While I’m super secure in my gender identity, I came out of growing up an only child/daddy’s girl as an irrepressible tomboy. I may have grown my hair long and learned to walk in heels, but I’ve never known quite what to do with…sexiness? Sensuality? I don’t do that.
I like sex. I like sex-positive attitudes. But me, as a sexual being? Me, as someone another person finds sexy? Weird and embarrassing to think about. I grew up playing boy games and fighting boys and leading little packs of classmates in advances to take back the playground fort or strategems to fight for the proletariat of the high school. The idea I could act like a sensual and attractive vixen — being the object of a male’s sexual desire — makes me feel uncomfortable, capable of losing alpha dog status.
I came to understand my feelings clearly after, of all things, I spent an evening watching vintage porn. The crew of Rockethaus discovered the “Something Strange” offering on our cable’s On Demand videos. We watched hours of ’40s burlesque videos, girls in pasties playing with boats in ’30s Hollywood, and other short films on various adult and non-adult topics (like the future car!)
All the flicks we watched were… incredibly tame. We laughed a lot. Sometimes we were confused. It was easy to see they’d been tantalizing at the time they were made, but there was no writhing, none of the women simulated fellatio on their index fingers. There also wasn’t a distant, foggy look in the girls’ eyes. They didn’t talk about sex at all — let alone talk like men in tiny blonde bodies. Many of the girls wore full-length dresses or high-waisted bikinis, and most of them were cut — they were clearly dancers. No falsies here, just big-hipped, bright-eyed ladies, sizes 8-14, with baby-having hips, and hot.
I know there are burlesque troupes around the world still spreading this brand of sex-positive awesomeness! I have seen them on the YouTubes. But I have not seen them in my corner of the Midwest.
So I marveled at the difference between these videos and modern porn. These films seemed naughty but not raunchy. I had the feeling that these movies talked about a different type of sex than what was in Busty Teen Blondes, Volume 1. The women didn’t look nervous. They had real bodies and seemed to be enjoying the attention in a playful, not sad, way. Some of the women were incredibly talented — there were a couple burlesque dancers who’d mastered the art of suspense (and one of them had the jumbliest jumblies I’ve ever seen. Maybe ever known to mankind).
My favorite vid was a 1937 short film starring Elaine Berrie Barrymore — Drew Barrymore’s great gram. It was How to Undress in Front of Your Husband. This video made something click for me. My discomfort with sexiness, with being sexy, with talking about sex as something I enjoy, came from the cognitive dissonance created out of the sexual images I learned from.
Iiii…never had a sex talk. Like a lot of Mid-Westerners, I learned about sex and relationships from TV, movies, magazines, and books exclusively. When you grow up feeding on the male gaze, you are simultaneously taught three values, listed from most to least overt:
- It’s okay to be sexy.
- Sexy women are a plaything.
- Therefore, sexy women have a hard time being taken seriously or retaining power.
You want to tell me that the music video for Hit Me Baby One more Time, which all my tween friends were obsessed with, was a good role model for us? Britney is devastated and “lonely” because she shouldn’t have “let” her man get away. She writhes in a “here I am, please come and get me!” way that… didn’t really teach us we can be confident in our thoughts and in taking control of our sex lives. This little bitty girl fucking shimmies as she sings to her lost lovah. It was one of infinite inputs which taught us — US! Women and men! — ladies are worth the sum of our body parts plus the attention we can get from boys.
On the other hand, Elaine Berrie Barrymore’s character in How to Undress in Front of Your Husband oozes self-confidence and power. Fully aware she’s putting on a show and she’s got the goods, she tells the camera, “Hey buddy. We’re on my schedule, and you’re going to enjoy it.” In her show — and in the olde timey burlesques we watched — women are equal partners in sex. We like it, we want it, and we can have fun with it.
I’ve been so lucky to have had only positive sexual experiences. But I would call myself a late bloomer and I have to wonder if my slow path to this understanding of empowering sexuality — not as an attention-grabbing tool or a demeaning way to act — would have been shorter if I’d grown up with different influences. And I have to wonder if my dad wasn’t right all along — that all the very objectified ladies in media might actually affect what kids these days learn about relationships.
When I sat down to Google the Barrymore video, I typed in, “How to undress for a man.” Not, “How to undress in a way that tantalizes your partner,” but “how to undress in a way that pleases men. Please let them like me. Please.” How to Undress in Front of Your Husband is miles away from stripping for someone. Totally a personal anecdote, but it makes me wonder if the move from “sex is for marriage” to “sex is for Snooki to have with some dude in the back of the Jersey Shore van so she might feel better about herself” hasn’t been detrimental to sex as a consenting, equal, safe act between two respectful adults. I’m trying to tread carefully here — I have an intrinsically neutral view of sex with many partners. It doesn’t make you a slut or a manwhore or a gross icky person. I don’t think people who have a lot of sexual partners are immoral or making poor choices. I do wonder if the proliferation of male-driven sexual imagery hasn’t dropped off the act of sex in a scarier and less equal place.
I realized something very surprising: my views on women and sex, as gleaned pretty much entirely from media, were completely raining on my sex parade.
In the end, I’m almost ashamed to admit what I learned from our On Demand PG-13 porn — and that tomboy stoicism makes it even harder. I laid awake in bed thinking about how Ms. Barrymore’s portrayal of a sexual woman was so different from most that I’d seen — women who finally got that elusive man they were after and oh! the value it brought to her life. Women who have to be pretty or who have to act in a way their partner likes. I realized something very surprising: my views on women and sex, as gleaned pretty much entirely from media, were completely raining on my sex parade. Deciding when and where and how to be “sexy” — and how much of that is myself versus how much of that is me playing a role I think I have to play — is something I often think about.
So, Elaine Berrie Barrymore and the pervy old dude who talked her into slipping out of her panties on camera, thanks to your 75-year-old movie, I’m totally comfortable in taking back sex, in embracing it as the equal, positive act I’ve known it was — even if I didn’t know how to deal with it as such until now.