What Length of Dress Says ‘Yes’?

This article originally appeared on Role/Reboot in January 2013, and was later cross-posted on Alternet and Mamamia.

I’ve been trying for a long time, a couple of months now in fact, to write a blog about sexuality and what it means to me as a Pakistani woman born and raised in the United Kingdom. The deadline I set for myself whizzed past weeks ago, as I’ve been having trouble with it. Probably because I’m having trouble with sex itself. You see, I haven’t actually had any for over two and a half years.

Lonely womanWhen my last relationship failed horribly, I vowed to myself that I would not sleep with another person until I felt completely comfortable, secure, and enthusiastic about having sex. It’s something I have never achieved, despite having over a dozen partners. I have now reached a point where all the self-induced orgasms in the world could not fully relieve this tension inside of me. I’m pretty sure that it’s also led, in part, to my depression. I cry often, because I am purposely denying myself a completely natural part of being human. So why do it?

I want to sleep with someone who respects me enough not to lie to me about what it is they want. I want to sleep with someone who isn’t cheating on someone else. I want to sleep with someone who doesn’t think I’m a slut because I want to talk about the type of sex I like, or who doesn’t have expectations about what I’ll be willing or unwilling to do based on that. I want to sleep with someone who will go on a journey with me, one based on honesty, experimentation, adventure, and love.

I no longer care whether that experience lasts one night, 10 years, or the rest of my life. But apparently, I’m dreaming. I’m told that I should just get out there; that good sex happens with time after a certain period of bad sex; that if I want emotional satisfaction, then I’m going to have to settle for mediocre love-making.

I guess in some ways the fact that I haven’t yet done this says I still have hope; I still believe I can meet someone who can help me take care of business in the bedroom, as well as someone with whom I can share a mutual respect based on honesty. But there is something darker holding me back, and it concerns what a lot of people consider a grey area when it comes to sexual consent.

Many years back, I took a three-month trip to the Canary Islands where I taught English and theater in schools. I was about 19 and restless in my relationship with a man 13 years my senior. I had gone with a friend and we both looked forward to partying and exploring the islands. One night we met a friendly barman who knew some guys from the UK and we all hit it off. They also had a car and knew all the best clubbing spots on the island.

We had an incredible night. We partied in an open club on the beach, in the car on the way to more places where the doormen knew them as VIPs, and they even took us to one club that had streams full of fish and flowers running through the actual building. I was comfortable, I was having fun, and these guys seemed like they were just up for making some new friends and getting drunk together. By sunrise, I was feeling great, and looked forward to getting home so I could sleep it off and start again.

When the guy who was driving me home took the wrong turn, I told him so, but he said there was another place he knew that we would love. I looked at my friend and we both thought, “What the hell, why not?” They took us to a stunning beach, completely deserted, with nothing but beautiful scenery all around and stars above. I wasn’t wildly in lust with the guy who had been paying attention to me for the whole night, but I wasn’t going to say no to a kiss or a fumble in this beautiful place either. My friend took a walk with everyone else leaving David and me on our own. I was drunk and laughing, and we started kissing.

Then he pulled my jeans down and I said no. He kissed me again as he undid his own trousers and I said again, “I don’t want to,” looking around to see how far away my friend was. Despite this, he maneuvered me on top of him and we had sex anyway. I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t want it. And throughout, I seemed to travel to another place in my own mind.

Afterwards, I blamed myself. I made excuses. I said, “What are you gonna do? You had a great night, you saw some gorgeous places…so the guy was a little direct and not a great listener, what more is there to say?” Though I realize now, 10 years later, this was rape, at the time I didn’t know what to call it, but the experience stayed with me, and I knew that I would never want that to happen to me again.

I’ve been reading a lot recently about the so-called grey areas of consent, and here’s what it comes down to: If society at large can still blame a woman based on what she is wearing, how much she’s been drinking, and whether she chose to spend an evening with a man who just might attack her, what recourse do I have?

It also got me thinking about my mixed cultural upbringing. I was raised in a strict Pakistani household in the UK until the age of 12, when I was taken from the parental home with the aid of social services because of difficult circumstances. I used to have to wear clothes that covered me from neck to ankle and I was told that I wasn’t allowed to wear tampons, to protect my hymen and therefore my virginity. My own sexuality, which hadn’t even developed at that age, was forced upon me and twisted, groomed to be the object of some future husband’s desire.

But the worst thing is that it didn’t get any better when I left, when I supposedly became free to express myself in whatever way I wished. My happiness at now being able to wear jeans (they had been outlawed for being “too Western”) turned into glee at being able to wear short skirts, low-cut tops, whatever I wanted. But now, again, I was not allowed my own sexuality and instead, that of others was thrust upon me.

My own sexuality is whatever makes me feel aroused, and because I’m a unique individual, the things that turn me on won’t always turn the next woman on.

