When her mother asked her why she writes about sex, AMANDA VAN SLYKE had an answer.
“Sex is dirty.” These three words came out of the very same woman who birthed me; the very same woman who I once heard enjoying herself behind closed bedroom doors. Ew, you might think. Why am I talking about my mother having sex? Well, what my mother said next will burn in my brain for years to come. It will be the question that pushes me forward in my career: “Why do you have to write about sex? Why can’t you write about something nice, like fashion or makeup?”
To me, sex is a very complex three-letter word. Not only is it intercourse, but also owning your sexuality. It’s an expression, a feeling and a power. Sex can be quiet and shy – hushed and hot like making out in the stacks, worrying that the librarian will catch you – or it can be loud and proud – vocal and intimate with the windows open. Sexuality is not showing off skin. Unless you feel comfortable with that. It’s not having a one-night-stand. Unless you feel comfortable with that. It’s communicating the beautiful essence that is inside you; it’s being open with who you are as a person. We all came from sex, and thus, we are all sexual beings. So why is something so normal seen as so shameful? In other words: What’s not “nice” about sex?
Sitting at one of the few chains we lunched at, I stirred my straw around, as I often do when I’m nervous. My mother and I were catching up and the conversation had turned away from the menu and onto my chosen career path. I swallowed my water and took a deep breath before informing her that what she learned as a child was wrong.
“Sex isn’t dirty, it’s natural. And I want to help change the way women think about it,” I said.
She looked around, as she worried someone had heard. To my mother, sex is not something a person talks about in public. It is especially not something a person should write about in an online column – at least not if that person is her daughter.
But in my defence, things were not this clear cut when I grew up in her household. On weekends, my mother walked around naked while she did the laundry. At family dinners, my parents made jokes about why the kitchen table was so shaky. In many ways, I owe my honest approach to sexuality to my parents.
But I also owe some of my shame to them as well. There were times when I left the house in a short skirt and was told, “Nice girls don’t dress that way.” I was confused. From an early age, I learned to be comfortable with my body. But now I was being told to “cover up,” and to hide my sexuality.
When I “made my sexual debut” a little earlier than expected, I was met with more shame than love. When I needed plan B, I was met with more disgrace than respect. And again, I was confused. From an early age, I learned to be open about sex. But now, I was encouraged to be secretive and that what I was doing was “wrong.”
But the blurred lines didn’t come from just my parents – they came from society and the media via TV, magazines and billboards.
The message: Women need sexual gratification; we’re nothing without it. And sure, we can be independent and intelligent; but if we’re not “hot,” we’re overlooked. And if we’re attractive, society doesn’t see us for who we are. In this way, women find themselves in a catch-22, where we are told that in order to be seen, we need to flaunt our sexuality – that we have to be “slutty,” but – careful! – not too “slutty.” As we know too well, the girl who wears too much makeup is called a “whore,” and the girl who wears revealing clothing is considered a “slut.” Finding the line between society’s expectations is exhausting – and that’s because it’s an impossible goal.
There is no easy solution to this issue, which girls face every day. But I want to change the way women think about sexuality. To answer my mother’s question: I need to write about sex because it’s not considered “nice.” Nice implies that as women, we must be docile, that we follow the rules and stay inside the box society has put us in. That box tells women that talking about sex is dirty, but complying to society’s standards of beauty in order to be seen as sexually attractive—well, that’s nice. As women most likely to succeed, I urge you to take control of your sexuality, and for fuck’s sake, stop being nice. •
From M.L.T.S. Magazine‘s third issue, released December 2011.