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Judy P-

How I went from Purity Pledger to Queer Radical Feminist, thanks to two years of 'Cotillion' Classes

Note: This interview first ran on on the blog on June 26, 2013 (as did this image from the 'Purity' photo series). The photos have received a lot of attention lately, and we thought we should repost this fabulous interview as well. The subject of the photos is NOT the subject of the interviews. It's just for illustration purposes.

Olivia seems to have burned all the photos from her Cotillion, so enjoy this father-daughter portrait from photographer David Magnusson's series  Purity  instead.

Olivia seems to have burned all the photos from her Cotillion, so enjoy this father-daughter portrait from photographer David Magnusson's series Purity instead.

 

Judy P. is an art history student at Brown University who is interested in the intersections of art, politics, race, class, and gender. Check out her other posts here.

Looking at my friend Olivia, with her piercings and pixie cut, you would never guess she was a purity-pledger in her pre-pubescent years. I was surprised when I first found out about her conservative roots and religious background, because now she's a queer, die-hard feminist. It took me a second to realize that I had a similar history as well: Traditional household, religious upbringing, Catholic/ boarding school, and my own purity-pledge ceremony at church as a kid! Here's my conversation with Olivia:

JUDY: So what exactly is a "Cotillion" anyways? I'm imagining dainty French girls in ball gowns descending a grand staircase.

OLIVIA: Cotillion, in my experience anyway, was a weekly class in 5th and 6th grade, where we were taught how to be proper "ladies and gentlemen." We learned how to use silverware and sit properly. We also learned how to dance together, men leading, women following. We occasionally split into gendered groups where only the girls would learn how to be "pure" in the eyes of God. Which, of course, means no sex before marriage, no masturbation, no fantasizing, not having a sexuality until you want to have babies. In the end we girls had a purity ceremony where we pledged our purity in front of our father and pastor. The boys didn't learn about purity, and they had a party with their moms, but no purity ceremony.

What happened during this purity ceremony?

Ironically, they called it a “coming-out” ceremony. It was at the end of 6th grade, which was the end of the weekly classes in a ballroom in town. All of the girls lined up at the top of the stairs with their dads, and you would come down one by one. And you'd be passed from your dad to your pastor. Pretty much everyone was Presbyterian or Catholic, so we all had some kind of religious leader. Then you danced with your father, and there was food and just a little party. And then anyone who wanted to do a performance took the stage. And then you got a little certificate and a ring.

A performance? Like a talent show?

Yeah, kind of like a talent show. A lot of people had dropped out by the end of Cotillion, so I think that final talent portion was their way of bribing us to stay in Cotillion until the end, so you could do your little performance. I was in a tap-dancing class with some other girls in our grade, and we were really excited to do our tap-dancing routine.

You mentioned that it's supposed to be a father-daughter bonding experience, right? How exactly? What do you think it said about father-daughter relationships (or male-female relationships in general)?

It was a tradition that fathers were supposed to guide their daughters to purity or whatever, to oversee the process and make sure we were becoming proper ladies in the eyes of God. But really the only role they played was at the end they had the power to say that you had received sufficient training to not fuck up and be a slut. Honestly, the father-daughter dynamic always felt really sickly romantic to me. It's just these creepy fathers watching these mid-pubescent girls "develop into women" and then make them promise to remain pure for them. It all was kind of gross and sexual in a weird way, and it definitely created a very weird vibe between me and my dad.

How did your dad feel about all this?

Well, it was never really his idea. It was definitely more of my mom's idea. She always wanted our lives to look very fancy and presentable and conservative. And I think my dad went along with it because he wanted religion to be a part of our lives, and this was the only way my mom would allow it to. She was never attached to her Judaism, but she also didn't want Catholicism in our lives either. She saw Cotillion as more of a social statement than a religious one.

My dad was always awkward with me while I was going through puberty, like never really got close to me or hugged me. So I think this whole topic of sex, especially when I was in 6th grade, really freaked him out. He just really wanted to ignore that whole aspect of it and we've never really talked about it since then.

