Youth is wasted on the young, and women’s heterosexuality is wasted on men.
I was a very horny young woman in San Francisco in the early 1990’s. Back then, I wanted more sex more often than my male partners did. A couple myths confused and distressed me: first, that “men just want sex.” Second, that men peak sexually at 18, but women’s desire increases with age, peaking around 40.
These are both lies.
The men I was with didn’t just want sex. As a former friend explained, men don’t want sex, they want power. It’s possible that having a horny, sensual, desirous female partner turned my partners off.
Another myth of my youth, propagated by media and men and even some women, is that not only do men want sex, but women want babies. Women use sex to trap men in relationships. Men just want to be footloose and fancy-free, and those darn women push them into commitment.
I never wanted babies, which I would make clear up front when dating. That served only to freak out the men I was hoping to sleep with. It’s not that they wanted babies; it’s that they didn’t want their female partner to determine it. If she wanted babies, he didn’t. If she didn’t, he did. Since most women (and men!) want babies, this commonly looked like men didn’t want babies. But it was in fact men not wanting what their partners wanted, so they could feel in control.
A horny, childfree, sex-loving, non-monogamous (that’s another story) heterosexual young woman should have had no trouble finding sex partners, yet this was not the case. I did find a few men to have sex with—once. They would have sex once, then I’d never hear from them again. Even finding such men was difficult.
Why was I pursuing non-committal, “empty” sex anyway? Sure I loved sex, but I didn’t understand it.
I had received plenty of sex education: my mother worked for Planned Parenthood, and my childhood was filled with earnest Liberal sex-education books like “How Babies Are Made” and “What’s Happening to Me?” Throughout my teens and young adulthood, I was encouraged to talk about sex, to “communicate,” so I would be spared the repressive hang-ups of my mother’s generation. I was naturally drawn to the Sex-Positive circles of San Francisco, where we talked and talked and talked about sex. But this “sex education” - all the Liberal discourse around sex - unwittingly encouraged dissociation: we could only talk about the body as a thing that does acts. Much of our intellectualism was a defense against vulnerability and what we dreaded most: shame. We separated sex from love and relationships; we thought that was progressive and empowering.
Overall, I wish we had shut up about sex more, and mediated it less. Mechanics aside, sex is a mystery, to be experienced directly and personally. Talking about sex is as useful as talking about God. Mediating spiritual experience does nothing to enhance such experience, but it does allow manipulation of seekers, giving rise to cults.
By my early 20’s, I had fallen in love a few times, and my boyfriends had broken my heart. The usual pattern was implosion: they withdrew, stopped communicating, shut down and shut off to me. I was inevitably left with my loneliness and horniness eating away at me.
I loved men. I identified with men. I thought I should be like men. Men seemed perfectly happy to fuck a woman and then never call her again, or be in a relationship for a while and then implode. Men liked sex without attachment; apparently it was the relationship part that drove them away, not the sex. I should try that, I thought. So, I decided to seek sex, men-style. I stopped caring if someone would make a decent partner, and focused only on if they would say yes.
Most men said no. There was no power to be gained from a woman who wanted it.
Then, I heard of SFSI: San Francisco Sex Information, a hotline requiring around 52 hours of sex education training, and was therefore a community. A casual boyfriend told me SFSI was for “horny intellectuals.” They had parties. I went. Some asshole said “yes.” He was a terrible sex partner, but there were more where he came from. Finally, I thought, I’d get all the sex I wanted!
Again, I accepted this idea that sex could be independent of love and relationships. There was some talk at SFSI panels about love; people did acknowledge it, but it was like a thing that could or could not coincide with this thing called sex, which is what we were there to talk about.
We had panels about sex work, sex therapy, and porn. They said, “a prostitute is like a chef who serves you a delicious meal; a sex therapist teaches you how to make a delicious meal.” We had to watch porn, lots of porn, culminating in a multi-screen sensory overload they called “Porn-O-Rama.” This was a wall of video monitors playing all kinds of porn simultaneously: straight, gay, kinky, mainstream, fringe, and of course anime (including “tentacle porn” in clips from the 1987 Japanese film Wicked City, which intrigued me as an artist and was easier to look at than the live-action videos). Porn-O-Rama was supposedly designed to desensitize us so we wouldn’t judge.
Not judging was a big thing at SFSI.
There were panels on anal sex. The book “Anal Pleasure and Health” by Jack Morin had recently come out and was well regarded in the community. I learned about nerve endings in the anus, different sphincters, and the imperative for lube.
There were panels on fisting, “the closest your hand can get to another’s heart.”
