• Steph Shuff

An Argument for Easiness

I hadn’t seen John in years. Though we had gone to college together in Washington, D.C., he (like so many of my classmates) had left after graduation for other cities, more exciting adventures - Chicago, New York, San Francisco.

Now, nearly a decade since, he sat at a table in the common area of my shared office space as though he had been there all along. He looked more or less the same, with a few improvements. He had shaved his head bald, embracing his youthful hair loss, pairing it with a well-trimmed mustache. His look was equal parts sexy nerd and comic book villain.

I stood in the doorway of the common area, waiting for eye contact and any subtle sparks of recognition. In college, I had kept my own hair long and blonde. Now, it was shorn into a light brown pixie cut, rendering me unrecognizable to most people who had known me in an earlier phase of my life. I had grown accustomed to being mistaken as a stranger by former friends and colleagues. There was a subtle thrill in it for me - something very spy-like about not being recognized. What is it about being invisible?

John, however, recognized me almost immediately. I was glad that he did. He looked happy to see me - his eyes lit up, his face broke into a large smile. He stood up, walked over to me, and embraced me in the kind of hug that only tall, broad men can give, enveloping me in his body. He smelled good. I have found that tall, broad men often do.

John was in a rush to leave, but we exchanged numbers. He was living in DC again for a new job, said he would love to grab dinner this weekend and would text me soon.

Back in college, John and I had entertained a brief relationship in the way that college students often do - trading sexual favors like class notes. He was well-known on our small campus, social, egoistic. I liked him immediately. We kept our relationship a secret, of course; it was better for both of us that way. I was dating someone else, and I’m sure John had his own motives, though he never volunteered his reasons, and I never asked. Sometimes, we avoid asking questions to which we already know the answer.

My most vivid memory of John from college was during one of our few sexual encounters. It was the middle of the afternoon. He had just gone down on me, and though I don’t remember his technique particularly, the wet spot on the bed where my hips and his face had been only moments before suggested I enjoyed myself well enough. I would be lying to you and John if I said this had never happened to me before. I didn’t feel anything about the wet spot one way or another. That is, until John brought it up.

Before I continue, I want any and all men to note: if you inspire a wet spot the size of a large watermelon after going down on a woman, you should feel an immense sense of accomplishment and pride as a sexual partner. I encourage you to confirm with your partner first, as any good lover is wont to do, but feel free to pat yourself on the back. Give yourself a high five. Encourage your friends to do the same. Proselytize the gospel of female orgasm, female ejaculation, and female sexual pleasure. It is not a mythical urban legend - it exists in this life, and - with consent, of course - the power is literally in your hands (and tongue, etc etc etc). Not all women experience female ejaculation (or so “they” say, and I wonder, are “they” men?) but I’d bet that most women experience some degree of self-lubrication during pleasurable sex. We don’t walk around dripping wet all the time - well, some of us do - but we certainly can become dripping wet when the mood and the pressure are right. A wet spot after sex is good news for both genders, not just men.

As my afternoon delight with John was coming to an end, he looked down at the wet spot and back up at me, disgusted.

“Jeez, did you pee or something?” He asked.

“No,” I said. “Did you?”

As is often the case with sexually confident, adventurous young women, I spent the better part of my teens and early twenties dating older men. When coupled with with a high sex drive, tendency towards exhibitionism, and absence of shame around my sexuality, it may come as no surprise that my attitude towards and understanding of sex at 21 was different than many of my female peers. I was not afraid to call men out or give enthusiastic instruction. If I said no I meant no, and if I wanted to have sex, I consented without coyness or hesitation. Some of the time, I was the initiator. Playing the hard-to-get ingenue seemed not only irrelevant and old fashioned, but woefully dishonest.

I had lots of orgasms before I ever had sex (thanks, masturbation!) but I achieved orgasm during sex with my first sexual partner and nearly every partner since. I always expected that sex be good, equitable, and fun. GGG, if you will. Good, giving, game. Though I’ve had my fair share of unsatisfying sex, I am inclined to believe that my experience is somewhat unique. This is tragic for women everywhere, but unsurprising in a culture that focuses on male pleasure almost exclusively and on the male gaze as women’s only true source of power.

In the context of the #metoo movement, I feel thrilled by its momentum at the same time that I feel somewhat on the edges - an outsider looking in. It is a difficult feeling to wrap my arms around. Like many women, I have experienced unwanted sexual advances. I have been discriminated against at work for my gender. I have been the victim of physical and verbal harassment in clubs and on street corners. My experiences in the context of a male-dominant culture have been wrong, hurtful, and discriminatory; as a result, I have lost friendships, left companies, and abandoned entire industries. These experiences are all encompassed by the #metoo movement.

However, unlike so many women (and men), I have never been sexually assaulted, raped, or forced beyond my intimate boundaries by a sexual partner. More specifically, I have never been traumatized by a sexual encounter. I feel fortunate, but it is also partly of my doing.

