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, nor to I care if it doesn’t budge until the day I die.
  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), have sex.
  5. I own that I have issues with power and control, and that I inflexibly protect my autonomy.
  6. I own that this inflexibility is the result of damage incurred when I was very young, and compounded by experiences later in life.
  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.