At age 20, I was lying in bed the morning after my first date with a man I’d been enamoured by for months when his hand slid into my underwear.
“So, what do you like?” he said as he looked at me.
I stared at him for a few moments. My mind was blank.
“Um… I don’t know. No one’s ever asked me that, I’m not sure how to answer,” I mumbled, freaking out: how do I not have an answer to that? How have I slept with the amount of people I have and not have an answer to that?
For years, I wore my body count like a badge of honour, a nametag in place of my authentic identity. I was playing into the narrative of the Cool Girl, the one who doesn’t want a boyfriend, doesn’t care if you don’t return the oral sex favour, and will always gun for some light BDSM. When asked, I couldn’t name what I liked in bed.
I was mostly sleeping with the worst kinds of men. The ones who jerk off to Big Titty Teen on Pornhub but label the girls who post bikini photos in their Instagram feeds as sluts. The ones who love to fuck the random drunk girl at the party, but would absolutely never date her for virtue of the fact that she’s someone they slept with at a party. The ones who unknowingly live in the textbook Madonna-Whore complex; the ones who construct the praise we receive when we fully embody our choice of sexual freedom – “I love how you’re not like the other girls” – while simultaneously condemning us – “yeah, she was such a slut, though”.
It’s a sad paradigm to be stuck in, yet women who sleep with such men must exist in order for the men to be able to make such a polarising distinction between the Madonnas and the Whores – and there I was, thriving in the whore world, under the guise of empowerment. I was inadvertently supporting the oppressive patriarchal structures that so often suffocated my sense of self and reduced me to a sexual thing instead of a thinking thing, as well as all the women in my circles, in my country.
Encouraging and even rewarding gross behaviour from men if it meant I could continue to embody my Cool Girl persona, in which I felt desirable and sought after, was my MO. If I were not encouraging married men at the bar I worked to flirt with me, or relinquishing my hopes of a second date with someone in exchange to be used as their booty call, I was implicitly rewarding poor sexual behaviour from men by never voicing when I was uncomfortable, or not enjoying it.
Men could sleep with the drunkest, most fun girl at the party without much of a discussion around consent or protection, without bothering to make her cum, without asking her what she likes and being completely correct when he assumes it’s choking or slapping because she hasn’t had the chance to explore her likes past the porn-friendly narrative of light BDSM. If this same woman had branded herself as an empowered woman, who is to tell them otherwise? If the loudest feminist on Instagram and at the party while the sun is still up says casual sex is the key to taking down the patriarchy so long as no one calls her a slut in the process, then how will men know that respectful sex involves minimal intoxication, open communication and expressing desire?
This continued behaviour meant my male counterparts didn’t have to confront the ugly truth about being a man in the emerging equal world: you must be very, very clear on consent; women are not going to want to sleep with you if you behave like a sleaze; it’s really difficult to make a woman cum on the first, second, third try; if you’re married, talking to young women about what position you’d fuck them in makes you a piece of shit. But to me, I wasn’t contributing to oppression if I were using it to my advantage: capitalising on the patriarchal structures that have left women so disadvantaged since the dawn of time was just joining the team I couldn’t beat.
The Australian Institute of Family Studies puts forward strong evidence to suggest that a combination of poor sex education for young people and an alarming increase in violent pornography consumption by society is correlated with the likelihood for these consumers to be perpetrators of sexual violence, or in the very least, engage in demeaning discourse about sexuality and women. This further informs wider sociocultural beliefs about how sex should be, broadly, and more specifically – what women want or expect from sex.
It can be easily inferred that these negative beliefs about sex, informed by porn and exacerbated by a lack of adequate sexual education, contribute to that horrid grey area of casual sex; of the hitting, choking, the general aggression and perceived sexiness of domination. The grey area is further made permissible by the Cool Girl narrative, where women are put on a pedestal above their more reserved counterparts for assuming such things are innately pleasurable and allowing them to happen.
Anecdotally, I do not know a woman who has experienced casual sex without an encounter coloured by some faux BDSM without consent. We say it was “so hot”, but never say we’ve cum. Aggressive or dominant sexual behaviours actually have to be mutually inclusive with prior discussion around boundaries and consent. Otherwise, it’s a grey area at best and assault at worst. We were all kidding ourselves. It was not hot. We just did not want to entertain the other label of what it was.
One night, while out bar hopping with a group of girlfriends, we noticed one of our friends had gone missing from the group at the latest venue. The group of men we’d met there noticed their friend gone, too, and assuming their canoolding in the bar booths had led to them leaving together, warned us to go bring her back. They did not, apparently, hold their friend in too high regard.
Two hours later, all the women safely back together at one of our homes, we sat cradled around her on the couch, listening intently to a recount of events, the celebratory mood replaced with a familiar sinking feeling of unease.
“It was so fucked up. He kept telling me to get on my knees and shit, and I was like, Fine, okay, I’ll do it, anything to shut him up. Is my neck red, guys? He kept grabbing it, I couldn’t pry his fingers off.”
We sat with her, in her shock and in our collective female grief, as she reasoned.
“I didn’t say no, though.”
We all sat in heavy silence, having all been the one to “just not say no” at one point. Was he the type of man we used to assume was the only type to commit sexual offences – the type who gets off on power or fear? Or was he acting out a narrative that he’d been fed all his life is the type women truly want? Had I been complicit in creating men like this? By staying silent, by assuming I liked being choked, by saying yes when I meant no, by trading my sexuality for validation, and validation for self-esteem?
I can say for certain that the men I know who are truly gunning for feminism and equality would never have sex with someone who was intoxicated, nor without protection, nor without foreplay. I couldn’t possibly be empowering my gender and sexuality while having sex with the bar set so damn low, making it easy as possible for the man and as unfair as possible for myself.
My actions were clearly a result of a deep insecurity for which I sought the easiest attainable remedy for a young woman possible – sex. For years, I was merely performing my way through sex and ignoring the shame the next day, hell bent on preserving my feminist brand. Saying “no”, however infrequent, felt incredibly strange and jarring, but I always woke up the next morning thankful to be alone.
Casual sex can be empowering when done with communication and proper consent, but the constant, insidious, sometimes imperceptible power imbalance between men and women mean it’s far more difficult for the levels of satisfaction and respect to be equal between the two when it’s a casual encounter. Far less women orgasm during sex compared to their male counterparts, and sexual assault rates are much higher for women compared to men.
The isolated act of having casual sex does not automatically equate to sexual freedom. Sexual freedom, and true feminist sex involves both parties enthusiastically conversing about consent, protection and kinks. By treating myself in the same way the men I usually condemned treated me, they were treating me the way they assume women like me deserved, or perhaps wanted, to be treated.
The Madonna-Whore complex says we cannot be both: we have to choose between a woman capable of complex relationships, or a woman capable of having good sex. I can be both; I am both, but for too long, I stifled the complex parts of myself that were yearning to be self-empowering and shut them up with what I believed to be the antidote to such disempowerment. Capitalising on the patriarchy with the currency of self-worth means such worth becomes a fragile thing. It cannot be fragile if I am to fight for feminism, my fellow women, myself, in earnest.
While Australia waits for better sex education, and the world waits for some form of pornography laws, and society collectively holds its breath while we slowly unravel patriarchal structures and discourse about women and sex in society, I will never stop asking myself, “What do I like?”
Cover by JEFERSON GOMES