*This article contains references to issues around consent and sexuality which may be triggering for some people.
Sexual expression and empowerment can be tricky business. As we pick our way through the maze seeking answers, we find ourselves taking twists and turns down tracks of feminist theory, gender politics, patriarchal hangovers, and hard-to-shake stereotypes.
This is another topic that has become a side dish of modern late-stage capitalism. Unraveling the girl power hashtags to get to our own sense of authenticity is multilayered, complex, and riddled with messiness.
We are all still learning how to navigate our brave new world and messiness is part of the cleanup mission to a better understanding of what it is to self-sexualize.
Of course, advertising got involved and decided it was in their best buck interest to start pushing that female empowerment movement - confusing the connection even more.
Living in western culture and brought up on a steady diet of objectification means that it can be a struggle to get into our own bodies rather than watching our lives from a mythical third-person point of view. Arguably, this has further been cemented into our (virtual) reality via social media platforms like Instagram. We make ourselves characters or even objects in our own capitalistic plays.
We are our own lifestyle brands and we are continually looking in on ourselves from an outside perspective.
It seems perhaps naïve to think that this wouldn't seep into our sexual experiences. In fact, Janet Holland talks about this in her book 'The Male in the Head', exploring how heterosexual femininity can't escape the male gaze and has a huge impact on the way in which women feel free to express themselves.
Here we take a look at what it means to be sexually empowered in the modern world and whether we can learn to untangle ourselves from the latest capitalist cultural push to get to the centre of our own true desires.
(It's worth noting before we dive in that we are approaching this topic from a white cis western authored exploration so our grappling with themes around empowerment, sexuality, and cultural expectations may be tied to that limited geography of understanding).
The Problem With “Sexual Empowerment”: Sexually Empowered But Still Sexual Objects
Sexual liberation was supposed to rescue us from the Victorian era modesty or the 'daughter' purity myth that was bestowed upon teenage girls and dogged our steps into womanhood. As we hit the sixties, it seemed that with the rise of the contraceptive pill came positive steps towards sexual empowerment and becoming the narrators of our own self-exploration and sexual destiny.
But as Van Badham outlined in her Guardian article That's patriarchy: How female sexual liberation led to male sexual entitlement ... 'But what has happened in the intervening decades is that sexual freedom has become another realm of women’s experience for patriarchy to conquer. As soon as older feminists had won sexual liberation, patriarchy reframed it as sexual availability for men.'
Hypersexualized in modern media and our 21st century understanding of sex, it's a sad statistic to hear that one in ten women have been coerced into sex (the majority by an intimate partner).
There's still huge issues with language and the way we talk about sex and there's still the issue of young people consuming certain cis-made porn as part of their sex education that adds to objectifying behaviors and performance-based sex.
We are still a society that says we celebrate positive sex and women's empowerment but also sticks to the same damaging and tired narrative around sex...
The mythical female orgasm.
Sex being over as soon as the male finish line is hit.
Sexual freedom for women mimicking the typically male-centric commercialized version of 'sex without emotional strings'.
We've been sold a narrative that sexual empowerment looks like saying yes, being cool with notching up one night stands, cultivating an image that presents ourselves in the light of youth, power, and standardized beauty, and aligning our wants and desires with the still prevalent male gaze.
This can be downright exhausting and does little to break new ground when it comes to truly inviting exploration around feminism psychology and sex.
So, what does sexual empowerment look like and how can we make this a more conscious conversation? And how do we hold it in our hearts when we are grappling with all the different shades of self-sexualization?
Dr. Emily Stone, PhD and LMFT-S of The Unstuck Group, a group of mental health professionals that focuses on Couples Counseling and Relationship Therapy, has 20 years of experience working with couples and counsels on sexual empowerment frequently. Dr. Stone says that "we become sexually empowered the more we grow in self-understanding and self-awareness."
"Sexual empowerment", she continues, "DEMANDS things like consent and healthy relationships." She reminds us that sexual empowerment "is not necessarily connected to any specific behavior", such as having sex in the first place.
For those who identify as males, this narrative must also be exhausting.
Adolescent sexuality comes with all those cultural messages that sex should be an obsession, that attractive young women should look a certain way, that a no can (and should) be persuaded into a yes, that numbers of sexual conquests count, and that sexual pleasure often blurs the lines between pain especially when it comes to women.
Chris D'Elia, comedian and actor, is a good example of this. D'Elia was recently canceled for fulfilling exactly what society told him he should achieve as a "successful man". In his open apology posted on YouTube nearly 8 months after he was canceled, he admits that he did the things he was accused of, which mostly involve pressuring women to have sex with him at every opportunity he could find.
"Sex", he admits, "controlled my life." He continues by saying that once he got a bit of fame and notoriety, "having sex got a lot easier." He shares that he thought it was "right" to treat sex casually and to bluntly invite women over just for sex. He says that he always thought his behavior was okay because technically women have the power to say no, not accounting for the power dynamic that might pressure many women to say yes anyway.
