Female Sexuality Is Not A Pandora’s Box

I was called a slut once in middle school by a girl after I kissed a guy she also liked at a school assembly. She wasn’t happy about it so she called me the one name she believed would be the most stinging. Slut. Perhaps it would have been insulting a generation prior but it was 1993 and being a slut had actually become rather chic for some of us.

Fourteen years and dozens of sexual conquests later I’m a big proponent of sex-positive feminism or ‘Stiletto Feminism,’ a movement born from the turbulent social and sexual upheavals of the 1960s that flourished in the 1980s and 90s as a back-lash against the conservative movement that endeavores to put limits on what women can and cannot do sexually. Broken down to its core component, sex-positive feminism’s message is a woman’s sexuality can and should be used not only for her pleasure but also her benefit if needed.

The Media Mirrors Society

An article from 2000 in Time featuring the cast of Sex and the City drew some positive attention to this phenomenon as did an episode of The West Wing. The August 2000 issue of George magazine also featured it, calling this a “new kind of feminism.” It described the “Stiletto Feminist” as the woman who “embraces expressions of sexuality that enhances rather than detracts from women’s freedom.” Dr. Susan Hopkins, a lecturer in The School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Queensland, wrote a cultural analysis of the contemporary archetype of the stiletto feminist in popular culture in her book Girl Heroes. Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt took the subject head on in their wildly popular book The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities To be fair, the movement was criticized in a book titled Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. All are excellent reads providing different perspectives of sex-positive feminism.

And those of us who have embraced the tenets of this, knowingly or unknowingly, have apparently been smart about it. At the same time HBO’s Sex and the City was becoming a phenomena, sexually provocative female pop stars were burning up the airwaves, and virginity was becoming an afterthought, something curious happened: Unplanned teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates dropped overall. You can credit great parenting, good government policy, effective ad campaigns from Trojan, or the fact that women were (finally) in charge of their own poonannies for the positive statistics, but one thing was certain – women knew what was at stake with their freedoms and weren’t going to blow it like some nervous fumbling girl enamored with her high school’s star quarterback.

A generation of young women (I dare say two generations because this movement began in the 60s) have found the courage to do what men have been doing forever: Having sex with wild abandon. After all, Ernest Hemingway famously said, “What is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” And I’m here to tell you it feels good.

How Society Betrays Us

But that still doesn’t soften the blows other women inflict on us if we’re too sexual. Just as many of us have a new found freedom and confidence, our sisters seek to tear us down, to undermine our sexuality through guilt and shame. You know the game, right? If a woman walks into a room like she owns the place, maybe dressed provocatively, our first thought is ‘slut!’ We may even secretly envy her, but she’s tough competition for attention from the men in the room. And we can’t possibly admire her for it outwardly, so we have make ourselves feel better by branding a scarlet letter on her.

And that attitude isn’t without evolutionary and generational causes. Women have been taught since the dawn of recorded history that our sexuality is a commodity to be bargained with and exchanged for security within a marriage. If some women throw those norms out the window, the reasoning goes, they cheapen the supply. Men will be less likely to provide security for women if they can get what they’re seeking free somewhere else – or so we’ve been taught. So women, based on something ingrained in their minds by societal norms, will naturally try to offset what they see as the devaluation of their ‘product’ by undermining sexually confident women.

Of course, it isn’t only women who are condemning other women’s sexuality. In male-dominated societies, female sexuality has always been feared. One of the earliest myths in Judaism is of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who was banished from the Garden of Eden for being on top in a sexual encounter with Adam. Notice the sin wasn’t the sex itself but rather the woman was on top of the man rather than beneath him. Theories persist today that the forbidden fruit that Eve tempted Adam with was actually a metaphor for having sex for reasons other than procreation. One of the first laws in recorded history calls for stoning to death any woman who has had sex with more than one man.

Consider also some of the double standards our daughters are subjected to. Men who sleep with a variety of women, moving from one conquest to the next, are often admired while women who engage in the same behavior are considered whores. Rape victims are sometimes blamed for their own assaults because of the way they were dressed, obviously meaning they were asking for it. Many insurance plans will cover Viagra but not the birth control pill. Some pharmacies refuse to honor prescriptions for the birth control pill unless the female can prove she’s married. And on the topic of the pill, a controversy brewing in England right now is whether teen girls should be given access to it over the counter while at the same time teen boys have been buying condoms unhindered for years.

