This is sort of a continuation of my previous essay on internalized misogyny, with a focus on sexual activity and subjectivity. Sex is complicated for anybody. For feminists, it can be a physical and emotional mine field. You move through the waves of feminism alternately loving and being terrified of sex; when I first read Andrea Dworkin’s vengeful prose on anti-pornography with lines like “Any violation of a woman’s body can become sex for men; this is the essential truth of pornography,” I felt incredibly guilty about all of the times I tried to squint between the frazzled lines of the scrambled porn channels in my basement (Sorry, Mom). Then, a little while later, I read Kathy Acker, and her liberated, explicit prose created even more confusion. Either you’re being told sex is a beautiful and healthy thing that you should be having all the time, or you’re told you’re ashamed for even thinking about sex at all.
I found myself wrestling with a central question of third-wave feminist dogma: Can one be a feminist and still desire sexual freedom? At that point I wasn’t sure. When I was eleven, a classmate called me a whore, and it triggered a long period of being completely incapable of viewing myself as a sexual subject.
Talking about it with friends proved to be another battlefield. One friend thought masturbation was disgusting. Another refused to even talk about sex with me. Another one, after hearing that I wanted to get into a relationship, asked me if I was still a virgin at 23. When I replied to the affirmative, she shook her head. “Just go out and get laid, Ally. Don’t get in a relationship with the first guy in there.” When I questioned this approach, she shot back “Ally, come on. Guys don’t like virgins. It’s too much pressure. I mean sure, they like that they’re your first, but then they’ll feel like they have to actually be with you after that.” So then I spent two years terrified of telling any man about my lack of experience, lest he either run away or immediately want to do it without any strings attached. That wasn’t what I wanted.
My head was split in half, torn between my body wanting to go the distance and my brain telling me it would be evil or that guys would feel too whacked out about being with a virgin. Because of this confusion, until I was 26 I was terrified of sex and at the same time completely and totally obsessed with it. Naked people fascinated me while at the same time I was petrified of anyone actually seeing my naked body, with its faded stretch marks from years of disordered eating that extended and retracted my skin dozens of times. I read hundreds of romantic novels and historical fictions (which were mostly just romantic novels with a plot the weight of phyllo dough barely containing it), and watched all of the romantic films I could. I convinced myself their passion was real, that it could be achieved if I just did the right things, or said the right words. “Is that how real people do it?” I wondered. Of course it isn’t. But the messages I was getting fed by the media convinced me that not only is that how people have sex, but I was obviously a complete freak for not having sex. So I remained in a kind of aroused paralysis for years.
Whenever I went out to bars or parties I would stick myself to the corner, watch everyone with batlike intensity, stare into my drink if any guy came over to talk to me. I blame the messages I was getting from the media that if I looked at a guy wrong, I was setting myself up for sexual assault. Never mind that this is sheer victim-blaming at its finest. I was operating on fear. To the point that if I went on a date with a man and it ended in a kiss, I would feel my entire body constrict like I’d been given a paralytic, and shoo them away with an awkward, hooting laugh, like a sexually confused barnyard owl. Then I would go home alone. It was easier to be alone than to give myself up.
The whole time this strange dance/constricting of myself was happening, I could feel myself getting angry. Angry at the world for trying to dictate what I should or shouldn’t do with my body, and angry at myself for bending to it. So I tried to hide my nerd, and become the girl that I thought guys were after. I went after boys who played sports, whose eyes glazed over if I even mentioned something as innocuous as Harry Potter. I wore the right, tight clothes, bought the right bras, and said the right things. The entire time, it felt like my brain just wouldn’t turn off.
When I turned 26, I started studying more feminist theory for my graduate school classes. I read Epistemology of the Closet and it finally clicked in my head that gender is constructed. I took back “whore” from that angry boy who just wanted to throw words around like they were soft grenades. I started reading queer poets like Andrea Gibson and Laura Zuniga. I cut off my near waistlength hair to fight back against traditional beauty roles. I even participated in a local production of The Vagina Monologues. Most of all, I started trying new things for my brain, not just my body, and I started to really like myself, warts and all, weirdness and all. But I still was terrified of sex. None of this self-improvement changed my core fear of that part of me. That is how insidious this kind of body dysmorphia can be. I ended up growing my hair back out, after it was implied by an ex-boyfriend that he hated it. My feminism was a smoke-screen, hiding a variety of mixed messages and self-loathing.
Eventually, I did lose my virginity. It was quiet, and mundane. Completely the opposite of what I had been expecting. I lost it to a good man who waited until I was absolutely, completely ready, and for that I will always be grateful. But even then, I still felt terror about expressing myself sexually due to the internalized misogyny I had been aware of for so many years, to the point where I physically could not initiate sexual encounters because I was always used to the man doing that. When I tried to express this point to my then-partner, thinking I was going to get a bit of empathy for my internal struggle, he looked at me, laughed, and said, “And you call yourself a feminist.”
We wonder why women are afraid of expressing their confusion about the way we are supposed to navigate this world. It’s because of reactions like that. We receive mockery when we crave understanding.
I sit here today, single (happily so, for the first time in my life), and still not quite sure of the right way to go about sexual exploration and activity. I do know, however, that there is really no wrong way to do it, unless you’re hurting others, hurting yourself, or judging people in the process of your self-actualization. I’m not actively looking for sex, or a relationship, at the moment, and looking back across my long history of fearful interactions with the opposite sex, I can honestly say I never thought I would get to the point where I would be completely happy on my own without constantly desiring companionship. But here I am. Figuring out how to navigate sexuality as a woman in a world that tries to throw you every possible contradiction is difficult and fraught. Find people who understand. Go easy on yourself. It’s only sex, after all.
Picture Credit: http://all-free-download.com/free-vector/download/free_fashion_silhouettes_female_147820.html