“You know when I was in university and women were supposed to be sexually active, it was because women were supposed to have orgasms and they were supposed to have pleasure, and there was a big preoccupation with that. And now what I see is there is a big emphasis on what women are supposed to do for men. So I see some things happening that I don’t understand, to be honest, that are sort of disconcerting. I think young women are in a much more difficult position than I was in. There was a level of empowerment that I don’t experience now, I don’t see it now.”
I’m interviewing my mom. We are in her shared studio, where she sculpts in her free time. Her papier-mâché creations are mainly of women’s bodies, mainly naked women’s bodies, mainly obese women’s bodies. This is what she does in her spare time to relax. Her house, the house I grew up in, is already bursting with nudes by other artists, and now the few remaining empty corners are being filled with my mother’s artistic expressions. Breasts, nipples, vaginas, penises clutter the walls, with all the artwork almost always showing genitalia or at least hinting at it. Yet for my mom, there is no sexual dimension to this work. “I experience it more in terms of aesthetics,” she says. “Sometimes it’s even like a joke; like I laugh.”
Which is why when I get her to talk about female sexuality, I’m shocked by her response. Its not that her answer is earth shattering. God knows I’ve read enough material on the topic. What’s surprising is that she has been reflecting at all on the state of female sexuality today.
Why should I be surprised? My mom’s a psychologist after all, and the mother of two daughters who are emerging into adulthood. Am I shocked that she was able to talk about the subject? Or is it that, despite having read and thought about this topic for a long time, when my mother speaks her take on it, it suddenly resonates with me.
I’ll be honest, I basically wanted to ask her about sex to make her uncomfortable. I’m making a film and thought this tense conversation would make for a great scene. Or was I playing out some form of revenge?
Because my mother and I have never talked about sex. And my mother and I are insanely close, too close, according to my friends, former boyfriends, even my therapist. She knows all the details of my life, from the absolutely mundane to my neurotic peculiarities that border on the insane. But this has always been the one major blind spot in our relationship.
One of my mom’s favourite movies is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. My sister and I grew up to the soundtrack, choreographing dances to the music. But we weren’t allowed to watch the film, and didn’t understand the lyrics. When I was 12 years old, seeing an opportunity to look cool in front of my friends, I invited them over to watch the cult-classic, which I had stolen from my parents’ VHS collection. I can still remember the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when Dr. Frank N. Furter slips in to both Brad and Janet’s rooms to seduce them with oral sex. I didn’t really understand what I was seeing, but I was queasy. This must be dirty and wrong, I thought, and the fact that my mom could like this disgusted me. I only recently told this story to my mother. She laughed, but we didn’t talk about it.
When I was 17 and had my first serious boyfriend, my mom asked if she needed to talk to me about birth control. She was dropping me off at school, slipped it in as an aside, our shared discomfort palpable. “No,” I said, and got out of the car as quickly as I could. That was the first and only confirmation that I received that she knew I was sexually active.
My mom is a feminist, and was amazing in encouraging my sister and I to reflect on the gender inequalities we saw around us. While we talked about women’s representation in the media, government policies, labor issues, we never discussed sexuality.
But as I dove into the coveted world of the sexually active, I started to notice something. Something wasn’t quite right. While my male friends shamelessly pursued women for casual sex, I was advised that I needed to play it cool to attract men and keep my sexual interests to myself (until I had actually hooked someone of course, and then I should seamlessly slip in to being wild and permissive). My male friends were celebrated for their sexual prowess, while female “sluts” had vicious rumors spread about them in our school hallways. I was supposed to look sexy at all times and spend a fortune on fancy lingerie, but forever remain unattainable. That was the only way I was going to get a guy to commit, which was apparently the ultimate goal for any woman approaching 20.
So I got angry. And then I tried to get funny. I started making lewd sexual jokes. I wrote a humourous humorous sex column, an embarrassingly tame column looking back, in my college newspaper. Thinking I was a poet, I would compare attractive male specimens to anything from bold architecture to the ultimate forbidden fruit- pork. But perhaps most importantly, I was having sex, and I started telling lavish and almost-completely-true funny stories about it. Bizarre one-night stands became my go-to dinner party stories, and always guaranteed me a fan club. Any meeting with a friend always included an update on my sex life, and had us crying laughing in dark deli corners. Just based on my stories, many of my male friends started referring to me as promiscuous, insatiable, and I wore those badges proudly, convinced that this was a political opportunity. I wanted to make it clear that I was just as capable as them at enjoying an active sex life. Whenever I complained of a failed relationship, my male best friends said that I couldn’t possibly get a guy to commit to me because of the way acted. How was I acting? Like someone who liked sex? Like someone who pursued her desires? Was I acting, god forbid, like them? I continued to justify my sexual life and my decision to non-stop talk about it as political, shocking those around me into understanding my right to conduct my sex life boldly.
