When I was a child, the longing for excitement is why I wanted to be big, to grow up. I wanted to be fully in my power, and outside the paternalistic constraints of the household. I wanted to be my own person, my own woman – expressive, knowing and strong.
I marveled at women who appeared to have that vitality. They were my role models, showing me what freedom would look and feel like. At my insistence, my mother hired Grease from the video store every time we went. I watched Sandy in awe as she went to the beach by herself, met a man there for the first time, and then frolicked and went swimming in the sea with him because she had that much freedom. Then I watched how, because Sandy was a “pleasing” girl, she would have to ditch her yellow pastel cardigans and innocent grin if she wanted to keep the sense of aliveness she felt that day with beach guy. Then whammo – Sandy meets up with Danny at a fair in leather pants and a shit tonne of make up, calls him a stud and stubs her cigarette out under her high heel to go dirty dancing on a children’s ride. Transformation complete. Sandy in her “power”.
I thought that I was half alive.
I would have to cover that up about myself until I could be more like post-makeover Sandy.
I would play all this out with my barbies. My Beverly Hills 90210 dolls had turbulent fights over one another just like the “fully alive” young adults that I watched on television.
One afternoon, Brenda was walking along the beach, along the shoreline where my bedroom floor met my bed base. Brenda was in a melancholy blue cape, probably sad that she wasn’t yet alive – and she was about to be spotted by a boy barbie who was probably going to grant her gift of said life. I was trying to make Brenda’s hair “flow in the wind” when the beach scene ceased abruptly. Boys hate that stuff, I thought suddenly. Boys hate hair and “flowing” things and female beauty stuff. They hate it eagerly.
I put down the dolls, closed my eyes and squeezed them shut with enough focus to send a message twenty years into the future. I said to my own adult self: do not marry the wrong man. Somehow, in this instant I knew it could really destroy me. Whatever you do, do not marry the wrong man.
At 33, it’s only now can I can look back and reply, “Deal!”
I prayed hard at myself in that moment, when my child self had a glimpse of what woman hating is – it seems I understood what my desire for self-possession would have to survive, to stick out two decades.
The feeling I had of being half alive persisted. I was ordered by boys much bigger than me to take my leggings off in the playground. It stuck around when I was eleven, and friends began to tell me that they were having sex – in bed, in the school swimming pool. I didn’t know what stories were true, but I was ashamed by how mystified I felt to hear them. Now I am ashamed about the way this culture stops girls and women from recognising when our own friends, and even when we ourselves, are being abused.
At twelve a bunch of tough kids in my class approached me, armed with copies of TV Hits magazine. I was instructed to divulge to them which celebrity I would have sex with if I could have sex with any male celebrity. I think I was meant to oblige with a swooning “Johnathan Taylor Thomas, definitely.” Instead I went very red and said that I was only twelve and that if a celebrity wanted to sleep with me then he was a creep. I went redder when they laughed at me as though I had just announced that nobody was good enough to touch me because I am the princess next in line to be Queen of England.
I became very shy. I started blushing almost every time a boy looked in my direction. I gave all my sexy woman popstar stickers from TV Hits to a boy in my class who used to sellotape Baywatch posters to the inside of his desk lid. I didn’t want the stickers, but maybe as his supplier I could keep him on side.
By high school, boys could smell that I felt half alive from across the field and I knew it. I knew I made a target of myself with all the blushing. But there was no way to stop, no way to be any more quiet, no way to be any more small or invisible. I blushed harder. Cars tooted at me on my way home from school – my heart jumped because that was when I was winding down. I would lift my gaze from my science book in class to see a boy wiggling his tongue at me through two fingers. My friends told me stories of their sexual escapades – in the backs of cars, on couches. Like a fish does not see the water, I was blind to recognising abuse.
One of my friends told me about her first time performing fellatio. “Don’t worry,” she said. “There’s no hair on the shaft.”
We were figuring out how to be daring, how to put one another at ease with it. Dolly helped with the grooming. Teen Vogue is doing the same thing now, teaching girls about “how to do” anal sex.
To anyone who says that sexuality is innate – whether hetero or homosexuality – I was not born yearning for what heterosexuality entailed for me. The men I have loved, I learned to love.
She meant the world to me, my friend, who the boys were using without my seeing it. She made me hurt with laughter. We went to concerts together, and crowd surfed, and had sleepovers, and could say anything to each other – on the phone, or during summer walks with ice blocks or smuggled booze. I wish I had been a better friend to her. I wish I had not been so blind to how she was being treated.
