Thanks to the media and canny advertising agencies, we are surrounded by sexualised images of women. Abby O’Reilly asks why actual female sexual pleasure is still taboo
“Women should be obscene and not heard” – Groucho Marx
I have always had the unfortunate habit of confusing the word porn for prawn. It’s not so much of a problem now, although during my school years it precipitated some pretty embarrassing situations.
When the boys in school rolled in of a morning ready to provide us with detailed expositions of the objects of their latest nocturnal masturbatory emissions, I could never shake the visual image of them lined up side by side, wearing tight shorts and navy hats, singing in unison, whilst cracking one off to the beat of Popeye the Sailor Man. It’s not a wholly welcome image with double maths looming close and that second helping of Ready Brek laying heavy on your stomach. But, in retrospect, what it demonstrated was that from a young age we are conditioned to believe that there are carefully delineated rules of acceptability about the ways in which men and women are able to express their sexuality, which, (as per usual, ladies), often results in censorship and redefinitions of the female experience in order to fit an archaic male generated template of what constitutes feminine.
Yes madam, even in this supposed age of enlightenment, to be considered a ‘lady’ you really do have to wear petticoats, swim in rivers, grow your babies in cabbage patches and be in a constant state of preparation to assume the missionary position whenever your husband fancies some late night action. You certainly don’t stroke the badger, however much she wants it.
I grew up thinking it was not something us girls spoke about openly. Sex, that is. The S word. Shagging. Well, not unless we were comfortable with the break-time speculation as to whether or not we had Cheddar Gorge nestled between our thighs.
And masturbation. Well, why would we talk about it? We didn’t do it anyway, right? We wouldn’t know what to do anyway would we? And nobody wants a girl who’s ‘dirty’ do they? I mean, I’ve always had a pretty open relationship with my parents, but the subject of whether or not it is right to flick one’s bean was never the biggest topic of jovial banter during Sunday lunch.
From a young age, I was trained to believe that to express an appreciation of sex above and beyond that experienced outside of a personal relationship, or for purposes other than that of procreation, was a fundamental violation of what it means to be a ‘respectable’ woman.
To do so is considered crime enough, but to openly admit to enjoying a bit of slap-and-tickle is guaranteed to get you branded a slut, goose-stepped to the local GUM clinic and publicly hung by the short and curlies faster than you can fake an orgasm no matter how loud and proud you are. Sad but true.
But why, in a culture that promotes a bare-all fashion philosophy and actively encourages teenage girls to sexily gesticulate on camera in the name of music, is the recognition of our sexual needs, and expression of our enjoyment of the other, almost always equated with promiscuity and moral corruption?
Before we even sprout breasts we are aware that to express any recognition of rumblings from the furry beast-ess below is a form of cultural transgression and social suicide, and certainly not behaviour considered becoming of a ‘lady’. It’s something only ‘loose women’ talk about, you know, the type who ‘forget’ to wear knickers and have a bottom draw filled with so many sex aids that it looks like their Rampant Rabbits have started to breed.
So, while our male contemporaries boast about how easy it is to get themselves off, we have no option but to sit silently, hands in pockets, trying our best to substitute thoughts of fucking and clitoral stimulation with those of teacakes and fluffy kittens. Or maybe not.
Is it any wonder our predecessors developed a penchant for sewing, darning, cooking and anything else that would keep their hands out of their bloomers for that little bit longer? I’m beginning to realise why the sewing-machine was such a welcome invention.
But these days, aren’t we supposed to feel liberated? We have the vote after all. Let’s get the bunting out.
Surely, though, the development of refined methods of birth control over the last decade or so have validated the idea that women indulge in sexual relations for purposes beyond that of procreation? Apparently not, with the stigma still attached to the concept of the one-night stand and sex out of wedlock still stalking us like a spectre, and confirming a predominantly chauvinistic perception of contraception as being developed as a means to prevent men getting caught out by the women who they condescend to sleep with.
This may seem harsh, and slightly polemical, but until the patriarchal foundations of the beliefs that permeate the national consciousness are systematically destroyed, our struggle for equality and to achieve a redefinition of what constitutes feminine, will continue to be lost amidst the vast desert of contemporary sexual politics.
It’s unfair, but the moment we open our mouths to assert our own sexuality and top-shelf desires rather than to provide a welcome vessel for some arrogant cock, we are almost instantly turned out on the street to turn tricks for nothing more than a can of coke and a flaky pasty.
