February 26, 2015

Let’s (not only) talk about sex

By promoting a sex-positive agenda, many feminists actually alienate those who do not or cannot find fulfillment through sex.

This article is a part of Viewpoint's International Women's Day features series in partnership with the Office of International Affairs.

Although sex-positive feminism often catalyzes and influences individual thought on identity and womanhood, I have been otherwise forced to consider my identity in regards to things people have told me or I have overheard since March 2014. Here is a list of some of those statements, musings, and pieces of advice:

“It’ll be a long road ahead.” “Just try this lidocaine cream. It should help.”

“Yeah, I just had sex with him. It wasn’t a big deal — I don’t even remember his name.”

“Anal is only good because it’s not expected to be on the table — vaginal sex is always better.”

I have an anniversary coming up. I don’t remember the exact date — for me, assigning an otherwise random and harmless number to every emotion associated with one of the hardest days of my life feels unnecessary. Sometime last March, I was (incorrectly) diagnosed with vulvodynia, one of the major genito-pelvic penetrative pain disorders which oftentimes go undiagnosed due to inadequate sex education within both the medical community and the general population. My diagnosis, eventually updated to levator dyspareunia, meant that, without rigorous physical therapy, both at a therapist’s office and at home for an indeterminate amount of time, I would be unable to have vaginal intercourse. A year after being diagnosed, I am close to what a doctor would define as “normal,” but I still have work to do.

Upon leaving the exam room last year, I immediately felt my entire core splinter as I attempted to make sense of my doctor’s suggestions. A thick packet of medical terminology and attempts at explanation sat in my backpack, its physical weight preventing me from ignoring the problem—but still I told myself that I would look at it some indeterminate “later.” Alongside the packet was a prescription for lidocaine, a numbing ointment that was supposed to shorten my road to recovery, as well as save me from the burden of a full awareness of what was happening with my body. It didn’t help with either. Sex became a three-letter barbed wire fence, manifesting itself before me every time I heard anyone talk about one-night stands, condoms, or soreness after an exciting night (or morning, or afternoon—whenever people found time to casually hop over this fence, which was no barrier to them). Later, after the initial burns of embarrassment for my invisible physical incapacities settled, deeper concerns surfaced.  I felt as if my body had rebelled against my ideals and my convictions, rendering me a shell who merely borrowed the uniform of a young, sex-positive feminist. For months, I disregarded the problem. I had been misdiagnosed by an incompetent doctor, and had little knowledge of where I could go for a second opinion. I was also afraid of facing the reality of my condition, mainly because of the repetitive and invasive pelvic floor therapy necessary to alleviate the painful physical barriers to sex. I still grappled with the unfairness of it all—why was I broken?

Eventually, I found ways to have sex with my boyfriend. Rather than allow myself to be rejected by the sex-positive feminist world to which I so desperately hoped to belong, I explored the sexual options available to me. Anal sex became a pleasurable constant in my life, similar to the unwelcome but still consistent judgment from other self-proclaimed sex-positive feminists themselves. Despite my attempts to enjoy a sex-positive existence, I felt a real alienation from my friends, who considered the sexual solutions for working around my diagnoses socially unacceptable. However, their thinly veiled offense at my choices, despite the absolute irrelevance of those choices on their own lives, didn’t matter. My endeavors to enjoy sex and my subsequent satisfaction were not dependent on a social contract that I did not sign.

The idea that my ass apparently determined my worth as a person, or as a woman, made me realize the triviality of assigning sex and sexual experiences as an undeniable marker of womanhood. Nina Hartley, a prominent advocate for sex workers and a former porn star, has said that “a fulfilling sex life makes all things more bearable.” I would amend the statement to read as: “A fulfilling sex life can make things more bearable, assuming that your sense of self is anchored in more than sexual pleasure.” For someone like me, and probably multitudes of undiagnosed people, the sermons from sex-positive feminists that declare sexual liberation as the most legitimate path toward realizing your power as a woman feels absolutely insulting. I’d rather live by Michel Foucault’s philosophy: “The idea that bodily pleasure should always come from sexual pleasure as the root of all our possible pleasure—I think that’s something quite wrong.”

As I have become more vocal on the issue of sexual dysfunction and the alienating doctrine of sex-positive feminism, I have realized that my previous subscription to this type of mainstream feminism was a result of herd mentality rather than an informed position. While my condition is ostensibly invisible, its implication for an involuntarily sexless feminist question the perceived inclusivity of sex-positive feminism.  That a school of thought fits superficially into one’s political or social beliefs is not a reason to exclude it from critical analysis. Traditionally oppressed groups can also oppress others, and everyone is subject to accountability.

As I attempt to express the estrangement I have felt over the past year, I will also, within a number of days, try to have sex for the first time—again. This time, I am aware that both Hollywood’s depictions of intimacy as well as anecdotal do’s and don’ts I have both received from and given to other young women are not sufficient to illustrate the gravity of my experience. My rejection of sex-positive feminism and its social construction, rather than repelling me from sex, has enabled me to regard sexuality and intimacy in a new way. In a way, it encourages me to nurture my sexuality just as I would nurture my sense of belonging and confidence. I know, though I struggle to remind myself, that I will remain a strong, independent woman who, ultimately, doesn’t need a significant other who celebrates my strength and independence. The elasticity of my pelvic floor does not alone define my womanhood. My anger toward sex positivity’s culture of (unintentional?) exclusivity has not translated into a rage toward myself or my own inability to fulfil others’ expectations. Instead, it has become a desire to make myself visible, even among the attempts to drown me out.

Olivia Adams is a second-year in the College majoring in Near Eastern languages and civilizations and gender and sexuality studies