Only recently did we share with each other what we’d each been thinking: I thought she was outgoing and adventurous, and that I was half alive. She said that she thought she was preyed on for having low self esteem – that I was one of the ones who got “girlfriended” because I was respected. Don’t worry, I assured her. They didn’t respect me. And I had no idea she had a low self esteem. I thought she was the best thing since The Colour and the Shape.
I was “tight” and a “wench” from the first days of high school – that’s what I was told and that’s what I believed. I didn’t want to be too boring for the girls I liked and wanted to be friends with, so in later years I tried to prove myself to them. I went to bars and I let men I didn’t even bother to speak to grope me and put their tongues in my mouth. For years I really thought I had to do that. I drunk Jim Beam and coke, for Chrissakes (think “badass Sandy”).
Our school sex education teachers did little but show us how to chuckle heartily whilst rolling a condom onto a stick. Still, I don’t know what difference “consent education” would have made to us, in this culture of grooming and coercion. We knew that adults believed that we were officially allowed to say “no” to sex – that was not the problem. High school was a pressure cooker.
Pornland author Gail Dines writes about how boys learn to categorise girls as “fuckable” or “invisible” from a young age. My own response to that socialisation was to lose a good dose of perspective on who I was, what I was doing to myself as well as what was really happening to my friends. I wonder what school was like for the girls who the rest of us were too scared to even associate with, because the boys didn’t like them.
My stomach turns when I consider that my first year of high school was 1997: twenty years ago. My life was sheltered, my parents are still together, my father is doing the same job now as then. We didn’t struggle. To this day, I have not watched porn. I was steeped in it without watching it for myself, I knew the boys shared material, talked about it, tried it out on us, asked us if we spitroasted or teabagged or whatever was the latest. But it wasn’t in my home, we didn’t have smartphones, and the internet was new. Still – these pictures of me were taken when I was twelve.
In 1996, we had a “school computer”. One week, a cool kid deemed Computer Whizz from the year above me called us out of class one by one to show us “the world wide web”. When it was my turn, I followed him across the courtyard and into the hall where the computer was, to sit next to him in front of a black screen that would look like an error message if my laptop produced it now. It was a chat screen that we used to talk to someone all the way in India – I was amazed. Perhaps not more than I was uncomfortable. We were alone in the room, and I wanted to go back to class.
TV Hits and Smash Hits and Dolly magazines were enough to encourage the sexism brewing among us as kids – I’ve since learned that Dolly is published by pornographers. Now, kids have PornHub on iPads, and teachers who likely watch “teen porn” (one of the most frequently searched terms on the web) telling girls that their socks are porno and their skirts distracting, and girls organising their own marches against the rape culture that is getting so bad its no longer possible to stay blind in it, and – in the face of that – principals opting to open up female bathrooms to male students. The place we used to be able to go to get away.
Now, girls are bigots if they try to utter a defense of girls’ bathrooms as something we need. A safe space. A private space.
Would I have wanted to ditch all of this, if I was adolescent now and not then, and announce that I was a boy? Would that have seemed like my most viable and honest option, to feel fully alive? It’s on the table, today. And who knows, perhaps I would have considered it. After all, I let men I didn’t know from Adam French kiss me in bars. Other girls had children before they were twenty. Others binge drank. One friend had anorexia. Now, there is breast binding. (“We’re now out of smalls”, gloats a RainbowYouth breast binder promotion).
It seems men are, and have always been, working extremely hard not to let women out of this prison we are in – to the point of advocating this new eugenics movement, in the name, again, of the freedom they must know we all long for so deeply, so much.
It is not only rape culture that eviscerates girls at school, either. Not only this coercive, predatory environment. In my first years of high school, I wasn’t eligible to take history classes, because history was for “accelerent” pupils. I was not “accelerent”, according to the results of a Progressive Achievement Test I sat when I was twelve. I liked reading, and writing, and I wanted to understand the world. I read Greek mythology and Sophie’s World. But, fair turnabout. I didn’t think I would understand history anyway. And what was I going to do with hundreds of years of complicated military strategy, even if I could understand it?
By fourteen, I felt depressed. Some time around then I painted a cathartic, crude picture of myself as a hostage with a gun to my head, only walking forward because I had no other option. I don’t feel like that now. Only now do I not feel like that any more.