So what happened if someone broke their pledge? Would it all be hush hush or did they make a big deal about it?

There were confessional “ceremonies.” They weren't something I ever had to do but other girls in my class did. Basically if you "break your purity" then you have to confess in front of your pastor and your father in order to "revitalize your purity." So you sit there with these two creepy old men and stand up and say "last night I gave Jesse a blowjob and I apologize to my father and to God." Then the pastor asks you details (i.e how did it happen/ how did it make you feel) to which the girl replies, to her father and pastor, that she got drunk and sucked a dick and felt like a whore. And then you are given your purity back.

So this whole Cotillion thing was highly religious, then? This sounds like the confessionals in Catholic church.

It was offered through my private school and some people connected to their church through it, but it was non-denominational. The pastor was only involved if you were a part of a religious group. It was Connecticut and everyone was Presbyterian so that's why the pastor was there.

Who do you think has the authority here to "give" a girl her purity back?

I don't even know. I guess God and her father. I think they want you to really fight for it and learn from your mistakes. It's about recognizing what you did as wrong and scaring you into never doing it again.

From a 5th-6th grade girl's point-of-view, how did it shape how you perceived yourself at the time?

I definitely started to develop more radical feelings about sex. Even though I wasn't really having sex, I kind of was. That was the time when I started sending out naked pictures to boys in my school and pulling my thong above my skirt during class. My sexuality didn't necessarily derive from being touched as much as it did from being wanted. It makes sense to me now that this began while I was being forced to train myself as a particular kind of sexual agent. I think I had such a strong desire to deviate from this person they were trying to brainwash me to become that I actually felt empowered in a way that now I feel would oppress me.

Looking back at the ceremony, what is it all about to present-day you?

It's all about approval from men. Fuck it's really all about approval from men! They were training us to be submissive and scared and oppressed!

My feminism definitely started to take shape when I became aware of both the power these systems could have over me and how fucked up they were. This was the time when I started questioning patriarchy and being mad and trying so hard to fight it. I liked being sexual because it meant that I wasn't being sucked into this scary-ass viewpoint where people just hate and judge and try to define your identity for you.

I was fighting against this feeling that I was becoming a robot, a domestic, submissive, oppressed robot. And it's so fucking scary because looking back, so many girls turned out that way. You know, in Therese's film I Was A Teenage Feminist she interviews this guy who says, "I think we are all born feminists and we just get talked out of it." I think this is beyond true. I feel so lucky that I was able to escape that world and challenge the system because they'll fucking get you!

When I was 5 years old, the son of a family friend raped me. Eventually, I realized what happened was not my fault.

Francesca Woodman, Space2 Image: Space2 by Francesca Woodman, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976.

Judy P. is an art history student at Brown University who is interested in the intersections of art, politics, race, class, and gender. This is her last post before she returns to school. Check out her other posts here.

When I was 5 years old, the son of a family friend raped me. It happened rather effortlessly, really. It must have been like taking candy from a preschooler. He was around 18, the eldest of 3 sons. We lived in the same townhouse complex, and we all hung out like one big family. When I think of the day of the rape, there are some fuzzy patches, but there are some unmistakable, viscerally clear images.

The rape itself never felt forced or violent—of course, rape doesn't only take this form. He had just woken up, and he gestured invitingly for me to come closer. I saw him as an older brother-type and blushed from the attention I got from him, a grown boy, practically a man! So I walked over happily. He grabbed me gently and embraced my tiny body. This is when the details get less legible. I was on the floor, spread out on a blanket. He was on top of me and pulling down his pants and my little girl panties. The moment he entered me, I shrieked from pain and shock and pushed him off eventually, running out of the house in tears.

When I saw him again, he acted like nothing had happened, and instead beckoned me over when no one was around to have another go. He took advantage of my age, my confusion, my vulnerability, and my girlish body. And he mistook my inability to stand up for myself as compliance. I felt tainted and ashamed and angry with myself. In fact, I didn't really frame it as a violation or rape until I became a teenager.

