Updated: May 22, 2019
By Jay Alba
The world is quite different compared to how it was fifty years ago—or even ten years ago. Here at Hezalia, we want to explore exactly what it means to be a woman in the present day, and to do that, we’re going to look at every facet of the female experience. Back in August, we did an exposé called “Why Women Have No Financial Power,” which explored all the factors that contribute to the gender wage gap and a lack of accumulated wealth among women.
This week, we’re tackling something a bit more personal, a bit closer to the heart . . . and maybe a little lower than the heart.
Yes, we are talking about sex. Why? Because we can. Because, quite frankly, it’s actually a big deal that we can. The policing of female sexuality and female bodies plays a huge role in this narrative of oppression, and we still see examples of this today: from restrictive high school dress codes, to obstructive abortion laws, to—in extreme cases—heartbreaking stories of clitorial removal surgeries.
So, it is a big deal that these pieces can be published, and can reach a wide digital audience. It’s a big deal that we live in a time where we can have these blatant, honest conversations about sex. So, we’re going to.
This is the first of a three part deep-dive that explores the push for Sex Positivity in all its glory: the good, the bad, how far we’ve come, and where we need to go from here. How does it compare to be a sexually active woman in the here-and-now, versus ten or twenty years ago? Since we prefer a “glass half-full” approach to life, we’ll start on a high note, and take a look at all the benefits that the Sex Positive movement has brought forth.
Bottom line: The sex is better
In daily life, women are more comfortable discussing sex in an every day context. The Sex Positive movement encourages couples to have honest, explicit discussions about what each person likes in bed. It encourages women to open up to their friends, or even to casual acquaintances. Sex-talk is not the taboo, “forbidden fruit” topic it once was. Every major lifestyle site carries a section specifically for these types of articles. In most major cities, you can browse through a sex shop that looks like any other high-end boutique—no beaded curtains, no lewd pornography, and no underlying shame or stigma attached.
The public’s attitude towards sexual expression has changed significantly in a short amount of time, and we can actually track its progress. I’d like to introduce you to Lisa Finn, the Brand Manager of Babeland, a national sex shop chain that caters specifically to women and the queer community. The company is more than just a store, it’s a safe space that encourages sexual exploration. And when it first opened in 1993, its mission was a fairly revolutionary one.
The 90s were a different time when it came to purchasing and selling sex toys. Often, the act carried a connotation of being seedy or immoral. Back in the day, buying a sex toy was a private affair. You would go into a store, choose something from a catalog, then wait for an employee to retrieve the product from a back room. The idea of a sex shop displaying its toys out in the open, in a clean, brightly lit space, just like any other store, was almost unheard of.
Almost. Before Babeland, there was Good Vibrations, the original Sex Positive retailer, who first opened its doors in 1977. However, GV was based in San Fransisco, a sexually liberal haven that existed in its own forward-thinking bubble. Babeland was considered a pioneer because it opened in Seattle, which, despite being a large city, was fairly conservative. Its first store-front opened on prime real-estate on a main street, one that was frequented by families and middle-class people. It wasn’t out of the way. It wasn’t hidden in some shameful corner.
“Babeland was also founded on the same idea [as Good Vibrations]: to create this safe space for women and queer folks to be able to go in and get their sex toys, that wasn’t in the back of a video shop. . . They really wanted to make it a friendly, open experience,” Lisa says.
Today, sex shops don’t have to hide behind beaded curtains. Today, in 2018, sex shops host demonstrations to debut new products. At Babeland, Lisa says their most popular class, hands downs, has got to be “The Art of the Blow Job.” And to answer your question, yes, it is a very hands-on experience, complete with prop-bananas and activities that certainly do not fly as PG-13.
“Sex is still taboo,” Lisa admits. “But you’ll really find that as a prevalent theme in places that haven’t had accessible information to it. With the advent of the Internet, social media, and being able to Google any phrase that you want, our ideas about sex have definitely shifted, in a way that takes away some of that stigma.”
Now, Robert E. Kahn and Vinton Cerf did not intend for their life-changing invention to be used for researching “the birds and the bees,” but having such immediate access to a wealth of information has proven to be hugely beneficial in promoting sexual empowerment.
This is very important, because sex education in the U.S is absolutely abysmal. Only 22 states require public schools to teach some form of sex-ed, and only 19 of those states require that education to be medically accurate. Let that sit for a moment: we are actually allowing schools teach false information to their students.
