"Whips and chains, girl. Whips and chains!"
A jock leaned in and taunted me as we passed each other in the halls of my high school. You see, the previous weekend I had played a little sexual game with my boyfriend at the time, and he obviously told his teammates everything. The funny thing was that my boyfriend had not tied me to the bed with chains; he used toilet paper.
Nonetheless, my "reputation" as a slut seemed to be growing. People were talking about me behind my back, and while I felt burning chagrin each time I was teased, I also thought that the heckling was unjust. Didn't everyone experiment sexually? Why was my boyfriend lauded for getting into my panties while I was condemned for letting him?
Lately I have really been deconstructing my views on sexuality to get to the bottom of why women are treated unfairly. I've invited back the gorgeous sex educator Carlin Ross to help me break down my issues. She previously dipped her goggles into my shame pool the first time I wrote about gay guilt, and I also brought her on board to talk about whether women hate porn.
Carlin, welcome back! You are so good at logically breaking down the social battles we women face with sexuality, so I'm happy to have you expound upon this topic. In a previous column you mentioned the "slut stigma." What is that?
We've all experienced the slut stigma in one way or another. It ties back to the sexual double standard: Men are encouraged to be sexual aggressors, and women are encouraged to be chaste. The question is: Who are all these men having sex with? How can men be experienced and women inexperienced? It just doesn't add up.
The stigma makes women solely responsible for sex. We witnessed this in the last round of contraception hearings, where Foster Friess, the billionaire backer of Rick Santorum's campaign, went on Andrea Mitchell's MSNBC show and said, "Back in my day, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn't that costly."
Put simply, the misconception is that women don't need contraception because they shouldn't be having sex. Instead of acknowledging that women are sexual beings, we try to constrain female sexuality with the slut stigma. Women are threatened with the prospect that they won't be able to get married if they've had sex with too many people. You'd never hear anyone saying that about a man. In fact, if a man isn't experienced, we question his sexual orientation.
But why do you think female sexuality is so discouraged?
Female sexuality is discouraged because we fear it. Our sex organs are complicated; we experience multiple orgasms; we give birth. Womb guarding starts with your family when you hit puberty. What information you receive, whom you're allowed to date, all of that, it's all socially proscribed. Then as we move out of the house and continue to date, the same sheltering continues with our lovers. Male jealousy is really about ensuring that any child conceived is theirs. And the culture concurs with the messaging that being sexually independent is dangerous. The "slut" is always the first person killed in any horror movie. Women must be chaste, date a few people, settle down, get married, and have a family.
What is it about homosexuality that bothers people so much? Why do people talk about having to "tolerate" homosexuals and the "homosexual lifestyle"?
Gay-phobia is rooted in the slut stigma and sexual double standard. We don't want people coupling that can't procreate naturally; that's against God's plan. Even in adult entertainment "gay" sex acts such as fisting are deemed obscene, while far more extreme "heterosexual" sex acts are just fine. In fact, the terms "homosexual" and "heterosexual" were coined in the mid-19th century by an Austro-Hungarian journalist named Károly Mária Kertbeny. He created these words as part of his response to a piece of Prussian legislation that made same-sex erotic behavior illegal, even in cases where the identical act performed by a man and a woman would be considered legal.
Now we "tolerate" homosexuality much in the same way we tolerate female sexuality. We have to "give in" and let gays marry. We have to "give in" and let women use contraception and have abortions -- although we make them jump through hoops and shame them every step of the way. When you meet resistance, you know that your decisions aren't supported by the culture. And this is how we control behavior we shame.
So why do you think that homophobia gets internalized as shame?
Everyone wants to please their family, to fit in, to be accepted, and to live a happy life. Tolerance is not acceptance. There is a constant undercurrent in the culture against who you are, and you feel it every moment of every day. That's why I'm against sex labels. Why does everyone have to know who you prefer to have sex with the moment they meet you? It's really kind of sick. Why can't we just be "sexual"? Why do we put so much emphasis on sexual orientation? Shouldn't the emphasis be on love?
Why do you think that I repressed my real sexuality and overcompensated by having sex with so many men?
I think it was healthy for you to experience heterosexual sex. How could you know who you were sexually unless you had those experiences? Trying different things is how we learn about ourselves and what we want in life. Whether we're talking homophobia or the slut stigma, both of those constructs are about limiting sexual choices. If you think about it, other than sex, there is not one other area in our lives in which we value inexperience. We must do things in order to learn and grow. Part of moving forward is setting ourselves free from social constraints and living our lives on our own terms. No good can come from guilt and shame; it's all based on fear.
Do you think that it's possible that my experience with my father sexually abusing me as a child contributed to the repression of my true sexuality? In other words, can childhood sexual trauma cause sexual shame? If so, why?
Childhood sexual trauma can cause sexual shame. Children are sexual beings, although that is not a socially acceptable and recognized idea in our culture -- unless you're talking about a Calvin Klein ad or an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras. When a child suffers sexual abuse, it's confusing. When children are sexually victimized, the discovery of their sexuality is slowed. They are instantly sex-labelled an "abuse survivor," and all their sexual choices later in life are viewed through this prism. In cases involving rape, the culture deems as the abuse as a sexual disgrace -- a young girl who's lost her virginity -- and this serves as a justification to blame the victim, question her sexual orientation, and, in some cultures, take her life.
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Every time I remove the layers of thought that built my shame, I see the same thing: fear. I think Carlin is right in her belief that our society uses fear to control women and to corral them into socially acceptable sexual behavior. We have to fight the misconceptions and defy the social norms until we have the right to spread our legs wide open as as many times as we want -- without judgment.
Carlin will come back soon for a discussion on the current state of feminism. Next week I have a very personal interview to share with you. I'll be speaking with my final ex-boyfriend to get his perspective on the messy aftermath of my coming-out process. Juicy details to come.