Sex and love: Women at U-M reflect on lessons learned

Sunday, February 7, 2021 - 5:59pm

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Illustration by Maggie Wiebe

Content warning: The following article contains discussion of sexual assault.

The old adage goes as follows: One of the most sacred places for a young woman is in the bathroom at a bar. In pre-COVID times, these sanctuaries were not only places for breaking the seal (or on a worse night, throwing up), but they were also a place of community — of drunk compliments on outfits, of shared insults over shitty men, of exchanged hair-ties and tampons. In the women’s bathroom, with the faint waft of puke and the floors sticky with beer, we find ourselves free to be vulnerable and anonymous. We don’t know who is washing their hands in the sink next to us, but for some reason, we feel we can confide in them. We don’t care if they are in a sorority or not, if they are prettier than us or if they gave us a dirty look on the dance floor just minutes before — in that moment, we have shared solidarity.

It’s a common anecdote, and one that LSA junior Naya Alkhaldi and I were discussing over Zoom last Thursday afternoon. Naya, who is studying Political Science and International Studies, was describing how she has felt that support between women fade when moving around in a world defined by the male gaze. And while we both recognized the analogy of the bathroom as a safe space as too simplistic and situational to encompass the entirety of the female experience, we agreed that there is a truth to it.

“That male narrative is brought back in the picture as soon as you leave the bathroom,” Naya said. “And we kind of start judging girls, and the way we judge girls is always very male-centric, like, ‘Oh, she’s pretty,’ which is like … why does it matter, being pretty? It’s because men will want you more … like ‘Oh, she has a big butt, I want a big butt,’ but if men didn’t like big butts, no one would have f---ing cared about big butts.”

Indeed, many of our preconceptions on how we should look and act as women are defined by what men want. In the modern feminist canon “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir, she describes the paradox and prison women are forced into through standards of physical beauty.

“The ideal of feminine beauty is variable; but some requirements remain constant; one of them is that since a woman is destined to be possessed, her body has to provide the inert and passive qualities of an object,” de Beauvoir writes. “The most naive form of this requirement is the Hottentot ideal … as the buttocks are the part of the body with the fewest nerve endings, where the flesh appears as a given without purpose … weighed down by fat or on the contrary so diaphanous that any effort is forbidden to it, paralyzed by uncomfortable clothes and rites of propriety, the body thus appeared to man as his thing.”

It’s an impossible state to be in, one that many young women are familiar with — the pressure to be, all at once, beautiful, well-dressed, thin but with curves, sophisticated and youthful. This is especially present in the college setting when compounded with academics and professional life (you should be the smartest and most successful woman, too). More so, many women experience relationships for the first time in college, meaning it is on campus that we begin learning what is expected in love and sex.

I wondered how other cis women, specifically those who are attracted to men, experience love and sex at University of Michigan and if those interactions have lingering impacts on their self-esteem, aspirations and worldview. Do the bounds that de Beauvoir described actually exist, and are they as deeply rooted in women's struggles for equality as we claim? Is college really a place where these behaviors are formed and reinforced — especially since the University is a largely liberal campus?

To find out, I spoke with six women from varying backgrounds, all of whom are either straight or bisexual. Lesbian women are also under the scrutiny and rules of the male gaze, and this narrative is important and necessary to explore, but since this article focuses on the romantic and sexual relationships between men and women, the lesbian experience will not be fully realized here. Any reference to “women” will imply straight or bisexual cis-gendered women. 

Times have changed since de Beauvoir wrote “The Second Sex” in 1949, but the problems that women face still endure, even in our presumed Ann Arbor liberal bubble. The heavy questions de Beauvoir asked in her landmark book are still echoed today, and I felt that weight of wondering in my conversations with Naya and the five other women:

“How, in the feminine condition, can a human being accomplish herself? What paths are open to her? Which ones lead to dead ends?” de Beauvoir asked. “How can she find independence within dependence?”

***

It’s 2021. Women make up close to half of the labor force. We earn more college degrees than men. We have a woman of color, Kamala Harris, as vice president. As de Beauvoir puts it, “many of us have never felt our femaleness to be a difficulty or an obstacle; many other problems seem more essential than those that concern us uniquely.” Indeed, with political and racial strife, threatening climate change and a global pandemic, women’s issues — particularly those pertaining to sex and love — may seem like a low priority for dicussion. 