Looking back, what is so surprising is the wide gap between inner turmoil and exterior "normality." My whole life, a whopping 5 years, had been shattered in an instant, and yet life continued on the surface. No visible changes or irregularities were detectable, though I regularly battled the consuming fear and unfounded feelings of guilt that surreptitiously plagued my heart and body as a little girl.

I knew this was something traumatic and scarring the first time I woke up in the middle of the night, re-living the terror, and crying in silence feeling like the grossest person alive. It replayed in my head no matter how hard I tried to fight it off. I lived in burning shame and fear, wondering if I'd have to see him again, or if he'd try again, or if he would tell my parents what had happened (as if I was somehow at fault for letting it happen). My heart would beat painfully in my chest, and I would sweat daggers at the mention of his name. But on the outside, I was a put-together, animated kid. I had early built self-protective walls so that no one would ever know what I had experienced. I would never tell anyone, I promised myself. I would will it to be unreal and imaginary.

Inevitably, many nights I would lie awake hating myself, hating him, but mostly myself. My rape decidedly shaped my early growth, mostly by perverting my ideas about my vagina, self, self-love, intimacy, sex, and men. That, coupled with Christian guilt, made me the ideal prototype for sexual disaster. It affected how I felt in my skin (really shitty), made me feel dirty and guilty every time I felt sexual desire, and made me feel the need to always be on guard. I taught myself how to filter things out about myself and plaster on a smile for everyone. But for many years, I lived unnecessarily with feelings of profound shame, guilt, and self-loathing.

An important breakthrough for me was when I told myself something that was so obvious: what happened to me was not my fault.* After that realization, I suddenly felt free and big and in control. My rape no longer haunted me the way it used to–I had power over it.

What I want to make clear is that rape did not traumatize me out of having a sex life, although I haven't had sex in quite some time. I am not scared of sex (I just simply find it boring at times). More than anything, it has affected how I perceive myself and engage with my sexual identity. I sometimes feel uncomfortable when imagining myself having sex with another person. I get angry when a stranger looks me up and down or cat calls (but this is a duh). I always feel the need to assert myself and show that I have power in a situation. I turn men down to show that I'm at the reins.

Today, I am a proud, sex-positive woman who is open to new sexual experiences, but I can't help but get these weird feelings sometimes and put up protective walls. There is steady progress because my rape no longer defines sex or intimacy for me. I have healthy images of sex that get me excited to talk, to feel, and to do. I read a piece called “12 Things No One Told Me About Sex After Rape” a month ago, and the author, CJ Hale, said something really important:

“Every survivor’s story and experience is different, but too often the assumption is that if you have been raped, you are sexually broken and forever unfixable. That sort of discourse is not healthy or empowering or even sympathetic. What I want to say is what I wish I had been told: rape is not a form of sex, it is a form of assault. Sex feels good. Assault is traumatizing. It is possible for sex to exist after rape because they are different experiences, just like it’s possible for you to still enjoy going out to eat even if you got food poisoning once.”

I remind myself every day that I am a valuable person who has overcome rape. And I am genuinely excited about the new possibilities!

*Check out this awesome spoken word piece from Staceyann Chin that brings me to tears every time. What I'm referring to starts at 10:12.

True Story: "We were WhatsYourPrice sugarbabies"

PriceFemale PriceMale

Judy P. is an art history student at Brown University who is interested in the intersections of art, politics, race, class, and gender. Check out her other posts here.

My good friends Marilyn and Sarah*, two intelligent, charming self-described feminists, were sugar babies while studying in London last year. Most of y'all probably know what sugar daddies are, right? Well, sugar babies are their counterparts–young, attractive ladies who are financially cared for in exchange for their companionship, and sometimes, sexual favors. I'm actually the one who got them hooked when I mentioned that I knew girls who joined websites like Seeking Arrangements and What's Your Price to fund their collegiate expenses, i.e. textbooks and student debt.

