I've always shied away from writing about sex, but what the hell. New horizons and all that.
My partner is what we might call a feminist novice. He comes from one of the least feminist backgrounds possible, and whilst he is willing and eager to learn, I'm often surprised at the things he's surprised at. I cannot and will not marry a man who doesn't call himself a feminist, so light lectures often ensue, which so far he's been taking rather well. We had one such discussion in the car the other day, after I told him about a dream I'd had the previous night. In the dream, I was on a TV panel show (I've been watching nothing else lately), talking about the time I did a talk on female masturbation for the BBC, who then cut everything masturbation-related from the broadcast. Everything I said on this imaginary panel show was then cut for being "potentially offensive".
Masturbation jokes are all over the TV at the moment (as it were), and every single one of them is made by a bloke about a bloke. I ranted gently about the fact that masturbation is considered normal for men but some sort of bizarre deviant practice for women (see also oral sex).
Adam: Well, we don't think you do it.
Jen: Why not?
Adam: Because you don't talk about it.
Jen: We don't tend to talk about having a shit either.
Adam: Some men think you don't do that.
Which explains a lot really - the number of times I've come back from the loo in a pub and a man has said, "What do you girls DO in there?!" I probably should have twigged earlier. We don't shit. We just sit on the bathroom counter wielding oversized powder brushes. I always knew that the Nuts crowd consider women's toilets to be arcane and mysterious places, and now I know why - they don't think there are actually loos in there.
The above conversation came as no surprise to me. Adam's biology teacher sent the boys out of the room when the time came to discuss menstruation, and he has long been surrounded by the sort of well-intentioned men who will respond to a fact about rape or sexual harassment with "Really? Are you sure?". We know it's not "feminine" to be sexual, or to talk about shitting, or to eat an entire pizza followed by a huge pudding and a belch. We've learned to accommodate this - we say "down there" and "powder room" and "do you want to split this?" because we're meant to be better than that. Men have these "base desires" and "can't help themselves", and we are supposed be "refined" and "elegant" and "ladylike". All of which translates into: Women aren't supposed to be human.
Since I was very little, I've hated the sort of misogynistic arsehole who refuses to be with his partner when she's giving birth because it "ruins the mystery". He wants to walk in afterwards, when the baby has been cleaned up and the woman is smiling happily and he can pretend that the whole stork thing really is true. If you're having a child together, you're having a child together. She's got the worst of it by far, and putting up with a bit of blood and screaming is the least he can do, really. Referring to the wonder of a woman's "mystery" is one of my top ten warning signs that a man is a git. He wants to believe that you don't fart, or get drunk, or bleed. He doesn't want to know that you shave off or rip out your body hair - you're a woman, so you have to do it, but he wants to think of you as naturally hairless, smooth and perfect. I'll be the first to admit that I don't have the courage to let my armpits go au naturel, but I'm not going to pretend I don't cover them in wax and rip all the hairs off. I'm not going to pretend I'm not hungry. I'm not going to pretend that I don't even notice my period (seriously, fucking ARGH. Whose idea was it to make it so bloody painful?). And I don't see why we have to pretend that we don't masturbate. Blokes sit around and boast about it. Why, exactly, are we supposed to be above it? Why are we supposed to be "nice girls"? And what the hell is a "nice girl", anyway?
Some people think I'm a nice girl. I don't sleep with men outside long-term relationships (partly because I have severe trust issues with strangers, and partly because nobody has ever made me feel inclined to do so), I've never smoked, have no interest in drugs and barely even drink anymore. My friend's boyfriend consciously tries not to swear around me. On the other hand, some people look at me and see a bitch. And, y'know, I'll be a bitch. I don't think I'll ever feel comfortable enough to reclaim "cunt" as a feminist word, but I can deal with bitch. Because "bitch" means "not a nice girl" and if there's one thing I dislike about my drugless, monogamous lifestyle, it's the idea that I will be mistaken for one of these "nice girls" who don't shit and laugh dutifully at bigoted jokes. So I have to make do with being bitchy, because if I talk about masturbation and a man hears me, that's a desperate come-on. Nice girls don't talk about that sort of thing, so since I've said it, I'm not nice - or, in modern parlance, a slut. And we all know that sluts are there to be used, and have no business being discerning. I saw "slut" defined, brilliantly, on Shakesville as "woman who is getting more sex than I think she should", which apparently applies even if that sex is with yourself.
I used to read a lot of really terrible chick-lit (it was my secret guilty pleasure for years), including a series of books in which the nasty bitch was always marked out by a masturbation scene. This told us she was a bitch because a) she was always fantasising about money, or private planes, or something equally ridiculous, and b) she couldn't get a man. In a) we see that even a masturbating woman is not allowed to actually have a sexual fantasy, and in b) we see that women only masturbate if they are single and desperate. Where the hell did this come from? Why can't we be in control of our own bloody orgasms? How come we're only allowed to masturbate if there's a man watching? Why is it never about us? GAH. Sick of having my desires regulated by some sort of bizarre governing body. OFWANK, or something. We're told who we're supposed to find attractive, and it's usually David Beckham, even though he's as dumb as a box of hair. I once tried to write an essay on the rules of attraction, but getting people to admit to unauthorised crushes was damn near impossible. I remember Adam listing several unspeakably gorgeous women and then saying, vaguely, "That's embarrassing for men. Trust me." I have a bit of a thing for John Malkovich, but you try admitting that to people in the pub.
I have no solutions, I confess. I don't know how we go about breaking down this wall that divides us into nice girls and dirty little sluts when none of us are either. The only thing I can do is refuse to be labelled by the people I care about. I can only promise myself never to get involved with anyone who puts me on any kind of pedestal, who calls me perfect and acts aggrieved when my looks or behaviour are not. I can only refuse to be shamed for being both human and a woman, for liking cake and sex and being picky as hell over both. I can only hope that I have the guts to tell the man who likes mystery to go to hell. I can only believe that I will never put up as being treated as less than human, even if he thinks he's treating me as more than human, and that I will choose to be alone over being someone else's nice girl.