Freedom is a funny concept. It's easy for a thing to exist in theory, on paper even, but the reality of an idea can be markedly more complex. The slaves were free to leave Massa's plantation at the end of the Civil War, but where were they to go with no money, no education and no self-worth? Gay couples are free to wed today, but a marriage license won't protect against hate and discrimination.
Women's liberation and the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s brought with it a "freedom" to which women were unaccustomed. Now, 50 years later, us ladies can dress how we like and screw, and say "screw you" to, whomever we'd like – in theory. The reality, though, is that our patriarchal society often only seems comfortable with two roles for women: virgin or whore. Take your pick, but be warned, shame and pussy grabs are accessories sold with both costumes.
Toni Jones, the metro Detroit wellness coach behind the blog/brand W.I.F.E. (Women in Full Empowerment) Comma, says, "That is how society and the masculine paradigm thinks about sexuality for women. But there is no middle ground that has been popularized for women to be in an unapologetic space about their sexuality."
Still, something is stirring. It's partly in how we're recasting ourselves. Like Nola Darling, who juggles four lovers – one a woman – in Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It on Netflix, or so-called "awkward" black girls Molly of HBO's Insecure series and Tracey in Chewing Gum, a UK Netflix offering, all exploring their sexuality in nuanced ways that aim hard at that "middle ground." The air feels electric and ominous. It feels like we're in the midst of a whole new women's movement. Like we're reclaiming our vaginas, for real this time.
Now, you may say we don't have a problem with sexy women – that our society is oversexed, in fact. And you'd be absolutely right. But, Girls & Sex author Peggy Orenstein says, we should be careful not to confuse "sexualized" with "sexual." She writes, "One could disentangle sexualization from sexuality by remembering that the first is foisted on girls from the outside, the other cultivated from within." So, sure, 92 percent of the top songs on the Billboard charts are about sex, at least as of a 2011 study. Yet research has hinted up to 15 percent of women have never orgasmed, with the latest Kinsey Institute-cited data saying only 64 percent did during their last sexual encounter. (Meanwhile, 85 percent of their partners thought they did – meaning plenty of us are still faking, often convincingly, our way through.)
We definitely know what it is to appear sexy. We know how to make all the sexy sounds. But we're less versed on what it means to actually be sexual and to have control over our sexuality. Orenstein writes, "When little girls play at 'sexy' before they even understand the word, they learn that sex is a performance rather than a felt experience."
And some of us are still playing. Orenstein calls it "self-objectification," a tricky term in a world that is also home to terms like "slut shame." You know the woman whose sexuality seems to ooze from her soul, through her labia and out to the world? We applaud her, or at least we should. But what about the girls whose sexiness feel inauthentic, like surface-level cover-up offered merely for male consumption? That girl needn't be shamed, but we shouldn't be confused.
Jones, who has a background in psychology, says, "It's crazy how society has this carnal, physical way of defining a woman's sexual freedom only through this misogynistic lens. It's deeper than that. It has layers and it's very complex. The only way a woman can truly develop a healthy sexual confidence is through self-love and self-awareness."
That means spiritually and physically. For Orenstein's 2017 book, she interviewed over 70 girls and young women, along with sexual educators and professionals. She spoke with girls that were very sexually active but had never taken a mirror and even looked down there. Or, as one educator is quoted as saying, "I talk to so many girls where the first person to actually touch their clitoris is somebody else."
Women are often taught to be ashamed and embarrassed by our bodies, that our vaginas require waxing, perfuming and decorating. "Women's feelings about their genitals have been directly linked to their enjoyment of sex," Orenstein writes. "College women in one study who were uncomfortable with their genitalia were not only less sexually satisfied and had fewer orgasms than others but were more likely to engage in risky behavior."
The idea of sexual satisfaction itself is layered. Orenstein says women, the giving beings that we are, have the tendency to use our partner's sexual satisfaction as the yardstick by which we measure our own. That's hard to dispute when we think of the times that our boat barely wavered but we still took some pleasure in his exhausted snores. Something similar happens when we have casual sex, she says.
For a woman, there's pleasure to be had in the feelings of power, in knowing that you came, you saw, you conquered (not necessarily in that order), but pleasure from the actual sex acts are often hit or miss. For instance, Orenstein says girls and women are considerably less likely to receive oral sex in casual encounters, and if they do, it's hardly ever to climax. Not that most of us haven't had good sex with someone we'd never marry, but as one woman succinctly put it in a forum that BLAC hosted, "I've never had bad sex with a boyfriend."
Orenstein writes, "Girls have long been made the gatekeepers of male desire, charged with containing it, diverting it, controlling it." That's a lot of pressure, a heaviness that many women know all too well. It sounds like, "Well, what were you wearing?" and "Did you lead him on?"
