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Stop Expecting Women to Be Chill About Sex

The time has come to confront something that I have known ever since I unleashed my internal tornado of hormones on some schmuck in a post-brunch sexual encounter the first week of college freshman year.

I have buried this secret deeper inside me than my Nuvaring. But lately — friends, lovers, Men’s Rights Activists — it has risen within me like indigestion, and I this is one burp I cannot contain.

I am not chill.

I am not a chill girl. I am not a laid-back chick. I am not a cool woman. I am not a relaxed, go-with-the-flow bitch.

It occurred to me the other day in a wallop of sadness and frustration. I was lying on the floor of my university housing, cheek pressed against the cool tile in a poetic tableau of utter Victorian misery, feeling abject over (what else?) a man.

It was a little thing— some stolen stoned kisses, then silence — but it was enough for the anxiety to begin creeping in. It’s a familiar anxiety, which hisses through my veins each time I hook up with someone new — and especially men. It’s the inevitable excitement and nervousness of navigating relationships, yes, but it’s also something deeper than its immediate cause.

It’s an anxiety bred by a sexual lifetime — by sexual generations — of shame, of women who are blamed for being sexual, of women who are dismissed for their sexualities, of women who experience sexualized racism, of women who are assaulted, of women who are gossiped about, of women whose sexual and gender identity is stigmatized, of women whose trauma is called neediness. These experiences live in our bodies, and they come out in the anxiety that our sexuality will dictate our value. Those of us who experience multiple kinds of oppression — queer women, trans women, poor women, women of color — struggle through exacerbated violence, exacerbated anxiety, dictated by stigma of many kinds.

But why do I still feel this way? After all, I am a Sexually Liberated Woman. I know where to get dental dams. I have had more sexual partners than birthdays. I of all people should have the wisdom, confidence, and maturity — the, let’s just say it, “chill” — to not fall to neurotic pieces over a smooch.

But the malaise is there. And it’s not just mine. We’ve written a lot here at Feministing about the work-in-progress that is sexual justice, the way gender and power hierarchies haunt our sex and manifest themselves in acts of violence or in more low-level experiences of dissatisfaction, anxiety, and distress. 

The malaise manifests itself in the way I brace myself when men I don’t know come near — be chill, I tell myself, he’s cute, why not let him ask me out — and on the other hand my body is tensing like a doe ready to run.

It manifests itself in the paranoia I feel when I sleep with someone new, and especially men — stopping and starting, testing the brakes, wondering will it happen again, will this be a night I say no and he doesn’t stop?

It manifests itself in a feeling of general disposability. How much longer will I hold out before I fuck him? If I fuck him now, will he never talk to me again? Will my value leak out of my vagina later like semen —  running in a thin sticky trickle down my leg?

In manifests itself in anxieties around gender and queerness: Who, in queer sexual encounters, is out; who isn’t out even to themselves; on whom does the weight and anxiety of stigma fall?

There is a readily-available, conservative-approved answer to all of this: Throw in the towel. Forget it, forget the whole feminist project of sex — let alone casual sex, or sex outside the context of a monogamous relationship. 

The anti-feminist peanut gallery cackles: You’re fighting against your innate female nature, and you’re not gonna win. Men are dogs biologically programmed to fuck you and fuck you over/you are pushing against an unmoveable social structure/if you don’t like it why keep doing it/your hang ups are not our problem/why don’t you find a nice monogamous boyfriend or girlfriend but preferably boyfriend/why expect men to treat you well if you insist on being such a slut/why don’t you just sleep with better men?

When it comes to sexual encounters with men, I often find myself curdling with rage not over the specifics of situation, but the way our situation is structured by hierarchies largely beyond our control. I resent men the relative ease with which they can navigate sex. The relative ease with which they can approach women, the lack of anxiety that they will be slut-shamed, the relative lack of fear for personal safety, the assumption that sex is a simple source of pleasure and joy. 

