Growing up in the 00s, I internalised a lot of harmful attitudes towards sex which it’s taken me many years to unlearn. When I was in school sex (for girls) was very much ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. By that I mean, if you didn’t engage in sexual activity you were labelled ‘frigid’, and teased, and if you did you were a ‘slut’, and looked down upon. I felt extreme pressure by my peers from a young age to engage in sexual activity, and once I did I then had to cope with years of being labelled as a ‘slut’.
Slut shaming was a huge part of my teenage years, and is particularly poignant for me. I spent years of my life worrying about how many sexual partners I’d had, and what this said about me. In one particularly traumatic incident at school, a classmate (another girl - both girls and boys participate in slut shaming) printed and distributed photographs of me in my underwear and pasted them around the school and city, without my consent. To make matters worse, underneath the photos she’d written ‘free sex’ and included my home phone number, which led to my mum finding out. This, and the subsequent slut shaming I experienced, strongly affected my relationship to sex, and deep seated feelings of shame for being sexual.
Growing up in a misogynistic society, women are taught to be sexually available at all times - but subsequently shamed and dismissed if we challenge the status quo. For instance, by having too many sexual partners, or expressing our sexual desire independently from men. Self pleasure and masturbation as a woman was taboo when I was growing up (despite the efforts of the writers of Sex and the City), but the boys at school would frequently subject us to their tales of wanking, wet dreams and watching porn.
I had been sexually active for nearly a decade before I heard the word ‘consent’. Once I started learning about consent it caused me to reflect on my own sexual experiences and the lack of consent in many of those encounters, all of which were with cisgender men. I had internalised this idea that I had to be sexually available, that saying ‘no’ or ‘stop’ or asserting what I wanted was somehow not as important as the man’s needs. And even when I did say ‘no’ or ‘I don’t want to’, my words weren’t listened to. Instead, it would be an opportunity for them to coerce me into saying ‘yes’ or ‘fine’ or to just go along with it because that seemed easier than saying no. It was because of experiences like these that I campaigned for my university to do more for survivors of sexual violence. I went on to teach consent workshops to hundreds of university students during my time as Welfare Officer at the Students’ Union, as consent wasn’t even mentioned during Relationship and Sex Education in school. I’m glad to see consent is part of the new mandatory RSE guidance, which came into effect in September 2020. However, the words ‘pleasure’ and ‘masturbation’ aren’t mentioned once, which is very telling.
It was only when I started exploring my queer identity, and engaging in sexual activity with people of all genders, that I started to feel the attitudes I’d internalised growing up dissipate. No longer bound by the constraints of heteronormativity, I felt much more able to explore my own sexual pleasure, assert my boundaries, experiment and express my desires. It’s unsurprising that lesbians repeatedly report higher levels of sexual pleasure than heterosexual women*. Interestingly, academic Lisa Diamond theorise that the stigmatisation of same-sex desire makes lesbians better equipped to resist and dismantle society’s harmful attitudes towards women’s sexual agency and desire, which could be why this is the case. I theorise that it’s because of how much queer women love to communicate - communication in sex is key! Well that and the fact they can usually locate your clitoris.
Now, aged 28, I feel much more confident in asserting myself sexually. Being queer, there are less expectations when it comes to how you have sex. Using sex toys is normalised and we know penetrative sex isn’t the be all and end all. It’s funny to me when people say ‘what do lesbians do in bed?’ because it shows just how limited their view of sex is. When it comes to what lesbians do in bed (or queer people more broadly, I’m bisexual) the answer is everything.
Another aspect of my identity is polyamory. My partner Xandice and I are in a long-term relationship (we’re engaged and August will mark our 6 year anniversary), but we are also in a polyamorous relationship. For us this means we have sexual and romantic relationships independently of one another (although not so much in a global pandemic!) Monogamy, like heterosexuality, is seen as the default, the norm, so it’s been freeing to reject both of these institutions. But whether you’re monogamous or polyamorous, single or in a relationship, I think it’s really important to explore sex and desire independently. Exploring your own pleasure is so important and often neglected. How can you know your own desires if you don’t give yourself space to explore them?
Whilst I no longer feel shame anymore for being sexual, this isn’t to say sex doesn't come without its challenges. Something I’ve found really useful is reading and learning about sex and sexuality. I highly recommend the books Come as You Are by Dr Emily Nagoski and Mind the Gap by Dr Karen Gurney, both of which explore desire, and the myth of the sex ‘drive’. YouTuber Hannah Witton has also made several videos unpacking these concepts. Talking about sex and relationships with friends has also been really helpful and I’ve found can alleviate many of the worries I have about whether my experiences are ‘normal’. Sexual pleasure is an ongoing process and I still have work to do when it comes to giving myself permission to experience and luxuriate in my own pleasure. Apparently sexual satisfaction goes up with age so I feel like this is just the start of my journey towards sexual fulfillment. I’m looking forward to a pandemic-free future and a roaring, slutty 2020s. *data from U.S. studies.