Analysis Sexuality

Get Real: Male Bodies Vs. Female Bodies: Why Go There?

Heather Corinna

Is it better to be a man or a woman when it comes to sexual pleasure?  

Pubished in partnership with Scarleteen

r89 asks:

I don’t mean to ask a silly question, but is there anything that makes being female good in terms of sex? It seems to me men have all the biological luck – they are aroused more easily, they orgasm more frequently, they can orgasm regularly from both oral/manipulative sex and intercourse, their is more square inches of erectile tissue to play around with, etc. I often listen to my guy friends talk, and lately it has been making me feel very inferior. Is there anything going for us?

Heather Corinna replies:

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(I’m going to assume that when you say female, you mean person-with-vulva, since it sounds like when you talk about men, you mean people-with-penises. If I went the wrong way with those assumptions, let me know and I’ll have a do-over with this one.)

I think it’s not a great idea to try and do this kind of comparison between men and women, or people with one kind of genitals and people with another. Bodies are diverse, sexualities are diverse, and people’s experiences with sex and sexuality are diverse. Some of that diversity can be about gender or what kind of bodies or body parts people have, but those things are only a couple of pieces of a very large pie. I ordered a pizza once that, when it arrived, was not only twice the size I had ordered, and cut into more pieces than I could make heads or tails of, but it also looked like the person who cut it had not exactly aced geometry. I think that pizza is a lot like our sexualities tend to be: a pie that turns out to be a lot bigger than we expected, and looks different than we expected, including a lot of pieces where the form is often largely indiscernible and rarely tidy or systematic.

Even when we just stick to how things can vary within differences in gender or differences in body parts, there is so much variation. Not everyone with a penis does find they get and feel aroused more easily than everyone without one, reaches orgasm more frequently, or can orgasm regularly — or at all — from receptive oral sex or intercourse. (And having a penis doesn’t mean having more erectile tissue than someone without one, but I’ll get to that in a bit.) Not everyone with a clitoris has a clitoris that works exactly the same way or feels exactly the same. Nor does simply having a vulva mean that all people with one have the same sexual responses, desires and experiences. Same goes for people with penises.

Sex and sexuality is about so, so much more than body parts and friction, and what kind of body or combination of X’s or Y’s people have tells us, so so very little about any of this. The part of me that wants a vacation, to be able to solve people’s issues and problems lickety-split with one-size-fits-all-advice, or for fewer people to yell at me when I won’t agree things are more complicated than that would love it, too, if it was as simple as just those things. But another part of me, a much bigger part, thinks the fact that it’s not that simple is a big win for having work which will always be challenging and interesting and make me stretch my mind and my assumptions a lot AND when it comes to having life itself and all the people in it be really interesting and enriching. I sure as heck know that sex and sexuality, including my own, would be an experience that got old and hollow mighty fast if it was all just that simple.

Because of all of that variance and more, I can’t give you the kind of answer I think you’re looking for. If all men were the same and all women were the same, then I kind of could. Or, if people with X set of body parts all had bodies or those parts which worked and felt identically and all had the same or very similar experiences of sex and sexuality and people with Y set of of body parts all had bodies or those parts which worked and felt identically and all had the same or very similar experiences of sex and sexuality, then I might be able to. But since none of those things are even so, I just can’t.

Let’s talk erectile tissue. For starters, genitals aren’t the only place we can have that kind of tissue, no matter our gender or embodiment. There is erectile tissue in the penis, and also in the clitoris (and I’m talking about the whole of the clitoris, not just the external glans, and the whole clitoral structure is usually about the same size as a penis, leaving room for the fact that both penis and clitoral size vary). We have erectile tissue as part of our noses, ears, and our urethral and perineal sponges. We’ve all got that kind of tissue, usually in pretty equally-distributed portions. But erectile tissue also only does so much. Just having that tissue or having it become erect doesn’t mean things feel good. Sure, a penis or clitoris becoming erect can feel seriously neat, but it can also feel annoying, painful, or even like “Meh, whatever. Bored now.” Plus, the fact that we have that tissue and it becomes erect is usually a response to already feeling good and the things the body does to make erection happen, which is really why erect tissue can feel good or like anything at all. And let’s also bear in mind that not everyone can always or even ever experience genital erections. Not all men or women have bodies that can function that way, or always will, and that doesn’t mean they can’t still enjoy sex and sexuality. Erection isn’t a requirement for sexual enjoyment. It’s just something which may or may not play a part in it: this is another of those small pieces of a much bigger pie.