A History of Female Sexual Freedom

What are the roots of this new “slutty” movement? Well, how far do you want to go back? Historically, in many societies, when women’s economic status improves, so do their sex lives. It stands to reason, right? When women are kept uneducated and dependent on men, they’re less likely to experiment sexually for fear of being branded a whore. And, indeed, for the many women who sought such pleasures of the flesh in past times and were found out, the repercussions were devastating. No money, no education, no job skills, and no marriage prospects. Psychologist Dr. David Ley, in his fascinating book Insatiable Wives: Women Who Stray and the Men Who Love Them postulates the traditional roles of men and women have always been dictated by economics and given a level playing field in that respect, women and men would not be that different in their pursuit of carnal adventures.

Ley explains that female sexual freedom throughout the history of the world ties directly to the economic independence enjoyed by women in any given society. Among the Inuit, where women have sexual freedoms comparable to the men of their society, the women traditionally oversee the family’s economy. The government of ancient Sparta, where women were allowed to own land, wrote laws protecting women’s sexual freedom. Among the Islamic culture in 19th Century Morocco, wealthy women often engaged in flagrant affairs, protected from their husband’s anger by the fact that family’s wealth was in the wife’s name, inherited from her family. In 18th- and 19th-century Italy, women had a Cicisbeo or Cavalier Servente, a lover and servant who had “privileged” access to her.

In today’s Western world, as women’s economic status has risen, so have the rates of female infidelity, and, not incidentally, the attention to female sexual satisfaction within heterosexual relationships. (translation: guys are trying much harder to make us happy in the bedroom).

A book that takes on the practical application of sex-positive feminism is The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt. It is credited with raising awareness of the possibility of consensual non-monogamy as a lifestyle, and providing practical guidance on how such long term relationships work and are put into practice.

The authors define the term slut as “a person… who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you.” The term is reclaimed from its usual use as an insult and is used to signify a person who is accepting of their enjoyment of sex and the pleasure of intimacy with others. The book discusses how to live an active life with multiple concurrent sexual relationships.

A Box That Can’t Be Closed

Of course, all this super hot sluttiness isn’t for everyone and yes, it does have its pitfalls. Emotions can get involved, heartbreaks ensue, and unwanted pregnancies and diseases do happen still in alarming numbers, especially in states that lean conservative in their politics and where abortion, sex education and family planning often swing elections wildly to one side. And as mentioned above, should you ever drink the golden nectar of promiscuity, other women can be your worst enemy.

But as women achieve social and economic parity with men, the notion we should only have sex when we’re swept away by romance, love, or lies is fading into history. So as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. Government should continue their push for quality sex education in our schools. Parents should make their daughters’ and sons’ safety a higher priority than morality. And other women shouldn’t fear their sisters’ blossoming carnal confidence. Female sexuality doesn’t have to be a Pandora’s Box.

Sexual Abuse-Trauma and Eating Disorders – Examining the Relationship

Deborah was fourteen years old when she entered a residential treatment facility for bulimia with anorexic symptoms, along with drug dependency. During her initial phase of treatment, she remembered a traumatic memory that had been repressed for years. When Deborah was on a family vacation with her family at age 11 years, she was sexually assaulted by a group of unknown predators. As she had repressed this memory, she had told no one about the event, and had received no social support or an outlet to express and heal her pain resulting from the trauma.

After four years in the residential facility, Deborah came to us for treatment still plagued with body shame, self-blame and bulimic symptoms. She blamed herself for the sexual trauma, feeling she was responsible as she was without adult supervision at the time, and perceiving she had led the abusers on by being too nice. The self blame was not surprising considering her early mistaken decisions or interpretations about herself . From an early age Deborah believed that everything was always “her fault.” By the age of eighteen she had completely dissociated from her body, denying her femininity and unwilling to embrace her womanly sexuality. She had severe issues in her interpersonal relationships and achieving intimacy, particularly in romantic relationships, and was unable to feel deserving or derive pleasure from these interactions. In treatment, we first helped Deborah to reframe her negative self image and alter distorted perceptions surrounding the traumatic event, helping her to counteract shameful thoughts about her body and to cease self-blame. Her binging behaviour was a way to metaphorically ‘fill herself up’ emotionally and subsequently push out and occlude some of her feelings of disgust and self-loathing. To counteract this behaviour, therapy included generating positive self affirmations to combat her negative feelings towards herself and her body.

To deal with the emotional aspects of the trauma and eating disorder, we also engaged in a variety of experiential and body-oriented techniques with Deborah. The therapeutic technique of psychodrama was utilized to give her a sense of power over her abuser and the abusive scenario. Through yoga and movement exercises, she learned to better connect with her body and learn that it was okay to move and “feel” her body. Finally, after a few years, therapeutic touch was used to show Deborah that she could accept and be touched lovingly in a non-abusive way, and that being touched was not something to be feared.

