Women’s Bodies Aren’t Inappropriate — Sex Stigma Is

Women’s Bodies Aren’t Inappropriate — Sex Stigma Is

A challenge for you: can you think of a sex-related topic that is no longer stigmatized at all? Is there any type of sexual pleasure, partnered or solo, which doesn’t have any stigma attached? I can’t think of one. In the course of my work I come across different stigmas all the time: whether it's ageism in marketing, outright bans on sex toy adverts, or nudity being treated as if it were the same as images of non-consensual violence.

Even masturbation, though it’s been proven to benefit people who want to do it, is still heavily stigmatized. I’m writing this column during “No Nut November,” a bizarre month-long abstinence drive that began on anti-masturbation forums on Reddit, which encourages people (but mostly men) to refrain from “PMO” (porn, masturbation, orgasm) during the whole month of November.

Is there any other industry where unjustified stigma is so par for the course? I don’t think so. It’s not as if we’re the arms trade — we sell pleasure! Yet around every corner there are those who believe that certain people don’t deserve pleasure, or that certain types of consensual pleasure are wrong.

This month I was lucky enough to work with six incredible women to try and show stigma the finger. As part of a campaign to launch our new sex toy — DiGiT — we wanted to take a swipe at a selection of harmful stigmas that had affected each individual’s life. We put out a call for ambassadors, asking for models of any size, shape, race, sexuality and age to audition for us and tell us about the stigmas that had affected their own sex lives.

We were inundated, as we knew we would be, and every woman had her own unique story about the problems stigma had caused for her that she’d like to show the finger to. It was difficult to choose just six ambassadors, but in the end we did: Raj, who wanted to tackle the colorism that she’d faced, Emelle was tackling homophobia, Lori wanted to speak out against ageism, Sophia showed the finger to impossible body standards, Victoria tackled transphobia and Mary wanted to stick the finger up to people who thought her disability should define her sex life. In partnership with the incredible artist Aleksandra Karpowicz, we wanted bold and powerful images of the women “showing the finger” to their chosen stigmas, which we could display around New York.

Unfortunately, the adverts got banned. Like so many other ads before, which tackle taboo topics — especially sexual ones — ours were deemed “inappropriate.” Perhaps I’m the odd one out here, but I don’t think women’s bodies are inappropriate. I think the only thing that’s inappropriate is the cocktail of stigmas that women face when it comes to sex. We could only choose six to represent in our posters, but plenty of other people joined in online: showing the finger to fatphobia, sex censorship, and much more. Women defiantly showed off pictures of their stretch marks, scars, stomachs, and other parts of their bodies that had been subjected to judgment, along with one middle finger to say “fuck you” to a world that thinks there’s something inherently shameful about seeking pleasure — especially as older/fat/disabled/queer/[insert your own word here] people.

Let’s be honest; anyone who is sexual will have experienced stigma at some point. Whether directly, through snide insults or indirectly by being erased and ignored. As I write this article, my news feed is filled with stories that touch on the various ways we stigmatize sex. On just the first page of sex-related news there’s a story about a sex worker who has to lie to landlords in order to rent a home, (despite solo sex work being legal in the U.K.) and one about Delta airlines having cut same-sex love scenes from films it shows on the in-flight entertainment. By lunchtime there’ll be more, and it’s frustratingly always more of the same.

At the start of this article I challenged you to think of a sex-related topic that isn’t stigmatized, and to be honest it’s one I can’t even complete myself. Even the kind of sex that is least heavily stigmatized: heteronormative, partnered sex that’s aimed at reproduction, isn’t free from stigma, as there’s still plenty of myths and assumptions about the “right” and “wrong” way to do it, as well as judgments on individuals for everything from their body shape to their genitals and everything in between.

It’s unlikely that we’ll get rid of these stigmas any time soon, but we can all help to nudge the world a little closer to the one we want by sticking our fingers up to the ones we encounter in our own lives. Personally I’d like to show the finger to homophobia, because, being the child of a gay parent, my own life would be easier if that particular stigma disappeared. And in the meantime I’ll keep supporting women like our incredible ambassadors, and the others who joined in to #ShowStigmaTheFinger online. One day, maybe we’ll look back at our banned posters and marvel at how different the world is today from the one we’re building for tomorrow.

Julia Margo is the co-founder of Hot Octopuss.


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