Yet again, we’re victims of our ambitions to pursue careers outside of the home. We work later hours. We’re dedicated to climbing the ladder in our chosen profession, and so we tend to remain single for longer, choosing to focus on achieving our personal goals as opposed to humouring social pressures to fill the vacancy in the double beds that we’ve paid for.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have sexual needs and desires to achieve some form of physical intimacy, regardless of how long it may last (no pun intended). It’s just that we have to take control over our own sextra-curricular activities whether they take place in the bedroom or not. After all, there are some things you just can’t get in a board meeting.
These days we rarely have the time to develop the sort of long-term relationship we would need to make our sexual interaction be considered ‘respectable’ in a society that frowns if we opt for a harmless quickie on the way home, but does little more than bat an eyelid when we’re forced to the point of starvation in order to emulate the images of female celebrities that permeate the mass media. Considering the former has less potential to be detrimental to our health, it seems that this is not only an unnecessary critique, but highly hypocritical, especially since sometimes we really do need some release. Without question.
Zoe Margolis recently centralised this idea with the paperback publication of her web blog Girl with a One-Track Mind: Confessions of the Seductress Next Door, in which she has provided a full, factual exposition of her personal sexploits. She wrote anonymously under the pseudonym Abby Lee in order to try and gain an understanding of what she initially considered her ‘sex addiction’ in a culture where she’d be branded a whore faster than she could pull her knickers up, and the term ‘cock tease’ still, unfortunately, holds currency (despite the fact the 80s are over and we are not living in a Martin Amis novel).
The response and support she has received from women has been exceptional, with her frank and honest description of sex and masturbation confirming that it is possible for women to be professionally successful and have a fulfilling sex life with or without a permanent partner.
She is nothing but an inspiring testament to the fact that we can exist independently of the intimate relationships we may form with men, which, I think, has been the main point of contention with her work.
For the first time we have been privy to the internal machinations of a woman who not only enjoys sex, but who openly evaluates and objectifies men on the basis of their capacity to give her pleasure.
But her work has been surrounded by controversy, with The Sunday Times choosing to ‘out’ her during the weekend following its publication. But why they chose to do this is worth consideration, especially owing to the distorted nature of her exposure. Why was this so important? If this had been written by a man, would his identity have been considered so important? It’s unlikely.
Zoe Margolis’ identity was made public in an article headlined ‘By day she worked on Harry Potter, but by night…’ This not only cast aspersions on her character by juxtaposing two extremes, and insinuating that she was not suitable to work on a production for children, but also presented her as some sort of Jekyll and Hyde monstrosity, who led a pretty sedentary, savoury existence until she caught the scent of a fresh cock and subsequently transformed into some sort of ruthless, thong-wearing sex-fiend.
This achieved nothing but to verify the existence of a societal structure that considers the objectification of women by men a perfectly acceptable facet of daily social interactions, but which conversely considers the prospect of a woman objectifying a man as totally inappropriate. For some reason it’s OK for us to be asked on the bus if we have sweaty tits by a man displaying all the sexual charisma of Ronnie Corbett, but for a woman to ‘ogle’ a man’s nether regions on her way to work doesn’t bear thinking about. It seems more than ever that if we want to achieve equality with men, we are going to have to beat them at their own game, and if that means developing a preoccupation with the contents of their underpants, and indulging in a threesome every now and again, so be it.
But, despite The Sunday Times’ attempt to publicly name and shame Zoe Margolis, what they ironically did was to elevate her position from that of the writer of a popular blog, to that of one of the main players in the contemporary feminist scene.
What she did was articulate the desires and feelings we, as women, lack the courage to give voice to, and give us an insight into a sex-life we would all like to live if only we shared her confidence and openness of mind, and for that I salute her.
But, will we ever reach a time when we can talk about getting ourselves off without it making the headlines? Open discussions of female masturbation, instead of being considered a medium through which we can learn about the best ways to titillate our ‘naughty bits’ and form an understanding of our own physiology, are more likely to have us regaled with taunts of ‘fishy fingers’ before we’re forced to chew off our own hands and are beaten to death with our own dildos.
Whereas the number of hits a man makes on the ‘wank-o-meter’ of an evening is considered representative of his virility and confirmation of his nauseating heterosexuality, for a woman, the thought that she may be venturing south (and liking it!) is considered nothing more than symptomatic of her sexual perversity and innate inability to function without a cock (and unfortunately the man attached), rather than as an expression of her sexual independence and astute awareness of her own biological needs.
And anyone who’s ever been told that they need a man, or they should get some ‘wood’, will understand what I’m talking about, even though the majority of us are doing just fine without, thanks.