This anxiety– for many women racialized, or tied into experiences of homo- or transphobia — makes us critical of the notion that, because we are progressive, sex should be a simple and easy affair. Numerous feminist writers, especially queer people and writers of color, have critiqued the assumption that sex ought to be radical, abundant, and painless simply because we say it should be.

Many of us cannot afford to be chill because sex is not, in fact, easy and painless — it is loaded with risk. What do women risk when we have sex?

First, women risk sexual assault. Every time we have sex, women risk — to a much greater extent than men — the possibility that our consent will be violated. 

Second, women risk the possibility of social censure and abuse. Every time a woman has sex, she incurs a greater social risk than she would if she were a man.* She incurs the risk that she will be looked down upon, that she will be dismissed, and that that she will be viewed as, by merit of having sex, having giving up some of her value.

Third, women run a greater risk of seeming receptive to future unwanted sexual attention. By seeking sex or engaging in sexual activity, we tag ourselves — according to a patriarchal bullshit logic — as women who are open for business. A woman taking sexual or romantic initiative is read, much more than a man is, as “asking for” whatever future violence or trouble may come to us. 

Fourth, women’s experience of sex is constantly determined by other forms of oppression. Women of color, queer women, poor women, and transwomen experience forms of violence and stigma exacerbated by marginalization — from the hypersexualization of women of color to our sexual partners’ refusal to accept and respect our identities as queer or trans women.

In formal, emotionally-involved, monogamous relationships, the possibility of non-consent is omnipresent. For women in non-monogamous arrangements or who have multiple casual sexual partners, this risk multiplies: Every new sexual partner is a new potential assailant, a new person who may potentially devalue you.

Is it any wonder so many women are balls of anxiety when it comes to sex? Is it any wonder our mothers and grandmothers and conservative columnists are so adamant that we should have only monogamous sex, that we should only seek committed, long-term partners with whom to have sex? How can we be expected to walk around feeling cool and sexually liberated when there is risk at every turn?

I have been conditioned to feel anxious and troubled after sexual experiences because so often these experiences include or lead to some level of violence, stigma, or dismissal. 

So I am not chill. I am not chill because I cannot afford to be chill. I am not chill because “going with the flow” of patriarchal sexual culture means risk. That I may be assaulted. That I may be treated as disposable. That I may be slut-shamed. Of course, even if we’re not chill, we may still be fucked over; but at least we should have the option to express our discontent.

So I am going to commit that ultimate of non-chill acts: I’m going to be a woman making an emotional demand. If you — any you; me too— are going to have sex with a woman, with a queer person, with any other socially vulnerable human being, it is your job to not only not-rape them (for the umpteenth time to quote the celestial Maya, “Seriously, God help us if the best we can say about the sex we have is that it was consensual.”) — it’s your job to consciously and actively accommodate them. To recognize that they will have needs and hangups that are socially produced, and to do the emotional and intellectual labor necessary to accommodate these needs and hangups.

This looks different for different people in different kinds of sexual arrangements, but there are several common tenets: Active communication; active practice of consent; active affirmation that your sexual partners are people with independent human value, beyond their value to your genitals.

As for that guy I was getting all Victorian melodrama about: I actually ended up pulling the least chill move of all and had a conversation with him. I was emotional. I was demanding. I was exactly that shrill feminist you do not want to casually hook up with no matter how cute my eye makeup. And I was ready for him to cringe, for his eyebrows to reach his hairline out of sheer exasperation, and for me to leave the conversation worse off than I went into it.

In fact, the guy listened. Acknowledged my feelings. Seriously engaged with how my anxiety came from experiences of sex and sexism. I did not shrivel up into one of Ursula’s seaweed creatures. The sky did not fall on my head. 

Well fuck it, I thought. World, get ready for an emotional rampage, because this bitch is done being chill.

——

*We can definitely talk about instances where this is not the case. What risk do men of color incur having sex with white women? In the Indian context (where I’m currently living and writing), what risk might a Muslim man incur having sex with a Hindu woman? But for the sake of argument in the piece, we can also take as a given that slut shaming as a phenomenon — and the social risk it incurs — is a particular struggle for women.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in Indian cinema, theater, and visual art at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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