Guest Post by Emma C, Belfast Feminist Network
If this was a fluffy opinion piece for a Sunday supplement, I might make some sideways jokes about 5 minutes of pleasure, or someone’s turn to go ‘downstairs’ as a way of making light about this intimate, messy, universal experience. It’s everywhere, in ads, all of our films, television, books, plays, music. We let our culture mull it over but with little nuance. Yet we never really seem to be able to actually talk about it. For real.
We are in the midst of a wave of reignited feminism and its predicted backlash. We see every day in articles from across the world, the endless tales of rape, violence, maternal deaths, lack of access to safe abortions, persecution of sex workers and LGBTQ+ people. I’m utterly convinced that our inability to properly address sex; what it is, what it’s for, how it feels, when it works, when it doesn’t, what its value is, has kept us behind this hurdle of inequality.
Locally, we have been dealing with our very own Northern Ireland flavoured version of this worldwide phenomenon. A recent rape trial, abuse scandals, the lack of respect for LGBT people sex workers and women, all becomes fomented in policy and has maintained barriers to healthcare, equality and respect.
Real-talking about sex has to begin. Real sex, not biology-book sex, not biblical sex, not porn sex, but real actual sex that happens between real actual humans. Most of us have an innate drive to seek sexual pleasure and some of us are more successful in that search than others. Sex is one the issues at the crux of gender and sexuality.
Imagine you are a 12-year-old girl walking home from school in your uniform, you have just begun to develop breasts. Your hormones are beginning to go haywire, meaning your emotions are everywhere and the world seems bigger and more confusing, even though adults are beginning to make more sense. Now imagine that as you are walking home, car horns beep at you regularly, when you turn to look to see who they are honking at and realise that it’s you, you see men the same age as your father and you blush a deep red as you’re not quite sure how to react. Then imagine that with every passing few months there are more comments in the street, from young men hanging around in groups, from waiters, from family friends, even from school teachers, about your slowly changing appearance.
This is the beginning of the onslaught. This unwelcome and unwarranted attention is never spoken about to the young people that experience it. This is when men, and the women, trans people and gay men that they objectify begin to learn about consent. We are being taught from a young age that it is okay to be publicly sexualised, by men; older men, younger men, men in positions of power, strangers and there is really nothing we can do about it.
Many of us will have seen the declarations from various pious lampposts around this wee country that, “ THE WAGES OF SIN ARE DEATH”, yet we know from our national stance on abortion, access to contraception, and sex work that actually if the so-called sin is a sexual one between a ‘straight’ man and another person, it’s the other person who has to bear the brunt of that particular exchange.
Consensual sex is categorically not a sin. Well, except if you are a woman (and trans person and gay man and sex worker). Then of course it is a sin. You are a slut, unlike the man, who will probably be a legend (to himself), we all know this, we understand this paradox and yet we all maintain it, despite the harm it causes. Street harassment is the thin end of the wedge of our rape culture. RAPE CULTURE, a description that so many baulk at, yet we live in a society where somehow a woman should automatically be embarrassed about having a threesome and a man can be glorified amongst his mates. According to solicitors, the shame of a threesome could lead a young woman to take a lengthy and unnecessary court case against someone to save face… whereas leaving someone crying hysterically and bleeding internally after a sexual encounter is perfectly acceptable. A top tip for any man planning a threesome: if someone starts bleeding, best to call it a day, at the very least you aren’t doing it right and at the worst you might be raping someone.
We know that what a person wears, drinks, eats, how they get home, and what previous sexual history they have should have absolutely zero to do with whether or not they get raped, yet on and on we see victim blaming from legal experts, from prurient press, from anyone quick to judge with access to a social media account.
Expecting everyone who is not a straight cis man to pay for the sin of sex is why abortion is such a controversial topic as well. It’s got little to do with little cute babies and everything to do with women and pregnant people facing the consequences. “She should have kept her legs shut” “She should have to take responsibility for her mistake” “She should have thought about that before whoring around” – all things that are frequently said in some shape or form – it’s abortion’s own form of blaming, with a human to look after for the rest of your life as punishment. This is despite the overwhelming majority of single parents being women, it’s despite the overwhelming majority of contraception and birth control being aimed at women and it’s despite the fact that sexual assault and rape are so common that they are endemic, and yet we don’t even get off the hook for that one, as apparently our bodies don’t even deserve freedom from someone else’s crime (if they are a man).
Whenever the onslaught of sexualisation begins, it teaches us – women, queer and trans folk, that our boundaries are unimportant. It undermines our trust as to everyone’s intentions, and most importantly it undermines our ability to trust our own instinct. Setting boundaries is an important life skill, yet attempts to develop this skill are thwarted from the start if we can’t even tell strangers on the street not to comment on the shape of our ‘tits’ when we are still children.
Forgotten in all of this is that sex is supposed to be pleasurable, people shouldn’t get internal lacerations from consensual sex, unless it’s something they have specifically requested. Our concept of virginity is outdated as well, why is the only important thing when a penis enters a vagina? There are so many more ways of having sex, and not just for queer people. Sex is better when it is about reciprocal pleasure, you need to be able to say to the person that you’re having sex with, ‘yes that’s working or no that’s not working, can you do it more like this?’ However we are having sex in a society that doesn’t allow space for conversations about that.
We can be on the BBC talking about murderers, about complicated political ideas, about tragedies faced by families dealing with a variety of crises, but we are unable to talk about sex openly. We can’t address it, we are too scundered, even though that embarrassment creates a void that leads to our young people being educated by the internet; by the most popular types of porn which debase women, people of colour and trans people.
Popular porn is what we are offering to our culture instead of real conversations about pleasure. Young people are divided by gender for sex education, which is largely provided for by religious organisations. It’s no coincidence that the same organisations that are against contraception and abortions, are against LGBT people and sex before marriage.
If we let these people misinform our children, our offspring will look somewhere else instead, for something that more closely reflects the real lives they live than the prim fantasies that abstinence-only, anti LGBT sex education provides.
Not only have we no adequate ways to punish and re-educate young men with monstrous ideas about what women are (less than human receptacles for sperm and babies) but we are enabling them from children to become this way.
If we want our future to be safer and happier for the next generations, then we have to make actual changes to our sex education. We have to stigmatise talking about women and others as less than human and not stigmatise women having sex. We have to teach people that there is no pleasure without consent and that consent is the lowest bar. We have to be prepared to call out ‘banter’ if it demeans anyone because of the type of sex they have. We have to stand up to the tiny minority of bigoted bullies that get their voices amplified too often.
Everyone knows someone who has been raped or sexually assaulted, everyone knows someone who has had an abortion or crisis pregnancy, we just need to learn to put on our grown-up pants and talk about these things properly and with respect before any more generations are harmed by our wilful negligence.
– Emma C
Belfast Feminist Network