus'. Focusing on women's
relationships to their bodies, partners, and being-for-others more
widely, it links de Beauvoir's theories to more recent research,
and to a key case study. The importance of therapist awareness of
shifting gender roles is highlighted.
De Beauvoir, being-for-others, bodies, gender, psychosexual therapy, vaginismus.
Sex role (Research)
|Publication:||Name: Existential Analysis Publisher: Society for Existential Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Society for Existential Analysis ISSN: 1752-5616|
|Issue:||Date: July, 2011 Source Volume: 22 Source Issue: 2|
|Topic:||Event Code: 310 Science & research|
|Persons:||Named Person: Beauvoir, Simone de|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: United Kingdom Geographic Code: 4EUUK United Kingdom|
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, 'vaginismus' is the name given to a situation in which the muscles in the vagina tense suddenly, making vaginal penetration painful or impossible. During my time working at a National Health Service psychosexual therapy clinic, this was by far the most common presenting problem of the young women who came to me for therapy. As an existential therapist I was interested in exploring what existential philosophy might offer those of us working with such clients, especially given that the standard treatment is entirely physical (the insertion of objects of gradually increasing size into the vagina, Bancroft, 2009), and is thus in danger of missing the meaning of this embodied reaction for individual clients (cf. Kleinplatz, 1998; Barker, forthcoming 2011).
Vaginismus is clearly a gendered issue, and there is relatively little in existential philosophy about the experience of gender. For this reason, I turned my attention to the one philosopher who does examine women's experience through an existential lens: Simone de Beauvoir. As I read her work I was struck by how relevant her theories were to the lives of the women I was working with, many of whom shared a markedly similar constellation of issues.
In this paper, I consider de Beauvoir's theories around embodiment, heterosexual relationships (1), and wider tensions between being 'for-others' and 'for-oneself'. For each of these themes I outline de Beauvoir's theories and then explore how well they apply today, following societal shifts in gender roles since de Beauvoir's time. Finally, I consider how the theories may inform client work, focusing on my counselling experience with one client, Helen (2).
Existentialist perspectives on gender
Perhaps the reason for the lack of consideration of gender within existentialist philosophy and therapy (3) is the fact that existentialists do not believe in any natural differences between different groups of human beings, such as men and women. Rather, they believe that we are all human and that our humanness is the universal thing which bonds us together (we are mortal, we seek meaning, we are free to choose, and we are in a world with others).
However, clearly people do experience life differently according to their gender, and other differences between them. This would be explained existentially by the fact that we are thrown into 'a particular body, a particular time, a particular culture, a particular set of prevailing socio-cultural attitudes and mores, stances and opinions' (Spinelli, 2005, p. 113). It is the meanings already present in the world that shape our gendered experience, and constrains our possible choices within this world that we are thrown into. As de Beauvoir famously put it: 'One is not born but rather one becomes a woman' (1949, p.295). For those of us in contemporary western culture, being born into a body with certain genital structures and related characteristics has a marked influence on how we are viewed by others: the expectations they have of our behaviour and the way that they treat us (4).
In The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948) De Beauvoir's philosophy echoes that of Sartre (1947), arguing that children accept the meanings in the world around them as if they were given facts, submitting to them and failing to recognise that they have any choice or that their actions have consequences. However, by adolescence they begin to question this and face a moment of decision where they can free themselves from the duties and meanings imposed on them by others. Of course, many avoid such moments due to the terror of freedom and responsibility.
However, whilst Sartre argues that all people (ugly or beautiful, Aryan (sic) or Jew) similarly need to free themselves from the meanings imposed on them by others, de Beauvoir recognises that the situation is different for different groups. There are some people who are kept in a state of ignorance and service to others and have 'no means of breaking the ceiling which is stretched over their heads' (p.37). This is the case for slaves who have not gained consciousness of their slavery, and it is also the case for women in many cultures. For some the meanings of the world they are thrown into really do appear as givens. Unlike Sartre, therefore, de Beauvoir acknowledges power hierarchies at work in recognising and choosing ones freedom.
