What is a girl to do in a world where she feels powerless and unattractive in a world where boys get what they want and pretty women always seem to win?
Harness her sexuality.
Well, that’s what this girl did, anyway.
It started out slowly – I was a dancer my whole life, I knew my way around a high heel and a tube of lipstick from a young age. I loved Fosse style jazz, the bold, undulating expressiveness of the movements and the freedom of being able to move my body in a way that felt comfortable for me without being looked at like I was some kind of slut – I was in dance class, after all! At the same time, I started taking my first voice lessons, and I found my voice was low and loud, more womanly than my body could hope to be at that point. I quickly learned how to best flatter my hourglass shape with dresses in my favorite colors, black and red, with lace and sequins and fringe the moved with me as I walked. I enjoyed the small taste of power all of it gave me, power that felt dangerous, power that I had no idea what to do with or what the consequences could be from wielding it. I just figured that if men were going to shout from cars at me, if boys were going to grab at me and classmates were going to make fun of my rapidly developing curves, the only way I could have any control over my body and the way it was perceived seemed to be to wrap it in rhinestones and display it proudly like the prize it was. If with every passing year as I grew into my womanhood I was going to be heard & respected less and less, made fun of and brushed aside, I might as well just speak louder, whatever I wanted, wear whatever I dared to wear, and play the role that had sort of fallen into my lap, so to speak.
My dad hated it, but there it was – I was a natural for the part of the whore.
My sexual awakening throughout all of this was a magical, personal experience – until a partner was introduced, that is. Now, admittedly, I was pretty sheltered, mostly by choice, as a natural goody two shoes who didn’t like to step outside the lines (unless I was onstage and rebellion was written in the script), and someone who held religion as a big part of my identity at that time (try aligning that with what my heart and body were clearly calling for at that time – not fun). I started dating a Christian boy a few years older than me, and as kind and as sweet as he was, there were sexual expectations that I was held to and felt compelled to meet. I wasn’t uninterested in pursuing more with this boy, but I was pushed (yes, pushed) to do what he ‘needed’ me to do. After all, I was putting out there what what I was putting out there, and what with the role I played onstage and my clothes and choices, the expectation was what I played was what I was, which was all well and good until I was alone with a boy and I had to actually deal with a penis. Now, he had his own issues with his sexuality wrapped up in religious guilt, having gone further than he wanted to with his last girlfriend, but he still grabbed my hand or my head and physically showed me how to do what he wanted me to do. Things I wanted to do, maybe, someday, just not when I actually did them. Hello, grey area! If you asked me then, I loved him, I felt safe enough with him, and I would have wanted to seem cool and worldly and totally mature enough to have been fine with what we did. If you ask me now, I’d say this was sexual coercion. I don’t look back at him with anger, I look back and think we were both young, fumbling through growing up together, trying to figure out how to please one another as best we could within the societal structures in popular culture, in the church, and otherwise. We did the best we could with what we were given and who we were (or who we were pretending to be). How is that okay, though? Why are all of my early sexual experiences clouded with more than a few shades of fear when I know his were quite the opposite?
After a few years, things ended with him, and I started to realize that this is how it was. The male experience came first, and I molded my sexuality around that idea, always the pleaser. I was good at it, I liked being good at it, and hell, I still do. I didn’t and I still don’t in some ways mind being the ‘femme fatale’, the power bitch, always the Mae West and never the Ginger Rodgers, because in the end I think I knew subconsciously that I wasn’t going to be able to escape this power structure, so why not manipulate it to work for me in some way? Why should I be the shrinking violet and lay on my back when I could take the reins, so to speak, and have at least SOME power? With the red lipstick comes the reputation, earned or not, and I didn’t feel I had the right to say no to the expectations placed on me. I liked the power, so I had to pay the piper, so to speak – I didn’t want to be a ‘tease’, and here was my opportunity to step to the other side of what I had been dipping a toe into, so I held my breath and jumped, no matter how scared or uncomfortable I was.
In college, I played Lola in Damn Yankees, proclaiming that whatever I wanted, I got, and to some extent, it was true. I vamped and I learned how to command a stage, I trained my body to curve in a pleasing way, even if it hurt my back and my knees to hold my body that way. I wore push up bras under leotards with fishnet tights and smirked and smoldered and seduced and screamed and pretended not to care what anyone thought, while simultaneously always shrinking back into myself. The better I got at this femme fatale role, the more powerless I felt – it’s not that I wasn’t good at it, I was! Beyond a certain point, though, the only thing differentiating me from other women were physical attributes. She was prettier. She was so much more flexible, she could developpe (sorry, ballet terms, basically slowly lift her leg) behind her head and hold it there for what felt like hours! She was SIZES thinner than me. My boobs were way too small. How powerful WAS this whole role, anyway, if I could only bring men to their knees if I was perfect in every way, their absolute dream, and I wasn’t? What was MY damned dream? Did I really enjoy the time it took to create the ‘best’ ‘ideal’ version of myself with eyeliner and stilettos and bronzer and hours at the gym and constant food guilt that never even got me all the way to ‘perfect’, or was I just telling myself I did because I was ugly and got no attention without it? What did I actually like in bed, aside from pleasing whomever was in it with me? I didn’t really know.
