The face of the desk lamp shined fierce light across my fingers as I typed the finishing touches on an assignment. It was a welcome warmth in an otherwise cold college dormitory. At 1AM I was still up, out of focus, trudging from sentence to sentence, more concerned with meeting a word limit than being coherent. But the light. A blend of fatigue, boredom, and fascination lifted my eyes away from the laptop screen and towards this little lamp. I twisted its bendy snake neck to point light at different parts of the room: up at the ceiling (trapping shadows in the pockets where the walls meet), across my wrists (to see the veins, the throbbing), and towards the window (to merge with the lights coming from the city outside). The light teased every detail out of hiding, awakened every fiber of every thing. The word exposed came to mind. Then, naked. And, well… clothes started coming off. It was just me, and the light – the concept of light, the experience, the sensation. Upon finishing, I basked – reveled – in the knowledge that I’d just tapped into a well of pleasure most people will, unfortunately, never experience. But not because they can’t – rather, because they won’t ever try.
The few times I’ve confided in trusted friends that I sometimes experience sexual arousal from non-sexual stimuli, I braced myself for the snide question, “What drugs are you on?” But thankfully, I haven’t yet been asked that question. More often, I’ve been met with curiosity.
Once, while hanging out with two friends, I told them about my playlist made up of songs that turn me on just by listening to them. They asked to hear one of the songs, to find out for themselves. As we sat in a triangle on my floor, eating Oreos smothered with peanut butter, the song opened and dived into a breathy decrescendo. At the same moment, all three of us tilted our heads back, eyes half-closed, and moaned. They had found the pleasure.
You’re probably thinking this doesn’t count. Chocolate is an aphrodisiac, after all. I had set them up by telling them how the song made me feel. It was fluke-ish, coincidental, that we experienced a collective “eargasm” at the same moment. And maybe you’re right. But consider my other friend who, upon hearing my accounts, excitedly shared a story of his own: once, after a deeply satisfying platonic conversation with a friend, he excused himself to the restroom and found the evidence of desire manifesting in his boxers.
Ever since these moments of connecting with my friends over our atypical experiences of arousal, I started paying attention. Now, I recognize it everywhere: There’s a rising interest in New Age workshops on how to reach orgasm through breathing exercises. I read of a woman who was once so overwhelmed by the beauty of a sunset over the ocean, that she leaned against the nearest wall and breathily, but quietly, came. And haven’t we all had mornings when we’ve woken up at the edge of orgasm, after what seemed like a mundane and incoherent dream?
Consider the world we live in.
In this world, men unquestionably wield more power than women. That power takes the form of money, land ownership, political representation, media representation, and so on and so on.
In this world, to tell someone “suck my dick” is either a sexual invite or a threat, depending upon context. Similarly, the word “fuck” can mean sex, or it can be an assault to the ear. Fuck you. Fuck off. Fuck yourself. In this world, straight men describe their sexual desires not unlike how they’d describe violence. I’d hit that. I’d tap that. I’d bang her, screw her, nail her, pound her. I’d tear that pussy up. I’d fuck the life out of her.
In this world, you can buy sex the way you can buy a new can opener or pair of sneakers. Typically, it’s men who purchase this “sex.” And typically, it’s a woman or girl who must provide this “service.” The vast majority of trafficking hostages are women and children. The vast majority of punters and pimps are men.
In this world, most pornography is created by men, and most regular porn viewers are men. The most sought-after categories of porn include “teen,” “facial abuse,” and “double penetration.” The voyeuristic and “revenge porn” genres are also becoming increasingly popular. This means every time a woman chooses to have sex, or so much as use a public restroom, she runs the risk of being recorded without her knowledge, then exposed on the Internet for the rest of time.
In this world, 99% of rapists are male. Upwards of 90% of murderers are male. 98% of convicted child molesters are male. Men are the #1 threat to women’s physical safety, and men are the #1 cause of women’s deaths, globally. In this world, 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted by a man in her lifetime. Or was it 1 in 5? 1 in 3? Whatever it is, it’s too many. And in this world, too many women will be victims of intimate partner violence at the hands of a man.
All this is to say, human sexuality is by and large dictated – well, dicktated – by men. Women have little say, and little choice, in what sex is, or when and how it’s done. Even when we think we’re choosing, we are subconsciously guided by the cultural norms in which we have been immersed against our wills.
Yet, despite all this (or because of all this?) the majority of the world’s women are attracted to men. Attracted to the very sex class that can, and often does, harm us.
Women, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, are living in a sexual dystopia.
I’ve had mind-blowing sex with men. I’ve had 3-hour multiple orgasms, I’ve had the screaming kind of orgasms, I’ve had the it-feels-so-good-I’m-crying kind of orgasms. So don’t get me wrong: I know sex can be pleasurable. This is not the writing of some frigid pearl-clutcher who “just hasn’t had the right dick yet.” But what brings me back to this conversation – this conversation about the abstractions, the strangeness, and the necessity of redefining erotica – is trauma.
