I’ve been strong willed and independent from the very beginning, and I was blessed with a loving and supportive father who prioritized spending time with me and showing me new things. My being a girl didn’t stop him from trying to teach me how to throw and catch a baseball, how to throw a football and how to play tennis, though it would be a lie to say that I was ever any good at such things. I had pet toads, frogs and snakes that my dad and I caught together in backyard fields after church on Sundays. As a kid, I spent a lot of time playing outside with the boys who lived across the street. I didn’t have much of an interest in the things the other girls my age did, like playing with Barbie Dolls or Easy Bake Ovens. To be honest, more traditionally feminine interests, like clothes, make-up and the color pink, didn’t become a part of my world until late after high school, however, my lack of athletic ability has always discouraged me from referring to myself as having been a ‘tomboy.’ As I got older, my parents were both equally supportive of all of my interests and aspirations. For many years, I never once felt that my being a girl held me back in any sort of way. I was far too young and naive to know about issues like the wage gap or a lack of female representation in certain professions. I didn’t think about cultural expectations for women, mothers and wives, and I certainly didn’t know about America’s love affair with rape culture and slut shaming. I just knew that I could be anything I wanted to be, and that was all the proof I needed to believe that inequality for women in this country was a thing of the past.
Having lived a privileged childhood full of love and support, I had little reason to think about inequality when I entered high school. I learned to associate feminism with extremism, hatred of men and an excuse to live a sexually immoral life free of judgment and consequence. None of that sounded like anything I should be a part of. I even went as far as to think of myself as an ‘anti-feminist.’ I felt a need to respond to the liberal feminist message of anger with one of positivity and optimism, because, like most young white people, I naively assumed that the opportunities available to me were equally available to everyone else. Until you’ve seen otherwise through life experience, this is a relatively easy assumption to make, as equality for all people, afterall, makes more sense than the world in which we actually live.
Yet even in my so-called ‘anti-feminist’ days, there were moments when I began to notice that the rules for men and women were different. It began at church, when the distinctions between boys and girls were slowly becoming more and more noticeable, and the awkward and uncomfortable embarrassment of puberty, of which no one ever recalls fondly, commenced. Girls were instructed to cover up and to dress modestly. Girls were warned about the uncontrollable urges to be expected from even the nicest of boys, and to always be on guard. While it did seem that both boys and girls were equally expected to refrain from sexual activity, it seemed clear to me that it was my responsibility, as a woman, to remain pure… and not to ‘lose myself.’ I lost count of the number of times I was told that engaging in sexuality activity with a boy would not make him love me and that if I ‘lost’ my virginity, I ‘could never get it back.’ I often wondered if women even liked sex… since it seemed that it was only boys who had sexual desires, uncontrollable pubescent testosterone raged impulses that simply couldn’t be helped. There was little sense in telling the boys to practice restraint or to be respectful, after all, boys will be boys.
I remember thinking of my virginity as a precious piece of myself that could be lost forever if I didn’t behave appropriately or if I let a boy take it from me. I believed that a dark and painful void haunted those women who lost their virginity, unless of course, they had done so after getting married. And once you did ‘lose yourself,’ only if you were lucky enough to find a man who would be generous enough to love you despite your brokenness would you ever be able to heal. It took quite some time before it ever occurred to me to wonder why the purity of men was not equally valuable, why men did not also experience this dark void after losing their virginity and why men had such strong sexual impulses where women did not.
My senior year in high school, however, something changed. I fell in love. A year later, I decided to let my guard down and, to my surprise, the deep dark void that I had once believed to be the inevitable consequence for all women who had sex before getting married never came. On the contrary, over the years to come, as I embraced my sexuality as a healthy part of my life, I found myself to be more confident, more self-aware and more independent. I learned to know myself more deeply, and to understand my own needs and desires, emotionally and physically. I learned that broken hearts were sometimes unavoidable, with or without sexual intimacy, and while no one ever wants a broken heart, these experiences can often help build you into the person you want to become. There was a powerful liberation for me in letting go of fearing sexuality, and I experienced the peace and happiness that results from allowing yourself to live your life as you want to, instead of how others want you to.
I now object to some of the commonly used language and phrases used by well-intentioned parents, teachers, youth pastors and others when they talk to young women about sexuality. Phrases like “losing your virginity” imply a negative stigma, as the word ‘lose’ equates with loss and with failing. This type of language is what led me to believe that my value, as a woman, would decrease after participating in sexual activity, consensual or nonconsensual.
While some repression of adolescent female sexuality is surely done with good intentions, it is also a form of control. Teaching young girls to believe that a woman’s character is somehow connected to her ability to remain sexually pure is not healthy. And it does not prepare young women for adulthood or help them grow into strong and independent women with a clear sense of who they are and what they want. The ways in which sexuality was discussed with me as a young woman, created a world where women need to be on defense and assumes that all men are potential predators coming to ‘take’ something that cannot be replaced. Truth be told, this gender stereotyped dynamic does a disservice to both men and women, alike. Teaching boys and girls alike of the potential physical and emotional consequences that can result from sexual intimacy with another person is, of course, a good thing. However, we would be better off to focus our energy on encouraging our girls to grow into confident and mature young women, young women who know who are able to recognize what’s best for them.
I’ll admit that as I re-read what I’ve written, I have not put any earth-shattering ideas out there. Most people I know would agree that the cultural expectations of sexual behavior for men and women are drastically different. This seems blatantly obvious to many of us. But of course, there are many things that are now obvious to my 30 year old self, that were not at all obvious to me years ago. And it was this very personal experience of finding that I could make my own decisions regarding my sexuality in opposition to the projected mandate for purity that I had been taught as a teenager, was my introduction to what feminism is really all about. It was my awakening to a world where cultural expectations can be a powerful and damaging reality. Even today, I sometimes hear a woman commenting on the sexual behavior of another woman with disapproving language, and I find myself needing to speak up. There is no ‘right way’ for a woman to live her life sexually. And in contrast to the vision I had as a teenager to the feminist’s sexual immoral way of life, there is room within feminism for all of us, the virgin feminist and the “Samantha Jones” feminist. Every woman has but one responsibility sexually, and that is a responsibility to herself. Whatever lifestyle fulfills you and helps make you person that you want to be is the lifestyle you should continue following. Likewise, any lifestyle that brings hurt, self-doubt and self-loathing should be discontinued. I’m grateful that I grew up in the loving and supportive home that I did, which helped build me into a strong enough woman to know the difference between what helps me and what hurts me. A strong and confident woman who knows herself and is at peace with herself is a woman who can achieve great things.
There are many important issues today in feminism, and they are all deserving of our attention. But for me, feminism starts within. Who are you, and who do you want to be? What do you need to be that person? For me, feminism is about not letting anyone else tell you who you are or what you want, not letting cultural stereotypes or rules define you. Be you. No one else.
Kelly Cleaver has a bachelor’s degree in English Writing and Philosophy and has spent the last seven years working in Detroit’s philanthropic sector. Co-Founder of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) Detroit, she is passionate about instigating social change through promoting understanding, collaboration and awareness.