In the past, whenever a romantic liaison crumbled, the first thing my friends would tell me was to ‘get back on the horse.’ In the words of Anna Kendrick’s best friend Sara in the show Love Life: “You get back on that dick wagon!” It’s the unremarkably unoriginal piece of advice that broken-hearted millennials all around the world are repeatedly told.
For many young women, reactivating their dating app account and having a few flings can be liberating; no-strings attached sex with no expectations beyond a one-night-stand can be exciting and empowering. Some women enjoy regular casual sex and have no desire for a romantic relationship. Full power to them.
But me? I grew up in a society that taught me my power was gained through cultivating sexual and erotic desire in men, as though that were my only pathway to power. Being sexually desired by a man felt like a special kind of validation. But since surviving intimate partner violence, I’ve also struggled with the reality that for women, exercising our erotic powers opens us up to the possibilities of violence in ways that don’t for men.
I used to drown myself in a series of casual relationships.
It wasn’t always the kind of casual sex that some women find fun and empowering. Sometimes, unthinkingly, it was performative sex that looked for meaning in all the wrong places. I had sex with men who I had no interest in forming a relationship with and whose names I have willed myself to forget. I had sex with men who used me as a corporeal balm for their own private griefs, and who’d leave me hollowed out and empty.
I had sex with men who couldn’t do the decency of simply being my friend, or being my boyfriend – but wanted the easy comfort of being something in between. Available for sex on his terms, never giving me the emotional support that any relationship between two humans deserves.
In the past, I thought I wanted sex, but actually, what I wanted was to erase my shame — the shame of feeling outside the paradigms of female beauty, of growing up ‘othered’ because of my race, of being a minority and pushed to the margins in every space I moved in. I thought I wanted sex, but really what I wanted was to be seen, to be understood, and to be heard; things that seem to be found in sex.
I thought I used sex to feel more powerful, but I think I was just trying to feel powerful by pleasing the male gaze. I was performing, and men were accepting me because I was what a woman should be – sexually open and available and never questioning a man’s emotional stakes — and what man wouldn’t accept that kind of deal? I was seeking male approval in the way I’d been trained to, by appealing to them sexually. The men had little idea of my motivations or what was going on beneath the surface. Neither did I, for a long time.
A few years ago, I lived with a friend who came home on Sunday morning with a giant grin on his face, his chest thrust out in some new state of masculinity. He told me he’d finally ticked ‘sleeping with someone whose name I didn’t know’ off his list of to-do.
I was horrified. Here was a 25-year-old straight male who was congratulating himself for having emotionally mutilated himself because it’s ‘cool’ to not form any emotional attachment to another human being.
It was an achievement to penetrate a girl and disregard her humanity so much that he couldn’t be bothered to ask for her name. He performed a kind of lifestyle that I’ve seen among so many men — as though wanting an emotional connection with someone was a weakness rather than a strength.
Sure, lots of women love casual sex; they find it empowering and fun and I respect that. But I hate seeing so many generous women throw themselves at men who take, take, take. I hate the way we’re supposed to reject emotional attachments when it comes to sex. And I hate that I saw this performance of casualising sex in my own history. I’m ashamed of how I tried to ‘not take it too seriously’ each time I formed an emotional attachment to a man who wanted nothing more than my body. I was made to feel that developing feelings (ie. being a human) was some deep flaw. I even slept with a man who told me, point blank “Don’t fall in love with me.” (What arrogance!)
Casual sex is not lazy or bad. It’s not equally distributed: transpeople, fat people, disabled people, black people, people of colour; all of us aren’t privy to the relatively easy access cis-straight white people have to casual sex. Perhaps what I’m saying is that women who practise casual sex are still not judged the same way as a man who practises casual sex is judged. Which is to say, she is judged, and he is not.
Of course, I’m not moralising. Women can have sex with men for any reason. What I’m uncomfortable about is the way sexual women are perceived in our society. I wonder why we aren’t encouraged to interrogate our desires as women. Because I think models of female desires have tended to benefit men.
I think I realised that by behaving like a man with a lot of social clout (taking lots of people of the opposite sex to bed) didn’t feel as powerful and self-validating as I thought it would be, and maybe it was because I was a woman?
Jessie Tu trained as a classical violinist for more than 15 years. Failing to succeed as a professional musician, she has taught music at many prestigious Australian schools, at refugee camps in the Middle East, volunteered with AUSAID in The Solomon Islands, travelled to complete residencies in the U.S, and now works as a journalist. Her book, A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing, is out now.