Last night I heard the fearless Jessica Valenti, the author of Full Frontal Feminism and the founder of feministing.com, speak at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. I was both elated and devastated. The thing is, Valenti is eight years my junior and is still battling the same sexism that I did. It's funny, I remember when I was in college and going to feminist rallies or lobbying for pro-choice, my mother would say how she was proud of me for fighting for a better world and sad for me that her own protesting had not brought forth the kind of world she had hoped for for me.
Don't get me wrong. I'm thrilled that Valenti is out there fighting the good fight. I'm just baffled at how as much as things have changed so many things have stayed painfully the same. We're still fighting for the right to control our own bodies. We're still fighting for equal pay. We're still struggling for the most basic sense of equality in terms of worth and ability. But what really struck a chord with me last night was when Valenti spoke about the battle over women's rights over their own sexuality and how we're still frighteningly far away from owning those.
There are the purity balls attempting to convince young women that their value lies between their legs and that that commodity belongs to daddy until a suitable man comes along to whom its ownership can be transferred. There is abstinence-only education that fills young women's heads with lies leaving them more likely than those given true sex education to end up having oral and anal sex and contracting STDs. And, of course, they also reiterate to girls that their value is their virginity. Lose that and you have nothing left to offer. Then there are the lovely advertising campaigns that tell woman all the things they must do and buy to be sexually attractive else they find themselves -- horror of all horros! -- without a man.
I can't help but marvel at how much this battle over female sexuality and the refusal to allow women to own it themselves so directly affects the way people look at me. As a bi-sexual, polyamorous, married woman, I epitomize a woman who demands control over her own sexuality. That terrifies people. And rightly so. Once we girls refuse to think of ourselves as nothing more than receptacles for the male sex organ, then we are free to spend less time tossing our hair and more time tossing out the trash who are serving in office, making the laws, presiding over the bench, and generally perpetuating the myth of woman as helpless toy.
What some people fail to understand though is that women having control over their own sexuality (let alone their bodies and their minds and their lives) benefits everyone because those women have the opportunity to be whole women. And no self-respecting man should want anything less. No more guessing what she's thinking or what she wants. No more living with someone who has become so programmed to ignore her own desires that she doesn't even remember what they were. No more wishing you had an equal but pretending you wanted Barbie.
I used to be upset by the people who called me a whore and said they pitied my husband. "Who are you to think you deserve to be happy?" their comments seemed to say. "How dare you want to be fulfilled sexually? You're just a woman," I heard them whispering between the lines. But now I simply pity them. Sexuality has gotten a bad rap. It's great in the movies and in the glossy magazines, but when it comes to real life, it's supposed to be ignored for "higher" pursuits. Well, hell with that. My sexuality is part of me and it is no more nor less of a part than anything else.
Men who want to rule the playground are right to be frightened of women like me. They are right to be concerned that the balance of power might shift to the center and away from their boy's club. As long as woman can be made to feel badly about their sexuality, so too can they be distracted from the larger issues. But I have hope that those days are numbered.
Valenti and the many other young women like her are fighting for that change. And so am I. For as far as I'm concerned, redefining marriage and validating relationships outside of heterosexual, monogamous marriages is one of the many ways we can work toward returning a woman's sexuality to its rightful owner. And, trust me, she wants it back.
Author of Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage