Ownership: On Sexuality & Feminine Relations

Black and white image of nude woman sitting up proudly

Photographer’s model, circa 1910. Image courtesy of Flickr.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about ownership—ownership of myself, or rather, of my sexuality – and how it affects the way I engage the world and other women.

Even as I write this, I realize that I’m walking a fine line. What I want to say is so specific that it goes well beyond splitting hairs, so before I jump in without a foundation, I’d like to take a look at the culture of female relations. I want to look at how women treat other women, because whether it’s in the name of decency, religion or gendered feminism, women tend to treat each other like shit.

Now, there are massive exceptions to this. I am lucky enough to be close to women who are extraordinarily supportive, accepting and kind, and I’m intensely grateful to have them in my life. They are the sort of women who don’t like being told that their friendships with men are suspect; that submission in a woman is an insult to feminism; that sexual agency is a threat. They use words like “cunt” and “slut” with broad, unconstrained grins, or decline to use those terms as a matter of personal taste without taking offense when others do; they talk about sex with frankness and curiosity. They don’t weight their worth by who, or when, or how they fuck.

I’m hardly the only woman who enjoys healthy, caring, supportive friendships like these. And yet, women exist in a self-imposed hierarchy, one where sexual agency is often viewed with suspicion. Women long to be “perfect,” and yet we secretly hate the sexy doctor who is both an excellent mother and a wildcat in bed, (though perhaps not at the same time). The mere existence of this idyll is often viewed as a threat – a condemnation of other women’s failure to achieve perceived perfection. But rather than turn the focus inward, to ask ourselves why this woman’s status should affect our own, feminine culture teaches us to get catty and bitchy and cliquish. And that’s before you even start to deal directly with sex.

A woman’s sexual agency directly engages male sexuality, so the pervading notion in our culture is that a woman in full command of her sexuality is, by extension, a sexual threat, not to men, but to other women. How can you trust a woman who might just fuck your man? It’s an ancient anxiety that has thrived within the parameters set by gender, (rather than equity), feminism, and which now greatly influences the manner in which women police other women.

This is where my thoughts on sexual ownership come in. It still seems that to be strong, feminist, and thoroughly modern, a woman should play down her sexuality. Granted, it’s all right for her to have one now, but really, many women would prefer not to have it made plain. When she does not temper herself for the comfort of others, she is often labeled a slut and a whore, judged with immediate, knee-jerk invective and distrust, not so much by men, but by other women.

I’m thinking here of the girls who watch with grim satisfaction as the class slut is sexually assaulted by a pack of alpha males; or of good, Christian women who assert that a whore cannot be raped. The office slut… the waitress who holds your boyfriend’s gaze rather than demurely look down… the woman with whom your husband is friends. All traditionally suspect.

This is a very old phenomena. It’s The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible. It’s Vanity Fair, The House of Mirth and Anna Karenina. It’s the in-built cultural assumption that a woman in full possession of her sexuality is somehow a threat, always and still to other women.

I’ll be honest. I’m tired of women looking at each other with distrust. I’m tired be being evaluated not by what I say or do, but by the tenor of my sexuality. It’s the tradition of female relations that has been passed down for generations. It’s the reason my mother tried to steer my away from Marilyn Monroe. It’s why she always hated Angelina Jolie. They are figures of unabashed female sexuality, and of course, “sweetheart, that’s not the sort of girl you want to be.”

Well, actually it is. It is precisely the sort of woman I’ve become after years of apologizing and placation. And I will not pass that legacy, the one that shamed me for being sexually appetitive, on to my daughter. I will not teach her to value other women’s comfort over her own authentic nature. I will teach her not to worry about what other women do with their bodies, because being secure enough not to judge is the height of self-possession and therefore of power. I will teach her to own herself.

This is what I own:

  1. I own that I don’t know how many sexual partners I’ve had. I lost count in my twenties and have never much cared.
  2. I own that whatever that number is, I wouldn’t mind if it were higher, and I fully intend to let it creep up naturally as I continue to live my life.
  3. I own that I don’t care too much what other women think of me. That concern burned itself out after much pain and confusion over many, many years.
  4. I own that I do care very deeply what my friends think, as my friends judge me on the basis of my actions, not by who or how often I do, (or do not), fuck.
  5. I own that I am an inflexibly dominant woman. I am not a Domme. I enjoy dominating partners who enjoy being dominated, but far more reflective of my place on the power curve is that I do not, under any circumstances, tolerate having someone else’s will imposed over my own, unless I choose to allow it.
  6. I own that this inflexibility is the result of damage incurred when I didn’t know better. It is the result not of strength but of weakness – years of historic weakness on my part, which I’m terrified of  conjuring again.
  7. I own that I am a good woman, not because it comes naturally to me, but because I care enough to try.
  8. I own that I will be goddamned if I inadvertently teach my daughter to weigh her own worth against any measure but her own.

