That Obscure Subject of Desire

Let’s talk about pleasure. I keep hearing a particular gripe about this cultural shift, and maybe you have too. Some people have been calling this movement Puritanical or a return to Victorian values, where men can’t behave or speak sexually around dainty, delicate, fragile women. To these people I want to say:

The current system is Puritanical. Maybe men can say and do whatever they want, but women cannot. The current system inhibits women from expressing our desires, wants and needs, from seeking our pleasure. Let me tell you about my own experience:

I turned 12 on the set of my first film, The Professional, in which I played a young girl who befriends a hitman and hopes to avenge the murder of her family by a corrupt DEA officer. The character is simultaneously discovering and developing her womanhood, her desire, and her voice. At that moment in my life, I, too, was discovering my own womanhood, my own desire, and my own voice.

I was so excited, at 13, when the film was released and my work and my art would have a human response. I excitedly opened my first fan mail, to read a rape fantasy a man had written to me. A countdown was started on my local radio show to my 18th birthday, euphemistically the date I would be legal to sleep with. Movie reviewers talked about my “budding breasts” in reviews. I understood very quickly, even as a 13-year-old, that if I were to express myself sexually, I would feel unsafe, and that men would feel entitled to discuss and objectify my body, to my great discomfort.

I quickly adjusted my behavior. I rejected any role that even had a kissing scene, and talked about that choice deliberately in interviews. I emphasized my bookishness and seriousness and cultivated a way of public dressing that was stereotypically “elegant and refined.” I built a reputation for basically being prudish, conservative, nerdy and serious — in an attempt to feel that my body was safe and my voice would be listened to.

At 13 years old, the message from our culture was clear to me. I felt the need to cover my body, and to inhibit my expression and my work, in order to send my own message to the world that I’m someone worthy of safety and respect. The response to my expression- from small comments about my body to more threatening, deliberate statements, served to control my behavior, through an environment of sexual terrorism — where even a woman who is not directly subject to assault, feels threatened by the environment of violence to inhibit her behavior.

A world in which I could wear whatever I want, say whatever I want, and express my desire however I want, without fearing for my physical safety or reputation — that would be the world in which female desire and sexuality could have its greatest expression and fulfillment. That world we want to build, is the opposite of puritanical.

One of my girlfriends from school used to joke: “sometimes it’s easier to just kiss the guy than explain to him why you don’t want to.” We would all laugh, but the message was clear — we were more worried about offending the guy, or being uncomfortable with him, or hurting his feelings, than about doing what we wanted to do.

As girls, we were socialized to spend our time making ourselves look attractive to guys- our hair, our makeup, our bodies. We learned our best angles for them, the things boys liked us to say — and the things they didn’t like us to. We were able to see ourselves through their eyes, and dictate our behavior by what they wanted us to be like. And it made us sometimes forget to ask what we, ourselves, wanted. And often made us unable to even know what we, ourselves wanted, because we were so caught up in thinking about what they wanted.

Well let’s not make our new world about we and they, about us and them. Considering what someone else desires isn’t a bad thing. Actually, it’s a form of empathy. The consideration just needs to be reciprocal, and not at the expense of one’s own desire.

So I’d like to propose one way to continue moving this revolution forward: Let’s declare loud and clear: This is what I want. This is what I need. This is what I desire. This is how you can help me achieve pleasure.

To people of all genders here with us today, let us find a space where we mutually, consensually look out for each other’s pleasure, and allow the vast, limitless range of desire to be expressed.

Let’s make a revolution of desire.