Women’s Internalized Oppression: Undermining Your Own Sexuality

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Like children telling stories about a scary old man, women criticize each other’s sexuality–from a safe distance.


It’s hit and run.

“Slut!” is what women call a woman who is “too” sexual. It’s someone who can enjoy sex without being in love. Someone who admits she enjoys sex more than a woman “should.” In other words, it’s a woman who can enjoy sex the way only men are supposed to be able to.

“Look at her, all over him. Is she even wearing a bra? God, anyone can tell what’s on her mind…what is she, a nympho?”

But there are costs to this sisterly vigilance. Aware that others will be judging them, it makes women wonder if they’re withholding their sexuality “enough.” Or it makes them proud that they do. Either way, it says that repressing yourself is an important part of sexuality and relationships. And that’s a destructive idea.

Women are caught in a historical collision between the sexual values of the past and future. Religion, the media, and our families are sending out contradictory messages about sexuality that are driving women crazy.

Consider: Today’s woman is supposed to be sexy, but not too sexy. She’s supposed to be responsive enough to validate her partner, but not too aggressive or hard to please. Sexual, but not lusty. Not frigid, but not quite red hot. Her sexuality should express love, not lust.

In short, she has to be sexual in just the right way, regardless of her actual feelings or needs. To conform, to be an acceptable female, women have to carefully modulate, and therefore undermine, their own sexuality.

Monitoring, labeling, and criticizing other women are only a few of the many ways that women sabotage their own sexuality. Let’s look at several others; do you have a voice in your head saying these or similar self-destructive things?

* “Distrust lust; keep your privates private.”

“My mother taught me not to dress too sexy,” says one dynamic woman I know, “because I shouldn’t attract too much attention.” For years she followed this code, even as an adult. “Lately, though, I’ve come out of my closet,” she smiles, “dressing sexier, being proud of my body, even showing off occasionally. It’s been an interesting change.”

And how do other women react? “Close friends seem OK,” she reports. “Casual acquaintances, or women I don’t know, they seem suspicious, even resentful. Sometimes I see something in their eyes, like, ‘oh, you’re one of “those” women.’ And I feel myself wanting to protest–‘no I’m not!’ Then I think, wait, what am I saying? What am I choosing between?”

* “My sexuality should be more like his.”

Specifically, many women judge themselves with a one-size-fits-all model of arousal and response. That’s why they apologize for wanting “so much” foreplay, and for taking “too long” to climax. Too many women don’t really honor the fact that their sexuality is idiosyncratic. They may be more invested in non-genital aspects of a sexual moment than their partners. Touching, smelling, whispering, and other open-ended activities are not adjuncts to the sexual experience, they can be critical parts of it.

The result is that many women make love thinking about the clock. They pressure themselves to be ready sooner and to be done quicker. Rather than honoring their own circular, diffuse, sexual perspective, they’ve adopted a linear perspective on “foreplay:” it’s what you do before the “real thing.” Or, as we used to say in high school, it’s what you do to get a girl hot.

At lectures, women ask me how to get their mates more interested in foreplay. “Don’t apologize for wanting it,” I reply. “When you say, ‘I know it’s a drag, but I guess I’m defective because I need this boring stuff to get ready for the real thing,’ your mate instinctively resists.”

Women need to honor and value their body’s rhythms. You can tell your mate, ‘listen, I want to have great sex. I want to get really excited with you. I want to feel your sexuality, I want my body to melt into yours, I want us to drive each other so wild that we can forget about everything and then make love, so let’s spend tons of time kissing and squeezing and tasting…’

Who’s going to resist that?

* “Sex? only if you’re ‘swept away’ by romance, alcohol, lies, or love.”

This attitude subverts female sexuality by disowning a woman’s ability to turn herself on, to choose how excited to get, and to direct the course of a sexual encounter.

As sociologist Carol Cassell notes in her book Swept Away, female sexuality is generally considered more acceptable when women are seduced, romanced, or misled, because they can’t be blamed for what they can’t control. If women are swept away, they can have sexual pleasure without having to confront their own desires or self-image. And as a result, many women place themselves in frustrating situations over and over again. These include not having sex when they want it, and having sex when they don’t.

