What does de Beauvoir say about sexual choice and desire in the chapter "Sexual Initiation" in Book Two of The Second Sex? What is the most significant moment in this chapter, and why?

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De Beauvior's premise is that sex, for women, is always about becoming "prey" for the man. Sex is always about the objectification of women by men; men are "active" in that they seek to penetrate the woman; women are "passive" in that they are receptacles for male desire. In this way all sex is a kind of rape; women, by virtue of their anatomy, are required to undergo violation.

De Beauvoir traces how this objectification is manifest in the psychology of women, with sections dealing with the awakening of desire, loss of virginity, and frigidity. There is a kind of doubleness in feminine sexuality that comes from, on the one hand, the clitoris as the center of sexual pleasure, and, on the other, the vagina as the center of biological reproduction. Perhaps the most memorable section of the chapter, if one can be singled out, is her attempt to distinguish the nature of feminine sexual pleasure from male pleasure. Male pleasure is finite, and has a definite, and biologically significant, end: ejaculation. Female pleasure, however, can take many forms, she argues; a female orgasm is much more indefinite, and the female urge, far from reaching a final goal, as in the male, is rather to achieve a kind of infinite, suffused pleasure.

She concludes by saying that what women envy in men is not, as Freud thought, their penises, but rather their "prey," the power to objectify others. This is perhaps the most significant observation in the chapter; it suggests that while male autonomy is a result of their sexuality, for women this autonomy must be gained in spite of their sexuality.

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Central to this chapter is a comparison between the sexual developments and attitudes of men and women. Male desire, Beauvoir says, is inherently violent, reliant on taking, on his "sovereignty" of body (445). Women's desire is more nebulous--"the virgin does not know exactly what she wants," as her pleasure is not as clearly defined as a man's (446). Men can choose how to enact their desire, choose how they take a woman. Women can only choose the manner in which they are taken, if they allow themselves to be a passive object or rather make themselves such (448). 

The most significant moment of this chapter is how Beauvoir uses her paradigm of desire to create the context for female homosexuality. At the start of the chapter Beauvoir explains how often women's desire seeks companion in softness, in a prey that she can consume (446). The ideal man cannot fill this role, instead approaching his partner with "strength and virile force" (447). At the close of the chapter, having elucidated the many forms of female desire and its response to the male, Beauvoir returns to this question. Women as whole beings are "active subjects," which conflicts with their ascribed passive sexual role (476). Beauvoir posits that this conflict breeds in "many women" homosexual tendencies, as lesbian desire meets a woman's need for sweetness, for agency, and for sexual prey (477). 

Source: The Second Sex, Vintage Ebooks May 2011

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The Second Sex

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