it was when i stopped searching for home with others
and lifted the foundations of home within myself
i found there were no roots more intimate
than those between a mind and body
that have decided to be whole
— rupi kaur
A couple weeks ago, four young women I teach handed me, quoted or asked me if I had read Rupi Kaur. All on the same day. How do you not know this poet, they said, she’s everywhere! So of course, I began reading her. And I see why at this particular moment in time, she may be the zeitgeist.
Women are angry. Women are trying to find a way to declare ownership of their own bodies. Instead of looking to the authorial voice of men, women are looking to other women for answers.
Uma Thurman recently wrote a searing editorial in The New York Times, ending with, “Personally, it has taken me 47 years to stop calling people who are mean to you ‘in love’ with you. It took a long time because I think that as little girls we are conditioned to believe that cruelty and love somehow have a connection and that is like the sort of era that we need to evolve out of.”
In a New York Times’ Magazine article, “What Teenagers are Learning from Online Porn” Maggie Jones profiles a high school porn literacy program. At the start of the program, 27 percent of the teenagers agreed that “most people like to be slapped, spanked or have their hair pulled during sex,” and 45 percent of the teenagers said that porn was a good way for young people to learn about sex. She argues that “you don’t have to believe that porn leads to sexual assault or that it’s creating a generation of brutal men to wonder how it helps shape how teenagers talk and think about sex and, by extension, their ideas about masculinity, femininity, intimacy and power.” Cindy Gallop, creator of an online platform called MakeLoveNotPorn, says: “Pornography didn’t create the narrative that male pleasure should be first and foremost. But that idea is certainly reinforced by “a male-dominated porn industry shot through a male lens.” And Al Vernacchio, a sexuality educator who talks to his high school students about sexual pleasure, mutuality, and the ingredients for healthy relationships, says that the problem with porn “is not just that it often shows misogynistic, unhealthy representations of relationships….You can’t learn relationship skills from porn, and if you are looking for pleasure and connection, porn can’t teach you how to have those.” Yet 93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls admit to watching porn before they turned 18, internalizing the pervasive narrative of male prerogative in heterosexual copulation– without affirmative consent.
The media send women mixed messages when it comes to sex. Advertising teaches women that to be sexy is to have power, but in real life, if a woman overtly dresses or acts sexy, she is often slut-shamed, and if she is a victim of sexual assault, she is often judged culpable for inviting her own attack. This is part and parcel of the Madonna-Whore schism through which women are sifted and compartmentalized. In A Uterus is a Feature, not a Bug Sarah Lacey depicts how the deification of “family values” is a sociocultural lens purportedly protecting women from social ills –from rape or working motherhood or even from single motherhood– but is actually a form of benevolent sexism that comes at a high cost. Peter Glick, a professor of psychology at Sarah Lawrence University says those who score high on benevolent sexism are more likely to blame women when they accuse men of sexual assault. He says “The protection racket of benevolent sexism gives women a lot of incentive to either forgive men, or blame women. The alternative–acknowledging that the system is broken, and that virtue can’t protect you from violence–can be too terrible to contemplate.” Lacey claims that it is a tool of the patriarchy to make a woman feel like she is the problem, not the culture we’re living in.
Many Americans believe that feminism isn’t needed because women are already equal. I want to move beyond the accepted definition of feminism as the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities and borrow a wider understanding of feminist consciousness from Gerda Lerner. For the purposes of this discussion, feminist consciousness consists of the awareness that as a gender, women are subordinate to men; the recognition that this subordination isn’t natural, but culturally determined; the development of a sisterhood; an autonomous definition by women as to the nature of their current condition; and the development of an alternate plan.
We spend a lot of time teaching a woman that she needs to protect herself from men, but we seldom acknowledge how much strength or agency she already possesses, and we rarely procure a paradigm where she can envision what it would look like to seek her own narrative, including articulating both desire and pleasure, in or out of the bedroom.
what’s the greatest lesson a woman should learn?
that since day one, she’s already had everything
she needs within herself. it’s the world that
convinced her she did not.
Women have gained access to education and jobs, but our bodies are often colonized by patriarchal values. Here are just a few cultural myths about the gender we assign to female bodies:
- Our primary cultural myth, taken from the Judeo-Christian Bible is that Eve was created for Adam, out of his rib, as a helpmate. When she gave Adam the apple, her punishment (from God) is to have pain in all things related to childbirth and to accept her husband as her master.
- The voice of authority is male, from the voice of God, to the majority of our current political and economic leaders, to nearly every figure we have ever learned about in history.
