The Sexuality of the Damsel Errant

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The “liberated woman,” like the “free world,” is a fiction that obscures real power relations and defuses revolution. How can women, subordinate in every other sphere, be free and equal in bed? Men want us to be a little free — it’s more exciting that way. But women who really take them at their word make them up-tight and they show it — by their jokes, their gossip, their obvious or subtle put-downs of women who seem too aggressive or too “easy.”
–Ellen Willis, from The Essential Ellen Willis

I have been wanting to write something about this for a while, but I’ve been waiting for the right words. Then last night I was going through my Instagram feed and Miley Cyrus had posted a photo of herself spread-legged in a leotard. No different than anything you might see on the cover of a magazine geared towards men. But instead of being lauded as a sex symbol, masturfodder if you will, like the women in those magazines, her comment feed was full of vitriolic words like “whore” and “slut” and “disgusting”. I thought about the way Miley is denigrated because she dresses sexually all on her own, not just in order to please the male eye. About how women in general who wrest their sexuality from the humbug hands of the patriarchy are laughed at, held under humiliating scrutiny, while their male counterparts are free to bed, wed, or impregnate as many women as they like, the only consequence being that they become a paragon of masculinity. How is it that women in the 21st century still allow such a blatant double standard to hold sway over us?

Sex is something that is demonstrative of who we are as people, not in any absolute way, but our attitude towards it is definitely a window into how we view ourselves and the people around us. On both a global and national scale, female sexuality remains a subject that is generally suppressed, left out of the conversation, discouraged, while male sexuality is celebrated. A large part of the (eurocentric) literary canon I grew up with and studied in my adulthood involved the archetype of a man wandering the world in search of adventure and intrigue. This journey almost always included the conquest of women, often lots of women, which bolstered his masculinity, desirability, and value, while diminishing that of the women. Often he leaves “ruined” women and children scattered behind him, something that was often a source of pride although the children were rarely treated as legitimate. We have the exciting stories of Lancelot, Henry VIII, even Dracula.  But where were the stories about women doing the same? Growing up, what female character was I supposed to look up to and model my own ideas of sexuality after? Let’s look at the characters offered up in school during my especially formative years: Hester Prynne from A Scarlet Letter (can I just “ugh” right now and get it over with?), Rose of Sharon from Grapes of Wrath, Daisy from The Great Gatsby, the famous Juliet? None of those are exactly success stories of female sexual independence. The closest thing I got in school, admittedly one of my favorite female protagonists of all literature, was Edna Pontellier from The Awakeningbut she, well, kills herself because society can’t accept her sexual autonomy. So, case in point.

As all of you Americans (U.S.A. Americans, specifically) should know, women’s sexuality is under siege in our country. Hard-won rights like access to birth control, safe abortion, and even something as simple as sex education are being stripped away from us. In Colorado*, a bill is on the table that claims to “protect” pregnant women but would really criminalize abortion (actually anything but a live birth), including in the case of rape, and make birth control like the pill and the IUD illegal. In California, bills were just passed to legally make “yes mean yes“* meaning consent is no longer the absence of no and also to stop the forced sterilization* of women in prison. The fact that these bills were passed is good, the fact that they are necessary is proof of a far more deep-rooted sickness. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the fact that a recent bill has shut down 80% of abortion clinics in his state is but a “minor inconvenience“* for women. Anyone seeing a problematic pattern forming here? But before I go off on a serious feminist jeremiad against my country, let me get to the point of this entry: I am a single woman. I have sex. I enjoy it. I deserve and demand the right to decide what is good for my own body and the life I lead, regardless of where I choose to lead it.

As you know if you’ve been following this blog, I’m currently about 80% of the way through a 5-month trip through Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. And although my country is imploding with abuses against the rights of half of its population, at least there’s some kind of conversation going on. For the most part, South America has not joined in that conversation. The only countries on this continent in which abortion is legal, for example, are Guyana, French Guiana, and Uruguay (go Uruguay!) while Chile, Brazil, and Venezuela have made it illegal in all cases, including rape. The rest have made it available only in case of the vague purpose of “preserving a woman’s health”, a restriction which unfortunately has little to do with what the woman considers her “health”. For more info (and a reality check), this world map of abortion laws is pretty terrifying.

In a more micro sense, I can tell that my views of sexuality, my sexuality to be exact, do not quite mesh with the sexuality projected onto me by the cultural norms here (or in my own country, to be fair). My view on sex is this: It is acceptable whenever there is consent between two adults, not to be restricted to society’s expectations of having to be in some kind of relationship. I’m pro-monogamy, -polygamy, -heterosexual, -pansexual heteroromantic, -bisexuality, -homosexuality, -asexuality, -transsexuality, -friends with benefits, -one night stands, -just met five minutes ago and have to fulfill some crazy urge that is mutual and never see each other again (see zipless fuck)… and much more, but I think you get the picture. If there’s consent between adults, I support it. Whether or not I engage in any of these things is beside the point and none of your business.

I am a woman traveling alone. The sexuality that society has condoned for me is that of being a sexual object, one to which it is ok for men to jeer and catcall on the street; one in which while dancing, a man thinks it is ok to reach up and grab both my breasts (I’m assuming he thought my allowing him to bump himself against me meant I was one big “YES”); one in which a man with whom I spent very little time thinks it’s ok to ask me if I’ve “cheated” on him; one in which the most common question I receive is “are you married?” or “do you have a boyfriend” or most importantly “why not?” because that is what is expected of me. The fact that I might be my own sexual actor, in which I make my own decisions about when and with whom I sleep, is not to be considered. The archetype of the Latino male is one I and everyone I know is familiar with: macho, virile, romantic, fertile as fuck. The archetype available to me from the current material is not quite so… debonair.

That’s why I’m writing this. We need to move forward, not backward (I’m talking to you, especially, you American politicians who claim to represent me). It’s so far past time for women to be afforded the equal rights to everything, including sexual independence, as men that it’s not even laughable, it’s downright pathetic. I’m tired of keeping quiet about who I am and what I believe when it comes to sex because instinctually I know that I will be judged for it according to other people’s prejudices. There comes a time in everyone’s life when you have to accept that people will judge you no matter what you do or what face you try to put on to fit in. You will be judged. It isn’t fair, but that’s the way it is. So there’s a choice you have to make: are you going to let other people tell you how, where, when, and to what degree you can be sexual?

I think it’s time we start a new canon of female archetypes, although, granted, it’s not so easy for a woman to leave children like breadcrumbs stretching away behind her. Regardless, we as women need to remember that we are the hero of our own story, we aren’t some damsel in distress, and we do not need to be rescued from our own sexuality.

*click through to go to article.

2 thoughts on “The Sexuality of the Damsel Errant

  1. Love that picture of you. Evocative.

    Your words are powerful. As the picture is evocative, so are your thoughts. Makes me wonder, why the disparity? Why would it take so long for women to be perceived through a similar prism when it comes to sexuality? It’s about friggin’ time women stand up and yell, “say what?”

    You should send this blog to a women’s magazine. Seriously.

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