It might seem strange to be talking about pleasure and desire when we are surrounded by stories of rape and harassment. Aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves? Shouldn’t we concentrate first on stopping those crimes before we ask for sex that might actually work for us?
I don’t think so. The worst men—and the worst lovers—I have known were the ones who didn’t understand that women, too, want things from sex. That sex is not simply something we give to men—or something men take from us.
These were the men who commented, with a mixture of surprise and revulsion, on how much I actually seemed to enjoy the sex we had, how I acted as though we were sexual equals, as though my own desire mattered—and how unusual that was. I’ve never known what to say to that. I’ve never known whether to pity their ignorance or worry about the other women they have been with, about how those women may have felt forced to deny their desire, to keep their sexual agency secret, even in bed.
Study after study shows that women want sex just as much as men do—but they’re often afraid of the consequences of saying so. The story we tell about how women should behave sexually is one of hesitancy, of submission, of waiting for the man to make the first, second, and last moves. Cajoling a woman into sex is considered normal, hence much of the confusion about women who are now complaining, often for the first time, about men who pressure us into sex we don’t want to have.
Good sex is about more than lack of violence or fear. But there are still too many people out there who believe that it is enough for sex to not be painful or frightening for a woman. One recent study showed that 32 percent of college-age men said they would commit or had committed acts of violence against women that courts would describe as rape, but when asked if they would ever rape a woman, most said no. This is rape culture; nonconsensual sex is normalized and, as long as we don’t call it rape, tolerated.
There are still very few societies that are truly comfortable with women having sexual and reproductive agency—in other words, the right to choose when and if and how we have sex, and when and if and how we have children. All over the world, including in the United States, the basic assumption made about women by their governments and employers and families is that we do not deserve to decide what happens to our bodies—and we cannot be trusted to tell the truth about our experiences. This is sexual repression, and we must fight it.
We must also fight against internalizing it. The consequences of capitulating to what our bodies seem to want—whether it be an orgasm or another slice of cake—are made very clear to girls long before puberty turns up the dial on desire. We must not be too hungry, too horny, too greedy for anything in life, or we will become ugly, unlovable. Women who eat too much, talk too much, shag too much—women who want too much—will face shame, stigma, and ostracism. We must not lose control.
When you’ve learned to be suspicious of your own appetites, it takes time to treat yourself and your body with more kindness. How can we be honest with anyone else about our desires when “slut” is still one of the worst things you can call a woman, when women who openly enjoy or seek out sex are shamed for it, and men who do the same are celebrated?
For women and queer people, for anyone whose sexuality has been treated as abnormal and punished, and particularly for those who’ve survived sexual violence, it can be very hard to be honest about what we might want in bed, even with ourselves. That’s alright. It’s okay not to know what you want, as long as you know that the wanting itself is okay. This isn’t going to change overnight. But I know I’ve had more positive experiences than negative ones when I insisted on making my desires clear. Being able to ask for what you want is the first step toward real sexual liberation. The sort that works for everyone.