At the end of our work together, Deborah was able to be rid of her bulimic symptoms and reported feeling a greater sense of love and acceptance towards her body. By working through issues surrounding her traumatic sexual experience, Deborah was able to better understand and ameliorate much of her eating disordered behaviour and to learn how to deal with her emotions in a healthier way. This case study is only one example of the impact of sexual assault or trauma that resulted in an eating disorder.

The presence of sexual abuse among women is of an epidemic proportion, with prevalence estimates of lifetime sexual abuse varying between 15 and 25% among the general female population (Lesserman, 2005). Sexual abuse and trauma can occur across the lifespan, and despite variable definitions, is typically defined as unwanted sexual contact, ranging from exposure and fondling to rape (Bagley, 1990). Certain circumstances relating to sexual trauma have been associated with heightened eating disorder symptoms in particular, including if the sexual trauma involved parents or if it occurred more than once, (Murray and Waller, 2002). The consequences of sexual abuse may not be immediate, for when the abuse ends, the emotional trauma may remain. The effects of such abuse can be seen rather overtly in one’s social relationships, as abused individuals are likely to express discomfort and fears relating to love and sexual intimacy with others. Other consequences of abuse or trauma may remain more covert and hidden, but be equally unhealthy and destructive.

This includes the development of an ingrained disgust and hate for the body, as well as an overwhelming sense that events in one’s life are uncontrollable. Essentially, past occurrences of sexual abuse or trauma may affect how one experiences living in their body, and ultimately existing and interacting in the world. It appears that a previous history of sexual abuse or trauma is a risk factor for a wide range of physical illnesses and psychopathology, including depression and obsessive-compulsive symptoms, as well as low self-esteem (Carter, Bewell, Blackmore, & Woodside, 2006). Importantly, both researchers and clinicians on the whole agree that trauma resulting from a history of sexual abuse can play a role in body image disturbance and eating disordered symptoms

Sexual trauma in relation to eating disorders
Prevalence estimates of sexual abuse among individuals experiencing eating disorders is variable, and reported more in females, seeming to fall around approximately 30% (Connors and Morse, 1993; Woodside, Garfinkel et al., 2001). This estimate is likely disturbingly underestimated due to the personal nature of sexual trauma and the associated secrecy, guilt, and embarrassment that often accompanies such. Research has found that patients presenting with an eating disorder and a past history of sexual abuse and trauma are more likely to report engaging in self-destructive behaviour and impulsivity (Wonderlich, et al., 2001. However, for some individuals, the experience of sexual abuse may be consciously inaccessible, that is, it may not be expressible or available to one’s memory, highlighting the importance of a therapeutic relationship that can bring forth and address these memories in a safe environment.

Another contributing factor that could account for the abuse-eating disorder link is the perception that one lacks control. According to Peterson and Seligman (1983), humans have a need to perceive control over their lives, specifically in relation to aversive events, and feel distressed otherwise. Due to the coercive nature in most cases of sexual abuse, survivors of sexual trauma may experience feelings of powerlessness and feel little control over their own bodies. As the desire for self-control is evident in many individuals with eating disorders, when coupled with a history of sexual trauma, an increased need to gain control over the body can result. By restricting one’s food intake, the abused individual may feel that their body is, at least for a limited time, under their own control.

Body dissatisfaction and lack of acceptance of one’s own sexuality and femininity is prevalent in women with eating disorders and a history of sexual trauma or abuse. Some may believe that their bodies were too attractive and seductive/provocative to their abuser and thus blame their bodies for bringing on the traumatic experience, associating feminine sexuality with negative consequences. Starving the body may become a way to express one’s anger towards the experience itself, and or punish the body. The low levels of sexual desire and lack of menses that are symptoms of anorexia may appear to the client as a way to regress to a child-like state in which they don’t have to deal with issues of sexuality and femininity that cause them emotional and psychological distress. Essentially, eating disorders and the destruction of the body may be a way to deny sexuality and avoid the painful feelings and memories connecting to abusive and traumatic violation.

The strongest association between sexual abuse and eating disorders has been found amongst individuals with bulimia. When combined with other psychiatric comorbidity, particularly substance abuse, bulimia has been linked with higher frequency and more severe history of sexual abuse (Deep, Lilenfeld, Plotnicov, Pollice, & Kaye, 1999).
Why bulimia? Purging behaviours may serve as a way to ‘purify’ or cleanse the self, and serve as a metaphor for expelling uncomfortable or “dirty” feelings and experiences from the body. For example, an individual may feel that vomiting is the only way to rid herself of the feelings and memories of the unwanted sexual encounter she experienced and to feel relief.

