Recently, actress Emily Ratajkowski wrote an essay about female sexuality for Lenny Letter that I resonated with me. She detailed the ways we tell women that sexuality is something to be hidden, contained, dangerous, whether it’s a teenager whose bra strap is showing or too much lip gloss. As she put it:
The implication is that to be sexual is to be trashy because being sexy means playing into men’s desires. To me, “sexy” is a kind of beauty, a kind of self-expression, one that is to be celebrated, one that is wonderfully female. Why does the implication have to be that sex is a thing men get to take from women and women give up?
Emily Ratajkowski via Facebook
This reminded me of a time a few years ago when I was wearing one of my favorite dresses, a turquoise short-sleeved number with a ruffled on top and a zipper that lands between my breasts. I’ve worn it on dates, but considered it classy enough to wear to temple with my family. A man I didn’t know wouldn’t stop talking to me; I was polite but kept trying to avoid him. My mom implied that it was my dress; if I’d been more covered up, he would have left me alone.
What kind of world do we live in where it’s our job as women to constantly second guess what men might think of what we wear, what signals they imagine we are sending? It also reminded me of Christen Brandt’s viral Facebook post, where she detailed being sexually harassed this winter while wearing this outfit:
Next time you wonder whether your skirt is too short, next time you ask your teen daughter to change her clothes, or the next time you hear about school dress codes in the news, remember this photo.
I am in a fucking parka and boots.
And it. doesn’t. matter.
But this post isn’t just about the ways our sexuality and our bodies can be used against us, but about how reclaiming our sex appeal after we’ve been shamed, can be part of our process of digging out from under all that sexism and cultural baggage telling us what we should or shouldn’t do with our bodies. I just finished the first of three linked erotic romances, Everything I Left Unsaid by M. O’Keefe (aka Molly O’Keefe).
What stood out for me is that the heroine, Annie, a domestic violence survivor who’s fled from her husband after he tried to kill her, is fighting back against a lifetime of shame not just about her sexuality but about her very existence. She’s been told for too long that she’s essentially worthless, but has cobbled together a new life for herself that she’s starting to test out.
With the help of steamy phone calls from a sexy stranger, Dylan, she starts to piece herself back together, but at her own pace. What I especially loved about the book is that a large part of the sex here isn’t about one-on-one in-person action, but at a remove, with Annie protected by the safety of the phone, by the fake name she uses at first. She is able to ease into discovering what turns her on because she’s able to tap into all the parts of herself she’s had to hide for so long. O’Keefe writes:
I slipped one finger past the sharp elastic, pulling the other side harder against my skin, which made me gasp and pull it tighter, until the elastic brushed up against my clit.
“Oh my God,” I breathed and then, experimenting, I pulled both sides of my underwear down between my lips and I nearly shot off the bed. Carefully, I used the pressure, slow and driving, sharp and fast, to find out what I liked better.
And the truth was—I liked it all. Even the touches that didn’t add to the stone-rolling-downhill of orgasm, I liked. The side trip of my fingers agains the skin of my leg. The act of pushing my hair—sweaty and damp—off my face. The lift of one arm up over my head.
It was as if my body—which had seemed my entire life to be stupid and heavy, an entity to be pushed and smacked, a blind and dumb feature made only for work, its only skill a certain kind of stillness, a trick of getting smaller so as not to be seen—had been transformed.
No, not transformed. Not really.
It was as if I’d found buried beneath the skin a secret wisdom. A dark knowledge.
Like it had just been waiting for me to find it.
A woman pushing her hair off her face might not seem like such a momentous act, and it might not be for most characters. But the point here is that Annie is exploring herself for the first time, getting to know what kinds of touch and sensations her body responds to. Her masturbation scenes are a refreshing and vital part of the novel because they allow her to later open herself up to getting naked in front of Dylan literally, not just figuratively.
For Annie, sex was a thing her husband took, not something where her pleasure was ever truly considered. It was something to get through, something he controlled entirely. Reading about her transformation, seeing her stand up for herself to Dylan, and having him appreciate her for her gumption, made this one of my favorite recent romance reads.
Like Ratajkowski, Annie doesn’t disown sex even though it’s been presented to her as dangerous. And even though it’s a love story (one with, warning, a cliffhanger ending), O’Keefe makes it clear that Annie isn’t “saved” by Dylan simply because she falls for him. She saves herself, and her sexual journey is one about unlocking what’s inside her.
Ratajkowski also wrote in her essay:
Where can girls look to see women who find empowerment in deciding when and how to be or feel sexual? Even if being sexualized by society’s gaze is demeaning, there must be a space where women can still be sexual when they choose to be.
That’s something I look for when I read erotic romance and erotica as well as in the real world, and heroines like Annie are wonderful examples of women who don’t simply accept the way sex is presented to them by the world, but look for ways to make sex their own.