Many escort services offer this kind of exchange–youth and good looks for bucks, but what distinguishes this particular deal is that it's so accessible, mediated by free, no-strings-attached websites. Users send a 'wink' or message, get a conversation going, offer and accept a 'bid' for a date, then meet up. It's like registering for OKCupid, except that at the end of the date, if there's a sexual proposition, it comes with the offer of a bonus paycheck (but sexual favors definitely are not obligatory). In a culture that routinely puts a value on young women's bodies, I wondered what it was like to capitalize on that value. Was it easy money? I asked Marilyn and Sarah about their experiences:

Judy: How is whatsyourprice different from typical escort sites?

Sarah: It doesn't explicitly sell sex for starters. You're just selling a first date. That's the only commitment.

Marilyn: But it does explicitly sell youth and beauty. The women are referred to as "beautiful individuals" and the men as "generous individuals." The women are all in their 20s and poor, the men are all older and successful.

Judy: Do you think auctioning your beauty and youth is similar to auctioning female virginity? Like, what is a woman's value?

Marilyn: It's really clear for me at least with this site that women are commodities. You can sample them, you can buy them in different sizes and shapes. They're not treated like humans. It's this hegemony over women's bodies, this conquest thing.

Sarah: And this power dynamic is established with money.

Judy: Is there a chastity category on this site?

Sarah: No chastity category. There's a physical profile: height, weight, hair color, eye color. It asks if you're married or single, and what you are seeking. There's one obvious option that's “Mutually Beneficial/ Sugar Baby,” but there are also some surprising ones like, "Long term Relationship/ Marriage Minded" and "Married Dating/ Discreet Affair."

Judy: This is kind of an obvious question, but what was the motivating factor for joining this website?

Marilyn: Money. It was an easy way to make money, and I really needed it at the time. We were both just so broke.

Sarah: Both of our loans ran out, and London is an expensive city. I jumped the gun and had all these dates lined up on whatsyourprice.com. I was so nervous the first time I went. I thought it was a scam. But I came back from a nice cocktail bar, like so expensive, neither of us could have ever afforded to set foot in there.

Judy: What was the dude like?

Sarah: He was very charming and worldly, but also secretive. I felt like a whore the entire time. I knew everyone was looking at me like I was a whore. Never heard from him again, but he owned this huge chocolate brand in London or something.

Marilyn: A lot of rich guys were using whatsyourprice.com in London. It's the financial capital of the world, so many guys trying to lead a double life, men coming from Paris, New York City...

Judy: How was your first date, Marilyn?

Marilyn: I think it was that rich 65-year-old French financier who lived part-time in Paris, part-time in London. Wife in Paris, he told me. We met at the British Museum three different times, and he'd give me a guided tour that he had prepared in writing. It was all very redundant, and he'd pretty much prepare the same routine for each date. He even took Sarah out on a date and pulled the same moves.

Sarah: That guy was a character! He probably dated every girl on the website.

Judy: Did he ask you to fuck?

Marilyn: Yeah.

Judy: How did he ask?

Marilyn: “Do you want to...you know?” He couldn't just spit it out.

Judy: Did most of the guys ask you to sleep with them?

Marilyn: Every guy I went on a date with eventually asked me to fuck. One guy that Sarah and I went on a “double” date with to London Fashion Week invited us back to his place after such a cool, crazy night. He told us, “Models are sugar babies off-season. You guys get all your stuff paid for, totally taken care of”...if you just give in, basically. He asked us to fly to Italy with him the next day to go to his villa for a weekend and fuck.

Sarah: I was definitely thinking about doing it.

Judy: Would you have fucked him if he took you to Italy?

Sarah: Yeah, honestly.

Judy: Did you ever enjoy it?

Marilyn: We both got a thrill out of it, of course.

Sarah: I was thinking, “I'm going out with these older, wealthy men. They want me, and I have them hanging on a string.”

Judy: I think you both feel a little ambivalent about this whole thing, like half of you loved the experience, and the other half just felt repulsed by it.

