An opinion piece by Ruth Horsfall, Member of the UQ Womyn’s Collective
This piece was first published in Wom* News, The Zine of the UQ Wom*n’s Collective. Issue 4: Sex Through a feminist lens. Find a copy of the zine in the new ‘Zines/Collective Resources’ Tab
There are two things in life that are thoroughly enjoyable to me: a) having a good argument about something that means a lot to me and b) being deeply inappropriate when it comes to all matters of sex, bodily functions and other things that when you talk about them crudely and in graphic detail, can be uproariously fun (we can also add watching endless episodes of ‘Parks and Recreation’ and wishing I was Amy Poehler to the list of ‘Thoroughly Enjoyable Life Activities’ – but that’s for another time). If you have like-minded friends, which I am lucky enough to, this activity is probably one that happens on a daily basis – especially if you’re all having a myriad of very enjoyable health problems such as Urinary Tract Infections.
However, the greater population does not always welcome this kind of talk, and that is a problem. Women are still expected to uphold a certain degree of modesty and decorum, even amongst friends (often male) and can be made to feel shameful and humiliated talking about perfectly natural occurrences.
Obviously for such uncouth talk, there is always a time and a place. I doubt the job interviewer will appreciate your monologue on how you were late because you were, to quote Cher Horowitz, ‘surfing the crimson wave (Clueless, 1995)’. However, even among close acquaintances in informal social situations, it is considered ‘icky’ or ‘gross’ if a female was to mention something personal about her body – men say, ‘we don’t want to hear about your periods, or if you’re constipated; it’s disgusting’.
They seem to enjoy stories of you having sex, in a way that a voyeur enjoys hearing a dirty story, but they shy away from specific details of a vagina, or if you experienced something like say, bleeding post-coitus. And I mean, everyone is shy and nervous in those first few months of a relationship, but you still hear of that girl who, years into her relationship, has never gone for a number two at her boyfriend’s place – I mean, god forbid that he know you have an arsehole and a functioning bowel movements, LIKE EVERYONE ELSE.
Women shouldn’t have to feel this way – it shouldn’t have to be embarrassing to talk about your body. If something you have said has made someone uncomfortable and they mention this discretely to you, that should be fine; but under no circumstances should you have to feel dirty or abnormal because someone has reacted so negatively to something you told them, possibly in confidence.
This unwillingness to know their bodies and be comfortable with the weird and wonderful things, often negatively impacts women in regards to having sex. Sex is a deeply personal activity and if something unexpected happens, and the partner isn’t willing to address or discuss it, it can be incredibly traumatic. Often you just need to be able to laugh about it, and women shouldn’t be made to feel like lesser people.
Talking about sex brings almost as much joy as the act itself and can go a long way to reassuring each other that you’re perfectly normal – it’s like when you finally got the courage to talk to your friend about masturbation and were shocked (and pleasantly surprised) to discover they did it too. Derision from men towards women who are comfortable talking about their bodily functions, sex and how much they enjoy it, reeks of the old adage, ‘women should be seen and not heard’.
Men are still confronted and deeply intimidated by women who are open about their sexuality. Just last week, Fung (2012) wrote about how American talk back radio host Rush Limbaugh (a man so hideous I hate to even type his name) called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a ‘slut’, ‘prostitute’ and suggested if the government were to pay for her Pill that she should have to film herself having sex and put it online for viewing purposes – after she made public her support for government funded insurance that would cover free contraception. He is not alone. His sentiment was echoed by Republican candidate Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum (the same Santorum who said: ”[Contraception] is not OK. It’s a licence to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” – The Age) and a number of other conservatives.
Men like Limbaugh are not even really worth our time because they are so old-fashioned and cruel-hearted towards any sort of minority, let alone women, that their perspective will never be changed – but it is a sad indictment of society that they are allowed to say those things and indicates that there is still simmering antagonism towards female sexual freedom. Not only that, women who state that they enjoy sex, and have sex frequently, are STILL humiliated and stigmatised in this outdated manner.
On a more hopeful note, last Sunday, arguably the most well-known feminist of our time, Germaine Greer, spoke at ‘The F-Word’ in Sydney, about all things feminism. Sarah McDonald attended and wrote a follow up article in The Daily Life about why women should be more difficult. After observing Greer on Sunday evening (and probably for years before that), McDonald noted what most of us are already aware of – Greer is incredibly controversial. And she is controversial because she refuses to pander to anyone’s opinion but her own – and in the author’s words: ‘She genuinely doesn’t care if she annoys, alienates or threatens men. Or women. And in not caring she shows us true liberation’.
