A while back I attended a sexual empowerment workshop with a group of female friends. The workshop was all-inclusive and (gasp!) interactive. The forty or so participants formed a circle in a high-ceilinged room; all plush sofas and weathered pine floorboards. Then, moving in turn to each and every individual, sexual preferences and experiences were openly discussed.
That’s right, out loud. With everyone watching, and listening. Of course, it was perfectly terrifying at first. But then, after a few brave and independent souls got the ball rolling, we all loosened up, the tense atmosphere dissipated, and we got very much into the spirit of things.
The chat was light-hearted, respectfully curious, totally accepting, and very little was held back. Toe sucking, lip biting, belly rubbing, you name it; it was all there, laid out on the table for all to see. The depth and breadth of people’s stories and quirks was amazing, and the variety that emerged in such a short time really struck me. My friends and I left the room that day in glow of ebullience, a new kind of dialogue opened up between us, a new spring in our collective step.
I think that the root of our elation that afternoon was the simple fact that opportunities for us to discuss sexuality in a non-judgemental environment and to talk honestly about what we want out of sexual relationships are so very scarce. We were uplifted after being encouraged to disinhibit ourselves in this way, and to throw the light on some issues normally only suggested at; vague dark shapes lurking somewhere on the peripheries of our conversations. In the sexual empowerment discussion these issues were pushed resolutely to the foreground, all shadow and light, in full relief, open and proud. We aired out insecurities and came bursting through the smoky miasma together with a fresh glee, clearing the room of all apprehension and doubt.
Why is it that we can’t speak to each other with such honesty and clarity so much more often? Things to do with sexuality relate to central aspects of who we are as women, and as people. Since that day, my friends and I have resolved to sit down together more regularly and ask one another: “How’s the sex going?” We do this because we’re tired of sexual experience, female sexual experience especially, being denied adequate voice. We are sick of the same airbrushed, far-removed addressing of sex being rehashed time and time again in those insulting, patronising publications we call (for want of a better categorisation) ‘women’s magazines.’ How many of us would truly want to claim that kind of didactic tripe as our own? Magazines which masquerade as something which endeavour to help us live a better life churn out ‘sex advice’ informing us how to please our men (if you’re gay you don’t even figure into the ‘advice’), and how to market ourselves acceptably, appearing submissive enough so as not to scare all the boys away.
My small group of friends and I are certainly not only ones who feel like we’re being hard done by. Many women are angry at the ubiquity of media messages peddling sexual ideals which are alien to us, so far-removed from anything we know. The problem is wider than the media too, with society in general ignoring the legitimacy of different types of experience, making women feel weird or deviant when they don’t conform to abstract ‘norms’.
Lisa Diamond wrote a book about female sexual fluidity. In it, she pointed out that there might be missing pieces in the scientific understanding of female sexuality on account of how much of the research has been conducted by men. She suggested that the current understanding of sexuality and sexual orientations might fit male experiences relatively well, but that the male-dominated landscape of the research could mean that a whole dimension of female experience has been effectively ignored.
This might seem like a thought bordering on the mind-boggling, but we must bear in mind that when it comes to research into something as variable and elusive as sexuality, variety of approach is key. This is because the kinds of questions that the researcher asks essentially determine what can be found, and also how the findings are interpreted. In turn, the kinds of questions you ask are dictated by your own experience in the first place. Therefore, only by having a body of research produced by a variety of different researchers of different genders, can we really develop a fully fleshed-out, true-to-life understanding of the nature of sexuality.
Variety is the spice and soul of life; it makes the world go round. To embrace a little more variety would make the world less dull, more interesting, and make many of us much, much happier. For too long women have had their preferences dictated to them. Those who switch from heterosexual relationships, for example, to preferring lesbian relationships or vice versa through the course of their lives have long been treated as curious outliers in research, and essentially ignored in popular culture. However, Diamond has suggested that this pattern may actually be an integral feature of the sexual experience of a large proportion of women.
Of course there are some things are changing for the better, like the emergence of some quite positive, sexually confident and outspoken role models in pop culture, such as the openly bisexual and gay rights campaigner Lady Gaga. It’s also true that many women are happy, in control, and know how to get what they want. But the freedom to do this still needs to be more far-reaching, and normal experiences and variations need to be looked on as such, rather than as deviancy and confounds. It’s great that pop culture figures are stepping out and talking about experiences that are not always heteronormative and docile, but we must go further than that, and show that you don’t need to be some kind of glamorous renegade to have attitudes like these. We all need to start talking about it, and asking one another “How’s the sex going?” and if it’s not good, then why not, and what needs to change?
We need to show each other that it’s cool to like what you like, and there are no universal standards of what’s normal. The only way to arrive at these understandings is to talk. There is a spiky urgency for better sex ed in schools, and a broader, more socially aware outlook permeating all classroom activities. Why do we think that LGBT students are having such a hard time in Irish education, and that gender stereotypes still prevail throughout many levels of our society? If children are shown early on that sexuality is not just black and white, but dynamic and multifaceted, and are given the skills to challenge stereotypes, it is certainly possible to develop a new level of confidence, acceptance and celebration of each and every kind of happy and healthy sex.
