The shame that comes before unabashed pleasure is one that many women can relate to, and it’s something that resonates with me pretty strongly. Growing up in a household where sex was only brought up in the context of reminding me to not have sex or else I would go to hell (and get chlamydia and die), I was left with some deeprooted shame about my desires.
But you don’t have to grow up in an Arab Muslim household to experience the shame associated with women’s pleasure. Women from all backgrounds are regularly slut-shamed and our erotic desires are downplayed, degraded, and often completely glossed over. With the rise of dating apps and the so-called sexual freedom of women, we have to ask ourselves: are women experiencing more sexual pleasure?
On July 11, the ATM community gathered at the SOHO House in Toronto to discuss. Joined by a panel of women with diverse upbringings and sexual experiences, Shilbee Kim, Halima Nuri, and Gabrielle Griffith gave us a raw and honest look into the ways that shame impacts our ability to experience pleasure and how we can reclaim ownership over our sexual desires (and orgasms).
Unpacking the Shame
Shame manifests itself in many ways and is a very personal and independent journey for each person. Gabrielle Griffith, a full-service doula, sex educator and employee at Good For Her explained that for some, it could be the fact that showing skin wasn’t allowed, for others it could be the media sexualizing only specific kinds of bodies. “Each person has to come to terms with this for themselves,” they said, “and it means questioning the roots of it all and then truly asking themselves what they want.”
Halima, a makeup artist and women’s advocate who grew up Black in predominantly white spaces had to work on ridding herself of shame surrounding her body, “It evaporated when I chose to be a sex worker,” she said, “I had such empowering and positive experiences with clients which carried into my personal life and helped me build up confidence around my body and sexuality on my own terms.”
Shilbee, a diversity and inclusion mindset coach who grew up with a Christian upbringing in a Korean household said that Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic inspired an adventure in her as she worked through feelings of shame. She was inspired to reclaim her own sensuality and sexuality when she realized that eroticism for women has been suppressed and vilified by society when, in fact, it’s a source of power and creativity.
Reframing sexual pleasure into self-love or mindfulness can help empower you by showing you that you don’t need another person to feel good. “You need to learn to reconnect with your body. A naked body is not inherently sexual,” said Gabrielle. “It’s important to work on loving yourself and accepting yourself fully. Practice standing naked and looking at your whole body in the mirror. Focus on one thing that you find attractive and sexy about yourself, even if it's just your ears.”
Beyond the body, Shilbee and Halima both spoke about the power of mindfulness and intimacy outside of the bedroom. What does pleasure look like when you’re eating? What does it feel like when you’re dancing alone, or feeling the warm water on your body when you shower?
Taking Control and Giving it Up
Women often feel a strong pressure to perform, creating an inability to be fully in the moment and conscious of what you or your partner are experiencing. There was a moment when Halima realized that even during sex, her partner wasn’t solely responsible for her orgasm. “I grew up being told that sex was something that my partner did to me, but I know now that it’s meant to be a shared, communal experience. Realizing I could harness that power in a shared experience was empowering and gave me a new perspective.”
Regardless of whether you enjoy being in control or giving it up during sex, the entire act requires moments of deep vulnerability, meaning learning to fully surrender to another person and to your own pleasure. Shilbee acknowledges those moments can be terrifying, "It's a vulnerable act which means you have to heal your wounds so you can fully trust.”
Communication, Confidence, and Self-Love
The resounding theme of the night was clear: healthy sexuality is not standalone, it’s part of a greater journey to be more confident and accepting of our bodies, our needs, and our desires. Along with that confidence acceptance comes the need to be able to communicate those desires to our partners without shame. Shilbee believes in the importance of creating spaces where people can loudly say no and practice boundary setting: "There's a gendered conditioning where women feel the need to please and have a harder time saying no. There is so much power in pleasure. Practice saying no as a way of saying yes to what you truly desire.”
The journey isn’t just an emotional one, there are also tips and strategies that can help you experience that much more pleasure: learning to ask for what you want inside and outside of the bedroom can empower you to get what you need; a little bit of cannabis can calm the nerves and help you be more present and mindful; workshops at spaces like Good For Her can help you explore new desires and techniques, and they’re a great place for essentials like lube and toys or lingerie, if you’re looking to add a little more kink to your world.
- Audre Lorde: Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power
- Closer: Notes from the frontier of the female orgasm by Sarah Barmak - short essay by a Toronto writer
- OmgYes - a great little (paid) site that shows you different ways to play with the vagina (solo or more)
- Planned Parenthood - free resources
- Good For Her - your friendly neighborhood sex shop with all the educational workshops you need.
- Call Your Girlfriend Podcast - Adult Sex Ed
Written by: Maya Shoucair