However, de Beauvoir also argues that the situation for the contemporary western woman is not quite the same as for the slave in the eighteenth century, for example. Rather, she has some inkling that she has chosen to remain safe in this shelter from freedom, and part of her may strain against it and want to attack her oppressor. This can be seen when the structure sheltering such women is endangered, for example, we see in the fury and despair of de Beauvoir's 'wronged' women (in She Came to Stay, 1943, or The Woman Destroyed, 1967), who are forced into finally embracing their freedom unless they are to destroy themselves or the others involved in the love triangle.
Women's relationship to their bodies
In The Second Sex (1949) de Beauvoir focuses on women, developing these themes and considering the possibilities available to them. She argues that during the stage when boys are encouraged to become 'little men' and are gradually denied the caresses and cajoling of their parents, girls are still given this contact and are not similarly encouraged to independence and autonomy. Rather, girls are taught, through playing with dolls and being complimented and critiqued on their appearance, to be passive and that their body is something to beautify rather than a means of 'dominating nature' as it is for boys: the girl must 'repress her spontaneous movements' (p.309).
At adolescence, this focus on the body becomes even stronger. De Beauvoir writes:
De Beauvoir (1949) also touches on young women's experiences of sex, given this troubled relationship with their own bodies. She argues that most (heterosexual) young women have concerns about being physically abnormal which may be confirmed or denied by their early sexual experiences with men. She argues that women develop passive sexuality because of wanting to be seen as an object: 'She longs for a strong embrace that will make of her a quivering thing' (p.398). However there is ambivalence because it is difficult to abandon oneself to pleasure if one is concerned with making oneself a desirable object.
Clearly de Beauvoir's ideas resonated very much with the second wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s in the campaigns present at this time against the objectification of women's bodies in pornography, advertising and other forms of mass media, and the arguments about the restrictiveness of the 'male gaze' in such media. But how relevant are de Beauvoir's theories to current experiences of women in a time of far greater gender equality?
The last decade has seen a shift in such media representations which fits with Foucault's (1975) panopticonic view of wider society. There has been an insidious shift from others policing our identities toward us policing ourselves in various ways. In terms of women's sexuality, the shift has been from women being policed by the male gaze, to them policing themselves through constant self-surveillance and self-perfection (Gill, 2006). The dominant narrative in women's magazines and Hollywood movies is now one of autonomy and choice, empowerment and playfulness. Women are encouraged to beautify themselves for their own pleasure rather than to please men, and their desirability is depicted as a kind of power over men, as in the bra adverts of the 1990s and 2000s which include slogans such as: 'or are you just pleased to see me', 'I can't cook, who cares', and 'who said a woman can't get pleasure from something soft' (Gill, 2009).
However, as Amy-Chinn points out in her cleverly titled (2006) paper 'this is just for me(n)', the women in these images still look very much like the objects of male desire of earlier decades. Women are encouraged to be for-themselves so long as that just so happens to fit the heteronormative notion of what is desirable, and the older, larger, disabled, or 'blemished' female form is still only presented as a bogeywoman to fear. At the time of my work with Helen, for example, an advert for a gym declared 'muffin tops: they're not tasty', with a picture of a slim young woman's waist almost imperceptibly expanding over the top of her tight denim shorts.
Despite societal shifts, women are still encouraged to objectify their bodies, as passports to love and happiness, as suggested by de Beauvoir (1949). The mechanisms of this have simply become more slippery and difficult to identify in these days of postmodern irony and media saturation. As the novelist Margaret Atwood (1994) puts it:
Early sessions with Helen were quite focused on her body, probably due to the issue that brought her to the clinic, although I encouraged her also to speak of other aspects of her life in order to gain a full sense of her life and her worldview (Adams, 2001). As with all clients who come wanting to 'fix' something that is preventing them from having a certain kind of sex (generally penile-vaginal intercourse) I began by exploring what it meant to Helen to not be able to do this, and what it would mean if she was able to:
M: So can you say a bit more about why you want this to change?
H: Well it feels bad to have to stop Simon from ... you know, when we're in bed and it nearly always hurts too much to carry on.
M: Can you tell me a bit more what it's like when that happens?
H: Well I'm not that comfortable anyway usually. I have to try to keep covered up and I don't want Simon to see me in certain positions.
