On sexual knowledge

Very briefly, I’d like to address the annoying and incessant reemergence of a peculiar social/unfortunately feminist phenomenon: the defining of sexual pleasure in rigid constraints and the application of these constraints to the criteria of a feminist accordingly.

You may be familiar with it.

Not long after Role/Reboot republished a post I had written months earlier, I was accused. (“J’accuse!”) I had offended a feminist! Because I was not having enough sex, or something:

I’m trying not to let my anger and amazement get the best of me here, but how can any female call herself ‘feminist’ if she does not masturbate, has never really done so and admits to knowing “nothing of the workings of my own body or where anything is”? Every adult female should understand the workings of her body, know where EVERYthing is and know how to give herself an orgasm. Instead of thanking religion, we should be working to free women from the mental and physical enslavement of its prejuduce, ignorance, sexism and cruelty.

*massive eye roll* (Also, did she just refer to me as a “female”?!)

The article in question made it clear that Islam and feminism had rectified my sexual ignorance—the sexual ignorance that patriarchy promotes—not contributed to it. This was made so clear in the piece, in fact, that I can not believe anyone could be this deficient in reading comprehension. What’s more likely is that this woman believes what she wants to believe: that she is the white knight of all ignorant Muslim women everywhere! Her very assessment is structured in colonialism.

I don’t mind Islam being held accountable for my virginity—it’s a reason after all—but I sure as hell mind when it’s held accountable for my sexual ignorance. This infuriates me. My lack of sexual knowledge is a consequence of patriarchy, not of Islam—and in fact, my religion is responsible for my comfort, security, and safety. And yet I’m never released from the exertion of these indictments against Islam, the very religion that had assured me that sexual desires were natural and acceptable, and—even more strongly relevant to me—that so was my mild disinterest.

Additionally, I am highly uncomfortable with the fetishizing way that a Muslim woman’s sexuality is tied to her religion. While there is an additional harmful element of perceived exoticism when we’re talking about Muslim women in particular, I understand that this comes with the disturbing territory of eroticizing women who are allegedly unwilling or unknowing—the “Catholic schoolgirl” fetish. And when the context is Islam and Muslim women, it’s a context of marginalized and politicized experiences distorted and misshapen to sexually satisfy those in a privileged position and to define a woman’s identity based on harmful presumptions and forceful expectations. Fetish is confused with identity, and a woman’s right to her identity and to her expression of that identity is consequently destructively confiscated. This is partly why my initial reaction to Love, Inshallah was extremely cautious and less than thrilled; I was incredibly wary of the potentially detrimental conclusions drawn from this framework of exposure.

In a discussion with a classmate in which I disclosed that I don’t find vibrators the least bit appealing (they are cold and pastic and resemble dismembered body parts), the classmate attempted to convince me that there are all kinds! Well, I’m sure there are, and I would have had no problem with her informing me of this (though I firmly maintain my opinion), if she had not just previously realized I was a virgin and had declared that it was “adorable.” She was presenting this concept of all kinds! of vibrators as if it were new information explained to a child.

Feminism recognizes that women are responsible and powerful, and that a decision to not have sex isn’t “adorable” but an application of freely giving and withholding consent.

In other words, if I hadn’t then known the anatomy of my vagina, I didn’t have to do or know anything this intimate until I was ready and it unraveled naturally. I understand I’m a certain type of woman; I realize that for some women—maybe even for most women—these things don’t simply “unravel naturally.” But I knew myself well enough to recognize that it would for me, and it did. A couple of months ago it simply occurred to me that I recognized where the clitoral hood is located, and relative to that was everything else (including, as I realized in astonishment, the crescent-shaped hymen obstructing part of the vaginal opening.)

As a friend of mine worded recently, I get off more on fantasy than sensation. I’m sure sensation would help, but it’s not something I require. And for now I’m content with this, and anyone with an urge to revoke my feminist card can go fuck herself. I mean that literally–you go do it, I don’t want to, and that is fine.

What’s alarming is our tendency to trivialize female pleasure by neglecting to recognize the range of full-body sensuality, and reducing pleasure to penetration or physical masturbation by dismissing fantasy and/or the whole of sensuality as “foreplay” or merely a preamble to sex.

13 thoughts on “On sexual knowledge

  1. Interesting article.Frankly speaking I don’t know where I belong when it comes to sexual pleasure.But this is my first time that I come across reading someone say that a feminist should know masturbation and every placement of her body parts.And congrats Nahida,at least you found the clitoral hood at a much faster rate than I did :) haha!

