I’m thinking about microcosms, and communal pockets. But mostly about the kinds of stories we tell each other about sexuality.
I grew up in a very conservative part of a very liberal city – and went to school in an even more conservative part. At school, we were told by the staff that staying virgins until marriage was the go, and that message was strongly repeated by my classmates, too. Anyone suspected of having had sex was treated a little coldly, didn’t have quite so good a reputation. Those who might have been the “popular group” in another school were widely disliked. You can imagine what the idea that we all had to pursue an impossible and narrow idea of purity did to some of the girls. I, the loud and proud feminist from a culture with a vastly different sexual landscape, had to console more than one terrified queer student and survivor of sexual violence.
I knew that the world outside had some very different messages, a lot of which were shaming, too, but in the other direction: if you don’t have sex, and in these particular ways, and by this particular time, there is something wrong with you. It was really hard to get a grip on these two discourses, because they seemed so opposite, but simultaneously so similar. They were both about prescriptive attitudes towards sexuality, and neither of them matched up with the kind of sexuality I wanted to build for myself. And I was meeting enough unhappy teenagers to know that it wasn’t working for them, either.
It’s funny how one dominant idea can perpetuate its dominance by claiming that it’s actually struggling. And it’s strange how one idea can dominate in a little bubble of fear while outside there are other kinds of fear churning. Now I’m at university, in the big wide world, in a very queer and sexy city, and I am thinking about all the young women with expanded worlds who are still going about this town and their lives with pockets of fear in their heads.
I am thinking about my friends, and their church friends, who are getting married very young, and about the careful displays of propriety they have had to produce. I am thinking of those who would rather be celibate or take their time, who feel like they have to rush into sexual experiences they don’t desire, or not yet. I am thinking about those who know exactly what they want, and how they want lots of it, but can’t risk their reputations to go out and get it.
I am thinking of how suspicious young women are taught to be of our own desires, and how anyone else who is sexual in more or less or different ways from us, or the norm in our bubble, is suspect. I am thinking about how being made to follow a script limited my developing sexuality, and how hard I had to work to change the narrative into something I wanted.
And a lot of those problems are about what young people tell each other about what the norms are. People lie and exaggerate and minimise desires and histories; we know that from any number of studies. Everyone’s asked to conform to whatever standard of “purity” or “experience” is held up in their bubble, and that standard isn’t even an accurate picture.
I have fantasies of going back to that school, looking at the bright unknown faces and the vaguely panicked faces of the staff I had, and giving them a speech. Hey, it’s probably the speech I needed then, and the one I still do.
“Be sexual, or not, in the ways you want to be. Be informed. Check in with yourself. Honour your desires, your body, yourself, and the desires, body, and self of anyone you share them with. Love, sex, and romance are about being lit up with a deep joy, and silly fun, and building glorious structures inside yourself. Nobody should be able to make you feel anything less than wonderful about it. There isn’t one way to do these things, and you need to learn to find the inner feeling that will steer you right. Sexuality is something to be honoured, not exploited, not made bad, not explained away. Behave in loving, caring and safe ways, and expect no less from anyone else.”