Was I having orgasms every time? That question is laughable. Were the men reaching orgasms every time? Perhaps that question is obvious. Now I’m in no way placing the blame on these individual partners, or that orgasms are the benchmark of a sexually fulfilling encounter. But did I ask for what I wanted? Did I discuss my preferences with potential partners? While on the outside I was acting like a confident sexual predator, on the inside I still wasn’t comfortable valuing and speaking what I wanted. I didn’t want to be difficult, I didn’t want to be needy, I didn’t want to be unattractive. Despite my political beliefs, I was still acting out the predominant social narrative. Pleasing men and getting validation from an outside source was still my hidden, ultimate goal.
When my ex-boyfriend revealed to me he had broken up with me because of what our shared male friends had been saying, I stopped in my tracks. They had told him I was a slut and obviously cheating on him, even though they only had my sex jokes to use as evidence. These were supposedly progressive, university educated people in their early 20s, but most importantly, they were my friends who I thought I could trust and would only have my best interests at heart. The high-school slut narrative was playing out in my most trusted, inner circle.
This brought past experiences into focus. Feeling like I needed to look like a pop star sexpot, only to suffer the consequences. The way my friends and I would agonize over what to wear to clubs so we’d be attractive to men, only to be rewarded by unsolicited fondling and harassment. The societal pressure to be sexually active (not to mention pressure from potential male partners), but being reprimanded for being a woman that has casual sex. Someone thinking that my matching their sex joke with another is an open invitation. Having to say NO a billion times to unwanted male attention, and only sometimes having it understood. I assume most women have had similar experiences, and have brushed them aside as I did. I mean, I didn’t get hurt, I’m technically ok, this is just the way life is. While the world around me was telling me I had to be sexy, it was also telling me that there were certain sacrifices that came with that that I would just have to accept.
As my mom talks to me about female sexuality in the 1970s, I want to cry. I can’t even imagine that reality: open encouragement of sexual exploration, expression, it being casual and sacred all at the same time, of the mystery and the meaning and the communication and the personal truths, the importance of building self-knowledge and self-value. Of women demanding what they wanted and supporting each other in having their desires met and teaching each other to always make sex an empowering experience. She encountered this at 17 years of age. When I was 17, I still thought that women masturbating was a shameful secret. Now I’m not saying that her experience was shared by all women, and I’m not saying my experience is universal either. We both speak from very specific positions of privilege, and in most ways have been so lucky to have had safe and even fulfilling sexual encounters. But with the continued and horrendous “slut-shaming” of teenage girls not long ago in the news in Canada, I’m starting to think that my conflicted experience may sit at the best possible end of the spectrum. Are the minor challenges I’ve encountered unacceptable, or no big deal?
The funny thing is, that while I’ve read a lot about female sexuality and the often oppressive context it finds itself in, it wasn’t until my mom pointed it out to me that I felt this huge relief. While I think it’s clear I’ve always been aware of the conflicting messages women receive about their sexuality, I had trouble connecting this to my own life directly. I’ve been having sex, I’ve been enjoying sex, and I wanted to present myself as empowered and conflict-free. But in the back in my head, there has always remained a slight feeling of shame, no matter how much I have tried to ignore it, fight it, deny it. And I needed someone close to me to help me acknowledge it was there, and to help me understand why it was there.
Now does needing my mom to name what I can’t speak mean I’m too emotionally dependent on her? Probably.
But would things have been different if I had talked to my mom about her sexual experiences in the 70s? I can’t help but think so.
I don’t blame my mom. Not at all. Despite her sexual coming of age, she had quite a conservative upbringing. She never talked about sex with her mother, fuck they didn’t even talk when my mom got her first period. Did my grandmother talk to my great-grandmother about sex? Pretty likely not. And it goes on. I am the current output of a long line of generational silence on the fraught issue of female sexuality.
I ask my mom if she’s comfortable with talking about sex. I’m not sure that question exists in a vacuum. Talking about anything has to do with context, like who’s there, to what end, why.
Now more than ever, after talking to my mom, I’m aware of my context.
Lick My Knish is a forum for sex-positive feminist expression with a bissel of Jewish neurotic sparkle and political incorrectness. We’re big fans of Lick My Knish. Check out her other pieces in Shtetl Magazine: No Nice jewish Boys, Best Pap Ever , A Jewish Education, and God at the Gyno.