Aphrodite’s Daughters

Kimberly and Jane, ever vigilant for cracks in the cultural egg that open paths toward a greater integration of female sexuality with healthy female sensibility, take an in-depth look at Jalala Bonheim’s book, Aphrodite’s Daughters. 

JAS: I, of course, was intrigued by the title of this book from the moment you suggested we talk about it.  After our work with the book, Circe, we both have been alert to how different it is for women to approach the ancient myths from a female perspective.  We begin to feel the presence of myth in a way that has been reserved for men.  Men who have felt the force from a source beyond ordinary existence have passed their legacy down, authored the myths and felt a special infusion of meaning in their lives.  Now women have picked up the mantle and are bringing their sensibility of larger meaning to the same task.  Women are expressing the myth they feel in their lives in many ways, books being just one. Bonheim goes to women’s stories and elaborates how a female point of view rooted in the myth of Aphrodite gives women meaning and puts them in direct touch with an ineffable, not quite understandable power of life on this planet.  But I want to know how you came to feel so enthusiastic about Aphrodite’s Daughters.  How did you find out about it?   

KN: I was first turned on to “Aphrodite’s Daughters: Women’s Sexual Stories and the Journey of the Soul” by Jalala Bonheim while enrolled in an online course, Sexual Sovereignty.  In the course, I am exploring the sacred sensuality of being a woman, which basically means I’m learning, as a woman, to harness the incredible wisdom of the womb and allow my life to be directed from a place of incredible, sensual, internal power. Through dance and movement, I palpably feel my sexuality as a creative impetus that can birth all things from actual babies to passion projects. The process encourages me to dive deep into my own sensuality, not just as a vehicle for sexual interaction but as tool for being and feeling into the world around me. I am constantly, gently, bodily reminded that my sexuality is a key to my soul.  Contrary to “polite” society’s view that a woman’s sexuality is best kept under cover, “Sexual Sovereignty” brings mine to the surface and my sensuality becomes a uniquely feminine tool.

JAS:  Can you give an example? 

KN: Sure. Every day I do an hour of free dance where I listen to music that is connected to memory and instead of choreographing any sort of dance, I let the memories roll through the various parts of my body, feeling deeply into what resides in my body and what wants to move through and out of my body. It’s like morning pages for the cells and it brings me into a deep sense of communion with my flesh to start my day. Being grounded in my body, feeling my pelvis roll, allowing my limbs to fluently extend, feeling the power in my skin, it is an incredibly sensual experience that sets the foundation for my whole day. It’s private and it’s mine. I did this as a performance piece a few months back and the men who came to watch me were so enthralled with my self-containment within my sensual core that it surprised me. They were like moths to a flame.

JAS:  This reminds me of a time when a woman friend of mine said she was on the verge of giving up lecturing because every time she did, one or more men would come up after, not the least interested in her talk, but asking for her phone number!  I suggested to her that she respond with some variation of “Sure, I’m seductive and don’t take it personally.” 

KN: But I really want to talk about this book! Here’s the review I read that made me want to pick it up: “The book excellently shows the immensely important role sexuality plays in shaping our spiritual journey. Reflecting upon love and lust, sex and marriage, wounding and healing, women on the spiritual path share their most intimate erotic secrets with honesty, courage, and passion in a series of true stories. Aphrodite’s Daughters sends a strong, persuasive message: It is time to honor sex as a sacred, soul-making force.” I knew I wanted us to talk about it. 

JAS: Since I haven’t shared your first hand experience with “Sexual Sovereignty” and can’t talk about its relation to the book, I’ll talk about how Bonheim spoke to me. I see Aphrodite’s Daughters as one woman’s odyssey into the woods of ancient wordlessness about the true nature of women’s sexuality. By gathering the sexual stories of individual women, Jalaja Bonheim shows how each woman’s story is a segment of a larger story, each contributing to a larger story of respect and honor of female sexuality. She, herself, feels deeply the source of female sexuality to be spiritual and believes women’s stories are capable of changing persistent cultural norms regarding women as inferior to men. 

Painting by Howard David Johnson

To connect with the archetype of Aphrodite is to connect with the integral nature of feminine beauty as beautiful, potent and a critical source of balance in the universe of humanity.  The connection gives a woman a core source of identity apart from our patriarchal-dominated culture.  Bonheim talks of awakening Aphrodite energy as a woman’s hero’s journey in which a woman goes into an ancient wordlessness and emerges with a found certainty and respect for her connection to a force larger than herself.  Each story brings Aphrodite more into being in her own life and the culture in which she lives. 

