Selections from “An Open Letter to Mad Sheila”

This piece has been substantially edited from its original version.

First, and most important, let me reiterate that I am firmly in favor of women’s sexual autonomy. Always have been, always will be; it’s a cornerstone of feminism.

Like a lot of women, I’ve had my share of “one-nighters.” During a period of about two years in my mid-twenties, I engaged in sexual activity with a variety of men, numbering in the double digits. With one or two exceptions, these were men I did not know. I sought them out with the express purpose of having sex, usually had sex with them within hours of meeting, and again with one or two exceptions, did not see them again. During this period of my life I was the most depressed and closest to suicide that I have ever been. These facts are not unrelated. My sexual behavior was a contributor to the depression, as well as a result of it. I was not “exercising [my] sexual subjecthood”–I was attempting to play out a script written by patriarchy, one which says that a woman is worthless unless she has a man, and the way to get a man is to be sexually available and compliant. I believed–because patriarchy told me so–that by acting pornified enough, I could hook a man into staying with me. I justified this behavior to myself, despite how unhappy it made me, with the modern Cosmo-Girl ideology that “I don’t care about love, respect, and all that boring monogamy stuff. I just want a good regular fuck, and I don’t really care who it’s with.”

The fact that I was lying to myself became clear one day while talking with a friend; finally, after all those months of one empty encounter after another, through the pain that spawned and was perpetuated by them, I was able to acknowledge the desire within my heart to be loved, to be wanted, to be seen as the complicated, whole person I was–rather than some kind of motorized mannequin who pretended sexual compliance with men’s most twisted desires, only to be discarded no matter how skilled my pretense. I’d been told my whole life that, because I was fat, no man would want me, and this left me with a deep need to prove my attractiveness and sexual desirability. I deeply believed I wasn’t worthy of love or respect, and that my own sexual desires were laughable and ridiculous–which is how fat women’s sexuality is portrayed everywhere in this culture. Each time I successfully “got” a man to fuck me, I felt a rush, a high–I had achieved womanhood in patriarchy, the status of sex object I’d always been told was denied me because of my appearance. Unfortunately, the rush went away sooner each time, as man after man refused to take my follow-up phone calls, plunging me even further into despair and self-hatred–and needing another “fix” to make those bad feelings go away.

What I didn’t realize until much later is that the fears and insecurities generated in me by my failure to conform to patriarchal beauty standards made me the perfect target for male sexuality as constructed in this culture. I had become a stereotype, the fat girl who was so desperate for love and approval she’d put out for anybody, perform any sex act that a guy’s wife or girlfriend refused to do. The absence of cash changing hands during my encounters does nothing to qualify those experiences as an exercise of my “sexual subjecthood.” In all respects, the men in those encounters–and, through them, patriarchal ideas about male and female sexuality–determined the content and duration of our interaction, not me. And while, at the time, I thought I was uniquely flawed, I have since come to realize that almost every woman I know, fat, thin or in-between, has gone through a period of her life where she behaved “promiscuously”–and ultimately rejected that behavior because it didn’t serve her deepest, most heartfelt emotional and sexual desires. I agree that it’s no fun to have someone shaking her finger in your face with the ‘Girls are having one-night stands because they don’t know better’ attitude, but the fact is, we are misguided–patriarchy misguides us, shaping our sexuality (along with everything else) from day one in support of male supremacy, and radical feminists point this out because we’ve been there, done that, and we know intimately how hateful it can be.

In your most recent post, as well as formerly, you describe your own penchant for monogamy:

Despite speaking positively of one-nighters in this post, my own sexual miss-steps have led to the discovery that I’m more in favour of the cosily banal joys of monogamy.

I’m very curious to know why this is. If “one-nighters” are as great as you say, why give them up? What is the source of your dissatisfaction with them and subsequent conversion to monogamy, and why do you assume that the experiences that led to this decision are not relevant to other women? Are not shared by us? Might not form the basis for a feminist critique of the “one-nighter,” particularly as constructed within heteropatriarchy, as an ideology that a lot of women don’t find very useful, and whose purpose is to guarantee women’s sexual accessibility to men on men’s terms?

As you write in this post:

I know that defense of “one-nighters” can be easily misinterpreted to mean I’m advocating treating people as masturbation aids, or as just another notch on the belt (notions which I believe are the real patriarchal culprits here), but I’m not saying that at all. Some people say that you can have fun, lust-filled ‘equality-sex’ only with someone you know. I say it’s possible to have fun, lust-filled equality-sex with someone you don’t know, as long as you know that they are someone. Ya know?

So it’s possible that we’re agreeing more than we disagree, if we are both advocating for women’s full humanity in sexual encounters; and yet, I believe that the onus of making sure we’re not misunderstood—that women and men don’t interpret advocacy of “one-nighters” as “treating people as masturbation aids, or as just another notch on the belt” — lies with us. We have to make it clear what we’re talking about. If we don’t critique the notion of the “one-nighter,” particularly as played out between men and women–when we make off-the-cuff statements like “Screwing around is not a spiritually empty endeavor,” without acknowledging or critiquing what “screwing around” means in a heteropatriarchal context–then it is not unreasonable for others to assume that we are content with (heterosexual) hookup culture as it is currently constructed. “One-nighters” may involve “mutuality” and an exercise of women’s sexual subjecthood, but I would argue that it’s more likely they may not, and mutuality is certainly not part of the usual definition. When we fail to be explicit about not just what sexuality means to us, but what it means in the wider world of patriarchy, we leave the anti-intellectual, liberal, malestream blather “if it feels good, do it!” unopposed.

You write,

[One-night stands] aren’t capitalist, they aren’t innately sexist, and they involve an active pursuit of desire, as opposed to a passive acceptance of sexbot servility.

