2018 was kind of a landmark year for me. I studied abroad for a semester in Dublin. I broke up with my first long-term boyfriend. I decided to apply for graduate school.
But this isn’t going to be one of those cliché retrospective pieces, taking a nostalgic look back at all the ups and downs of the previous year. I want to talk more about a specific decision I made, the effects of that decision, and what that means for me going into 2019.
2018 was also the year I started writing a feminist sex column.
The Evolution of My Sexual Feminist Voice
I think as I started to have more sexual experiences, talking and writing about sex suddenly felt very urgent, so most of my creative work was consumed by it. The decision to turn it into a column for Make Muse seemed like the natural next step. I wanted a space to work through my thoughts and a force motivating me to continue educating myself on sexuality and intimacy, specifically for young women.
The response to the column has been overwhelmingly positive, something I can hardly believe every time I think about it. Writing it has been freeing and empowering, but that doesn’t mean it has always been easy.
Sex is hard to talk about. American culture, for all its emphasis on “sex sells” and all that, doesn’t seem to actually want to talk about sex in a realistic way, a way that is conducive to education. Instead, we tend to shame sexual honesty. We shame people for expressing their sexualities and for not expressing their sexualities.
There are a seemingly unlimited number of things we are told to be ashamed about. Our appearance. Our weight. Our knowledge or lack of knowledge on any number of topics. Our ambitions. Our sex lives. Our feminism. The list goes on.
I’ve felt the influence of shame and anxiety numerous times when thinking about what to write for this column. What if my editor reads something I wrote and thinks I’m an idiot, or I’m abnormal, or my opinion is wrong or naive? What if someone reads the column and thinks differently of me? What if a future employer looks me up online, finds this column, and decides not to hire me?
I block my family from seeing my posts about Femintimacy on Facebook, which feels like I’m hiding a part of my life from them.
Maura—the founder of Make Muse—and I have talked about compiling Femintimacy columns into a book, an idea I’m very enthusiastic about. But what if I publish my first book and don’t feel comfortable sharing it with my own family?
The Consequence of Being Sexually Vulnerable
Shame has negatively impacted my life, and I’ve let it. Shame prevents me from living my life the way I want to.
Our patriarchal culture has instilled intense shame regarding sex, especially for young women. Young women are shamed for expressing a desire for sex, and for not expressing any desire for sex at all. We are shamed for our specific sexual desires. We are shamed for asking questions about sex as if we should already know the answers despite never being told them and never being directed to the resources to learn those answers for ourselves. We are shamed for both our naivete and our experience.
Due to a number of factors including religion, political ideology, culture, and parenting philosophy, sex is often considered a shameful subject within the family. I don’t know about you, but I never talk to my family about sex. The so-called sex talk is considered one of the most uncomfortable conversations a parent and child can ever have. We don’t often feel like we can ask questions due to societally imposed shame, and that forced silence negatively impacts relationships, creating a gulf between children and parents.
Many people also experience shame from their sexual partners, whether that be regarding their appearance, their sexual prowess, their number of sexual partners, or their kinks, desires, and fantasies in the bedroom. People feel as though they can pass judgment upon expressions of sexuality that may deviate from the norm, thus imposing shame on those they claim to care about.
Shame feels terrible. Hot sweats. Crawling skin. Unbearable smallness. Shame makes me feel like a little girl, not the grown woman I am.
And that’s kind of the point of shame. To disarm us, to keep us feeling powerless, to prevent the fullest extension of ourselves beyond the “normal,” established years ago by the white heteropatriarchy. Shame is a useful, terrible tool.
But it’s easy to just go around saying shame is bad. What do we do about it?
I think the first step is asking ourselves who profits from our shame.
The simple answer is whoever’s at the top of the metaphorical pyramid, whoever dominates and controls the relevant social system.
Defying Shame as a Feminist Act
Who profits from the sale of beauty products? Large cosmetic corporations. Who produces ads that make women feel ashamed of their physical “flaws”? Large cosmetic corporations.
Weight loss programs, the fashion industry, and other beauty companies profit from the fear of and stigma around being fat, so of course, they think it’s economically smart to foster a culture of fatphobia.
Who profits from shame around sex? The white, heterosexual, cisgender patriarchy. If you think of yourself as not good enough, as abnormal, then you may be too ashamed to express your sexuality to the fullest. You may be too ashamed to express your true self. And the dominant structure remains unchallenged and so stays in place.
But defying the dominant is a key principle of feminism, so I consider combating shame in my own life to be an expression of my feminism. It can be hard to feel like you’re enacting change on a large scale when there are so many feminist issues negatively impacting people worldwide.
But one thing I have some control over is how I live my life and how I feel about myself.
Looking Forward to Getting Even More Femintimate
If through writing this column I make a conscious decision to challenge those forces which try to shame me and bolster my own confidence about myself and my desires, then I challenge the dominant social structure and express my feminism.
If my editor reads something I wrote and thinks it needs more development, then I’ll do more research until my opinion is more fully formed. If a reader thinks I’m abnormal, wrong, or naive, at least I’ve got them thinking about the relevant topic. If a friend reads this column and thinks differently of me, then maybe that’s okay because this column is nothing but the truest expression of myself. If a future employer decides not to hire me based on this column, I probably wouldn’t want to work for them anyway. Sharing my writing with my family will probably take a bit more working up to, but I’m trying to get to that point of comfortability.
Defying authority is a revolutionary act. Refusing to feel shame takes away the power of the dominant. And if they don’t have power over you, they can’t control you. And that’s what they are most scared of losing.
So here’s to being absolutely terrifying in 2019.