Sleeping with the Patriarchy

By: Nikki Cohen

In elementary school, boys and girls are at the peak of sexual equality; prepubescent bodies are not yet seen as sexual objects, fear of contracting “cooties” prevents intimate relations, and sex is only a mythical creature that children have yet to ponder. This blissful ignorance was stripped from my fifth-grade self one strange day in school. After being split up by gender, us girls received little pink booklets that were labeled “Sexual Education”, and I can only assume that the boys obtained their own version on blue paper. In this dubious discussion, math equations and vocabulary words were substituted for explanations of puberty, but not one ounce of the conversation spoke to sex, contraception, or consent.

This aloof curriculum frames sex and sexuality as taboo subjects starting early on in childhood. The repressed rhetoric surrounding sex gives it a heightened sense of curiosity, one that sticks with us into adulthood. But as a young woman, I have been primed from an early age to suppress this curiosity. When a woman openly expresses her sexuality, she is negatively deemed a slut, but if she decides to abstain, she is pitied for being prude. Where men are often praised for being sexual beings, women are condemned.

Ideals of hegemonic masculinity that shape our patriarchal culture legitimizes male power and privilege. This creates an absolute binary between men and women in the public sphere and also contributes to disparities in the bedroom. Girls are taught that sex is done when the guy finishes, and if that occurs before she herself finishes, she must fake it in order to soften the blow to his fragile ego. Where did this unfair standard of satisfying the man’s needs first and foremost exactly originate?

These double standards in the bedroom can stem from misogynistic, and sometimes violent, depictions of sex in pornography and the media. The mainstream porn industry is largely marketed towards their heterosexual male audience. And so, womens’ knowledge of pleasure is limited to a male gaze. Instead of placing emphasis on clitoral stimulation, the only true scientifically proven “G spot” for women, porn and popular media often depicts a screaming woman that can orgasm from penetration alone.

Today, this falsity is known as the “myth of the vaginal orgasm”. The famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud perpetuated the idea when he argued that a woman was mentally unstable if she could not achieve an orgasm by penetration. That’s right: if she could not achieve pleasure while satisfying her man, and thus fulfilling her role as a woman, Freud suggested that she seek psychiatric help. These popular falsehoods about female sexuality set women up to be silent, suppressed, and submissive to their dominant counterparts in the bedroom.

Controlling your sexuality is virtually impossible without control over your own body. It is not a coincidence that sexual liberation coincided with newly litigated reproductive freedoms in the 1970s. Following the legalization of birth control in 1965 for married couples, and then for all Americans in 1972, the infamous 1973 court cases Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolten gave American women the right to have an abortion.

When a woman’s identity was rooted in her ability to reproduce, heterosexuality was required to fulfill this cultural expectation, in turn creating and naturalizing homophobia. But finally, the nuclear family structure and institution of marriage would not leverage a woman’s future, or anyone else’s for that matter. The legalization of birth control and abortion allowed women to regulate their own sexual experiences. This sent the powerful message that women were as entitled to exploring their sexuality as men were. When American women won the right to abort, they won the ultimate freedom of choice. Women could finally choose to focus on their education, to pursue successful careers, and to have sex for pleasure; after the 1970s, motherhood was no longer inherently expected.

Sex positivity has become increasingly accepted since the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. But even in a post- Women’s Liberation Movement America, sexual empowerment is still regulated. Today, sex workers are often depicted as being exploited. When police investigate prostitution as a crime, it insinuates that sex workers are in need of saving, as if the choice to use one’s bodies for economic exchange is indeed the wrong choice. For trans sex workers, in particular, sex work can be an escape from institutionalized discrimination that they may face in traditional workplaces. “Rescuing” sex workers from their own autonomous decisions is not really rescuing at all, but rather a reinforcement of patriarchal morality.

Being sexually liberated does not constitute the amount of sex one has, but rather is rooted in subjectivity over objectivity. Bodily autonomy is the simplest form of democracy; if you lack control over how your body is used or perceived, what do you really have control over in life? If we look back at American history, people on the same political side as pro-life groups today supported the forced sterilization of women, disproportionately women of color, throughout the 20th century. While pro-life groups today encourage women to have babies, sterilization endorsed the opposite. The juxtaposition between pro-life politics and sterilization laws prove how as political agendas change over time, the female body is consistently controlled. We must break this detrimental cycle. Sexuality is an essential part of identity, and sex is a way of expressing it. It’s time to stop sleeping with the patriarchy and to climb into bed with progress, power, and pleasure.

Art by Maddy Ledger.