H: Like if I'm on my back and my chest looks really flat. Or I don't want him touching my muffin tops.
M: So you're generally not feeling too comfortable?
H Right. So I guess a part of me wants to have sex quite quickly because of that. But then when he tries it's painful.
M: And what's it like when that happens.
H He always stops. He says he's really happy to do other things. You know ... but it can't be really what he wants.
It was clear that, for Helen, being attractive to Simon and being able to be penetrated by him during sex were strongly linked to her fears of losing her relationship with him.
Being-for-others in heterosexual relationships
For de Beauvoir, the result of the process of 'becoming' a woman is that most women have no sense of agency, but rather continue to see themselves through the eyes of others. Therefore they long to be gazed at in adoration and desire, and to find a superior 'prince charming' who they can depend upon and who will continually look at them in such a way, as reflected in ever-popular fairy tales (Ussher, 1997). De Beauvoir (1949) states that 'a great many adolescent girls when asked about their plans for the future, reply as formerly: "I want to get married". But no young man considers marriage as his fundamental project' (p.451). She also argues that many women end up feeling resentment in relationships when they realise how much they have given up. They may want to deny their partners their own projects in return. They may also feel desperate if they lose the positive look of their partner: 'If she fails to engross him, to make him happy, to satisfy him, all her narcissism is transformed into self-disgust, into humiliation, into hatred of herself, which drive her to self-punishment' (1949, p.662)
But clearly there have been major changes in romantic relationships since the time of de Beauvoir's writing, with far more equality between the genders, women having their own careers and life goals, and not simply being seen as an adjunct to their husbands or partners (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995). We might imagine that the (heterosexual) relationship will have become less of a central concern. However, it seems that this is not the case if we turn to media aimed at women today, where relationship concerns still overwhelmingly dominate. For example, the best-selling 1990s self-help book The Rules, makes the following claim: 'The purpose of The Rules is to make Mr. Right obsessed with having you as his by making yourself seem unattainable. In plain language, we're talking about playing hard to get! Follow The Rules, and he will not just marry you, but feel crazy about you, forever!' (Fein & Schneider, 2000, p.4).
Such messages are reinforced in women's magazines and those aimed at teenage girls whose articles exclusively focus on how to make yourself attractive to men, and how to retain a relationship once you have one. Similarly, romantic comedies generally sideline women's careers and focus on their love-lives. Relationships are presented as women's 'big adventure' and the aim is to find The One and live happily ever after. There is a terror is of being single, or of losing The One once you have him (Gill, 2006). In another session with Helen, we explored relationships more directly, focusing on her conviction that all men, Simon included, would want a beautiful woman. I remember holding myself back from an urge to question the importance placed on female attractiveness in our society. I couldn't help linking this to Helen's low body esteem as I glanced at the magazine in her bag, the front cover of which was festooned with images of celebrities with red rings around their 'cellulite', 'flab', or 'blemishes'. Instead, as with her comments about 'normal sex' I focused in on Helen's own experience within her relationship.
M: So do you get the sense that Simon doesn't think you're beautiful?
H: (laughs) No. He says it all the time.
M: That you're beautiful?
H: Yes but I don't believe him. (snorts)
M: You don't?
H: He's got to say that, he's my boyfriend.
M: So let's imagine for a moment that he really did think you were beautiful. How could he let you know?
H: (looks thoughtful and pauses for a while) He couldn't really. I hadn't thought of that.
M: And where does it leave you? Always thinking that you're not beautiful?
H: Well I do always worry that he'll leave me. When I haven't heard from him for a while I'm convinced he's going to call me and tell me it's over.
M: It feels like it could happen any time?
H: Yes. But I know it's stupid ... Simon says he likes that I'm someone he can talk to (about spiritual matters, for example).
In this way I tried to steer away from directly confronting Helen's strongly held beliefs about the general importance of being attractive or sexual in certain ways but instead encouraged her to question her assumptions about Simon's perceptions about her. Here we were teasing out the fact that it was Helen's view of what a woman should be that was driving her feeling about her body and sex, and that she was holding on to these even when they were contradicted by her partner.