What I still don’t know is what my sexuality would look like if it hadn’t been shaped around the framework of the old-school, woman-serves-man relationship my parents and grandparents had, by the church, by my expectations of perfection and pleasing others I had of myself, and from the partners I chose that were male? Why did I learn how to do what I had to do to please a man right away when no man put in the time to try to please me until four years later? Why did I not learn how to please myself until after I’d brought a man to orgasm? Why was (and is) the male orgasm the definition of ‘sex’ for most hetero people? Why did I have a whole treasure chest full of lingerie and none of the men I dated have anything more than a condom, some clean underwear, and the expectation that I was who I was so that meant I would do exactly what he wanted me to do? Why did I then do those things for those idiots? Why did I have to teach man after man how to please a woman, almost all of them, all of whom had already had multiple sexual partners? How are there so many roles in theater, film, and stage dedicated to this ideal of a woman, cinched and coiffed and painted to perfection, ready to please in whatever way the audience wanted? And more than anything, why is the supposedly ‘powerful’ femme fatale expected to work her ass off in any situation, while the male costar and the viewers kick back and get exactly what they want? Talk about a perfect setup, stage and screen written, cast, and directed by men, for men. Shit, the only way women could have any power or agency for a long time was through sex work. Service men, receive some freedom – but freedom that only goes so far, with a choice that can never be undone and a shame that can never be taken away, and to keep what freedom you have, you must always bow down to the penis. The whore can never return to being a madonna. Choose the rhinestone fishnets over the powder blue cardigan sweater, and that’s that. The bell cannot be un-rung, on stage, on tv, in films, or in music. Whether you are an ingenue, a leading man, a femme fatale, a character role, the ‘funny best friend’, the mom, the villain, the hero, or any combination thereof, you are who you are and you get what you get based on that, no more, with power and control wildly out of balance between the roles.
How ridiculous is that?
I’ve got an idea. How about we wear the eyeliner and the lipstick and the fishnets and the rhinestones, but only if we want to and not because we feel we have to to attain any level of power or parity? Let’s talk about the fact that sex should be mutually consented upon and mutually pleasurable, and that gender roles and ‘types’ and the old, male-created rules and expectations upon sex and romance and relationships should go out the window with yesterday’s garbage like the bullshit they are. Or let’s talk about how about teaching our girls to talk and our boys to want to listen, not just in the classroom but in the bedroom and in all parts of life, as removing the expectations and stigma around sex makes it possible for women to be who they want to be without fear, and mutual respect is where much of these issues fall away. Nothing about coercion is sexy from the female point of view, so let’s take that aspect out of male sexuality too. Men only stand to benefit from this change, honestly, as the extra time and energy put into your partner will only result in better, more enthusiastic, more reciprocal sex. Change is scary, I know, especially when you happen to be part of the group of people who have greatly benefitted from how our society dealt with sex for so long, but come on. As opposed to the current day, where people figure out to work the current sexual power structures to make the best outcome for themselves in any situation, let’s make a future filled with people who can be who they are, onstage and in life, and find power in honest sexuality. No manipulation, no coercion, no fear, no hesitation, just mutual pleasure and joy.
The biggest path to getting to that place is, at its core, glaringly simple.
Sexual education needs to be universal, pleasure based, truthful, and honest, with a strong focus on consent*.
Or at least I think it would be a great start.
*What is consent, you ask?
The idea that yes is yes, in the current moment only.
Yes now is not yes in the future.
The lack of an enthusiastic yes, whether it be a ‘maybe’ or silence, is a no, unequivocally.
Oh, and gentlemen, receiving your partner’s consent does not make sex ‘less sexy’ – at least not for those of us who have been on the receiving end of Aziz-style aggressive unwanted sexual advances and actions. If you are a person whose age, sex, position, size, or any other factor make it feel as if ensuring you have your partner’s consent may in some way take away from your sexual pleasure, first of all, congratulations, and second of all, consider that your partner most likely does not have that luxury, in sex with you or others, and just how critical that consent could be for their peace of mind, let alone to enable a truly enjoyable sexual experience with you. In the same way that the action of putting on a condom in many situations is a necessary pause in sexual intercourse, the protection and peace of mind the condom gives makes the situation that much sexier across the board. Consent works the same way.