I had to move a mountain.
At sixteen, during a class on French customs, we looked at pictures of traditional weddings in France. So we talked about marriage. My French class consisted mainly of girls, so we would chat easily. “I never want to get married,” I said, probably as much to be contrarian as in earnest. The teacher looked at me like it was the saddest thing he had heard. It was, actually, radical to me the way he always spoke lovingly of his wife – he was so unreservedly happy and proud to be married to her. That wasn’t the attitude I was familiar with. The “ball and chain” way men would talk about their wives was what I considered normal. I didn’t want to be a “ball and chain”. Was I just being cynical?
It definitely seemed that heterosexual “romance” was absolutely necessary to believe in, said every novel and every movie, and every song playing in every corner dairy, in the car, at the shopping mall, and in my bedroom, all the time. So for more than a decade, I tried to believe in it. I loved my first boyfriend as a soulmate, even after he asked me why we hadn’t had sex yet because petrol costs money and he wasn’t a charity.
I have since been treated and evaluated like a bedroom accessory, once losing seven kilos in two weeks because of this. It has always been my own fault. I have wondered during sex why hands were at my throat. I have been folded in half by men pressing my knees to my shoulders whilst thrusting themselves into my body, not minding that I could not breathe. This must make other women moan, I thought. Maybe their pelvises are differently structured. Maybe their backs are not as sway. I could see a chiropractor.
In hindsight it seems that boys learn more about sex from one another, from sharing porn, from “locker room talk” and taking interest in one another’s sexual enjoyment, than they ever do from taking patient care to discover what sex and sexual pleasure mean for the women they are intimate with.
How many of us even had the chance to ask ourselves these questions, in any kind of eye-opening way?
In the flat I lived in during my first year of university, one of the boys, Matt, once crawled into my bed after watching porn with the other guys in the living room. He just wriggled in on the wall side and stayed there, because I couldn’t push him out. I had been sleeping, but never mind, he had decided that he wanted to make me squirm. Another time about five of those boys tried to bash my locked bedroom door in with a roadcone.
“The common erotic project of destroying women makes it possible for men to unite into a brotherhood,” writes Andrea Dworkin – echoing a point made by many second wave feminists. “This project is the only firm and trustworthy groundwork for cooperation among males and all male bonding is based on it.” This breaking of women is sadistic, and “almost always contains an idealized, or unreal, view of male fellowship.”
This idealized view of male fellowship espouses the essentially homosexual character of male society. Men use women’s bodies to form alliances or bonds with each other. Men use women’s bodies to achieve recognizable power which will certify male identity in the eyes of other men… We think we live in a heterosexual society because most men are fixated on women as sexual objects; but, in fact, we live in a homosexual society because all credible transactions of power, authority, and authenticity take place among men; all transactions based on equity and individuality take place among men. Men are real; therefore, all real relationship is between men… all real mutuality is between men.
It is men, both heterosexual and homosexual, who currently control and dictate mainstream understandings of sexual freedom. Whether they are pimps claiming that prostitution or pole dancing are empowering for women, gay men celebrating the institution of marriage, pedophiles lobbying to have child abuse redefined as sexual orientation, or men opting for genital reassignment – women are supposed to accept that freedom exists on their terms. Somewhere between prostitution, marriage, polyamory, BDSM, Tinder dating, breast binding, testosterone shots and pole dancing, women are supposed to believe we can discover freedom.
Yet, as Susanne Kappeler warns, echoing Dworkin: “As feminists, we would do well to remember and highlight the fact that the history of liberalism, of libertarianism, and libertinism has been a history of gentlemen advocating liberty and license for gentlemen – liberties to which the rights and liberty of women have routinely been sacrificed.”
Women have been made to put not only every orifice of our bodies on the dating, marriage and prostitution markets, but our hair, wombs, eggs, and breast milk are commodified to boot. We are now expected to offer our toilets, refuges, lesbian libraries and our own uteruses to men who say they are oppressed because they are not born inside our bodies. There are no limits to what men will ask women to sacrifice in the name of freedom.
“The march of mechanical masculinist progress,” writes Mary Daly, “is toward the elimination of female Self-centering reality.” While men now demand we acknowledge their rights to our insides – the inside of our safehouses, our midwives’ associations, the inside of our reproductive anatomies – girls are offered mutilating breast binders to stifle growth and crunch the lungs. These are supposed to help girls to feel fully themselves, fully alive.