Bondage: “when the chains go on the outside, they come off the inside.”
Sado-Masochism: nipple clamps, cock rings, paddles, pain being sexually exciting for some people (apparently most people in SFSI). Marks, like bruises and cuts, and when to leave them, or not. Scars, including “ritual scarification,” which was popular. Piercings of all kinds.
Corsets, high heels, and other “body conscious clothing.”
Dildos and vibrators. (SFSI was affiliated with the store Good Vibrations.)
Bondage and Discipline. Slaves and masters. Fun B&D activities like Masters controlling what food slaves get to eat.
Transsexuality. Here we learned that any skin surgically altered to contact other skin or tissue develops a mucus membrane. Hence, “neo-vaginas” are naturally self lubricating. (This isn’t true, but I believed it until very recently. It sounded science-y enough, why would I question it?)
SFSI’s role models included Susie Bright (“sexpert”, On Our Backs editor, “sex positive feminist”), Annie Sprinkle (stripper, sexologist, “pornographic actress,” “sex positive feminist”), Pat Califia (Queer Theorist and “erotica” writer who, at the time, still called herself a woman) and stripper, author, and “pleasure activist” Regina Celeste*. Regina was our main facilitator, along with her partner Avery Marks*.
I ate it all up, and didn’t judge, because I was horny.
I tried the things. Anal sex: check. Handcuffs: check. Nipple clamps: ouch. I didn’t like pain, no matter how much I tried, but I liked the “pain community.” Honestly I was disappointed in myself for not enjoying pain, just as I disappoint myself for not enjoying alcohol, when so many others seem to derive so much pleasure from it.
I did like the clothes. The Haight had stores catering to sex workers, and I looked great in that shit. Even the thrift stores had used fetish clothing, and I accumulated quite the wardrobe of vinyl dresses, including a long-sleeved zip-up red one my friends fondly called the “sausage casing.” I was very thin at this time, practically “model thin,” so I wanted to model. In sex-positive San Francisco in the mid-’90’s, that meant porn.
The back pages of the local weeklies (the SF Bay Guardian and the SF Weekly) had lots of classified ads for “models.” I responded to one for “Lingerie Models - no nudity.”
Before I proceed to detail how I objectified and commodified my own body, and lost my libido as a result, I ask: what else would I have done? There’s no way now-me could have convinced then-me that this was harmful.
I still can’t easily explain why it was harmful; every time I try, I get into “spiritual” language, which, like talking about sex, is largely a waste of time. The harms of objectification and sexual coercion are to the soul and spirit, and I can’t even intellectually justify the existence of these.
But I will try:
The more something is owned, the less alive it is.
This is an axiom of my Free Culture work. When we pretend to “own” music and art, we commodify and kill it. Culture needs to be free, to flow.
This is true of all living things. Humans aren’t objects. We have a material aspect, but the more we treat ourselves like objects, the less “human” we become. Treating animals as property gives rise to the horrors of factory farming; treating land, water, and the rest of the biosphere as property places us on the brink of environmental collapse.
In Civilization, women are objectified and treated as property—that is, owned to some degree—more than men. That doesn’t change with “sex-positive feminism". The sex-positive idea is that women can gain some degree of control by objectifying themselves. Women remain objects, but if we play it right, the reasoning goes, we can partake in more of the profits of our exploitation.
Women are also human beings, with minds, ideas, desires, feelings, points of view, and consciousness. These are what make us alive, and that life is diminished by objectification.
I am less fully human when seen as an object by others, but I am even more troubled by my own participation in objectifying myself. I actively reduced my own humanity. The loss of my libido was only one measurable result. I was not only a victim of my commodification, but also a perpetrator.
Was I supposed to save myself for Love? I’d already been in love, several times, and my lovers imploded and left me. Men found me “too intense.” No one wanted my love, not even me. The idea of men loving me for who I actually was was long gone. No one wanted my soul, but some wanted my body, which was thin at last, and with makeup, a wig, and high heels was literally a hot commodity.
I was well aware I was supposed to be cautious, and took precautions; I only responded to solicitations specifying “no nudity” and “no sex” (both of which turned out to be laughable, and are tactics still used to this day to recruit young, vulnerable women). I was also aware that I was supposed to feel ashamed. I spent a lot of time considering shame, and rejecting it: I wasn’t harming anyone (ha!), my choices were informed, my eyes were open. Sex was nothing to be ashamed of. Objectifying my own body was nothing to be ashamed of: all the strippers, prostitutes, and porn models/directors who spoke at SFSI made that clear. It was work, it was art, it was expression. No shame in objectification: we are all objects, we live in a material world. Nothing wrong with exchange for money, either; we exchange all kinds of goods and services for money, why are bodies and sex any different?