Ironic, to say the least.
Before we spiral into a series of more depressing statistics, let’s just remember that kids today have the Internet. They have, at their fingertips, an online hub that offers a wealth of knowledge, as well as supportive communities where they can ask questions. They have opportunities to self-educate.
The Sex Positive movement encourages people to be curious. It encourages people to be open to new experiences. It encourages people to be honest about what they like and what they want to explore.
What do we have to gain from this? Well, the answer is in the title, isn’t it?
“When you are able to ask for what you want in bed,” Lisa says, “when you are able to have this communication with your partner, you are going to be having better sex.”
“Beyond that,” she adds, “thinking about stigma historically—and of course, not to compare Sex Positivity to any of the much broader, much more socially dug-in stigmas that exist—just being more open to new ideas is important. And understanding that, in being wholly sex positive . . . just being open to the idea that these are lifestyles that people may do—and may do healthy—doesn’t mean that you have to participate in them.”
Redefining the Status Quo: Can Sex Work Be Empowering?
Part of this push for acceptance and sexual liberation involves changing the perceptions surrounding sex work, which to this day, carries a shameful connotation. Within the Sex Positive community, this is a complicated topic to unpack. The general public has a lot of negative perceptions about the “types of women” who enter into the sex industry, particularly those who do so voluntarily. Existing stigmas offer a rigid, inflexible idea that prostitution is inherently immoral or degrading. These views also remain closed off to the possibility that professionals in this world could take pride in their careers, that they could feel empowered by it.
Forgive me for capitalizing on an easy pun, but the old saying is true. Sex sells. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
For this piece, I found three young women who were generous enough to share their experiences in the industry: Toby M, a former Sugar Baby, Mia Little, an adult performer, and Lotus, a stripper at a local night club. To address the harmful stigmas attached to their work, these three women hope to contribute a new perspective, one that showcases a positive, uplifting side to the sex industry.
Toby M, age 21, decided to try her hand at Sugar Babying to support herself while running for Miss Philippines. She was living with her parents, and making $10 an hour working in a fast-food restaurant. Then along came a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that she would have to pass up, simply because she couldn’t afford it. So, instead of giving up, she found an unconventional way to pay her bills.
“Sex work was the least degrading job I’ve ever had,” she says. Later, she adds, “When I worked at restaurants or any other job, I felt way more degraded doing shit I did not want to do, in comparison to when I was Sugar Babying. And I’ve never had to kiss ass or degrade myself like I do in the actual, conventional workspace.”
“Exactly, I completely agree with her,” says Lotus, also 21, who preferred to use her stage name for this publication. She got into stripping for similar reasons: to live on her own and to be financially independent. “I’ve worked retail, I’ve worked in food. I’ve worked as delivery. And I don’t know, I don’t like working jobs like that because, for one, I’m not picking my own schedule. There’s someone I have to speak up to. I have a boss, and he or she is always in charge of me. But at a strip club, you make your own schedule. You get to pick what to wear, how to look.”
Toby, Lotus, and I are about the same age, which makes the comparison to retail hit a little too close to home. As someone who has worked those minimum wage jobs before, I think it’s an interesting comparison to make, to point out just how grueling that work can be. Mia Little, age 28, has a slightly different situation. Out of the women I interviewed, she has the most experience in the industry, with six years under her belt. Her origin story focuses less on pursuing financial independence, and more on pursuing a personal goal.
She says, “I was in a time in my life where I was working a pretty square job. It was really conservative, and I was also in a very stifling relationship. I wanted to find a career that would allow me to explore my sexuality in a controlled manner.”
By entering the adult film industry, Mia had the opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals, and explore her sexuality on a deeply personal level. Which leads into the main reason why I chose to interview her, as well as Toby and Lotus specifically. As someone who, admittedly, has conflicting feelings about sex work, I wanted to know, what was I missing? What did these women find empowering about their professions?
“I was basically an entrepreneur,” Toby answers. “It was my own hustle, it was my own time. I was basically a freelancer. . . . It was always my choice.”
“I love dancing,” says Lotus, “and I do suggest it to anyone who’s looking for a job that pays well. I think it’s just empowering because I feel like I’m taking back something that’s so negative.”
