Can I ever have full ownership over my sexuality? A homecoming exploration about changing bodies, “Promising Young Woman” and the horrors of being in your prime.
Welcome back, my dwindling readership! You all look ravishing from here. Simply thrilled to be back, but you clicked on this queer sex blog, so enough small talk- let’s crack on, shall we?
Today, I present to you a reckoning of my own sexuality. Over the last few months, I haven’t been posting primarily because of university (and my total inability to face multiple deadlines), but it’s also reflective of the fact that my relationship with sex has been in a strange place. I’ve been doing a lot of self-evaluation and reconciliation in these areas, and in all honesty? It’s been tough. This piece has been compiled from months of notes, tears and late-night phone chats as I’ve tried to figure out how I can feel good about sex moving forward, without being held back by the past.
As you read this, you’ll probably notice I have more questions than answers right now, and it’s because I’m still figuring out a lot of these ideas in real time. So although it’s been cathartic to try and clarify the things that have been affecting me since we last spoke, I don’t know all the answers yet. But that’s definitely not what this blog is about, so consider this an honest update on where I am right now.
Fair warning, this is a long one and I do cover some challenging topics, so hope you’ll trust me to guide you through this maze of 2am phone thoughts, Wizard of Oz references and general pessimism about people (ergh). And once again, thank you for being here.
PART ONE: BODY
Let’s start this reckoning with a confession: I have gained weight. Admittedly the kind of weight that would make most logical people roll their eyes, but whatever. Let’s just leave the game of body-comparison-guilt-wank-shaming for another day, shall we.
Turns out after endless lockdowns, my first COVID-era semester of university and the thrill of living in a city where you can order literal buckets of pasta at any time of day or night, my metabolism finally put its foot down- no more. My stomach doesn’t shrink back down to post-meal size anymore. It stays there, a soft crescent moon of flesh hanging over the edge of my jeans, peering out at the world. Some days I think it’s cute. Others, not so much.
It’s the first time I’ve ever dealt with a wardrobe of clothes that no longer fit me- my curated family of fabric children have finally outgrown their doting, chubby mistress. I’ve busted through seams, ripped open zippers, and on one particularly humiliating occasion, got stuck inside the arms of a jumpsuit while attempting to covertly use a McDonalds bathroom. In fairness, this can’t entirely be attributed to my frankly fantastic ass. I’ve held onto a lot of the same clothes since adolescence, so it is more than reasonable to suggest that I shouldn’t be expected to fit into the same outfits as my 14-year-old self. My body has changed, and that’s okay. Skirts get shorter, bustlines grow bigger, let’s call the whole thing off.
Despite the logistical challenge of having a wardrobe of ill-fitting clothes (in a society that deems it wholly inappropriate to exit the house naked), I’ve tried to view this development as a positive- the chance to clear out the old and start fresh. After all, my new body deserves the privilege of comfort, the enjoyment of wearing fun and exciting clothes.
Which begs the question- what do I want to wear right now?
Turns out the answer is a long-winded explanation involving harlequin frills, 70s flared jumpsuits, lesbian librarian frocks and, in my housemate’s words, “big, fat, lunch-money stealing” kinky boots. Admittedly, I am not a person who is normally drawn to the practical aspects of clothing, but sure I’ll be nailing down the basics any day now.
Curating this new wardrobe isn’t just an exercise in trying to express myself as I am right now, but a method to accept my body in its current form, rather than focussing on what it could be or what it has been in the past. To some people, this might seem counterproductive. When I mentioned to a male friend that I planned to sell most of my wardrobe to invest in new pieces in bigger sizes, he was sceptical.
“What’s the point? Couldn’t you just hang onto the same clothes and lose weight?”