All the options girls are offered for self-realisation are laughable. From promiscuity to marriage, to blending into the wallpaper, starving ourselves perfect, cosmetic enhancement, or believing that we are actually male – it is all ridiculous. On that basis I can see how girls, especially lesbian girls, are taking this new option seriously, in increasing numbers.
Discovering a way of thinking about freedom and sexuality that doesn’t somehow ultimately involve identification with men and the male gaze, can seem so impossible it doesn’t even occur to many women to attempt it.
Yet sexual freedom cannot exist on the terms men have set. It cannot involve the glamorisation of danger or the eroticisation of violence that pornography promotes. There is no sexual freedom supply chain. Sexual freedom is not produced, filmed and sold on any marketplace, and it cannot be purchased.
Sexual freedom does not involve special equipment or scientific trials. Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism, or BDSM, is not freedom. Sexual freedom will never look like slavery or imitate the aesthetic of witch trial torture chambers.
Neither marriage nor polyamory will ever secure women sexual freedom. Calling oneself “queer” in order to signal distinction from boring and ordinary heterosexual women and lesbians is not a kind of liberation. Pedophiles are not “queer”. There are no philosophical academic texts on “child sexuality” on the road to freedom. Freedom does not call lesbians “transphobic”. Sexual freedom is not an entitlement to have access to anybody, virtually or in real life. Someone tell San Francisco that public penis does not promote sexual freedom.
Freedom does not come dressed in stilletos for pole dancing or for burlesque. It cannot be gained by reframing subordination as empowerment, and it exists neither in wilful nor imposed ignorance. Simply pretending the male gaze is not a pervasive cultural influence will not gain any woman freedom.
We are so far away from offering girls what they really need, in order to know their own vitality: decolonisation. Neither our culture, our media, nor our public school system will deliver that to girls, because it would involve radical, feminist transformation. At the moment, radical feminism is taboo – girls are not even allowed to begin to formulate radical ideas about their own liberation, let alone will we ever see them distributed routinely through mainstream channels.
Sarah Ditum has made the point that “female academic success has barely dented the wage gap. Maybe that’s because boys are learning something so much more valuable at school than simply how to pass an exam,” she says, “they’re learning how to dominate.”
In school, sex is synonymous with pornography, and history with military strategy. Girls are taught to vanish ourselves – sex ed teachers show us how to put the condom on. There is no legitimate female vantage point.
In the history and analyses of radical feminists, females do not only make appearances, but women’s experiences constitute the only real lens through which to gain meaningful understanding of the world and human history.
There are brothels almost wherever there are military bases. Why is that? When Egyptian women fought in nationalist movements against the British invasion in the 1950s, women’s status improved – so there was a subsequent surge in religious fundamentalist calls for a return to compulsory veils. 15 million girls are still sold into child marriage each year. The practice of gynecology that diagnosed “hysteria” as coming from women’s ovaries was established after midwives were burned as witches in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Women do two thirds of the world’s work. We make up 85-90% of sweatshop workers. Feminist groups all over the world resist all of forms of sex-based oppression, in order to transform the world at large.
“It takes a lot of information-gathering,” say Cynthia Enloe, author of Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, “a lot of thinking, a lot of trial and error and a lot of emotionally draining work to understand how notions about femininity and masculinity create and sustain global inequalities and oppressions.”
Beginning to understand myself as a part of the world, and the unfolding story of women’s existence and women’s resistance is confronting and challenging, and in many ways isolating, for me – but it also a relief from terror. I share this life with women everywhere. It does not require validation by any man. I would not trade in this thrilling, frightening adventure for any pallid substitute.
Seeking and spending time with feminists has given me a greater, lasting sense of being in my own body than I have experienced before.
Feminists continue to expand my worldview so that I feel more solidarity than mystification hearing about the lives of women around the world, in situations that had previously baffled me. With this solidarity, my humanity is returning. I can perceive the world with my own eyes, my own woman’s eyes. The idea that I can continuously build that capacity, in a mind and body that is mine, in a life that I can work to make independent, is exciting. At the same time, recognising the patterns of male dominance in my own life and rejecting it, is easier. I understand my female friends better.
For me, this is a spiritual, physical, political, social, personal and sexual awakening – not reducible to any one of those. And it is only a beginning. But it is a beginning, at 33, of feeling alive, and it makes me wonder. What would happen to our culture if girls could have this beginning while we are young?