Anaïs Van Ertvelde & Heleen Debruyne – Dirty Sheets
Consent and Boundaries
A book about sex? Why? We often get that question hurled at us. Could there be anything left to say about sex? Since the sexual revolution we’ve been liberated, right? Isn’t sex everywhere these days? Tips on better orgasms in women’s magazines, embarrassing stories about menstruation on fast-changing news sites, tight, semi-naked physiques on social media, stylised lovemaking in films, glossy bodies on bill boards, frenetic banging on porn sites, sexologists holding forth on talk shows, respectable reports in the science pages of newspapers – isn’t there a glut of sex?
But this surfeit of sexually tinged images and text rarely offers us more than clichés. In conversations with friends we usually don’t go beyond macho posturing or shy mumbling. Parents and teachers tend to pass each other the hot potato when it comes to proper sex education. Sex in psychiatric institutions or old people’s homes, sexual services for disabled people – we’d rather not know. Newspapers like their headlines about yet another study into sex, but fail to look at the bigger picture. The erotic escapades of the contestants on Temptation Island attract massive audiences, who are amused but also contemptuous. The sexual scenarios we get to see and hear about are limited; mostly variations on one and the same theme.
What we’re missing is a thorough analysis of how we behave in bed and how we look at our bodies.
Such an analysis is still necessary. True, the sexual revolution and its aftermath have liberated us from the imperative to marry and keep sex within the confines of marriage. In the twentieth century, homosexuality was removed from the penal code and from the DSM, the manual of mental disorders. And transgender people are no longer forced to sneak away to clinics in Morocco to acquire new genitals. Leading thinkers loudly declare these sexual freedoms to be the core values of the West – but how free are we really? And are we all equally free?
Even while the sexual revolution was still in full swing, some expressed concern about the direction of this so-called liberation. For instance, in 1973 Ellen Willis wrote that it was mainly men who were benefiting from the relaxation of yesteryear’s strict moral code. Prior to the sexual revolution, church and community kept a beady eye on things, especially on a woman’s chastity. It was hard to see to your needs if you didn’t want to turn to a whore or tie the knot straightaway. Once we were free from these constraints, we could have as much sex as we wanted, and however we wanted it. But in reality, she wrote, that freedom extended mainly to men. Those who were newly liberated hadn’t yet shaken off the old sexist gender roles. The liberated woman was free, first and foremost, to be available – to men. She had to make herself pretty – for men. She took the pill – so men wouldn’t run any risks. And those who didn’t feel like complying with this, for whatever reason, were seen as old-fashioned frumps.
As sex moved further into the public sphere, the market saw an opportunity. The history of Cosmopolitan, the blueprint for just about every women’s magazine to this day, is telling in this respect. The publication, initially a respectable literary magazine, was helmed by Helen Gurley Brown from 1965 onwards. Back in 1962, she’d burst onto the book market with Sex and the Single Girl, which was based on her antics as a single woman. In the book she urges women to be independent: don’t look for a breadwinner, but carve out a career for yourself; sleep with men, married or not, just for fun. Hordes of unattached women bought the book and found affirmation in it: suddenly they were no longer poor and sad old spinsters, but good-time ‘single girls’.
Gurley Brown’s Cosmo may have shaped the sexual revolution more than the feminists. Working class women didn’t study The Feminine Mystique, the provocative book in which Betty Friedan reveals how, subconsciously, women feel uncomfortable in the roles of wife, mother and housewife imposed on them by society. Nor did they explore the anatomy of one another’s vaginas, as highly educated feminists did in their consciousness-raising groups. What they did do in their droves was buy magazines that now assured them they were free to fuck around. But to become fuckable, Gurley Brown wrote, you first had to remove stray hair, buy the right underwear, squeeze yourself into flattering clothes and trowel on the make-up. With your male-sanctioned appearance you could, she said, lure your conquests to your fun bachelorette flat where you could serve them the right cocktails. Once in bed, you had to know how to wriggle and writhe your body during sex to leave your man begging for more.
In other words, liberated women were still expected to pour themselves into the mould of male desire – and to achieve this they shopped themselves silly, buying stuff that promised to make them more beautiful.
Meanwhile, nearly half a century on, the market is catching on to male insecurity: men, both gay and straight, either single or post-divorce, who want to show themselves from their best angle to secure sex or a partner. The perfect male body is now also held up as something to strive for. Men, too, must look after themselves in order to be desirable and purchase the appropriate products to achieve this. In recent years, more and more men are admitting that they’re struggling to embody masculinity and sexuality in this liberated world.
Ask yourself a few questions and you can’t help but conclude that we’re less liberated than we’d like to be. Our so-called freedoms have actually led to new standards and constraints, or else they’re merely a very thin veneer over age-old anxieties and prejudices. In this book we try to debunk the myth of sexual freedom by looking beyond the usual stories and reports about sex.