Although there may be some form of underlying logic in this statement (somewhere deep under the layers of lanky boy cluelessness), this decision wasn’t purely based on my indifference towards downloading a calorie counter app again. My criteria for clothing has also undeniably changed. I want comfort, rather than the pang of an empty stomach. I still get enjoyment from putting thought into aesthetics through clothing or make-up, but most of the time, efficiency wins out. At the ripe old age of 22, I have already lost the stamina for cinching waistbands or painstaking eyebrow definition. My face is nearly always bare- cheeks dull and ruddy, hair tied back in a tiny samurai loop so I can concentrate. Or nap, one or the other.
This wasn’t always the case. In all honesty, I used to like clothes being tighter. I enjoyed tops that stretched across my boobs, skirts that nipped and tucked, pants that cupped my butt and made it feel taut and indestructible. But as my waistline began to blossom and more of my clothes seemed destined for the “chuck” pile, I began to feel conflicted about the reason I favoured pieces like that. At the time, it did feel more “me”. After all, I was sexual- I liked expressing that though my clothes. But was it only pleasurable when I had a body that felt worthy of showing off? I had always prided myself on not dressing for men, but suddenly, the answers didn’t seem so clear cut. How much was based on true personal expression versus presenting myself as a viable sexual object for others? Did the (horrified gasp) *MALE GAZE* actually have a home in my closet?!
PART TWO: SEX, TRAUMA AND THE FEMALE IMAGE
But whether these questions hold any validity, the fact still remains: I couldn’t give a shit about coming across as attractive to other people right now. Which leads us to our second confession (brace yourselves, people) …I haven’t had sex in a while. Yes, you read that correctly. If this is a blog about sex, it stands to reason that I should have the freedom to discuss how I’m relating to it right now, and the answer is that I’m not. Not in the context of other people, at least. My weight gain has correlated with a certain disconnection towards sex over the last six months which has deeply challenged me. I haven’t been dating or pursuing relationships in any form, whether casual or long-term.
If you’re wondering why, the answer is not straight-forward, nor is it information I feel obligated to share to justify my decision. Most people in my real life are not privy to these specific, private details. Plus I want this blog to be a resource, not a glorified therapy journal. But I feel okay telling you that my early adulthood has not been easy. It has often felt characterized less by my successes than a string of traumatic (not a word I use lightly) experiences which I have not always been a willing participant in. This is not to say I’ve never fucked up or made self-sabotaging decisions- I absolutely have. But it has taken me a long time to accept that I have not always deserved the treatment I have received, particularly in a sexual and romantic context. Very rarely, in fact.
Even after eight months of total freedom, it still feels too early to know whether I’m mentally on the other side of these events yet. But it’s also arguably the first time I have completely relieved myself from the pressures of “moving on” or fighting against some kind of Wicked-Witch-of-the-West hourglass which threatens to return my hymen if I refuse to let anyone go near my vagina for too long.
Distance from bad experiences does inevitably help- the sharp-edged details become hazier, easier to deal with as days become weeks, weeks turn into months. However, I can also feel my sexuality (a part of myself I once got great enjoyment out of) becoming foreign. It makes me question how much of my sexual identity was ever mine to begin with. Did it only ever exist in relation to other people and trying to fulfill their needs and fantasies? How much was a result of my own desire versus social conditioning? What would having complete ownership over my sexuality actually look like?
Allow me to put this in a real-life context for you. While lying in bed in the early morning, I might occasionally roll over onto my stomach and stretch out in front of the full-length mirror directly across the room. Most days, I tend to forget it’s there. But once in a while, it’s an indulgence to check in with yourself- see how the old girl’s doing. I’ll watch my muscles clench and unclench, observe how my spine rises with my shoulder blades before running all the way down into the small of the back to create that mythic feminine s-shape that artists sketch and poets go wild for. The tiny dip you could collect rainwater in. When I’m in this mood, sometimes I’ll follow this line down and push out my butt, flexing my cheeks in the mirror- admiring how round, full and womanly my body has the potential to look.