Healing Sexual Abuse and Eating Disorders in Therapy
What are some key elements that should be involved in therapy to treat this specific population? Like any therapeutic relationship, supportive empathy, and the development of a trusting, safe and nurturing therapist-client dyad is of the utmost importance. Previous traumatic experience may have left the client with a lack of trust in others and the perception of the world as a threatening place. For survivors of sexual abuse who have issues surrounding intimacy, boundaries within the therapeutic relationship must be clearly set in order to ensure that the client is not intimidated or confused and feels they are in a safe place to explore and heal their emotions and suffering.

In therapy, it is important to acknowledge the purpose or goals behind eating disordered behaviours and to eventually help the client to understand that that those behaviours were a necessary survival mechanism until they were able to live in a more positive and emotionally healthy way. Eventually it is helpful for the client to recognize that their eating disorder was an actual gift for growth and learning in all aspects of life. The therapist should supportively explore the reason for a client’s bingeing behaviours that likely emanate from an attempt to cope with one’s feelings relating to abuse or to cleanse the body of feelings of disgust. Also, since issues of control are a central theme in this population, a focus on perceived control should explored in therapy, for example, by letting clients actively make choices about their therapy and giving them the opportunity to choose to stop if the discussion becomes too uncomfortable. Finally, as encouragement is the antithesis of discouragement, the therapist can help the client accept that they are not to blame and can not change the past, and instead can actively choose to move forward and work to recover from their trauma, regaining a sense of personal power, femininity, and learning to nurture and love their body again.

Other specific techniques to explore with abused-eating disordered clients including body- oriented exercises that enhance awareness, control, and ownership of one’s own body are suggested. Verbal therapies may be less effective for some survivors of sexual abuse or trauma, particularly if the trauma occurred early in development, as it likely that the memories were encoded non-verbally. For these clients, Psychodrama, Art, Movement, Yoga and other body oriented therapies may be more effective, as they can help the individual to learn to connect and love their body again, and to re-awaken their sexuality. Relaxation training may also be used to develop awareness of the many interconnected, lovable and worthy aspects of one’s own body and to help attain feelings of inner peace. Similarly, guided imagery can be used during therapy to help clients reacquaint themselves with a safe place that provides them feelings of safety and comfort, Anger and fear release techniques in particular, such as using a tackle dummy in a safe place of healing, can also augment a sense of empowerment, instead of the feeling that one is a victim. Which strategy to use in conjunction with the above mentioned therapeutic goals will depend on the specific experiences of the individual, the stage of their recovery process, and their openness to change and their current perception of safety.

References

Bagley, C. (1990). Development of a measure of unwanted sexual contact in childhood for use in community mental health surveys. Psychological Reports, 66, 401-402.

Carter, J.C., Bewell, C., Blackmore, E., & Woodside, D.B. (2006). The impact of childhood sexual abuse in anorexia nervosa. Child Abuse and Neglect, 30, 257-269.

Connors, M.E., & Morse, W. Sexual abuse and eating disorders: A review. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 13, 1-11.

Deep, A.L., Lilenfeld, L.R., Plotnicov K.H, Pollice, C, & Kaye, W.H. (1999). Sexual abuse in eating disorder subtypes and control women: The role of comorbid substance dependence in bulimia nervosa. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 25, 1-10.

Lesserman, J. (2005). Sexual abuse history: Prevalence, health effects, mediators, and psychological treatment. Psychosomatic Medicine, 67, 906-915.

Murray, C. & Waller, G. (2002). Reported sexual abuse and bulimic psychopathology among nonclinical women: The mediating role of shame. International Journal of Eating Disorers, 32, 186-191.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E. (1983). Learned helplessness and victimization. Journal of Social Issues, 39, 103-116.

Wonderlich, S.A., Crosby, R.D., Mitchell, J.E., Thomspon, K.M, Redlin, J., Demuth, G., Smyth, J., & Haseltine, B. (2001). Eating disturbance and sexual trauma in childhood and adulthood. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 30, 401-412.

Woodside, B.D, Garfinkel, P.E., Lin, E., Goering, P., Kaplan, A.S., Goldbloom, D.S., & Kennedy, S.H. (2001). Comparisons of men with full or partial eating disorders, men without eating disorders, and women with eating disorders in the community. American Journal of Psychiatry, 158, 570-574.