So are you planning to expose absolutely everything? Doesn’t eroticism lie in the unspoken? We often get these questions from men, who are worried that we’ll strike dead all of their desires with graphic details. That’s the furthest thing from our minds. We can assure our readers that we are no strangers to the appeal of the unexpressed. But it’s worth asking: what’s kept unexpressed and why? And who benefits from it?
Sex is never just sex. Bodies are never just bodies. What we desire and why is never pure and straightforward. Desires are fashioned by a complex web of social standards, echoes of our upbringing, internalised shame, cultural clichés, power dynamics, historical legacies, genes, evolutionary mechanisms and biology.
This means that desire is not an ultra-individual expression of an ultra-individual urge, but the combined effect of all of these influences. What we are trying to do is expose all of these influences, or at least make a start. We want to show how some discourses on sex have become dominant and have helped set the standard and how forms of desire that don’t fit the mould have been marginalised or else have emancipated themselves from the prevailing norms. We uncover things that often remain invisible elsewhere. We investigate where our basic knowledge of sex comes from and who reproduces it.
Above all, we ask lots of questions. The perfect body: what exactly is it? And why do we think it will make us happy? Why do we still know so little about the clitoris and its size and reach? Why does menstrual blood still freak us out? Are women really less interested in casual sex than men? How do Victorian ideas about virginity survive to this day? What’s the purpose of the frenulum and why do some want to cut it off? When did the word ‘bisexuality’ gain currency and what exactly does it mean? Why do evolutionary biologists prefer to look at the differences rather than the similarities in desire between men and women? Was the sexual revolution really first and foremost a liberation for men? If so, what’s keeping the male contraceptive pill? Why do we still like to pigeonhole all transgender people into one of two genders? Can you be a feminist and like porn?
We ask these extremely wide-ranging questions from the vantage point of our own experiences – we believe that you can’t filter out your ‘I’ when you’re thinking about sex and the body. And there’s no need to either. We are explicitly letting ourselves speak, so it’s clear where our questions and obsessions come from. That’s why had no qualms about writing this book in the first person. As Anja Meulenbelt put it in 1975: ‘The reason I want to write a book: to exorcise my recurring doubts, my fear of the rotten side effects of being published, of being a public woman. Fear of being labelled exhibitionist.’ Well then, let us be exhibitionists. We want to share our questions and doubts, our search for answers.
In 1932, the Polish writer Zofia Nałkowska encouraged a rational, intellectual approach to eroticism (by which she meant sex and physicality). ‘Eroticism is not a matter of the individual,’ she noted. Eroticism has a bearing on all other aspects of human life and it’s impossible to screen it off in the name of morality or discretion. It mustn’t be ignored for reasons of chastity, or left wholly to the scientists who only study its biological dimension. We fear that Nałkowska wouldn’t be best pleased with many of the texts and films that, 85 years after her observations, are being produced about sex and the body.
We have delved into stacks of published texts about sex, studied its history, tried our hand at cultural analysis, read the work of philosophers, psychologists, sexologists and evolutionary biologists and, when we ran out of ideas, spoken to experts. However, the resulting answers to our questions are seldom clear-cut. So we have to disappoint you: this is not a book full of unequivocal answers and handy tips for improving your sex life or body image. We don’t believe in a single correct approach to our bodies or to making love. But we do believe that knowing how desires are shaped will help us realise that they are malleable – and that you can choose what place to give them in your life, what meaning to accord them and how to deal with them. In this way, your habits can, up to a point, be changed, and so too the broader context in which they originate. This enables us to approach them as such, rather than as an unescapable fate. We do so by exposing the hidden things that have shaped our bedroom behaviours, thereby showing that sex is never just sex: the bedroom is not an island cut off from the rest of the world, our lust can’t be understood in a timeless vacuum.
Slideshows of enlarged, infected sex organs, endless clips of painful deliveries and condoms that had to be tugged over the top of a broomstick. Stammering biology teachers who described all contraceptives except the pill and the male condom as hopelessly obsolete. And if the topic of consent was raised at all, it was done so in awkward terms: ‘girls, you should only have sex in a long-term relationship with a boy who loves you. This alone guarantees safety and respect.’ Nothing of what we were taught really made us any more resilient or clued-up about sexuality. In a rare attempt to broach the topic of LGBT, a well-meaning religious education teacher slipped Boys Don’t Cry into the DVD player. The true story of transman Brandon Teena who is raped and murdered in dreary Nebraska wasn’t contextualised and left the whole class of fourteen-year-olds upset. There you have it: our sex education in school in the late nineties and early noughties. What else were we, hot-blooded adolescents, to do but scrape together information from books and films?
