Being a female, bought up in an average, conservative, white, Australian, suburban family, built on traditional Christian values, and beliefs reflecting our British heritage, the words Women, and sexuality were not a combination I thought existed. Gender roles and attitudes towards sex were clear and prescriptive. But as I have learned over the years through my informal and formal exploration around the themes of gender, what it means to be a Woman, and sexuality both masculine and feminine, there is a lot that has been left unsaid, with many areas yet to be challenged, explored, potentially changed, and most importantly spoken freely about. Thus inspiring me, to create a space for discourse around the subject of Women’s sexuality, devoid of the social constraints based on the maintenance of the patriarchal system, which I, and many other Women from a broad spectrum of cultures, find ourselves living in.
I do feel it important however to preface this piece by acknowledging that my history, perspective, and what forms the basis of my writing, is not meant in any way to represent all Women’s experiences; each of us have our unique set of experiences, thoughts, ideas and desires. But rather, I endeavor with what and how I write, to encourage people to engage in conversation with themselves and others in exploring these themes through whatever context they choose, free of shame, embarrassment or feeling a need to suppress their voice due to common social or cultural expectations and regulations.
So, to get the ball rolling so to speak, here’s a little bit about me, and my personal history, in order to contextualize what has influenced me, my writing, research and work during my formative years and beyond.
My childhood, well what I remember of it anyway (but that’s a different story) was a relatively happy one. My family consisted of my mother, father, and an older brother and sister, and we resided in an average Melbourne suburb. We were far from wealthy, but also not poor or struggling, all basic needs were met, and there was no deprivation – well apart from perhaps true freedom of thought, and true freedom of expression.
Everything was relatively comfortable, if you didn’t want to think too much, or challenge the status quo. We had a strong religious thread running through our family, attending church on a Sunday (or Sunday school then youth group for us children). Therefore following mainstream Christian religious practices, beliefs and edicts, combined with the morals and codes of conduct reflecting our British and religious roots formed the basis of how we perceived ourselves and others, and dictated how we behaved as part of society.
Messages on such behaviours and our roles were clear, so clear in fact that many things were never even spoken about beyond being given ongoing superficial reinforcement of the correct way to behave and think. Subjects such as gender and sexuality didn’t require any discussion – it just was how it was and not to be questioned. These roles were set and inflexible, as were the rules surrounding how one should behave, belief systems one should ascribe to, and even how one should feel about these. Any deviation was considered unacceptable and definitely not given space to influence or impact on this dominant framework.
Support for the traditional family structure, and the roles of men and women and how one should relate to and behave with their own and others bodies was also clear. The system had, after all (allegedly) worked for generations, and shouldn’t be questioned. And from my perspective, as a child, this was normal, and how the world worked, therefore forming the basis of my early social development, how I saw myself as a female, and later as a woman.
I do recall, however, even during childhood, having questions about these belief systems. Obviously at that age I didn’t have an experiential basis from which to question these, but from a logical perspective, there were many ‘but why’s?’ in my mind. However, being a child, surrounded by messages that so firmly supported a prescribed set of beliefs, and being devoid of the opportunity to ask questions, discuss, or independently research these doubts, I continued on, in silence, carrying these through with me into adolescence.
Now, adolescence, by nature is a tumultuous and testing time for everyone, as one tries to understand, and adapt to the gamut of changes occurring on the physical, psychological mental and emotional planes as one moves closer towards becoming an adult and all that entails. And some key areas of this development are the growing awareness of ones body and how it’s changing, sexuality, gender roles and expectations. And I was no different to any other teenager in that regard.
I started to feel things in my body and emotionally that I had not before. No longer was all of this stuff theoretical, it had become real. Parts of me were coming alive, parts that I didn’t even know existed, and consistent with my early upbringing, I felt a degree of guilt accompanying these new feelings. Because so many of the new discoveries I made as I started to explore my body, emotions and desires, were things that I had learned I shouldn’t be feeling, wanting, giving attention to or doing.
These experiences, despite the guilt I felt, only served to strengthen my earlier doubts based on my logical child’s mind, compelling me to question many things on a much deeper level. And at the core of these questions was the overarching one of, was what I had been conditioned to believe really the only way it could or should be? Thus triggering my, at that stage, very informal research, into the areas of Women’s sexuality, relationships and traditional gender roles in my ongoing quest to explore and challenge these through my own growing experiences, inner dialogue, and observation. The conditioning I, and my peers, received about what it is to be female, and how we should feel and behave in relation to our sexuality, as young women and adult women became a central focus of mine.