Now-me knows sex is different, and bodies are not commodities. Then-me simply wouldn’t have believed it. The body is sacred? Nothing is sacred in this world. Was I supposed to just cloister myself, be abstinent until Mr. Right came along? There is no Mr. Right, there was no one who would understand and respect and love me the way I needed to be loved, and time was ticking away while my very temporal body was at its peak of beauty and my hormones were screaming “fuck! fuck! fuck!”
Radical feminism might have helped me, but at the time I didn’t know it existed. Dworkin was a dirty word. Plus, my craving for sex with men made it impossible for me to see men as they are, to admit how widespread misogyny really is.
Heterosexuality: it’s a hell of a drug.
A hot body is often the biggest asset many young women have. We are lucky if we have hot, conventionally attractive bodies. All my years developing my mind and talents meant nothing compared to my brief moment of hot-boddedness. Men who were never impressed by my art would fall over themselves to buy me drinks and otherwise attend to me when I went out in a wig and makeup. I actually felt sorry for these men, so helplessly conditioned they were to respond to stupid gender cues, their feeble minds taken over by mediated programming. Do I pity them still? As much as I pity anyone who surrenders personal responsibility and critical thinking in favor of unexamined social programming. Such people are pathetic—and authoritarian, dangerous enablers.
For about a year, I enabled them myself, by dressing up as the male idea of a sexy woman: drag.
The first classified ad said, “Lingerie Models: no nudity.” This couple took us young women to bars and clubs in San Francisco where we would talk to men and dance around in lingerie. Then they would auction the bras and underwear. We’d go to the ladies’ room and change back into our clothes. The winning bidders would get duplicates of the lingerie we wore. So it wasn’t that gross - they weren’t even able to sniff our worn underwear. I have no idea why men would pay high prices for cheap Chinese lingerie except that they’re idiots. Or they all knew they were paying for the “entertainment,” which was us.
I only did the lingerie modeling a few times; the couple that ran it was flakey. Or maybe their deal was to always have new “girls,” so none of us would be called back more than once or twice. The short shelf life of hot young women in “sex work” was sometimes mentioned in the community, but hard for us naive participants to comprehend.
Next I responded to an ad in the back of the paper for “Adult Models - no sex.” “No sex” is a hilarious qualification. “Dental technician - no sex.” “3-D Animator - no sex.” “Accountant - no sex.” Porn modeling is sex! But in sex-positive San Francisco, we didn’t call it that.
The photographer lived in Berkeley and I posed for him several times. (Yes, it was explicit. It was porn.) He shot for various fetish magazines for fans of BDSM, fans of fat women, and fans of older women (at 28 years old, I qualified for “Over 30”). I was drawing my first syndicated comic strip, Fluff, at the time, and hired him to shoot my official author/artist photos for the press kit. I believe I traded him some porn modeling for it. His photos were well-lit and professional, but he also shot “amateur-style” photos for magazines that specialized in those. He helped me learn makeup and correct bra sizing (I’m sure he got off on measuring models’ boobs). We went to a few clubs and social events together, with me in drag; he was intelligent enough to converse with, and since I had poor boundaries I considered him a friend rather than a total creeper.
I didn’t judge.
Now I judge not judging. Do all cults train their members not to judge? In sex-positive San Francisco, we judged “prudes” and radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin (whom I didn’t bother reading, because she’d already been judged for me), in the name of not judging. Of course I didn’t think about this critically; you need judgement for that.
Since I had a wardrobe full of thrift-store fetish wear, I responded to ads for “Dominatrix Apprentice - no sex.” (There was sex.) One totally batshit lady in Richmond, CA, left me alone with her “slave” (a regular “client,” or “customer,” or perhaps “patron,” or maybe even “husband” — she didn’t say) and then screamed at me.
I eventually found a "safe" dungeon in the Lower Mission. I think I first visited this place for a rope workshop affiliated with SFSI. I loved rope work — very crafty, like macrame around human bodies. The dungeon had several dommes (aka “girls”) working there; appointments were made and payments handled by others, it all seemed very professional. The boss/owner had a pet chicken. The girls ranged from kind of crazy (like me) to batshit insane — at least one was genuinely sadistic, acting out like a junior high “mean girl” on the rest of us. I sort-of befriended one of the other girls, a gentle and somewhat lost soul pursuing some esoteric spiritual knowledge from a Far Eastern guru. I wonder what has become of her. She was kind, if confused, like me.
