(This post first appeared on Substack: Writing Magick with Maggie Sunseri. Click to subscribe.)
Women had to fight for our right to be sexually open, forward, and explorative. Men of the past, and I reckon plenty of men today, genuinely do not believe that women enjoy or desire sex as much as they do. If public opinion on women and sex wasn’t bad enough, it’s worth yelling from the rooftops that not even the medical and scientific establishment cared enough about women’s sexual pleasure to “discover” the nature of the clitoris until… 2005.
Yeah. Not even 20 years ago. Anatomy textbooks to this day still portray the organ incorrectly. This isn’t just a social issue, either. Not understanding that the clitoris is a complex web of nerves that connects to the vagina, labia, and pelvic structures means that surgeons historically haven’t considered its importance when performing pelvic surgeries, gender affirmation surgeries, or corrective surgeries. Not caring enough about women to understand their internal organs has very real and dangerous consequences. Could you imagine if cis men routinely lost their sense of sexual pleasure on the operating table?
The fact that we’ve been talking about the “mystery of the G-spot” for decades (and even still!!) is insane to me. It’s not a mystery. It’s just where the internal portion of the clitoris connects to the vaginal wall. There! Mystery solved.
To give a brief rundown of history (that will not be very nuanced or inclusive because that’s not the purpose of this article), women haven’t been able to fully express themselves as sexual beings until relatively recently. We’ve been sexual objects and sex symbols, but never autonomously sexual without severe economic and social repercussions. For most of the 20th century, we couldn’t have a credit card without a husband’s permission, marital rape was legal, and we generally relied upon marrying men in order to survive. All social structures were designed to herd us into marriage and procreation. This is what prompted the second wave feminist movement of the 60’s and 70’s. “Burning bras” was about rejecting the idea of women existing purely for men’s pleasure. Then when third wave feminism came around, the message seemed to take a new turn. Here’s where we see the roots of modern sexual liberation, or the idea that women should be able to live sexually free just as men do, in control and aware of their own desires as they pursue their fulfillment with abandon.
Here’s where I might ruffle some feathers. I still don’t think most of us are sexually empowered. Nor do I think it’s safe for us to be.
When I was entering college, I considered myself to be sex positive. I was comfortable talking about consent, likes and dislikes, and sexuality generally with romantic and sexual partners or friends. I studied human sexuality in some of my classes, read books on the topic, and all in all, I was the perfect candidate for this so-called sexual liberation. However, I was also a problem drinker and solo female traveler, which complicated notions of sexual empowerment. The more I was open about sex, the more I was harassed, objectified, and even assaulted. Adding alcohol and general free-spiritedness to the mix further endangered me.
I thought everything I did in dating and sex was empowering. I thought I was doing what men had always done—doing what I wanted on my own terms, being an active agent in my sexuality rather than an object. But as I grew older, experienced the increasing psychological effects of trauma, and got sober, I realized that the sexual empowerment of my generation is often not empowering at all.
In the age of rampant and accessible Internet porn, which increasingly hijacks the brain into pursuing a stream of ever-increasing extreme content in short bursts, online dating apps that reduce people to four pictures and a couple sentences, and confusing and contradictory messaging about feminism, sex, and romance, it’s no wonder everyone is unhappy with the state of modern dating.
Dating as a young person today is a mind-fuck of epic proportions. Many straight men expect sexting and/or nudes early on, sometimes even before ever meeting in person. Are sexting and nudes empowering? They can be! When there’s mutual trust, enthusiasm, and safety measures in place. Is it empowering to receive an unsolicited dick pic from Chad, 27, 12 miles away, who you just matched with on Tinder? Or to receive a sexually explicit question after 3 text exchanges? What about when you don’t really feel like sexting a casual or serious partner, but feel pressured to or expected to on some level and do it anyway? Is it empowering to become “real-life porn” for your partner, imitating at what they’ve seen sex workers do online and providing it free of charge, sending over content like they’re ordering customized pay-per-view?