It might also help to know that when people do studies about sexual satisfaction, things like reaching orgasm easily, or getting off a certain way aren’t usually what people tend to rank as what’s tops on their list of what makes sex great, and that includes people with penises. You can have a look at one of those studies yourself, if you like. This one was done by the Kinsey Institute this year, about long-time heterosexual couples, and it revealed findings like this:

What predicted overall [sexual] satisfaction? For women, key factors were relationship duration and their own good sexual functioning. But for men, there seemed to be a larger variety of contributors to happiness: longer relationships, good physical health (healthy men were 67% more likely to report being happy with their relationships than men in poor health), good sexual functioning and their [partner‘s] sexual satisfaction: a man’s happiness rose 17% with each additional point he rated the importance of his partner’s orgasm.

So, let’s figure, as is probably true, that you do have just as much erectile tissue as your buddies. Then let’s say you can reach orgasm easily from oral sex and intercourse, and that you also got aroused very easily and reached orgasm as often as they (say they) do. What if you did have all that, but still didn’t find all of that did much for you? What about times when you didn’t want to reach orgasm quickly, but would prefer to savor everything that leads up to orgasm for as long as possible? Or times you wanted to enjoy taking time to become more and more aroused, and felt disappointed when you instead got super-hot really fast? What if a greater quantity of orgasm didn’t mean a greater quality?

If any of that seems unusual, know that there are folks who have been or are in those boats (and those folks come in all genders, not just one), and who don’t feel “biologically fortunate,” to have their bodies respond otherwise sometimes, or find that those things don’t result in super-fantastico sexual bliss, or even in their most basic sexual satisfaction. What makes sex good for people just usually has very little to do with what genitals someone has.

I usually put links into a column last, but I think some of the issue here is perhaps not having enough education about sex, anatomy, the diversity of what people enjoy and the kinds of things that do tend to contribute most to sexual satisfaction. So, I’m flopping some of that information here for you now.

I put a few of the polls we’ve done into that list for you. I think you might find some of the answers surprising, since they’re at odds with what some of your assumptions are. Consider those poll links other peer conversations you can hear besides just what the guy friends you know are saying, too. It’s easy for people to figure that what a given peer group says or experiences is somehow broadly representative of all people or groups, even though it usually isn’t. The polls we do here can come in mighty handy for getting a far more diverse view.

If you want a couple things to take away from all this that are about some ways men and women, as broad groups, often (not always, but often) tend to be sexually different, I’ve got three I think matter, are factual, and are worth thinking about:
1. People raised as men usually tend to masturbate more than people raised as women, to do so more often and more consistently from childhood on, and to feel more comfortable and relaxed about masturbation than women.
2. People raised as men, compared to those raised as women, more frequently actively seek out the kinds of sex that they want and feel good to them, more frequently decline whatever isn’t what they really want, and are typically more assertive with sexual partners about what they want and like.
3. Men, especially in the company of other men, generally are given a lot of room to talk about how awesome sex and their sexual experiences are, but very little to talk about things that aren’t working for them, ways they don’t feel satisfied (especially if that’s about not liking or enjoying kinds of sex men are “supposed to” or if why they aren’t satisfied isn’t something they can’t pin on a partner), or things they desire, enjoy or experience that aren’t considered “manly.”

Those first two things are things we know from study and working in sexuality tend to make a really big difference when it comes to people having satisfying sexual experiences, alone or with partners. For instance, we know that women often have a much easier time reaching orgasm alone, through masturbation, than with partners, and that when women do dedicate real time and energy to masturbation for themselves, by themselves, then bring that comfort and communication about what they know they want and enjoy to partners, the kind of divide you’re seeing is a LOT smaller. The fact that far more men do both of those things than women is the most likely reason why men, on the whole, can tend to reach orgasm a bit more easily and with greater frequency with partners.

Things like that are are social, not biological, so they aren’t things that you don’t have access to. In other words, you don’t need a different body than you have to have similar experiences. You may just need to switch up some of your behavior and your mindset about sex, sexuality, sexual partnership and your body.

For sure, one or both of those things might be a bit more challenging for you than for your guy friends. But they are totally doable for a lot of women in the world. They are also very likely to be two things that play a part in the difference between how your guy friends are feeling about sex and sexuality and how you are. So, if you want, you can even up something you’re seeing as “the score” by working on those two things, spending more time exploring your own body and what feels good all by yourself, then taking what you experience and learn from that on the road with any sexual partners (if and when you decide you want a partner, and that someone is likely to be the kind of partner you want), communicating what you want and enjoy to them. Doing all that makes it far more likely they will have some sort of clue about what to do with you and what you’ll enjoy, make you more likely to enjoy sex, and carries an extra bonus of having sex be more likely to be most enjoyable for your partner, too. When everyone involved in sex is really connecting and enjoying themselves mutually, it’s pretty hard for sex to feel anything but good.