I’ve been traumatized; let’s leave it at that. I leave it vague not only to protect myself from invasive probing, but so that I can speak for more than just myself: women who’ve been harassed, groped, raped, molested; women who’ve never been violated themselves, but carry the pain of their sisters on their shoulders; women who care, who feel too much. We may not have all been brutalized in a way that meets an archaic definition of sexual assault, but we have all been degraded to varying degrees, for no other reason than because we are women, and because this world is set up such that men can do with us as they please.
Thus, I arrive at this conversation like many women do: looking for a safe way to resume being sexual, minus the risks. Is that even possible? Sometimes I don’t believe it is.
In the initial aftermath of the trauma, I took small steps to start feeling comfortable with sex again. My first instinct was to look for feminist porn – because if any porn would be mindful of my triggers, it would be feminist porn, right? Wrong. Every form of erotica that advertised itself as “feminist” was overflowing with violence. Slapping, choking, spitting, verbal abuse. Pain, punishment, torture. And of course, the puncturing of vaginas with penises, fingers and objects – because sex just isn’t sex until you’ve been repeatedly stabbed in your woman-wound and then marked with semen like you’re a plot of territory. When I switched from pornography to erotic literature, thinking the written word would be easier to stomach, I encountered the same problem there. In a world hijacked by the violent male-ordained sexuality that had traumatized me to begin with, I found myself re-traumatized with almost every attempt to heal from it.
We have been conditioned to replicate the power imbalance between men and women, eroticize that imbalance, then call it progressive. Liberating! Empowering! We are so immersed in this male-ordained paradigm that we can hardly fathom a version of human sexuality beyond it. Beyond penis-vagina. Beyond pornography. Beyond pain and power.
I am tired to the point of tears.
This is one of those times when I wish I could speak to animals. I imagine I’d have plenty to talk about with male black widow spiders, or male praying mantids. You know, those bugs that have sex and then get eaten alive for it.
As a collective consciousness, we seem only vaguely aware that there is a problem.
We know sexism is a thing, and that it’s bad. The proposed solution is to play with gender. Adopt new pronouns. Dress differently. Walk differently. Identify differently. As if class-based oppression is a matter of presentation. As if we can identify our way out of second-class citizenship.
We know rape is a thing, and that it’s bad. The proposed solution is to educate people about consent. As if rapists don’t know what no means. As if rape is based on a simple miscommunication.
We know sex is taboo, and that’s no fun! The proposed solution is to expose yourself to lots of sex, all kinds of sex, especially the violent stuff: gonzo pornography, restraints, gags, clamps. Women being throat-fucked until they vomit, or being anally fucked until their organs fall out of their anuses. While you’re at it, prove how open-minded you are by hooking up with strangers! Post nude selfies, #freeyournipple and don’t think about the long-term consequences!
Our shallow awareness is alarming enough as it is, but what’s worse is our willful ignorance. The signs all point to the probability that our sexual desires and practices may not be as value-neutral as we’d like them to be:
Suppose it’s not a coincidence that a high number of BDSM submissives are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Suppose it’s not a coincidence that many straight male pedophiles report finding adult women “intimidating.” Suppose it’s not a coincidence that men who buy sex from prostitutes have a perception of women similar to that of rapists. Suppose that when rapists describe breaking boundaries as a sexual thrill, they are pointing us to a truth, uncomfortable as it is: the truth that our sexual practices reflect our beliefs, our fears, our selves. We seek power in our jobs, in our homes, in our relationships. We compete, we cut throats, we strive to conquest. We fuck to hurt, or to be hurt. Suppose it’s not a coincidence that the way we fuck each other in the bedroom looks a lot like how we fuck each other over in the world.
Our sexual attitudes do not exist in a vacuum, nor are we necessarily born with them. But we have this incredible ability to deny what’s right under our noses. We call sexuality “natural” and “innate” and “instinctual” so we don’t have to acknowledge the truth. So we don’t have to change ourselves.
Our reluctance to ask deeper questions is costly, and the children of this up-and-coming generation are paying a higher price than anyone else. Did you know that, as a result of having free and unlimited access to gonzo pornography via their mobile phones, boys are replicating what they see in porn and sending girls to the hospital with anal fissures? Well now you do.
I write this not to take a determined stance on how sex should be done, but to point out that our tepid attempts to heal do not acknowledge the urgency and magnitude of trauma women and girls are experiencing on a global scale. In other words, I am asking an impossible question: what would sex look like in utopia?
The function of utopia is to show us what we’re capable of. How we can be better, how we can heal. Shoot for the moon and you land among the stars, they say. We used to do this exercise in theater class where, if the director thought we were underperforming, he’d have us perform wildly exaggerated versions of our characters. Only when we’d crossed the line from “realistic” to “caricatured” were we able to wind back the dial and find the perfect level of performance – not too hot, not too cold. Juuust right. In the same way, we must discuss utopian sex.
