by Suzannah Weiss
Originally published on Everyday Feminism
“How could I be offended by that?”
That’s the question that ran through my mind when a friend of a friend said “when you see me, you’ll get wet” when we first met over the phone.
After all, I’m not shy about my vaginal lubrication. I see it as just another bodily function, like sweating or crying.
But it was as if he wanted that comment to make me uncomfortable – and that made me feel objectified.
The same question went through my head years ago when a male friend told me he could see my breasts from where he was sitting above me – and that he was enjoying the view. He was surprised that I was offended, too, since I talked to him openly about my sex life.
To me, though, discussing my thoughts about sex was wholly different from him commenting on my body. Plus, I had freely given that information, while the “view” I gave him was unintentional.
Another friend of mine has told me he finds me attractive, and I don’t mind the ego boost, but when he admitted to thinking about me when he masturbated, I felt violated. I don’t know if I would’ve even minded him saying it matter-of-factly as a friend having a candid conversation with another friend, but it was as if he was trying to accomplish something by telling me that.
And when I told him I was being photographed nude as part of an art project about boundaries and consent and he said “send me the link” – complete with a winky face (ugh) – I wanted to scream.
Because instead of just being turned on by me, which he can’t control, he was twisting what I told him to intentionally become turned on. He was redefining my own choices for his own pleasure.
I’ve also been on the other side of this, though. After telling a joke using the word “bush” as a pun at a family gathering (this was back with George W. Bush was president), my dad joked that he liked the old version of me who didn’t talk about this stuff. And when I referenced my college hookups while talking to a friend and her friend, she said, “TMI.”
I don’t think I was wrong on principle to say these things, and I do wonder if I’d be judged less harshly if I were a man. At the same time, if others were uncomfortable, they were allowed to say that – and it would’ve been disrespectful for me to keep going.
Then, there was the time a friend of a friend I’d newly met told me about being in a porn video. I texted him a week later to tell him that something he said had found its way into my sexual fantasies because I thought this was funny.
He let me know it’s not appropriate to tell someone you’ve recently met about your mid-masturbation thoughts, even if they’re very open about sex themselves. “Reverse the genders,” he said. And I realized it would look very suspicious for a man to talk to a woman that way, even if she’d acted in porn.
I’m relentlessly sex-positive, and I want to reduce others’ sexual shame and live without shame myself. But I also value respect for consent, and there are ways of talking about sex that disrespect it.
So where’s the line between expanding what’s acceptable to talk about and violating someone’s boundaries? When is saying “TMI” just a way to police people’s sexual expression, and when is it a legitimate way of voicing that your boundaries have been disregarded?
I can’t tell you where exactly the line is, but I can tell when people have crossed it. And I also know what it’s like when you haven’t crossed it, but you’re just being sex-shamed.
Here are a few questions that might help you decide when you’re being sex-positive and when you’re just being inappropriate.
1. Am I saying this to push the envelope, or would I want to say it even if it were socially acceptable to talk about?
2. Would I talk to this person this way if they were of a different gender? (This can work multiple ways. For example, we may not respect women’s boundaries, and we may assume men don’t even have boundaries. Further, we often think of trans and gender non-conforming folks as sexual curiosities.)
3. Did something this person has said or done just happen to turn me on, or did I go out of my way to obtain sexual pleasure through this interaction? If so, does the other person want me to?
4. Would I speak to a friend I had no romantic interest in this way, or am I trying to initiate romantic or sexual contact? If so, is it welcome?
5. Have I taken this person’s desires into consideration, or am I just thinking about my own?
6. Do the other person and I share the same goal for this conversation, or am I using them for a purpose they did not consent to?
7. Am I saying anything about another person’s body, sexuality, or personal life, or am I solely speaking for myself?
8. Has this person ever expressed discomfort with talking about sex in this way, or are they okay with it as far as I know?
9. Would people still be offended by my behavior if I were a man, or are they judging me unnecessarily harshly due to sexism?
10. Would people still be offended if I were discussing straight, cisgender people, or are there elements of homophobia or cissexism in their reaction?
These are questions I wish many people had asked before talking to me in a way I didn’t consent to. And I wish it weren’t so hard to defend my right to be sex-positive and still not be spoken to this way.
We tend to assume that being sex-positive means wanting to talk about sex in every possible way, even disrespectful ways. Even more dangerously, we tend to equate sex-positivity with misogyny.
For example, a friend of mine once showed me a video of a Saturday Night Live skit in which the Harry Potter characters are all flipping out because Hermione has grown breasts. This was unpleasant for me to watch because it just reminded me of how focused people tend to be on women’s (and even young girls’) breasts, including my own.
“I thought you’d like it because it’s sexual,” she said.
But I’m for empowering women and making their desires known, not depicting them as mere objects of men’s desires. It frightens me that sexuality has been so tied to the objectification of women, we can’t picture a sex-positive women who doesn’t want to be objectified.
In fact, after my friend made the comment about my breasts, his friend told him, “What did you think, that women like being objectified?” I think he knew they don’t – but he thought I was an exception because I’m so open about sex.
In our society, a sexual woman and a sexual object are viewed as synonymous because the only commonly accepted way for a woman to be sexual is to be an object.
Sex-positivity and sexual misconduct, though, are really, really different, and we should know better than to engage in the latter under the guise of the former.
If we confuse these two things, it’s only because we’ve learned a warped version of sex positivity that doesn’t value consent.
Being sex positive doesn’t mean asking your hot friend about her sex life so you can have an arousing image in your mind. It means mutually confiding in each other about your sex lives so that you can support each other and learn from each other.
Sex positivity doesn’t mean touching people without their consent in the name of free love. It means accepting all forms of touch between consenting adults.
And sex positivity sure as hell doesn’t mean seeing women as objects. It means seeing them as subjects.
If you’ve engaged in behaviors like the ones that have made me feel violated in the past, ask yourself what your intentions were.
One key difference between a purely sex-positive conversation and one that’s actually violating is that the former is open-ended, while the latter is using the other person as a means to an end.
And if you’re a sex-positive person who has been treated inappropriately, know that it’s not you. You’re not sending mixed signals, and you’re not asking for it by being open about sex.
The people who have made you uncomfortable are to blame for taking your openness as permission to hurl any and all things sexual at you.
And you have the right to be offended.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University.