If we want to end sexual violence, we need to talk about female desire. It might seem strange to be talking about pleasure when we are surrounded by stories of rape and harassment. But, honestly, the worst men – and the worst lovers – I’ve known, were the ones who didn’t understand that women also 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’ve been with. About how those women may have felt forced to deny their desire, to keep their sexual agency secret, even in bed.
Studies show that women want sex just as much as men do – but we’re often afraid of the consequences of saying so. The story that’s told about how women should behave sexually is one of hesitancy, of submission, of waiting for the man to make the first moves. In fact, cajoling a woman into sex is considered “normal”.
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 study showed that 32 percent of varsity-aged men said they would commit or had committed acts of violence against women that courts would describe as rape, but when asked if they’d ever rape a woman, said no. This is rape culture. Non-consensual sex is normalised 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. This is sexual repression and we must fight it.
We must also fight against internalising it. The consequences of capitulating to what our bodies seem to want – whether it be an orgasm or a 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 undesirable.
Women who eat too much, talk too much, shag too much – women who want too much – will face shame, stigma and ostracism. When you’ve learnt to be suspicious of your own appetites, it takes time to treat yourself and your body with more kindness. It’s hard to be honest with anyone else about our sexual 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 – even attractive?
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 it’s okay to want. This isn’t going to change overnight. 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 towards sexual liberation. The sort that works for everyone.