The online sexuality part can be hard for the older generations to grasp, I think, (even though it’s important to point out that there is nothing fundamentally different about Gen Z compared to Gen X and the Boomers on a human level, and y’all would’ve done the exact same things if you’d been raised in our Internet Hellscape environment.) But I think when any sex act becomes a part of our social norms, it becomes on some level normalized and expected and harder to eschew. And with the aforementioned Internet porn conundrum that’s created widespread porn addiction, unrealistic sex and body expectations, and short attention spans for sex and intimacy, the lines have become increasingly blurred between what’s expected of women who are dating and what’s expected of sex workers. (Quick note: I believe that sex workers deserve the utmost respect for what they do, and I wish our laws and institutions were better equipped to protect them from harm. A subject for another day.)
What is “normal” in sex and relationships is confusing for my generation, and I don’t think it’s all our fault.
I’ve recently started dating again, hence why I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues and needed to write out my thoughts to better understand them. I think it is very difficult for young people to make romantic connections for more reasons than just sex. On dating apps specifically, it’s hard to truly make judgements on compatibility based on what’s portrayed in a profile. I recently joked to my friend that if I saw generic pictures of Adam Driver on Bumble I might not have swiped right, despite him being one my biggest celebrity crushes. And that’s because it’s hard to truly glean someone’s vibe, presence, and full scope of personality and what they offer the world in such a cramped space. Many of the people I swipe left on might be people I would actually find very attractive if I met them in person, where they’re a living breathing human that exists in more than one dimension or angle. The opposite is certainly true as well.
There’s an unfortunate binary that’s been created by the age of “sexual empowerment.” Either you’re sexually open, or you’re closed off. If you’re sexually open, or comfortable talking about sex, then that is often construed as sexually available—or interested in casual encounters (and more likely to receive unsolicited dick pics from Chad, 27. But, let’s be real: he sends them to everyone.) These are clearly not the same thing. Being inexperienced and “pure” is fetishized and treated as a porn category in and of itself. A subject for another day, but is it any wonder we have such rampant grooming of minors by trusted adult figures when there are countless porn categories dedicated to “teens” who often look far younger than 18?
Talking about sex shouldn’t automatically be construed as “sexual” in a flirtatious way. We should all be able to discuss sex with partners, for both our physical and mental well-beings.
We have also not done our due diligence in teaching children and teens about how to navigate healthy relationships and emotions, which I believe should be a mandatory part of all formative education. Sex and emotion go hand in hand, and treating relationships as a binary of casual vs serious can often lead young people to believe that engaging in casual sex lets them off the hook for respecting a partner’s boundaries, emotions, and, ultimately, their humanity. Engaging in even the most casual of sexual experiences still requires vulnerability and trust, and understanding how to be a good partner in and out of the bedroom in a variety of different relationships is not something that is ever taught or even talked about enough.
Nor have we shown young people the nuances of consent outside of “yes and no,” as well as the importance of setting and respecting boundaries and limits in both sex and romance. If we aren’t comfortable talking about sex, then it’s far easier for lines to be crossed and consent to be breached. When porn normalizes unequal power dynamics and sex acts that fall under the BDSM category, it creates the false assumption that these things do not require prior discussion or safety measures. This is dangerous for all parties involved.
Setting boundaries and discussing expectations for romance is equally important, and I find it strange that the media and popular opinion have made asking about desires for children or marriage, sexual interests, relationship styles, etc., on initial dates a weird or niche thing to do. It’s as if we’re all playing this impossible game where we know what we want, but we don’t feel comfortable saying what we want, and yet we’re looking for people who want the same thing. There are also many young people that conceal or hide their true intentions, maybe for nefarious reasons but also possibly because of the shame associated with wanting anything out of the norm. So you have this entire population of single people who want different things, don’t know how to talk about it, are routinely shamed for talking about it, and regularly feel mislead about others’ intentions.
There is so much confusion, disharmony, and poor communication about unwritten rules and norms that all genders inevitably get hurt, ghosted, or disrespected every single day in the dating world. We want “casual”, yet we expect emotional intimacy. We want emotional intimacy, yet we run from it if it veers into something scary and new. We’re afraid to hurt people’s feelings, so we ghost without a trace. It’s easy to do. Just hit “unmatch!”
When I put in my Bumble profile that I was going to study human sexuality in Amsterdam back in 2020 (before Covid so rudely cancelled those plans for me) I received countless messages asking if that meant I was “learning how to give great blowjobs” or other sexually charged and unwanted comments. Just the mere insinuation that I was sexually empowered on some level translated into the idea that I was a woman with no boundaries, no desire for deeper intimacy or emotional connection, and invited the absolute worst of what the world had to offer. It feels impossible to even mention sex without it being construed as an invitation for someone to project their fantasies and desires onto you.
