Men watch women while women watch each other as our cultural obsession with sex impacts all of us. Everywhere we look, people with perfect bodies are having perfect sex all of the time. Women, however, are impacted the most. Our desire to be desired runs deep but exists in direct conflict to an equally potent desire for sexual liberation and equality—does this mean we’re perpetuating the cultural imbalances that made us declare Time’s Up in the first place?
It’s OK Not to Conform
Aoife Drury is a psychosexual and relationship therapist who works with men and women from many different cultural backgrounds. Women, she observes, are the most vulnerable. “There’s a lot of pressure from all forms of media for women to look a certain way. Our appearance is constantly assessed, but this objectification isn’t new, it’s historical.” She recommends cleaning up your social feeds in the first instance. “Remove accounts that feel toxic and replace them with things that feed your soul.”
Next, it’s necessary to look deeper. If our sense of identity is wrapped up in how others perceive our appearance, this can interfere with our choices and actions. “An idea can flash across our minds—triggered by something we see that taps a cultural prejudice we didn’t know we had. For example, we might buy makeup we don’t need because we’ve seen an advert for it. We can therefore make conscious decisions as a consequence of what exists in our unconscious minds.”
“Research suggests that women who go to the gym may be more inclined to self-objectify. Gym culture is quite competitive and the pressure to conform is felt by everyone—both men and women.”
So here’s the irony: the act of working out can be an empowering decision motivated by the desire to feel fit and healthy, yet somehow this can backfire. How can we be at home in our bodies without having them become our defining asset?
Reclaim Your Confidence
“I work with women to help them enjoy what they wear and feel confident without worrying what anyone else thinks. But there’s a conflict in the way women are perceived.” How can you separate a woman who chooses to wear something that makes her feel good from a woman who, according to rape culture, is “asking for it”? Aofie adds, “We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, which makes me think of a recent rape trial in Ireland. The man’s defense lawyer held up the woman’s underwear in court, citing them as an invitation for rape.” The female lawyer’s actual words were, “You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front”.
Clearly, we cannot change a whole culture in one fell swoop, but we can make powerful, incremental changes, one woman at a time. “We can differentiate between thoughts and beliefs that belong to us and those that are the product of prejudice planted by an outside source. If a woman feels the pressure to wear makeup all the time, I ask if it’s her choice or because she thinks she should.”
“If what you’re doing makes you feel good, and you’re consenting, then remove all judgement.”
Check in With Yourself
So your conscious mind may be resolutely focused on equality, yet your unconscious mind trails behind. “The unconscious mind is intuitive and automatic, while our conscious mind is deliberate and controlled. If a woman experiences intrusive thoughts about her appearance, these may not belong to her. If she can identify them as they move from the unconscious to the conscious mind, she can gain control of them, and change them without judgement.”
Mindfulness helps. “There’s scientific data that proves mindfulness can reduce anxiety and form new neuron synapses in the brain.” So how does this help with sex? “Mindful masturbation and mindful sex encourage deeper awareness of what is happening to you and for you. If you focus purely on the physiological and sensory experience, rather than getting lost in your head or fantasy, you can feel less like an object. If your mind wanders, come back to one of your senses, such as what you can smell or taste or feel.”
Sexual Liberation: Embrace Your Unique Sexuality
The ultimate aim is to get back into our bodies without judgement. For women to include themselves as sexually liberated and equal to men, they need to feel welcome inside their own bodies, using them to signal power and equality. Movements like Me Too have set the pace.
“If what you’re doing makes you feel good, and you’re consenting, then remove all judgement. But if your thoughts or actions come from a place of pain or unhappiness, then critical analysis of your sexual experiences is healthy. This encourages acceptance, open conversation, and diversity.”
Real sexual empowerment, or sex positivity, is about inclusion and embracing our uniqueness. So maybe we really can change this culture one woman at a time.