Scared of sex? It’s not just you.


It isn’t cool for a woman to say “I’m afraid of sex”. To my knowledge it never has been and it probably never will be. Yet we women are taught from the get-go to always place those two things, fear and sex, together – the inseparable flashcards in the lesson of life.

I can already hear the accusations of feminism-gone-wild, of over-dramatisation. That’s okay. Let me just ask you a question.

Why is it that we girls are taught early on that we must block boys’ attempts to kiss us, to ‘mess around with us’ (oh, scary ambiguities!), to ‘break our hearts’, when the bulk of research shows that girls sexually develop sooner than boys do? I remember co-ed gatherings and school dances from early high school. Us girls would be voracious predators, puckered and painted lips zooming in on our victims like long-range missiles. Meanwhile, baby-faced boys in ill-fitted shirts would cower in corners and regard us like a swarm of Chuckys. The cruel thing, something that must be difficult for teenage boys, is that they’re constantly told they’re supposed to be targeting us. This more than likely makes them feel a bit bewildered. After all, a newly-teenaged girl is a terrifying thing.

It does make sense that girls should be in a unique position to view sex as a risk; after all, we’re the ones who get pregnant. Pregnancy is at the heart of any discussion of gender and sex, and for more than the obvious reason. Researchers have discussed society’s need to separate pleasure (something hedonistic, individualistic, impure) from reproduction (selfless, collectivist, pure) – this has even been called “a fear of pleasure”. We like to place our families, our parents and children, in a totally different camp from our lovers or potential sex partners. We’re so scared of conflating love and lust that we separate them further by making them gendered: love is feminine, lust masculine. It follows that women should be trained into loving behaviours whilst men are led down the opposite path.

Regretful woman result from peremptory Google search Numero Uno.

Women are programmed into intuitively believing that sex is dangerous, while on the other side of the fence, men are taught that it’s desirable. We expect that a young boy will one day be transfixed upon a luscious set of breasts on a computer screen or magazine page; in fact, we’d be kind of worried if he wasn’t. This is seen as natural. When he gets caught out (delete your browser history, kids), we’ll even have a giggle about it. Male sexuality is a grandiose performance: comments are openly made about women’s butts and busts; conquests are worn like badges.

On the flip side, a girl’s sexuality is relegated to the domain of the classroom. It’s a matter for Year 6 sex-ed, a subject of squirming awkwardness and shame. Girls don’t beat their chests (after all, that would be painful – there are lumps there), but learn to treat their sexuality as an anomaly which must be locked away. The female body is embarrassing; breasts look more like pimples when they’ve only just sprouted, and what’s even more fun: we bleed! Yay! We’re not encouraged to see our own bodies as sexy (quite the opposite, if you take a look at all the cellulite/pale-skin/frizzy-hair shaming in magazines), though we’re made more than aware that boys will view them differently. It is a woman’s place to view her body as an instrument of a specific purpose; why else are we well-versed in school on the ovaries but not the clitoris?

“Wait for the boy who would do anything to be your everything.”

We’re warned about strange men in the park and about the boys who will try untoward things with us when we’re on dates. We’re rarely given any scope to consider that maybe we might want those untoward things to happen also. We’re hammered with anticipation of regret, tutored so diligently on the pain and humiliation of ‘giving it all away to the wrong guy’ that we can feel that scar before we’ve even gotten close to the blade. The message is hardly subliminal: guard your loins closely or you will pay a price. Your desires are the enemy. Your fantasies must not breach reality. And more than that: your fantasies shouldn’t even be spoken of. They’re contraband, and you’re a bit of a freak for having them.

Personally, I’m more worried about the guy in this picture. He looks very ‘how did I get here?’.

So we end up with half of the population treating their bodies like a liability that their mind must preside over and more or less babysit. But what good will ever come of setting body and mind against each other as if they belong to separate people? When girls already feel embarrassed by their freckles, their fat, their body hair, how does it help anything to add their vaginas to that great big ball of shame? Before we even really know what we want, we’re taught to expect that our bodies will want sex, and that this is somehow erroneous, a glitch in the womanly system. Oh, those silly hormones! Thankfully, we’re given a simple response to this confusing conundrum: ‘just say no’. How helpful.

“Open books, not legs. Blow minds, not guys.”

That ‘no’ response becomes compulsive. Any subversion of the no rule triggers an automatic guilt, a gut-deep feeling that you’ve wronged the society that brought you up and you’ve wronged your true self. Why be afraid to say yes? Because then you’ll be painted with the whore brush. You can have sex in a committed relationship, where the sex is the side dish to a main meal of love and dedication. But if you’re female and you order sex straight up, you can bet your scandalous arse that someone out there is calling you a slut.

Why else be afraid? Pure psychological reinforcement. Once you get used to doing and saying one thing, the alternative seems foreign and uncomfortable. Habit becomes entwined with identity. Even if you want to say yes, you find yourself saying no – that’s how good girls are programmed to function.

Sexy shirt, man.