What Greer speaks of is patriarchal repression, which still sadly reverberates with women – a belief that they should always be pleasing and compliant. As a result, she believes (and so should we) that women should be ‘difficult’ – and being difficult is talking about your period even though people may think you’re disgusting, being difficult is wanting to discuss the gross noises vaginas make when you have sex and being difficult may just be not shaving your legs, because you honestly just don’t care.
Talking about these sorts of personal and confronting issues may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but no woman should ever have to feel ashamed or humiliated in any capacity simply because she has chosen to vocalise about something relevant to her, something she may have been working up the courage to talk about for a while.
Openness breeds more openness, and the more wildly spread the message that ‘talking about your bits is cool, kids!’ is, the more comfortable women can all be with their bodies, the things it puts them through and most importantly, being able to enjoy sex on your own terms. It leads to better sex and stronger relationships and (hopefully) the proliferation of hilarious terms such as ‘lady boner’, which is something all women deserve.
hey, i don’t really get why germaine greer is getting quoted all the time as some useful feminist? She’s transphobic and whorephobic and i don’t get how she is still listened to so much when she is always shitting on trans women and hookers. blaaah she makes me sick.
Nice ad hominem, person above. Germaine Greer is sometimes off track with what she says ie about GIllard, but she is at least one of the real feminists with insight and analyses, who emerged from the Left social justice movements in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and who certainly does not reiterate neoliberal status quo, and distort the main premises of feminism, which unfortunately is the current state of liberal feminism. The ‘third wave’ is mostly comprised of ideological backlash and capitalist interests such as the sex industry, the cosmetic surgery industry and the ‘beauty’ industries.
To add, the ‘third wave’ is also a largely top-down movement coming from academia, and not masses of women as occurred in both first and second waves. The whitewashing (more literally than metaphorically) of the second wave and second wave theorists by declaiming it to be a white, middle-class movement could not be more factually incorrect given the impetus of the second wave emerging from the unequal treatment of women of color in the Civil Rights movement in the US, and more broadly that of women in counterculture movements of the 1960s. Black Feminist theorists such as Audre Lorde seem to be stripped of their more radical feminist positioning into a whitewashed, third-wave, ideological hegemony that comprises the third wave. Lesbian feminists such as Adrienne Rich are slandered for daring to write about and emphasise the struggles women face on the basis of oppression, due to their biological sex, and the ideology of gender which constricts one’s status as a human being like the corsets of the Victorian era.
The decline and disappearance of activist feminism -as an autonomous, grassroots movement- with the beginning of the third wave is also of particular note; post-Reagan neoliberal philosophies, pervasive in the current environment, erase the collectivity of struggles and reduce the focus to a narrow consumerist individualism. Since it has been largely an academic movement with designated leader/figureheads like Jessica Valenti (who stepped down in an implicit announcement of her expiry date as a mother and ‘too old’- really?) and Laura Agustin in a veiled hierarchy – whereas the second wave was non-hierarchical and had no leaders! Slutwalk was not a threat toward the patriarchy so much as it was softly saying ‘no, rape is wrong and blaming the victim is horrendous’, unfortunately obscured by the chanting of ‘I am a slut’ in an unfortunate and doomed-to-fail reclaiming misogynist hate speech (which can never work!), and in the case of some, donning short skirts and lingerie as if it were at all resistant to do so… when it’s an extremely normalised representation of women, particularly the pressured role most felt by young women which is to present as attractive, made-up, ‘sexy’, sexually available, and of course heterosexual, albeit with an emphasis on a sexual practice. Women’s boundaries mean little or nothing to most men nowadays – if not ignored in the act of rape, they are more frequently pressured and cajoled into re-negotiating, always being the playing field on which males and others with internalised misogyny enact their sexual desires upon. Woman as ‘slut’ is just the other side of the old madonna/whore dichotomy that patriarchy has always used to oppress women, and pitches women against eachother and destroys empathy between women. To patriarchy, we women are for sexual servicing or baby incubators. Feminism is all about asserting that we are human beings.