Yes, I know, that sounds like a mammoth topic to cover in one article.
After all, it is something that women across the world have to face in many different ways, and for some, their voices have been so constricted, that even talking about sexuality is considered taboo So, perhaps this is best viewed as an introduction to one of the key philosophies that underpins what I do, why I write, and why I feel reclaiming our sexuality is such a vital topic to discuss.
Although some of us may feel we are liberated and in control of our sexuality, the fact is that we are still subject to judgments and prescriptives regarding how we express ourselves, and what we should allow ourselves to do and feel. Which, sadly, can sometimes jeopardize women’s mental and physical health.
This trend is seen reflected in different laws, cultural beliefs, and within our closer communities; families, friends and work environments, encompassing a diverse range of issues such as reproductive rights, how our bodies should look, the type of relationships we have, how we should experience sexual pleasure, how we should accept others treating us, and the list goes on, and on…
Consequently, even with active resistance, it permeates all of our lives to some degree, no matter where we live, or what our cultural beliefs are, because somehow, over the evolution of time women’s sexuality appears to have become public property, something to be governed and controlled.
Interestingly when dipping into the history books and mythology, one finds that this hasn’t always been the case. In earlier cultures women’s sexuality was often viewed as something to be revered and celebrated, and acknowledged as a powerful force to be respected. Yet now, women the world over are frequently being treated as if they are incapable of, and don’t have the right to, make their own choices around their sexuality.
We see it expressed in extreme ways such as a marital rape, which is still legal in some countries, and, depending on which culture you explore or are part of, a lack of appropriate laws, and concrete action and penalties to protect women from sexual assault and a victim blaming mentality. And despite the fact that some of us might only see the more extreme examples of this in the news from time to time, there are many women who are living with the consequences of this every day. Which does make it relevant to all of us, as a gender.
Then there are more subtle ways, like when you’re waiting for a bus, if you happen to be wearing a nice little skirt, legs clad in fishnets and a stunning pair of boots on your way to meet your delicious lover. In this situation it is not unusual to be subjected to disapproving looks, comments, and even sexual assault. Which we are commonly expected to just accept and live with.
Often there is no specific gender division with these judgments. I have on occasions been referred to as a whore or a slut by both women and men because of how I choose to portray myself, and I’ve watched and heard it happen many times to other women also (and intervened when it’s been appropriate).
However, it is also likely that if that same woman at the bus stop, wearing the very same outfit, was working in a strip club, she may then be judged as being overdressed or not sexy enough. For there, it’s expected that she be alluring for other people’s pleasure. So why then is she judged, often harshly, for dressing that way for her own pleasure? Now, of course, these attitudes don’t come from everyone all the time, but why should it even be happening at all?
And it’s this kind of situation that exemplifies the built in contradictions and prescriptives around women’s sexuality. Now, I’m not saying that men don’t experience these also, but generally they do have more freedom and acceptance around expressing and enjoying their sexuality, which we see in common attitudes like ‘sowing their wild oats’, traditional bachelor party rituals, and the image of ‘the stud’.
Now, from where I’m standing, whichever way I look at it, I still can’t find any logical rationale or physiological basis to support the validity of these laws and attitudes that are part of our everyday lives. Historically we know that these have changed from era to era, and even when you take a big picture snapshot of the world now, there is very little specific, consistent, consensus between cultures.
For example in countries like the US, contraception, which is a significant issue when talking sexuality, is generally widely available. Sure there are some barriers and regulations, but the majority of women can access some form of effective contraception if they want to. However in Africa 53% of women are not having their needs met for contraception, with common barriers being cited as limited access and cultural opposition. *
Clearly this concept that our sexuality is not ours to own can have wide ranging and significant negative impacts. From the physical, in what we can do, or should accept having done to our bodies, to the plethora of potential forms of psychological damage caused by confusion, guilt, and feelings of unworthiness, stemming from having our freedom of choice, and ownership of our sexuality taken away or restricted.
So, what then can we do to bring back that sense of empowerment, enabling us to more fully celebrate and enjoy our choices, our bodies, and our sexuality again? Because it is simply an individual right, a gender right, and a basic human right to have control of your own sexuality and pleasure when it’s not violating the rights of others.
Admittedly, this can feel overwhelming. Some of us have patterns of firmly entrenched social conditioning to break down and work through, and all of us have laws, in some form to deal with. But luckily there are some simple things that we can all do right now to create a flow of positive change.
Ask. Why does it matter?
It’s so easy to get caught up in all the talk. Is breast enhancement surgery okay, should women be allowed to work in the sex industry, am I/is she a slut because I/she enjoys having multiple partners?
However this rhetoric can distract us from the key question – Why does it matter? Why is it considered a public issue? Is it helpful? Or is there some other underlying process at work? Why aren’t these topics being viewed as individual rights and choices?
By challenging the beliefs and questioning their validity, you can then start to reclaim your power. Because really, if it’s not hurting anyone, why does it, or should it, matter what others think you should do?
Simply talking can be incredibly powerful also. As with many things in life, not just sexuality, silence can make us feel alone in our feelings, and experiences, particularly if they are around themes that are not publicly condoned.
Now I’m not suggesting that everyone go out and shout from the rooftops their fantasies and sexual preferences, but I am suggesting that sharing experiences and thoughts with people who you trust can help to normalize feelings and desires rather than having us feel they should be repressed and denied, or as if there’s something wrong with us.
Reframing is also a wonderfully empowering technique. Try reframing and redefining concepts and words that have been given a negative connotation. Because it’s the meaning that other people have put on certain words and practices based on their own belief systems that can make us feel wrong, guilty or depressed about who we are sexually. However, the beauty is, that you can start creating your own positive perceptions and definitions anytime you want.
The world of kink and BDSM provides a lovely example of this. Many people will publicly declare that that kind of stuff is wrong, depraved, perverted…but once you start attaching labels of exploration, freedom of choice, growth and learning about your needs (only if you want to of course), then the whole pictures changes. Same thing, two different frames.
Also, for example, a simple word like cunt, which is often used to convey something negative these days, is one that I embrace and use frequently, effectively reclaiming the word, consistent with its origins, where it represented the power and beauty of female genitalia.
And lastly, by supporting each other in our freedom to choose what is right for us individually, we can start to reclaim our sexuality as a gender. For each individual’s sexuality is about personal pleasure and the pleasure of those they choose to share it with. Cross culturally there are many diverse ways that people experience and express this, and when that is made through free choice it becomes something we can all celebrate and support, regardless of whether it’s what we would choose for ourselves.
Now, I’m certainly not claiming that anything I’ve said here is going to create some kind of utopian sexually liberated world for women. But I do hope that it may have inspired some thought around the themes of how making conscious choices around sexuality can create positive change for us all. Because after all, we are pretty darn wonderful in whatever we choose to do in our relationships and with our bodies, every lovely little tingly bit of it.
* World Health Organization, Media center, Family Planning, Fact sheet No. 351, Updated May 2013.
– Judi Reed,2013