But racial, environmental and health issues are irrevocably related to the condition of women. And along with that intersectionality, sexual assault and harassment are still prevelant in the workforce and on college campuses, including our own. One does not have to go far to find a woman who has been unwillingly groped at a club or one who has felt unsatisfied from a sexual encounter. On a national scale, the orgasm gap still reigns, and many college women lament that men don’t know how to yield female pleasure. Hookup culture, some say, is ruining romance and making men view women as disposable.

In the 2020 Statement Sex Survey run by The Michigan Daily, nearly 30% of woman-identifying U-M student respondents expressed ambivalence or disagreement with the statement “I’ve mostly had positive sexual experiences during college.” For those who noted their sexual experiences have been mostly negative, they listed assault, lack of pleasure and objectification from male partners as some of the reasons why. There was also mention of the “misogynistic” hookup culture on campus, “abusive” or “meaningless” relationships and the frequent noting (in multiple variations) of “men suck."

Responses to the statement, "I’ve mostly had positive sexual experiences during college."

Responses to the statement, "I’ve mostly had positive sexual experiences during college." Buy this photo
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Some might ask: How do these behaviors and experiences relate to the condition of women overall? How could something so private and primitive like sex or partnernship parallel greater issues of social and economic inequality? And aren’t we just young and dumb right now — the stakes are low, right?

But throughout the conversations with the women I interviewed, themes of empowerment, self-esteem and discovery arose. Both as an expression and in practice, sexuality can serve as a space to feel confident in oneself, as a time to learn to communicate and demand respect and as exploration of love, pleasure and selfhood.

“The existent is a sexed body; in its relations with other existents that are also sexed bodies, sexuality is thus always involved ... the body and sexuality are concrete expressions of existence,” de Beauvoir posits. 

This claim holds especially true for women, whose bodies are imbued with sexuality; that is, our existence is partially defined by how we are perceived sexually and how we perceive ourselves sexually. In order to understand women’s issues in the political, social, academic and personal spheres, one must understand women’s issues in the sexual one, because they do not exist in separate chasms. 

It’s equally valuable to explore women’s roles in romantic relationships, as this is a space more obviously linked to questions of economic, social and political equality. It is traditionally viewed that in heterosexual relationships, women and men have biologically destined behaviors and roles: the woman as the nurturer (who should forgo traditional work for caretaking), and the man as the provider. Even in college-aged relationships (where the couple is usually not married), gendered stereotypes persist: Women are described as getting more emotionally attached while men are known for being sexually adventurous and emotionally detached. 

Many of these gender norms have been disproven, and young people especially are fighting against them. But we are up against thousands of years of convention — and this is clear in modern relationships, where women still carry the brunt of the emotional labor and oftentimes have to “train” their male partner in emotional intelligence. At a place like the University, women in relationships have barely any time to spare to teach their boyfriends how to express their feelings — there is schoolwork to be done, student organizations to help run. And yet, many women do it and more. In the same 2020 Michigan Daily Sex Survey, in response to the question “Generally, for what reasons do you have sex?,” 10.5% of women respondents selected “It’s expected in a relationship.”

Responses to the question, "Generally, for what reasons do you have sex?"

Responses to the question, "Generally, for what reasons do you have sex?" Buy this photo
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Of course, this isn’t the sole fault of women themselves. As stated before, convention runs deep — many of these behaviors arise subconsciously and aren’t even recognized as problematic. Love clouds judgement; innocence even more so. It’s a topic Public Policy senior Cydney Gardner-Brown and I discussed in a Zoom call last week, as she described coming into college with a mindset of “naive optimism.”

“I feel like I came into college with a certain level of naive optimism about people’s intentions with me and people’s intentions with other girls, not even from a sexual perspective,” Cydney said, noting that both women and men alike can carry such naivety. “It’s mostly just a pattern of thinking that people have the best intentions for you and they don’t, and realizing that and then having a moment of like, ‘Is it because I’m not worth the good intentions? Is it because I’m not important enough? Or that I’m not pretty enough?’” 

As Cydney spoke, I saw flashes of myself as a freshman, with the same naive optimism, enduring the same brutal wake-up calls. I saw many of my women friends who have faced disappointment at the hands of male counterparts, who reacted to that hurt with questioning their own worth instead of his. 

“I think the biggest realization I had in college was that … I would go as far as to say 100% of the time,  (being wronged) has absolutely nothing to do with you, and everything to do with that person, and what they are looking for in their life,” Cydney said. “99% of the time, they don’t even know what they want.”

For others, like Music, Theatre & Dance senior Kellie Beck, who I spoke with through exchanged audio messages, college provided a different kind of awakening. Kellie, who grew up in the Catholic Church, said she was raised under the idea that sex outside of marriage is dangerous.