Where does this impulse come from? Is this physicality an example of me cherishing my body or an attempt to analyse how it can be presented to another person? The answer doesn’t seem as straightforward as I’d like it be.
As part of the commitment of regularly (lol) contributing to this blog, I also have an Instagram attached where I occasionally share sexualized portraits of myself. No one else is involved in that process. As the photographer and subject, I have complete control of my own image. Ironically, the end result is not always “sexy”. My friends often tease me that the amount of effort I put into every photo is distinctly UN-sexy. It’s pretty safe to assume that no one is wanking over the idea of me spending hours constructing vegan leather chaps or ironing a fabric background before attaching it to my wall with washing-line pegs.
But that was never the point- the female image has always historically been dictated by men, so I felt like I was taking back power by portraying myself as a sexually liberated being. After all, if the well-trodden paths of pop star maturity have taught us anything (think Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Miley Cyrus, etc), the only way to be taken seriously as an adult woman is to be hyper-sexual, particularly in public. But as I’ve been considering these ideas of ownership, I’ve been questioning how sharing these images is benefitting me. Am I demonstrating agency or merely recreating what I’ve been told is sexy from a young age?
The parameters of what a sexualised woman looks like feels so limited in mainstream imagery (lingerie, high heels, corsets) and the themes are always the same- uncomfortable, painful, only tolerable for short periods of time. We’re told that these symbols of womanhood make us powerful because of the effect they have on men, but coincidentally, they also happen to expose us, limit our movements, make it impossible to run away. Last week, I removed an expensive piece of red lacy lingerie before going to bed, only to find it had carved tiny, matching Frankenstein holes on both sides of my boobs. The pain was so normal that the blood had already dried throughout the day- I hadn’t noticed a thing. Sometimes I really do want the option to run away.
Regardless of any cultural context, I just can’t bring myself to create pictures that commodify my sexuality right now – the idea is exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, I love self-made imagery of adult women being overtly sexual. It genuinely makes me feel good to know that content exists. But it would feel disingenuous to be engaging in those ideas when the offline reality is that I’m too anxious to have IRL sex. I feel like my bad experiences have closed off my ability to be vulnerable or risk being intimate in any way. I want to have agency in my dating life, but going out and meeting partners seems be based entirely on compromise- pushing my values aside in order to either comply with what someone else wants or risk fulfilling my own sexual needs.
Actually, let me be more specific.
I’m sick of being pressured to present myself in a way that suggests that my sexual experiences (predominantly with men) hasn’t left me with life-effecting trauma. The kind that makes me feel ripples of panic at the bus stop and call my mum in tears at 3am on a Wednesday morning. I want to be able to heal authentically, without feeling like I’m trying to beat some kind of internal biological clock- the pressure of making the most of my youth. But in order to have any kind of sex life, it feels like there’s no choice but pretend to be “normal” in order to be attractive to potential new partners. Trauma isn’t sexy, even if it’s not my fault. Am I paying therapists, taking medication and trying to look after myself so I can live a more productive, healthier life? Or so my damage will be manageable, under the radar- not immediately apparent to the next person I meet on Tinder.
It seems to confirm an unspoken law that what happens behind closed doors is not considered to be political or worthy of notice. There’s a reason these interpersonal dynamics are often so difficult to untangle. After all, there’s no cameras, no proof. I don’t have any bruises or blood running down my face. We cannot judge what has or hasn’t happened, so you have no choice but to suck it up and move on. Go on a date again and smile. Pretend nothing happened. The private does not belong in public- this is how these men keep their untouchable reputations (and psychological welfare) intact. It does not suit them to be faced with the reality of their actions.
When I’ve brought up some of my current trepidation about sex to others, some people seem to jump to the conclusion that the issue is men themselves- surely you can just fix the issue by doing that gay thing you do? Yeah, just do a Big Old Gay and all your problems will be solved, right? RIGHT?!