And what gets me going also changes as my tastes evolve. Conversely, it shouldn’t seem like an epiphany to realize that no one can tell just by looking at me whether I’m feeling aroused or whether I’m available or not. You can’t tell by the number of partners I’ve had either, or by my choice of route going home after a night out. The only way to find out what makes me want to have sex is to ASK me. Which is why, when it comes to discussing consent, a clear and enthusiastic “yes” is the only way to be sure I want to have sex with you.

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Photography by Giuliana Casarotti

It’s not the length of my skirt or tightness of my dress. I wear specific types of clothes for a whole host of reasons other than as an expression of arousal. I wear them to be rebellious; to celebrate freedom from the dictatorship of my childhood; to fit in with my friends; because I like the attention. The list goes on.

And even if my clothing did indicate some form of sexual availability, who is to say exactly what length of skirt says “yes”? Where do you draw the line?

You just can’t.

17 thoughts on “What Length of Dress Says ‘Yes’?

  1. I haven’t had any sex for a year and a half now. I think I made the same decision as you did to not have sex unless I felt, as you put it, confortable and secure to do so. I strongly feel that this is the right thing for me, but at the same time also do wonder if I am, maybe, asking too much of myself and of others; if I am, possibly, being to idealistic – life (and myself) being unperfect and all. If I’m not being overly protective of myself. I haven’t really talked to anyone about how it is (partly) a choice, because I fear they’d blame me for not getting over myself and not enjoying what’s there… I myself am afraid I could miss the window, miss people I could get confortable with, if only I was willing to take a chance for a while.
    It was good to read your take on this. I don’t really feel less doubts right now, but a bit less like I’m one of a (weird) kind.

    • Hi Lucy,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and I really relate to your ambivalence on this. I too used to wonder whether I wasn’t missing out on opportunities to engage in genuinely satisfying encounters by being too cautious. For me it all comes down to the reaction I get when I express my hesitance. If they’re gone like a shot, then I say good riddance, because they clearly don’t care about meeting my needs or providing mutual satisfaction. Others see it as a bit of a challenge and persist for a while, but that’s mainly to try and protect their own ego from rejection. I haven’t met him yet, but I’m going to stick around for the guy who understands that I’m actually asking for help on an emotional level so that I feel safe again. Because that guy knows if I have his trust, I’ll feel free and comfortable enough to unleash my sexuality in full force, and believe me – he’s going to care a lot about making sure it’s unleashed on him! 😉 I wish you all the best and I can assure we’re not the only ones who feel this way!

      Take care,
      Shaheen

  2. Just read ‘My short skirt does not mean I want to have sex with you.’
    Congratulations on writing such an honest article. And I agree – there is no excuse for sex without consent in any shape or form. Respect and caring for all is necessary and unfortunately there are many in the world that do not agree.

    I’d like to comment re ‘ I no longer care whether that experience lasts one night, 10 years, or the rest of my life. But apparently, I’m dreaming. I’m told that I should just get out there; that good sex happens with time after a certain period of bad sex; that if I want emotional satisfaction, then I’m going to have to settle for mediocre love-making.’ …
    I believe that being good friends with a person first, before getting to sex, makes an amazing difference. We are body, soul & spirit. Being able to be friends, being honest and knowing oneself and then allowing love and the physical side to develop in trust, helps bring everything together and makes one feel more satisfied overall as a whole. Everyone I know that has a long-lasting relationship (be they in their 20s, 30s, or older (I am in my 50s) seems to have travelled this way. Their partner is their best friend and they say that they are more in love now than when they first began. Sex within those longterm relationships passes through many stages in cycles – it can be fun or not, mediocre, wonderful, lustful and in some cases, non-existent (due to illness or whatever) – but it changes constantly. Sex is about trusting and understanding one’s partner at that particular place in time.
    Love is also a journey.
    Sometimes we look for love in the wrong place and not realise what is in front of us. Sometimes we forget that we should be looking at our friend, (if they are single and non-attached), especially if we find we truly love being with them.
    Food for thought.
    Best wishes and keep on writing.

    • Hi Karen,

      Thank you for your comment and I’m sorry for the very late response. I’ve realised as time goes on that the length of relationship or ability for two people to become friends is actually not of utmost importance when it comes to sharing sexual excitement together – it’s about respect and communication, as always (which also happen to be the basis of fulfilling relationships and friendships). It’s also about understanding, perhaps selfishly, that if you invest a little time in helping your partner work through the stuff that holds them back, you’re going to get the best of a free sexual spirit in return! Of course, this work may take some people longer than others, so it depends on how much effort you’re willing to make. And if it’s not that much, then it’s okay – you can still always convey that with respect and honesty. But like you say, it’s unfortunate that not everybody values the importance of showing such respect.