Sarah: It was definitely foreign and exciting, and there was a power dynamic both sides were playing. I would try to entice them to keep them interested, so they would want a second date and I could get more money. But I couldn't entice them to the point that they thought I wanted to sleep with them. It was a fine line. Then I'd feel used afterwards, yes. Because you're literally holding money you earned through ways society deems "dirty."

Marilyn: It's a paradox. Women are backed into a corner where we're made sexual objects. Then, when you try and use the cards you've been dealt (blonde and busty), you're told by society that you're a tramp. So I thought I was rebelling against the system: going to The London School of Economics by day, being a smarty, and using my sexuality, which society constructed, to pay the bills. But then, when they started asking for sex, and I actually considered it, that was when I felt dirty, it felt wrong. Plus, I had to keep it a secret from my friends, and no one wants to do that.

Sarah: Yeah, but not all of these guys were perverts. I started really liking one. I think between me and Marilyn, I definitely had more fun with the dates. I'm adventurous, I'm wild, and I think it was a nice change from all those dumb, young college boys. These guys would take me out on fancy dates…

Marilyn: There was one guy who offered to pay me 2,000 pounds ($3,013) a month to have sex with him three times a month. I said, "Let me just think about this for a week." That week, every 40-year-old man or older I saw just disgusted me. And this guy, Andrew was his name, had a daughter who was 16. I was 20 when I was going on these dates. I was just so weirded out by it all. I declined his offer when I came to my senses, even though he constantly harassed me with emails.

Judy: How much did you get paid for each date?

Marilyn: 50 to 100 pounds ($75-$151). I got paid 150 pounds ($227) on one date.

Sarah: Same range, but girls can definitely make a lot more on there.

Judy: What were your online profiles like?

Marilyn: I tried to go with an angle of confidence, also intellectual. I'm young, I look good walking into a room. I used a blurred profile picture for anonymity. People wouldn't be able to recognize me, but they'd see that I'm a busty blonde.

Sarah: Most girls try to be sweet, the girl-next-door type. The guys, for the most part, have awkward profiles. They just didn't know what to say. This is in London though, keep in mind. I don't know what it'd be like in the States...probably pretty similar.

Judy: Okay, so you described yourself as a "busty blonde," and you're definitely attractive by society's standards. Can you describe yourself as well, Sarah? Like, why do you think these men found both of you so enticing?

Sarah: I'm thin, long red hair, pretty busty myself. You know, I'm pretty by society's standards for sure. I also studied art, so I could keep up with the "classy" conversations.

Marilyn: Yeah, they would actually tell us they liked us because we weren't "Eastern European prostitutes." Like, they were surprised we weren't some beat chicks that couldn't speak English.

Judy: So they did care about your brains?

Marilyn: I think they were very pleasantly surprised that we weren't only young and pretty, but could have real conversations as well. They were looking to fall in love, half of them. The other half, yes, were just looking for hot little things to bang.

Judy: So how'd you feel about your overall experience, and given these experiences,  would you do it again? 

Marilyn: You just feel so used after a while and impure. There is a sense of purity that's lost when you commodify yourself. If you sleep with too many people, too–at least for me. It's this Catholic guilt thing…I'd only ever do it again if I got desperate, which might be sooner rather than later. I have a lot of student loans to pay off.

Sarah: I can use my body and charms sexually and entice men to buy me dinner and pay for drinks and pay me to just accompany them. It was simultaneously empowering and disempowering--that I could have so much power over these dudes just with my looks and enthusiasm, but ultimately, they're the ones with the wad of cash who see me as a piece of meat. But I would probably do it again. I mean, it's just so lucrative!

*My friends' names have been changed, and that's not them or their escorts in the photos.

The Myth of the Senior Scramble: Talking to Brown University students about 'hookup culture'

 

Judy P. is an art history student at Brown University who is interested in the intersections of art, politics, race, class, and gender. Check out her other posts here.