I was aware that there was a d anger, in challenging Helen, that she would start to objectify herself in another way. This happens at the end of the excerpt above when she realises that there might be something problematic or inconsistent in her views she then berates herself as being 'stupid' for holding them, fearing that Simon will find out and that will be his reason to reject her. I also tried to imbue sessions with Helen with a sense that these are the difficult human problems we all struggle with. For example, one time I told her how many women struggle with sexual issues (over 50% according to many studies) and worries about their attractiveness (around 100% in my experience!) When she suggested that Simon was much more secure and sorted than she was, I reminded her of times she had spoken about when he'd been quite the opposite (although he tended to get drunk and call her constantly rather than becoming anxious and tearful as she did). Again I found de Beauvoir's writing, and my own experiences, useful in imbuing the sessions with a sense of the shared humanness of the tension between being for-ourselves or for-others, and the shared experience of desiring the positive gaze of others and fearing its loss.
Being-for-others in general
It is clear from de Beauvoir's writing that being-for-others is not just about creating oneself as an object for a (male) partner, but much wider than that. Girls are shown that they must renounce their autonomy and that their pleasure should come from pleasing others. This results in a vicious circle: 'The less she exercises her freedom to understand, to grasp and discover the world about her, the less resources will she find within herself, the less will she dare to affirm herself as a subject' (1949, p.308).
De Beauvoir states that it is mothers in particular who encourage girls to the same destiny that they themselves feel that they have. This is because of the huge existential threat it would be to them if their daughters did embrace their freedom, showing them that they also could have chosen otherwise and resisted this imposed role. De Beauvoir also highlights the inducements that women are offered to comply with their position: the delights of passivity and victimhood (in not having to take responsibility for ones actions but to feel that any pain they feel is due to their situation or other people), and the very real pleasures they feel at being attractive and experiencing themselves as the object of desire (since they have been taught for so long that this is pleasurable). The negative side of this, for de Beauvoir, is the constant fear inherent in feeling incapable of being self-sufficient (having to be constantly alert for potential attack outside the home or someone invading it) and in trying to control and maintain the body despite all the changes of puberty (bleeding and putting on weight).
Again, despite societal changes since the time when de Beauvoir was writing, it seems that many women still view themselves primarily through their relations to others. Middle-aged women are at high risk of depression which has been linked to their identities being tied to caring for others and being deprived of this role by the departure of their children (Johnstone, 2000). Indeed I have worked with several older female clients who struggle with not knowing 'who they are' once their children have left home.
Young women do not seem to escape from this. As I mentioned earlier, I have met many young women clients with strikingly similar constellations of issues to those described by Helen. Many of them find it terrifically difficult to make choices in their lives because they are so weighted down by the concern of how these may impact on the others in their lives and their desire to please these people. One client remarked that she would embellish anecdotes in order to keep her audience interested, another spoke of how she found it impossible to choose something as simple as a DVD to watch for fear that others would not enjoy it. It seems that being-for-others makes it difficult for young women to own their own choices or to tune into their own desires
I was interested that, after five sessions or so, Helen shifted focus from her body and relationship with Simon to her self-confidence in relation to others much more broadly. I recall quite vividly this sense of shift. One day Helen turned up for therapy looking energised and said she wanted to rant about something that was happening at work.
H: Is it okay to have a rant? (laughs quite joyfully at the thought of it)
M: Absolutely. This is your space to be wherever you are today. And I'm keen to hear what's got you so stirred up.
H: (raised but amused voice) It's this doctor at work. He's always leaving extra work for us and yesterday, right at the end of my shift, he dumped down a load of files for me to go through.
M: You're fuming about this aren't you? (smiles)
H: Yes I am. Because I just went ahead and did it. Again. It's just like everywhere.
H: At home as well.
M: At home?
H: Yes because my mum's had a tough time and I always have to be there for her.
M: So everywhere you have to do things for other people?
H: And I'm sick of it. I always have to be the good friend, the good nurse, the good daughter, the good girlfriend (counts them off on her fingers)
M: And what's that like?
H: (sighs) Knackering.