      All the best,
      Shaheen

  3. Dear Shaheen,
    I enjoyed reading your frank and honest discussion of your sexual life and your choice to refrain from sleeping with anyone until you felt physically and emotionally ready for the experience with someone you could truly trust. A brave choice and braver still to discuss it in public. I sincerely hope that you will meet such an individual as you describe in the not too distant future.
    I reside in the New York/New Jersey area of the US and belong to the Burning Man community. I do happen to know a number of men that might qualify for what you are looking for but having to cross an ocean for this is not realistic. Perhaps there is a Burning Man community in London that you might be able to locate. Anyway, here we have a Burning Man Happy Hour that meets every Wednesday night and should you find yourself in New York on a Wednesday night you might find it interesting to attend.
    Beyond that, you have heard that old saw “life is a journey” so many times by now you are most likely sick of hearing it, but still, it has relevance, and since you are still relatively young and have many more trails to walk on your journey, one of those trails will eventually lead you to the man you are wanting as a partner and companion, and perhaps, who knows, as a life companion.
    So, the mantra is “never give up hope” continue with your journey, and, always, always, celebrate each day of your life, regardless of any and all difficulties. Here’s a Bhuddist koan for you. “Walking on this earth is a miracle, each mindful moment reveals the wonderous Dharmakaya.” I recite this one all the time for myself. All the best in the new year.
    Steve

    • Steve,

      Thanks for your comment and I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to respond! Burning Man does sound interesting, but as with any community that has focuses on exploration of sexuality, there are always some who think that any woman who attends must be ‘up for it’ and unfortunately this can lead to abuse in the same way as anywhere else. http://sfburnergrrrl.wordpress.com/2011/09/06/sex-at-burning-man/ I’m not dismissing the idea that lots of people have incredible experiences there; just that it would be a mistake to believe that it would be any safer than the wider world… But you are right, I have many paths yet to travel and I definitely have hope!

      All the best to you too,
      Shaheen

  4. Nice article on alternet, which is sure to inspire positive change among women & men. I admire your courage & salute your openness.

    • Thank you so much, and I’m very sorry for my late reply! Your words are very motivating and I hope to keep on speaking out and raising awareness.

      All the best,
      Shaheen

  5. I want to applaud your decision. It is one I took for a period of three years, and after a successful career of casual sex with a wide variety of consenting women. It gets old, and, if you’re not careful, so do you. I was in my fifties when I made this change and married the next woman I had sex with. It’s been 15 years now, and I still shudder to think how close I came to not having this all defining experience.

  6. Thanks for your alternet article. You’re a courageous and commendable woman. So much still needs to be said/explored; glad you’re going there. And by the way, there really are men out there who meet all the requirements you mentioned. I now believe that, because I finally found one – at age 45! Best to you.

    • Hello Hampton, thank you so much, your support is invaluable. It can be hard to share such personal experiences so publicly, but it makes me even more determined to do so in future when I see that subsequent discussion is really raising awareness. You give me hope!

      All the best to you too!

      Shaheen

  7. Hello Shaheen. Just read your alternet article. Besides the fact that you write very well, I was touched by what you had to say about your experiences of sexuality as a young woman in the context of today’s supposedly ‘open’ sexual mores. I am a good deal older than you but belong to a generation that also experienced, in our youth, a new ‘openness’ in sexual mores. And yet I have also always hoped (and sometimes have been lucky enough) to engage in amorous contact with a woman where trust and respect were the basis of whatever followed. This could just as well be the result of an almost immediate intuitive feeling or a prolonged building-up of friendship, and result in nurturing and gentle or wild and unbridled sex. But I daresay there must be other men like me, and not necessarily older. So take heart. I have had my share of both disappointing and rewarding experiences, and I’m sure what you’re looking for is out there. All the best to you.
    JLG

  8. Just read your alternet article. I’ve often wondered if other women desire ‘safe sex’ as I do. I’ve had many say that I’m a prude or worse for wanting to feel that safety. Your article was insightful and I’m officially a fan of your writing. Will definitely look forward to more here, via twitter and alternet.

    • Hi Morgan, thanks so much for your comment! I believe that a lot of women do consider personal safety in some depth when having sex with a new partner for the first time – it’s just that so many assume the full burden of responsibility in protecting themselves from harm, and this is what needs to change.

      When I read this article – http://www.xojane.com/issues/if-i-went-to-the-delhi-cops-every-time-i-was-sexually-harassed-id-have-no-time-for-anything-else – about the gang rape in Delhi, these paragraphs in particular stuck out to me:

      “Don’t wear short skirts, in fact don’t wear skirts at all! Don’t walk down a street after dark, don’t walk down a street during the day! Don’t use buses, don’t use autorickshaws! Don’t drive alone too late, don’t drive alone during the day! Avoid crowded places, avoid lonely places! Don’t go out late for films and parties, don’t stay back late at work, deal with the boss’ anger because you won’t stay back late for work, lose out on promotions or face the wrath of male colleagues who accuse you of expecting special privileges as a woman …

      And then what? … Don’t dream of a career because ambition’s a dirty word for women? Don’t have fun because it’s not worth the risk? Don’t skip, don’t jump, don’t leave the house, cover your head, hide your face, wear a burqa? But hey, even women who are veiled from head to toe and are confined to their homes get raped, so how about this: stop existing?!”

      Women are taught to protect themselves from rape, told that if they got themselves into a sticky situation then really it’s their fault, and this is what needs to stop.

      All the best to you Morgan,

      Shaheen

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