By Kim Artham
Art by Kaitlyn Anderson
The first woman I talked to openly about sex was my freshman year roomate, Mellie. In my eyes she was a liberated woman in every way and I really admired the way she tore up the social pressures put on women. One night when we were supposed to be working on chemistry problems, our discussion inevitably turned to more exciting topics. She winked at me when I mentioned the person I was seeing,“So last night did you... Ya know?” I shook my head with a grimace, “No, well I mean, obviously we wanted to, but… I just couldn’t.”
“Well, why not?” she asked point blank. I didn’t have a good answer. I didn’t believe in virginity. (As if dick* could define something as powerful as a woman!) I wasn’t especially scared of pain because it’s a common experience for many women. It’s not like anyone would find out now that I was so far away from home. Although sex seemed super vulnerable, I did want to do it and I was starting to feel pretty comfortable with my partner too…
But something was stopping me. Like an actual mental block. If anyone else had been discussing their concerns with losing their virginity, I would have given them the same advice: if you’re comfortable and ready, you should have fun! But I felt like that didn’t apply to me. Sex as an abstract concept, I could handle. But everytime I thought about actually having sex as a real possibility, I cringed.
My partner at the time wasn’t in a rush to do the deed, so I hadn’t felt any pressure to sort out these feelings. But after talking to Mellie, I really started to question why I felt this way as a sex-positive feminist. I thought about my Christian upbringing and what it meant to be a woman of color, simultaneously sexualized by society and restricted by my culture. I thought about my feminist awakening, my desire for sexual liberation, and why I couldn’t act on it. And honestly, I’d been afraid to open that can of worms for way too long.
But I did. And eventually, I worked through things until I could actually start experimenting with pleasure. And I’m writing this to tell you, you beautifully confused human being, that I crossed the bridge and didn’t burn up. Or whatever I thought would happen.
Sexual liberation isn’t everything, nor should it be treated that way. But for the many of us who have grown up in an extremely sex-negative environment, I think having sex and getting to know our bodies in general can be very freeing (if that’s what you want!). You’re not alone in how you feel. And this, this is me handing you a can opener. Open that bitch and set the worms free.
YOUR BODY IS YOURS
About taking care of your body, loving your body, seeing pleasure as something you deserve, a birthright
For so long, I imagined the space between my legs as a black void
Not to be touched or even, really, wondered about
Beyond the passing discomfort of discharge
My understanding of my vagina was
A dark wetness, a notion of potential
That I did not seem to own.
Then there came a day when I realized I had never seen it
My own vagina
A whole part of my body
For eighteen years I stared at the showerhead when I cleaned it
Squeezed my eyes shut when inserting tampons
I never thought twice about why.
I heard some cry the first time they see it,
Stendhal’s without Michaelangelo.
And the curiosity of that, I couldn’t resist.
I spread myself in front of a mirror
Hesitantly I pull apart the flaps and peer inside
To find confusing layers of pinkish-grey flesh,
And, of course, something akin to
Suddenly my eyes scale out and I see my whole body
And with this vulnerable context, I recoil, awash with a shame
And then anger because why should I feel anything
But relief for finally knowing all of myself?
My vagina is a physical legacy of my foremothers
It is powerful, a symbol of strength, of pleasure.
That day I looked into myself, I didn’t dare to touch
Touch was something that occurred only half-asleep
When the guilt of the act could be swept into a dream.
Masturbating feels so different from
Moisturizing skin or brushing out hair
Or wrapping yourself in a warm scarf,
But touching yourself is also
Taking care of the vessel that holds your soul,
A form of self care
For many women, pleasure feels selfish
But who does that serve?
Certainly not not me or you…
The patriarchy swells when women put others above themselves
It laughs because it knows
Pleasure is our birthright
Why else would God put 8,000 nerve endings in the clitoris?
Your body is yours.
It exists to care for you
And for you to care for it.
Your body is for no one, but you
And even when you feel otherwise,
It is yours to reclaim.
