Slippery: Raising Sex Positive Women
You’re not afraid of what’s slippery are you? I’m not. I might have to hold on a bit tighter, but I’m not one to give up on a worthy challenge. Where others have slid into corners, I can walk the delicate line between feminism and sex positivity¦ take it just far enough raise eyebrows with newly dawned truths¦ and then pull back just before I fall flat on the face of contradiction. Slippery slopes only trouble those who can’t stop.
Do these sound like self-affirmations? Because they are. After writing my introductory blog post about combating sexualization to a sex positive community, I learned just how difficult these subjects are to merge and just how emotionally charged they are too. But there are things I know with certainty regardless of how hard they are to reconcile:
1) I know that sexuality is something to celebrate and explore without disgrace, for people of all genders. I don’t need a research study to tell me that. I know it now because I have done the work to free myself from a prison of shame that told me my pleasure was not important, that my body was not beautiful. Once I broke free of this cell, sex positivity washed over me like a wave of truth.
2) I know that seeing one version of sexy wherein women are objectified littering the landscape of childhood and adolescence (and even adulthood) is unhealthy. I don’t need a report full of studies to tell me that either. I know it because it is what built my prison of shame.
So let’s try a little experiment¦ follow my lead and hold on tight.
Sexualization (the imposition of narrowly-defined sexuality in media) is bad.
Young people need to see alternative ways to be sexual so that they can be informed agents in the development of their sexuality.
Young people need to see ways to value women and girls besides objectifying them for the male gaze.
Creating or enjoying images of sexually objectified women is wrong. STOP! Too far.
I, for one, do not believe it’s wrong to create or enjoy images of male dominance, female submission, or women as sexual objects just as I do not believe it’s wrong to create or enjoy images of female dominance, male submission, or men as sexual objects. Some of my fellow feminists will disagree, but labeling somebody’s fantasy as “wrong is sex negative and I know it.
Sexualization does not refer to a single image, a single ad campaign, or a single TV show, it refers to a trend of tiresome copycat images, starting with the hero who rescues the princess, that takes space away from the potentially progressive images we might see if media makers gave their audiences more credit. This is how I can dismiss the fourth statement down my slippery slope and still embrace the first three as true.
Let’s try it again. Ready?
Sexualization (imposition of narrowly-defined sexuality in media) is bad.
As a parent, I am concerned about sexual messages in toys, cartoons, and advertisements that target my child.
Children are not developmentally ready to negotiate adult sexuality.
Children (especially girls) must be kept sheltered from sex so that they remain pure. STOP! Too far.
Ick. This one bothers me. The idea that sexuality is something that taints purity upsets me immensely, and this is the feminist me talking as much as the sex positive me. Children are sexual creatures, even girls, and while they should NOT be expected to enact or contend with adult sexuality, they also should not be shamed for their curiosity as it emerges. Educated is what they should be.
Educating young people about both sexuality and media is, in my opinion, among the most important things we can do to move our culture forward. Both through motherhood and through my work with high school girls, I have often been surprised by how youth can distance themselves from media when given simple prompts. At five years old, my daughter will cover her own eyes when she sees Bratz in the toy aisle, not because I’ve told her she can’t look but because I’ve told her that “in our family, we know better than to think we’re supposed to look like that. At fifteen years old, girls will mock sexist advertisements with satire and cleverness that I could never muster.
Because most of us have little to no control over mass media, we have developed our own coping mechanisms, our own ways to create distance between the messages we’re fed and what we do with them. Nobody knows this better than the sex positive community, right? We can take the imposed power stereotype and reverse it completely. I can only speak for myself, but I have finally come around to comfort with my body by recognizing fairy tales of media and adopting all the cultural cues as playthings. TOYS. The stories we’re told can be followed verbatim, modified, flipped upside down, and all of it can be fun. I can decide to be dominant, create an image of my sexuality I would never see in mass media. And I can decide to be objectified, to be submissive, and find it pleasurable and safe because it was ME who decided to frame it this way, not my culture. (And P.S. my counterpart in either scenario need not be male.)
So let’s slide down one more slope, the most dangerous one yet.
Sex positivity (an attitude towards human sexuality that regards sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable) is good.
People should be free to engage in role-play, gender bending, and explore power dynamics.
People should not attempt to impose their own “moral judgments onto others.
People should be free to act on every sexual impulse regardless of consent of his/her partner(s). STOP! Too far.
We all know damn well that our landing spot on this one was a deep dark corner of WRONG. But the first three remain true, don’t they?
And I bring this up not only to illustrate that landing points of slippery slopes do not negate every argument on their path, but also to remind us that nuanced sexual development from childhood through adulthood differs greatly between boys and girls no matter how fluid we hope gender to be. The fact remains that those in a female body must develop their sexual identities as carefully informed by the threat of rape and the possibility of pregnancy. And these are not minor threats. These are life-changing, soul-shaking, earth-shattering threats. Sexual freedom is not a given; it is earned. It is earned through genuine respect for the bodies and sexual identities of oneself and one’s potential partners, and that includes the bodies of women. In a perfect world, sex positivity would flourish, but all too often the proliferation of cookie-cutter images of man dominating woman makes somebody think a woman’s consent is not necessary. Until rape is only spoken of in the past tense and until fatherhood is valued equally with motherhood, our world is far from perfect.
I hope I am raising a sex positive woman. Time will tell. Signs are promising so far¦ she distances herself from gender identity as dictated by media because I’ve told her that being herself is what’s really important. But she is far too young to have put to any real tests yet, and with sexualization rampant, I have my work cut out for me. I will teach her about media stereotypes and all the things they leave out, what it means to be both safe and sexual while living in a woman’s body, and that there is absolutely nobody in this world who can define her sexuality except for HER. She’s sure to fall down some slippery slopes during her process of self-discovery, but at least (if she’ll let me) I will be there to catch her.