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Issue in Focus: Women’s Sexuality is a Troubling Thing

Painting of a face with no emotions. It has brown skin, black hair, the background colour is red.

… and the Award goes to…

… Vasilyev’s wife …

… for having birthed the maximum number of children.

I doubt that she was celebrating her sexuality after the first 6 or 16 kids. However her body and her self were certainly harnessed to a life of sexual and reproductive chores and responsibilities. Nobody knows her name.

Anything said about women’s sexuality appears false or clichéd. Spoken for the listener, written for the audience. Carefully constructed sentences trickle bravely past bodies, hands, glances, skirts, debates, war zones, advertising, khaps, crossed legs, mothers, sisters and others, rock stars, virginity, honour, babies, orgasms, art, religion, pornography, research, violence, power, swim suits, smiling and vulnerable girl children appealing for an education or nutrition or the right to life.

The New World Encyclopaedia says, “Human sexuality is the expression of sexual sensation and related intimacy between human beings”.

Thomas and Nancy Beatie have only three children. The couple divorced recently and in November 2014, Thomas was accused of stalking his ex wife. What does this have to do with women’s sexuality? More than wife stalking. Thomas was born a woman and he, as Nancy’s husband, carried three pregnancies through to term, to give birth to their three children. He doesn’t beat Vasilyev’s wife in terms of total numbers of children but at least we know his name. I also think perhaps that he is certainly celebrating his sexuality. Both as man and as woman.

Thomas and Nancy rightfully occupy part of the space in a discussion about women’s sexuality. Thomas had a double mastectomy and was put on male hormones when he transitioned, but he retained his female reproductive organs and female genitals. Nancy, before the divorce proceedings, (initially rejected by a judge who was not sure of what he was dealing with here in terms of the law) through the business of marriage and children, chose her life as a woman born a woman, who married a man who was born a woman. Neither of them can be squished into the tin marked male or the can marked female, the way we generally accept those products. By the absence of a Thomas and Nancy in the centre of this space but occupying the fringes, we become aware of a critical error – looking at complex non-binaries through the lens of the simply constructed sexuality binary. Male and female. Men’s sexuality and women’s sexuality.

Laura Saldivia in her paper ‘Reexamining the Binary Construction of Sexuality’ (translated into English from the original Spanish) says, and I agree, “Recognizing the existence of variant gender persons implies an obligation to transform the traditional conceptions of gender and sex and creates the need to redefine human sexuality in accordance with a model more open and inclusive of sexual differences… this model is one that considers human sexuality as a continuum of forms, options, and combinations of sex/gender. According to this vision human sexuality is comprised of a ‘continuous’ coexistence and mixture of sexual identities that goes far beyond the simplistic binary categorization man/woman.”


How pretty she is, what exciting makeup, red lipstick, mascara, lacy bra, stockings, high heels. I want to look like her, thinks the six year old. He tries on his mother’s clothes and puts on her makeup. He looks a lovely mess. He smiles at himself and preens in front of the mirror. He struts. His mother’s strut.

What is this women’s sexuality? An experience, a possession, a defined thing lying brooding next to the floral scented sachet of cupboard freshener between the burgundy lacy, the ribbed for her pleasure and the silky crotchless? Gukk. The Kinsey Institute has an FAQs section on their website where you get lots of information on things like ‘Age at First Intercourse’ across categories presented in alphabetical order. So that’s one way of attempting to put order to chaos.

Are we talking sex drive? Sex ratio? Reproductive biology and medical science? Sexual violence? VAW? These appear to be the most common frameworks within which material on women’s sexuality is organised and accessed. Particularly the violence. Unfortunately, intimately connected to sexuality, is the experience of violence, by both men and women, most often spoken of in connection with women and sexuality.

The other day driving through traffic, I stopped at a crossing and looked about me at cars, at people. At a giant hoarding next to me.

Selling apartments and some sort of lifestyle.

A larger than life woman is shown seated legs wide apart wearing a trouser suit.

Her crotch where someone has poked the hoarding through lets in light from the other side.

Red turns to green and I drive on wondering who clambered up there and when and what they were thinking when they did what they did.

Right now, as I type this out, the morning paper next to my coffee mug carries news about the sexual assault and murder of a seven year old girl who had gone to attend a wedding with her family to a popular resort in Lonavla. 20-year old Sophie Lancaster was beaten to death in the UK for being a Goth. The Goth movement bends gender norms, celebrates the constructs familiar to most as the androgyne and the feminine. Gemma Barker dressed up as a boy, dated girls, and was convicted of fraud and other charges in 2012. (Comments show a public more sensitive to the complexities of the situation than the law.) Gwen Araujo (born Edward ‘Eddie’ Araujo) was murdered at age 17 by boys who’d thought she was a girl. She was a girl, yes, but born a boy. Turkish student Ozgecan Aslan was murdered a few days ago, defending herself from rapists. Very recently, Turkish president Erdogan is reported to have said among other things that women are delicate. He also wants women to have three babies and has many things to say about C-sections and abortion. (I think he’s attempting to ban both)

The UN Women website has stats on violence against women where you can read things like this…

  • In Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States, between 40 and 70 percent of female murder victims were killed by their intimate partners.
  • Worldwide, up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16.
  • Approximately 130 million girls and women in the world have experienced female genital mutilation/cutting, with more than 3 million girls in Africa annually at risk of the practice.

All over the world, presidents, panchayats and pimps, men, women and children, soldiers and grandmothers, all have their views on women, and women’s sexuality. They enforce these views on the lives they control. Some control countries, some just control one kidnapped child or the image of a woman on a hoarding.

So women’s sexuality is a troubling thing on many counts, but to me primarily so because the nature of the human being, sexuality, sexual expression and sexual freedom defies our attempts to identify a scope for the discussion – chromosomes, gender roles, sexual behaviour, medical science, politics, advertising or violence. I can’t put my finger on it exactly and may continue to mull and muddle on the subject for the rest of my life. At traffic lights and with the morning paper.

Pic Credit: Painting by Rabindranath Tagore