Before we all do a collective eyeroll, it’s not like there’s absolutely no truth in this idea. Queer relationships can definitely be freeing because they release you from the heteronormative dating binary and all the shit that comes with it. You can make up the rules as you go, act purely on what feels good, bond through the mutual experience of finding new ways to experience love and sex.
But I also don’t feed into the classic baby queer delusion that having this form of relationship is some kind of cheat code to happiness or will save you from experiencing hurt- particularly if you have felt that with previous heterosexual partners. I’ve certainly been with women who see this sexual experimentation as a refreshing break from shitty male behaviour (not that you can blame them for wanting one). They see me less as an individual person (who likes Blackadder and vanilla milkshakes) and more of a vacation for them to experience basic human decency- someone who will finally go down on them, ask them personal questions and stroke their hair as they try to decipher their identities. Using other queer people as a band-aid (or collectively villainising men) is not a solution for me. I need to be comfortable within myself before trying to pursue any kind of romantic or sexual relationship.
Don’t get me wrong- I do love sex. Occasionally to my own detriment. But after being let down so many times, it feels nearly impossible to find partners who I feel the bare minimum of safe with. My ability to trust has been too frequently tarnished. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had had a male sexual partner who hasn’t left me significantly scarred in some way, either emotionally or physically. I hate that sentence. I wish it wasn’t true. I want to scroll back and backspace it out of existence, delete it from my narrative, but I can’t.
How am I meant to move forward from here?
PART THREE: HEY, LOOK- IS THAT A TANGENT?!
Yes, it is.
My dad always likes to remind me that there are good people in the world, even if I haven’t been lucky enough to meet them yet. During a time when I was questioning which area of Hobbiton these so-called mystical “good people” must be hiding (and whether they’d be interested in going on a coffee date), Promising Young Woman was probably the worst film I could have seen. Twice.
If you’re not familiar, Promising Young Woman is a black-comedy revenge thriller which follows Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a young med school drop-out, who is living a secret double life. Every week, she goes out on the town and pretends to be drunk, hoping to lure unsuspecting men into taking her home with the intention of confronting them when they inevitably try to take advantage of her. Without giving too much away, it is revealed that a dark event in Cassie’s past has inspired her current path of vengeance. When she re-connects with former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham), she decides to plot revenge against those from her past who have contributed to causing harm to both her and the people she loves.
I knew Emerald Fennell’s work from her role as showrunner on the second season of Killing Eve, so I was pumped for her directorial debut. During the 2020 lockdown, I kept impatiently Googling the postponed release date of the film and listening to the fucking awesome “Toxic” strings cover featured in the trailer. The anticipation probably made the film hit harder when I did eventually see it because I was already so invested in its premise and creative team- there were expectations hidden below the surface. So no one was more surprised than me when I left the cinema after seeing Promising Young Woman for the first time and wrote precisely one sentence in the notes app on my phone: “What the actual fuck am I meant to feel about this movie?”
It stayed with me for weeks and not in a good way. I struggled with whether it was a result of the actual production being flawed or because Fennell had successfully managed to challenge me. The character of Cassie seemed strangely unrelatable. Not only was she wealthy, privileged and (let’s face it) white enough to have the time and resources to pull off her schemes without consequence, she appeared to have no inner life outside her grief- no hobbies, passions or sources of joy. When people in her life tell her to move on, she singularly achieves this goal through getting a boyfriend. I felt like there was some realism here in the ways that bad experiences can take over your psychology, poison all aspects of your life like a fungus.
