Sexual Empowerment

Graphic By Catie Peterson

The evolution of women's sexual empowerment and what still needs to happen.

By Erin Fausel, Olivia Miltner and Alisa Warren

Many women want to talk about sex, and some of them do.

What began as a taboo against women and sex is now transitioning into empowerment through recent decades. Despite this, the rising influence of social media, ongoing concerns with sex education and stigma in sexuality regarding race and gender means there is still plenty to be said on the subject.

In Athens, women are working to bring attention to challenges faced regarding sexual empowerment locally and globally particularly emphasizing differences women of varying backgrounds might face along the road to sexual equality and liberation.

One significant change that can be seen in recent decades is increasing acceptance of premarital sex, according to Patty Stokes, associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Ohio University.

“Many things have changed. Certainly there is an expectation now that most people will not be virgins when they get married, and that’s okay with most people,” Stokes said. “Obviously, some religious groups feel differently about that as it is totally their prerogative, and some individuals just prefer to be abstinent, and that’s fine too. The stigma comes partly when people have multiple partners and that’s visible.”

This “slut shaming” tends to penalize women more than men, and it is “not necessarily confined to actual sexual behavior,” Stokes said

“Just the perception of the person and the sexualization of a person (can invite slut shaming),” she said.

Stokes noted that this is a common experience for women who might even lack sexual experience if they embody natural physical characteristics that have been labeled as sexually promiscuous by society, such as larger breast size.

Stereotypes are also applied to women from different racial or ethnic backgrounds, and these can be uniquely and more intensely damaging than those applied to white women and girls, Stokes said.

“For black women, you have the jezebel, who is the hyper-sexualized figure, the same image that helped justify the systematic rape of black women by slaveowners in the American south,” Stokes said. “On the opposite end, you have the mammy, who is completely desexualized, as she is a figure of nurturance, mostly for white children. She is denied any kind of sexuality, or certainly any kind of sexual agency.”

Vagina Drawings

Photo by Olivia Miltner

Bobby Walker asks visitors to her home to draw pictures of vaginas showing either what they look like or how they make people feel. She said she was trying to figure out how to make the wall more inclusive of transgender people.

She noted other stereotypes, such as Asian women who are either categorized in a hypersexualized context or one that is entirely demure and submissive — both contextualized to hinge on male sexual desire.

“And while that’s a thread that runs all the way through our culture, it’s just intensified for other groups,” Stokes explained.

Bobby Walker, a junior studying women’s, gender and sexuality studies at OU, took a trip to London as a youth delegate Guyana for the International Planned Parenthood Federation last semester. There, she heard about challenges women face in working to create a society that supports healthy sexuality can vary around the world.

There, a youth delegate from Nepal talked about working to maintain the availability of sexual and reproductive health services amidst the 2015 earthquake crisis, while a Mali youth delegate explained the dangers volunteers face from groups like Boko Haram and Islamist extremism when they go into communities to talk about sexual reproductive health rights.

“It’s impossible to talk about what sexual empowerment looks like to people without taking into account race, class, gender and location,” Walker said, noting how these differences also exist within her home country of Guyana.

“My experience of empowerment is very different from a very poor women who lives in the back dams of guyana whose husband works on a plantation,” Walker said. “Empowerment for them might look as simple as choice, as simple as not getting raped by your husband … Sometimes it’s even birth control, a lot of women are really scared to take birth control because their husbands don’t believe in it.

“Sexual empowerment for me and for other girls that I grew up with probably looks like … being able to walk into a family planning clinic and see someone who knows my mom and not feel ashamed.”

Walker said Athens and OU have their own problems, most notably what she called a “rape crisis” stemming from rape culture that wouldn’t exist in a sexually-empowered society where consent would be taught.

The Vagina Monologues is one outlet for women’s sexual empowerment across campus that takes place every February at OU.

Ellenore Holbrook, a junior studying political science, is this year’s director of the Vagina Monologues at OU and hopes to make the show more inclusive for women of all backgrounds.

The international organization, V-Day, organizes the show worldwide and advises directors of local shows to follow a list of rules for each performance put on across the globe — one of which is a rule that states the script cannot be altered or edited in any way. To work in more perspectives without breaking these rules, Holbrook decided to add a separate section of performances after the Vagina Monologues has ended.

“We feel like the Vagina Monologues really leaves out a large part of women’s identity and women’s issues, especially regarding women of color,” Holbrook said. “Now, we are going to have the Vagina Monologues and it’s going to perform the way it’s supposed to go.”

After the performance approved by V-Day is concluded, Holbrook said the narrator is going to come on stage and say, “That was the Vagina Monologues, but we feel like it left some things out.”

“The following monologues, poems, pieces have been written by other women of different colors, races, ethnicities, backgrounds, and we think that their stories need to be told as well,” Holbrook said.

At OU, the Women’s Center provides several programs and annual events to boost women's empowerment. One such event is “Love Your Body Day,” is devoted to body positivity.

Bowl of condoms

Photo by Alisa Warren

Cindy Crabb, Graduate Assistant at the Ohio University Women's Center, holds a bowl of free condoms at the center on the afternoon of December 11, 2015. The center provides condoms free of charge to ensure that safe sex is on the forefront of discussions about sex, among other issues like consent and communication.

According to the Women’s Center webpage, Love Your Body Day is “about disrupting the hierarchy that privileges some bodies over other bodies in our society.” It is a day devoted to conversation and acceptance of all body types, but specifically discusses body hair, sexual health and the media and popular culture’s influence on body type.

“It all goes back to the idea of respecting one another and learning how to respect one another thoroughly enough that we feel empowered just in everyday life,” Holbrook said. “The goal is that you can have these conversations with one another and start talking about your relationships in the bedroom and about your sexual empowerment as an individual because sexual empowerment is not something that’s isolated from the rest of your personal empowerment.”

The existence of resources like Campus Care, the Women’s Center, student organizations and the Survivor Advocacy Program — the confidential counseling resource for survivors of rape and sexual assault that experienced turbulent changes last semester — have worked to raise awareness and provide support for women at OU, but Holbrook said she thinks another important step is for people to become more aware of harmful lessons they’ve been taught.

“The first thought you think is what society has taught you. Your second thought is what you actually know as real and important, and I think everyone needs to start recognizing that and start questioning their thought process … and then continuing to talk about it,” Holbrook said.

Despite the stigmas and stereotypes that exist with their sexuality — even in 2016 — women in Athens and around the globe still embark on quests to claim their sexual identity.