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.
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.
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.
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.
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.