It’s a form of repression that conspicuously begins at the level of language. Unlike our male contemporaries who enjoy nothing more than ‘shaking hands with the governor of love’, ‘slapping the salami’, ‘spanking the monkey’or simply just ‘cracking one off’, we are denied the distinct and varied euphemisms and nomenclature to fully articulate and communicate an understanding of our personal, stylised methods of self-pleasure.
In contemporary twenty-first century culture, the idea of a man having a quick wank is considered comical, inoffensive and, more significantly, commonplace, but for women, the very suggestion would have us relegated to a brothel in whoredom before we even have the opportunity to say how much we like to fuck.
Of course, we can ‘flick the bean’ and ‘frig ourselves’ but these are descriptions and phrases determined by the burgeoning lads’ mag culture that likes nothing more than to propagate the fantasy of a busty blonde with her hands buried deep in her g-string who wants nothing more than the football to finish so she can be given a right good seeing to, probably hard from behind.
Not that masturbation is simply a game of semantics (and if it is you’re doing it wrong), but the fact that men have not only developed their own unique terminology to describe their foray into cock land, but have also cultivated and determined our forms of expression means that any discussion of female masturbation will continue to be filtered through a predominantly male perspective.
Until we are able to develop our own means of expression, our self-pleasure will continue to be a taboo issue, interpreted as nothing more than the object of the male masturbatory fantasy.
For some reason, whereas we are expected to exercise a degree of self-control in all bedroom related areas, men do not have to adhere to the same regulations, and continue to be the human equivalent of the incorrigible little terrier that humps your great aunt regardless of how many times he’s hit on the nose with a newspaper. Ah bless.
Surprising as it may be gentlemen, we are more qualified to give ourselves pleasure than anyone else, which is why a solo sojourn into the underwear department is often so much fun. No, obviously a woman wouldn’t consider indulging in the pleasures of the palm unless it was for the benefit of mankind, would she? Not without Aladdin riding her magic carpet on a promise of having his lamp rubbed? Yeah, right, and that’s where this chauvinistic fairy tale ends.
But, times are slowly changing, and women are beginning to assert a case for their own sexuality and sexual identity through their own creativity. It’s not surprising then, that this has given rise to a genre of writing known as ‘cliterature’ – erotic fiction written by women for women.
Cliterature (an amalgamation of the word literature and clitoris) is a medium through which a writer can explore their most intimate sexual fantasies, and share them with female readers, in the hope of expanding their sexual horizons and, not to be too base, provide them with ‘wanking material’.
The Internet is a breeding ground for this form of writing, and the popularity of the monthly glossy Scarlet, which not only contains erotic fiction, but also provides a variety of features and news all relevant to female sexual life, demonstrates how we are trying to push the concept of women wanting to take control over their sexual fate into the mainstream.
It’s going to be a difficult journey, especially since from the outset the idea of the female sex-addict is still positioned on the margins. Whereas men have the choice of a number of feature length films and movies emanating from a budding porn industry to watch in order to get their rocks off, we have to make do with a dirty magazine, best read by torchlight under the quilt in a darkened room. And that’s in the middle of the afternoon.
Would it be too reductive to claim that it’s just a case that men can only get turned on by what they can see, by a cacophony of moving shapes, whereas women can get their kicks from what they imagine? Yes, I think it would be. Granted, a lot of women are happy to watch porn with their male partners, and can become sexually excited when doing so, but it cannot be denied that the porn industry primarily caters for a male clientele, which explains why it is permeated with busy blondes and brunettes who have no other option than to spend their days on their backs for fear of toppling over under the weight of their silicon enhanced breasts.
The women in these films never seem real, and more often than not are forced to fit a generic ideal and stereotype of what men want. Plus, to say the storylines are realistic would be almost as ridiculous as claiming that men are only interested in personality.
Women enjoy cliterature because not only are the plots plausible, but they are also able to identify with the characters, who are more diverse than an army of Pamela Anderson look-a-likes, and voluptuous-lipped women who are nothing more than grotesque caricatures of the average female form.
The act of reading, however, is an isolated process, and the fact that we are forced to vent our sexual desires in this way does nothing but perpetuate the idea that if we get wet, we should keep it to ourselves.
Perhaps we have been forced to develop this means of expression to accommodate the lack of acceptance we receive, since as prospective mothers of the next generation, it’s not considered appropriate for us to get enjoyment from cuninlingus unless it’s from a long-term partner, and experienced in the domesticity of the home. So, no doubt that means we’ve got a quickie up against the fridge to look forward to. Don’t all go running for those aprons now.