A few nights ago I was in an Uber on my way home from work when my driver started talking about the “walk of shame.” She said cheerfully, “I get a lot of ride requests late at night from women on the walk of shame. But I don’t think it should be called the walk of shame. I think it should be called the walk of pride!”
My driver’s comments got me thinking about how “shame” and “sexuality” go hand in hand when discussing a WOMAN’S sexual activities. Where masturbation is treated as a natural activity for men, female masturbation is censored, hushed, and frowned upon. We are all told by society that women are not inherently sexual beings the way men are, and that our own promiscuity is shameful when the promiscuity of men is encouraged.
The bottom line is that sex is not shameful. It doesn’t matter how many partners you’ve had over a lifetime or how many partners you’ve had in the past week. Regardless of age, gender, body-type, or orientation, our sexual experiences are experiences that we should be proud of, and I believe there are certain criteria we can follow to ensure that each sexual encounter results in a “walk of pride,” rather than a “walk of shame.”
The first criterion is emotional safety. This means looking out for the emotional safety of yourself, your partner(s), and anyone else involved. When I was in college I was in love with someone and when his girlfriend left to study abroad for a semester, he and I began sleeping together. The excitement of being with the person I was in love with for so long was completely overshadowed by the pain and suffering I caused to his girlfriend and ultimately to myself.
Even if you’re not participating in an act of infidelity, it is still extremely easy to fall into a masochistic pattern of sleeping with people who you know are never going to be as emotionally available as you’d like them to be. The important thing is to be honest with yourself and to be on the same page as your sexual partners. If you are both interested in casual sex, then you are both going to feel emotionally satisfied with the experience. As long as both (or all three, four, five, six…) partners are on the same emotional page and no one is getting hurt, there is absolutely nothing shameful about casual sex.
Sexual health and safety is the next criteria. Practicing safe sex may sound like a no-brainer, but the fact of the matter is that people don’t like to use condoms, and with such a heavy burden placed on women to acquire effective birth control in a health-care system dominated by the forces of male privilege, accidental pregnancies are very common. The absolutely unnecessary stigma surrounding STDs also leads to a lack of honesty and transparency, and as a result, an increased rate of transmission of these infections. Regardless of the hurdles and inconveniences, if you can’t figure out a way to practice safe sex, then don’t have sex.
The third criterion is consent. Given the increase in sex positivity and sexual exploration within our culture (something people refer to more negatively as “hook-up culture”), it is absolutely crucial that we understand what it means to give consent and how to know if or when we’ve been violated. Let’s just be blunt here: If you did not give consent, then you were raped. It’s extremely important to add here that if you were raped it is nothing for YOU to be ashamed of. You did nothing wrong and you absolutely did not ask for it. The only person who should be ashamed in this situation is your rapist.
The final criterion is pleasure. One of my main issues with hooking-up is that it often seems very one-sided. I am a heterosexual female so I know that my experience with pleasure is much different from that of gay or lesbian individuals, but my anecdotal experience has taught me that sex is rarely satisfying during a hook-up. I don’t think hooking-up is the problem, though. I think it’s the lack of advocacy from women and the lack of concern from men that is the problem. If you are a woman and you are going to have a one-night stand with a man, you have to know that you deserve pleasure and satisfaction. Rather than feigning pleasure, demand it. If your partner is unwilling to accommodate your sexual needs and would prefer to focus only on incessant, one-dimensional thrusting, then you have every right to get up and walk right out the door.
Ultimately, I believe that any sexual encounter that you have consented to is a sexual encounter that you should take ownership of, rather than feeling ashamed. Even if you did not give consent, the burden is not on you to carry that shame. However, I think that as women, we could have healthier, more positive sex lives if we championed relentlessly for all four of these criteria to be inherent to our sexual experiences.