Natalie Krim, A Woman's Body, 2018
Today, we're unveiling 'Pleasure, Reclaimed' — a personal essay by renowned sex worker Alice Little, from A Woman's Right To Pleasure by BlackBook, Dr. Marashi and LELO, available now via BlackBook Presents. Alice Little is the highest-earning legal sex worker in America. At the Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Nevada, she provides companionship, vital sex education, and therapeutic experiences to her guests, while also advocating for the widespread legalization of sex work.
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We have such interesting ideas about love. Women are taught to be givers and receivers (but mostly givers) of love in many forms: mother, wife, partner, friend.
But how often and how well are we taught to give and receive the love within ourselves? More specifically, how well are we taught to develop intimacy with our bodies alone and to demand pleasure from others?
The collective cultural silence surrounding our pleasure as women is deafening. Sex revolves around the male orgasm, and often, women don’t even factor into the equation, mostly because we aren’t taught to demand our own satisfaction. Even the best sex education programs skip over female pleasure; only thirteen of fifty states require sex ed to be medically accurate, and female orgasm is nowhere to be found in the curriculum. As a result, generations of women have grown up ignorant of what makes us feel good, whether with a partner or on our own. Worse, female masturbation carries with it a stigma that is more or less absent in the minds of young men seeking self-pleasure.
Annique Delphine, The Yielding, 2016
My name is Alice Little, and I am a legal sex worker at a Nevada brothel. Through my work in the sex industry, and my experience in general, I have met plenty of women in their thirties and forties who have never had an orgasm, either through sex with a partner or on their own. Most of these women have never even made love to themselves before — never taken the time to connect intimately with themselves in that way. By comparison, far more men are likely to touch themselves early and often.
Therefore, I think what needs to happen is a return to women’s pleasure and raising it to the same standard that exists for men. That begins with starting a conversation about female orgasm — what it is and what it requires. The fact is, eighty percent of women cannot achieve orgasm through penetrative sex only. We need to begin showing women how to touch themselves, normalizing self-exploration with fingers and toys, and discussing ways to achieve orgasm during sex, all without shame or fear of judgment. We have to make self-pleasure accessible, normal, and healthy by starting conversations around masturbation.
But, first: solving a problem usually means understanding where it comes from. So, I want to know: how did we get here?
Female sexuality has more or less always carried a black shroud of mystery and concealment around it, the fear of which has scared us into silence going back generations. When it comes time for your young daughter to grow up and go out into the world, what do you tell her?
For too many of us, the answer is simply nothing. You send her off to school and hope that they will take care of it. And if — or when — they don’t, if she comes home with questions, you might tell her one of several things:
That you’ll talk about it when she’s older.
To stay away from boys and leave it at that.
Or worse, that it’s a sin — even if you do it with yourself.
The final approach is especially prevalent in religious families who see all sexuality outside of the marriage bed as unequivocally wrong. And since the population of the United States alone contains an overwhelming seventy-four percent of families who identify as Christian, you can imagine the number of young women being kept in the dark about their own pleasure by mothers who were raised the same way. Not only that, but a key component of a strict religious upbringing (and, one could argue, of the female experience as a whole) is the idea of putting others before yourself, otherwise you’re called selfish.
Elizabeth Ilsley, Imagine, 2019
I’ve seen the consequences of this particular aversion to proper sexual education firsthand. My best friend in high school was raised by very devout and conservative parents who not only failed to give her “the talk,” but opted her out of the school’s sex-ed program entirely. Years later, when she was raped, she couldn’t even identify what had happened to her. It was only after two months of missing her period that she came to me, and the thing that struck me most was the painfully hushed toned she used, almost like it hurt her throat to put words to her story. I took her to Planned Parenthood.
That was nearly ten years ago. This year, I gave her daughter the sex talk myself. She wanted to know what to do when men whistled at her as she walked home from school, if the boy from her class thinks she’s pretty, and if it’s important to be pretty. She now knows how imperative it is to find worth in herself, to explore and to walk through her life with confidence and self-knowledge. If we grow up without that, and live our lives afraid of our own bodies and what they can do, our ability to experience true, fulfilling intimacy with ourselves and with others ends up severely compromised — and we miss out on the joy and peace of knowing who we are, which is one of the most important parts of learning to love ourselves.
Betty Tompkins, No one will..., 2019. All images courtesy Betty Tompkins, GAVLAK and PPOW, New York.
Now back to our original story. We’ve established the issue and why it exists. But if you have been brought up with no information about — or even worse, feeling ashamed of — your own desires, how do you even start to discover pleasure?
The answer is by initiating this important conversation with yourself. No one else needs to know, and you don’t have to immediately put yourself out there on the issue. Simply begin to claim a space for yourself to learn about your body. I like to think of it as intimate, head-to-toe self-care. The goal is self-touch that will help you discover your likes, dislikes and the ability to communicate those things down the road.
Start at your scalp. Run your fingers through your hair slowly, brush it back from your ears, even tug a little if you’d like. After you’ve explored a bit, move to your face. Press your thumb to your lip, trace its shape. Note what you like and what feels especially good. Move all the way down at your own pace and just observe and get comfortable.
It’s important to note that there is no proper timeline for this journey, either. You walk it on your own terms, in your own time, and no two women go through it in the same way. But the positive benefits of your exploration will have a ripple effect that will spread throughout the rest of your day, years down the road, and your relationships.
More than anything, though, you deserve the space to feel good — and although many of us are afraid of seeming selfish when we take healing time for ourselves, in this case, being selfish in order to reclaim your own pleasure is the most selfless thing you can do. Knowing your own body will help you articulate your wants and needs to partners without nervousness or uncertainty, leading to more fulfilling, equitable, and healthy relationships. And if you’re not the type to want a partner, learning about your own pleasure will help you grow into a confident, knowledgeable person with a lot of love to give to yourself and the world around you. In a greater context, self-love fights stigma. Starting the conversation with yourself may allow you to have it with others in the future.
Marlene Dumas, Fingers, 1999. Peter Cox, Eindhoven. Private collection.
Of course, this is only the beginning. Large-scale change takes time. It will take generations of women becoming informed and confident in their own desires to see it become the norm. So, how do we get there?
The conversation begins with yourself, but I hope you bring it to others as well. The reason we’re here today is because too many of us began as scared, confused young girls who were kept in the dark and remained there for far too long. Now, we educate ourselves so that we can reach our hands out to other girls living where we used to, and bring them up into adulthood as women who are not afraid to know themselves and demand that others do, too.
If you have a daughter, teach her the way you wish you were taught. Answer her questions, let her know that it’s okay to explore and to feel and to familiarize herself with her pleasure — and her body. Tell her that there’s no shame in doing either, and that no one has the right to tell her otherwise. Teach her the words to use and to always speak up when she wants something for herself, and in her relationships.
My generation sees women having fewer children, instead pursuing opportunities or non-traditional concepts of family. But that certainly doesn’t mean we have to stop this conversation. Be a mentor to your friends’ daughters, your nieces, and even other women who have the potential to be a guiding influence on the youth. Be a listening ear and a voice of wisdom, and empower those who look up to you to do the same.
Joy and confidence and power are contagious. Initiate this new dialogue with yourself, spread it to others, manifest it in your relationships, and it will never stop. That’s just the beginning.
A Woman's Right To Pleasure is available now. Join us tomorrow on Alice Little's Instagram for the second installment of A Woman's Right To Pleasure Live for a masterclass about self-love and pleasure.