The Rebel Girl: Women, Sex and Desire

Against the Current, No. 35, November/December 1991

Catherine Sameh

WOMEN’S BODIES these days have become a collective battleground, individual mine fields harboring some of today’s explosive issues: abortion, motherhood, drug use and AIDS. As women of color, working-class and poor women’s sexual and reproductive lives become more and more regulated by an increasingly repressive state, the fight for sexual liberation becomes ever-pressing.

This fight has always had mixed meanings for women in a society still deeply entrenched in sexist and homophobic ways. Still, the gains women have made in the arena of sexual liberation are important—and are now being undermined by a highly mobilized and reactionary right wing.

Whereas divorce, single motherhood and women’s massive entry into the work force have often left women more physically and economically vulnerable, their increasing independence from men has fundamentally changed women’s lives in very positive ways, offering sexual and emotional fulfillment to women as never before.

At a recent workshop on women and AIDS given in my workplace, I was struck by the ways in which the discussion, led by an informed health worker, around AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases subtly reinforced conservative notions about women’s sexuality. There was much talk about the need for women to stay with one partner, stay away from casual sex, teach their children to avoid sex until their adult lives, take responsibility for men’s condom use, etc.

While none of this is necessarily terrible advice, as a strategy for staying safe it increases the pressure on women to temper, if not harness, their own and men’s sexual desires.

Women are contracting—and being diagnosed with—AIDS at an alarming rate. Women of color are being hit the hardest Syphilis is on the rise again as is condyloma, a precancerous sexually transmitted disease (SID). The federal government refuses to recognize the reality of teenage sexuality, and given the number of hospital closings, the poor have less access to health care than ever.

Clearly sex has become for women intricately linked to danger and now, death. This theme is both old and new. In a society that still fosters men’s power and women’s submission, heterosexual sex is potentially tied to real dangers for women: unwanted pregnancy, rape, humiliation and disease.

The rising rates of AIDS and other STDs among women only complicate and intensified an already extremely charged fact of women’s lives. This makes the context in which sex education occurs extremely important.

As with drug use, people will not give up unsafe sex simply because they have been told it can seriously hurt or even kill them. A larger discussion needs to happen: about how women construct their sexual identities and lives, what dig-empowerment has to do with unsafe behavior, how lack of money and health care affects women’s sexual lives and what it will take for women to have control over their sexuality in ways that enhance, rather than inhibit, their sense of power and esteem.

To evade this discussion is to further mystify a part of women’s lives that has already been severely complicated by lack of adequate information and education, and place yet another series of unnecessary burdens on their shoulders.

November-December 1991, ATC 35