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: sex is power. It should come as no surprise, then, that in a male dominant culture, where religious, economic, and cultural power has long been held by men, sexual power has found its way under male control as well. This is fascinating to me in a relationship sense, as it really does take two to tango. In a modern society where the sexes are equal, women should have just as much power to initiate, crave, and control sex. We should also be free to trade with it, barter with it, economize it, because it ours individually to give away.

I understand that the right to trade sex on economic terms isn’t what the #metoo movement is fighting for - it’s that, currently, trading sex with men for power seems to be a career requirement, especially in certain industries. With only men occupying positions of power throughout the world, it comes as no surprise that women have to use sex to get ahead. My opinion on the matter is somewhat fringe. I believe using sex shouldn’t be the only way women can get ahead. But I believe it should be an option, just as much as I believe that if women were in power, we may be inclined to ask the Leonardo DiCaprios of the world to take their shirts off during casting interviews. And I wonder...if Harvey Weinstein looked more like Leonardo DiCaprio, would the results have been different? You may not be surprised to hear that I believe sex work should be legal. In my eyes, the issue is not the sex. Sex is just an instrument. The issue is the power. In a world where men control everything, sex is just another thing on a long list. But what if things were truly equal?

Am I part of the #metoo movement for having these thoughts, or at odds with it? Why do I find myself on the fringes of a movement that has revealed to us that sexual trauma at the hands of men in power is the rule? What if I’m on the side of history that is ok trading sex for favors? Why is this bad?

In an industry dominated by men, sex can be manipulated as the only way women can get ahead. Career advancement can be bottlenecked through a tight hole of requirements, pun intended. Be hot. Put out. Get the job. But if there were just as many women in power in the same industry, a woman who is not interested in trading sex for power could walk to the office next door. The issue isn’t the sex. The issue is the number of ladders available for us to climb. There are plenty of women who are not comfortable using sex as a source of power. I applaud them. Regardless of how we feel about each others' tactics, the important thing is that we are all deserving of making our way to the top using the instruments we choose. So what if sex is mine? That's not the point. The point is that it shouldn't have to be yours.

Now, let us return to a twenty-one year old girl, sitting half-dressed in a college dorm room, being asked about a wet spot on a bed. I don’t remember how I responded to John’s question in the moment. What I do remember is realizing that while John and I were the same age, his sexual maturity was no match for mine.

What I didn’t understand at the time is that I was living through the consequences of one gender controlling the collective social power dynamics around sex. Women are educated at a very young age about the male sex - we are taught what an erection is, what male ejaculate looks like; more subtly, women are taught that sex begins with an erection and ends with male ejaculation. Stop and think about that for a moment. Women are taught from puberty onward that sex is punctuated by the male experience exclusively.

What if this power dynamic were reversed? What if we were taught about sex through the lens of the female experience? Men would learn early on that there are actually three holes down there (I guarantee you this is news to at least one male reader); we’d learn that sex begins only when a woman is lubricated; we would be taught that sex ends when she says it ends, premature male ejaculation or not. Can you imagine? This scenario seems comical (and also - oddly non-consensual). Why does this scenario seem comical? Hyperbole aside, men do it all the time. This is the crux of the #metoo movement.

Ten years later, I reflected on that odd, awkward sexual encounter with John as I was getting ready to meet him for dinner on a cold, wintery Friday night. I was hesitant, considering this experience, about going out with John again, but he was smart, handsome, tall, and a lot can change in ten years. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure that our date was a date - perhaps we were just two old friends getting together over dinner.

Poor John! I mused as I called an Uber for the restaurant. I didn’t feel angry with him anymore, I felt an odd sense of pity. What I knew then that he likely wouldn’t realize until much later was that his mistaking my wet spot for urine reflected more on his sexual experience (or lack thereof) than it reflected on me. My only regret about that afternoon was that I didn’t use the opportunity to educate him more fully on what that wet spot was all about. Who knows how many women he sexually shamed after me? Could I have saved them from the same fate?

I can picture it now, me leaning down, patting John on the head. “Awww, honey.” I would have said to him. Let me tell you about the female orgasm.

Later that evening, after dinner and a few drinks, I asked John: “Is this a date?” He smiled his big, full smile. “Yea, I guess it is.” We hugged outside the restaurant and went our separate ways.

So what saved me all those years ago from feeling ashamed at John’s condemnation of my wet spot? Why did I have the self-confidence and self-awareness to confront his attempts to shame me with a strengthened sense of self, as opposed to a weakened one?

The answer is complicated, but I’ll sum it up in a phrase: I have the luxury of easiness.

Men live with the luxury of easiness so fully that they don’t even have to name it. In fact, there isn’t a name for it. After all, slut and whore and easy are insults reserved exclusively for sexual women. What do we call men of the same nature? Playboys? Bachelors? These are compliments. Fuckboy - a new term coined by a younger generation of women exhausted by the gender imbalance inherent in modern sexual culture - comes close, but calling a man a fuckboy carries less bite.

