In my early twenties I printed and thumbtacked a piece of art to a bulletin board in my studio apartment of a sensual woman that for the first time looked like it had been created with the intent to empower women and not the intent to arouse men. Her body from the waist to the top of her head fills the frame of the image. A piece of fabric is wrapped loosely around her hips, and her body is arced like a backwards C, with her head and hips in the left hand corner of the frame and her torso pushed towards the right side. Her head is thrown back and her breasts are pushed out, as if she’s in the midst of an orgasm.
It’s not that the art wouldn’t or shouldn't turn men on. The difference is what the image stirred in me. I can almost instantly recognize an image designed for a male audience versus an image with the goal of simply representing femininity. The latter makes me feel inspired and empowered as a woman whereas the former makes me feel exposed and sought after (think of pornographic images). In my early twenties, I was exhausted by pornographic images and desperate for representations of a more empowered and sacred sexuality.
The history of my own sex life looks like a pendulum, having swung from one end of the spectrum to another, but still remained defined by male expectations. I was religious as a teenager, so my introduction to sex began with a purity ring on my wedding finger to symbolize a promise I made to God (a male figure) to abstain from sex until I was married. Through church, I learned to see my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. My body didn’t belong to me, it belonged to God, and how I honored myself was a reflection of how I honored Him.
When I turned 18 I took back my promise and decided to have sex for the first time, but in the time between when I started wearing a purity ring and when I lost my virginity I absorbed many messages from the church that affected my perception of myself as a sexual woman. I learned to hide my sexuality in the way I dressed, in the way I spoke, in the way I carried myself, and in the way I represented myself.
Since I learned that having sex before marriage is sinful, I began to equate sex with something negative even if it was done in an “acceptable” way. I particularly felt guilty for being sexual as a woman. Female sexuality was kept especially underwraps as if the people around me didn’t actually believe women had a sexuality of their own, but that women’s sexual urges existed as a solution for men's desires. I felt like I carried treasure that I was eventually meant to hand over to someone else, but in the meantime I had to keep that treasure hidden from the men around me out of fear that they might get overwhelmed by the temptation and seize it. If women watched their sexual innuendos and covered their “goods,” all would be fine.
I don’t remember this myself, but another friend of mine tells me that a video was showed in our high school “sex education” course that equated a woman with many sex partners to a sock that is used over and over again. In the beginning the sock is white and clean; by the end it’s dirty and useless.
These are the type of messages I absorbed as a young woman about my sexuality.
Then, a few years after I started having sex I rebelled against those messages and the restrictions I felt the church had placed on me. I became a lot more accepting of my sexuality and, instead of having sex with no one, I decided to sleep with anyone I wanted to. I felt empowered with the freedom to decide when and whom I had sex with. It was a way for me to take back what I never realized was mine in the first place, which was discretion over my body and my sexuality. I slept with men I hardly knew, I slept with men too drunk to care who I was, and I slept with men I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be with. Each time I would think, sex is liberating. No one can tell me who or when to have sex. No one can tell me I’m dirty for my sexuality.
But then a year ago I started noticing that I sometimes wound up in situations that I didn’t really want to be in with men I didn’t really want to be with. I thought having sex was liberating, but then in the middle of having sex with someone it would dawn on me that I didn’t want to be there. One time I even stopped mid-sex to tell the man I was with that I didn’t want what was happening. We had both consented to the situation, but my consent was toward him. I didn’t even think to ask for consent from my own body – to ask and listen intuitively to myself if it was really something I wanted.
After that night I began to examine the story I had been telling myself that I was a sexual woman free to do whatever I wanted, which was true, but did I really want what I was saying I did? Was I putting myself in situations merely to prove a point, regardless of its impact on me? Most of the time that had been the case. My anger toward the church and refusal to accept what they taught me about my sexuality caused me to act from a place of defiance rather than loyalty to myself.
Now, I’m beginning to understand that my sexuality isn’t at either end of the spectrum but somewhere in the middle. I’m not a sinner for having sex before marriage; my feminine sexuality isn’t dangerous nor shameful and therefore there’s no reason to hide it; and with whom, where, and when I decide to have sex has no correlation to my worth and dignity. And at the same time, my sexuality isn’t something to be used to prove a point or to feel validated; I’m worthy of sex that provides a deeper and more profound experience than merely physical pleasure; and I deserve to have sex with someone who knows me intimately and wants, as much as I do, to create a safe space for us to respect and admire each other in an act that is really quite vulnerable and sensitive.
I’ve learned that my body carries an intelligence of its own that patiently asks me to listen to it and trust that it knows what’s best for itself. When my mind overpowers my body, I can easily run it into situations that disrespect it. But when I trust my body to lead the way, it knows exactly where it wants to go.
Babe, I don’t know how you feel about your sexuality. Maybe you feel shame and guilt, or maybe you feel liberated and confident. Maybe you don’t feel any of those things. It’s really none of my business, and it’s also not my place to tell you how you should feel.
All I want to offer is what I wish I would’ve understood at a young age: your body is beautiful and intelligent and sacred, and it belongs to no one but yourself. It's not a gift that you give someone else. Rather, like the woman in the painting that I hung in my studio apartment, your body and soul are an incredible, profound, inexplicable work of art. Other people get the privilege of experiencing your art and in turn share an experience of their art with you, without having taken anything from you or you from them in the process.
You get to decide who you grant that privilege to.
I love you. I will write again soon.