“Romance” is the social institution that enables both genders to create a socially approved sexual experience. It’s the ritual pageant through which we pretend that sex exists outside the bounds of normal life. Everyone says that relationships should be “honest,” but there is little honesty in romance.

Another side of this belief also makes it the man’s problem if a woman is dissatisfied: “He just didn’t sweep me away the way I need.” Naturally, men resent this about women. As my car mechanic once complained, “They don’t turn themselves on, you have to do it; half the time they criticize you for manipulating them, the other half they criticize you for not doing it enough.”

* “Sexy? Only certain people and certain bodies–and you’re not either.”

If you speak to enough women on the subject, it becomes clear that breasts come in only two sizes: too big and too small. Very few women are happy with their bodies.

And very few women think they’re sexy; this even includes many of the small number who feel sexy. They often know that their mates desire them, but they frequently deny that it’s because they’re “sexy.” “My wife,” says one frustrated colleague, “believes I think she’s sexy mainly because I love her.” Most women have a fixed image of what a “sexy woman” is–and it rarely includes themselves.

That image usually isn’t anyone we know; in fact, it usually isn’t people at all. It’s media figures, objectified images separated from their personhood. We don’t really think people are sexy, we think images are sexy. A flesh-and-blood woman can’t compete with that.

Many women believe that a female who doesn’t conform to social standards of sexiness has no right to the accessories of sexiness. I have a client, for example, who won’t wear lingerie even though she likes it. “I’m not the type,” she once told me sadly. “I would look ridiculous.” She’s pleasant-looking, and she says her husband would be delighted. But she feels disqualified; she’s sure she isn’t “like one of those sexy women,” even though she feels sexy “in my own way.” She discounts her own experience in favor of external norms.

* “Once the sexual mood is broken, forget it.”

This belief is another way that women deny they have power over their own sexual experience. Instead, they feel controlled by their partner or by “circumstances.”

Consciously or not, women make many sexual decisions based on their fear of “breaking the mood.” This explains, for example, why some women won’t ask a man to use a condom; won’t use external lubrication; and won’t suggest changing positions to get better clitoral stimulation. Instead, they have sex under flawed conditions.

One definition of “passion” is involvement. If women are passionate during sex they cannot be easily distracted, and don’t have problems recapturing the occasional broken mood. But when women are taught to limit their sexuality to safe, wholesome, ladylike expression, they keep themselves separate from their passion. This maintains the illusion that their sexual feelings originate outside themselves, beyond their control, making them vulnerable to frustrating “circumstances.”

Believing such things helps relieve women of responsibility for their own sexuality.

* * *

What messages did you get from your mom about female sexuality? What messages does your daughter get from you?

There are precious few mothers out there telling their daughters that sex is wonderful (which is not the same as saying “go do it”). There are even fewer mothers discussing the broad range of healthy female sexuality. Other than professional sex educators, virtually no one is telling young women that they must guide their own sexuality, not relinquish the job to men or “circumstances” (or bury it altogether).

If you have daughters, are you hiding your sexuality from them? For example, do you pretend you don’t notice men on the street, or use contraception, or dress to highlight your best physical features, or have a sexual relationship with your mate (assuming you do)? This is not “flaunting” your sexuality at your child–this is simply acknowledging it the way you acknowledge the rest of your personhood.

Your mom probably hid her sexuality from you; this surely made it more difficult for you to develop a mature sexual outlook. Like most women, as a result, you have been more vulnerable to society’s mixed messages and dehumanizing myths about female sexuality.

At some level, every girl tries to be like mom. Copying a mom who seems to lack sexuality, or most of its parts, can provide a shaky foundation for a girl bound for womanhood.

So we come full circle. What shall a woman do instead of honoring oppressive myths, undermining her own sexuality? Honor her sexual experiences, rather than try to interpret them through a distorted social formula of powerlessness, ambivalence, wholesomeness, pseudo-maleness, and perfect-body-ism. And see sex as an active partnership between lovers, not some mysterious thing created by tradition to be passively accepted.

Yes, for some women this perspective will require personal, relationship, and social change. But healthy adult sexuality is worth it: a dependable source of rich, nurturing, intimate, fun experiences during which you can feel powerful and womanly. Making that part of your life is probably long overdue…isn’t it?

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