Art by Maanasi Shyno
Trigger warning: Sexual assault
When I think about my own personal brand of feminism, I can clearly draw its roots to two things: music and sex. Sex and music. In many ways, the two are one and the same. “CTRL” by SZA defined my vision of womanhood around my burgeoning sexuality. “Sexual liberation” was the center of my feminism: I believed that harnessing female sexuality was the ultimate feminist expression. My theory was baked in the adolescent angst of the fall of my junior year of high school: at the time, I was desperate to have my first kiss, grappling with the realization that I had been molested by a peer in the 8th grade, and in general scrambling to figure out who I was as a woman — up until then, much of my identity had been defined by men like my father or my brother. Centering sex made sense: I thought that having sex, or more accurately, having sex with men, could cleanse me of my sexual trauma, heal me of my insecurity that I was undesirable, and bury my doubts about my sexuality.
I’m 19 now. I’ve had my first kiss. I’ve had sex. And I’ve never felt further from sexual liberation. As I’ve grown older and begun to experience sex and sexuality more fully, I’ve become more and more acutely aware of my 16 year old naïveté. What is “sexual liberation” when you center the acceptance and approval of men? What is “sexual liberation” when sex is tainted by trauma? What is “sexual liberation” in the face of internalized homophobia? And this is coming from a wealthy white woman — what is “sexual liberation” for those who have been fetishized due to their race, gender, or sexual identity? What is “sexual liberation” for the religious? But even with all of the layers of societal shit obscuring and distorting the theoretical purity of sexual liberation, I cannot help but cling to it.
So let this be a personal journey through the evolution of my “sex-positive” feminism as I’ve realized the lasting burdens of sexual trauma and heteronormativity on my own ability to be “sex-positive.” There's an ideal and then there’s reality, and here I’m going to try to bridge the divide: if we decided to stand by the centering of sexuality in our definition of feminism, how do we reframe it to make it accessible and valid, and not just a double agent whose only real master is and always will be patriarchy?
I usually try to be funny in articles, but for fear of making you cringe as I try to pass off some rather traumatic events as funny blips in my comedic character development, I’ll abstain. My ability to ever easily achieve a free, easy sexuality was voided in June of 2015. I was freshly fourteen, young for my grade not only in age but in experience. I was painfully aware of how undesirable I was: awkward and ugly, I had never kissed a boy, never held hands with a boy, never even gotten close. In other words, I didn’t know what it felt like for someone to flirt with me. I wouldn’t have known what it felt like to be desired if it had slapped me in the face.
So when (name changed) Alex told me he was gay but then proceeded to untie my bathing suit top at the public pool and stare, I knew I didn’t like what he had done but I didn’t read into it any further. When he held my hand as we walked back to our friends' house, I took it as an apology for his dumb joke. A week later, when we hung out alone in his bedroom and wrestled on his bed, it wasn’t threatening, it was just something that kids did. Even when he asked me point blank if he could touch my boobs because he was gay and he would never have the chance again, even when he kept going further than I told him he could, even when he cried when I asked him to stop and wouldn’t stop crying until I said yes, I didn’t know what to think. My private school sex education with its textbook definitions of brutal molestation or sexual assualt at the hands of a creepy gymnastics coach or weird uncle couldn’t have been further from the slippery emotional coercion at the hands of my little 100-lb dopey-looking classmate. So I left that day in June of 2015. I scrubbed myself raw. I cried in the shower not because I had been assaulted but because I was embarassed that for my first sexual experience, I’d let a gay guy, and not a cute one at that, touch my boobs. I put myself to bed. And I woke up the next day a changed woman, whether or not I knew it yet.
I’m the best avoider you’ve ever met — I can look at someone and look straight through them. I can make someone feel like they don’t exist while looking completely nonchalant. Every time I looked through Alex in the hallway for the next two years, even though my face didn’t betray my emotions, I was hit with the sharpest fear that, god forbid, he would tell someone about what happened. He had power over me. It seems so silly from the outside. If you could see this kid, see how small, how unassuming he looks, it’s hard to believe that as I blossomed from this awkward, insecure pre-teen into a rather beautiful young woman that this boy could ruin my day by walking past my locker as I put my books away. But he could. And he did. And everytime he passed me, I was no longer the beautiful young woman I was becoming, but I was right back as the awkward, ugly, self-hatred ridden fourteen year old lying in his bed just wishing he would stop crying.
It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I realized that what had happened was not just some embarrassing run-in, but actually the first of many sexual assaults performed at the hands of a serial sexual assaulter. Alex would go on to hurt classmate after classmate, with none of us being any the wiser. It was the single most liberating moment of my life. My head literally rushed as the knowledge hit me. I ran to confess to my brother. As the words poured out of me, I sobbed with secret emotions that even I did not know lay hidden below those memories. In my first re-telling, I actually realized that the molesting had occurred on a second occasion that I had blocked from my memory — after the first day, I tried to convince myself that everything was fine by going over to his house again. Needless to say, everything was not fine. And for a while, I thought that there, the issue was solved. I knew the truth! I could throw off my shame, throw off my guilt, kiss as many guys as I wanted, have sex with whoever, and be totally fine!
But then I tried that. The first time I hooked up with someone from my high school, I found that I couldn’t make eye contact with them in the hallway. I found that my heartbeat rose when they approached me. I found myself looking straight through them. Avoiding. Afraid. As I began to have more sexual experiences, I realized that the way in which I was introduced to sex had completely stunted my ability to deal with sex, even if it was mature, adult, and consenting.
So where did that leave me on my feminist journey? Well, it made me rethink. Why had I so centered sex in my vision for feminism? While I may have used words like “harnessing the power of women’s sexuality,” I meant that I wanted to weaponize sex, just like it had been weaponzied against me. It was “liberation,” it was revenge — revenge which only served to bolster my association between sex and guilt and shame. This is a narrative that I think runs rampant in Millennial/Gen Z social media and pop culture today. In 2021, having an OnlyFans or a sugar daddy is a key experience on your radical-feminist resumé. It’s this message of, “Ask not what you can do for the patriarchy, but what the patriarchy can do for you.” As someone for whom that narrative very much does not work, it scares me.
That’s not to say that it cannot work for anyone: if the 21st century media’s vision of a “sex-positive” woman makes you feel strong, seen, and valid, all power to you. I’m the last person to judge a woman for her sexual expression. But that feminism which is so empowering to some is so damaging to others. And when its reported that, at the very least, 20% of women internationally will experience some sort of sexual violence in their lives, I have to wonder whether or not centering mainstream feminism on sex really makes any sense at all.
Again, not everyone would respond how I did; every person responds to sexual trauma differently. However, I think the broader message is that the way that we have put weaponized sex at the center of 21st century feminism, something I am guilty of too, may only serve to center men and their harm, thus triggering women and furthering patriarchy.
I don’t have the answers. All I know is that my very own framing of feminism is personally unattainable — I have shut myself out of my own vision of liberation. My ideal of womanhood is simply that: an ideal. It's an ideal shaped by my clawing desire to overcome and to be stronger than something that happened to me when I was just a kid. But that's no path to liberation — refusing to validate my own hurt, my own injury, my own affection is no way to become a truer, freer woman. If anything, I need to sit down and do the opposite. I need to acknowledge that for me, sex with men is hard. It's hard and it will always be hard. For me, sex requires that I trust my partner with my life. It requires that I open up and share my story and ask for a partner in healing, not just a partner in sex. It requires that I not rush. It requires that I forgive myself. Maybe sex doesn’t need to be removed from the equation, maybe it just needs to be reframed.