“Sex being bad is a really hard story to sell, I think, but sex being dangerous is easier because it can be very dangerous, and when you’re not educated about it, it usually will be,” Kellie said. “And so it’s kind of this Catch-22 that they put us in of like: We won’t tell you enough about sex to have it safely, and then we’re going to emphasize how dangerous it is to warn you from doing it.”

Kellie, who identifies as bisexual, described how at the start of college she began to untangle herself from this ideology, becoming more curious about sex and expressing her sexuality. 

“I think most of college honestly was kind of unwinding or untangling a lot of the sort of incorrect and false and harmful narratives that I was taught or I taught myself during high school,” she said.

One of these harmful narratives was borne from a traumatic relationship she had with a man in high school. 

“Most of the problems were emotional, but they did sort of lead to these encounters of sexuality where like, I wanted to be a part of it, I wanted to know what everyone was talking about when they’re talking about sex,” she said. “And I think that person, he used his emotional vulnerability to make me feel like a sexual activity was an obligation I owed him.”

Men believing they are owed access to a woman’s body is an enduring facet of history. Alongside the pressure to have sex is a long legacy of female subordination through conventions in marriage and labor. Male guardianship systems were commonplace in ancient communities and up through the 19th century; some exist even today. Historically, women in the workforce have been exploited; in the 19th century, while still bearing the brunt of domestic work, women worked long, hard hours for little pay. In a footnote in “Das Kapital” by Karl Marx, he describes the physical abuse and exploitation of women workers, stating how one factory manager preferred employing women because they “had to work until ready to drop from exhaustion to provide indispensable means of subsistence to support their families."

Physical mistreatment is coupled with sexual harassment, which still occurs frequently for women in the workforce. In “The Second Sex," de Beauvoir mentions how “the male assistants take advantage of the young women workers. 'To get what they wanted they used the most revolting means, hunger and want,’” she writes, quoting an anonymous French exposé of labor conditions. 

While Kellie’s experience (being pressured into sexual activity) is distinct from 19th-century working conditions, it’s troubling to witness this exploitation of the female body continuing today, in the most private of spaces. For Kellie, the trauma endured from her high school experience lingered for years — she described how one of her first intimate encounters with her current partner, who is also a man, caused her to have a panic attack.

“It felt like it was about so many things,” Kellie said. “It made me angry that this person that I dated in high school had been so cruel to me. It made me really angry that, not that I have been forced into sexual activity, but I’ve been pressured into it … I was frustrated because no one had ever prepared me to actually have sex with someone that I loved and that I cared about. And I didn’t even know how to communicate about sex or during sex. And finally, I guess having sex, all of that sort of trauma that I’ve been holding inside sort of just came unleashed.”

Whether it’s lingering trauma or a hindsight reflection, thinking back on initial sexual and romantic experiences is bound to include some level of, oh, that was messed up, especially for women learning the ropes of relationships under the patriarchy.

LSA fifth-year senior Mariah Scissom, studying History of Art and Film, Television, and Media, told me over Zoom that it wasn’t until this summer, when she was discussing past relationships with a friend, that she realized the majority of her sexual experiences have been negative — whether it be from a lack of sexual compatibility, feeling “like a thing” or emotional messiness. 

Mariah described how after her high school boyfriend and her broke up due to him liking another girl, they would still occasionally hook up when he wasn’t with the other girl. She said this teetering between being broken up, still being physically intimate and knowing he was with someone else heightened her sensitivity to their sexual encounters.

“If we had sex, I felt like there was a lot of pressure, because I wanted more from him and he had the power to decide what we were going to be,” Mariah said. “And it felt like something else was attached to the sex, like I had something to lose or to prove.” 

And there again is that naive optimism; love, attachment and vulnerability allow room for manipulation, however intended, that can distort one’s self-esteem or relationship to sex. 

“The thing that I think I realized made it negative for me was I remembered, we were hooking up … and I didn’t want to do something, and he told me, like, ‘Oh well, you know you can do this with me because I would never judge you … who else is gonna make you feel as comfortable?’” Mariah said. “(And) at the time I was just like, ‘Oh, I guess he’s right, I would feel the most comfortable doing this with him.’ But now I look back and I’m just like, that’s a f---ed up thing to say to somebody.”

Mariah, whose relationship with her current sexual partner is positive, explained that her ex-boyfriend didn’t actually intend to manipulate her; rather, he lacked any understanding or awareness of the concept of sexual coercion. “He genuinely believed that I would feel most comfortable with him doing this thing,” she said.