So much of being young, confused, and selling your body is about believing you’re not confused, you know what you’re doing, your eyes are open, you have choice, you have agency, stop kink-shaming!! Certainly we all epitomized the privileged educated middle-to-upper-middle-class usually-white woman who dabbles in “sex work” for fun and “empowerment.” We all had other opportunities to make money. I wasn’t in it for the money at all; I had an internationally syndicated comic strip, after all (it didn’t make that much money, but more than domming in a dungeon). I justified it by telling myself that I was learning — about sex work, men who pay for it, women who do it. It was an anthropological experiment, said me and countless other delusional young women who think we’re special.
The stereotype that beautiful, hot, sexy young women are stupid made us feel so smug. “They’re stupid, but I, as an intelligent, educated woman, am doing this for research! How clever I am! I’m not like those other girls, who really are stupid.”
We were so stupid.
Also stupid: believing dominatrixing was different from other “sex work,” that we had power, and that it wasn’t sex. It wasn’t intercourse, that is true. But it was definitely sex. I remember being with a client in Mistress Dianna’s* apartment, who was allowed to jack off at the end of our session (I don’t recall what that was about; did I spank him? Tie him up? Say dirty words to him?). Because I was “working,” getting paid by the hour to be there, I sat at the other end of the room while this guy jerked off. And believe me, I felt it. We did not touch, there was much physical space between us, but it was definitely, unquestionably, absolutely sex.
It was sex controlled by the man paying for it, and since consent can’t be purchased, some would call it paid rape.
“No sex” always turned out to be sex, after all.
Unfortunately, I had to experience this for myself to understand it. Actually, no one fully understands sex — it’s not so much understanding as acknowledging. I can’t say why some dude jerking off across the room profoundly impacts me, but I know from experience it does. I can’t say why a year of porn modeling, dominatrixing, and “sex parties” made my libido disappear, never to fully return, but it did.
At this point I was in my first live-in relationship, and for the first time in my life I didn’t want sex with my partner. Brett* became increasingly manipulative and abusive, and finally I was experiencing the dynamic I’d always heard about: the man just wants sex, the woman doesn’t. What a sad way to come to understand that pattern. Our couples counselor, Marsha*, actually advised me to trade sex with Brett for things I wanted, like him taking a shower more than once a week. Marsha was a founder of SFSI. The counsel of this supposedly progressive, cutting edge sex-educator was indistinguishable from the Patriarchal 1950’s status quo that SFSI and all my Liberal sex education was supposed to liberate me from. Maybe I was really a woman now, instead of the free (but often desperately depressed) genderless being I had been before. “Sex work” changed me. I’d made myself into an object to gratify men.
I guess many women learn this earlier, in high school or even junior high, when they start wearing makeup and getting into fashion. Many parents objectify their daughters even younger, dressing them in inappropriately sexual clothing and even entering them in child beauty pageants. I’d avoided all that as a child: beginning age 8, I refused to wear anything a boy wouldn’t wear. T-shirts, corduroys, and running shoes were my daily uniform until I was 25 and living in the Castro. There, boys wore dresses and makeup and wigs, giving me permission to do so, too.
Had I been a teenager today, I likely would have insisted I was “really a boy” and demanded Testosterone and surgery. My liberal parents would have caved, too. I’m glad transitioning children wasn’t a fad back then; much as I dislike being female in this society, I would like it even less as a permanent medical patient.
After Brett came Dick*, who turned out to be a serious porn addict. Once we were living together, he regularly turned down sex with me in favor of masturbating to porn in the kitchen. But I’d learned in SFSI that porn was harmless, so I didn’t judge. When I finally started connecting the dots, our new couples counselor merely said, “maybe use porn less,” which is like advising a raging alcoholic to “maybe drink less.” Such were the mental health experts in sex-positive San Francisco.
I want to convey the SFSI people were nice. The San Francisco “kink community” of the 1990’s included lots of gentle, kind, thoughtful, considerate members. They knew they were a minority and they always emphasized consent (although consent as a concept still leaves much to be desired, and is often equivalent to compliance). They had at least some sense of humor back then, referring to themselves as “perverts,” just as transsexuals and cross-dressers called themselves “trannies.” (A friend recently told me the venerable SF club Trannyshack shut down after being told its name was “transphobic”. Trannies built that club!)
I often wonder where my old SFSI/kink friends stand on today’s “queer” politics, especially transactivism. Do any of them feel dismay at “punch a TERF,” transing children, and heterosexuals colonizing “queer”? Are there any SFSI or kink community defectors? Are any noticing the lack of consent in demands for public participation in fetishes like autogynephilia? Are any of them gender critical, as I am, or have gender-critical old-school transsexual friends, as I do? Do any of them mourn the sense of humor that drained away from the movement?