As someone who has worked in sexuality for a substantial amount of time now and with large, diverse groups of people, one of the things I know is absolutely true is that there is no one gender of people who unilaterally has better experiences with sex or more sexual pleasure than another. I also know, with absolute certainty, that the idea that men have it made when it comes to sex and their sexual lives, or that all or most men are always or even often having the best sexual time ever isn’t true. Those links up there will probably help you start to see that, too, but so might recognizing that how your guy friends are talking about sex and their bodies not only can’t represent all men, what they’re saying — or how you’re hearing what they’re saying — probably isn’t as complete or true as it might seem.

There’s a lot we could talk about with that, so much that it’s really the stuff of books rather than a single column. Like I said, many men are under a lot of pressure, especially from other men, and especially when they’re younger, to be dishonest about sex. A lot of guys’ and peer groups of guys’ notions of masculinity are very tied up with a very limited range of what is and isn’t acceptable with men’s sexual desires and experiences. I’d also add that the grading curve often set by most cultures to evaluate what male sexual enjoyment is or should be is usually set within a very limited sphere. In other words, what “male enjoyment” of sex is can often be defined in such a limited way — one far more limited than what it can be — that it can be easier for men to say and feel sex is totally awesome because the criteria they’re given for good sex is so skimpy.

We see that with how the male sexual body is often defined: usually as just penis, and maybe testes, if they’re lucky. We see that around how often just “getting sex” or ejaculating are set as all men want or need to feel sexually satisfied, two common goalposts which you can probably see would make sex pretty shallow or stale pretty quickly.

Neither of those kinds of things are limited to men, of course. Women are often given way more permission to talk about what isn’t satisfying about sex than what is, especially among other women. And women’s sexual bodies are often reduced to nothing but breasts and orifices. The point is that if you have the idea that there’s this no-holds-barred world for men out there when it comes to sex, I’d disagree, and if you think men aren’t limited in their own ways, or in ways similar to how women are, this is another way to see that you and your guy friends probably have more in common than any of you recognize or acknowledge.

When and if your guy friends are talking about sex and their sexual bodies as something always utterly awesome for them, know that that often probably isn’t entirely true. Know what’s more likely is that, as is the case for most people, sex for them probably is not always awesome nor always awful. Know that there’s probably just as much they’re not saying as what they are, and that some, if not all, of them in these conversations probably are feeling pretty inferior or crummy themselves. That’s not good news for them or anyone, obviously, that sucks. But if you’re feeling alone in your feelings, I think it’s important to know you’re probably not alone in them, even in that group.

No need not to be real about something, though: a lot of the way sexual satisfaction is framed and presented in the world has been centered around male sexuality and men (something that happened eons before you or your friends were even born) and still is in a whole lot of ways, even though that hardly means all men are served well by that imbalance. If and when something that’s about more than one gender or kind of body is conceptualized and presented as being mostly or only just about one, or only kind of seen through that one lens, that is going to be a problem, and it is a problem that remains a problem, even though, over time, the world has been improving in this regard. Just slowly.

Leonore Tiefer is someone who I think talks about this fantastically when she addresses the trouble in the medical framing of “female sexual dysfunction,” often a precarious and deeply flawed framework. One other thing we know from the study of sexuality is that women who feel dissatisfied with sex with partners don’t usually have anything wrong with them physically or emotionally, nor are they just lacking in body parts. Rather, what’s most typical is that women just aren’t exploring what they really want, sharing whatever that is with partners assertively, or even giving their partners the chance — and so many of them want that chance — to know what they want and what they like. In other words, that problem is far more often a relationship problem than a body problem, one that can usually be remedied, and one that, when women with partners do remedy, tends to result in women AND their partners both enjoying themselves a whole lot more. I also think it’s safe to say that a lot of women are also still struggling to learn how to even define and discover their own sexuality in a way that’s not directly linked to male bodies or a dude-centric framing of sex.

If the way you or anyone else is framing is centered only or mostly around those body parts you don’t have, it can certainly seem or feel like you can’t compete. The good news is that no one needs to, and it’s not that hard not to in the places that matter and which you can control: your own mind and your own interpersonal relationships.

You don’t need a different body, nor do you need to try and pit your body and anyone else’s into any kind of competition, or take part in that if someone else is framing things that way. You get to frame your sexuality and sex life around you: around your life, your desires, your embodiment.