“I find it empowering to know my body, to know myself in this very sexual, physical, emotional way, to enhance my experience of the world,” Mia says. But she also points out that this is a strange question to ask: “It goes along with the narrative of, ‘Your labor has to feel empowering.’ Right? But, do you ask a plumber, ‘Tell me about your job. What’s empowering about that?’”
“I really wanted to be mindful of how narratives about sex work that say, it has to be empowering, when that’s not necessarily the case,” Mia continues. “Some people are doing it to survive. For some people, it isn’t their passion. It’s what they know that they can do, and trust that they can sustain their living. I just want to be cautious about that, because I don’t want to erase the nuance of the experience that people have, being in sex work.”
Overcoming stigma in this arena specifically seems to be the great uphill battle in the push for absolute acceptance. The Sex Positive discussion surrounding the sex performance industry as a whole, is quite dicey. However, we also can’t make general, overarching assumptions about every woman’s experience. Women like Toby, Lotus, and Mia simply want to put forth a perspective that shows their professions in a different light. To show that it is possible to financially thrive in this industry.
Additionally, in talking, specifically, about women who choose this lifestyle, the spirit of the Sex Positive mantra says we should just leave them be.
Demanding Accountability: #MeToo
A year has passed since the sexual misconduct and rape allegations against Harvey Weinstein incited the social media movement known as #MeToo. The term was first coined by Tarana Burke, back in 2006, way before the rise of Twitter. “Me Too” was founded as a support system for sexual assault survivors, and specifically, for women of color. In her time, Tarana was able to help a lot of young women, but it wasn’t until recently that she had this viral platform.
In October 2017, in light of the Weinstein allegations, #MeToo exploded, especially once Alyssa Milano adopted the motto and encouraged other actresses to share their stories of harassment in the industry. That campaign actually threatened to overshadow Tarana Burke’s own work, but she was soon credited as the original founder of the movement, and was able to bring attention to her efforts as an activist. The #MeToo movement did not spring into being overnight, it was the result of decades of bubbling, buried resentment. Twitter gave the movement a voice—a megaphone—to spread their message.
#MeToo demands accountability and legal action when it comes to handling cases of sexual misconduct in the work force. It has also sparked discussions surrounding appropriate sexual conduct in a general sense. It has brought forth several criticisms about how our society defines consent, and how well meaning “tactics” to protect women from sexual assault subconsciously perpetuate problematic ideas. For instance, why do we tell women, “Never walk home alone at night,” when we should be telling men, “Don’t attack women,” in the first place? Why do we tell women, “Never accept an open drink from a stranger,” instead of telling men that it’s illegal to drug someone’s drink, and then have sex with their unconscious body?
Of course, these are not new ideas, but the #MeToo discussion has brought them into the spotlight. We’ve also seen a rising effort to change the existing attitudes about what “counts” as consensual sex. Years ago, This American Life aired a segment from a college seminar hosted at Buffalo State, which aimed to teach young men how to go about asking for consent, without coming off as pushy (even unintentionally).
The seminar at Buffalo State was not a revolutionary project, and no, it didn’t put forth a bullet-proof method for how young men should ask for consent from their partners. But listening to this piece has left me with a sense of hope. It’s important to focus on the fact that the men in this crowd have a sincere desire to participate in the discussion, that they have a sincere desire to learn. The challenge is that we, as a whole, have to “unlearn” certain behaviors and attitudes first.
I reached out again to Lisa Finn, from Babeland, for suggestions on this front. Because, I’ll admit, at least in this one specific seminar, it was the one question that didn’t have a satisfactory answer. What do women want men to say, when asking for sex?
“It doesn’t have to be weird, structured—almost like we’re setting rules before playing a board game,” Lisa says. “It can be something that’s sexy. You can do it in a way that adds to your foreplay. Ask questions. Ask someone what they like. Ask someone what they want."
"Check in with someone, and ask, ‘Is this okay?’ Ask, ‘Does this feel good?’. . . [But] do so in a way that makes space for someone to say no.”
Which is fitting advice as I would say, as it brings our conversation back to our original point.
Honest, unabashed communication in bed = better sex.
Lead Writer, Hezalia
Based in Los Angeles, California, Jay Alba, has a passion for storytelling in all its forms: everything from books to TV shows to even podcasts. She hopes to one day write stories like the ones that inspired her to pursue writing in the first place.
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