Commentary Sexuality

‘Hobby Lobby,’ and a Woman’s Right to Sexual Exploration

Tanya Steele

Restrictions on access to birth control are at odds with the fact that sexuality, for most of us, takes time to understand and appreciate.

The recent Hobby Lobby decision is yet another lyric in the redundant soundtrack of American religious conservatives. There are moralistic variations in these attempts to restrict freedoms—notably, a woman’s freedom to choose passion, pleasure, and sexual exploration beyond the puritanical foundation that reigns supreme in this country. Birth control affords women (and men) the ability to explore their sexuality, consciously.

Restrictions on access to birth control are at odds with the fact that sexuality, for most of us, takes time to understand and appreciate. Sex is an outlet, a release, a roadmap to understanding who we are. And it provides an opportunity to bond, to connect with another human being.

For women, birth control can support us in our desire to understand our sexuality without life-altering consequences. Over time, we cultivate a personal voice, aesthetic, and culinary palette. We determine what clothes befit us, what hairstyles, what home furnishings—all things that keep industries afloat. Unfortunately, there is no industry that targets female desire. One could argue that the sex toy industry does. However, in the overall American marketplace, female desire and pleasure is neither supported or promoted. As a result, there is no counter-attack to the religious conservative onslaught to restricting our desires. There is no group, no lobbyists, no ideology that advocates for female pleasure. Therefore, conversations about our bodies and birth control stay within the confines of conservative ideology. We have to begin to advocate for female sexuality and pleasure, even in progressive circles, if we are to move the conversation forward.

Diversity will change the landscape. As we diversify industries, especially Hollywood, with women who want to change the way our sexuality is represented in media, new ways of being sexually satisfied and seeing women as recipients of pleasure rather than objects to pleasure men will emerge.

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Sexuality, for women, has been the least explored topic in our culture. With few exceptions—among them Orange Is the New Blackemphasis on female pleasure is lacking and long overdue. In Hollywood, displaying women’s breasts or putting a woman’s body on display is code for “this is sexuality.” This sexuality belongs to men. American culture is dedicated to male sexuality. This limited view of sexuality engenders jealousy among women. It sets up a false standard of beauty, and women vie for the attention of men, negating our right to seek and understand our own desires.

I do hear the argument from some of my lesbian friends that the regale of women’s bodies is pleasurable for them too. I am happy that they get to receive this byproduct. However, the intention and the construction is strictly to entice heterosexual men. Diversity is terribly lacking in this country’s construct of sex and sexual pleasure. Heterosexual female pleasure is still the red herring on the big screen, little screen, and even in bedrooms.

The desire to restrict birth control is, at its heart, the desire to stop women from “sleeping around.” This restrictive sexual covenants began with the Puritans, and is woven into the fabric of our sheets. In these sheets, we negotiate with men and boys who also feel that birth control (using a condom) is a nuisance. Similar to the Hobby Lobby folks, these men see a woman’s need for protection, for control over her body, for a desire to experience her sexuality without the risk of pregnancy or disease, as not of interest to them. What interests them is the climax, the end result. For men and boys, in the private spaces of negotiation, their orgasm is the goal. Neither takes into account the needs, financial pressures, health concerns, or any other interests of women. The culture reinforces this message with a film industry that places male sexuality at its center.

Birth control levels the playing field. At the very least, it gives women another barrier of protection when we desire to explore our sexuality, take “risks,” or simply choose not to become pregnant in a monogamous relationship.

Sexuality is about connection. Conservative messaging around sexuality includes words like “responsibility.” There is no accounting for “risk” in America’s conversation about sex. “Risk” is associated with poverty. Poor people engage in “risky” sexual practices because they are “genetically” coded for it. The belief of conservatives is that poor people do not have sense or reason enough to engage in “responsible” sex practice. The reality is, all classes participate in “risky” sexual behavior. The sexual life of the poor is no different than the sexual life of any other class.

In every class, the pressures of financial marginalization, lack of employment, and stress increases the chance of taking greater risks for connection. Our ability to navigate our choices before and after the “risk” differs depending on our station in life and our options. Sexual risk—sex without a condom, sex with a stranger, sex under the influence—is commonplace. It can be a part of what fuels sexual desire and intrigue. With more education, individuals may be moved to take risks but make more informed choices.

I would like to see women and girls rally for access to birth control and sexual exploration. I am tired of seeing generations of women who are denied birth control and are saddled with raising children before they understand who they are and what they want. With a more gender-balanced view of sexuality in our culture and/or in media, women may feel more free to engage in behaviors that satisfy us and we may lessen the number of unintended pregnancies and failed marriages that can occur because of a biased sexuality.

In 2014, women and girls still have to negotiate partners who carry the cultural message that men and their climax is the purpose for sexual encounters. Yes, this is changing. But, it is still the dominant message in our culture. In film and television, there is little negotiation about sexual preferences before sex (especially heterosexual sex) takes place, and male climax is usually the central point. Conversations in media, on film, and in our bedrooms have to center around what makes the woman or girl comfortable. If one is able to advocate for themselves in the bedroom, one can advocate for themselves in other areas of their lives.

One would think access to birth control and the greater women’s movement would have shifted the dialogue about female sexuality. And, yes, in many ways it has. However, it did not translate, in a significant way, to film and television. Nor to the overall political discourse around our bodies. The Hobby Lobby decision lets us know we still have work to do.

It is 2014, and we’re still having intense conversations in our culture about, for example, Rihanna deciding to wear a revealing dress to an awards ceremony. Conversations like these either dismantle the pop star or focus only on what’s “right” or “wrong.” These conversations have nothing to do with female sexual pleasure. Rihanna clearly wanted to wear a revealing dress; she liked it. But a nude woman is nothing new in our culture. Expressing our comfort level with wearing revealing clothing can be a part of the conversation about female sexuality. However, I have yet to see a visual that reflects true sexual liberation from our current slate of pop stars. Jay Z on his knees pleasuring Beyonce would be a start.

Our vanguard content creators have to reinvent the idea of female sexual representation. What pleases women? Yes, pleasing our partner pleases us. We got that. But what does our pleasure look like? It is a question that needs to be answered. Answering it will be revolutionary.

Women have the right to explore our sexuality. The idea that a woman’s sexuality is purely for childbearing is outdated. Sure, for those who choose to live this idea, it belongs in the bedroom. But imposing that idea on others is just wrong. Sexuality can be complex and erupts for various reasons.

Birth control is critical to being able to explore our sexuality. Gone are the days of women always being “barefoot and pregnant.” These are the days when a woman’s desire to experience pleasure is central to her choice of partner and that partner’s ability to deliver her pleasure, vertically, horizontally, or otherwise.  If we shift emphasis to female pleasure, it will shatter the glass bedroom ceiling.

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