When we asked the nine local women, all between ages 18 and 35, in our forum if any of them had ever felt pressured to do something sexually that they didn't want, nearly everyone spoke up at once. Most had.
One young woman said she was with a guy that pestered her relentlessly, so to shut him up, she slept with him, but "I didn't want to." For another, it wasn't an issue of "want to." It was "had to" or, she said, her life would've been in jeopardy. That's called rape, if you were unsure. Also in attendance was the girl who went to New York City to visit a guy she'd been seeing, only to have him kick her out of his Brooklyn apartment at 3 a.m. after she refused to have sex with him.
And while the #MeToo Movement has brought bigger awareness to cases just like this, it still isn't hitting home. "Personally, I feel like it's a white feminist movement that excludes the black woman," Jones says. To be fair, it was started by black civil rights activist Tarana Burke. Still, Jones says she hasn't been able to identify with the narrative played out in the media and thinks the black woman's experience transcends to another level.
"First of all, I think black women are oversexualized. We really are. It really shrinks our divinity, what our ancient mothers knew about who we are." But, Jones says, "I feel like Hollywood and pop culture is trying to curb that." She gives Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o, former first lady Michelle Obama and Black-ish star Yara Shahidi as examples of women that are no-doubt sexy, but also more realistic, empowered representations of the black woman.
To wade through society's mixed messages about sex to find true sexual freedom and empowerment requires that you first cultivate a relationship with self, Jones adds. "You can only experience a deeper level of intimacy with someone if you experience it with yourself." She says it's about spiritual nourishment, sisterhood and real education, most importantly.
In listening to the young women that she spoke with, Orenstein writes, "It sometimes struck me that we'd performed the psychological equivalent of a clitoridectomy on our daughters: As if we believed somehow, that by hiding the truth from them (that sex, including oral and masturbation, can and should feel fabulous) they won't find out, and so will stay 'pure.' What if the opposite were true: What if understanding one's physical responses, truly expressing your sexuality instead of just impersonating sexiness, could actually raise girls' expectations of intimate encounters?"
A young lady at our forum said she'd ended a long-term relationship and then embarked on a year of explorative fun – during which she estimates she had 20 sexual partners. She says, "I have no regrets."
That's a version of what true freedom looks like. Boxes are for Barbie dolls. Never mind whether your journey leads you to a life of celibacy, to a sexual sampling or to one of the infinite layovers in between. Just make sure it belongs to you and no one else. And never apologize, because womanhood is too exquisite an art for there to be only one or two designs.
Events and societal contributions that have illuminated the way toward women's sexual and personal freedom over the last century.
Jan. 20, 1933
This Czech movie was the first non-pornographic film to feature a woman, actress Hedy Kiesler, performing an orgasm onscreen. It was released in the U.S. on Dec. 24, 1940.
Sept. 18, 1937
Their Eyes Were
Zora Neale Hurston's novel follows female lead Janie Crawford's quest for love and desire. It's been heralded as a key work in women's literature.
April 8, 1947
The Kinsey Institute
Dr. Alfred Kinsey establishes the Institute for Sex Research, since renamed The Kinsey Institute of Sex Research. The institute has studied everything from reproduction and bisexuality to sexual assault.
May 9, 1960
'The pill' is legalized
The Food and Drug Administration approves the use of Enovid-10 as an oral contraceptive, a continuation of the work started by Margaret Sanger nearly 50 years prior.
Feb. 19, 1963
The Feminine Mystique
Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique is published and explores the complexities of marriage, womanhood and sexual pleasure.
April 25, 1968
The Hitachi Magic Wand, known as "the Cadillac of vibrators" becomes available in the United States and is still a best seller, today. It was originally marketed as a "massager."
Jan. 22, 1973
Roe v. Wade
The U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of a woman's right to a safe and legal abortion.
Ain't I a Woman?
bell hooks' Ain't I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism explores how racism, sexism and unfair sexual stereotypes kept black women from playing a larger role in the mainstream feminist movement.
July 5, 1993
Spousal rape criminalized
North Carolina becomes the last state to criminalize marital rape, making it illegal in all 50 states. But 17 states, including Michigan, still have loopholes in the law.
Oct. 3, 1996
The Vagina Monologues
Eve Ensler's iconic play, which explored themes like body image, reproduction and sex work, premieres at HERE Arts Center in New York City.
June 26, 2015
Same-sex marriage legalized
The U.S. Supreme Court rules that same-sex couples have the legal right to marry, a leap toward personal freedom for lesbian and bisexual women.
The phrase first coined by black civil rights activist Tarana Burke becomes a viral hashtag and sparks a movement meant to shine a light on the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault.
Dive deeper into what the ladies discussed during our forum: Single Black Women Talk Dating and Sex