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Women’s Sexuality Has Always Been Controlled By Others


Women's Sexuality Has Always Been Controlled by Others

This past February, Sacred Heart Parish School in Sacramento, California, expelled three students after it was discovered that their mom, Crystal Jackson, had a page on the adult social platform OnlyFans. Jackson told People magazine that she and her husband of 14 years had turned to the platform after experiencing marital issues. They were trying to spice things up, and using the platform allowed Jackson to simultaneously work on her marriage and live out her fantasies.

“In doing these pictures,” she told People, “it gives you the self-confidence where I’m like, ‘I do feel sexy again.'”

For those unfamiliar with the platform, OnlyFans is a subscription-based site, and users can sell access to photo and video content. Jackson and her husband were using the site in blissful obscurity until another dad from Sacred Heart Parish School “stumbled upon” Jackson’s page. He told his wife, she told others, and a group of moms in the community launched a campaign to get Jackson’s sons kicked out. Eventually, they succeeded.

In reading this story, I immediately thought that — tit for tat — the whistleblowing dad’s kids should’ve been kicked out, too. After all, didn’t his perusal of the site also go against the school’s updated guidelines on repercussions for parents who are “involved in a site or blog that goes against teachings of the church and school philosophy”?

Of course, I don’t really think anyone should be kicked out of anywhere for their private sexual activities. But isn’t it just typical that the woman is vilified for her sexuality while the man’s activities are brushed under the rug?

The Same Old Story

This is a tale as old as time. We know that. When I first began to research the history of sex education in America (sex education research is my jam), I learned that sexuality had been policed since the Middle Ages, when the Christian church first placed marriage under its jurisdiction, eventually elevating it to the level of sacrament. As the church grappled with how to manage marriage, they came to see not just premarital sex — but sexual desire in general — as a distraction from one’s spiritual life. Unless, of course, it was procreative.

What was really fascinating to me, though, was what was going on from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. During this time, there was a rise in venereal diseases, especially during World War I. This rise in STD rates was seen as a sign that more and more Americans were engaging in extramarital sex and prostitution. Of course, this resulted in a collective clutching of pearls. And, eventually, Americans were subjected to The American Plan.

To explain it more fully, the American Plan came about because, in the rise of prostitution, women within the purity movement saw writ large the signs of sexual inequity that, in their minds, relegated women to their inferior social standing. Because of the existing sexual double standard in particular, men could freely engage in adulterous behaviors without a loss in social standing.

At the same time, the women involved in these sexual liaisons faced social ostracism and general “ruination.” Because of this, reformers within the purity movement theorized that the enactment of a sexual single standard — in which men were held to the same standards as women (celibacy before marriage, monogamy, etc.) — would inevitably lead to equality among the sexes.

These purity reformers realized that their goals dovetailed with those of physicians, who were laboring to find a cure for syphilis and other “social diseases.” And so, together, they created the American Plan, which consisted of increased legislation around prostitution, medical treatment of venereal diseases, and sex education. (I feel like I should be doing jazz hands right now.)

Unfortunately, what resulted was a new and fuzzy definition of prostitution, forced testing for venereal diseases, and imprisonment for those deemed “unclean.” Perhaps least surprising of all, women (particularly women of color) were the ones who were overwhelmingly penalized for these “moral crimes.” Meanwhile, because of the development of medical treatments for syphilis, men were able to receive clean bills of health despite their indiscretions, leaving them unscathed and free to stray again (and again and again). You can read more about this ugly part of our history in Scott W. Stern’s The Trials of Nina McCall but also: sound familiar?

And Then Eugenics Happened

Or rather, it was happening concurrently. In addition to policing our sexy times, authorities also began policing those of us with a uterus in an attempt to control the population growth of “undesirables.” Undesirables included those who were allegedly mentally unfit, those who were low-income and/or receiving welfare support, and people of color. Oftentimes, these categories overlapped.

