Last night I was casually watching re-runs of The Big Bang Theory on my local NBC station. It was one of the episodes where newly wed Howard was still on the International Space Station and having difficulties dealing with the closed quarters of life in space.
At the very end of that episode Howard has just been given an anti-anxiety drug and decides to strip down to his pants (underwear) on a video call to his wife. For several seconds we see the contours of the actor’s man parts under that minimal clothing. Instead of being turned on I found I was absolutely revulsed. No, I really DON’T want see a man’s parts on television like that, not even indirectly through his clothing.
Thinking about my feelings and sharing them with my best friend my contemplative nature found itself exploring the deeper aspects to my gut reaction to this very quick final scene to the show. Why are women expected to enjoy the public display of a man’s sexual features? Why are we supposed to be turned on by every man and want sex any time anyone expresses the slightest interest?
Looking back at my past I noticed a pattern: flirting with someone not because I wanted sex with him but too often to distract him from abusive impulses that might suddenly explode and endanger my safety. I also realized that there is an unconscious pressure and expectation put upon me as a woman that I should be sexually ready and interested in the men in my life and consent to their advances any time and any where they might occur. The second half to this is more frightening still: failure to be whatever a man wants or expects of me sexually means that he is likely to simply impose himself on me in the form of sexual assault.
Or thought of another way: I either force myself to say yes or I will suffer a more violent response from him that still results in sex anyway. Hence the forced flirtations as a defense strategy.
Though we tend to deny it to ourselves and those close to us, women too often have to live in a sexual minefield where the potential for sexual assault is everywhere. So we engage in unconscious defensive behaviours. We flirt. We pretend to like people we don’t. We smile at people behind gritted teeth. We pretend to be okay with behaviours we find uncomfortable. We play act, concealing our real opinions and emotions in an effort to keep unwanted advances at bay. There’s a mind game to this, even when we are not aware of it. We even convince ourselves that we find something sexually appealing when it really frightens or repels us.
Nowhere is this mind game more evident than the infamous “Fifty Shades of Grey” where main character Anastasia Steele forces herself to consent to sexually abusive and highly controlling behaviours from Christian Grey, often making excuses for him.
Like Anastasia, we too often pretend to like things sexually that we do not. We pretend interest we lack. Society tells us that the way a woman is supposed to express her romantic love is sex. And not just sex but the any time, any where, any way that the man wants. To love is to become his sexual servant. Add in religion to the mix and women are told that our needs do not matter. We are inferior. God made man in His image–but women are the source of evil in this world, born flawed and incapable of Goodness on our own without a man directing us and telling us who to be and what to do. So it is only right that men should rule over us; we women are not capable of making our own choices, especially when it comes to our bodies. Especially when it comes to sex. Can it be any wonder then that so many male politicians feel duty-bound to regulate the intimate affairs of women? How can they trust women to make their own choices?
Sex is something I want in my life — but not just sex. I want a healthy sexuality. I want to express myself sexually from a genuine place of love and devotion. Yet who can do that when we must continually and often unconsciously living our lives defensively? When the world around us is so unsafe and sexual assault persists as a constant danger? How can any woman feel truly at ease even in her own home with those she loves?
These are very real questions that must be addressed by our society. We must stop making excuses and fight against both institutional sexism and rape culture. As women we need to learn how to say “no” and be true to our actual feelings. We need to be okay inside ourselves and with those we love with expressing love in many different ways instead of tightly correlating love and sex. Because they are genuinely not the same thing. Not all acts of sex come from love and not all acts of love are sex — even in romantic relationships, even in our marriages.
Love can take many forms. We need to embrace that. We need to stop pressuring ourselves and others into this very unhealthy idea that sex and romantic love are one and the same. Just because I love you does not mean I want to have sex with you or sex with you right now. Love is not a blank cheque to sex. Saying no to sex is not a rejection of the other person. As a matter of fact, it takes courage to say no to sex when you love someone, to love yourself and respect your partner enough to only be sexual with her or him when you really truly feel you want to be. The easy road, the one drilled into women from a very early age, is that we shouldn’t say no when we don’t want sex — just lay there and take it because it will soon be over.
That’s no way to live. That is no way to love.