This is not as unrealistic as it may appear. A few changes to the way things are done could make leaps towards transforming a generation into one that’s naturally more open-minded, who wouldn’t be automatically inclined towards a sense of apprehensive dread before embarking upon a thing called an ‘interactive sexual empowerment workshop.’ Instead, they would see this as totally normal social discussion. Maybe then we’d all start demanding better representation in our media and our pop music, reflecting what we are really like, and not someone else’s money-grabbing prescription of what we should want to be like.
Unattainable standards and plastic portrayals of sex and bodies do men a disservice too. To say nothing of the negative impact which stiff heteronormative standards of masculinity can have on gay men, it leans dangerously towards creating a lethally boring and one-dimensional Gentleman’s Club of heterosexual men too, who are conditioned to lust after one idealised form of woman and sex because that’s what’s sold to them as normality.
Our bodies are for feeling, not just for showcasing. How wonderful if we could all get together more to reject the crazy things the media try to push on us, and get on with the far more important business of loving our bodies and learning to be more honest and true to ourselves. Let’s open the discussion and endorse the whole spectrum of variety, let’s sit down and communicate with one another. Let’s all ask each other, and ask ourselves, and answer honestly: How is your sex going? Who knows, the answers just might surprise you.
The sexual empowerment workshop mentioned in this piece was facilitated by Leslie Sherlock. Leslie has been involved with a number of different initiatives relating to sexuality and gender, and she also does research in education. She is an excellent speaker - sensitive and encouraging, but with a playful, light-hearted approach. Leslie has run many fun, engaging, and thought-provoking workshops like the one mentioned here, as well as facilitating discussion and training around heteronormativity and trans issues, among others, in a number of different locations around Ireland.
Article by Áine Travers
Jeanette Winterson's first novel, Oranges Aren't the Only fruit, was the latest book read by the IFN Book Club. Its main character, Jeanette, talks about her childhood growing up in a Fundamentalist Christian home, with an adoptive mother who isn't emotionally available and a father that hardly speaks. Her upbringing is marked by intense Bible readings, mixed feelings and strong self-belief.
While her mother's voice is dominant in their home, her father is practically mute. This brings up the topic of gender roles. Men are scarce in the novel, with the exception of Pastor Spratt and Jeanette's father. Furthermore, Jeanette is accused of being too male/masculine, which is put down to her wielding too much power, preaching at Church and teaching Sunday school. The mother's relationship with a French boy, Pierre, adds something to the novel’s commentary on male-female relationships. We learn that she spent the night with him and ended up going to the doctor to discover she had a stomach ulcer. That fuzzy feeling wasn’t love after all! Her unwavering decision to follow the path of the righteous was her saving grace. This is a woman determined to have her daughter follow in her footsteps, and avoid falling foul of sins of the flesh. Not like their next-door neighbours who fornicate loudly on Sundays!
In terms of the women represented in the novel, we have the women in the church, Jeanette's friend Elsie, Jeanette's girlfriends, her mother and a very brief account of her birth mother. Jeanette's relationships with Melanie, and later Katy, have the ups and downs of any teen romance but Melanie's betrayal hurts Jeanette intensely – she was able to justify her love for both Melanie and God and saw nothing wrong with loving both. Her church performs an exorcism, their form of gay conversion. Afterwards Jeanette is seduced by Miss Jewsbury, an older member of the church, which leaves her with mixed feelings once again. Meanwhile, one of Jeanette’s only friends in the novel, Elsie, provides support for her inside and outside the Church, and seems to be a genuine, loving and religious person at heart.
The religious fervour of their church, the Society of the Lost, is prevalent throughout the novel, whether it's through the members of the group singing and praying in protest, or converting more souls for Christ. Related to this theme of religious belief, is the testing of Jeanette's own during the exorcism, aiming to rid her of her ‘demons’. She experiences a vision of an orange demon that tells her to make a choice - either continue as she is or make a change. Clearly, her self-belief and faith in God give her the strength to make that decision. Unable to live at home any longer due to her mother's insistence that she’s evil, Jeanette takes a job in a funeral parlour, sells ice cream from a van and eventually moves out of town. After some time away, she returns home to visit her parents. Technology has arrived in the form of an electric organ and new radio but the religious fervour remains.
This book would be good for teens, not just as a coming out story but also as the journey of a teenager who questions the life she's living and searches for a true self. There are some parallels between this novel and the writer's own life, but as Winterson says: "Oranges is the document, both true and false, which will have to serve for my life until I went to Oxford, and after that I daresay that whatever I tell you will be another document, one that is both true and false."
I urge you to read this book. Please give it to somebody you know when you're done – sharing is caring.
Review by Emma Keenan
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