For years, we've been hearing hookup culture bashed in the media for promoting dangerous behavior, cheapening sex, and encouraging meaningless relationships. The latest example is Donna Freitas' book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy. In her Washington Post Opinions piece from two months ago, Freitas asserts that hookups have become:

"so common, so obligatory, that it leaves little room for experimentation that bends the rules [...] When students are expected to hook up with lots of people, doing so becomes dutiful, not daring. Older ideas of sexual exploration – be it same-sex encounters or one-night stands – have become a basic expectation."

Part of me read that and thought it felt pretty honest in the way that hooking up feels like a necessary rite of passage (although I really don't agree with her conclusion that we should instead abstain from sex altogether).

I'm taking a year off before completing my senior year at Brown, so on a weekend visit back to campus, I decided to investigate. Now that my girlfriends were graduating, what could they tell me about their sexual experiences of the past 4 years? About college hookup culture at large? Were they participating in the infamous "senior scramble" (last-ditch attempt to get with somebody, anybody before leaving undergrad life) now that they were graduating seniors?

My friends defined hooking up in a variety of ways, from making out to having intercourse, but they all agreed that it was casual. Here's what some of them said:

On relationships vs. hooking up: 

M: It's weird for me to be here and be in a serious relationship. Personally, just being single and hooking up with people would be unsatisfying.

C: The only guy I hooked up with freshman year who I didn't really like was D. My mentality was, classes haven't started, this is what you do in college. It was all kind of really stupid. You enter college and think you have all this freedom now.

M: There's this pressure to do this when you enter college. I went to an all girls school, so I didn't really have a chance to do any of this stuff before.

C: I've done it, and I'm over it. I've had the "college experience." Being in a 3-year relationship then breaking it off and hooking up with someone was weird. But I had to get it out of my system.

M: In the same vein, I've already had this hookup experience [freshman year], so I prefer to be in a relationship. [My boyfriend] has only had sexual experiences in serious relationships, no random hookups, so if he hooked up with anyone else, he'd feel really attractive. I wouldn't need that kind of affirmation the way he kinda does since he's never had that before.

On not experimenting enough:

C: I see a lot of girls complain that they don't want to hook up with anybody because "everyone at Brown is gay or a girl."

T: The options are so slim that people feel like they have to hunt down new prospects like prey. It's easier to just stay out of it.

On not hooking up (or having any kind of sex) at all:

J: I'm just not interested in the culture. I don't find anyone attractive enough, nor do I want to hook up. Hooking up casually involves going to crowded places with people you don't know, drinking a lot, and meeting lots of strangers. I'm just not into that, I'd rather hang out with my friends.

On the potential dangers of hookup culture:

E: I don't have the evidence, but I get the impression that frat boys/ athletes try to get girls drunk and then sleep with them, then they call it a "hookup."

Y: During residential peer counselor training, that's a huge topic. Safe-sex groups and Health Services come in and talk about how that's a huge issue because it can be really dangerous, all that alcohol tied into hookup culture. We have to address going to parties "properly," respecting each other's bodies/ spaces, and most importantly, consent.

On the perks of hookup culture, from a queer male friend's perspective:

L: I think there is a huge hooking up culture at Brown, or rather, it is a sex-positive space. I think it's a place where if you want to hook up, there are people–and if you don't, then there is not much pressure. But this is from my own experience, so there's not much I can say about the straight scene. Hookup culture has influenced how I treat others' bodies, and it has definitely pushed me to think more about consent in my relationships. It's allowed me to be more sex-positive, something I'll carry on outside of Brown. That is, I'm able to treat others with more respect and be much more considerate of their desires and boundaries.

As for me, I feel like there's a whole, complex spectrum of sexual experiences on my college campus. We have the freedom to choose to hook up or to not hook up. Even if we hook up uncomfortably with the kid down the hall, refusing to acknowledge each other the next day, we learn from those mistakes. As long as it is consensual, there shouldn't be anything wrong with experimenting. I have certainly learned from the highs and lows of my previous sexual encounters to make more informed, intentional decisions.

What's your experience of campus hookup culture? Does it even exist? Tell us in the comments!

You have one more week to celebrate National Masturbation Month!

