*Originally presented at TEDxOmaha 2016
We’re going to share a lot of secrets today, you and I. And in doing so, I hope that we can lift some of the shame many of us feel about sex.
How many here have ever been catcalled by a stranger? Lots of women. For me, the time I remember best is when that stranger was a student of mine. He came up to me after class that night, and his words confirmed what I already knew. “I’m so sorry, professor, if I had known it was you, I would never have said those things.” I wasn’t a person to him, until I was his professor. This concept, called objectification, is the foundation of sexism, and we see it reinforced through all facets of our lives. We see it in advertisements. How many of you have seen an advertisement that uses a woman’s breasts to sell an entirely unrelated product? Or movie after movie after movie that portrays women as only love interests? These examples might seem inconsequential and harmless, but they’re insidious, slowly building into a culture that refuses to see women as people. We see this in the school that sends home a ten-year-old girl because her clothes were a distraction to boys trying to learn. Or the government that refuses to adequately punish men for raping women, over and over and over. Or the woman who was killed because she asked a man to stop grinding on her on the dance floor.
Media plays a large role in perpetuating the objectification of women. Let’s consider the classic romantic comedy. We’re typically introduced to two kinds of women in these movies—two kinds of desirable women anyway. The first is the sexy bombshell. This is the unbelievably gorgeous woman with the perfect body. Our leading man has no trouble identifying her and even less trouble having sex with her. The second is our leading lady, the beautiful but demure woman our leading man falls in love with, despite not noticing her at first or not liking her if he did. The first is the slut—highly sexually desirable, but too available. She is to be consumed and forgotten. The other is sexy enough to still be desirable, but modest, and therefore, worthy of having our leading man’s future babies—marriage material. These caricatures of women let us in on another little secret: We actually see women as having two purposes.
On the rare occasion that I share with a new acquaintance that I study sex—if they don’t end the conversation right then, they’re usually pretty intrigued. “Oh, tell me more.” So I do. “I’m really interested in studying the sexual behavior of pregnant and postpartum couples.” At this point, I usually get a different kind of response. “Oh, huh. Do pregnant people even have sex? Have you thought about studying sexual desire? Or orgasms? That would be interesting—and sexy.” Even though we insist women are sexual objects, our culture either desexualizes or fetishizes pregnant women and mothers—on either end, the message is clear: it’s not “normal” to find them sexy.
Tell me, what are the first words that come to mind when you picture a pregnant woman? I asked this question in a survey of over five hundred adults and most responded with “belly” or “round” and “cute.” This didn’t surprise me too much. What else do we label as cute? Babies. Puppies. Kittens. The elderly. When we label an adult as cute, though, we take away a lot of their intelligence, their complexity. We reduce them to childlike qualities. I also asked heterosexual men to imagine a woman that they’re partnered with as pregnant, and I asked women to imagine that they are pregnant, and then tell me the first words that come to mind when they imagine having sex. Most of the responses were negative. “Gross,” “awkward,” “not sexy,” “odd,” “uncomfortable,” “how?” “not worth the trouble,” “not worth the risk.” That last one really stuck with me. We might think that because we divorce pregnant women and moms from sexuality, that we’re removing the constraints of sexual objectification. They experience less sexism, right? Not exactly. What happens instead is a different kind of objectification.
In my efforts to explain this to others, one conversation led to the Venus of Willendorf, a Paleolithic figurine scholars assumed was a goddess of love and beauty, hence the name Venus. This theory was later revised, though, when scholars noted the sculptor’s obvious focus on the figurine’s reproductive features. Large breasts, considered ideal for nursing. A round, possibly pregnant belly. The remnants of red dye, alluding to menstruation or birth. They also assumed that she was meant to be held or lying down, because her tiny feet don’t allow her to be freestanding. She also had no face. For this reason it was assumed that she was a representation of fertility, not a person. She was an object. In the history of her interpretation she went from object of ideal beauty and love to object of reproduction. I think this transition speaks more about the scholars who have interpreted her purpose than the actual purpose of the figurine herself.