Et voila, suddenly we have a picture of men as actors in coercion and women as subjects. The assumption is made that women will need to be prodded, coddled and convinced to submit themselves to sex. We are not seen as initiators, only as facilitators of male pleasure and male desires. All of our power and agency lies in our ability to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. By creating a social world where men ask the questions and women respond, all the potential for creating standards, possibilities and context is delivered into male hands. It equates to constructing a male world in which females are just part of the scenery.

“A real man won’t have to take off your shirt to get a better look at your heart.”

Is it so surprising, in such a world, that rape and sexual assault should be such an issue? If the message that women need to be pushed into sex is reinforced, doesn’t it logically follow that men will take this as an invitation to do the pushing? This isn’t just bad for women; it’s bad for the majority of guys out there who are decent people and want to be seen as such, rather than assumed to be sexual predators.

The truth is that many women are dominating – especially in that teenage stage when our ovaries are operating like battery farms while boys are still more interested in video games. But we have it drilled into us (refrain from the joke – it’s too easy) in a variety of ways that our only role is one of submission, our only power and means to assertion through refusal to submit.

A warped brand of feminism is implied in which female self-respect constitutes rebuking any male offer of sex. Not only does this line of thinking make the assumption that women can’t want or enjoy sex; it also presents a pathetically limited picture of what we, as women, have to be proud of. Our qualifications, our talents and the way we treat people on the street are thrown out the window because clearly, clearly the way we conduct our vaginas says more about us.

I just don’t even. Angel wings.

And what does this all result in? Fear. Not necessarily a conscious and coherent fear, but a pervasive one. It’s not a universal experience, but it is one that I think most women could relate to on some level and at some stage of their lives. We’re afraid of being sexual victims. We’re afraid of being emotionally hurt. We’re afraid of regret. We’re afraid of hating ourselves and of society hating us. We’re afraid that sex will somehow make us less strong, less proud, less worthy. And the fact that despite all of this, we still want sex, a large part of us still wants to say yes, is the most confusing and scary thing of all.

I hate writing the word ‘afraid’ so much, because the last thing I want is to paint yet another picture for the Weak Women Gallery. It’s (wrongfully) stacked full already. My belief is exactly the opposite: that we’re strong enough to dispel this fear, a fear which only really serves to make us into pleasure-denied babymakers. But it starts with calling the problem by its name, by saying the uncoolest of things: I’m afraid of sex, or rather, I was. I was taught to be. But I won’t be anymore.

Are you afraid of sex? Do you think women are painted as Madonna or Whore? 

Most pictures c/o this awesome blog.

  • Tamsin Howse

    This article is so spot on. Society is all celebrating of the female form as long as people don’t want to get their boosies out. All in favour of women’s sexuality as long as that woman doesn’t want to flaunt it – as soon as she does she is “being objectified” she is “giving in to society” she is somehow betraying the sisterhood.

    Putting aside those cases where people are actually being pressured or being pushed to be something they’re not – or some of the terrible things that happen in the sex industry – if a woman wants to pose on the cover of a men’s magazine in their underwear I don’t see why they can’t. If they want to be seen as sexual, I don’t see what’s wrong with that.

    I’m not saying everyone should be sexual all the time, or that people should all get their kit off, but I don’t like the way women in particular are so quick to condemn other women for wanting to be sexual beings.

    Madonna or whore, and there’s no in between.

    Well you know what? We’re not all Madonnas or Whores – there is so much in between.

    • John James

      Pffft…you think it’s difficult for a woman to get her bits out it public…watch what happens when I get mine out in public!!! Creepy Old Man goes to prison…that’s what happens! 😉

  • John James

    Here’s all I know…

    – men are way less obsessed with sex than we are portrayed as being in the media…
    – men can be way more intimidated by female sexuality than we are prepared to admit…
    – despite this, men like sexy confident women…

  • Ben @ausculture

    “By creating a social world where men ask the questions and women respond, all the potential for creating standards, possibilities and context is delivered into male hands.” No, I don’t think so. The man is asking the question that the woman has set up, in a context that womankind condones, in a process that is under constant review and change.

    The man is reading from a script, and that script is written by women. It tells him whether it is even OK to think about asking the question, what the question is, how to ask it and how likely he is to get a good outcome. And if he needs prompting, the woman can tell him what the question is without saying a word: A certain glance can mean ‘Please offer to put sunscreen on my back’. And the man had better get this stuff right – if he misreads the situation – even once – he can be in big trouble. The woman, on the other hand, is relatively free to go off-script and ask her own question… And if ‘giving it away’ is frowned upon, the frowners are the sisterhood, whose collective position of demanding high standards is weakened by the act.

    The way I see it, the world is created by women – always has been. And that is the way it should be.

  • Alyssa Robinson

    Women are gaining more of an even footing now, but the world definitely hasn’t always been created by women. We’ve spent most of history being seen as property rather than as people and history is overwhelmingly, almost exclusively, written by men.

    We still live in a world where predominantly men ask women out, men propose to women. Where relationships are concerned, men are traditionally (and I would argue still in the 21st century) expected to lead the way, and women are expected to either opt out or follow.

    And this whole thing of sex defining your innate character doesn’t happen for men. It’s only women who are tainted by sex.

