“He totally objectified me,” a 20-someting woman told me of her encounter with a customer who addressed her breasts rather than her face.
I get a case of the warm and fuzzies when I hear such talk, not because I want to see women objectified, but because sexist behaviour is being labelled for what it is. Far from the problem that has no name, women are using the full vocabulary to describe their experiences of sexism. Once confined to the tutorial room, words and phrases such as “patriarchy”, “misogyny”, “gender pay gap”, and “domestic equality”, are now part of everyday language.
But there is one phrase that needs to be added to the lexicon: intimate justice. Coined by researcher and psychologist at the University of Michigan Sara McClelland, intimate justice refers to a woman’s right to sexual pleasure – and the expectation that we are entitled to it.
McClelland, who wrote a doctoral thesis on the sexual satisfaction of young adults, found that despite a degree of liberation around sex, young women often measured their sexual satisfaction by their partner’s pleasure rather than their own. The women in McClelland’s study would say things like “If he’s sexually satisfied, then I’m sexually satisfied.” Not surprisingly, young men measured their sexual satisfaction by ejaculation.
When young women did reflect on their own sexual pleasure, their criteria for a good sexual experience was often that it didn’t hurt. That’s a depressingly low bar.
This is consistent with my conversations with young women. When I interviewed teenage girls from two elite private schools in Melbourne about their experience of oral sex, I found that while they felt “sexually empowered” to engage in oral sex, they did not enjoy it. More depressingly, they didn’t even expect to enjoy it. Oral is just something girls give to guys.
I asked the girls if the guys ever reciprocated and gave them oral sex. They laughed and squirmed with embarrassment as if the very suggestion was ridiculous. As one girl put it, “That would be gross.”
Despite having the world at their feet, these young women were on their knees providing sexual services without any expectation that they might have desires to be fulfilled or pleasures to be satiated.
Sexual empowerment is great in theory, but if it’s a one-way street where women service men’s needs without any consideration for their own, then it’s hardly empowerment. Our daughters are not going to learn about intimate justice from our culture. The only way they will feel entitled to sexual equality if is we make a conscious effort to teach them.
- Name all body parts from infancyLanguage is important. What we can name shapes our lives and experience. When we resort to euphemisms or avoid talking about something entirely, we create fear, embarrassment and shame. As a small step, talk about vaginas/vulvas/clitorises as freely and in the same tone as other body parts.
- Make sure she knows what real vaginas look like
From porn to Photoshopped images of female genitalia, girls are growing up in a world that tells them that Barbie is anatomically correct. And when they don’t measure up, they feel like a freak and increasingly go to extreme lengths such as labiaplasty, the trimming of the inner and outer labia. Getting comfortable in her own skin is an important step toward empowerment.
- Unpack the “personal choice” of hair removal and intimate body sprays and other ways women feel compelled to hide/mask their natural bodies.
There is big business in making girls and women believe that their genitalia (and their entire body) is gross in its natural state and needs to be “fixed”. While the beauty industry fills its pockets, girls and women are left with body shame and self-loathing. Engage your daughter in a conversation about why girls and women take on these practices and who benefits from their compliance.
- Challenge romance indoctrination
From fairy tales to reality TV shows, girls are taught that the pinnacle of a woman’s life is to be chosen by a prince. I’m raising my girls to be single women who will hopefully choose a partner if they want one, not because they feel they need one. Should my girls be heterosexual, I want them to know that no man is better than a bad one, one who does not believe in their right to intimate justice.
- Make sure your sex talks include pleasure rather than just risk mitigation strategies
Sex education for girls is often limited periods and how not to get pregnant. She will probably grow up feeling entitled to sex but unless your sex-talks include her right to fun and pleasure it is unlikely she will feel entitled to enjoy sex.
- Repeat the above steps with sons
If girls are growing up believing that sexual pleasure is something women are supposed to provide to men, then it stands to reason that boys will have the same belief. Just like girls, the only way boys will learn about intimate justice is if someone – us – makes a concerted effort to teach them.
Kasey Edwards is the author of Guilt Trip: My Quest To Leave The Baggage Behind. www.kaseyedwards.com