All of us have a lot of things going for us when it comes to sex and sexuality. What makes sex and sexuality comfortable, enjoyable or fulfilling for people usually has some common threads (and it’s not about body parts), but those things remain very highly individual and situational. Sex is not anything close to being just about bodies or body parts. For sure, part of our experience with sex is often, if not usually, physical, but the physical is not something we can separate from everything else that drives, influences and otherwise plays a part in our sexualities and sexual experiences: the emotional, the psychological, the intellectual, the spiritual, the interpersonal; our whole life histories and specifically sexual histories, our ethics and values and belief systems and so much more.

Sex is a lot like art: it’s a means of self-expression, whether you share it or not. A sexuality someone really, really enjoys tends to be a highly original, thoughtfully-crafted piece of work, not a poster there are a million copies of or something that’s clearly copying or reacting to another artist.

One of the biggest parts of cultivating and creating a sexuality and sexual life that’s what we really, really like and value tends to involve finding out what our sexuality is past the static of what everyone else’s is like, or appears to be like. It also involves learning to move past generalizations, oversimplifications and surface presentations of sex, especially if, in our sex lives, we’re going to be connecting with other people sexually as partners, where those ways of thinking can cheat more than just us. That’s not something that usually happens overnight, it’s often a long-term unlearning process. But it’s a really important one. It’s important with any partners you may have so that you don’t limit your shared experiences or their own sexuality. And it’s important for you so that you don’t limit your own.

No one is inferior or superior here. No one needs to be: one person with one kind of body enjoying sex doesn’t mean another person without that kind of body can’t, won’t or doesn’t, even if there’s something one of those people has going on that the other does not. Everyone has a ton of things going for them, physically and otherwise, because sex — when we do it right — is about who we are, not who we’re not.

One last thing? If the way your guy friends are talking is still making you feel inferior, try a bigger check-in. What’s that all about? Is it about the way that they’re talking? Do you feel like you’re in a locker room you don’t want to be in, like they’re amping things up because you’re there (or the other guys are), like they’re being insensitive or even being really inappropriate in your company? You didn’t fill me in on what they’re saying, how they’re saying it and in what context. So, I can’t know if the way they are talking about their bodies and sex lives is sexist or excludes you or if there’s a lot of posturing. Obviously, any or all of those things could leave you feeling cruddy, and that’d be about their talk, not your embodiment. But if you keep feeling uncomfortable in those conversations, do yourself a favor and ask for some limits with them. You get to have boundaries with friends around sex, and that includes sexual conversations.

If you don’t feel like you can speak up and redirect those conversations, or ask for some consideration in them, then I think you might want to figure that maybe you and these friends shouldn’t be talking about sex together. It’s great for people to talk about sex instead of keeping silent, but, as you already know, it’s also a sensitive, vulnerable issue, and one which requires consideration and maturity to talk about in a way that can leave everyone feeling okay. (And I know, you’re just starting your twenties, so they probably are, too, but just because people are officially adults of any age doesn’t mean they have all that together.) If you don’t feel like these friends have that capacity, that the dynamics of the group don’t support that, or you feel like maybe you need to come into your own with your own sexuality first before you feel comfortable in these kinds of discussions, then you just may want to opt out of these conversations, period. These are apparently your friends, and it should never be that big of a deal for friends to save a conversation about something they want to have for a time when someone who doesn’t want to take part is not around.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

Commentary Sexuality

Auntie Conversations: Black Women Talk Sex, Self-Care, and Illness

Charmaine Lang

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

“You’re just being nosy,” one of my aunts said, after I asked her if she enjoyed having sex with her husband. I assured her this was all part of a research project on the intimate lives of Black women. She relented a bit, but still gave me the side-eye.

I’ve been engaged in archival research for the last year. While the personal letters of Black women writer-activists and the newspapers of the Third World Women’s Alliance are remarkable and informative, they provide little insight into the intimate lives and sexual desires of Black women. After all, sex improves our mood and alleviates stress: That immediate gratification of pleasure and release is a way to practice self-care.

So on a recent trip home to Los Angeles, I asked my aunties to share their stories with me at a little gathering they threw in my honor.

And they did.

I asked them: “What’s your sex life like?” “Do you want to have sex?” “Are you and your husband intimate?” “You know … does he kiss you and hold your hand?” And I learned that contrary to tropes that present us as either asexual mammies or hypersexual jezebels, the Black women in my life are vulnerable and wanting love and loving partners, at all stages of life.

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Between 1952 and 1969, my maternal grandmother had six daughters and one son. All of them grew up in South Central Los Angeles, witnessing white flight, the Watts riot of 1965, and the crack epidemic. At the same time, the women have kept the family intact. They are the ones who always plan big dinners for the holidays and organize food drives for their churches. And they arranged care of their mother toward the end of her life. I’ve always wondered how they were able to prioritize family and their own desires for intimacy.