- The ideological apparatus sanctifying women for their motherhood, for nurturing, and for their role as caregivers, encourages women to see themselves in the role of the Other, and put herself last.
- Penetration is the only “real sex.”
Dominance is not always gendered, and people of any gender can pleasure one another and hurt one another. But men are disproportionately the perpetrators of violence and women are disproportionately the victims of sexual assault. In her novel Power, Naomi Alderman explores what a society would look like if women had an advantage in physical strength men didn’t have, creating a world in which women’s superior strength catapults into wealth, world leadership, and gendered violence. She suggests that the nurturing role women play has less to do with the biology of reproduction and more to do with power. In the world as we know it, men’s physical power evolved into social power and then to economic power. And women have been socialized to accept this as natural. Even though physical strength is no longer the way most of us earn a living, chances are, if you’re a woman, you have less economic power than the men in your immediate social sphere.
If you’re hungry, you’ll accept crumbs.
Today, I want to address why women accept crumbs. I want to talk about equality of affection as an alternative plan to our current sexual paradigm. I don’t want to focus on where the line is on rape or assault. Like so much of this movement today, I’m not calling for legal action or restitution, but rather asking for social accountability. As women, I think it’s time we set the bar higher in our sexual experiences than being relieved or grateful we weren’t raped.
I want to address how women see themselves, their bodies and their value. Much has been written on why women don’t say no, and on the array of socialization we receive to be accommodating, nurturing, smiley and nice. In fact, we have had this conversation enough times that affirmative consent is now California Law in public colleges. A woman doesn’t have to say no. She has to say yes.
In 2014, Senate Bill 967 added Section 67386 to the Education Code relating to student safety. California has created a standard that requires affirmative consent — affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity — throughout the encounter, removing ambiguity for both parties. The law protects both partners by ensuring a mutual understanding. A person who is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol cannot give consent. And California colleges are being held more accountable for prevention, evaluation and a consistent protocol surrounding sexual assault. It could come in the form of a smile, a nod or a verbal yes, as long as it’s unambiguous, “enthusiastic” and ongoing.
This may seem radical, but discussions of what constitutes consent aren’t new. Sexual Consent policies at Antioch College were presented in 1991 as follows:
Consent is defined as the act of willingly and verbally agreeing to engage in specific sexual conduct. The following are clarifying points:
- Consent is required each and every time there is sexual activity.
- All parties must have a clear and accurate understanding of the sexual activity.
- The person(s) who initiate(s) the sexual activity is responsible for asking for consent.
- The person(s) who are asked are responsible for verbally responding.
- Each new level of sexual activity requires consent.
- Use of agreed upon forms of communication such as gestures or safe words is acceptable, but must be discussed and verbally agreed to by all parties before sexual activity occurs.
- Consent is required regardless of the parties’ relationship, prior sexual history, or current activity (e.g. grinding on the dance floor is not consent for further sexual activity).
- At any and all times when consent is withdrawn or not verbally agreed to, the sexual activity must stop immediately.
- Silence is not consent.
- Body movements and non-verbal responses such as moans are not consent.
- A person can not give consent while sleeping.
- All parties must have unimpaired judgement (examples that may cause impairment include but are not limited to alcohol, drugs, mental health conditions, physical health conditions).
- All parties must use safer sex practices.
- All parties must disclose personal risk factors and any known STIs. Individuals are responsible for maintaining awareness of their sexual health.
These requirements for consent do not restrict with whom the sexual activity may occur, the type of sexual activity that occurs, the props/toys/tools that are used, the number of persons involved, the gender(s) or gender expressions of persons involved.
At the time, men like Rush Limbaugh made fun of every aspect of this policy. Talk show hosts ridiculed it on nearly every station.
But just for a moment, imagine: what if these conversations were baseline expectations? What if it were common practice between new partners to ask for what you want and wait for a reply? What if developing a shared sexual language was the norm? What if equality of affection was as common as the right to vote?
Equality of affection is when there is a balance of support and respect between two people where each person’s needs, desires and expressions of affection are considered equally.
If we want both affirmative consent and equality of affection, do we know what that looks like? The old saying that “no means yes and yes means faster” is no longer applicable or defendable. So what does yes look like from a woman? What does mutual pleasure look like between men and women? How can your partner please you if you don’t know how to please yourself? How can you enthusiastically consent to pleasure you haven’t come to expect or require?