Sexually, Heleen’s teenage years were characterised by an unrelenting drought. ‘I couldn’t wait to have sex, but I wasn’t very sought after and as a consequence I remained a virgin throughout my excruciatingly long secondary school years. For lack of carnality in practice, I turned to books. At the age of fifteen, I read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being twice in a row. I’ve never been the same since. The book showed me how I wanted to have sex later: like Tomas, the inveterate womanizer. Tomas found a warm welcome inside numerous women and their apartments, but he never stayed the night. The free-wheeling, almost comradely affair he had with artist Sabina struck me something to strive for. What she was capable of – giving a man pleasure, without nagging, while receiving lots of pleasure herself in the process – was something I wanted for myself. But the fact that the book also had a Tereza, for whom Tomas ultimately renounced his licentious lifestyle, struck me as regrettable. This story, which initially excited me, lost its lustre because of Tereza. But what did I know about the independence and vulnerability that can make relationships not just unbearable but beautiful as well? When I reread the book not long ago, I had to admit that my memories had been rather selective. I had all but forgotten that Kundera’s book was crammed full of philosophical reflections. And at the time I didn’t even register that Tomas wasn’t entirely happy with his debauched bachelor lifestyle. But my adolescent picture of the jolly ladies’ man who allowed himself to be tied down by the vulnerable Tereza did affect my view of relationships. In order to have an adult relationship I had to first learn to be independent, I thought. Women shouldn’t whine, because men like women who don’t insist on security, or worse, seek to define the relationship. In other words, screwing was something you could do as friends.
Around that time I’d be glued to the television every week, like so many other teenage girls of my generation, to watch Sex and the City. If my parents weren’t at home, I’d invite a few girlfriends over to share a bottle of sickly sweet, but to us sophisticated bottle of Martini Bianco and to debate which one of us most resembled Carrie Bradshaw. I always pretended to love the Martini. Meanwhile, a little the worse for wear, I recognised in Samantha someone who confirmed what I was hoping for: that women could live like men. Unlike most women around me, who were married, keen to get married or always talking about men, Samantha had lots of sex with no strings attached. Where I grew up, people would refer to her as a slut. She never stopped talking about it either: how often she did it, who with and what toys she used. That was my ambition: drinking cocktails with little umbrellas and having fun discussing my conquests with my girlfriends.
While studying for a history degree, I began to look down on Sex and the City: the four ladies were ridiculously wealthy, bought a stupid number of shoes and their troubles were really rather trivial. The series was, I thought, a glorification of capitalism, with starring roles for four consummate consumers. Miranda, Charlotte, Carrie and Samantha thought they were unique individuals, but were actually little more than shopaholics who’d coupled their identity to their favourite brands. Since then I’ve mellowed again: for all her superficiality Samantha did teach me that I shouldn’t be ashamed for wanting to be a slut sometimes.
For some reason or other, my parents had a copy of a peculiar paperback lying around the house: Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence. When the book was published in the US in 1985 it caused quite a stir. But contrary to what the title suggests, this isn’t a piece of pulp fiction, but a collection of accounts by, you’ve guessed it, lesbian nuns. Or former nuns, as many of them had left their orders at some point in the sixties, when the wind of change also wreaked havoc in the convents. They talk about discovering their love for women while still fettered to their religious community. The anticipation evoked by passages such as “At first, when I was young and dedicated, my conscience would get the better of me, and I would go to the chapel, fall on my knees, cry, and promise that I would never stray again. It was all very dramatic. But my resolutions did not last long” left me hot and bothered. I couldn’t read the more explicit sexual passages (which were actually pretty rare and all in all rather tame) without my hand wandering down to my vagina. I was very familiar with the Catholic world, seeing as I went to a provincial Catholic school where confession was still de rigueur and my grandparents were outwardly good Catholics. The idea that the corridors of this fusty institution, which I associated with melodramatic choral song and socially awkward priests, were once home to (as I imagined) attractive young women, full of desire but consumed by guilt, aroused unprecedented sensations. The book revealed to me that women could also hit on women. It would be a few more years before I did so myself, but the lesbian nuns took a door in my fantasy, which up until that point had been barely ajar, and threw it wide open.
When I look at how I experienced my sexuality in my early twenties, I can’t deny that the above hotchpotch of cultural products left its mark on me. In order to please men, I tried to nag as little as possible about how (not) to define our relationships. I believed that the more independent I was, the more attractive I would be. And the more attractive I was, the more good sex I’d have. It was a strategy that worked – up to a point. Until I found myself having relationships in which I had no choice but to be vulnerable: that notion was so appalling to me that I ended up ranting and raving and stamping my feet when it got to that stage. In a word, I was a complete pain in the neck. In other relationships I ended up being so cold and unapproachable that I still look back on them with an acute sense of guilt. To this day, I refuse to conform to preconceived notions in a relationship. At the same time, I spent too long approaching women like a lesbian nun: from under my habit, that is. The idea of having sex or a relationship with a woman was one I seldom shared with anyone else. And because it was a secret desire it became explosive when I finally put it into practice. But since I’ve started hitting on women openly, I’ve noticed that the explosiveness doesn’t suffer as a result.
Gustave Flaubert may have had a point. Just like Emma Bovary was corrupted by reading romances, my view of sexuality and relationships has been irrevocably tainted by Tomas, Samantha and a bunch of lesbian nuns. Part of me would like to shake off their influence on my sexual conduct, yet I’m unable and unwilling to forget how they’ve been catalysts for my desires.’
Sample translated by Laura Vroomen