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By Emma-Louise Boynton
“Have you had any reflections since we last spoke?” Aleks says over Zoom, flashing a handful of gold rings as she puts on a pair of dark-rimmed glasses. She has the calming allure of Gillian Anderson in Sex Education. How fitting.
As it so happens, I have, I respond.
I can’t stop thinking about Billie Eilish and the interview that accompanied her recent Vogue cover where she debuted her much revamped visage. Its stark comparison to her renowned grungy get-up, unsurprisingly, broke the internet.
“Proof that money can make you sell out,” decried Jeremy Clarkson. “I liked her a lot better non-sexualised,” wrote someone else online. “This evokes an uneasy Lolita vibe,” said another. Everyone had an opinion on what Billie “revealing” her body meant. It made me think about how women learn to see and experience their bodies from an external perspective.
“Suddenly you’re a hypocrite if you want to show your skin,” Billie said in the interview. “And you’re easy and you’re a slut and you’re a whore.”
“Why did reading this strike such a chord with you?” Aleks asks.
I spoke last week about how disembodied I often feel from my body during sex and how I think this is linked to having an eating disorder and having had non-consensual sexual experiences.
But even putting these two more extreme triggers of bodily disconnect to one side, reading that interview I was left thinking: “How can any woman not feel alienated from her body, at least some of the time, when we live in a society that so readily feasts upon the female physique as though it’s public property? A society that seems to engender a woman’s bodily alienation from the moment she hits puberty, if not before.”
We are scrutinised, analysed, objectified, sexualised and sanitised continually. And then, as though to reinforce this message that your body belongs to someone, everyone else, many of us have been touched, grabbed and worse against our will.
I remember I was working in a bar and a man grabbed my bum. I turned around and said, rather sheepishly (I was 19): “You can’t do that.” He turned to me, indignant, and replied: “Yes, I can. I can touch you wherever I like.” My body, he was drunkenly reminding me, was his for the taking.
As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, we become conscious of our body when we are looked on by another, when our body becomes a “body for others”. But this sort of bodily awareness through social objectification occurs in a particularly violent way for women. And this makes me ask: What does that do to our capacity for embodiment, the key I suppose to sexual pleasure? What has it done to mine?
“I’m curious,” Aleks asks, “how do you understand ‘embodiment’?”
I think it’s being able to sit in your body and be fully present. It’s also about being able to look at and feel your own body without wanting to hurt it or permit someone else to. And feeling control, or at least an element of control, over what happens to it.
I thought about this the other day while I was standing naked in front of the mirror – something I typically avoid as I end up mercilessly scrutinising every inch of myself trying to figure out where I’ve lost or where I’ve gained weight. It never ends well.
But on this occasion, I just stared as I thought about all the lenses through which I was, in that moment, viewing my body. Through the lens of my eating disorder that makes the contours of my physique feel as though they are always changing, expanding and shrinking, sometimes in a matter of moments. Through the lens of the media and the different idealisations of the female body that range from Kim Kardashian to Adriana Lima, each as seemingly unachievable as the next; through the lens of the filters I now use religiously on Instagram; through the way the last person I slept with saw me; through the eyes of the man that wolf-whistled at me while I was crossing the road the other day; and through the lens of my body as a symbol of finite fertility.
‘I feel more like a bystander than a participant, as if I’m watching someone else go through the motions of moaning, moving and repositioning. But I’m not really there.’
And then I thought about all the ways in which my body, already so seemingly out of my control, has changed and continues to change over the years – fat, then thin, then a little fatter again, periods, boobs, hips, thigh fat, wrinkles, cellulite.
Staring at my reflection I had all these competing feelings: I hate my body; I love and appreciate my body; I feel ugly, sexy, fat… Then I just thought, “Whose is this fucking body? A body for others? A body that’s not my own…?”
“Can you tell me a bit more about how you think this sense of bodily alienation, as you describe it, affects how you feel during sex,” Aleks asks delicately, looking up from her impressively ferocious note-taking.
I hadn’t thought about this much until now, but I suppose it underlies the disconnect I often feel during sex because then my body once again feels like a body for others.
Only three men have ever asked me what I like and what I’ve wanted while we’ve been sleeping together. On all three occasions, I’m pretty sure I just froze up, embarrassed and suddenly awkwardly aware of how this naked body lying beneath this familiar-stranger is as alien to me as it is to him. If I try to verbalise what I think – definitely, maybe, potentially – I want from him, I just end up sounding as though I’m trying to emulate some hot female protagonist in an erotic movie and, in reality, feel anything but.
Invariably, I recourse to redoubling my focus on making him come, just to shift the focus away from my own body and back to his. It has become, in many ways, automatic. So much so that, in some instances, I feel more like a bystander than a participant, as if I’m watching someone else go through the motions of moaning, moving and repositioning. But I’m not really there.
Am I enjoying myself? Sometimes. But sometimes, it’s more as though I’m taking comfort and seeking safety in my ability to disconnect. And sometimes, often, I leave feeling like I’ve been scooped out. Disposed of. My body-turned-vessel discarded once it has fulfilled its pleasure-giving function for another.
As I say this, I feel such a sense of shame at what a cop-out that is. It is not a particularly empowered way to have sex, is it?
I trail off…
“It’s totally OK to enjoy all types of sex,“ Aleks reponds. “It’s also OK to withdraw your consent during sex. You can ask someone to stop, you know? It sounds as though perhaps you step outside of yourself at the point at which maybe it’s no longer good for you. But you should be able to stop rather than endure it from some disconnected vantage point. Good sex is dependent on communication before, during and after, remember?
“And also know that you’re not alone here. This comes up all the time among my clients,” she adds. “A lot of what you’re describing is internalised misogyny, and I hear iterations of it all the time. Women become used to seeing themselves through the male gaze and prioritising a man’s pleasure so much so they subordinate their own needs to their sexual partner’s without thinking – often because, as you’ve described, they’re not even sure what these needs are. This disconnect is really common among women.
“OK, I’m going to give you some homework that I think will help you begin connecting to your body a bit more. I want you to keep a pleasure journal.”
My mind immediately jumps to the vibrator sitting in the drawer next to my bed and how odd it would surely feel if I was to begin diarising how I masturbate.
“I want you to begin noting down three things during the day that bring you pleasure. It could be your cup of coffee in the morning, that feeling you get when water runs down your back in the shower, the sensation of drinking a cold glass of juice after the gym, anything.
“The process of embodiment requires that you try to become more present in your day-to-day [life]. That you learn to relish small sources of pleasure not necessarily associated to sex. It sounds simple but it’s really important.”
As someone typically drawn to quick fixes, I feel dubious about this seemingly soft-touch approach to my sensorial healing. But I agree to try.
In her second sex therapy session, our writer explores her feelings of bodily alienation during sex and she is set surprising homework for the week ahead.
By Emma-Louise Boynton
The ‘Pure O’ or ‘purely obsessional’ type of OCD is characterised by distressing, intrusive thoughts and mental rituals to cope with them. Rae Elliman shares her experience of living with – and learning to manage – these hidden compulsions