What the Roe v Wade decision says about female sexual freedom

·4-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

"Have sex like a man." Isn’t that what they used to say? Women: have sex like a man. It was the whispered undercurrent of the sexual liberation invoked by the release of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s and it was the rallying cry of the 1990s, with ‘ladette’ culture dominating our gender politics and Sex and the City dedicating its pilot episode (and initial gambit) to this seemingly novel concept.

But what exactly does ‘have sex like a man’ really mean? On the surface it is the ‘Samantha-isation’ of sex; indulging in casual trysts and one-night stands, putting pleasure above commitment. But what underscores this is far more significant. Because to have sex like a man ultimately means to have sex with impunity; without consequence, fear, judgment or shame. The overturn of Roe v Wade in America has sent shockwaves throughout the world for myriad reasons, but one of them is the overhaul of this view. Women, it says: have sex like a woman.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Having sex like a woman is a complicated business, and it always has been. The physical consequences of sex have always fallen upon us, meaning the scales of sexual equity have never really been balanced. Our every sexual encounter is clouded by the fear of pregnancy. Access to safe and legal abortions and proper reproductive care were as close as we have ever come to reaching some form of equilibrium. What overturning Roe v Wade has done, and what it may well kickstart across the globe, is a destruction of that balance, a return to – physically at least – an extremely gendered approach to sex.

But there has always been a frustratingly gendered approach to how we perceive sex. Women are not expected, firstly, to even want sex the same way men do. Our pleasure, both societally, and frequently on an interpersonal level (hi there, orgasm gender gap) is frequently disregarded. A man’s sexual appetite is anticipated, practically encouraged; a woman’s is ignored, shielded, tutted about, almost feared. As far as sex is concerned, boys will be boys, and girls will be quiet. Having sex like a woman means pretending you don’t really want it at all.

Because, of course, when a woman dares to step outside of these binaries, she is met with a singular and particularly vicious sort of judgement. We still live, and perhaps always have, in a world of players and whores, studs and sluts. What we praise in one, we condemn in the other. The concept of female purity – of ‘good’ girls and bad ones, of the ones you can bring home to mother and the ones you can’t – feels archaic, and yet this still has a chokehold on our culture. How often is sexual language deployed at women when they are disproportionately trolled online? A 2020 US research paper found the words 'slut' and 'whore' were used 419,000 times in misogynistic tweets over the span of one week – and slut-shaming is prolific among young adults, including the horrific use of revenge porn. Having sex like a woman means that, actually, it might be best not to have sex at all, for our society still struggles to make room for female sexuality. In fact, it penalises it.

These traditional and harmful views about a woman’s ‘virtue’ and how she should and should not have sex are fundamental to the anti-abortion rhetoric. Whether consciously declared or not, it is inescapable to me that the negation of a woman’s sexual agency is one of the pillars which props up the ‘pro-life’ argument. The overturn of Roe v Wade reinforces the idea that a woman’s sexuality is not, in fact, for her at all. Fertility is the aim, not pleasure. Anything not in the service of creating life is frivolous, shameful, wasteful. Our entire right to sexual pleasure was wiped out by that judgement. For how can we have ‘sex like a man’ now – when the threat of forced birth and trauma, the destruction of our bodies and our mental health, the evisceration of our dreams, hangs over every sexual encounter? If you ask the internet this, the army of trolls will simply reply, as I have seen proof of: then don’t have so much sex, you slut.

It could be the overturn of Roe which reminds us – even on this side of the pond – just how circumstantial and vulnerable our sexual freedoms are, and how knotted they remain with antiquated views of female propriety. For while we fight for bodily autonomy, let us not forget that this includes the right to a healthy, consensual sex life. We must defend a woman’s right to sex. We must redefine what it really means to have sex like a woman.

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