KN: I like what you say about how when a woman connects to her Aphrodite energy, she can find a separate core away from patriarchal society. One of the stories I loved most in this book was “Healing the Motherwound.” It took me a few attempts to get through it because it awoke some deep grief of resonance in me as I still grieve the life and death of my own mother who was so stifled in her own sexuality throughout her life. It was about how each women carries her mother’s imprint into this world, and most deeply, her mother’s ideas around sex. The woman in the story talks about how many of our mothers came of age in a deeply repressed sexual society where they had to choose between Madonna and whore, rather than paying respect to both the wild and pristine parts that live simultaneously within us. Bonheim talks about how this split entered our culture in a mass way. In the movies and stories, our mother’s were told to push up their breasts, wear that red lipstick, and become sexual objects, yet they were not allowed to embrace sex lest they be known as a hedonistic woman. I believe a mass repression of the true female sexual nature has led to a very unbalanced, not to mention conflicted, feminine consciousness.  And I agree with Bonheim that it’s through the sharing of our personal stories that we are able reclaim an ancient deep sisterhood that is undeniable in its commonality.

JAS:  I know when we talked about the TV production of Handmaid’s Tale and I felt like it was virtually unwatchable because of the on-screen violence to Offred and the other women, you brought my attention to the packet of stories that virtually saved Offred’s life.  

KN:  Yes, a packet of stories that was compiled underground of all the women’s voices, a sisterhood of pain scribbled on whatever paper was available, gathered and sent on to the free country where the voices may or may not be lost forever, yet carrying the only smidgeon of hope these women had of ever being heard.

JAS: Jalaja Bonheim is not the only woman, nor the only author to delve into this territory –  Knowing Woman by Irene Claremont de Castillejo elevates respect for female sexuality and feminine sensibility– but Bonheim has a knack for drawing stories forth from women of diverse backgrounds and connecting them with a felt sincerity to their Aphrodite source.  Pieces of each story ring true of personal knowledge or of women I’ve known.  It’s been my experience that women talk about their sexual interactions from the time they start having friends.  They listen to each other for greater understanding about sexual desire, for insight into what isn’t written in books or taught in sex education classes. Reading Aphrodite’s Daughters is like having a lot of friends. Bonheim makes a lot of very different stories available so if one doesn’t fit, another one probably will.

KN: Yes, that is what touched me about this book. There were so many diverse stories but underlying all the diversity was a strongly visceral thread leading to Aphrodite’s wisdom. Her wisdom tells us that it is okay to relish in our sexuality, to get in touch with nature and its inherent rhythms again, to be beautiful and messy, and to share this unabashedly with the world. What story resonated with you?

JAS: I’ve found myself saying over and over that there are so many compelling stories so I asked myself, what is about this book that is important to me and here’s what I came up with.  I was particularly intrigued with the stories women told of adapting to the men in their lives and preserving their sense of independent identity.  Iris talks of loving and marrying a man who wants to save the world, is hardly ever home.  She develops a relationship with a woman and stays married.  Joanne married a rake and found a way, over the years, to deepen her marriage to him. She, somehow, separated the love they felt for one another from the horrors of jealousy.  Miryam had to cope with the death of a beloved husband she could not replace and had to change her life from being a devoted wife to a woman with her own goals. After listening to Naomi, a victim of child sexual abuse by her father, talk about reclaiming her divine identity, Bonheim makes a statement close to my heart, “A woman’s healing journey always relates to the healing of the collective.” 

My favorite chapter isn’t a story but Bonheim’s teaching chapter, The Descent of the Goddess.  In this chapter I felt my own quest to understand the archetypal underpinnings of my experiences as I’ve made my journey through life.  For me, to learn is to go into the darkness of not knowing. And I depended on myth to inspire new endings, endings that opened into the light.  Bonheim, in this chapter, gives the roadmap for a woman’s heroic journey, down and back up with knowledge to help others but never an answer to dreadful suffering.  I did it a million times.

KN: This all intrigued me as you and I have been noodling over female desire. Bonheim’s work is all about leading women back inside to their inherent truths in order to empower them to walk in the world as fully realized beings.What I also really enjoyed was the ritual and practices that were shared in this book for women to take into their own lives. Rituals for sex in marriage and honoring the self and meditations, and others really give us, as readers, concrete ways to start walking this path back into the sensual soul.

Young woman with mouth open, eyes closed, close-up

We’ve talked a lot about what happens when a woman allows her imagination to guide her sexual experiences rather than any preconceived notions about sexual behavior and desire or what is deemed right or wrong. We recently discussed The Female Quixote, a seventeenth century tale of a woman getting her ideas about respect for women and sexual encounters with men from the classics she reads. It’s prime time for women’s unique sexual stories to come out in full and for women to feel comfortable in claiming their own unique desires. I find books like Bonheim’s completely liberating in their diversity, which goes toward showing the world a full realm of what makes women tick, and the fact that those things are so different for every women, yet they connect deeply to the glories of Aphrodite.

JAS:  I’m sure there’s someone who’s said this better than I’m going to say it.  For a woman to live authoritatively within the aura of her sexual beauty is a thing of beauty itself. Aprhodite is at work. I’m enjoying each tidbit of affirmation I’m hearing these days.  I just read an exchange Gloria Steinem had with a young woman after Dr. Blasey Ford testified before Congress during the Kavanaugh hearings.  “I need to hear from you,” said Gloria.  “And you need to hear from me because I know when things were so much worse.”  Just take a look, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is dancing in the halls of Congress and sending out the Selfies for everyone to consider. “Congresswomen dance too.”  Sounds like an Aphrodite daughter to me.   

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