Agree with him or not, he paints a bleak picture of the reality of the situation for most modern men.
We are setting these young people up to fail rather than encouraging true sexual agency. This awesome Ted Talk from Cindy Gallop talks about the fallout of sex ed from hardcore pornography and how this affects sexual relations and self-objectification.
The bi-product of not having comprehensive sexuality education and normalizing objectification can lead to higher levels of sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual violence, and sexual trauma. It can lead to rising data around intimate partner violence and it can have a negative effect on the emotional well-being of both men and women everywhere. It's a path that needs to change direction and to invite people to access their own sexual revolution in ways that don't put others at risk.
What Does It Mean To Be Sexually Empowered?
One of the simplest approaches to sexual empowerment could be the question of whether or not you really want to have sex / right now / in that way / with that person / and whether or not it will make you feel good about yourself.
We get it, it sounds so much easier than it actually is.
There are so many mixed messages and visuals forced upon us around body image and consent and what good sex and true power look like that we tend to adopt the global answer to all these questions rather than assess our own answers. Not to mention the fact that sexuality and self-esteem are also wrapped up in issues of class, race, gender, and body type too. Along with the murky waters of which we are trying to nail down consent.
In her viral short story 'Cat Person' published by the New York Times, Kristen Roupenian writes about the messiness of half wanted encounters and the unspoken pressure of a life lived through the lens of the male gaze. The story is full of tender heartbreaking moments (and also some problematic parts around body image and potential fat-shaming) but one which particularly illustrates this feeling of loss of agency well is the following;
Margot recoiled. But the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon. It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind, and sent it back.
There are themes running through this short story that capture what it means to be a woman dealing with standardized sex roles. That autonomy is defined in a moment and then we are expected to roll with it, on a treadmill that we can't get off. That we aren't in charge of the narrative and even when we think we are, we may actually still be locked into that male gaze or externalized judgment that we have internalized so deeply.
Getting back into the body can be key to understanding our boundaries and what sexual safety and sexual desire look like for us. Staying connected to our sexual self is an effort as we may find ourselves slipping into old comfortable habits and those tried and tested easy ideas around female sexuality and bodily autonomy.
This checklist from the Minnesota Department of Health may seem equally expansive and restrictive but it can be a good jumping off point for looking at where you are on your current sexual journey.
Female sexual empowerment can look very different to different people. It can mean multiple sexual partner encounters, it can mean abstinence, it can mean sex work, a singular intimate relationship, it can mean self-pleasure, it can mean everyone or no one. At the bottom line, holding it all together should be an experience that aligns with your boundaries and your values.
Dr. Carol Queen, PhD and sexologist for Good Vibrations reminds us that "a person of any gender, gender identity, and orientation can be sexually empowered", which comes down to healthy boundaries and the ability to communicate your desires, even if the desire is to not have sex at all.
The powerlessness that comes with the inability to maintain boundaries could potentially be linked to low self-esteem, she explains. Shame or fear and the inability to communicate boundaries "can be problematic and painful for a disempowered person."
Being a sexually empowered woman can mean feeling comfortable saying yes or saying no without fear of judgement. It can mean continually checking in with yourself during intimacy to make sure you are feeling safe and centered and staying within the conditions you set. It can mean the freedom to change your mind. It can mean expressing your own sexual desires and creativity. It can mean being able to communicate openly when it comes to pleasure. To ask for what you want and to stop what you don't want while remaining free from consequences.
It can mean validation that comes from within. It can mean sexual activity that makes you happy. It also means staying risk-free and nurtured and free to explore regardless of your sexual orientation, gender roles, and personal belief system around identity. It also means embracing pleasure without exploiting someone else. It can also mean shared responsibility for contraception and having your partner stick to that agreement.
Brianne Patrice of Twenty Nine Thirty, a restorative community for black womxn that disarms the cultural and societal systems that keep them from exploring the fullness of one's sexual self, says that sexual empowerment also includes the right to change our minds as often as we like.
One way to delve deep and do that inner work when it comes to sexual health and your own boundaries is via self-exploration and self-pleasure. Sex positivity can start with play and self-play is a great way to research what you like and what you don't while staying safe with yourself.
It also means educating yourself too.
Listen to a range of podcast episodes, read articles, dig deep into the journal of sex research, find a range of sources, and see which terms and notes strike true with you. Don't let anyone else define your sexual story for you, this is your journey.
Sex is never a straightforward issue and there's a lot of peaks and troughs when finding your way through it and to a feeling of authenticity. As always we encourage you to be gentle with yourself, to stay safe, and to seek help and interventions where necessary. We would love to hear your thoughts on women's sexual empowerment as curating a range of voices is important to celebrate the whole beautiful spectrum of women's sexuality.