We know that women have been socialized to be nice, to be deferential, and to be of service. Studies verify that it’s far more difficult for women to say no than for men to say no. But when we don’t have affirmative models, it’s also difficult to say yes. It’s difficult to know what we desire, to identify what feels good in our bodies, and to know what we want, let alone ask for it. How do we say yes when we don’t know our own minds? When we don’t know how to listen to ourselves? Most women have no female voice of authority in their heads. Who do we listen to when the voice of God is male, and the version of God we’ve been handed down has taught us to see ourselves as a helpmate rather than the protagonist of our own story? As Sally Kempton says: “It’s hard to fight an enemy that has outposts in your head.”
To explore and experience sexual pleasure, we must first recognize our own desires and our right to explore them. It’s an act of resistance for a woman to recognize that her body exists primarily to serve herself rather than other people. And this is particularly challenging in a culture that is uncomfortable with people talking about their own pleasure.
Jocelyn Elders, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, was asked if she thought teaching children about masturbation might reduce unsafe sex. Yes, she replied, “I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality, and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we’ve not even taught our children the very basics.” Conservative outrage erupted, and Bill Clinton asked her to resign.
How can anyone know what they want if we shame them for safely exploring what that might be.
Recently, I’ve been asking nearly every woman I know how frequently she experiences pleasure during partner sex. Not necessarily orgasm, but consistent pleasure and a feeling of well-being throughout the entire sexual encounter. This is an unscientific sample, but over half the women admitted the majority of sex they have had hasn’t been physically pleasurable to them–even though they often felt emotional pleasure through pleasing their partners. Many admitted that when intercourse is painful, they make noises they’ve heard in porn to expedite the ending. That most women enjoy pleasing someone they care for isn’t a problem. The question is, why is it so difficult for women to seek mutual pleasure for themselves during these encounters, and to ask their partners to facilitate their pleasure. And why don’t we socialize men to ask?
Maybe because many women don’t even ask themselves what they desire, in or out of the bedroom. Most women aren’t accustomed to seeing pleasure as necessary, and in the process of earning a living and caring for the needs of our families and communities, it often drops low on our priority lists. Sex-positive language that affirms women’s desire is not a sociocultural norm in The United States. To develop one, we will have to envision a new paradigm.
I think it’s no coincidence that Dr. Elders was dismissed for promoting self-pleasure. It’s a radical statement and a radical act for women to take their pleasure into their own hands.
Audre Lorde says, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” In honor of a feminist consciousness, I want to propose practices for a path to pleasure.
Which starts with listening to our bodies.
Think about a situation you are looking for clarity around and play a simple game of what if. Ask yourself, what if I said yes to this…pause…breathe…notice what sensations you experience in your body, and feel out what a yes brings up for you. Feel it in your body, not as intellectual analysis. What does it feel like to say yes in this situation? And then do the same for the no. Compare notes. Compare sensations in your body — tightness, strain, pains or lightness, relaxed shoulders, an ease to your breathing a calm sensation. Notice how your body reacts when you imagine a yes versus imagining a no.
- Show up for yourself.
- Know what kind of touch feels safe to you. Start there.
- Court what it feels like to be safe in your body. Practice feeling this. Whether it’s through yoga or meditation, know how to be alone with and in your body, what if feels like to be fully present.
- Shame can’t stay alive inside of you unless you believe the story you’ve been told. Write a new story.
- Take time to check in with yourself and ask yourself, what do I need right now? Practice self-care.
- Know your body. Know what feels good to you. Know your pleasure points.
- Notice what lights you up. What makes you feel light, spacious, tingly.
- Do more of that.
Maybe if women practiced self-pleasure, there would be more enthusiasm in their consent. Maybe once we know what feels good to us and feel we deserve it, we will know how to tell our partners what brings us pleasure, and expect our encounters to reflect our mutual needs.
i will not have you
walk in and out of me
like an open doorway when
i have too many miracles
happening inside me to be
your convenient option
not your hobby
I realize that both genders are victims of abuse–emotional, psychological, sexual and physical–but recognizing and penalizing abuses of power is only half the solution. We need a paradigm that recognizes women’s experience and pleasure as equally relevant in all sexual encounters. Until recently, sex from a woman’s perspective has been so marginalized and obscured, it hasn’t even entered the common discourse. For patriarchal hegemony to come to an end, women must overcome their internalized feelings of mental and spiritual inferiority and speak up. A woman must be encouraged to know her own body, her own pleasure and her own story–and then learn to tell it. Only then can she know what yes means, and enthusiastically consent to mutually pleasurable sexual play.