I got a lift with a colleague a few weeks ago. We had some time to kill, so we decided to have some coffee at a coffee shop in a nearby lifestyle village (read: rich people’s mall). While at this lifestyle village, I saw a SPAR and realised that I needed pads, so I told my colleague that I wanted to pop in at SPAR quickly and that I’d meet him at the coffee shop. He then said ‘No, it’s fine. I’ll come with you’ and my first thought was ‘ah, crap!’ because 1) how on earth was I going to hide my pads (and I don’t buy those little dainty ones – no, I’m all about extra protection and comfort) and 2) what else can I buy to make it seem as though the pads weren’t my main reason for going to the shop? Of course I caught myself thinking this and immediately realised how ridiculous I was being, so I confidently walked to the feminine hygiene products section, grabbed my packet of pads with Colleague standing next to me, and walked to the till without even attempting to hide my new purchase.
This got me thinking about the inherent and ingrained shame that comes with being women. We close our legs, we suck in our stomachs, we speak softly, we shave and wax our naturally growing hair and we don’t talk about periods, sex, masturbation or pornography.
The whole idea of being ashamed of our sexuality has always fascinated me. Women should be enjoying sex and should be open about how much we enjoy it. After all, we can have two different types of orgasms: vaginal and clitoral, whereas men really only have that one option. We are able to do so much more for our own sexual happiness because we have options galore. Hands, toys in all shapes and sizes, other human beings. It is therefore absolutely ridiculous that we are conditioned to feel ashamed of all things sexual and feminine.
We start this from a very young age. We tell two year olds to close their legs, to be quiet and ladylike, to sit still so that they don’t ruin their dresses. We don’t tell two year old boys any of those things. In fact, we encourage boys to explore, to get dirty, to speak their minds.
As time goes by, we tell girls to be flattered when a boy is mean to them ‘because that means that he likes you’ instead of telling them to stand up for themselves, to tell the boys off for being mean.
Then we proceed to make girls feel bad for having bodily hair and menstruating once every 28 days. One of the first things my friend and I discussed when becoming sexually active became a possibility in high school was ‘Now we’ll have to shave.’ Now that is uncomfortable! No one’s body is able to bend in that way – this is one of many reasons why shaving is stupid. Of course, in high school, that’s what you do. No one has money to get waxed (also, ouch!) and I doubt that any young girls from conservative and religious Vredenburg were going to ask their moms for money to wax their pubic hair. The point is that we teach girls the wrong things about sex and sexuality from a very young age.
Buying pads, at least, is okay. Buying condoms is an entirely different story. No one wants to use Choice (they’re free and all, but no), so someone has to buy the condoms. It is the most nerve-wrecking experience imaginable. Honestly, I have never been self-conscious or ashamed of my sexuality, but even I feel uncomfortable when I buy condoms. Of course you also see some other interesting sexual items while you’re trying to decide between ribbed and studded which you might want to check out. Maybe you want to splurge on some massage oil or lube, but the shame and embarrassment is often enough to make condom-buying a quick in and out (innuendo intended). Something as intimate and enjoyable as sex should never be a quick in and out.
Someone out there is going to wonder how this is a women’s issue specifically. It is. No one bats an eyelid when my male friends buy condoms or whip condoms out of their wallets, but when I do it, I have to write an essay explaining myself, or worse, I am congratulated for ‘not being like the other girls’. There’s a reason why ‘other girls’ don’t carry condoms with them wherever they go: they have been socialised and conditioned to believe that sex is something to be kept quiet, something to be ashamed of.
It is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of women to shame sexuality. Men are known to watch and enjoy porn, they are known to masturbate. Women enjoy masturbation and porn too, but we don’t acknowledge this. Worse, we shame this, which, once again, is ironic because women have a much bigger range of options available to us when it comes to sexual pleasure.
In her famous essay entitled ‘We should all be feminists’, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the expectation for girls to remain virgins while society almost praises the boy who manages to ‘bag a couple of girls’ before he finally settles down with a nice little virgin. In the essay she mentions how ridiculous that is mathematically, because who are we expecting these boys to have sex with if we are expecting the girls to be virgins?
These gendered expectations create an unfair society in which men are allowed to discover what they like and dislike, but women aren’t. I have heard women say that they don’t tell their partners when they don’t enjoy sex because they don’t want to hurt their partners’ feelings (fragile male ego) or because they simply don’t know what they would prefer their partner to do instead. Often this happens because the women weren’t able to get to know themselves sexually before they got sexually intimate with another person. They were never comfortable to play with and explore their own bodies because masturbation and pornography are somehow bad for women.
We should be raising our daughters like we raise our sons: allow them to get dirty, allow them to ruin their clothes, allow them to explore, to play, to ask questions. We should encourage our daughters to speak up, stand up, fight back and spend time with themselves, exploring their bodies and their sexuality.
In short, we should be eliminating the inherent and ingrained shame that comes with being a woman.