Pleasure is a Rebellion: Ruminations for Healing

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,

Jutting ridges,

And, of course, something akin to

Depth.


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

But reproduction

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,

Accept pleasure

Simultaneously make sense and breed anxiety

Because what if the feminists were wrong?

What if one decision could

Change everything?


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

Me

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.