I don’t want to repeat myself too much, as I’ve written about this extensively in the past, so I recommend reading my timeline of forced sterilization by the United States. Also, books like Audrey Clare Farley’s The Unfit Heiress (available April 2021) and Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles show how one’s “promiscuousness” made one a target for sneak sterilization, while books like Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body go into the ways in which white supremacy played into irreversible instances of reproductive coercion.

Also, I’ll just repeat here that this is a thing that is still happening today.

Trying to Take Control of Our Reproductive Health

Anyway. Time passed and we started to get into that murky area of access to contraception, abortion rights, and maternal healthcare. Between 1972 and 1990, thanks to an increase in contraceptive access, sexual activity outside of marriage rose. Because abortion had also been legalized, sex became increasingly uncoupled from both marriage and procreation. It was this — more than public health concern — that seemed to worry people.

And this is what continues to worry people, which is why individual states still constantly seek to pass ever-more-restrictive laws around abortion and contraceptive access. These make it impossible for people to make healthy decisions about their bodies while simultaneously shaming them for being sexually active.

And to bring it back to sex ed for a moment, this increase in contraceptive and abortion access also led to 1982’s Adolescent Family Life Act, which brought about the first federal funding of abstinence-only until marriage education programs, the bane of my professional existence.

There are a ton of excellent books out there on these topics, but I’m especially excited for the release of Robin Marty’s New Handbook for a Post-Roe America later this month.

And if you’d like to get involved in advocacy work around reproductive health, I recommend revisiting my post on reproductive justice and also checking out the folks over at Power to Decide.

The Rewire News Group is also a great source for news around the latest reproductive health-related legislation. (Full disclosure: I have written stuff for them.)

Which Brings Us to Today

In my late teens and early twenties (this is in the early aughts), I started to notice the rise of what Ariel Levy refers to in Female Chauvinist Pigs as “raunch culture.” There were cardio striptease classes. Girls Gone Wild. Feminist sex parties. Feminist sex shops. Nerve.com was in its heyday and, over time, I found I was no longer one of only a handful of sex writers.

Looking back, there’s a lot to argue with in books like Levy’s. Sure, Levy rightfully pointed out the ways in which our culture objectified and sexualized women while simultaneously restricting and shaming them.

But she also diminished and built panic around women’s sexual expression, deriding all of it as performative.

At the time, I saw myself in Levy’s book. I tried out the cardio striptease classes (the problematic nature of these classes is a conversation for another time). I went to some of the sex parties. I frequented Babeland. Hell, I wrote for Nerve. Clearly, I was part of the problem. But for me, it wasn’t performative. None of it. I did these things because I was lost. I was recovering from an abusive relationship that had left me in an unhealthy relationship with my own sexuality and I was trying to reclaim ownership of that sexuality. Those who turned their noses up at so-called “raunch culture” only seemed to negate the validity of my own experiences.

And we’re still grappling with this push and pull between a culture that views us as sexual objects and a culture that wants to shame us for our sexual expression. We’re still grappling with a culture that recoils from its own sexual desire… and then blames us for it. Hell, I even wrote a book about it.

We see this even more intensely in the adultification of Black girls. In the exoticization of “the other,” whether because of race or even gender. Books like Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments and Ruby Hamad’s White Tears / Brown Scars explore this more fully than I ever could in a post like this.

So What Now?

Which brings us back to the plight of Crystal Jackson and her three sons. A classic case of society policing a woman’s sexuality. Because what else is new?

Normally, I would give you some action steps here. I love action steps. But after writing about sexuality for 20 years, this issue still feels so huge.

So, I hope you read some of the books and check out some of the resources mentioned above. But more than that, I hope you try to do better. We all need to try to do better. We all need to open our minds and see that sex is a natural and healthy part of human existence.

And, unlike some of the people in the news story we opened with, we need to not be assholes.

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, VQR, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of GuerrillaSexEd.org. Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.

Comments:

  1. I love the ultimate action step: don’t be an asshole. I am appalled at the action of this school and the double standard. “Stumbled upon”????? Sigh. Keep up the good work and all the great info.

  2. Pingback: The Many Benefits of Sexual Pleasure - The Buzz

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