Whether or not there is an intention to cause harm, women are constantly under the threat of being taken advantage of. The unclear lines of consent in the social setting often makes it difficult for people to realize if they are causing harm or having harm caused to them; legally, this creates its own challenges in bringing a case forward and achieving justice. In The Daily’s 2020 Sex Survey, one check-all-that-apply question read, “What do you consider affirmative consent to sexual activity?” Out of the nearly 3,500 respondents to this specific question, 85.7% noted “A verbal yes” as necessary for consent. Broken down by gender identity, 88.6% of women respondents noted “A verbal yes” compared to 80.9% of men.

Responses to the question, "What do you consider affirmative consent to sexual activity?"

Responses to the question, "What do you consider affirmative consent to sexual activity?" Buy this photo
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While over 80% is a substantial statistic, there is still a gap in understanding what true consent is. Plus, a verbal yes is not always respected. Many of the women I talked to echoed this reality, noting that even if you yourself are not a survivor of sexual assault, you are likely to know someone who is.

“So many women in my circle, so many women in my friend group, and not in my friend group — just women that I know of, women that I’ve shared space with — have been sexually assaulted by men on our campus,” Cydney said.

It’s difficult and sad and frustrating to move through campus as a young woman here to learn, to make friends, to experience love, sex and fun, only to be met with a culture of misogyny, privilege and entitlement that is not only rampant among some of our male peers, but our professors and administrators, too.

“It kind of feels like as a woman, you’re just waiting for when you’re going to be sexually assaulted,” Mariah said.

***

Add another adage alongside that of the drunk bathroom community: Sex should feel good for all involved parties. 

Of course, one then must define “good.” Does it mean reaching climax? Is it the absence of pain? Does it require shared respect and effort?

Throughout my conversations and just in general discourse, it is apparent that “good sex” is largely subjective. But a lot of our personal opinion on the subject is skewed by what we see in the media, where many witness depictions of sex for the first time (indeed, for 30.8% of The Daily Sex Survey respondents, television was one of their first sources for learning more about sex). And while sex-positive shows like “Sex Education” and “Big Mouth” exist, among others, there are many more that play into unrealistic or problematic narratives surrounding heterosexual sex. 

I was discussing this topic over Zoom with LSA senior Alyson Chatterjee, who is studying Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies. We chatted about the parallels between what we see on TV and subsequent expectations in the bedroom, and how they tend to be centered around the male pleasure experience.

“They (the media) always show both people climaxing at the same time … the media always shows sex as something that has an end,” Alyson said. “And so, with that in mind, it’s like, what counts as the end? And it’s usually determined by when the male climaxes.”

Alyson, who has vaginismus (a condition in which the muscles of the vagina involuntary tighten when something is entering it, which can cause pain during sexual intercourse), noted that her initial experiences with sex fed into this narrative. Despite having a respectful, committed partner and a comfortable environment, Alyson mentioned how her pain juxtaposed with his pleasure made for a negative experience.

“I was really upset,” she said. “I was like, ‘Is this all that women feel?’ Because I was not feeling any pleasure in the experience, and it felt so focused on the male climax experience. So I remember … Googling a lot, and being like, ‘Is this normal?’ And then all the things are like ‘it always hurts the first time,’ so at this point I’m still thinking the pain is normal. But the pleasure part — I was just really disillusioned at that point, by just generally heterosexual relations. Like the woman is just … I’m like there.”

That feeling of “just being there” is relatively universal for women in a male-centered sexual experience. It’s a topic of sore debate and legacy that stems from, yet again, thousands of years of female subordination and objectification. Sex between a man and a woman is not just about pleasure, but about power.

“Man does not merely seek in the sexual act subjective and ephemeral pleasure. He wants to conquer, take, possess; to have a woman is to conquer her; he penetrates her as the plowshare in the furrows,” de Beauvoir writes in “The Second Sex”. 

Mariah illustrated this desire for men to be powerful with a recount of a hike she took while attending the University’s New England Literature Program at the end of her junior year.

“I was with a lot of guys and they talked a lot about conquering the mountain … and I just remember writing in my journal about being very annoyed because to me like hiking … just felt like a more loving experience than I was dominating something,” she said.

This need to impose male dominance is reflected in the language we use today to describe heterosexual sex: He penetrates her, he f---ed her, she got plowed, among many other phrases. 