I was very struck that Helen made the link between the way she was with Simon (always trying to be what she thought he wanted her to be) and the way she was with people in her life more generally. Over the rest of the sessions there was a sense of oscillation between anger at other people and rejection of their demands on her, and concern for how other people saw her and fear of going down in their estimation. It seemed that Helen was shifting away from a worldview where she had to be seen positively by everyone all the time towards an idea that she might be able to make her own choices and bear the fact that people might not all view her with approval. She had already begun this journey before she came to therapy, starting the bureaucratic process of transferring to a ward where she might be more valued and be able to use her skills of working with children. However, there was still a sense in several sessions of a young woman 'shut up in her flesh, her home, [seeing] herself as passive before these gods with human faces who set goals and establish values' (Beauvoir, 1949, p.609).
A powerful example of this came in the next session. Helen had had an interview regarding the transfer which she didn't feel had gone very well despite her being so keen to move. She reported how it felt like the interviewers seeing her struggle with difficult questions totally wiped out all the good work she knew she did when she worked with kids on the ward.
Over the next few sessions we worked gradually through these tensions around wanting to be seen well by others. I encouraged Helen to explore the fact she'd expressed that it was tiring to be constantly trying to figure out what people wanted her to be and to be it. Also we spent some time exploring how even the views of people she didn't respect mattered so much to her, for example, an ex-friend who had treated her badly.
I asked whether there were situations when she didn't worry about the opinions of others and she said that when she was nursing she felt confident in what she was doing. I asked whether, in that situation, the patients disliked her (given her concern that disapproval of others is what would happen if she didn't put in the effort to be what they wanted of her). She said that it was quite the opposite and reflected that, if the interview panel could have seen her at work, they would have given her the transfer. Helen was struck then by the fact that, paradoxically, when she was trying hard to please others (in the interview) she didn't do as well as when she wasn't (when nursing).
Conclusions: Working existentially with gender
So now on to the Bridget Jones' Pants which you may have been wondering about since the beginning of the paper. Here is a final excerpt from one of my later sessions with Helen (we had twenty sessions altogether):
H: So I spent this weekend with Simon and he use the L word (love)
M: How did that feel?
H: Well I didn't believe him. That's not what happens to me.
H: No. I'm going to be thirty in Bridget Jones pants (large, unflattering knickers as worn in the film Bridget Jones' Diary) going to bed with a glass of wine and ... some cheese.
M: That's what you thought would happen and this is challenging that?
H: Yeah. I think part of me doesn't want to believe it. The way I've felt up till now I could predict the future. I knew I'd be 30 in the Bridget Jones pants.
M: With the cheese
H: (laughs) But now Simon says he loves me. And my friends think I'll be with him long term.
M: You can't predict the future so easily now.
H: It's like a fairy story book, but half way through all the pages are ripped out.
M: That makes a lot of sense. Simon is saying something that in one way you really wanted to hear, but in another way it's very scary because it leaves you with the pages ripped out and you've no idea what happens next
I enjoyed Helen's vivid metaphor of a storybook with the pages torn out. It seemed that her previous strategies of trying to be the good daughter, friend, girlfriend and nurse made it feel like there was a story already written which she could follow. But gradually, Helen was realising that she didn't want to passively follow stories that other people had written for her (for example, the story that she should stick in the job her interviewers thought she should have). Neither did she want to follow the old stories that she had had for herself, such as the story that she would end up alone.
There was a real sense of loosening sedimentation (Spinelli, 2007). Helen's story of her relationship with Simon changed from one when he would inevitably leave her when he discovered her shortcomings, to one where he might actually want what she was rather than what she assumed he wanted her to be, to one where she feared she wouldn't be able to leave him if he became problematic (because she wouldn't be able to face losing the relationship). Again I vividly recall Helen's joy when she spoke of her reaction one night when Simon had let her down by getting drunk with his friends instead of meeting her. She'd angrily hung up on him and gone out with her friends, leaving the phone at home. Then she had discussed it with him the following day. She was extremely pleased with her ability to stand up for herself. By the end of therapy there was a sense of surety in her that she was part of the relationship as well as Simon, and was involved in choices about how it moved forward. Her worries about losing her relationship were diminishing. She was only having sex when she was relaxed and 'in the mood' and was not finding it painful. By the end, as de Beauvoir puts it, she was embracing life as 'a story [she] would make up as [she] went along' (1949, p.169).
