Sofia Jawed-Wessel – Sex researcher
We’re going to share a lot of secrets today, you and I, and in doing so, I hope that we can lift some of the shame many of us feel about sex.
How many here have ever been catcalled by a stranger? Lots of women. For me, the time I remember best is when that stranger was a student of mine. He came up to me after class that night and his words confirmed what I already knew: “I am so sorry, professor. If I had known it was you, I would never have said those things.”
I wasn’t a person to him until I was his professor. This concept, called objectification, is the foundation of sexism, and we see it reinforced through every aspect of our lives. We see it in the government that refuses to punish men for raping women. We see it in advertisements.
How many of you have seen an advertisement that uses a woman’s breast to sell an entirely unrelated product? Or movie after movie after movie that portrays women as only love interests? These examples might seem inconsequential and harmless, but they’re insidious, slowly building into a culture that refuses to see women as people. We see this in the school that sends home a 10-year-old girl because her clothes were a distraction to boys trying to learn, or the government that refuses to punish men for raping women over and over, or the woman who is killed because she asked a man to stop grinding on her on the dance floor.
Media plays a large role in perpetuating the objectification of women. Let’s consider the classic romantic comedy. We’re typically introduced to two kinds of women in these movies, two kinds of desirable women, anyway. The first is the sexy bombshell. This is the unbelievably gorgeous woman with the perfect body. Our leading man has no trouble identifying her and even less trouble having sex with her.
The second is our leading lady, the beautiful but demure woman our leading man falls in love with despite not noticing her at first or not liking her if he did. The first is the slut. She is to be consumed and forgotten. She is much too available. The second is desirable but modest, and therefore worthy of our leading man’s future babies. Marriage material. We’re actually told that women have two roles, but these two roles have a difficult time existing within the same woman.
On the rare occasion that I share with a new acquaintance that I study sex, if they don’t end the conversation right then, they’re usually pretty intrigued. “Oh. Tell me more.” So I do.
“I’m really interested in studying the sexual behaviors of pregnant and postpartum couples.” At this point I get a different kind of response.
“Oh. Huh. Do pregnant people even have sex? Have you thought about studying sexual desire or orgasms? That would be interesting, and sexy.”
Tell me. What are the first words that come to mind when you picture a pregnant woman? I asked this question in a survey of over 500 adults, and most responded with “belly” or “round” and “cute.” This didn’t surprise me too much. What else do we label as cute? Babies. Puppies. Kittens. The elderly. Right?
When we label an adult as cute, though, we take away a lot of their intelligence, their complexity. We reduce them to childlike qualities. I also asked heterosexual men to imagine a woman that they’re partnered with is pregnant, and then asked women to imagine that they are pregnant, and then tell me the first words that come to mind when they imagine having sex. Most of the responses were negative. “Gross.” “Awkward.” “Not sexy.” “Odd.” “Uncomfortable.” “How?” “Not worth the trouble.” “Not worth the risk.”
That last one really stuck with me. We might think that because we divorce pregnant women and moms from sexuality, we are removing the constraints of sexual objectification. They experience less sexism. Right? Not exactly. What happens instead is a different kind of objectification. In my efforts to explain this to others, one conversation led to the Venus of Willendorf, a Paleolithic figurine scholars assumed was a goddess of love and beauty, hence the name Venus. This theory was later revised, though, when scholars noted the sculptor’s obvious focus on the figurine’s reproductive features: large breasts, considered ideal for nursing; a round, possibly pregnant belly; the remnants of red dye, alluding to menstruation or birth. They also assumed that she was meant to be held or placed lying down because her tiny feet don’t allow her to be freestanding. She also had no face. For this reason, it was assumed that she was a representation of fertility and not a portrait of a person. She was an object. In the history of her interpretation, she went from object of ideal beauty and love to object of reproduction.
I think this transition speaks more about the scholars who have interpreted her purpose than the actual purpose of the figurine herself. When a woman becomes pregnant, she leaves the realm of men’s sexual desire and slides into her reproductive and child-rearing role. In doing so, she also becomes the property of the community, considered very important but only because she’s pregnant. Right? I’ve taken to calling this the Willendorf effect, and once again we see it reinforced in many aspects of her life.
Has anyone here ever been visibly pregnant? Yeah. Lots of you, right? So how many of you ever had a stranger touch your belly during pregnancy, maybe without even asking your permission first? Or told what you can and cannot eat by somebody who is not your doctor, your medical care provider? Or asked private questions about your birth plan? And then told why those choices are all wrong? Yeah, me too. Or had a server refuse to bring you a glass of wine? This one might give you pause, I know, but stay with me. This is a huge secret. It is actually safe to drink in moderation during pregnancy. Many of us don’t know this because doctors don’t trust pregnant women with this secret – especially if she’s less educated or a woman of color.