“I've thought a lot about the dynamics of power and sex based on the genitalia that we have,” Mariah said. “Like ‘women receive men’ … I’m just curious if penetrating something is inherently associated with dominance and power or if it’s associated with dominance and power because that is the relationship we have with men and sex and the way we were raised.”

It’s a chicken-and-the-egg type of question, one with explanations ranging from the biological (men are physically stronger than women; the physical positioning of a man atop a woman) to psychoanalytical ones (like the value given to the penis versus female sexual anatomy) to, as Mariah mentioned, the social hierarchies that assert male dominance in every other sphere of life.

Kellie discussed how the power dynamics in sex completely shift when two women have sex instead of a man and a woman.

“I think, honestly, especially if you’ve experienced sexual trauma, having sex with women is really kind of beautiful,” Kellie said, highlighting how having shared anatomy can make one more confident in providing and receiving pleasure.

“And there is sort of this shared womanhood, of like your bodies being the object of male attraction and the male gaze, and I think having sex with another woman is really empowering, honestly, because it's men aren’t a part of the equation,” Kellie said. “And all of the bad things and the trauma that comes from men sexually or from misogyny isn’t attached at all to this sort of act of passion. And there’s just a lot less shit to get through, I think, to open yourself up and to be vulnerable when you’re having sex with a woman versus with a man.”

Even in heterosexual relationships that are founded on respect and do not subscribe to patriarchal power dynamics, there is a orgasm gap that skews more in the favor of the man. Aside from those men who don’t care whether their female partner orgasms or not, it is simply easier for men to reach climax, and women generally have trouble climaxing from penetrative sex alone. And while sex can still be satisfying without orgasm, effort and general pleasure is important in a fulfilling sexual experience.

When I spoke over Zoom with LSA senior Sophia Layton, who is studying History of Art, she mentioned how the media also contributes to keeping the female orgasm elusive, highlighting some of her initial sexual experiences.

“In a way it’s a game, and you kind of want to leave a good impression, and it becomes a performance of sorts,” Sophia said. “I remember reading this Cosmopolitan article … and it was like ‘ways to be better at sex’ … one was telling your partner that it feels really good … so that leads into faking an orgasm too, so these articles are telling you to say like ‘Oh my god, it’s so good, it’s so good.’ So I would kind of do that without really even paying attention to if it felt good.”

Women are trapped in this vicious cycle of performance and shame, where society makes topics like female masturbation taboo while also demanding we showcase true pleasure for the benefit of men (a narrative that is reinforced by porn and television alike, where women are seen writhing from pleasure in unrealistic positions or time frames). While “jacking off” for men is normal and expected, a woman exploring her body is something strange, deviant even. And in the modern space, where we are taught to demand pleasure from our sexual experiences with men, we feel disappointment and guilt when we can’t even explain what turns us on.

Alyson, whose journey with vaginismus has made her more outspoken and thoughtful about finding pleasure in sex, noted that making sex more equitable and pleasurable will require deeply-rooted change.

“It’s like a social consciousness, so it’s like, how do we change the way people think?” she said, mentioning better sex education and honest media portrayls as a start. She added that women gaining agency in sex has to come with a greater restructuring of our understandings and actions in sex.

“Women might not be enthusiastic to something they know isn’t going to be a positive experience, because of how sex is normally constructed and men not knowing how to pleasure women,” Alyson said. “So, if we don’t address that, women are never gonna have the same kind of agency that a man has, especially if we still view sex as something that ends when a man ejaculate, and doesn’t continue afterwards or doesn’t have an episode before where it’s female pleasure. I think it’s really stemmed in that.”

Sophia articulated how this enthusiasm should be coupled with — and is built off of — the ability to feel safe, comfortable and secure in oneself in a sexual space.

“Once you get to know someone super well, and you get to know someone intimately, and things that were originally maybe scary or taboo or whatnot might become less so when you open the door enough to the possibilities of pleasure,” Sophia said. “Sex is meant to be a release and an intense pleasurable experience for both or all people involved, so just letting yourself relax and fall into that is all that matters.”

***

As this Valentine’s Day approaches, and couples take to the streets donning masks and red sweaters, it is meaningful to reflect on the heteronormative, male-centered perspective that defines many of our expectations in love and sex. The conversations I had with these women over the last few weeks highlight that this sort of thinking is necessary for members of the U-M community, too, and that the space we have dubbed as liberal and inclusionary does not always extend into our romantic and sexual spheres. 

That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy a romantic movie night or shared strawberry crepe this Feb. 14 — I have always been a “I love love” person  — but changing social consciousness and the condition of women demands we ruin a little bit of what we’ve always taken for granted as right.