This post is not meant to be prescriptive. It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to suggest that anyone should engage their sexuality in the way that I have deemed appropriate for me. I would however suggest that perhaps, we might be happier as a culture if we concern ourselves less with what other people are doing, and instead spend our energies and attentions on own behaviors, insecurities, sexualities and loves. There is enough love and self-possession and joy for everyone.

I dream of a day when women stop reflexively seeing a woman in full possession of her sexuality as a threat. I would like women to feel secure enough with each other to simply enjoy their own lives. I would like to see that day, but if I can’t, I hope my daughter does.

28 comments

  1. Thanks for this! A much needed call to action, I think. It’s become such a casual reflex among women to judge each other for seeming to be too much of anything. The world for women would definitely improve if we took your advice.

  2. If I could join the chorus of praise… so strongly and perfectly put. I agree completely.

    I’ve really never been interested in the sort of insecurity that makes women do this to each other. It’s dismal. When I was a kid, I believed, for some reason, that adults stopped being mean girls. That no one was bitchy, that was a little girl thing. Sigh.

    At this stage of my life, I can’t really imagine being with the sort of man I’d like to be with, and behaving in that defensive way. I pretty much think I’d expect to share. Not that there’s anything wrong with monogamy, except for the version you’ve rejected in your post.

    1. Oh, Vida, thank you so much! Your comments just made me so happy! I love that I keep hearing from women who are as tired of the mean-girl thing as I am. It makes me think that there’s a good chance that, given enough time, we might phase out this old way of engaging each other, and replace it with impulses that are more generally accepting. I really do think we can, especially with so many of us instinctively supporting each other now 🙂

  3. This is from Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel Everett:

    The Pirahãs all seem to be intimate friends, no matter what village they come from. Pirahãs talk as though they know every other Pirahã extremely well. I suspect that this may be related to their physical connections. Given the lack of stigma attached to and the relative frequency of divorce, promiscuousness associated with dancing and singing, and post- and prepubescent sexual experimentation, it isn’t far off the mark to conjecture that many Pirahãs have had sex with a high percentage of the other Pirahãs. This alone means that their relationships will be based on an intimacy unfamiliar to larger societies (the community that sleeps together stays together?). Imagine if you’d had sex with a sizable percentage of the residents of your neighbourhood and that this fact was judged by the entire society as neither good nor bad, just a fact about life – like saying you’ve tasted many kinds of food.

    That last sentence really got me. I’d like to be that way. I’m glad you are. 🙂

    1. Yingtai, can I just say that I always, always look forward to your comments and the one above is a great example of why. I could write a whole post on that excerpt honestly. Thank you for quoting it. I love the last sentence too – the lack of value judgement especially. I think, as a species, we are naturally prone to judgement. That the Pirahas should have side-stepped the instinct to judge to such a degree that they engage each other in the way they do is fascinating. As for me, I’m only that way through constant work and awareness. Buddhism definitely helps. Often it feels like I’m fighting programming that is so hardwired into me that I don’t even know where it ends and I begin. I suppose the best thing I can do is to try to maintain an awareness of that internal dividing line, so that when I have a knee-jerk response, I can stop a second to see if it’s something I want to pursue, or if it might be something I’d be better off dismissing…. Usually, it is 🙂

  4. This post, as always, is so smart, and so thoughtful. I’ve been meaning to comments for days—it brought up many things for me, as while I didn’t get the same message from my folks that you did, I *did* get the very negativity you speak of from peers while growing up. I was super sexual and also extremely open and proud about it, though never in a flashy way—it was just known that that’s what I did. I was the straight A responsible girl who happened to like to have a lot of sex. The list of insults, comments, and names that accompanied that experience went on and on, and always came from other females—even those who later came to me for advice after their own encounters. It’s a real shame this happened then, and happens still. I hope things will indeed change for your daughter, and for women in general. My mom once told me to “be a Madonna”—as in the singer—and she said this because I was out there, loud and flashy, and engaged in all sorts of theatrical things. But what my mother didn’t know is that I idolized Madonna in deeper ways—she embraced her sexuality and didn’t care what others thought. I wanted that too; now I just wish more women would recognize that doing so is not a threat to their own experience.

    Thanks for posting such great thoughts, Malin!

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this Jade. Experiences like yours and mine are, to a great degree, part of what makes us who we are, for good or ill. It’s a bit terrifying that the way other people treat us or perceive us can have such a profound effect on our development, but it’s hard not to let negativity and fear sink in. Age and perspective help, but wow. It can be such a struggle. Luckily, the flip side is connecting with friends who understand and love who you authentically are. That’s absolutely amazing 🙂

  5. Hi Malin,
    Excellent post!

    I write a lot about the Swinging lifestyle-write what you know, right?