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  2. This is so in tune with a lot which I’ve been thinking lately; both about compulsory sexuality in feminist and other spaces (boo, hiss) and also about “instrumental” kinds of sexuality/sexual activity; directed towards goals, or involving tools, or focusing on objectified body parts or sensations; as opposed to a full-body, full-soul sexuality of personhood, experienced solo, duo or otherwise.

    Thank you for posting this! I may want to quote you in the piece I’m writing at the moment, if that’s ok? (with links, of course…)

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  3. Ayah

    While I’d definitely cosign the idea that it’s imperative for women to know their bodies, I find the idea that this knowledge is only, or even primarily, important for purposes of sexual pleasure is limiting, even dangerous. While it’s certainly delightful to know your clitoris, knowing how your body works is essential to knowing whether it’s functioning properly, identifying problems, and overall comfort with yourself. Based on the number of grown women I know who believe that they give birth and urinate from the same place, who don’t treat yeast infections because they have them so often they believe the constant discomfort is normal, and several other jaw-dropping examples, I’m convinced that we (Muslims) do indeed have some work to do in terms of educating women about their bodies, first for health and comfort. The sexual pleasures to be derived from the body are, once one has a working general knowledge of its basic functions, so individual that it’s foolishness to come barging in demanding that each woman must discover her sexuality in a particular way.
    For next time: Educating *men* about the workings of women’s bodies…

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  4. Reggie

    I don’t mind Islam being held accountable for my virginity—it’s a reason after all

    This may be a personal question… feel free not to answer if it is, but is Islam the only reason? If you weren’t Muslim, would you have made the same choice?

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    1. That’s… an interesting question. It definitely is an enormous part of the reason. But were it not a factor, I think engaging in sexual activity is simply inconvenient for me at the moment. I wouldn’t want to use a condom the first time, because I have trouble even inserting my fingers, and I’m certain that would only add to the difficulty. So I’m left with the option of birth control pills; I don’t have the time to stop by Planned Parenthood for pelvic exams to acquire them–and if I require any more medical exams, I’d rather use the money on classes and books. And so abstinence is incredibly efficient for me. =P

      So maybe I would have made the same choice, or maybe I would have decided I didn’t need to be married exactly–just fairly close to graduating and in love.

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  5. Janinmi

    “…’how can any female call herself “feminist” if she does not masturbate, has never really done so and admits to knowing ‘nothing of the workings of my own body or where anything is’? Every adult female should understand the workings of her body, know where EVERYthing is and know how to give herself an orgasm.”

    Srsly? :::shakes head::: And here I am, having gone through puberty during the beginning of the Women’s Liberation movement, thinking that feminism (in part) was about the *right* to know my own body and experience pleasure however I chose, and not that such knowledge was a *requirement* for calling myself a feminist. Wow.

    Seems some research into womanist thought is in order for me…thanks again, for schooling an ignint old phart. ;)

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  6. I’m angry that someone felt angry about what you wrote. I mean, how could anyone have read your piece and from there tried to revoke your feminist card? Your reasoning was so not in line with what she was saying; her words were regressive, yours were forward-thinking. Ugh.

    (And heh, I noticed “female” too and then was tickled you linked to what I wrote at Feministe! I’m not one to revoke feminist cards but…)

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  7. Wow, that comment is horrible and so insulting! No one has the right to tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing. Your rebuttal is great and exposes the commenter’s arrogant and condescending attitude. I know this isn’t the same situation, but I’ve noticed similar attitudes among so-called “progressives” who think that people should be engaged in sexual activity in order to be considered “radical” or “progressive.” If you tell them you’re a virgin, they react with shock and call you a “prude,” “backwards,” and “regressive.” It’s always frustrating when stuff like this happens in spaces where you’re supposed to find solidarity.

    Your post reminded me of this quote, which sums up how I feel about this:

    “The focus on ‘sexual liberation’ has always carried with it the assumption that the goal of such effort is to make it possible for individuals to engage in more and/or better sexual activity. Yet one aspect of sexual norms that many people find oppressive is the assumption that one ‘should’ be engaged in sexual activity. This ‘should’ is one expression of sexual coercion. Advocates of sexual liberation often imply that any individual who is not concerned about the quality of their experience or exercising greater sexual freedom is mentally disturbed or sexually repressed. When primary emphasis is placed on ending sexual oppression rather than on sexual liberation, it is possible to envision a society in which it is as much an expression of sexual freedom to choose not to participate in sexual activity as it is to choose to participate.” – bell hooks

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  8. “but how can any female call herself ‘feminist’ if she does not masturbate”

    *head explodes with rage* WOW. Just… wow. I am glad that you could respond so coherently and thoughtfully to that, because I would have just raged.

    Imperative sexuality – it doesn’t matter whose laws are being enforced, policing sexuality isn’t cool.

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