Masturbation, menstruation, and pubic hair in my art books

My sex education could have been better.  I spent about year believing that sex was when a man and woman got into bed together—naked—and peed. I learned this from my childhood best friend after her horny dog kept humping my leg, and I asked what he was doing.

Eventually, I took sex ed in school and learned the mechanics of the act—discovering, to my quiet shock and dismay, that I had been mislead with that peeing explanation. I looked at the carefully placed sex books my mom left around the house, and talked with my pre-teen friends, and I thought I had it all figured out.

It turns out that even though I learned about sexual intercourse from a combination of school, friends, and eventually my own experiences, I didn’t have it figured out at all. What I lacked was the knowledge and understanding of female sexuality. It wasn’t about the physical act; it was about sexual identity and agency as a woman. As it turns out, I also ended up learning a lot about this through books, though not the “name and identify the parts” kind of books I knew as a kid. Rather, my understanding of sexuality came from a surprising source: my art history books.

In high school when I started learning about art history, it was easy to identify and understand the omnipresent male gaze. For centuries women had been treated as muses, regarded as the ideal paragon of physical beauty. My art books were, and still are, littered with paintings of the naked female form viewed from a male’s perspective. In each case, the woman lacked a sense of agency. She was merely there, where the artist wanted her to be, emitting a demure or coy sensuality.  She was both the object and the subject of the male gaze, and this was somehow okay because it was art. It seemed beautiful, but it didn’t seem real.

This phenomenon wasn’t new to me. We see contemporary iterations of the male gaze and the female muse everywhere from mainstream media outlets like fashion magazines, TV shows, and music videos to more explicit sources, like pornography. In an overwhelming majority of these sources, women are depicted as unrealistically sexual objects, that, while beautiful, are not necessarily relatable or accessible to women viewers. Their bodies are perfect and hairless, and their faces appear frozen in some state of orgasmic ecstasy that I don’t even think I understood at the time. These women are products of male fantasies and expectations—an observation that isn’t by any means new— but it that can feel alienating and confusing for young women looking to understand themselves and their own bodies.

How was I to understand female sexuality when all I saw was a male’s interpretation of what it was—or rather what he wanted it to be?

When I got a little deeper into my art history education, moving past the stodgy Renaissance and Victorian portraiture, and into the Modern era, I discovered the images I had been unconsciously yearning to see: women making art about women’s bodies.

I encountered feminist artists working in the 1960s and onwards like Carolee Schneemann, a multidisciplinary artist who explores gender, the body’s sensuality and potential, and sexual agency through intimate, graphic, and shocking performance art and photography; the now-iconic Cindy Sherman, who uses costumed self-portraiture as means of parodying the way women are represented in media and society; painter Sylvia Sleigh, who attempts to equalize and reverse the gender roles through realistic nude representations of the human form; and the up-and-coming Petra Collins, a twenty-year-old photographer and designer, who recently designed a T-shirt for American Apparel depicting a menstruating, hairy vagina.

The work of these women, and many others I’ve met along the way, depicted pubic hair, open and on-display vaginas, same-sex couples, masturbation, and overwhelming examples of females exploring their own sexuality.

Sometimes it was beautiful and sometimes it wasn’t, but it was always real.  Their work, for me, was always powerful and full of purpose, and answered the questions I had about my own body. These women turned the male gaze on its head, and took control over the way that they were represented. They were sexy, but they were sexy in their own way because they wanted to be, and not because they were told to be.

The male gaze still exists in visual art, and perhaps always will, but having women artists who challenge those representations of female sexuality, identity, and form, make the gaze lose its ability to transform women into submissive subjects.

Feminist artists taught me that the body is beautiful when we take control over its representation. They publicly showed me that women masturbate, menstruate, and have pubic hair. They are still teaching me that a woman’s sexuality is whatever she wants it to be, and that she can be sexy without being an object of male desire. Mostly, they are teaching me that my role doesn’t have to be the muse, it can be that of the creator.

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