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English 212
2002 First Paper
On Serendip

Saying "No"


Feminists address sex in a variety of ways. In my experience I have encountered two extremes of feminist discourse on sex. The first feminism is reminiscent of the 1980's abstinence craze. These feminists feel women are empowered by saying "no" to sex with someone and believe women are being pressured into having sex and that resisting the pressure is liberating. The second group I have encountered exists in opposition to the first group and believes it is empowering when women are comfortable with their sexuality and can have sex with people without feelings of guilt attached. These are the women who do not feel the need to say "no" and are reclaiming their sexuality from the society, which tells them they are "sluts" if they do not say "no."
At an activist conference I attended this summer one of the issues addressed by the group was sex. Within this community of liberal activists, to my surprise, the first of the two poles emerged. They held a women's caucus in the middle of the conference where all the females were isolated in a space independent of men. From my perspective it was a very heterosexual space. Though there were women in the group who identified as queer, the discussion revolved around heterosexual activities. We decided in the beginning of the caucus that we wanted to talk about sex. We talked about masturbation, sex toys, how old we were when we lost our virginity, even how many people we had sex with in our life. And those who had no experiences either way listened with eager ears. This conversation lasted about an hour and most people seemed very comfortable and interested in the topics we discussed.
Soon we began speaking about sexual expectations in college, and a few of the younger ones in the group made comments inquiring if men expected women to sleep with them quickly in college. I was one of the first to speak in the group, and I spoke under the assumption that people were comfortable with sex. So naturally I, as a feminist in the latter group, cited previous conversation and said it was normal for college women to want sex as badly as men do and I said that it is all right and they need not be ashamed of having those feelings. I told the female who was inquiring that it was good if she wanted sex as much as she perceived men her age wanted to have sex and she need not repress that desire. In a strange twist, my comments were ignored, as they seemed to make a few uncomfortable, and the conversation went to highlighting different ways a female could say "no" to a male.
This conversation eventually fed into a discussion about how individuals in the group had been sexually abused. It became somewhat of a therapy session. A few women told vague stories of abuse, but the conversation got more detailed as time progressed and eventually there were individuals who told stories of sexual abused as a child or adolescent by their peers, fathers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins, and siblings. After a woman told her story she was comforted with words like, "you got this far," "you can be strong," or "it wasn't your fault." I would estimate that of the twenty-five or thirty women there, ten to twelve women shared stories of abuse.
In this group I saw victimized women sharing their depressing stories in great detail. Some could not speak; instead they would begin to tell their tales and cry. Some of these women did not finish their tales but the endings were clear through their tears. When the group decided to end, one of the women who spoke asked if we could join in a circle, arms around each other, and scream the word, "no!" over and over. For these women, that word meant a great deal. They were reclaiming something they had lost, and being with a group of all women, many of who shared their pain, made them comfortable.
What perplexes me is how the conversation focused around the word, "no" and how using that word was empowering. It was amazing how during the first part of our discussion everyone was smiling and laughing and freely talking about personal sexual matters. I remember looking at different women's body language and seeing them leaning towards other women in the circle. It was like a middle school slumber party. It was a very comfortable space. But that changed as soon as men and sexual expectations came into the discussion.
From this discussion I drew a newfound understanding of the discourse women use when describing sex. I expected a group of liberal activists would not feel restricted in discussion about sex. These women are all very aware of worldly issues and feminisms, but all were drawn towards a more archaic view of women and sex. Those who had stories to tell, encouraged younger women in the group to keep chaste and claimed men who ask for sex before a woman is ready is undeserving of her flower. It fascinated me because of the correlation immediately drawn between violent sexual abuse and consensual sex. It seemed those who had stories to tell had difficulty distinguishing between sex between two willing partners and sex outside of legal boundaries. In their language and their reaction to my language it was clear these women had trouble expressing themselves sexually, even in a group of all women, because of their previous experiences. Rather than resist violent/illegal sex acts, they chose to resist the desire to have and encourage others to do the same. Through their language of saying "no" they felt they had control over the sexuality they had lost.

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