It was in March of this year when Jenny Block, celebrated author of Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage, wrote a counter argument in Huffington Post to my article titled My Vagina Smells Like Shame in Jezebel. And at first I jumped for joy. Before I read it, that is.
'If you think there is something wrong with the way a vagina smells, you need to get your head rewired.' ...she said.
Her piece hit me where it hurt. In my own insecure vagina. The way that it would if one of your revered pin-ups told you that shame was - well - something to be ashamed of. That self-hatred was to blame for making 'women feel like they were worth less'. That just by feeling shame you were, despite your unrelenting struggle to combat your own sex-negative attitudes, participating in an 'insane war on pussies'.
I didn't expect someone who was so open minded, someone who believed in such similar philosophies, to be so naive and lacking in understanding about the fight for emancipation that so many women face. I shouldn't have assumed. My bad. But my assumptions weren't formulated out of thin air.
Because in 2009 two women wrote open relationship memoirs.
Both women questioned monogamy as a norm rather than a choice. Both women cheated on their husbands and confronted them shortly afterwards. Both women and their husbands decided to pursue an open marriage. Fast forward to 2014 and both women blog for Huffington Post about their open relationships albeit divided by the Pacific ocean. One of those women is Jenny Block, US journalist and self-described poster girl for open marriage. The other is me, chairwoman for the National Polyamory Association in Sweden, author and blogger on non-monogamy.
Why were we so different then?
"Open" is a frank and warming tale of a woman who grows in ground fertile enough to give her the tools she needs to be aware and sexually confident from a young age. Her first sexual experience was 'with a guy [she] loved and trusted and who made [her] feel confident about [her] sexuality and [her] own reign over it'. He tells her that she is 'responsible for her own orgasms'. The rest of the book overflows with sex positive vibes. It is positively bursting with sex positivity.
Reading Jenny's memoir in my early days of open relationship exploration at a time when I had written (but not published) my book, was rather like falling through the looking glass. I loved it. Finally a validation for my own, as yet personal, philosophies. A woman who like me candidly and boldly told the truth about what went on behind closed doors. She has been an inspiration for my own journey.
And yet even though everything was the same, it was also opposite. She was sexually confident, I was not. She was open to sex with both men and women, I was not. Her marriage has not ended in divorce. Mine did. And yet at the time I blithely moved passed these ~ so I thought ~ superficial differences. Everyone has their own journey after all. We both believed that sex positivity was a good thing. We both believed in the freedom to configure our relationships as we chose. But Jenny was emboldened by the success of her relationship, my path to sexuality and polyamory has been littered with pain; I clung tightly to philosophies I believed in even if I couldn't quite get them to work for me.
There's a whole lot of wisdom in Jenny's book. Meticulously well referenced wisdom. She's done her research carefully as anyone must nowadays who puts themselves in the firing line of hard core monogamists. She's even included a letter from her husband at the end of the book showing that he is not pussy-whipped or emotionally abused. That he joyfully embraces everything they define by an open marriage. Jenny is, as she mentioned, a poster girl for open marriage and sex-positive sexuality. I am rather the anti-hero.
There are many out there who need Jenny's approach to sexuality. But we are not all readily equipped to make bold and conscious choices in this life. Because in her own words Jenny has never had anyone 'reject her because of her choice to open her marriage.' I assume she has never been dragged to her knees by her mother and made to pray for her 'morally corrupt soul' like I was. Or been ostracised by her entire school for having a 'loose' vagina, just for losing her virginity. Shame, like depression, is not something to be dismissed lightly. It exists. In my case, shame was delivered to me as a norm, not a choice, and I am actively writing it away.
From the commentary on the original article, I know there are others out there who feel it.
I, too, was a victim of feeling shame for the way women smell down there. Growing up, I heard countless jokes about how it can smell like fish and all.
I have a lot of dislike for [oral], too, and I think it comes from a deeply ingrained shame... I am generally pretty liberal and open about this stuff, but the entire time he's down there I cannot FATHOM that he's happy because of how gross I was raised to think that part of my body is.
We're fighting the same fight Jenny and I. The battle to embrace our choices and our sexuality for all that they are and all that they can be. For women to have no shame about their pussies... and bodies. The path to that promised land is not obvious, however. In Jenny's eyes, acknowledging my shame isn't just a dead end. It makes me part of the problem:
These days, if you hate yourself, the world rallies around you. "I'm so fat." "I'm so ugly." "My pussy smells like shame." And the war cries rise, "Me too! Me too! Me too!"
I disagree. There's a difference between stewing in your own self created drama, and exploring the source of your pain. The former contributes to perpetuate sex negativity and the other works to permanently heal it. Suppressing the pain won't work in the long term: it will just explode with greater force. But however these wounds come about, we are all responsible of becoming the person we want to be.
So not only do Jenny and I have different opinions, we are making different journeys. It is my journey to learn from and grow past all the sex negative conditioning instilled in me. It's why I work with survivors, so that I can help women like me out of their repressed patterning. Hers is lead the way in positive pussy thinking. It's why Jenny is able to lead the way in creating awareness around group masturbation sessions developed to empower women who are confident enough to go there already.
Jenny's sex positivity is a blessing. Something to aspire to. But my sex negativity is also a blessing. It allows me to empathize with those who also have it instead of blaming them for it. Women who have felt degraded and abused, come more readily to my door. They feel understood and comforted in the darkness of their bodily shame. There is an 'insane war on pussies' but I'm not the one armed with a sword. I'm the medic that goes to work on the fallen wounded. So it's great that Jenny's vagina has never smelt of shame. But I'm helping the women whose vaginas, through no fault of their own, still do.
The Vagina Voyage
I've been on quite a journey to try and love my vagina. Many of the people I grew up with are appalled. Others I've got to know, love me for trying to love myself. And I think that's quite a beautiful thing.