But here’s the kicker- none of Cassie’s revenge felt satisfying or empowering to me. The targets of her vendettas all seemed unrealistically cartoon-y and awful. It reminded me of trends in other recent female-driven films (like Hustlers and Birds of Prey) where the male villains have to be written as one-dimensionally misogynistic so that audiences can feel satisfied when a group of BADASS CHICKS finally give them the ass-kicking they deserve. In the post #MeToo era, it’s possible that these creators are merely attempting to offer viewers fictional catharsis- given that real-life terrible men rarely face any consequences. Plus in all these movies, the women also do insanely unethical things, so there needs to be someone worse than them (“well, she’s pretty bad, but at least she’s not THAT guy”). But I find that these movies tend to suffer from this decision because it doesn’t feel representative of the social or systemic reasons why these men get to be in these positions of power. Most of time, they’re charming, charismatic and sympathetic. Any imbalances can’t be clear cut- otherwise, they’d never get what they want. Bad things must happen in grey areas.
This is where Promising Young Woman crept up on me and twisted the knife. In a highly stylized world littered with cut-and-paste, self proclaimed “good guys”, there was a surprise twist villain, followed by a stomach-turning final sequence which involved one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences I’ve ever had in a cinema. The air in the room changed. People were gasping, whispering in low voices to their friends (“wait…did that really just happen?!”). In more than one way, it confirmed my most cynical fears. Even though this wasn’t the film’s main theme, Cassie’s character arc seemed to demonstrate that she never had any ownership to begin with. Even at the height of her power, she was still at the mercy of others, unable to flourish.
In all fairness, it was not Emerald Fennell’s job to comfort me about rape culture. Promising Young Woman could have never been the film I needed it to be. But I couldn’t help but think that it had been specifically marketed to the women who were already painfully familiar with the dark version of reality it portrayed- a world where there are no “safe” men, and it is easier for a woman to die, rather than heal. When faced with a bad experience, you can either sacrifice your psychological wellbeing in the pursuit of justice or try to ignore the pain completely to try and heal through disassociation. Checkmate, bitch, it told me. There is no happy way out. You lose.
Three months later (against my better judgement), I went to see it for a second time with my mum, while she was staying with me from interstate. It was my suggestion. We snuck jelly snakes into the cinema in our purses, grinning during the neon opening credits as we stretched them between our teeth like schoolgirls. But within the first half hour, I could feel myself mentally retreating. Somehow it was worse to know what was coming.
The audience was engaged- laughing at Bo Burnham (a deceptively cunning casting choice by Fennell) delivering dorky one-liners, smiling at the romantic montage where Cassie finally allows herself to let go and dance in a chemist to Paris Hilton’s campy 2006 bop “Stars Are Blind”. The artificial sweetness of the snakes made my stomach go sour. I grimaced through all of the Ryan scenes. My mum kept glancing at me after every joke, hoping to catch me laughing (it’s her favourite thing to do while watching movies together). I couldn’t meet her gaze, especially when the cinema hushed to silence during the film’s most troubling climatic reveal. When the lights finally came up, I turned to face her, attempting to gauge if she had been as solemnly affected by the dark implications of Fennell’s vision as I had. Mum smiled brightly, raising her eyebrows in polite interest.
“Ah well…there you go,” she said, conjuring the breeziness of a woman who had just watched both entries into the Mamma Mia! cinematic universe, rather than a twisted thriller surrounding the potentially life-threatening impacts of sexual assault.
I was furious. We bickered all the way to the foyer, pausing to struggle with our jackets before dramatically stalking out into the evening air in brittle, stony silence.
CONCLUSION: THE FUTURE
Recently, I’ve been pouring over Emily Nussbaum’s fantastic book I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the Television Revolution– particularly one essay entitled “Confessions of The Human Shield”, where she explores the work of poet Pearl Cleage. In 1990, Cleage published a piece about Miles Davis, whose classic jazz album Kind of Blue had helped her recover after a painful divorce. She writes about the conflict of learning that the same man who produced her favourite record had also been a violent abuser who had beaten his wife, Cicely Tyson– crimes which he had not only committed but bragged about in his own autobiography. After testing out her varying responses to this information, Cleage concludes her essay with an enigmatic series of questions:
“How can they hit us and still be our heroes? Our leaders? Our husbands? Our lovers? Our geniuses? Our friends? And the answer is…they can’t. Can they?”