"Wally in Red Blouse With Raised Knees" by Egon Schiele

Judy P. is an art history student at Brown University who is interested in the intersections of art, politics, race, class, and gender. She is proud to be a woman, though she thinks it’s not always easy to be one. Check out her other posts here.

May is National Masturbation Month!

In celebration, Philadelphia's sex-positive groups, ScrewSmart and GALEI's (The Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative) Pleasure Rush, have been hosting a “Masturbate-A-Thon” all month ending on May 27th. For this fundraising project, participants are asking sponsors to fund every hour spent, ahem, intimately with themselves. The proceeds will go toward ScrewSmart's and Pleasure Rush's efforts to support sex-positive and pleasure-based education and prevention, and to "reduce shame and stigma around sexuality, promote sexual health, [and] create a community dialogue around the importance of pleasure."

I know that this can be an embarrassing or uncomfortable taboo topic, but that's what this event is about. GALEI's executive director Elica Gonzalez says: “We are hoping that by having folks participate in the Masturbate-a-Thon, that they will help to destigmatize the behavior – and reduce stress and get a glowing complexion all the while.”

Masturbation was a touchy (no pun intended) subject growing up. I discovered the sensations of self-pleasure pretty early, I'd say when I was 6 or so. I was surprised to learn that many of my friends started masturbating in early childhood as well, which goes to show that children can be sexual beings.

Coming from a religious background, however, I always felt naughty and guilty every time I did the deed. I'd imagine God looking down on me, shaking his head in disappointment, and crossing my name off of his “Heaven-bound” list. I'd even picture my dead grandparents observing me from above (creepy), and I thought I was somehow letting them down by getting to know the ins and outs of my vagina when I was taught it should be locked up and ignored forever, or at least until I got married and had to make mini-mes.

I asked my friends about their experiences with masturbation, and they shared a few similar initial feelings of shame and guilt:

"I would look at myself in the mirror and cry and then get down and pray."

"I always felt dirty after ejaculation."

Even though uncomfortable thoughts and images plagued my mind, I still continued to masturbate regularly. I guess nothing quite beat the thrill of an orgasm, even if it meant disobeying the Big Bearded Man-in-the-Sky. When I grew out of my religious phase, I would even masturbate openly in the presence of our family's austere, wooden cross in my living room, mostly because it was impossible to avoid (the living room was my favorite spot because that's where we kept our vibrating handheld massager. TMI? Sorry!). I also did it because I had the liberating feeling that I could; I wasn't scared or full of shame and repentance anymore.

Masturbation is the only form of sexual pleasure I have at the moment. I will definitely climax from self-play, whereas partner sex usually yields not much pleasure and no orgasm. Now I know this isn't the case for everyone (partner sex can be amazing! I'm waiting for that day, fingers crossed), but I know many women who don't come from partner sex at all. Many women (and men) don't even know much about the anatomy of the female body, i.e. the treasure den of the clitoris. As a friend of mine put it, “Masturbating teaches you what you like and how you like to be touched. I believe if you can't learn to let go and make yourself come, no one can.” Just take a hint from Betty Dodson, the queen of self-love/ pleasure [video link].

Sometimes, masturbating still makes me feel a little weird, like I'm not ready to announce myself as a sexual adult yet. That's a part of my sexuality too, those religious, social, and cultural influences that have shaped (or stunted) my sexual growth today. It's always going to be a process for me; getting over the complications of sex, feeling comfortable in my body, being okay with feeling sexy, and discovering all the movements/ rhythms that make my body pulsate, twist, and shout.

You still have a little over a week until the end of May to take part in Masturbation Month, so get masturbating! And, of course, the fun doesn't stop there.

So what's your relationship with masturbation, especially for those of you who don't have sex or have never had sex? Do you remember your first time? What are your favorite techniques? How often do you masturbate? How does masturbation play into your sexuality/sex life? What do you think about when you're masturbating? Do you think at all? Why do you masturbate? etc. Share in the “Comments” section below.