The luxury of easiness wasn’t something I inherited as a result of my gender assignment at birth, as men do. Rather, it has developed over time. It started at age six, when I first began to discover my own anatomy, in a very public way. Perhaps my mom knew at the time how pivotal this moment would be in my life, or perhaps she was just a well-adjusted mom when it came to the idea that one day, her children would have sex. She didn’t seem shocked or insulted. She didn’t shame or scold me. She told me, the same way so many fathers tell their sons, that what I was doing was normal, private, and perfectly healthy. She told me to do it alone in my room, and we never really discussed it again. The luxury of my easiness was born.

How sad that in America today, my experience is atypical. In the same family, a father will discuss the normalcy of masturbation with his son while a mother will shame her daughter, often publicly, for discovering her clitoris. These little boys and girls grow up, eventually, but those early lessons never leave us.

I have always been sexual, and I have, for the most part, embraced it. I have always owned and taken responsibility for my sexuality, sexual health, and sexual acumen. I have always been enthusiastically into sex in a way that most women feel they can’t be, or shouldn’t be, or should be but aren’t. With me, there is never the risk of mistaking my no for yes, mostly because I feel no shame about saying yes, and my no’s aren’t fuzzy lines, they are hard limits. In a way, I approach sex the way most men are trained to approach sex. It can be casual or serious and that choice is entirely up to me.

Does this make me easy? Possibly, but I don’t see it as an insult - I see it as a privilege. Do I believe that allowing women to embrace and own their sexuality is the absolute answer to sexual harassment? No. But it is a step in the right direction. Women like me, those of us who feel comfortable being sexual, rarely feel any sense of obligation around sex. I think of Samantha's character from Sex and the City, with whom I identified at an alarmingly young age. I don’t have to say yes. I don’t have to say no. I don't have to say anything. I say what I want to say when I want to say it. There is little risk that I will regret my decision and reverse my consent. There is little risk that I will say no when I really mean yes. There is little risk that I will say yes when I really mean no.

John and I hung out a few more times after our first date; we got coffee, we had lunch; we smoked pot in his apartment; one night, he had me over and we drank wine and played cards. The night ended with me shirtless in his bed, a place that felt both familiar and strange. His skin smelled good and his hands were wandering. Still, I couldn’t shake the memory of him shaming me. I would need more than a few casual dates before letting him near the parts of me he was so quick to reject all those years ago.

After that night, our courtship slowed. The holiday season came and went, and we saw each other only once or twice a month for the next few months. When we did see each other, we occupied an awkward space, somewhere between friends and lovers. We would flirt, cuddle, hug, but there was no more kissing, no more wandering hands.

On one such occasion, I finally asked him: “What are we doing? Are we dating? Are we just friends that play cards?”

“I’ve been trying to figure that out,” he said. “I’m sorry if I have been confusing. But I think we should just be friends.”

Let’s pause here. Imagine, for a moment, that our genders were reversed. I, the man, had been pursuing John for some time. Together, we dated, hung out alone, flirted, kissed, drank, played cards. John, the girl, had not been easy. Rather, he acted hesitant. Tepid. Unsure.

One night, we find ourselves alone in John’s apartment. Don’t forget that he’s the woman in this setting. I, the man, have been hoping for some time that our relationship might lead to something more physical. I sense hesitation, but I have been taught my entire life that this is just a game. Deep down, I know John really wants it. But I know that John has been taught he isn’t allowed to say that he wants it. In fact, I have been taught to value John less if he says that he does. So I take his hesitance as a social requirement on his part, rather than what is true. I am convinced that tonight, I will finally be able to convince John to sleep with me based on whatever weak social calculations he hangs his sexuality on - the number of times we have gone out, the amount of money I spent on our dates.

Suddenly, John’s hesitancy evaporates. John decides he doesn’t want me. But. But. I feel entitled to his body, because I’ve put in the time. So much time. I decide one of two things: that I don’t believe John doesn’t want me, or that I don’t care. It doesn’t matter which it is. And so there, alone in John’s apartment, I force myself on him. I overpower him physically, or I wear down his resolve so much that he finally says yes, just to get me to go away. We have sex. I leave feeling like a winner. John feels like a victim.

That isn’t what happened. In the moment, I respected John’s decision. I told him I wasn’t interested in being friends. I thanked him for the whiskey. I gave him a hug. I left. We never saw each other again.

When you’re a woman who enjoys sex the way I do, it is not uncommon to come across men who play more to the female gender role in sexual situations. Not everyone finds me attractive. Not everyone wants to have sex with me. Both of these situations are totally ok. I’ve been taught since I was young that men have sex every time they want to. It is easier for me to hear them, and believe them, when they say no. But I often find myself wondering, what if men were always taught to say no? What if men were trained to resist sex with me, even when they wanted it? My god, I’d be frustrated as hell. Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

I am not using this argument as a justification for the bad deeds of aggressive men. I do not think that women are to blame for men’s sexual assault. But I do think about a world where no means no and yes means yes. I imagine a world where women saying yes to sex is encouraged, applauded, celebrated. I imagine a world where women are not valued for their ability to resist sex, but for their ability to embrace it.

A world filled with sexually empowered women certainly isn’t the cure for sexual assault. But I do believe that it is a step in the right direction.

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