A little while ago, I was chatting to my mum about beginning to dating again after the end of a serious relationship. In a nutshell, I told her that I’m not ready for another relationship but am enjoying hanging out and, yes, having sex with people. I want to share what it is like to have that conversation with my mum.
I am lucky to be able to have open and honest conversations about sex with mum. I am really lucky to have her at all, as only a few years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recovered and climbed the Himalayas a few months after completing treatment. That’s the kind of badass she is. She’s not a quiet housewife or a madonna; she is fucking fabulous. She’s a fighter, and she’s made me one, too. When I talk to her about dating, she listens, we laugh, and she never gives me any specific advice on what to do. As I’ve got older, I’ve realised how much harder it is to stand back and let those you love make mistakes that will make them stronger.
Despite that, she does give me some odd warnings about sex. Over the years, these warnings have come to bug me more and more. They roll off her tongue in the way those entrenched views about women roll of the tongues of so many. She might not even really believe some of these words, but she carries them around, and I wonder about how they came to travel with her. When I see them reflected back to me in the words or actions of others, I wonder how much of that is me projecting her words back out onto the world.
I could write this out of anger. I could avoid writing it out of a desire not to hurt my mum. But neither feels quite right, because I’m not a quiet housewife or a madonna. I’m writing out of frustration and love, because we still need to address the way we shame women for being sexual. So, here then, are three things I often hear:
I know, I know. Of course, my mum she’s going to say this, but context is everything, and it’s curious that this isn’t what my brother hears when he admits he’s juggling 18 girls on Tinder.
For any Anne Sexton fans out there, I’m very taken with Sexton's take on female sexuality, the perceived danger within it, how it's seen to conflict with domesticity and the roles and identities that society wishes us to hold. That's just the kind of thing that has been driving women insane since the year dot. But if I had a daughter or a son, would I tell them to "be careful"? Almost certainly. But there are times when we specifically single out women as needing to "take care."
This isn't just about sex. A few months ago, when a friend began to live alone, I wanted to share an article called "The Fierce Triumph Of Loneliness," about living alone as a woman. But when I popped my search terms into Google, I met with page after page of advice relating to the dangers women face living alone. I don’t wish to trivialise this - it’s valid. But as a woman who lives alone, I’d never considered how much danger I might be in. Now, it feels as though I’m in danger simply by existing. Page after page of "tips" instructed me in the habits I needed to adopt, or else face whatever form of danger which happened to befall me and accept it was my own fault. Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions here...but I did hesitate to divulge that I live alone here in case it "endangered" me further.
I don’t have answers to this, and I’m not writing this to be right or put others in the wrong, but I need to ask what it means when the default position for women is that they are at risk? And I’m fascinated by the simultaneous truths and perpetuated myths that lie within that question.
"Don’t be a bike."
Last year, I met someone who became a lover (my previous relationship was an open one, and mum knows all about that, too). Back then, I told her I had been seeing someone new who was pretty great. My mum’s response was to warn me against being used as a "bike." Anytime I talk about a sexual encounter, casual or otherwise, there’s a similar response.
Now, some people say that that’s what you get when you tell your mum about your sex life. Um. No, it doesn’t have to be and it really shouldn’t be. I don’t want to come across as blaming my mum. In fact, her views have galvanised my feminism and my sexuality. Equally, I don’t tell my mum this stuff to shock her. I tell her so that we can have a discussion about how silly, harmful and patriarchal it is to view and shame women for having sex. Sometimes this strategy works, and sometimes it doesn’t. The morning after our second date, said lover and I sent her this:
But maybe, just maybe, there is something worth reclaiming in this particular slur? Stick with me...Let’s view cycling as a feminist issue. The invention of the bike opened up the world, provided a way to escape domesticity, and necessitated new forms of clothing for women - this was so shocking the medical profession made up a disease called "bicycle face" to discourage women from cycling. Yes, really. Then there’s the fact that bikes are a lot cheaper and easier to keep than horses. Even poor women could get a whiff of freedom. Imagine that?! They’ll want the bloody vote next. Oh, the hysteria! I could go on, but Susan B. Anthony has got this covered:
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel...the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
And what could be more threatening than "free, untrammeled womanhood"? Historically speaking, we burn those women. Now thinking about my mum’s warning, if being a bike means being a useful vehicle for challenging what women can do with their bodies, even if the practice of that is simply the conversations I have with my mum, then, yes, please! Sign me up and fit the pedals.
"You’ll get a name for yourself."
Ha. Well, I’m a writer and working on becoming an academic. Getting a name for myself is sort of the point. Of course, it’s a lazy trope to ask you to imagine someone saying such a thing to a man, but fuck it, go ahead. It’s absurd, and it’s not just about shaming expressions of female sexuality. This phrase is dangerously rooted in our views of girls and women. It tells them to be timid, placid things. No screaming orgasms for you, missy. Don’t even think about having your name in print. Be invisible. Good girls are invisible. It’s easy to say "fuck being good" but at every turn that the default. It’s hard work being anything else. Nasty women know this.
I could have written this anonymously. I was tempted. That way, I’m invisible. I’m good. I’m don’t have to do the hard work of being anything else. I’m not embarrassing myself or anyone else. I don’t risk upsetting my mum. I don’t risk shocking an employer. But I put my name to it because all those fears serve to control us, and I needed to face that in order to practice the type of feminism I believe in. When women are told that they need to protect their sexuality, while having it simultaneously appraised and validated by everyone else, we don’t just tell them their sexuality is shameful, we reinforce poisonous ideas about the role women should play in society across many different stages.
It’s easy to say that the words we use about people shape them. My mum’s words have shaped me. Perhaps perversely, I am a little grateful to them. They allow me to chose. When Xaviére Gauthier and Hélène Cixous wrote about how women might use language, they argued that words might try to make us unassuming and quiet, but we have a choice. While these phrases still weaving their way into the experiences of young girls and women, the choice I have made is to try to have these words shape me differently and to try to find ways to contest them at every turn.
Top photo: Two Night Stand
More from BUST
Jess is a writer and researcher living in Wales, UK. She's been a bad waitress, crap sculptor, errant art historian and now works on feminist approaches to cities and technology. Follow her on Twitter @jesslhoare and on jesshoare.com.