The last two months have included extraordinary moments for women, like the election of our third female Prime Minister, and horrific ones, like the news that many of the prominent men we've admired are creeps. It's been the best of times and the worst of times. So I decided to round it off by going to see a play about female sexuality and desire.
I've got your attention now, don't I?
The work in question, the unexpectedly hilarious Body Double, may have been just what I needed. Although after a particularly eye-opening segment that involved a whole raw chicken (and rather a lot of hand-sanitiser after the fact) I'm not sure I'll ever be able to look at a humble roast chook the same way again.
It was both humorous relief and thought-provoking stuff, especially in the light of our current ongoing conversation about sexual harassment.
Over the last month or so I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about why women are so often targets for harassment and predation. Crimes of a sexual nature are about power rather than sex, but I find that that surface truth leaves some important depths unplumbed. Power issues don't just manifest as differences in status, but are also present in the way our society views sexuality as a whole. For all of our talk of sexual empowerment over the last 50 or so years, the heterosexual narrative still goes something like this: Man, the powerfully virile sexual being. Woman, the attractive, alluring object.
That male sexuality is prioritised over female sexuality should not be news. It is thought to be stronger, animalistic even, and entirely natural. It wasn't that long ago that male genitalia was regarded as so impressive that little girls were said to have 'penis envy', and to this day, a male orgasm is still commonly regarded as the main point to sexual intercourse. Male sexuality is thought to be active and demanding, and as a result, men who have transgressed sexually have often been given a free pass.
Female sexuality, by contrast, is often thought of as passive. The female genitalia are still so taboo that saying precise medical terms like 'vagina' can inspire either splutters or giggles. And don't even get me started on the status of the female orgasm. In a traditional heterosexual context, we are chased, wined, dined, won over. We do not do the chasing, nor the winning, and on the odd occasion when we may decide to actively pursue a man, there's a high likelihood that we might be thought of as deranged and promiscuous. Or worse.
There's an enormous chasm between the dating rituals of consenting adults and sexual predation, but I can't help but wonder whether the image of a woman as a passive and pretty object plays a significant role in both unbalanced but consensual couplings and non-consensual crimes. When the societal image of a woman is an ornament that will yield to male desire, irrespective of her own sexual wants and needs, what women actually want (and what they don't want) has become moot point. And so we've arrived at the alarming state of affairs Weinstein et al. have laid bare. Although — let's be honest — we've been here for a while.
When the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, I assumed it would be just like every other news story involving men treating women badly. Remember Roast Busters? Kesha? Anita Hill? All were huge stories that dominated news cycles… before they went away and nothing changed.
But something this time was different. Was it Trump? Was it the Women's March? Had we filled the poisoned chalice with so much vileness that it finally overflowed? I'm not sure. But finally the things women had been whispering forever were being heard. And men particularly were shocked by the scope of the problem.
Being shocked about sexual harassment is an incredibly privileged position to be in. But, then again, men are socialised to view sexually motivated behaviour as normal from an early age, while women are socialised to expect men to try to push their boundaries. As just one example, little girls are told that boys who are mean or aggressive towards them are only doing it 'because he likes you'.
In our age-old sexual narrative, girls and women are people that sexual things happen to, whether they like it or not. The idea that women are sexual beings is still a radical viewpoint to hold in some quarters. The options for female sexuality have historically included three discrete categories: virgin, wife and whore. As much as we like to believe otherwise, those categories — slightly updated, but in essence largely unchanged — still inform the way we think about women and sex.
The narratives we've been fed, whether through gossip, movies or pornography, have only very rarely placed a woman at the centre of her own sexual story. Indeed, to be a woman who unapologetically desires and seeks sex (consensually), can still be thought of as unusual, unnatural or indecent. Which is why stories about female desire and sexuality, written and performed by women, are so rare (and revolutionary). We are used to seeing the same old plotline over and over — the one that puts men in the centre of the frame, and suggests that women should feel ashamed about expressing their sexual desires.
Enough. In the post-Weinstein world, we need to take a good, hard look at the way we think about sex, sexuality and sexual politics in heterosexual relationships. We finally seem to be ready to take the first step, and to agree that women deserve to live a life free of sexually predatory behaviour, but a broader conversation is necessary.
We've finally figured out what women don't want. Now we need to take the sexism out of sex.