‘To say that female sexuality and feminism are two incredibly complex and multi-faceted things is a ridiculous understatement.’ So writes comedian and performer Adrienne Truscott in her contribution to the anthology Doing It: Women Tell the Truth About Great Sex (UQP), edited by feminist organiser Karen Pickering. It’s a truism that conveys the overarching tenor of the book, which is both a celebratory and candid reckoning with women’s sexuality and the spectrum of their sexual experiences.
Doing It features contributions from authors, academics, activists, journalists, comedians and politicians, and spans the experiences of queer women, trans women, older women, women who are celibate, and women with disability, among many others – a diverse range of voices and perspectives that reveal the inadequacy of dominant, largely heteronormative cultural narratives. The pieces in the collection are unfailingly charming, generous and, perhaps unexpectedly, often incredibly funny. Emily Maguire writes about her first sexual awakening via a viewing of Jesus Christ Superstar at twelve years old, during which she realised that she ‘really, really wanted to fuck Judas Iscariot’. Daily Life columnist Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen discusses the steamy teenage cybersex sessions that got her banned from Neopets. In the gloriously titled ‘Fuck the Meet-Cute’, Maria Lewis tells of going home with a guy and discovering he still had vintage Star Wars sheets from childhood on his bed – but fucking him anyway. In a way, the humour throughout the book is fitting – let’s face it, two (or more) naked bodies smushing up against each other is pretty funny.
Let’s face it, two (or more) naked bodies smushing up against each other is pretty funny.
Pickering tells me that her aim with the collection was ‘to break down the intense fear of women’s sexuality by producing other narratives outside of the mainstream.’ Rejecting coyness without veering into gratuitous or exploitative salaciousness, Doing It rails against po-faced attitudes and rejoices in the inherent silliness and joy of sex. Musician and trans woman Simona Castricum describes how hormones have changed the way she experiences sexual pleasure: ‘I experience orgasm with the joyous hands-in-the-air screaming dance of a woman on MDMA on top of my partner’s shoulders at a festival – not a bad place to transcend to.’
For Pickering, ensuring the collection was inclusive and represented as many different women’s experiences as possible, without resorting to tokenism, was often challenging. ‘It’s very, very hard,’ she says, ‘I won’t lie. Functionally, there is an element of making lists and ticking boxes – there has to be, in order to combat the default outcome, which is that everyone ends up looking alike. There are practical problems.’ To Pickering and her contributors’ credit, Doing It’s rich, full landscape of women and their sexualities never feels dictated by box-ticking.
‘One of the things that I think helps with that problem of [perceptions of] tokenism or “diversity for diversity’s sake” is the structure of Doing It, which allowed every contributor to decide what they were comfortable with, and what they wanted to reveal, or how they wanted to approach the brief,’ says Pickering. That brief invited women to ‘share something that speaks about female sexuality in a positive light’, and the result is a collection that blurs genres and forms, and includes a mixture of memoir, cultural criticism, academia, anecdote, and even a deliciously subversive quiz in which Michelle Law asks, ‘How is Your Sex Life?’ (spoiler: every possible combination of answers will tell you that ‘your sex life is incredible!’). Cleo and Cosmo’s quizzes were never quite like this.
But where there is great pleasure, there is also, potentially, the shadow of past pain. Several contributors characterise their formative sexual experiences as largely negative, a recurring theme that suggests sometimes negative experiences must be unlearnt in order to reclaim a healthy relationship to sex. ‘It was disturbing to note how many people had a lot more negative experiences they could draw on instantly before they had a positive one they could share,’ says Pickering. ‘It emerged as a theme that young women were alienated from their bodies and didn’t think about pleasure and their bodies until much later in life, if at all.’
Pervasive cultural messages teach women that they should feel shame for being sexual beings. The extent to which this attitude persists was made depressingly clear recently by the knee-jerk responses to the ‘teen porn ring’ scandal and the focus of schools, parents and the media on punishing and shaming girls who choose to take naked photos of themselves, rather than the boys who disseminate those photos without their permission.
As Amy Gray writes in her piece about the empowering qualities of naked selfies, ‘I exist and feel desire. These are universal statements that can be applied to everyone and sometimes there’s photographic evidence of both.’ Gray’s piece (which is accompanied by a very sexy, very naked selfie of her own), and Doing It as a whole, constitute an enthusiastic ‘fuck you’ to the notion that women’s sexuality is inherently indecent, or that it should be stifled and concealed.
Pickering hopes that a teenager or young woman experiencing her own sexual awakening will read Doing It and ‘take away that her body is her own.’ The act of silencing women, or only permitting them to speak when what they have to say both aligns with and indulges the male gaze, is rife in a society where women have historically been categorised as, in Anne Summers’ words, either damned whores or God’s police. Many of the individual women telling their stories in Doing It are marginalised for their failure to conform under patriarchal structures, and are rendered not only silent but invisible. The most important principle underlying the collection, Pickering says, is that ‘however your sexual self is constructed, it should at least be constructed by you.’ As a reclamation of that ownership, Doing It is radical for the multifaceted nature of the desires it reveals.
That’s not to say that the process of reclamation is an easy one. Pickering has organised feminist events for many years, including SlutWalk Melbourne, Girls On Film Festival, and the monthly feminist ‘chat show in a pub’ Cherchez La Femme, which she created and hosted (CLF’s final show, held earlier this month, doubled as the Melbourne launch of Doing It). She acknowledges that ‘there are particular privileges that some women have that make it easier for them to be open about their sex life,’ and she is well-acquainted with the need for sensitivity and empathy when inviting women to share personal experiences in a public forum.
‘You can’t just turn up in [a marginalised] community and say, “hey everyone, tell me your stories” and collect people like Pokémon,’ she says. ‘The language you use and the authenticity of your requests really matter – people know when you’re not sincere, especially people from marginalised groups, whose experiences are often reframed in a way that’s disempowering and cruel. For a woman who is a sex worker or has a disability, it meant that I had to establish a trust between me and them in order for them to feel comfortable sharing their stories, because I’m not a peer, and I’m not part of their community.’
‘However your sexual self is constructed, it should at least be constructed by you.’
Several of Doing It’s contributors are current or former sex workers, and they write about the political and sexual aspects of their work with great generosity and candour. One of the stand-out pieces is Tilly Lawless’s visceral, erotic essay about the difference between the sex she has for money and the sex she has for love. She imbues the act of fucking with all the emotion and power of poetry. Women working in the sex industry are so often spoken over and spoken for, there is something revelatory in the simple fact of reading their own words, unmediated and unimpeded.
Sexual consciousness, as contributor Van Badham writes, ‘is the internal map you create to navigate the nature of your own desire.’ Doing It goes off the beaten track to map new worlds and landscapes for women’s desire, and strikes a delicate balance between sexiness, playfulness, and profound empathy. Ultimately, it affirms that a woman’s sexuality is her own, that choice and agency are paramount, and that there is no single definition of ‘good sex’ – but that you can have a lot of fun in the process of figuring that out for yourself.
Doing it: Women Tell the Truth About Great Sex is available now at Readings.