I voraciously consumed all the information I could get my hands on – being pre internet days at that time, this research was confined to observation, books, movies, magazines, and when I could get it, which was rare, conversations with peers, and others. This process lead me to conclude, time and time again that there appeared to be a great deal missing in the (limited) public and private dialogue with a clear disconnect between many Women’s real life experiences, desires, thoughts and feelings and what we had been socialized to believe. Society was fraught with prescribed belief systems that were heavily supported by mainstream media, broader, structures such as schools, religion and the law, and modeled by the people around us.
This quest for knowledge and understanding during my adolescence however caused me to feel exceedingly puzzled, confused, and as if there may be something wrong with me, due to the systemic support for several key beliefs, which I simply couldn’t agree with on a personal level in relation to Women, their identity and their sexuality.
The end of adolescence however, did not bring an end to this conflict I felt between my ideas and attitudes, and the society I was surrounded by, but rather strengthened it as I moved into adulthood, and had the opportunity to discover more of the world. I worked in many different areas during my early adulthood including advertising, marketing, disability support services, clinical massage and domestic violence support work, then in my 30’s I went to university and gained my Social Science (Psychology) degree with a co-major in sociology. And what I found, through my diverse range of experiences, and having the opportunity to talk with many different sub-cultures that make up our society, was that there was a commonality, despite superficial differences, between what I had been bought up to believe, and what society dictated and supported on a wider scale about what a Woman should be, and how she should behave sexually and emotionally within relationships, and towards herself. Quite simply, these attitudes were rife.
So what then are these predominant messages, both subtle and overt, which we are conditioned to adhere to, where do they come from, and how do they then form barriers to us feeling comfortable, confident and free in expressing and enjoying our sexual selves?
It starts early pretty much from the time we are born, with modeling from family, community and broader social structures and supported by mainstream media and advertising. Little girls and little boys are treated differently, if a girl shows an interest in what are decreed to be more masculine attitudes or activities, she is labeled a tomboy, and little boys are often given messages about how to be a man, or told to learn to act like a man if they cry or show emotion.
This early conditioning lays down a template for how, as we develop we should then lay expectations and attitudes towards our sexuality down. The general themes around relationships and sexuality for girls and boys alike as they grow into you women and men and beyond are well defined, and systematically supported, regardless of where the messages are coming from.
For example, my first formal sex education was during my last year at primary school. Giving it the title of sex education turned out to be a bit of a stretch however as it focused on only one area of sex, that of sex being a reproductive mechanism. Only teaching us about the physiological facts of how reproductive organs work, and how babies are made. Which perhaps was all they thought necessary, considering along with this there were explicit messages that sex should only occur after marriage, and was a duty (more so for women, men were entitled to desire and want it) to perform as part of that legally binding union. There was no place for female pleasure, desire or exploration there, just the cold hard facts of reproduction. And there was an unspoken rule, that it was not acceptable to talk openly about this subject, or if it was to be spoken about, it must only be in hushed, apologetic tones.
Looking beyond that snipped of early formal sex education, although broader than that very closed definition of sex, Women’s sexuality appeared to all intents and purposes to only exist for a narrow range of reasons, to be used only for a narrow range of purposes, and be expressed only in a narrow range of ways. None of which appeared to pay credence or give attention to Women as individual sexual entities or their right to enjoy their sexual selves.
Mainstream books, films, magazines and newspapers are all jam packed with images of women’s sexuality. From classic and sexy romance books and films, which I was a huge fan of before I became sexually active because of their titillating content, where the key message invariably boils down to woman falls in love with man, passively hopes man will notice her, he does, and decides to take her as his own, where she then succumbs and gives herself to him sexually as well as emotionally – her needs and satisfaction come only from fulfilling his, and rarely do we see this portrayed the other way around. She is essentially a passive passenger in the process.
A view that is also often, in more subtle ways found in other forms of media such as advertising, magazines, and newspapers, which may at times appear to be depicting women as more independent, in control of their sexuality, and empowered, by providing sex advice columns, articles such as how to give a good blow job, how to catch or keep your man, and how to be a tiger in the bedroom for example. However, these still invariably carry the underlying message’s that a Woman’s sexuality is, and should be, based on what men need or want, and it is her job to try and provide this, therefore teaching her to successfully play the role of being a Woman. In comparison however there is little, if any, attention given to her exploring and enjoying her own body either on her own, or with others, or how to actualize what she needs and wants for herself.
