A Sexual Revolution for Women? How exciting
“I’m excited,” a woman tells me eagerly over Twitter. “What if this means a sexual revolution where our sexual pleasure and consent matters?’
Ooh. That is exciting.
(Authors note: I’m profoundly bisexual. But I’m going to write about dudes here because heteronormative sexism gets confusing if I throw my homosexual liaisons in too. I’ll write about that another time.)
Basically (we are friends, aren’t we, I can be colloquial) I have encountered way too many women, including my teenage self, who based their sexuality on what men wanted. You want me to pretend I’m vulnerable and innocent? Sure, as long as you are happy. You want me to fake enjoying it more? Yes sir. You want me to be frivolous, high voiced and saccharine sweet? Whatever you want. Just like me. Please like me.
What do I want? What you want. I’m not a slut.
I didn’t actually realise I could say no to a man until I was 18. Well, no one had ever told me that. If a boy at sixth form wants to take you to dinner, you should be flattered. If he asks you out, you say yes- you should be grateful. When he flirts with you, you should take it as a compliment. If he wants to choke you, you should cooperate or he might leave you for Annabel. Yes yes yes yes yes. It never occurred to me that I could decide for myself whether I wanted to be with a man. Or even more outrageously, pursue a guy sexually myself.
My sexuality was denied to me. I was allowed to appeal to men and what they wanted (low cut tops, short skirts, horrific brutal sadism) but what I wanted was never something I could consciously confront. Because that was something sluts did.
You aren’t supposed to like sex. You are supposed to docilely accept it and quietly do what your boyfriend wants. You definitely don’t tell him what you want in the bedroom, he’ll think you are more promiscuous than Nell Gwynn. You don’t instruct him on what to do or he’ll think you’ve been around the block. You DEFINITELY don’t lust after men or explore your sexuality outside relationships. The virginity complex still overshadows female sensuality in a way it never has for men.
And this can have nasty, deadly consequences. Women feel pressured into sex acts that are becoming ever more extreme (thanks, internet) from a younger and younger age. When a 14 year old boy is given social permissibility to Google porn, discuss it with his friends and form a firm fetish preference, but girls are shamed out of even discussing it, this creates a weird information and power imbalance.
From the age of eleven, I was asked by boys of my own age whether I’d swallow, whether they could tie me up and if I’d ever let a man restrict my breathing in sex. How messed up is that? The extent of my sexual knowledge was the car scene in Titanic. I would blush fiercely and go back to my French verbs. Happily I was installed with a strong English guilt around sex, so I didn’t so much as tongue kiss until I was 14. But many of my female peers would cry on my shoulder about how they didn’t like giving oral sex to Year 9 boys. But they all felt we had to.
Not doing what your boyfriend wanted meant you were frigid. The boys all huddled in the common room discussing who they thought would ‘give head' and who they would most like to have group sex with. We would sit quietly, humiliated and slightly frightened.
Consent was never even discussed in school. Condoms were good, HIV was bad. This was a penis, this was menstruation. Pedophiles are bad. Drugs are bad. Never, even once, were we told that strangling a woman in sex wasn’t normal, or that it wasn’t rude to say no to your boyfriend. That it was okay for girls to actually look up and discuss their sexual interests and health.
Then we saw our sexuality being demonised, then criminalised. First we learnt our bodies were dangerous. Dangerous to male teachers, and dangerous to us. The boys pranced around topless on hot summer days in the school field, playing football between discarded shirts. We had our skirts pulled down, our make up rubbed off our faces, our blouses done up. Put on your blazer. Wear a coloured vest under your shirt. You are making male teachers uncomfortable. Whether 12 year old girls felt uncomfortable being seen as sexually attractive to 50 year old men was never questioned.
Similarly, it was never questioned that the boys were allowed to go topless and we weren’t allowed to show our knees. We learnt very quickly that we were bodies, and boys were people. Our sexuality had to be covered, concealed, shameful, hidden, private, innocent. And not just in our clothes.
We learnt that we were the REAL sexual criminals. The real problem. If only you hadn’t walked home on your own (when a man grabbed you). If only you hadn’t worn a miniskirt (when the boys in your class took a picture of your briefs). If only you hadn’t sent a nude picture to your boyfriend (which he then shared to all his friends as revenge for you ditching him). If only you had been more discreet, innocent, asexual. Like a good girl.
This profoundly screwed up many of my friends (and my) relationship with my sexuality. To be sexual with intimately linked with fear, power, secrecy and vulnerability. After all, that was the only way we could openly address the issue of sexuality publicly: through discussing predatorial men, the ways to avoid being raped and STIs.
Letting the men in your life choose what they wanted was easier than revealing your fantasies- to be vulnerable or passive was less shameful. The guilt of having sexual preferences was installed in us from tweenhood. This resulted in some rather bizarre behaviour from some of my friends.
They accept sexual practices they absolutely hated- oral sex, strangulation, humiliation, beatings, hickeys- because they are too afraid of losing their boyfriends if they don’t do it. Sex was performative, passive, a present for your partner. It was never for you. Sexual satiation was a rare, if added bonus. Female sexuality for them as about appealing to men. The fact it could be about what they wanted hadn’t even entered their heads. Or mine, as I said, until I was 18.
So yes. We need a sexual revolution. One where women can have a sexuality that isn’t solely based on male appeal.