Happy Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month!
Everyone who has a vulva is not a woman and everyone who has a penis is not a man. However, the academic research I’ve used as evidence for this blog post primarily examines how cisgender heterosexual (and bisexual) men/women navigate sex.
Also: trigger/content warning due to sexual violence.
In the past, I’ve discussed the role of power dynamics in consent and how certain identities navigate sexual assault differently, particularly bisexual women. At the core of those perspectives is the idea of intimate justice — that sexuality and relationships are embedded within sociopolitical contexts, that our experiences are shaped by our identities. As we talk about the cultural normalization of sexual violence, intimate justice calls us to flip that and consider: what have we normalized about pleasure?
People with vulvas have been historically denied the experience of pleasure. In fact, medicine didn’t even believe we could enjoy sex or orgasm. This has collaborated with the patriarchal construction of sex as heterosexual intercourse, which only 33% of people with vulvas orgasm from. The result? We understand sexual satisfaction as the way cishet men become satisfied.
Research in intimate justice backs this up. Experts found that passivity and submission, which are traditionally prescribed for women, are linked to lower rates of sexual arousal, enjoyment, and autonomy. The more women conformed to gender roles, the more likely they were to consent to unwanted sex with male partners.
They also observed that when women imagined their own sexual satisfaction, their partner’s sexual satisfaction was a huge factor. Some studies even show that women value partner satisfaction more than their own. And when talking about sex that wasn’t satisfying, women talked about emotional and physical safety concerns like painful sex or sex that made them feel degraded/depressed.
On the other hand, men seem to view sexual satisfaction in terms of how intercourse frequency matched up with their desire for intercourse, not how much their partner enjoyed it. This research helps to explain the oral sex gap, a phenomena in which hetero women are more than twice as likely to go down on their partners than hetero men. Men also defined unsatisfying sex as sex with an unattractive partner, sex that made them feel lonely, or sex with inadequate sexual stimulation. They never imagined harmful or damaging consequences for sex the way women had.
The idea of people with vulvas experiencing sexual satisfaction is so culturally unimportant that sex has been repositioned as: intercourse that causes us harm and intercourse that doesn’t. It’s no wonder that after Babe.net reported on Aziz Ansari’s coercive sexual behavior, Bari Weiss, a writer for the New York Times, suggested that his victim hadn’t actually experienced sexual violence — just “bad sex.”
According to her, “if he pressures you to do something you don’t want to do, use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door” because men are not mind readers. Her stance legitimizes sexual coercion, which is linked to mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress, suicide ideation, anxiety, and depression, whether we walk out the door or not. When girls experience sexual coercion during adolescence, especially prior to the age of 14, they are more susceptible to sexual coercion and other forms of intimate partner violence later. Most adult female victims of coercion had already experienced sexual coercion before the age of 25.
Weiss’ op-ed also highlights the belief that women are fully responsible for protecting ourselves against coercion. Research shows the disproportionate amount of psychological labor that people with vulvas put in to protect themselves — but it also shows how positionality in the social hierarchy impacts our ability to do so successfully. Gender-based power imbalances reduce women’s ability to negotiate condom use, make family-planning decisions, and avoid unwanted sex. Gender also informs the socialization of men as dominant, assertive of their sexuality, and willing to overcome women’s sexual resistance through pressure — and women as their passive and submissive opposites. Are we asking men to be mind readers, as Weiss suggests, or are we asking them to rewrite the sexual scripts that cause us harm?
After all, when we learn about sex, we are primarily learning heteronormative ‘safe sex’. We are taught that our primary safety concern is a sexually transmitted infection or a baby we didn’t plan to have because that is what cishet men are concerned about. And the idea that people with vulvas need emotional/physical safety to feel satisfied during sex remains largely invisible. Who cares about our satisfaction? We learn that sex ends in ejaculation — which essentializes male pleasure within sex — but don’t learn about ‘female’ pleasure at all. So nobody does. And because sex is supposed to be a private matter, not an issue for public discourse, we ignore pleasure as an entry-point for finding #MeToo solutions.
We cannot address sexual violence and coercion until we believe that sexual satisfaction belongs to everyone, not just men. And so, this Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, and every day that we are alive on this planet, lets not be afraid of the idea of ‘female’ pleasure. Lets intentionally center it in our discussions about sex, #MeToo, and beyond. That’s how we will find justice.
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