When you combine this with early socialization, provided by family, peers, and broader social structures and systems, you can see, what rises to the surface is a combination of messages telling women that her sexuality is not her own to enjoy, but is more to be viewed as some kind of currency or to provide pleasure for others.
The paradigm of the good girl/bad girl is also seen reflected in many different ways, with the dominant message being that we should aspire to fitting into the good girl category rather than be the bad girl. For the descriptives used for bad girls consist of a plethora of terms that for many hold derogatory meanings such as slut, whore, dirty, loose woman, cheap, nymphomaniac etc. if a Woman rejects this paradigm, and decides to take her sexuality into her own hands, and chooses not to follow the rules. Because, we are consistently told that our role in society and our sexuality are far less important than maintaining social structures.
The prevalence of such material, and a lack of real alternatives that are easily accessible serve to set up barriers for many Women, and create a culture of silence around sexuality and the many practices and attitudes that deviate from what society and the media decree as the norm. Therefore feeding into the belief systems necessary to maintain the patriarchal structures and influences, particularly surrounding Women that continue to dominate our society and our perceptions of ourselves. Systems that revolve around objectifying women, the dumbing down of Women’s sexuality and sexual experiences, reducing it to currency, and decreeing it merely as a vehicle to provide male pleasure and satisfy masculine needs.
Such systems, the resulting silence, and the lack of available material and freedom of expression for alternative views and experiences being acceptable leave us with a picture not of empowered women, even though we supposedly live in a sexually liberated age, but more one of suppression and lack of respect and consideration for the sexual needs and desires of Women. Indeed, one could almost be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that it’s purely incidental if a woman happens to have a satisfying sex life, she’s got the bonus, for her core purpose is to maintain the ideals that have been set out before her. However if she actively engages with her sexuality, takes control of her pleasure, and places a premium on her sexual satisfaction, she is often accused of being selfish or hedonistic, and condemned because she’s not behaving or thinking as a woman should.
Overall the overwhelming theme, as I discovered, through the prominent social messages and discourse (or lack thereof) being projected through mainstream media, attempts to dictate that female sexual energy and expression as she moves through adolescence and into adulthood, should be viewed as a vehicle that leads a woman to ultimately creating and maintaining the traditional nuclear family. Her reproductive abilities and emotional responses should not be related to her sexuality and enjoying her own bliss, but more about finding a man, getting a man, keeping a man, having children, and to then be a devoted, compliant and supportive wife and mother, and disengaging from her own needs – this should be all she needs.
Very little attention is given to her sexuality. Instead, we are often blocked by silence and trapped by the unrealistic ideals that surround us. Promoting a culture of shame and oppression in Women who do not follow or feel connected to these prescriptive roles and responses that we are constantly told we should.
The result of this is often a high level of guilt and/or embarrassment about who we are sexually, if we dare to try and deviate from the norm in either thought or action. Instead we are conditioned to internalize these beliefs, and negative labels others put on us if we don’t comply. Therefore leaving us in the position where we have to make a concerted effort to challenge the status quo, and wear the subsequent judgment if we choose to follow our own path in the face of such strong stereotypes and expectations.
This can leave women feeling vulnerable, and at risk of private and public condemnation, humiliation, judgment, and accusations, if they are open about their sexual needs and desires, consequently driving it underground, where women experience the psychological damage of carrying the secret shame if they are different and don’t fit in with the narrow definition we have been told we should. Often compelling Women to cut off from their sexual selves and desires, and live trapped in this silence. All of which continues to serve, support and strengthen the masculine, patriarchal belief systems, and maintain the status quo in that women should not be sexual beings except for male pleasure, procreation, or entertainment.
Now of course, there are women who do bravely step forward and openly attempt to challenge these beliefs. Those Women who do break the mold, put themselves out there, and pursue and prioritize their own sexual satisfaction. And this has also been a key area of interest and research for me: What the common perceptions are of how a ‘sexually liberated’ woman looks, feels and behaves. However yet again, what I found, fell far short of what I imagined and what my vision of a truly liberated Woman, with genuine freedom to choose and develop her sexuality, would be like.