I hope that it is clear, from this paper, that de Beauvoir's theories are still extremely relevant today, and also that it behoves us, as therapists, to remain aware of the current cultural circulating understandings and expectations about gender as these create the world of meanings into which our clients, and ourselves, are thrown.
Of course gender is not just an issue for young women, but rather all clients are thrown into a world which has gendered rules about how to be. For example, for men there may well be an emphasis on being able to perform and initiate in sex, taking charge in relationships, and being responsible and protective. Also, just as there have been shifts in femininity from emphasis on passivity and making oneself into a beautiful object, to the current language of empowerment and choice, so there have been shifts in the portrayal of men (from 'macho' masculinity, to the new man, to the new lad and the current vulnerable masculinity of the bromance movie (5), for example). Reflexive consideration of therapist's own gender assumptions are an important part of this process, and one which would be a highly valuable addition to all therapy courses.
It is also important to be aware that gendered roles vary across dimensions such as culture, class, generation, sexuality, and not to assume that the same messages are present for everyone (Barker, 2010). Rather it is worth approaching each client with curiosity about the way such messages may play out in their world. We may also find ourselves tempted, as I was when saw Helen's magazine, to launch into a particular form of social critique with our clients, when we see just how constraining are the gendered messages to which they are exposed. However, we would do well to remember Van Deurzen's (1997) call both to 'avoid making normative judgements' and to 'renounce any ambition to, even implicitly, push the client in any particular direction' (p.177-178), as we do not want to risk simply falling into another form of objectification.
Many thanks to the organisers of the 2010 SEA conference for inviting me as a speaker, and to the attendees whose enthusiastic response encouraged me to write this up as a paper. Also thanks to all of the tutors and students at the New School for their support over the years of my MA, and to the external examiner for their positive comments on t his work which originally took the form of my dissertation for the course. My biggest thanks of all, of course, go to Helen for sharing her world with me and for agreeing to me including our therapy in this paper.
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(1) All the clients I saw with this issue were heterosexual and it is heterosexual femininity which I am focusing on in this essay, but both de Beauvoir (1949) and myself have written about other sexualities elsewhere (see Barker, 2010; Richards, Barker & Lenihan, forthcoming 2012).
(2) Helen's name and all identifying features have been altered for confidentiality, and her consent was obtained for publications.
(3) There are no courses on gender on the main courses on existential therapy in the UK, nor are their chapters on the topic in the key current texts on existential therapy (e.g. Cohn, 1997; Van Deurzen and Arnold Baker, 2005).
(4) One need look no further than the treatment of de Beauvoir herself to see the highly polarised and gendered way in which society operates. Despite convincing arguments by the likes of Simons (1986) and Fullbrook and Fullbrook (2008) that de Beauvoir's works, if anything, pre-date and contain a more thorough, rigorous and convincing existential philosophy, than those of Sartre (at the very least their theories were co-constructed between them), de Beauvoir is rarely even mentioned in courses on existential philosophy or psychotherapy and her works remain absent from the relevant sections of the bookshop and library.
(5) 'Bromance' movies refer to the recent spate of Hollywood comedies aimed at men and dealing with men's friendships (e.g. I Love You Man, The Hangover, The 40-Year Old Virgin).
Meg Barker lectures at the Open University, is a psychotherapist at Dilemma Consultancy, and works with the British Association for Sexual Relationship Therapy. She has published widely on sexuality and relationships, and edits Psychology & Sexuality. Address: Psychology in Social Sciences, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA. E-mail: email@example.com
The lie to which the adolescent girl is condemned is that she must pretend to be an object, and a fascinating one, when she senses herself as an uncertain, dissociated being, well aware of her blemishes. Make-up, false hair, girdles, and 'reinforced' brassieres are all lies. The very face itself becomes a mask: spontaneous expressions are artfully induced, a wondering passivity is mimicked (1949, p.380)
Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it's all a male fantasy: that you're strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren't catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you're unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur (p.392).
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