I especially wonder about Regina Celeste and Avery Marks. I used to cat-sit for them. Once, when staying in their apartment, I accidentally (duh!) menstruated on their sheets, staining them. They were extremely gracious about it, suggesting I had “blessed” them. Yes, they were cult-y, but also diplomatic. Do they have gender-critical friends, or did they help purge the movement of radical feminism?
So last night I looked them up. I felt affection for them, seeing recent videos and photos. They’ve aged, but kept their charisma.
I read Regina’s website. She’s still championing sex-positive ideology, zillions of genders, “networking with my clothes off.” In one article she chastized a celebrity for saying “sex addiction” — that term harms people, wrote Dr. Celeste (always Dr., because she has a Ph.D in Sexology! as she and everyone who quotes her must mention at least once!).
Dr. Celeste didn’t consider why someone would use the “harmful” term Sex Addiction: because people are actually experiencing harm from what Dr. Celeste calls “sex,” but is really pornography, mediation, and misogyny — the commodification of sex. “Sex Positivity” is in fact Sex Commodification. That’s what’s “positive” about it: profit, its full absorption into Capitalism. Women especially become commodities, and many of us discover, too late, that it harms us. The harms of porn and prostitution are of course legion, documented by numerous radical feminists, including Dworkin, who was no prude — she experienced the “industry” first hand.
I learned the “adult industry” now goes by the name the Free Speech Coalition. Thank you, Orwell.
Dr. Celeste writes copiously about how “sex negative” our “society” apparently is. Are we living in the same society? Because the society I’m seeing has images of sexualized women (and children!) everywhere on billboards, the sides of buses, magazines, TV shows, movies, etc. This one has porn driving the Internet, and teenage girls seeking cosmetic surgery on their labia. This one considers genital waxing and shaving standard grooming. This one has “Drag Queen Story Hour” at countless public libraries, including mine, and “I Am Jazz” on TV, and public education about gender for young children, and “gender identity" replacing sex. I suppose that is sex-negative, as sex—biological sex—is being erased.
I want to, and can, savagely criticize Dr. Celeste. But I also liked her and Avery a lot, and when I see pictures of their smiling faces, I feel affection.
Life is all about making mistakes. No one has figured out how to get it right. If you keep sex sacred and private, your kids grow up repressed and ashamed (or so my elders have told me; I wouldn’t know). If you make sex casual and public, it becomes a commodity and we lose our souls. Radical feminists rightly criticize porn, but banning porn outright is repressive — and almost certain to backfire, given the willful misapplication of porn regulations thus far. (In the 1990’s, alternative comic books were regularly seized at the Canadian border because they were “mistaken” as porn. This effectively turned me against any and all porn regulation, but only later did I consider the border guards’ frequent “mistakes” may have been on purpose, to manipulate people like me into opposing regulation I would otherwise support).
My 20’s were hard. So was my childhood. So is right now. I’m not entitled to a do-over of childhood, youth, or last week. Do I regret the choices I’ve made? Yes, in the sense I wouldn’t make those same choices again. But no in the sense that all of those choices made me who I am, and I like myself. I did stupid things because I didn’t know any better, and the only way for me to learn was to do the stupid things I did. It’s not like “sex work will hurt you” was any secret. Warnings against it were plentiful but not persuasive, and besides, I’d found my way into a kind of cult. The herd I homed to was all about sex work, porn, objectification, and “non-judgement”; who was I gonna listen to, them or a bunch of repressed prudes?
Now I’m in menopause, and have hardly any libido anyway. Whether that’s due to the permanent scars of my “sex-positive” 20’s, or the natural exhaustion of my ovaries, I do not know. Many or most women slow down a lot sexually in their 50’s, yet sex is still worshiped throughout our culture. Much of our population couldn’t care less about sex, even while it permeates all media as the be-all and end-all of life. Sex in advertising, sex in novels, sex in movies, sex on television, sex, sex, sex — and most women over 50 don’t give a damn. Many women under 50 do, but we have to see sex from the male perspective all the damn time, because men still make most media. We objectify ourselves.
It is a relief to not be horny all the time any more. It’s also unnerving, because in this society we’re supposed to be horny. Except when I was horny, men didn’t like that either. Women are either out-of-control nymphomaniacs, or dried-up prudes.
Or maybe, just maybe, women’s sexuality doesn’t exist to please men.
I just wish it had pleased me.
Nina Paley is an animator, director, artist, and scapegoat. Learn more about her or support her work at: https://ninapaley.com