“But I want to see you,” my husband appeals.
I lean forward and flick off the lamp on the bedside table.
The room fades away, and my body is erased into the darkness.
This memory always comes to mind when I talk about female sexuality. Because for so many of us, for most our lives, it’s blotted out and silenced.
Up until my thirties, I treated my body and its desires as though they were somehow separate from me.
Sex was a passive sequence of movements aimed at fulfilling what I then viewed as my purpose: satisfying a male partner. And my body was a minefield of shame and self-hate, patched over with thick makeup and shapeless clothing.
Then, when my marriage ended at 32, I experimented with casual sex. And everything changed.
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Unburdened by the knowledge our interactions were transient, I allowed the light of strangers’ bedrooms to cascade over naked curves and creases that had once been censored. And I asked for things that had been quietly brewing inside me for decades.
When it was over, I cried bright tears of joy at the feeling of emancipation that overcame me. Albeit, while men I’d met only hours earlier sat nervously on the end of their beds asking, “What’s wrong? Did I hurt you?”
It occurred to me in those anonymous exchanges, my body was not in fact the enemy, but a vessel capable of life-changing pleasure.
What began as sexual enlightenment quickly snowballed into personal liberation. I spoke up in meetings at work, asked for a pay rise (and got it) and began to own – rather than pathologically apologise for – the space I took up. There was something emboldening about having sex on my own terms and allowing my body to be seen in all its imperfect glory.
If Naomi Wolf were to weigh in, she might say it was my “feminist neurotransmitter” at work.
In her book, Vagina, which has become somewhat of a sex-positive feminist bible since its release almost a decade ago, the academic and writer postulates our cultural oppression of female desire is as much about stamping out women’s voices as it is their sexual pleasure.
“Dopamine (the hormone released after orgasm) is the ultimate feminist chemical in the female brain,” Wolf writes in the iconic book.
“When a woman’s dopamine system is optimally activated – as it is in the anticipation of great sex, an effect heightened by a woman’s knowing what turns her on, letting herself think about it, and letting herself go get it – it strengthens her sense of focus and motivation levels, and energises her in setting goals.”
Undeniably, some of the most confident, assertive women I know also happen to be the most sexually empowered. But, as I learned myself some years ago when I began this journey, there’s a high price to pay for it.
The double-edged sword of owning your sexuality as a woman, is the threat you pose to men.
After all, a woman who knows what she wants and boldly demands it, is a woman who is unlikely to be easily controlled, nor to feed an endlessly unsteady ego. Sexually liberated women violate the status quo of gender norms because, in essence, they’re women who can’t be tamed.
This may explain why we teach girls their bodies are dangerous to boys, starting with school dress codes that mandate penalties for the revealing of female shoulders and knees, at an age when they’re realistically incapable of even understanding the concept of sexuality. (Indeed, these codes say far more about our warped adult world view as a society than they do about pre-teen girls.)
It also explains why, later in life, when those same girls grow into young women, they’re cautioned to keep their “sex number” low, or else risk not securing a mate. Which, incidentally, also serves to emphasise the expectation her primary goal is to be desired by a man.
Women who stray from this path are punished harshly.
Doesn’t she care she’s being a wh*re, flashing her body all over social media and sleeping with whomever she pleases? Isn’t she worried she’s going to end up alone with her cats? (Based on logic which continues to evade me, single women apparently all own comically large clowders of cats.)
Since I first began writing about my sex life online, I’ve been cautioned I’ll remain single forever (which is ironic, given I have a boyfriend). I’ve been called “diseased” (another bemusing assumption about women who have casual sex, is that we don’t know how to use condoms, or ever see doctors) and a “wh*re”, among other degrading insults I won’t share here. Almost all of it has come from men.
There’s an unmistakeable vitriol for women who have abandoned the shame they’ve been indoctrinated to feel around their sexuality since they were girls. It makes men uneasy.
How will they control her? What will they do when their taunts that she’s unlovable by a man ricochet off her because she doesn’t covet being wanted by men? What does this mean for their own sense of masculinity, which society has taught them hinges on female submissiveness?
The projection of these insecurities onto women can best be evidenced in the perpetual slut-shaming of female celebrities.
Despite being leaked in 2007 – over a decade ago – Kim Kardashian West’s sex tape remains a popular news item to date.
So constant and vile was the harassment Kardashian West and her family endured years after its leaking, the reality star was compelled to release an open letter in 2016, imploring people to see her as a human being beyond the tape.
“It always seems to come back around to my sex tape. Yes, a sex tape that was made 13 years ago. 13 YEARS AGO. Literally that lonnng ago. And people still want to talk about it?!?!” the then-34-year-old shared on her website.
“I lived through the embarrassment and fear, and decided to say who cares, do better, move on. I shouldn’t have to constantly be on the defence, listing off my accomplishments just to prove that I am more than something that happened 13 years ago,” Kardashian West continued.
Our cultural disdain for female sexuality is so powerful, it’s not even limited to women who have sex. In 2017, Modern Family actor Ariel Winter was photographed wearing a pair of denim cut-off shorts on a summer’s day while out shopping with a friend.
The backlash of slut-shaming Winter experienced after the image went viral, was so severe it prompted the star to post a public statement to Twitter.
“Pretty annoyed about the focus on the fact that I wear shorts, and the commentary that I’m ‘squeezing’ into them or the idea that it’s not okay for me to wear shorts,” Winter wrote.
“It’s hot, I’m obviously going to wear minimal clothes … I’m not going to suffer in a turtleneck to please anyone. I’m not a wh*re because I wear shorts and tank tops.”
Strikingly, both Winter and Kardashian West have been branded unintelligent in the media.
In a society that regards women as objects, it’s perhaps unsurprising there’s a cognitive dissonance in our ability to view these women as simultaneously sexual, and capable of intelligent thought.
More so, it’d be folly to expect these women to be anything other than intermediaries for male rage while our concept of masculinity remains tied to female submission.
The irony and tragedy in this, is that as long as we shame women’s bodies and their sexuality, they’ll continue to turn out the lights, and fade into the darkness.