“How often do you shave…down there?” A friend asked me. It was a few months into my freshman year of college. “Because I’m seeing a guy tonight, and it’s been a couple of days.”
I laughed, a bit put off by the question. “You do realize he knows you have pubes, right?”
“Yeah, I just don’t want him to be turned off.” If you’re a woman between sixteen and thirty, I imagine there’s a pretty good chance you’ve had a conversation about grooming that just about mirrors ours. I’ve certainly had multiple. Friends stressed out that they won’t get their backside, that they’ll have some stubble if they shave. They start paying $70 every two weeks to get a Brazilian, claiming that “feeling smooth” is worth the money and the pain. I remember watching comedian Nikki Glaser talk about how even between waxing, she wouldn’t let her long-term boyfriend see her naked. All of this from supposedly empowered, “sex-positive” women, feminist heroes of the modern age.
To be clear: I am not telling you not to shave. Hell, I swam and played water polo all through high school. I know a thing or two about shaving. My issue is more about the big picture. It’s a pretty common message we get as girls, starting in middle school: to be a modern woman, a good feminist, even, you have to be super sexualized. The problem, however—beyond defining female worth by sexual appeal of course—is that this female sexuality isn’t actually about female sexual power. For hetero women, it’s about taking what men idealize sexually, and pretending that it was our idea all along.
Another anecdote to illustrate my point. Last year, a friend who was sexually active but hadn’t had vaginal intercourse yet was stressing to me about her lack of experience. She’d seen a tweet complaining about how girls will sometimes move back and forth while on top, thus potentially hitting their G-spot, as opposed to going up and down, which is more pleasurable for the partner with a penis. “What if I go back and forth?”
As women, even “sex-positive” women, we’re conditioned to believe that in sex and dating, being “good” is about putting your partner’s wishes above your own. “Good sex” isn’t about female pleasure but male pleasure, so we end up evaluating our sexual experiences—and at extremes, our worth—by our partners’ satisfaction, not our own.
I realize that this is a pretty controversial stance for me to take as a feminist. The last thing I want to do is put women down, or reduce their experiences to just being pawns of the male gaze. I recognize that many women genuinely enjoy casually hooking up with people. Women enjoy sex; I am by no means contesting that. I just believe that oftentimes even when women sexualize themselves, it isn’t for themselves.
When I was in high school, it was very common for girls to send guys nudes over Snapchat. While I’m not exactly sure what every girl’s motivation for this was, something tells me it wasn’t just exceptionally high self-esteem. How do I know this? Because at sixteen I was asked to send a guy nudes, and when I told him no, he said that everyone would think I was a prude and that I was probably the only girl at our school who didn’t send them. Right, because I didn’t want to send literal child porn, and end up in one of the shared Dropbox accounts of nudes that guys in our grade would collect and share with each other. Silly me!
This is the issue with blanket sex positivity. I’m sure that there are many women, of age, who truly enjoy sending their partners pictures of their bodies. But when we hear that underage girls are doing the same thing, I don’t believe that our response should be to praise their sense of autonomy. Because it isn’t usually rooted in their independence, it’s rooted in the idea that for women, and particularly young girls, hyper-sexualization is the only way to get attention.
Psychology Today links the problematic side of sex positivity—especially as it plays out in teen lives—to porn. According to therapist Sam Louie, “Girls are now taught to do things boys view in pornography as a gateway to dating. Pornography in essence is molding and shaping the sexual behaviors of teenagers, particularly conditioning boys to seek gratification at any cost often leading to sexual bullying, harassment, and shaming.” While I’m not sure if I would link the entire movement of sex positivity, for better or worse, to porn, it certainly has an effect on how much is expected of real women sexually. To loop back to shaving, the expectation that women should have entirely hairless bodies comes right out of porn, and we’ve completely accepted it, along with the expectation that women regularly send men nudes.
Though I’m no expert on these matters, this issue plays out in gay spaces as well. As I’ve discussed with many of my gay male friends, sexually active or not, many young gay guys go from no sexual contact to extremely frequent sexual relationships almost overnight. This is due in part to the lack of representation of gay dating in the media—it’s usually just about wild hookups—as well as the difficulty of actually meeting available partners outside of hyper-sexual dating apps like Grindr or gay bars. The point still holds: extreme sexualization shouldn’t be the only way to get to know oneself sexually.
I wish I could give an overarching solution as to how to make sex positivity healthier, but it’s too complex of an issue. I’m not going to tell you to stop shaving, or stop sending nudes, or to just be super selfish in bed. You know yourself and what’s respectful to you and your partners. But to everyone who considers themselves to be sex-positive, I invite you to truly consider whether you make choices about your time and body for yourself, or for your partners’ perceptions of you. AKA, it’s okay to tell him you want a relationship, or to say “I don’t like when you do X.” It’s okay to be stubbly.
By Sheena Holt
Photo Illustration by Sara Cwynar for The New York Times