My research in this area was informal and largely based on conversations and anecdotal evidence provided from both men and women, after all, I was wanting to hear the voices of real, every day people, and this seemed the best way to access these. And I found, from men and women alike that perceptions of female sexual liberation tended to revolve more around the idea of a Woman ‘acting like a man’ sexually; and expressing her liberation by trying to play the traditional male allocated or accepted roles such as the player or the aggressor, with the central focus being more on her masculine sexual side, therefore again feeding into the belief that she should squash down and hide the feminine side of her sexuality. In short, to be sexually liberated, you had to become like a man, consequently still supporting the traditional belief systems of masculine and feminine sexuality. Resulting in Women holding unrealistic expectations, rather than genuine freedom in their sexuality.
So if the answers I was seeking could not be found with the common perceptions of what it is to be a sexually liberated woman or the existing dominant themes, where then was all the good stuff I envisioned, hiding? I knew it existed, because I felt it in my body and mind, I had experienced and thought about things that were well beyond what was commonly offered, and I had needs and desires beyond what was easily accessible to me.
Variety and diversity were clearly lacking in the majority of content, with a marked absence of dialogue encompassing the breadth and depth of women’s sexuality and their relationships with themselves and others.
Where was the emotion for example? The intensity exploration, celebration and pleasure? Where was masturbation and women reveling in the enjoyment of their own bodies – giving themselves pleasure, taking themselves to ecstasy. Where were their fantasies? And what about Female ejaculation? Where was the spirituality, passion and hunger? The intimacy, the eye contact, the breath, the mind-blowing desire, the dirty, sweaty, loss of control? Where was the cunt, the g-spot and the clitoris? And where were the men, who wanted to immerse themselves in her, those who experience joy from giving her this pleasure? And what about polyamory, same sex relationships, experimentation, BDSM and kink? Where could a woman find these things? The places where her sexual needs, and the whole gamut of physical mental and emotional experiences accompanying these, could be nurtured fed and celebrated?
Clearly there was a disconnect between my own experiences, thoughts and feelings and what I had been socialized to believe. And I knew from conversations with other women, that I was not alone in this. In a global anthropological and historical sense, there was no valid basis which I could find for this disconnect, but in the society we live in, this supposedly is acceptable and the kind of sacrifice a Woman should make.
What had also become clear to me was how widespread and entrenched these beliefs (or superficial variations of them) are, uncovering a significant absence of raw, real voices of Women, and the acknowledgement of these being deserving of space and attention.
This compelled me, when I moved out of academia to pick up the pen, so to speak and start writing again in a way I hadn’t done for a long time. No research proposals or reports, no academic essays. I started writing erotic fiction, comment pieces, research summaries and poetry, allowing myself the freedom to explore and express my perceptions of how Women’s sexuality could be viewed, and to create the kind of content I wanted to read.
This became an extremely positive, exciting and cathartic experience for me, however at that stage, whether a broader audience would embrace it or not, was unknown. But as my original intent when I started writing this kind of content was to use it purely as part of my own personal journey of exploration, the question of how people might respond to my work publicly hadn’t even entered my mind. But then the penny dropped. By keeping my writing private, I was effectively perpetuating the myths that I had come to abhor. Why should I feel the need to keep it hidden, why shouldn’t I share? And thus, my original blog (now a website) Distinctly Female was born.
I wanted to be a part of carving out a space for Women, free of shame or embarrassment, to explore the concepts of a diverse range of sexual practices, feelings and elements that are important to Women, whether society or the mainstream media thought they were or not. So I opened up my writing to the public, in a free and easily accessible way.
And by doing this, I was able to actively contribute to challenging the relatively one-dimensional views and expectations, prescriptives and belief systems surrounding Women’s sexuality that had so irked me, and affected me throughout my life. Even if other people weren’t, I wanted to publicly give Women’s sexuality the credence and attention it deserved, and to create a forum where raw, real voices could be heard, and topics that have been given taboo ratings by some, could be explored free of judgment.
The philosophy, aims and core elements of Distinctly Female were established before its inception. I am a feminist, and adhering to feminist ideologies was (and still is) essential as far as I’m concerned, along with the intent to start actively breaking down those barriers which have been stifling Women’s voices, through providing people with a different option. A real, honest and open voice to listen to or interact with if they chose. Normalizing Women’s experiences, desires and passions was also crucial, no longer did I want Women to feel they should be stifled or squashed and molded to fit an unrealistic ideal that society had imposed on them.