When a woman becomes pregnant, according to society, she leaves the realm of men’s sexual desire and slides into her reproductive and child-rearing role. In doing so, she also becomes the property of the community, considered very important, but only because she’s pregnant. I’ve taken to calling this the Willendorf effect. And once again, we see this reinforced in many aspects of her life. Has anyone here ever been visibly pregnant? So how many of you ever had a stranger touch your belly during pregnancy? Maybe even without your permission first. Or been told what you can and cannot eat by somebody who’s not your doctor, your medical provider? Or asked questions about your birth plan? And then told why those choices are all wrong? Yeah, me too. Or had a server refuse to bring you a glass of wine? Now this one might give you pause, but stay with me. This is a huge secret. There is actually little evidence to support that drinking in moderation during pregnancy is not safe. Many of us don’t know this because doctors don’t trust pregnant women with this secret. Especially if she’s less educated or a woman of color. What this tells us is that the Willendorf effect is also classist and racist. It’s present when the government reminds women with every new anti-choice bill that the contents of her uterus are not her own. Or when an ob-gyn says, “Well it’s safe to have sex during pregnancy but sometimes you never know; better safe than sorry, right?” She’s denied basic privacy and bodily autonomy under the guise of “be a good mother.” We don’t trust her to make her own decisions. She’s “cute,” remember?
When we tell women that sex isn’t “worth the risk” during pregnancy, what we’re telling her is that her sexual pleasure doesn’t matter. So what we’re telling her is that she doesn’t matter. Even though the needs of her fetus are not at odds with her own needs. Similar to alcohol during pregnancy, over 50 years of rigorous science has found no evidence sex during pregnancy leads to negative obstetric events such as miscarriage or premature birth. Medical providers, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, have the opportunity to educate about the safety of sex during pregnancy. So what do the experts say? ACOG actually has no public official statement about the safety of sex during pregnancy. Guidance from the Mayo Clinic is generally positive but presented with a caveat: “Although most women can safely have sex throughout pregnancy, sometimes it’s best to be cautious.” Some women don’t want to have sex during pregnancy, and that’s ok. Some women do want to have sex during pregnancy, and that’s ok, too. What needs to stop is society telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies. Pregnant women are not faceless, identity-less vessels of reproduction who can’t stand on their own two feet.
But the truth is, the real secret is, we tell all women that their sexual pleasure doesn’t matter. We refuse to even acknowledge that women who have sex with women or women who don’t want children even exist. “Oh, it’s just a phase . . . she just needs the right man to come along.” Every time a woman has sex simply because it feels good, it is revolutionary. She is revolutionary. She is pushing back against society’s insistence that she exist simply for men’s pleasure or for reproduction. This is why comprehensive sex education is so scary to many. We’re not afraid teenage boys will have sex: “They’re becoming men!” We’re also not afraid teenage girls will start having sex—they’re already having sex, we’re just shaming and punishing them for it. We’re afraid teenage girls will be given the tools to have safe, consensual, PLEASURABLE sex. That she will become a woman who prioritizes her sexual needs without fear of being labeled a slut.
A woman who prioritizes her sexual needs is scary, because a woman who prioritizes her sexual needs prioritizes herself. That is a woman demanding that she be treated as an equal. That is a woman who insists that you make room for her at the table of power, and that is the most terrifying of all because we can’t make room for her without some of us giving up the extra space we hold.
I have one last secret for you. I am the mother of two boys and we could use your help. Even though my boys hear me say regularly that it’s important for men to recognize women as equals and they see their father modeling this, we need what happens in the world to reinforce what happens in our home. This is not a men’s problem or a women’s problem. This is everyone’s problem, and we all play a role in dismantling systems of inequality. For starters, we have got to stop telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies. This includes not treating pregnant women like community property. If you don’t know her, don’t even ask to touch her belly. You wouldn’t anybody else. Don’t tell her what she can and cannot eat. Don’t ask her private details about her medical decisions. This also includes understanding that even if you are personally against abortion, you can still fight for a woman’s right to choose. When it comes to women’s equality, the two need not oppose one another. If you’re somebody who has sex with women, prioritize her pleasure. If you don’t know how, ask. If you have children—have conversations about sex as early as possible, because kids don’t look up s-e-x in the dictionary anymore. They look it up on the internet. And when you’re having those conversations about sex, don’t center them on reproduction only. People have sex for many reasons, some because they want a baby, but most of us have sex because it feels good. Admit it. And regardless of whether you have children or not, support comprehensive sex education that doesn’t shame our teenagers. Nothing positive comes from shaming teens for their sexual desires, behaviors, other than positive STD and pregnancy tests. Every single day, we are all given the opportunity to disrupt patterns of inequality. I think we can all agree that it’s worth the trouble to do so.
From The Future Is Feminist: Radical, Funny, and Inspiring Writing by Women edited by Mallory Farrugia, 2019. Used with permission by Chronicle Books.
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