I knew that there was something wrong in high school.
I knew that for some reason—even though it seemed like girls were smarter—boys were inherently better. I knew that in most situations, girls worked much harder—in many cases sacrificing their friendship with each other because of the constant pressure of competition—but boys had it easier. Boys could still get whatever it was that they wanted, maintain their friendships, be popular, and probably smoke a lot of pot in the process. Boys could get away with a lot and eventually have it all, but girls had to make sacrifices and ultimately choose an identity.
I knew that it was unfair. I just didn’t have the word for it.
I didn’t hear the word feminism until I started listening to Ani Difranco. I didn’t know what feminism meant, or what a feminist was, but I knew I felt something in her impassioned vocals and poetic lyrics—a mixture of rage and sensitivity, a desire to express and create but also to destruct everything that ever felt unjust.
If feminism was the word that I felt with lyrics were pounding my ears late at night, driving myself home through winding hills somewhere in Northern California—the feeling that guys, popularity, and social pressure was insignificant in this wave of simultaneous power, rage, and love—I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be a feminist.
I didn’t know what feminist meant politically. Pro-choice seemed like a nice idea—what doesn’t seem democratic about choice? I had no conception of reproductive justice, the economic consequences of constraining reproductive choice, or really how to even use birth control in the first place—and I had no idea that the government was going after these rights, or that they were even rights to begin with. I knew I wanted to work—but I romanticized the idea of living in a box and being some kind of artist. I wasn’t thinking about breaking glass ceilings, but I wanted opportunities.
I wasn’t a political feminist. I didn’t know what that was. I was an angry feminist. I could sense that there was something systematic and universal—something that made it so that girls put on their makeup before their classes while guys hung out and listened to music. Something that made it so that girls had to always struggle to be desirable, while guys never had to try. Something that stratified, categorized, and grouped people based entirely on desirability. Something that seemed unnecessarily, yet inevitably pitted against women.
I thought that this translated into sex.
Some of my friends started giving blowjobs. I thought it sounded disgusting—how was that possibly pleasurable? It seemed demeaning too. I didn’t know that there was any female equivalent—and it didn’t seem like my friends knew this either. The furthest most people seemed to go in “hooking up” was some steamy, unreciprocated blowjob situation in the back of their parent’s car that ended in a negotiation of “spit, or swallow?”
Sex—or “going all the way”—seemed more or less the same, especially the first time. Word on the street was that you bled—a lot—and it hurt like a bitch. Even those who braved the second and third time didn’t report a dramatic improvement.
Of course, guys experienced none of this, further justifying my theory that there was a seriously fucked up skew in the balance of the sexes.
It was hard to imagine that sex would ever be pleasurable, especially when it seemed so skewed. A lot of my friends made a specific mission—some more successful than others—to lose their virginity before college. They wanted to arrive to college as sexual beings, ready to have one-night stands, and be seen as promiscuous and desirable.
However, they weren’t thinking of their own desire—they were imagining themselves as objects of desire.
So, now we’re in college.
Some of my friends went to more traditional colleges—they joined sororities and quickly discovered that parties were places where girls wore short skirts or shorts and high heels, not jeans and T-shirts like we did back home. Some other friends went to liberal arts colleges in the middle of nowhere—they lived seemingly idyllic lives, separate from the real world where they talked about Shakespeare, smoked pot, and fell in love with dreadlocked boyfriends, with whom they lovingly smoked pot and discussed Shakespeare. I went to NYU.
I always knew that I needed to be in a big city—I had an outspoken personality and a dirty mouth that couldn’t quite make peace with themselves in a small town in the Bay Area. Still, despite my “tough girl” exterior, and the Ani Difranco music pulsing through my veins, empowering me through justifying the unquantifiable rage I felt towards certain social institutions, something about me was very innocent. I wanted to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, solve world hunger, help victims of violence, and maybe find love somewhere along the way.
Girls around me were buying fake IDs from sketchy vendors, going clubbing, and meeting much older men. Many of my friends quantified their new “relationships”—some strictly sexual, some questionably more, all of them entirely antagonizing—based on each other’s background. “He’s a lawyer” or “He’s an investment banker” were far more common bragging mantras than “I love his fun personality” or “He makes me feel loved.”
In the same breath, the lawyers and investment bankers were most likely bragging that their new fuck buddies were “Nineteen with a tight ass.”
Something about it intrinsically bothered me. I didn’t have the language to voice that I found something inherently repulsive in how men were valued for their money and status while women were valued for their appearance and how much they were willing to accept their male partner’s authority. Something about it felt skewed and unjust, only this time dirtier and more hopelessly institutionalized than the unreciprocated blow jobs in the backseat of the parents’ car, so once again I pounded my ears with Ani Difranco, this time while walking the streets of New York City, trying to find answers that could be expressed in words.
In a lucky mistake, I came to school planning to major in International Politics. I quickly learned that there was more science than politics, and this line of study was filled with equations, and inarticulate foreign professors who cares more about their research than their classes. I went to my advisor, discussed my interest in human rights, and discovered the “Social and Cultural Analysis” program at NYU—I got to pick two concentrations—and one of them was Gender and Sexuality Studies.
My professor warned us on the first day—this class is going to get very personal.
We read Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and bell hooks. We looked at women in the media, and brilliant news articles that contextualized my rage—rage that women were eternally objectified, air brushed, and pressured to adhere to photoshopped ideals of beauty to be valued. We looked at men and masculinity—how the media and advertisements institutionalize a gender binary that idealizes men for being forceful, macho, and sexually experienced. Women were even worse off—though they were always supposed to be beautiful, their sexuality rested on a fine line between desirable experience and whore—and their sexual desirability affected their professional lives as well.
Feminists wanted to break this gender binary. Feminists wanted to imagine the radical—transgressing who and what they were supposed to be, in order to co-exist as equals and put a past of subjugation behind them. I wanted to be a part of this.
We read “The Myth of the Female Orgasm”—and me (and plenty of other young women in the class, I’m sure) realized that pleasure is localized in the clitoris, which geographically is a bit of a (short, but still) trek from the vagina. It suddenly made sense that sex—a type of sex that was slightly more complex and a little more detailed, and—localized if you will—than the traditional college missionary position pounding—could be extremely pleasurable.
It also didn’t have to necessarily be with a man, although you didn’t need to be a lesbian to be a feminist.
For us young women, it was a radical—and refreshing—notion that men were not something that we needed but something that we could want. It was possible to have our worth imagined independently of whether or not we were dating a lawyer or an investment banker, but we were still allowed to want men as sexual partners and amorous companionship—and deign to call ourselves feminists.
I found feminism outside of the classroom. I found feminist books—by both legends and contemporaries who will become legendary. I found the feminist blogosphere. I found websites and campaigns—The Line Campaign being one of them—that created a brand of feminism that could be personalized, according to your specific needs, wants, and exact desires.
I found media as a way to convey feminism—and feminisms.
I found that feminism is about a lot of things, and a lot of issues. It is about economics and equality. It is about motherhood, family, and deciding how and when and if we wanted to negotiate these into our lives. Feminism is about justice and equality, and having great relationships—and really great sex—on our terms, and our partner’s terms.