Heads up: This post mentions sexual assault.
Unorthodox is a miniseries about a 19-year-old woman named Esty who leaves her ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York and moves to Berlin.
I recently was asked some questions about Pleasure Pie and the Sex Letters Project. Here are my answers! - Nicole
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
A: I've always made zines. As a kid I would make DIY magazines where I interviewed our family pets and gave updates on household happenings. Then when I was in college I started to become fascinated by sex-positivity. I had had some bad experiences with sex, and I was really under-informed about sexuality. So, in an attempt to get over my anxieties and embarrassment about sex, and to learn more about it, I started reading about it online — a lot. I read about sex-positivity, sex education, and gender equality, and took some college classes on human sexuality and LGBT topics.
Is sex dirty? Is enjoying sex a bad thing? Is it only okay if you always do it with the same person? Or if you’ve made a forever commitment with them?
Why do we have so many restrictions on our sexual enjoyment? What are we afraid might happen if we embrace sexual pleasure?
As a teenager, I was really confused about the concept of a “tease.” I heard some of my male peers say, more or less, that teases were the worst and they hated them. I weeded out from their comments that the basic definition of a tease was a girl who fooled around with a guy, but didn’t have sex with him. Wait, did that mean I was a tease?
I would often have long, steamy make out sessions with whichever lucky guy was my boyfriend at any given moment (wink), and these make out sessions would never turn into sex. It wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t want to have sex with these guys, it was that they never initiated sex (and at the time I felt that, as a female, it wasn’t my place to initiate it). When I heard my guy friends lamenting the existence of “teases,” I started to worry that all this making out with no sex might make guys hate me (my worst nightmare as a boy-crazy teenage girl*).
To add to my confusion, the things I heard about sex weren’t lining up with what was happening in my own sexual experiences.
Here’s a brief sampling of the messages about sex I received from the media, adults, and peers (with commentary):
If guys only care about sex, and don’t value relationships or foreplay, why weren’t my boyfriends trying to have sex with me**? They all seemed to be in less of a rush to get to sex than I was, and I was (according to what I had noticed people expected of me as a female) the one who was supposed to be in charge of withholding sex until an appropriate time.
But wait, doesn’t withholding sex make me a tease? And doesn’t having sex as soon as a guy wants to make me a slut? So many conflicting messages!
Let me set some things straight.
Guys care about more than just sex.
To my surprise, the guys I dated appeared to have feelings about sex other than Must Have Sex ASAP — feelings that probably included wanting to feel ready, caring about not making me uncomfortable, wanting to live up to their religious beliefs and family’s standards (which sometimes told them to wait until marriage), being nervous about how to initiate sex, how to know what I wanted, and how to have good sex, and even (get this!) enjoying our lengthy make out sessions. And those were just their feelings about sex. They also had all sorts of other feelings about all sorts of other things, unrelated to sex. They were at times sentimental, shy, creative, caring, romantic, anxious, etc. They wrote songs, loved their pets, tried to help me through my issues, cared about school, cared about our relationship — all the cares and concerns any multifaceted person might have.
These guys, while their brains might have been flooded with hormones and they might have been thinking about sex much of the time, also had real thoughts, feelings, and priorities other than “Must deflower girlfriend NOW.”
Guys don’t always want sex.
I know what you’re thinking: “But every sitcom I’ve ever watched has told me otherwise!” These sitcoms are exaggerating. While many men want to have sex frequently, many others prefer occasional sex or no sex at all. Even the men who crave sex frequently have plenty of moments when they’re, say, stressed about work, on the phone with their mom, or really into a good movie. I’ve tried to initiate sex in these moments. It was through being rejected that I learned that these moments of preferring not to have sex exist.
Girls and women sometimes do want sex.
Why else would lesbians have sex?
This also applies to straight and bi+ girls and women, many of whom want to have sex more often than their male partners do. It is perfectly okay for a person of any gender to want to have sex very frequently, or never at all.
Which brings me to my next point…
Not wanting to have sex is always okay.
While our culture teaches that sex is dirty and secret, it is also widely believed that a lack of desire for sex (especially in the context of a committed relationship) means that something’s wrong, either with the individual or with the relationship. This is often not the case! Many people’s sex drives naturally fluctuate. Many others prefer never to have sex. This doesn’t mean that they don’t experience love, intimacy, joy, satisfaction, relaxation, or any other emotion.
Gender roles and rape culture
Our culture teaches guys that they’re supposed to keep pushing to get as far as they can in any sexual encounter. We also teach girls and women that they’re supposed to say no a certain number of times before “giving in” to sex, because being hesitant makes you less “slutty.” Because of these teachings, when a girl/woman says no to sex with a guy:
And what happens when a guy is sexually assaulted? People’s responses tend to line up with the dominant cultural teachings about guys and sex:
What about when a woman is sexually assaulted by another woman? Again, cultural understandings of gender tend to add to this problem. Many people don’t take it as seriously as sexual assault perpetrated by a male because we’ve been taught that women don’t have the same capacity for violence and aggression as men do. This leads to many survivors not getting the support they need to address the emotional effects of the assault.
As a culture, our dominant messages about sex should include that:
The psychological effects of gender roles
The simplistic and often unrealistic messages our society teaches about what to expect from girls/women and guys/men have clearly caused me a lot of unnecessary confusion, but the negative effects of this misinformation don’t end there. For instance, a rigid view of gender roles tends to go along with lower self esteem and prevents people from expressing themselves fully. Many people feel stuck expressing their gender in a way that fits with their gender role in order to gain approval from a partner, or from society in gen(d)eral. This leads to less sexual satisfaction in relationships and more sexual repression.
Transgender people and gender roles
While rejecting gender roles can be hard for anyone, it may be especially difficult for many transgender people who, already marginalized for their gender identity, are more likely to face harsh discrimination and even violence for challenging cultural norms. Though many trans people adhere to gender roles in their relationships, buying into the idea of gender roles tends to go along with higher levels of internalized transphobia. It isn’t uncommon for a trans person to feel afraid of talking with their partner about their trans identity, or to prefer sex in the dark so their bodies are less visible to their partners. If we, as a society, had a more fluid understanding of gender, less common gender expressions wouldn’t be seen as such a problem.
I wasn’t a “tease” for having dozens of make out sessions that didn’t end in sex. Why?
The whole concept of a tease is unhelpful and often inaccurate. It’s tied to the male pushing, female withholding model of sexual progression, which can be harmful in heterosexual encounters and fails to acknowledge same sex encounters. The idea of a tease wouldn’t be so prevalent in a world where sexual activity is thought of as something people engage in and move forward with together for their mutual enjoyment.
*Not all teenage girls are boy-crazy, but I was.
**Shout out to all my teenage boyfriends, now in your mid 20s: Thanks for not getting me pregnant, xoxo.
This article was written by Nicole Mazzeo for Fabulously Feminist Magazine.