Out of this, I started to see my pleasure as a rebellion
As a way of breaking a generational cycle
Of saying no by moaning yes
I took one end of the strings knotted within me
And begun the long process of untangling
I lit a shitty, melon-scented candle
Filled a tub with hot water
And romanced myself into acceptance.
YOUR SHAME IS NOT AN HEIRLOOM
Digging deeper into inherited shame, guilt, stigmas and why you feel them
My depiction of my body was cultivated
By a diet of microaggressions and cultural protocol
A playbook, if you will
Of how to stay safe, and more importantly, valuable
From years of training, I learned this central tenant:
Feeling good was not something good girls did
And then there was this idea I had
That in my culture, nobody had sex for anything
I was never told this, it just seemed self-evident
That I was destined to be a mother
And that sex was only for fulfilling that prophecy
One night my mind wandered to
Arched backs and pressed lips, forbidden entrance
And then, suddenly,
The white purity of my baptism ripped through the image
I saw myself standing at the Virgin Grotto
Stuffing flowers into cracks in the mosaic
My mother praying for my virginity, that American foolishness wouldn’t
Warp the ideals she’d raised me with
The hymen is treated like a freshness seal.
We’re taught that women are simply made
To be consumed
That it is only right to save ourselves
Because what we have to offer
Is something that can be used.
And the fact that this doesn’t apply to men
Tells us that only we can become worthless.
When our worth is tied to our bodies,
We protect our body to protect our worth
And immigrant women in particular
Stop seeing their bodies as their own, but rather
The embodiment of our family’s honor
Because immigrants are collectivists
We own each other, and somehow nothing at all.
Feminist calls to come into our being, embrace our bodies,
Simultaneously make sense and breed anxiety
Because what if the feminists were wrong?
What if one decision could
And these are the chains of lace
They use to anchor you to the ground,
The fear that there is something valuable to lose
Rather than everything to gain
In embracing yourself as a sexual being
My world controls women by telling us
Our value is not ours to decide
Even after realizing this, I can’t couldn’t let go
I wished I could fuck myself
With the same finger I wore my promise ring on
Without the shame
Despite seeing virginity as a construct
I continued to carry the oppression of my ancestors
But I desperately wanted to be free of it.
Then I met a woman who was
The embodiment of everything taboo in our culture
A tattoo across her ribs reading “samskara”
Juul pen between her lips,
She spoke of sorority parties, birth control, and dicks
And temple in the same breath.
I didn’t know that people like her existed
I didn’t know we had a choice to color outside the lines
and not abandon our heritage in the process.
And then my sister found condoms in our parents’ bedroom drawer.
My understanding of acceptable warped and morphed
Into something unrecognizable,
My apprehension became baseless.
Just because you’ve inherited this guilt
Doesn’t mean you have to keep it
Your shame is not an heirloom.
I’ve started thinking of this shame as
The ugly wrapping paper on the gift of my womanhood
Something to be carefully opened, acknowledged
And completely my choice to recycle or throw out
If I should have a daughter,
I would like to wrap this gift in glittery confidence
So she never has to doubt if the contents are truly a blessing.
Besides, receiving is not really about the packaging.
PLEASURE IS A REBELLION
Somewhere along the way
I decided I was going to be the cycle breaker
The rule follower, the straight-A student
Was going to do all the forbidden things I desired
And very well be the first woman in my family to
step out of line.
Rebellion started small
I spent my paycheck on lingerie
I started exploring with my partner
My friends and I swapped vibrator recommendations
I watched myself cum in the mirror and told myself
I deserved to feel good
This rebellion is not about my ancestors
or my culture or my religion
It is about realizing I have real choices, not picking between
Being selfish or being submissive
It is about seeing myself as so much more than
Where I’ve come from
It is about changing the parts of my narrative
I thought were written in permanent ink
It is about hearing my voice for the first time
And thinking, maybe I can be free.