    • Ben @ausculture

      I would argue that the way the world seems to be and the way it actually is are two different things. It may seem like the man typically asks the woman out, but that’s only after a whole subtle dance has taken place – looks, expressions, touches, pheromones, chat – all part of a stringent vetting process by the woman. A woman in a room of a hundred men can choose the one she wants to go out with and make that happen, without ever actually asking him out – or even asking for a chat.

      If she wants more – a long-term relationship, a family – she can make that happen, too. As the saying goes, a man chases a woman until she catches him.

      The tainting thing I’ve already touched on – a disincentive by women, who’ve historically wanted to maintain their solidarity in maintaining standards. Those standards have been a critical part of the world created. Today, urban private lives can easily be kept private, though. If a woman is still feeling tainted her battle is probably an internal one.

      It’s hard to say how much men who sleep around are tainted. Personally, I feel utter contempt for people like Charlie Sheen.

      History’s chapters have not always been kind to either women or men: The ‘glass cellar’ still sees men doing 90% of the most dangerous and unpleasant jobs. But in a functional society, women set the tone.

      • Alyssa Robinson

        Some women can make that happen, yes. But some men can too. The ‘alpha’ types who are extremely confident and, usually, extremely attractive. But as a blanket rule I can assure you that women can’t just walk into rooms of men as you suggested and lure in the man of their choice. If we could, do you think I’d be wasting my time blogging? 😛

        I don’t think that women are solely responsible for the tainting. We’re certainly partly responsible, yeah, but there’s also an attitude amongst a lot of men that women who sleep around are sluts. Even in the whole socially-accepted dynamic between fathers and daughters that assumes all daughters should be ‘pure’ and their fathers should invest in keeping them that way. Re: “if a woman is still feeling tainted her battle is probably an internal one”, that’s largely the point of this whole article. It’s a difficult internal battle, but it doesn’t start internally. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Girls are brought up with years of expectations and assumptions surrounding sex and very closely linking it with identity.

        Men doing 90% of the most dangerous and unpleasant jobs… as far as military jobs are concerned, probably yes. But I need only do a rubbish run at work to see very clearly that the vast majority of cleaning staff at a Sydney shopping centre are female (and usually immigrants). Particularly in developing countries, women are still overwhelmingly saddled with domestic tasks.

        “In a functional society, women set the tone”… how come the US has never had a female president? Or are they not a functional society?

        • Ben @ausculture

          Is that a trick question? 😛 No, the US is certainly dysfunctional – especially when it comes to gender politics – courtesy of zealous religion and antiquated right wing attitudes. But I guess my point is that women can call the shots without necessarily being overtly in charge, especially on the things that really matter, like community, values and culture. And can Michelle make Barack a better president? Yes she can!

          The examples in the article were things like garbage collector and sewer maintenance. It noted that men work longer, less flexible hours, have poorer health and are far more likely to be in prison or homeless.

          The father-daughter dynamic is inevitably going to be different to the father-son one. But my advice to a teen of either gender would be to wait until it’s something special. Of course, once it is special (and not just for teens) you have something to be fearful of. Well, I say celebrate that fear – you’ve just found something Charlie Sheen will never enjoy…

          • Alyssa Robinson

            So what’s a functional society where women set the tone? I agree that women can influence things/call some shots without being overtly in charge, but using the example of Michelle and Barack is a slippery slope, is it not? “She’s first lady, that’s good enough!” I know that’s not what you were saying, but I still stand by my belief that this is a world largely designed and ruled by men.

            I’m also not sure about this thing about men working longer, less flexible hours. I guess that would largely depend on the place in question. But one glaring problem with that sort of data is it tends not to take into account the fact that when women are at home, they’re working too, taking care of children and the house. The only ‘developing’ region I know well is Latin America, and I would say that there, the flexibility definitely belongs to men. At least they get the choice of where to work, what to do. Women there are very much bound to a traditional concept of what a domesticated wife should be.

            Something special… again, I don’t know. I’m probably a hypocrite because when (if) I have children I’ll probably give them that advice; it seems wise. But at the moment I’m of the mindset that anything, especially sex, is what you make of it.

  • Ben @ausculture

    That’s right, that’s not what I’m saying. America is obsessed with being a gung ho superpower with president as commander in chief, and it will probably be some time before they elect a female president. (Even in Commander In Chief Geena Davis wasn’t elected to the office she held.) And my assessment of US gender politics was pretty unambiguous! But Michelle Obama nicely illustrates an under-recognised aspect to leadership dating back to Queen Nefertiti and to time immemorial.

    In Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe the ruler of the universe turns out to be a solitary man living alone with his cat. He doesn’t want the job, and this makes him the ideal candidate. It’s an interesting comment on ego and motivations amongst leaders. And unelected partners (of either gender) must surely play an important role in grounding a leader, especially after a crazy, multi-billion dollar race where there’s such a danger of believing your own hype.

    So The United States has had a male president for its entire 230 odd year life. Yet it hardly comes across as some overgrown bachelor pad. An amusing stroke slightly disturbing view of how all of civilisation is about women can be found in #1 of this article by David Wong:

  • Pingback: Virginity and the Value of Women | KiKi & Tea()