One-night stands aren’t capitalist? There are entire industries built around facilitating the “hook-up,” from phone date lines (where women call free!) to “adult” internet chat rooms and bulletin boards (free memberships for women!) to “alternative” personals (free for women!) to ladies’ night at the local bar (where women get free drinks!). Do date lines, adult bulletin boards and bars give away their products and services to women just because they like us so much? Is it their generous attempt at reparations for generations of women’s sexual slavery? Not hardly–it’s the entertainment industry equivalent of stocking the trout pond. And it’s my experience that many, many women agree to “one-nighters” for reasons other than an “active pursuit of desire,” and find, as I did, that they are most definitely expected to display a “passive acceptance of sexbot servility” in terms of what sex acts are expected, what emotional expressions are accepted or rejected, and what the future course of the relationship will be.

I do not believe sexuality is a thing; yet, within patriarchy, it is most definitely defined as a very particular “thing” that men “get” from women–and brief anonymous no-strings encounters are one of their favorite methods. I don’t believe this context precludes women making choices, but it often does not leave a lot of room for women’s considered identification of our desires, let alone to effectively get our desires met by men in the marketplace that sexuality has become. As you say yourself (link removed), “Here’s the thing: Until patriarchy is blown to shit city, we don’t always know which choices are truly free and which ones aren’t.” Why should this be true for the “choice” to wear Manolos, and yet not be true of women’s “choice” to engage in anonymous sex?

So to the woman who really, truly, honestly says to herself, “Gee, tonight I just want a penis in my vagina. That’s really all I want, and so I’m going to go out and find that,” I say, go sheila. But the minute any other desire creeps in there–a yen for respect, say, for human connection, or even, dare I say it, for “good” sex from a woman’s perspective–I would counsel that sheila to hold her horses. Because I would go so far as to suggest that, unlike your optimistic portrayal, and perhaps your positive experiences, the “one-nighter” as institution within popular, patriarchal culture is about men “getting” what they’ve been taught to want sexually, whether that satisfies the woman or not. If your idea of good sex diverges in any way from pornography, if you want to be cared about and listened to, if you have any desire to be acknowledged as a complex human being with an intellect and a soul, I would venture, random randy anonymous sheila, that fucking a stranger might not be the most effective vehicle to take you to your destination.

I also disagree with your assertion that “most radfems favour monogamy.” Monogamy, according to feminist analysis, is a patriarchal term referring to male ownership of women, and hence is completely useless as a descriptor for radical feminist relating. What radical feminists say is that we, women, need to explode definitions of female sexuality and sexual relationships–which have been defined by and for men–and rebuild them in ways that are meaningful and satisfying to women. Which, I think, means discarding terminology like “one-nighter” that has been irretreivably tainted by patriarchy. The term “one-nighter” is as worthy of abandonment, as unworthy of feminist reclamation, as “slut” and “whore.” None of those words will help us create new forms and spaces for women’s autonomous, varied sexual desires to thrive.

Because when you think about it, sexual encounters based on feminist values aren’t determined by the length of the relationship, but rather by the quality. There are brief encounters that affirm our humanity, and long-term exclusive relationships that choke the life out of us. Backalong, I wrote:

I don’t think [feministly desirable sexuality] always falls into the heterosexist minivan-picket fence-English sheepdog model—which is often the only alternative to bunny- or boi-hood women are offered. The women I look to as role models have relationships of all shapes and sizes; they often live separately from their lovers, they may spend long periods without a lover, or they may have a week-long encounter at Michfest which changes their lives. I’ll never forget how opposed I was to a friend’s openness to being sexual with someone she’d just met there; but after watching her walk hand in hand through the woods for a week, glowing, with someone who liked her for all kinds of reasons, including her ability to spell four-syllable words, I realized that that interaction was only minimally about the sexual encounter they had together. Instead, it was about the connection, the caring and respect that they developed for each other in that short time, which allowed my friend a stellar example of how she wanted future lovers to treat her. Her experience had absolutely nothing in common with the kind of pick-up sex glorified by Sex and the City. What characterizes the relationships I’m describing is deep affection, respect, and honesty. It’s women seeing each other as whole people, listening to each other, taking each other seriously, and recognizing that they’re on the same side, rather than believing that one has “something” the other one wants and engaging in any kind of dishonest, tacky, coercive or unethical behavior to get it.

It’s possible for respect, connection, and honesty to exist in even the briefest of sexual encounters, and I have witnessed this between lesbians; however, in my experience with men, it was never on the menu. And when feminists portray unexamined “one-nighters” and “monogamy”—bunnyhood vs the picket fence—as the only options for sexual and emotional satisfaction, when we’re unwilling to publically explore the patriarchal influences that create and maintain the one-night-stand as institution, when we present a blanket defense of having lots of sex partners while opining that celibacy is “a terrible fate,” we perpetuate the idea that the alienated, disconnected, exploitive, dominance-fetishizing genitally-focused obsessive sexuality of patriarchy is female sexuality, and ain’t it groovy. Which, in my opinion, is nothing less than a waste of our formidable talents.

Revision Notes, May 2016

  • Alyx used to blog as Mad Sheila Musings. She has since stopped blogging, and her domain has been taken over by pornographers. Therefore all links have been removed. It is unfortunate that her brilliant writing is no longer available online.
  • I decided to repost this after reading this brave post, in the interest of providing comfort and lessening the sense of isolation for women who’ve had such confusing and painful experiences trying to follow sexual and relational norms prescribed for women, benefitting men. If anything, the pressures on women in this regard have gotten worse in the 10 years since I originally wrote this post, and certainly in the 20 years since the experiences I detail in the first paragraphs.

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