As I’ve been thinking about ownership over the last few months, these questions has been lingering in my mind like a childhood forget-me-not rhyme, unsure of which solution to land on (can they, can they not, can they, can they not). My conclusion is that I don’t want to be in a position where I have to choose. I’m sick of ambiguity, constantly trying to make sense out of grey areas. When it comes to sex, the options should not be limited to celibacy or being treated terribly, and I refuse to settle for one or the other.
In “Confessions of The Human Shield”, Nussbaum also references comedian Hannah Gadsby’s show Nanette, which she credits as an invaluable resource for re-configuring the concept of personal ownership- it’s done the same for me. If you’re familiar with Gadsby’s special, you’ll know that there is little to say about Nanette that hasn’t already been said. Please watch it if you haven’t. If Promising Young Woman stripped me of my hope, Nanette continues to return it, time and time again.
Hannah Gadsby has been one of my comedy heroes, ever since I first saw her 2013 show Happiness is A Bedside Table as a 14-year-old in a tiny room above the London Soho Theatre. That night changed my life. I remember coming out feeling giddy, like the streets were glowing under my feet. It clarified so much about the kind of work I wanted to make, regardless of medium- funny, honest and authentic. A few years earlier, she was also the first person (beside dickhead pre-pubescent boys at my school) I’d ever heard using the word “lesbian”, back when I had no idea what it meant. It’s even more special to me that Gadsby also comes from Tasmania, my home state- she was forced to grow up there in a time before homosexuality was decriminalized (prior to 1997) and that’s when public scrutiny was primarily targeted at male-on-male relationships. Queer female relationships probably have felt sci-fi, by comparison.
Like Emily Nussbaum, Nanette changed me on an almost neurological level- what else could I ask for from a piece of art? Gadsby’s clarity and ability to set boundaries, rather than blur them, helped me make sense of these questions of ownership which have been convoluting my life. Her anger was legitimate and invigorating. She argues against celebrating the art of men who hurt women (fuck Picasso) and uses comedy as a platform to demonstrate her unwillingness to edit out the bad parts of her life– the desire to tell her whole story, not merely the punchline. There’s not enough time to pretend not to see the world clearly.
“Hindsight is a gift!” she bellows, without breaking eye contact with her audience. “Stop wasting my time.”
My prime is wherever I am right now. Being mentally okay and not actively pursuing sexual relationships (even if they’re unhealthy) is not a lifestyle choice that is socially celebrated, so it takes a lot of effort to re-program myself to not panic if I’m not immediately jumping back on the metaphorical horse (as it were). The truth is that I’m exhausted. I’m sick of compromising for the sake of fulfilling other’s needs. I need time to heal and re-learn how to draw lines I should have drawn a long time ago.
When I return to sex, I will not be the same person anymore and that’s okay. Part of working towards sexual ownership is also taking responsibility for the ways I can be stronger moving forward- not caving to pre-conceived ideas of what I think other people want, setting boundaries and being honest about my own needs. Ever since I started having sex, it’s felt like a taboo to admit that I enjoy the companionable and emotional aspects of sexual relationships. I even feel embarrassed writing it here, ergh. It’s felt weak, a betrayal to my genuine sexual desire (and an occasional, unapologetic need to fuck and fuck hard). But this time away has made me realise that an important aspect of having more fulfilling sexual relationships is taking the time to find partners that share the same values. Otherwise, it’s like trying to shove a large object into a hole that’s too small (no pun intended)- never going to end well.
I’m looking forward to being able to pursue sex again at my own pace, whether that’s tomorrow or another six months from now. In the meantime, my crescent moon belly and I will be here, sitting in bed on a Saturday evening and smiling at the thought of all the good people in the world that we haven’t had the opportunity to bump into yet.
Here’s a song about that:
Until next time, bitches. Hope you’re all happy and thriving.
Love Eve X