 

"I haven't had sex for two years and I'm doing perfectly fine, thanks"

judy Judy P. is an art history student at Brown University who is interested in the intersections of art, politics, race, class, and gender. She is proud to be a woman, though she thinks it’s not always easy to be one. Check out her other posts here.

Sophie Fontanel, a chic, intelligent, and attractive editor at Elle France is creating quite the stir with her new memoir, L'Envie, to be published in the United States this year as The Art of Sleeping Alone. It recounts the 12 years she spent abstinent after years of dating and getting tangled up in the hungry legs of men who offered mediocre and unsatisfying sex. One day, she went on a solo skiing trip and pretty much had the best time of her life. She remembers it as a momentous, liberating experience that launched her pursuit of abstinence.

As you'd expect, her book is getting mixed reactions. As The Atlantic's coverage reports, readers' responses are split. When I brought up the content of this book with some of my friends (all in their early 20s), the response was unanimous: “12 years?! She went 12 years without sex? But she's French! That's a really long time. Imagine how much she missed out on during those years.”

There were a few who were impressed by her ability to have “self-control” and “that kind of discipline,” as if she were somehow punishing herself or testing her limits for some kind of masochistic, freak project. A lot of them couldn't figure out why a single, “normal” woman, who had no apparent flaws, would have a no-sex policy during her prime time. I mean, YOLO, right? Shouldn't we all be putting ourselves out there (especially while we're young and sexy), going home with a different bed buddy every night? My best friend, for example, is a sex-oozing creature who does embody this whole free love mentality, going on noncommittal, exciting dates with strangers she meets in bars and having lots of good, fun sex.

And then there are also people like me, a fresh, budding 22-year-old who just doesn't really care much for sex. I haven't had sex for almost 2 years now (and when you're this age and living in this sex-centered cultural climate as a college student, it feels like eons). It's not as if I proclaimed one day, “I'm going to be abstinent from this day forward.” I guess you could say I'm passively abstinent, but not because men/women aren't sexually attracted to me or I'm not sexually attracted to men/women. I have had bad relationship models that have colored my experience and resistance to intimacy. But that's not the whole story, and I'd hate for people to pathologize and assume that if someone chooses not to have sex, there must be some monumental reason that requires lots of psychoanalytic evaluation.

That's why Rachel Hills' TEDx talk, "Understanding the Sex Myth," resonates with me so much. In sum, she talks about the anxiety and pressure we often feel to live up to some kind of sexual standard in our oversexed society. We compare our sex lives to those of others (or the idea we have about how much sex everyone else is having) because we feel this is what defines us. Most of the people I hang out with, and therefore compare myself to, have multiple partners and do have sex on a regular basis, so I was blown away by some of the statistics she presented. For example, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found that the most common number of sexual partners an unmarried 18-23 year old will have in a given year is just 1. Because I presumed that everyone around me was always having so much sex, there were times when I felt like an oddball, like something was wrong with me.

Sometimes, I simply don't give a damn about sex and don't feel stimulated, end of story. This is not to say I don't get the hots because let me be the first to admit that sexy thoughts are on my mind every day. And that's important because I consider myself a sexual being, even when I'm not engaging in the physical act of sex. I love the idea of sex, but it hasn't played out that well in real life: I've had unremarkable sex where I'd be penetrated repeatedly, and it just felt “mechanical,” as Fontanel puts it. I'd look up at the ceiling and wonder, “When is this gonna end? I would really rather just go to sleep.”

Fontanel claims that some of her peers branded her as “frigid, abnormal, bitter, neurotic, a lesbian.” I've been called similar things in the past. But there are actually a substantial number of women and men who appreciate her courage and relate to her feelings about sex. What it really comes down to is choice, but our culture is rather good at providing repercussions for our individual, sexual decisions: if you have lots of sex, you're a slut; if you choose not to have sex, for non-religious/ non-cultural reasons, you're a prude or a lesbian. I like to think that my sexuality is fluid—that I can have casual, exciting sex with someone in one moment, whenever that may be, and not bother with sex at all the next, for as long as I please.