I am tired. I’m tired of being told how I can keep myself safe and I’m tired of women and girls being educated on the precautions we should take when leaving the house. I’m tired of women and girls being attacked, and killed, regardless of the precautions we should take. I’m tired of ‘not all men’ and I’m tired of all the inequalities. I’m beyond tired of all of it.
A few months ago, Zoella was all over social media. She was suddenly being dropped from a syllabus she didn’t know she even featured on, because she had written and posted a piece on female pleasure and sex toys (more info here). I’ve been sat on this for a while. At the time, I don’t think I knew what to say. I still don’t. But what I do know is that it makes me angry. And that’s enough.
The story about Zoella made me think about the sex education that I received in school. And like most other young women, I remember condoms on bananas, and I remember being told how not to get pregnant. I remember the talk about periods. I remember being separated from the boys to have the discussion about periods. Like it was something to be kept secret or hidden. And that was all we needed to know. Like so many other women, I learnt nothing about masturbation, sexuality, female pleasure, or anything beyond the apparent purpose of my body: to create life. I have lived a life (yes, a relatively short one so far!) of being ashamed of my body in so many ways (see all previous blog posts about my experience with an eating disorder). But I became used to being embarrassed of my period – thinking that I was something to be avoided around this time of the month. That intimacy was something to be avoided. That I wasn’t desirable. And people will have their own opinions and preferences on this, and that’s okay. But I see now that it can be different. And I should have never felt undesirable because of a bodily function, or like it was something I had to hide.
Beyond that, I remember rumours about other girls in my year group. And I remember the way girls who explored and got involved with young men were shunned and condemned, labels applied. And yes, we could say that kids are cruel, and that’s absolutely true. But in allowing that behaviour, and abuse, to continue, we’re encouraging girls to hide their enjoyment of sex. Hide their needs. And let’s face it, while there’s a time and a place to admit it, men have never had to do that!
There was nobody around when I was younger to tell me much more about sex than the basics. I figured I knew I enough. I’d heard my grandmother use the phrase ‘lie back and think of England’. Now, that comment sparks two questions for me. 1. Why are we accepting bad sex in some cases? Why aren’t we more comfortable about saying what we want? 2. Who in their right mind would find thinking of England more pleasurable?!
It’s strange to think about now. Thinking of how little most of know when you go out into the world on your own. And if you were like me, and didn’t have a high-school boyfriend, or girlfriend, then you were really on your own. And as an educator now, I’d argue that part of the system really lets us down (quite a lot of the system actually, but that’s a series of thoughts for another day!). I’m exhausted by all of the things we have to hide, and feel uncomfortable about. It is exhausting to be a woman. And it’s not getting any easier.
But recently I have been trying to make moves to surround myself with positive feminist role models. Both in reality and my fictional life. But what has had the biggest impact on me recently has been a new TV series. I’ve spent hours watching The Bold Type since it was released on Netflix. And this is where a lot of you roll your eyes. Not another post about a TV show. But The Bold Type wasn’t what I was expecting. I expected another trashy show about a magazine. I expected a bit of Emily in Paris, I guess (sure, it was comforting but wasn’t all that inspiring). Instead, I found an education on womanhood, and sex, that I felt I’d needed for a long time. I suppose, yes, I feel ‘seen’ in lots of the plot lines in The Bold Type.
In this show, I found company. I found complex characters of all genders, a range of sexualities, and personalities. I wish I’d had the voice of Kat Edison, Jane Sloan and Sutton Brady at so many different points in my life. I could have done with this show before losing my virginity, the first time I had thrush and genuinely felt like I was dying. And yes, this happened on The Bold Type too! I had the same amount of confusion and panic and sheer discomfort as Jane Sloan. It was so comforting to watch. I remember the nurse at the doctor’s surgery explaining a yeast infection to me and it sounded like the most normal thing in the world. So why was I so embarrassed? Well, unfortunately for the simple reason that I’m female, and that’s the space we are taught to occupy. We are taught to be embarrassed and constantly see our bodies as a problem that needs to be solved. And like so many others, I am so damn tired of it all.
I’m tired of not being able to use the correct words for things. I remember having thrush and necking back the cranberry juice (I know this probably doesn’t work, but I was desperate!) in a meeting. I remember my female colleagues alluding to the problem, but never actually saying it. We are all embarrassed. And my god, I am tired. All of this is so normal (the conditions, not the embarrassment!).
I needed this show on so many occasions before loosing my virginity. I needed to see that sometimes people wait. And yet I was surrounded by a lot of people who considered me strange for being 23 and a virgin. But I waited until I was comfortable and I felt safe. And I’m glad of that. But I was embarrassed by being a virgin. I felt naive and immature. I remember various friends trying to set me up, believing they were doing me a favour in giving me an opportunity to ‘lose it’ (which is, frankly, a stupid way to look at virginity anyway. You don’t lose or gain anything. It’s just another experience). One of those set ups actually led to my first experience of sexual assault. Because my friend was embarrassed that I was still a virgin, and I was too embarrassed to say I was happy the way I was. I was happy waiting.
