We should consider ourselves fortunate that we live in a time when more people are openly discussing issues related to sex, sexuality, sexual freedom, and the promise of sexual acceptance for all, by all. There was a time when any such discussion was considered "indecent", and certain behaviors were punishable by arrest and imprisonment. This current level of openness in discourse also allows for candid, often difficult discussions of sexual harassment and assault, though we cannot exactly say that has lead to more arrests and imprisonment for offenders. The media seems to be covering these matters more frequently and more people are feeling safer coming forward with their stories, be they about the positive aspects of being sexually liberated or the downside of experiencing sexual trauma. I believe that each conversation has value and is absolutely necessary.
While there seems to be more safe space to have these important conversations, there are still threats to the health and well-being of those who choose to open up and share their thoughts and feelings about sexual matters. I believe that these threats continue to hinder the experience of true sexual freedom for many people, especially women. (When I say "women", I include all people who identify as "women", as I recognize gender is a construction and people decide what being a woman means to them and how they embody it.)
When a woman talks about sex, there are a number of immediate reactions:
- She's a "ho"
- She's a feminist (which is still used as a pejorative term, because women’s rights are so bad)
- She doesn't love herself
- She's confident in herself
- She's not a feminist (because, right, feminists don’t like sex, remember?)
- (fill in the blank)
One pervasive and horribly detrimental reaction is that if a woman is open in her discussions of sex and sexuality, or even in her behaviors (i.e. an adult film star, a phone sex operator, a Love & Sex editor, etc.), she somehow deserves a certain level of antagonism that comes from those who believe she is morally wrong for engaging in these activities. For too many, a woman’s sexual behavior serves as a barometer by which her value and worth as a human being is measured and is often used against her when she is the victim of harassment or assault.
Image: David Shankbone via Flickr
Recently, adult film star, Christy Mack, was brutally assaulted by her boyfriend, War Machine, in an attack that broke several bones and left her bloodied, bruised, and missing hair. Unfortunately, there were many who believed she deserved it because she is a “slut”.
There seems to be less empathy for women who are victims of sexual harassment and assault if their sexual histories are not deemed “respectable” enough, by whatever arbitrary standards established by those making the judgments. Some of these same people also seem to have a limited number of circumstances under which a woman can experience sexual harassment or assault that are deemed legitimate and acceptable (read: believable). They are judge and jury and should they believe a woman does not meet their standards of victimhood and innocence, they often feel it is their right to tear women down.
A woman was recently condemned on Twitter because prior to taking part of a campaign against street harassment, she took part in a hashtag called #FeministBooty, in which self-identified feminist women posted selfies of their butts in defiance of “rules” that say they cannot show off their hind parts. Many of the women on the hashtag felt it was one way to knock down some walls and have some fun showing off their bodies, as it is their choice to do. Some people felt that she was being a hypocrite for advocating for victims of street harassment having posted a selfie of her behind several months prior. Some even suggested that she deserves the harassment she gets because she puts herself out there in sexually suggestive ways.
I know, I know, it really is as ridiculous as it reads. I understand if you laugh at the absurdity of such thinking, but know that this mentality is far more common than it should be and is one major reason why so many victims of sexual assault are blamed for what they experience.
The days of condemnation and ridicule happened because for the most part, people really do not believe women who are open in their sexual and physical expression deserve the same rights and protections as women who present as chaste and demure. There are those who demand that women dress certain ways in order to be treated in certain ways, as if what you choose to wear ever gives someone license to treat you as less than human. We continue to have these conversations with the hope of opening minds and getting more people to realize and accept that women’s choices in sexual speech and behavior are theirs and no woman is deserving of assault or abuse. Women are certainly not “asking for it”.
Katie Macdonough wrote about how education and conversation is essential to ending sexual assault. In the article, she talks about what is missing from many of these conversations and one element is the discussion of desire and pleasure. She quoted my thoughts on sexual safety:
“Safe sex is not only about maintaining physical safety and avoiding diseases, infections and pregnancy. We should enter into sexual relationships also feeling mentally and emotionally safe and confident. You don’t have to love someone to have sex, but you should, at the very least, respect your partners and yourself enough to make what goes on between you pleasurable and safe. There is nothing more empowering than being able to safely explore one’s desires and fantasies without fear of shame or feelings of remorse; sex is to be enjoyed, not regretted.”
How can women explore their sexual desires when they are almost immediately chastised for even speaking them aloud? How can women feel safe enough to talk candidly about sex and, as a result, actually get the sex they really want if when they do, someone comes along and goes out of his/her way to make women feel like they’re trash for talking about it? And how can women feel safe reporting when they have been harassed or assaulted when they are almost immediately met with demanding questions like “What were you wearing?” “What were you drinking?” “Why were you out so late?” “Why were you alone?” “Why did you put yourself in that situation?” and every other question that holds women accountable for whatever is done to them?
Conversations need to include discussions of womens’ rights to exist and be free in their sexual identities, speech, and activities. We need to teach young people of all genders that there is nothing wrong with being open in your sexual expression and that being expressive does not mean being deserving of harm. We seem to be stuck in this box wherein sexuality must be designated as “acceptable” before women, especially, are listened to and respected. The longer we are stuck in this place, the longer we will inadvertently protect and coddle those who perpetrate sexual violence.
We have to accept that perhaps the “Boogeyman” is real and bad things do not just happen to people who we believe “deserve” it.