Wanting a committed relationship is hard enough, but in the past when I was seeking more casual flings, dating was a literal minefield. Another binary that can exist in modern dating is casual vs. serious. Unfortunately, many have interpreted this as not deserving of respect vs. deserving of respect. All relationships and encounters are impacted by porn, the Internet, and conflicting messaging, but when you’re a young woman considering herself to be sexually empowered and ready to explore, it’s easy to fall into the trap of confusing sexual availability for men with true sexual liberation.
It’s a sneaky thing, the patriarchy did, when it capitalized off of women desiring the freedom to be sexually free and authentic and took that energy and channeled it through a sexist filter. Now overt female sexuality in the media and society seems to be a way to make sexual freedom into something that benefits straight men. Oh, you want us to know you enjoy sex and know what a clitoris looks like? We can work with that…
Presenting yourself as a sexually empowered woman attracted to men puts a target on your back. Suddenly you are not a human being. You are back to being an object, a means by which men can explore their desires without caring if they breach consent or provide emotional availability, empathy, respect, and care. (I’m sure this can also sometimes happen to men, and definitely also in queer relationships. Again, generalizing and talking about my own experience.)
I wish we could be sexually empowered. I really do. I wish that when I was doing my exploring as a young person I didn’t have to experience trauma as a rite of passage, just another part of the 26.4% of women who have been assaulted while in college. I just don’t think it’s safe for us yet.
There are exceptions to this narrative. There always are. I’ve met some genuinely incredible men and women from dating and adventuring all over the globe. I’ve also been cornered on streets in broad daylight, catcalled more times than I can count, made to feel unsafe, made to feel like I didn’t matter outside of what I could offer men sexually.
I’ve not only been objectified by men, but I’ve also objectified myself in turn. I’ve betrayed my own trust and my own sense of agency, and it’s taken a long time to earn back that respect and love for myself. I’ve had to truly learn how much of what I think I enjoy is what I truly enjoy, and how much is a product of the internalized male gaze—or what I’ve convinced myself to like based on what I think men want from me. I’ve had to get comfortable saying no, never compromising or allowing anyone to push up against pre-established boundaries and limits, and advocating for my own comfort and desires. I don’t care anymore if I “scare” people away with my honesty about what I’m looking for and what I will not tolerate. It weeds out dangerous people very effectively, allowing more room for those I can truly connect with. I’ve had to realize that if I ever feel like I need to compromise my relationship with myself for another person, then it was never meant to be.
I’ve also realized that sober dating is hard. Especially at my age. The amount of pictures with people chugging handles of liquor or saying that their favorite interest is “drinking” is plentiful on the apps. I’m not judging; that used to be me! (Okay, sometimes I judge just a little bit. Like why are you trying to attract someone with pictures of you with empty eyes and a bottle of Tito’s in your hand?) But it’s not me anymore, and telling men that I’m sober has become yet another litmus test for compatibility, as their reaction is often telling in more ways than just their drinking habits.
Looks like I will have to write a Part 2 of this later on. There is plenty more to delve into, and I feel like I’ve only skimmed the surface. But for now, I will leave you with this: I hope we do better with the next generation, now that we fully understand the nature of the Internet and implications of how we’ve portrayed sex and intimacy in the media. Right now, young people are navigating a minefield of emotional, sexual, and physical danger. What we don’t need is older folks talking down to us and pretending like they would’ve acted differently in our shoes. Because let’s be honest, here: No you wouldn’t have, and history has shown that quite clearly. Not to mention all the older men on dating apps behaving just like the twenty-year-olds.
Patriarchal oppression is alive and well, but so is the widespread harm of a so-called post-feminist, sexually-liberated world that affects young people of all genders. People my age often have no idea how to build and sustain healthy relationships, be they casual, platonic, or serious, monogamous or polyamorous, kinky or vanilla, or anything in between. But I hope we learn, for the sake of all those who come after us.
(This post first appeared on Substack: Writing Magick with Maggie Sunseri. Click to subscribe, like, or leave a comment. This newsletter is currently 100% free, but if you want a way to support me you could always share my posts with your friends or Buy Me a Coffee. Or you could buy my kinky witch books!)