Debunking myths and challenging perceptions and misconceptions surrounding Women’s sexuality, and their intimate relationships with themselves and others, is also a core element in my published work on Distinctly Female and elsewhere. As is exploring these not just from a superficial perspective aimed to titillate readers, but also through encompassing deeper psychological and sociological themes, giving voice to topics that many women have been conditioned not to speak about, or admit to feeling.
For example the common myth that women should be passive, and that she should be taken sexually by a man, or sex is something she gives to him in exchange for what she wants, is a topic I have explored in several of my short stories. This however does not mean that I feel all my Female protagonists need to be dominant characters, for that also plays into the myth about sexually liberated women having to take a more masculine approach to sex. Therefore I have explored this theme from various different angles, including switches in power dynamics as sexual play between partners, dominant women who can still maintain their femininity and capitalize on their feminine energy in this role, and women who also enjoy being consensually submissive as part of mutually respectful sex with their partner(s).
Discussing topics such as how women feel about themselves, the impact of negative relationships or sexual experiences, and the feelings of guilt, or being dirty, wrong, or selfish for taking joy in her sexual self and choices are also key areas I focus on. Along with exploring the good girl/bad girl theme and the myth, which I believe is one of the most problematic in contemporary Australian society; that you have to be one or the other. For it is extremely possible that the two states (or roles) can co-exist in one woman, she can be sexually empowered and still thrive in other aspects of life, she does not have to be defined by her sexual choices, as society so often likes to do. We do all have that choice.
I must hasten to add however, that making these choices is often not easy, for anyone, myself included. The natural knee jerk reaction by many individuals and society in general is to resist change and to maintain the status quo. And reactions to Distinctly Female, and my other writing has been mixed.
There has been negative backlash personally and in my public life as a result of writing about what I do, in the way I do it. Some individuals close to me were very vocal about their disapproval when I started writing and making my work available publicly, and several people made the choice to distance themselves from me as they did not want to be seen supporting me, my ideas or what I was doing. I respectfully accepted this; freedom of choice is key both in my personal life and in my writing. In addition I have been challenged and verbally attacked publicly, often irrationally, by members of the general public who disagree with my ethos, and what I choose to do.
Admittedly, when I started publishing my work I found it quite confronting, firstly putting my work and ideas out in the public domain and secondly dealing with some of the negativity that came back. It felt beautiful and liberating to write and share with others, but in the initial stages, the backlash, both personally and publicly did cause me to question myself. This however ultimately turned out to be a positive experience, as it only served to highlight for me how embedded social conditioning can be, because it was the remnants of those voices within me that caused me to question myself. Therefore it provided the impetus to keep pushing forward, and to keep putting my writing out there.
Fortunately though, far out weighing any negativity has been the positive response from a wide range of people, male and female alike, as more and more readers have engaged with my work, and started exploring their own perceptions and desires, and giving themselves permission to feel the joy in this, rather than the guilt, or feeling they should suppress their sexual desires, which so many of us bear the burden of carrying around with us.
As Distinctly Female evolved, It became clearer that what many people need and want, just like I did, is an accessible forum which allows space to give voice to alternative, and more realistic views, ideas and attitudes. One which allows Women freedom in, and men a deeper understanding of, the many and varied ways for Women to express and experience their sexuality; well beyond a mechanical act, a male driven activity, or as something to be traded or or taken from them. Space that allows perceptions of sexuality to be redefined as a wonderful part of us all to be celebrated and respected. We can, and have a right to, find empowerment, ownership and pleasure in our sexuality.
This is a movement I feel honored to be part of. Women’s sexuality is coming into the spotlight more, as individual Women embark on their own exploration, and other artists, creators and writers bring the feminist ideology into their work, therefore challenging traditional belief systems around Women and their sexuality. Each one contributing to opening the conversation, increasing awareness by first of all creating that space for women, giving access to that space and facilitating in Women claiming that space, for all people to have access if they choose to follow what I believe is a clearly growing need and desire for this style of content. The dialogue has started allowing voices previously suppressed to now be expressed and heard. As the channels for accessing this kind of material open up, so do peoples minds, leading to a happier, healthier, more balance environment for women, and hopefully lots of wonderful experiences as they explore their own unique sexuality.
– Judi Reed, 2015