As we gear up for the next round of 30 Days of Courage: a guide to bravery in action, (registration closes on Friday & the course starts Monday) I’ve invited some courageous friends to join me in exploring the small steps and choices that add up to a brave life. Find the other Courageous Company posts here.
I once co-hosted an erotica-writing workshop for women only.
There were about 17 of us. The workshop lasted all day, punctuated by strategic sessions of wine-tasting.
The alcohol, the increasingly personal and daring nature of the material we shared, the growing camaraderie among the women: bonding ensued.
(Like the movie BREAKFAST CLUB. But different.)
As the hours lengthened, the talk deepened, and the women began disclosing bits of their sexual histories.
What I noticed was this:
There was a lot of erotic trauma in the room.
It wasn’t severe. It was low-grade and almost mundane, the kind that gets experienced as a girl grows up and the world takes notice: the comments and small harassments and unwanted touches, the looks and feelings of ick, not a big deal especially when compared to the atrocities that others endure.
Yet there’s something shadowy and almost taboo around this part of female life, how it rarely gets acknowledged, discussed, because why would you talk about it and who wants to hear?
That day, we talked, this group of lively and intelligent women who wanted to celebrate female sexuality — and seemed (at least to me) to be surfacing a collective wound instead.
You take self-defense courses, you’re aware of what you’re wearing, you learn how to be careful at night, keys between your fingers as you walk alone to your car (has there ever been a case where a woman scared off an attacker by the deft and terrifying way she wielded her car keys?).
You learn the rituals of self-protection (or at least the illusion of protection).
As for the stuff you can’t protect against, that is in the air like miasma, you ignore. More or less. No big deal.
But you breathe it in over the years. You don’t discuss with women because it’s such a given part of the female experience, you don’t discuss with men because you get tired of being reminded that not all men are rapists. (You know that not all men are rapists. You never said that all men are rapists. A lot of men are actually pretty great.) When #YesAllWomen explodes all over Twitter – women worldwide sharing their experiences of misogyny – you maybe contribute a tweet or two yourself.
Sometimes it seems like inhabiting a female body is, in and of itself, an act of courage.
As a writer I’m fascinated with voice, the courage to speak as your true self, from the bones of authentic experience. According to psychologist Carol Gilligan, girls learn to suppress that voice around the age of 12, burying how they really feel and what they really know in order to get along and be accepted. This is around the same time they begin moving into young womanhood, in a culture where menstruation is regarded as dirty and taboo – “the curse” – and the female body something to be guarded contained controlled.
This is also the time when many girls experience a loss of self-esteem.
Is there a connection, then, between the onset of sexuality (and, with it, the growing awareness of potential rape), the loss of voice, of confidence?
What does it take to get that voice back, to give it breath and power?
I think about those women in the erotica workshop.
I think about the power of writing, how it can bring things into being, shining the light of conscious attention on what lives in silence and darkness.
I think how few things can steal away your voice like sexual abuse: hush, don’t tell, our little secret, you’ll be in big trouble. To grow up in rape culture means to live with a sexuality that has a knife edge, potential threat like a hum in the background. The challenge is to flourish anyway – and, in our flourishing, change nothing less than the culture itself.
So many young women learn to give pleasure, and take delight in being objects of pleasure, without feeling much entitlement to pleasure of their own.
But to write your sexuality – to literally become the author of it – shifts you into a different position, from object to subject: the one who chooses.
Your writing comes through your body as your hands move across the keyboard or push a pen across the page. As your speaking voice is carried on your breath, linking the internal to the external, the private to the public, your writing bridges the space between the world and your soul. It manifests your soul in the world.
It says: I am here.
It says: I am.
It lays claim to experience, including your right to pleasure, sensuality, and a story of your own.
Women were silenced, once. A woman’s body was a story over which male forces assumed authorship.
That isn’t the case anymore, but the legacy is still embedded in the culture, in the sense that women need to please — with their appearance, their warmth and deference — instead of being pleased, in the deep feminine wounds of a patriarchal and post-patriarchal culture, in women’s relationships to their bodies that too often become sites of self-loathing.
Voice equals identity and ownership, and the power to push back through bringing something else into being: your own deep radiance. Your voice is your invitation to meet in the country of yourself — for those with the courage to enter, encounter, and be transformed.
She blogs for wandering, spirited, questioning women (and the men who love them), and believes that being uncooperative with bullshit is to be cooperative with your own audacious truth. Find her at justinemusk.com.