Why not, you know? People have written at length about money-less utopias, race-less utopias, war-less gender-less and deathless utopias. So how about a rape-less one? Personally, I imagine that utopia would have no hierarchies – or, the inevitable hierarchies that exist (parent over child, doctor over patient) would not be exploited. In utopia, it would be impossible to derive pleasure from hurting others or holding power over them. So there’d be no racism, no sexism, and no rape. But if there was no rape, and no sexual sadism, how different would basic sex look?
Would utopian sex mean no more physical hierarchies? No one on top or bottom? Sideways sex only? Mutual masturbation? Synchronized orgasms? Equal time reciprocating pleasure, down to the second?
Would utopian sex mean no social hierarchies? Sex only between members of the same social caste – rich with rich, men with men, to avoid even a hint of exploitation or domination?
Would utopian sex mean no pain at all? While physical pain can be avoided with enough care, even the gentlest of sexual encounters can be emotionally painful, particularly for those of us with past traumas. Must pain be part of the process?
Eliminating pain would also mean eliminating fear. That would mean completely ensuring that utopian sex would not result in an unwanted pregnancy. But no birth control method is 100% effective, and some forms of birth control have harmful side effects. Would utopia mean funneling resources into creating the perfect birth control method? Or would certain pregnancy-causing sex acts be avoided altogether?
Another fear we’d have to eliminate in utopia, would be the fear of sexual violence and exploitation. Since rape is almost exclusively committed by males, would utopia be a place where women wouldn’t have sex with men anymore? Would they have sex with women instead? As I mentioned before, there’s the issue of other forms of domination: white women can still exploit black women, for instance; abusive behaviors can exist in anyone, regardless of social standing.
Would everyone just masturbate? What would we think about while masturbating?
A friend even posed the question: in utopia, would we still be having sex with our bodies at all? Or, by the time we’ve evolved enough to make utopia possible, would we have already reached some unfathomable limitlessness? – some state of being where we can find pure and unadulterated pleasure in a song, in a conversation, in a sunset, in the relentless and simple existence of light?
Now, we wind back the dial.
After my shower, I turn off the showerhead, lower myself into the tub, and turn on the bottom faucet. Of all the ways I know how to climax, water is my favorite. Unlike the numbing harshness of vibrators or the wrist-cramping repetition of using my hand, water orgasms build in one long, drawn out sensation of melting. There is no pain.
As I sink into the feeling, a memory returns to me. A long-term boyfriend and I were having sex for the first time in a while. We had been on an accidental sexual hiatus if you will, because we’d stumbled upon radical literature, and as a result spent countless hours deconstructing the whole concept of sex while not actually having it. Something was changing between us, and we knew it, but we hadn’t tested it until now.
The difference was stark and awkward. Before this, I had taken my own liberal perspective on sex for granted. Now, I realized with dread, that perspective had been irreversibly altered. The question was no longer whether I consented, but why I consented, to certain sex acts. What did it say about me?
I was not ready for this question. I wanted to be blissfully ignorant again, I wanted to fuckfuckfuck and not-care, not-think, not-change. In a last-ditch effort to pretend everything was normal, I half-heartedly asked him to hurt me, come on, hurt me. But he lost his arousal immediately. When I asked what was wrong, his eyes went big and his lip quivered as if scared to disappoint me. Then he said, “I can’t do that to you.”
There I was below him, naked, spread open: as vulnerable as I could be, giving him full permission to hurt me. Yet, he withdrew. Not only did he refuse to find pleasure in harming me, but his body refused as well. In that moment, I learned that we are not predestined to assume a role of either predator or prey. Rather, we learn our roles… and we can unlearn them. In that moment, I glimpsed utopia.
I turn the memory over and over in my mind as the water continues to flow over me with the gentlest touch. I consider the water, and how she patiently reshapes the most stubborn obstacles. She moves in spaces in which she is not welcome, but somehow finds a way to adapt, to fit, to be. Water carries burdens effortlessly, then sheds them along the path when the time is right. And all waterways are connected. Indirectly, but ultimately, connected. No matter how dismembered she may feel at times, she always finds her way back to herself. Back to that world of light, of melody, of words and of beauty. Back to The World of No Pain, where one’s lust is not inspired by insecurity, or shame, or trauma, or hatred… but by an overwhelming sense of connection to existence, by a boundless appreciation for humanity, and by a limitless love for oneself.
I have only glimpsed this utopia in short, unexpected bursts, and I ache to find it again.
So I ask the water to show me where that world is. Something tells me she would know.
Alicen Grey is an award-winning writer, performance artist and controversy magnet. Best known for her unapologetic writing on women’s issues and surviving trauma, Alicen strives to provoke both ruthless self-questioning and deep emotional healing in her audience. When she’s not doing writer-ly things, Alicen likes to sing, act, paint her face, ask lots of questions, and stare at the moon for unreasonable lengths of time.