A man imagines being a woman and Ovid answers the question of whether men or women get more pleasure from sex

A few days ago I read the poem below by Laurence Lerner in which he imagines what it’s like to be a woman. The poem has stuck in my mind. Every man must wonder at some stage what it would be like to be a woman (certainly I have), and every woman must wonder what it’s like to be a man. Lerner’s poem is mostly bleak: it’s tough to be a woman. But he starts with two very positive lines:

Often I’ve wished that I’d been born a woman.

It seems the one sure way to be fully human.

I feel that too, and reproduction shows it clearly: a man may start a child without even knowing it, while a woman experiences a new human grown inside her. The experiences are incomparable.

Reading that poem made me remember Ted Hughes’s wonderful version of Ovid’s great poem about Tiresias, who was both man and woman. Consequently Tiresias was able to answer the question that every heterosexual must wonder: who gets more pleasure from sex? The man or the woman?

The answer is in the poem.

 

A wish

Laurence Lerner

 

Often I’ve wished that I’d been born a woman.

It seems the one sure way to be fully human.

Think of the trouble — keeping the children fed,

Keeping your skirt down and your lips red,

Watching the calendar and the last bus home,

Being nice to all the dozens of guests in the room;

Having to change your hairstyle and your name

At least once; learning to take the blame;

Keeping your husband faithful and your char.

And all the things you’re supposed to be grateful for

— Votes and proposals, chocolates and seats in the train —

Or expert with — typewriter, powderpuff, pen,

Diaphragm, needle, chequebook, casserole, bed.

It seems the one sure way to be driven mad.

 

So why would anyone want to be a woman?

Would you rather be the hero or the victim?

Would you rather win, seduce and read the paper,

Or be beaten, pregnant, and have to lay the table?

Nothing is free. In order to pay the price

Isn’t it simpler, really, to have no choice?

Only ill-health, recurring, inevitable,

Can teach the taste of what it is to be well.

 

No man has ever felt his daughter tear

The flesh he had earlier torn to plant her there.

Men know the pain of birth by a kind of theory;

No man has been a protagonist in the story,

Lying back bleeding, exhausted and in pain,

Waiting for stitches and sleep and to be alone,

And listened with tender breasts to the hesitant croak

At the bedside growing continuous as you wake.

That is the price. That is what love is worth.

It will go on twisting your heart like an afterbirth.

Whether you choose to or not you will pay and pay

Your whole life long. Nothing on earth is free.

 

Tiresias

Ted Hughes (from Ovid

 

One time, Jupiter, happy to be idle,

Swept the cosmic mystery aside

And draining another goblet of ambrosia

Teased Juno, who drowsed in bliss beside him:

‘This love of male and female’s a strange business.

Fifty-fifty investment in the madness,

Yet she ends up with nine-tenths of the pleasure.’

 

Juno’s answer was: ‘A man might think so.

It needs more than a mushroom in your cup

To wake a wisdom that can fathom which

Enjoys the deeper pleasure, man or woman.

It needs the solid knowledge of a soul

Who having lived and loved in woman’s body

Has also lived and loved in the body of a man.’

 

Jupiter laughed aloud: ‘We have the answer.

There is a fellow called Tiresias.

Strolling to watch the birds and hear the bees

He came across two serpents copulating.

He took the opportunity to kill

Both with a single blow, but merely hurt them –

And found himself transformed into a woman.

 

‘After the seventh year of womanhood,

Strolling to ponder on what women ponder

She saw in that same place the same two serpents

Knotted as before in copulation.

“If your pain can still change your attacker

Just as you once changed me, then change me back.”

She hit the couple with a handy stick,

‘And there he stood as male as any man.’

 

‘He’ll explain,’ cried Juno, ‘why you are

Slave to your irresistible addiction

While the poor nymphs you force to share it with you

Do all they can to shun it.’ Jupiter

Asked Tiresias: ‘In their act of love

Who takes the greater pleasure, man or woman?’

‘Woman,’ replied Tiresias, ‘takes nine-tenths.’

Juno was so angry – angrier

Than is easily understandable –

She struck Tiresias and blinded him.

‘You’ve seen your last pretty snake, for ever.’

But Jove consoled him: ‘That same blow,’ he said,

‘Has opened your inner eye, like a nightscope. See:

‘The secrets of the future – they are yours.’

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