This is a transcript from our December 2016 event, where we busted various myths about feminism. Below is a transcript of Shu-Ling Chua’s talk, where she busted the myth that women are no sexually liberated.
Shu-Ling Chua is a Canberra-based writer. Her work has appeared in Feminartsy, The Writers Bloc, Peril Magazine, Seizure and other publications. She was previously producer of Noted writers’ festival and Voiceworks nonfiction subeditor, and selected for the 2015 HARDCOPY manuscript development program. She tweets @hellopollyanna while living the memoir she hopes to finish one day.
When Zoya invited me to speak tonight, I knew straightaway that I would speak about sex, specifically the myth that sees sex—as long as it’s consensual—as an expression of feminist liberation. Firstly, we’ve replaced one set of expectations, ‘You’re having too much sex,’ with another, ‘You’re not having enough or good sex; you must be repressed.’ Secondly, mainstream society fails to consider how culture, religion, class, gender fluidity, ableism, the list goes on, influence the way we think about and experience sex, in all its forms. Thirdly, there are still huge power imbalances within hetero sex.
This speech is a snapshot of the truth, the truth I tell myself and others so that I can live with my past.
Did I want to have sex with him?
I froze as a friend of a friend ran his hands over me on the dance floor. I told him that I wasn’t going to kiss him and that I wasn’t going to go home with him. Weeks later, I bump into him while drunk and alone. He f**ked me hard; I ended up in emergency, unsure whether I was having my period or worse.
Why didn’t I say no? Should I have been more explicit?
‘You danced with him,’ said our mutual friend. ‘You weren’t passive. Things didn’t just happen to you.’ Based on previous heart-to-hearts, I thought she would take my side. We are no longer friends.
Why won’t guys take no for an answer?
The following month, I met another guy, also on a dancefloor. I turned away the first time he tried to kiss me. He gave up but I was drawn to him. We agreed cuddles only but he reached under my skirt as I whispered, ‘That’s cheating.’ A month later, a man runs his finger up and down, up and down, my arm. Every time I cave in, I think to myself: Am I letting the sisterhood down?
Apart from dancing, I didn’t consciously flirt or set out to sleep with these men. Underlying my reluctance was a hint of curiosity and the thought that this experience might be useful, life-wise and writing-wise. While I learnt not to blame myself, how complicit was I in what went down?
As I read and thought about these questions, I realised these experiences are not unique to me. I wasn’t imagining things. It wasn’t personal. I wasn’t alone. Contemporary feminism argues that women should be free to initiate sex and have as many partners as men, without being brutalised or stigmatised. The problem, Salamishah Tillet (professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, an organisation that works to end violence against women) points out, is the expectation:
that alone will mean we’re equal. That alone is not an answer to a system of persistent sexual domination or exploitation. These women are still having these encounters within that larger structure, and men are not being asked to think of the women … as their equal partners.
The responsibility was on me to say no, not on the man to stop. If they had respected me, they wouldn’t have put me in that position. As the ever-quotable Clementine Ford says, ‘Men wheedling women into ‘letting them’ do what they want isn’t equality and it isn’t a sign of respect.’ Instead of focusing on ‘Did you or did you not say yes?’, Reina Gattuso, columnist for Feministing, argues ethical sex won’t stop being hard until we minimise, as much as possible, the power imbalances related to sex. She concludes:
we need to think about consent not as the words two-or-more rational, free, horny agents exchange … but as a collective process of lowering barriers to empowered choice.
Importantly, we also need to remember that sex doesn’t empower or liberate all women. Even when I was in a respectful, exclusive relationship with a man I was attracted to and cared deeply for, sex was something I felt guilty about. I’m only just beginning to understand and interrogate how my race, gender and upbringing intersect. Until this year, I hadn’t known Asian women are stereotyped as ‘easy’. There are few Asian-Australian women who write about sex. Alice Pung, Lian Low, Michele Lee, Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen and Julie Koh have taught me to never underestimate my words.
You might say, ‘You wouldn’t have such mixed feelings if you had picked the right men’ but no, these are legitimate concerns. The way men treat us in the bedroom reflects the way they treat us in public life—in schools, politics, boardrooms, streets, public transport, online—and vice versa.
I continue to sift, hoping to explain why I allowed myself to be coerced into sex. I read Night Games by Anna Krien on sex, power and privilege in footy culture. I bookmarked this quote from Patrick Tidmarsh, who works with Victoria Police’s sexual offences and child abuse investigation team.
You’d think that if something happened to someone against their will, surely there would be evidence of that. But the explanation is … also because the person at that point co-operated, almost inevitably co-operated. To understand how and why they co-operated—submitted, complied, whatever word you use—you just can’t understand that unless you have found out about the entire relationship up until that point, whether it was two minutes or two years.
Tidmarsh explains the need to consider not just the specific details of the crime but all the events that led up to it; that is, the ‘whole story’ approach. In my search for answers, I’m working on a longer essay that examines not just my interactions with individual men but society’s perception of women. As I’ve said, I can’t cover everything tonight. There are so many deeper issues at play, like the fact that I didn’t know that sex wasn’t supposed to hurt, other persistent men who I didn’t sleep with but kissed, and the thought that if I had ‘mucked around’ earlier I mightn’t have broken up with my ex.
Last month, I bumped into one of the men I wrote about in ‘Biting My Tongue’. He sidled up, making small talk, so I told him bluntly, ‘When you f**ked me last year, it really hurt.’ He apologised and asked if I was ok, more than once, but he wasn’t really sorry. I’d like to say I enlightened him but he ended the conversation by saying, ‘I don’t think I did anything wrong that night.’ Other things he said:
- ‘Have you had sex since?’
- ‘Why did you sleep with me then?’
- ‘Why didn’t you say something?’
- ‘So, the sex wasn’t good?’
- ‘You’re not saying that I raped you, are you?’
Canberra being a small city, I knew the odds of bumping into him again were high. I replied plainly:
- ‘Yes, and when I told them to go slow they listened.’
- ‘Sometimes you sleep with people you don’t want to.’
- ‘You need to learn to read body language.’
- ‘It was the worst in my life.’
- ‘I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was rape but it was grey.’
The greatest myth, I think, is the myth that feminism is a women’s issue. You don’t need to penetrate someone to perpetuate rape culture or to take advantage of them. Writing means reliving these memories but it is also my way of understanding why things happened and why they continue.