So I asked.

My 57-year-old aunt who is a retired customer service representative living in Pomona, California, told me: “My lifetime of sex consisted of first starting off with getting to know the person, communicating, establishing companionship. Once that was done, the sex and intimacy followed. When you’re younger, you have no frets. You experiment all the time.”

I wanted to know more.

“You’re not just trying to get in our business? You’re actually going to write something, right?” was my mother’s response.

When asked about the state of her sex life, my 59-year-old aunt, a social worker, said: “I am a married woman without a physical sex life with my husband. His illness has a lot to do with this, along with the aging process.”

My Pomona aunt went into more detail about how as we get older our ability and desire changes.

“You try to keep pace with pleasing your partner, and he tries to please you. But it is hard when you are a full-time worker, wife, and mother, and you commute to work. You’re tired. Hear me: You’re tired; they are not. You grow older, gain weight, and get sicker. You start to take medicine, and all that affects your ability and desire to perform.”

“For me, in a nutshell, [sexual activity] feels like work: I don’t feel excited. When it happens, it happens,” she said.

I learned the combination of energy spent on wage work, domestic labor, and mothering is draining, dissipating the mood for sex or intimacy. A husband who does not have the same domestic responsibilities has more energy for sex. The unbalanced load equates to differences in desire.

I wondered: Did my aunts talk to their partners about this?

Illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer, can cause anxiety, depression, and fatigue, which interrupt lovemaking. Talking to a partner can help to create a new normal in the relationship.

However, as my social worker aunt made clear, “It takes two to talk openly and honestly, which I find very difficult most of the time.”

“To be vulnerable is hard because I do not want to get hurt emotionally, so I protect my heart from harm,” she explained. “[My husband and I] can be harsh and curt to each other at times, which leads to me shutting down and not expressing my true feelings. My husband can be prideful and unwilling to admit there are issues within the relationship.”

Aunt April, a 47-year-old Los Angeles teacher, had some things to share too. “My love life is complicated. After suffering an overwhelming and devastating loss in 2011 of my husband and mate of nearly 20 years, I’m very hesitant to fully try again.”

She hasn’t dated since 1991. After much counseling, grieving, and encouragement from her 12-year-old daughter, she decided to give it a try.

“I have been seeing someone, but I have a lot of fear that if I relinquish my heart to him, he will die. So, I think about sabotaging the relationship so that I don’t have to get to know him and start worrying about his well-being and wondering if he feels the same way I do. In my mind, it’s easier to be casual and not give too much of my heart,” she said.

Intimacy, then, is also about being vulnerable in communicating how one feels—and open to all possibilities, even hurt.

As a 34-year-old queer Black woman figuring out my dating life, my aunt’s words about communication struck me. At times I can be guarded, too, fearful of letting someone get close. I started to ask myself: “What’s my sex life like?” and “What role does intimacy play in my life as I juggle a job and doctoral studies?”

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

“I enjoy sex more now then I did before,” my mama, Jackie, said. Now 55, she remarried in 2013. She lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and works in the accounting and human resource field. “My husband loves me unconditionally; with him, I’m more comfortable. It’s more relaxing.”

My mama expressed her ability to enjoy herself with her husband because of the work she put into loving herself and prioritizing her needs.

I always talk to my mama about my dating life: heartbreaks and goals. She always says, “Learn to love yourself first.” It really isn’t what I want to hear, but it’s the truth. Self-love is important and central to the success of any relationship, especially the one with ourselves. My social worker aunt often takes trips to the spa and movies, and my aunt April is an avid concertgoer. They have found ways to have intimacy in their lives that is not informed by their relationship status.

The journey to self-love can be arduous at times as we discover parts of ourselves that we don’t like and want to transform. But with much compassion and patience, we can learn to be generous with the deepest parts of ourselves and each other. And isn’t that a necessary part of intimacy and sex?

The stories shared by my womenfolk reveal a side of Black women not often seen in pop culture. That is, Black women older than 45 learning how to date after the loss of a partner, and finding love and being intimate after 50. Neither mammies nor jezebels, these Black women, much like the Black women activists of the 1960s and 1970s I study, desire full lives, tenderness, and love. My aunts’ stories reassure me that Black women activists from decades past and present have intimate relationships, even if not explicit in the body of literature about them.

The stories of everyday Black women are essential in disrupting dehumanizing stereotypes so that we can begin to see representations of Black women that truly reflect our experiences and dynamic being.