I needed this show the first time I looked at another girl and felt something more than just ‘holy hell I wished I looked like that!’. I need this show the first time I moved out on my own. I needed it through a whole lifetime of instances of sexual assault. I needed to feel like there was a voice behind me. And I found that in this show. I found the confidence to talk to others about it. And to write this…
Truth be told, I’ve spent a year of lockdown discovering so much more of myself with regard to sex. There was so much I didn’t know. So much I was embarrassed about. And it’s the same reason sex toys arrive in unmarked packages. Because we feel better when such things are hidden, like most of us don’t take pleasure in getting to know our bodies, and showing ourselves a good time. At first, I was grateful for those unmarked boxes despite living alone. I was grateful the purchases didn’t show on my bank statement. Now? I couldn’t care less. Nobody is saying you have to proclaim or confess anything to the wider world. But I am done with being embarrassed about the way my body works. About liking sex. I’m so done. I don’t want to be exhausted by the expectations of others. Not anymore. And it feels better to say that after watching The Bold Type.
I’ve had time to devote to my own sexual discoveries and it has been so much fun! My pleasure is not some dirty little secret. Female pleasure isn’t some dirty little secret. And nor should it be! The time spent figuring out what brings me pleasure is not wasted. Because, damn, that time is important. Getting to know yourself is so important. (And no, my admitting that I masturbate doesn’t require a comment from anyone. And comments are unwanted and unnecessary. I should be able to state that fact without getting any unwanted attention. So hush).
And yeah, all of that discovery time was scary. Having sex, and then thrush, for the first time was scary. But in the words of Kat Edison: ‘it’s scary because it’s different from what we were taught to expect’. The little sex scenes in films are about consummating something and sure they look passionate but they’re always missing something. How often do you see a guy about to go down on a woman? I struggle to think of many examples. But we’re not shown female masturbation. We’re not shown female pleasure. We’re certainly not shown the ugly reality that is yeast infections, trying to figure out sexuality, sexual preferences, power balances. None of that. So yes, all of those new experiences do become daunting because nobody talks about it. Or it’s talked about in hushed tones. They’re not what we were taught to expect. And I am infuriated by that.
There seems to be this stigma around talking about sex, especially if you’re a woman. I hate that on lots of occasions a woman can’t even post a body positive photo without being met with comments and the deep dark confession of ‘I love your arse’. Sigh. Maybe we never could. But that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped trying. But it feels like I can’t acknowledge my sexuality without men jumping to give what they think is compliments. But they are better considered remarks that make us want to hide our bodies and our confessions away, and delete every slightly revealing photo we’ve ever posted online (and if you’re from the “not all men” side of the line, stay where you are. I don’t want to hear it). If not that, it’s negative comments from women. I had it from a family member yesterday: “have you seen her (my) Instagram?!” and we all know what that means.
There are lots of things I’m tired of. Like a lot of women, I’d imagine, there are lots of things that make me angry. Because I want to not have to write these blog posts. I want to not be subjected to shame and judgement all the time. But The Bold Type makes me feel like there is some hope. Like slowly we are making moves toward a better world for all genders. But it also makes me feel better about being angry about all of it. That’s a normal response to have. Whether you then decide you want to fight the big fight or not, that’s your call. But being angry is okay too. We’re no where close to achieving gender equality, destroying the patriarchy, or escaping gender stereotypes yet. I really wish we were. But we all need some positive, kick ass female energy sometimes and that’s exactly what I found here. And in a time of such sheer frustration, I needed some hope that it could be different. That maybe one day we could live in a world that listens.
While I’m not suggesting that we overturn all sex education (a girl can hope, huh?), I am suggesting that something needs to change. I am suggesting that we should have more shows like The Bold Type that really engage with the exhausting reality that is being a woman. Heck, even being a person and alive at all. But all of these gender constraints have got to change. Our behaviour has got to change. It’s not about being open to everything, but it’s about not being ashamed of the things you are open to. And being given the space to not be ashamed.
I am not suggesting we all start recommending our favourite sex toys, or discussing our sex lives openly if we’re uncomfortable. Absolutely not. There is no shame in not wanting to talk about. But there also shouldn’t be shame in wanting to talk about it. But man, drop the stigma and stop condemning those that do. Being alive is hard enough without picking each other apart for basic needs, normal health issues, and sexual preferences.
It took watching The Bold Type for me to find the confidence to write this, and to own my sexuality very publicly. I’m proud of that. But why aren’t we making the world a safe space for women before they hit their mid twenties? The concept of female pleasure, and use of sex toys, should be normalised. And it isn’t. We have still got so much work to do – as proven by the fact that the female nipple is still something so offence that Instagram won’t even let you post pictures containing a nipple. But male nip slips? Totally fine. Apparently there’s nothing wrong with that. Who decided my body was something to hide? Why can only we celebrate the female form under certain conditions? I want my experiences, my passions, my sexual desire, and my body to be free of shame. I want better than this. WE deserve better than this.
I don’t want protection and precautions and censorship. I want to live in a world that I am safe in, that protects my rights, and I don’t want shame. I’m sick of shame. We have to do better.
And guys, if you’re reading, just because a woman has chosen to wear a particular outfit, post a particular picture, or blog about her sexuality… that doesn’t mean she needs your approval or your input. Just as a note. And yes, I know… not all men. Hush.