    During the first times I visited a club, one of the most compelling aspects was the acceptance, actually encouragement is more accurate, of women being fully sexual. Rather than being perceived as a potential threat to romantic established relationships, a confident, sexy, and attractive woman is applauded, receiving sincere compliments from other women. THIS, in an atmosphere where the odds are stacked in favor of a husband ending up fucking that woman–as long as all parties are agreeable, to this happening, of course-tres important!.

    I have been the recipient of other women’s praise as well as a woman who gives unabashed, praise in both speech and body language (Okay, sometimes if a woman’s really confident and hot, I ogle like a guy, no apologies here!). Please note that confidence proceeded hotness in the former sentence.

    Put that same dynamic in a regular, vanilla club and at worst it’s a time bomb ticking or more likely women’s catty, bitchiness will surface. II’ll take an evening at a swingers’ club, free to be my sexual self and free to absolutely love other women’s sexuality, over a vanilla club, any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

    i totally GET your post and applaud you in writing it! Because, ultimately, it’s the real world where we live.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing that Mia. I like that you brought up the cultural difference between swinger contexts and vanilla contexts. The non-monogamy angle really does foster a different mindset, which isn’t to say that female competitiveness doesn’t exist in kink / swinger / non-monogamous communities, but it does seem to function differently or, in some communities, very rarely. I really appreciate your taking the time to read the post and comment – I’m so happy it resonated!

  6. I remember when I was 14 one of my so called friends wanted to find out if her boyfriend would be faithful to her and I was chosen as the bait. I honestly don’t remember much of what took place or the outcome…it was mainly me flirting and seeing if he responded. But at that tender age I recognized I had something they didn’t. An overall natural sexuality that made me the foe of women and friend of men.

    I fought against my own sexuality much of my life hoping to be eventually part of the female kingdom. Finally I realized that wasn’t going to happen and I embraced who I am and now celebrate it. Because of that other women of the same mind set started to flow into my life. What freedom was finally found.

    I have taught my daughters to be free and they are thriving women in their individuality. Love it!

    Thank you for the message of this post. It’s great truth and I do hope the days ahead bring more clarity and freedom for women overall.

    ~ Vista

    1. Thank you so much for reading and for taking the time to comment, Vista. I love that you’ve taught your daughters to be their own women and that they are thriving for it. It’s what I hope for my daughter, as well. Too many girls are taught to judge themselves by other people’s standards, and worse, to hem themselves in for fear of not being accepted. Here’s to more clarity and acceptance and freedom for everyone, and that we are all the happier for it.

  7. Very interesting post… but how would this apply to women who don’t desire men? I’ve come across plenty of internet social justice warriors who would castigate other women who desire other women and aren’t “feminist enough” whether they belong to kink communities or not. I’m interested to know what your opinion would be on this.

    1. Thanks for your comment! You make a good point. I think that this applies to all women, regardless of sexual orientation. I’m bisexual, and have often been looked down upon by straight women for being “easy” or using my sexuality to titillate men, (the idea is both offensive and laughable). I’ve also been looked down on by lesbians, who think that being bisexual is a cop-out. I’ve been looked down on by other bi’s for being to femme or too domme or too mellow or too whatever. My concern is the presence of *judgement*, by women against women, in any form – something that feminists and non-feminists actively engage in. I know exactly the phenomena you referenced in your comment – the “you do ___ so you’re not ‘feminist enough'” attack. It is levied as easily against non-conforming lesbians as it is against bi-women, and women who openly enjoy sex, and women who wax their pubic hair, and, and, and… That argument is flexible and it accommodates anything that doesn’t adhere to whatever the group in question approves of, which is one of the many reasons I dislike it so much. I would love to see an end to it. I’d love to see the popular conception of feminism move on from that tired, worn out rhetoric, regardless of whom it happens to be levied against.

  8. How did I miss this? Malin, this hit home with me in some painful and personal ways, having been a target of other women’s “distrust” since the age of 10. As a feminist, I believe that female solidarity is essential to attaining true equality. Unfortunately I don’t see this dynamic being dismantled until the roots feeding it lose their power – and that won’t happen anytime soon.

    Sorry to end on a gloomy note. It was a brave and insightful piece and you need to be an essayist on the national/global stage.

    1. Oh, Valerie, thank you so much for your comment. There seem to be a lot of women who feel this way, and it both gives me hope and makes me sad that this “distrust,” as you so accurately put it, is so pervasive. It puts us into two camps, which can only be counter-productive from the feminist and social point of view. Put you’re right – this dynamic has been practiced over generations for centuries. It’s going to take time and a lot of work to dismantle. I would just love to see the process progress.

  9. Great piece! I enjoyed reading and agree with your reflections. I think many women feel they have to choose a role- wife, partner, mistress. The wild feminine is harder to tame, yet doesn’t go away. I wish we could appreciate the expression of sexuality from others, without making it about us! Look forward to reading more of your work.

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