The great secret no one ever tells us: Sexual empowerment equals life empowerment.
I spent most of my early 20s obsessed with achieving the alpha female trifecta of marriage, family, and career. Sexual exploration was what women did when they had neither a plan, nor self-respect. The goal of every relationship was marriage.
In service of that goal, I was committed to playing the role of useful and supportive partner. I wanted to be seen as “marriage material.” I was passive in relationships, preferring to adapt or dismiss my needs for the sake of preserving harmony.
In my career, as with my relationship, I was also addicted to being useful. I was the “cool girl”— capable, powerful, and easy-going, with seemingly unlimited capacity. As I saw it, my worth to the fickle world of independent theater directly correlated to the degree of generosity and support I could offer. And so I fundraised for others’ shows at the expense of my own. I took on literary managing roles, and filled my hours obsessively reading, reviewing, and finessing others’ work, while letting my own plays go untended. I overextended myself by working with bosses and companies that paid my efforts in brownie points. I didn’t apply for real jobs out of the assumption that—in spite of holding an excellent degree—my passion for writing and theater voided my eligibility to serve the world in other ways. And finally, I put the demands of poorly paying jobs before my own work, because I viewed my own work as selfish, something to do only if there was time and it was good enough.
Our society—and arguably the world—sees women as sexual objects, not sexual agents. Female bodies and feminine qualities are expected to be soft, appealing, yielding, accepting, disarming, and flexible. Women are producers, not directors. Women are actresses, not writers. In nuance and outright, women are expected to handle, manage, accept, and reflect input by men. We respond rather than initiate. We are diplomats, not politicians.
And the conditioning we’ve received, reinforcing passivity and receptivity, conflicts directly with a society that prioritizes dynamism and entrepreneurship. How do you initiate, force, instigate while remaining soft, diplomatic, and accepting?
The dichotomy is most pronounced in two arenas: sexuality and authority.
Sexuality is more than how we relate to sex; it’s how we relate to the world. It’s how we choose to identify with the world, how we style ourselves and how we flirt and play. It’s what drives our desires and our feelings of satisfaction when we fulfill them. To challenge one’s own sexuality to become more adventurous and supple will therefore affect and activate every facet of your life. As both professional beings and sexual beings, women need to activate.
When I activated sexually—when sex became not something I was available for, but something I sought to understand through my own needs—my relationship to the world improved.
At the time, my marriage was just one more obligation, one more way in which to serve and be helpful, one more set of needs to prioritize over my own. At the time, I had no idea what was making me feel so trapped and furious. We got a divorce, and I blasted out of that relationship like a cannonball.
Determined not to fall into the same love-is-a-duty trap, I flung myself into the New York City fetish scene. Where better to challenge old habits than in an environment dictated by totally different principles? Sex positivity, fucking for fucking’s sake, multiple partners! No expectations, no future plans, YOLO! Throughout two years of graduate school, I bounced from weeks of academia to weekends of drugs, acrylic nails, cheap lingerie, and hedonistic all-nighters. Whether or not this revolution was necessary, the urge was strong. It was time to break shit and start from scratch.
At my first party, a sex-positive immersive performance fundraiser called “The Art of Restraint,” I got flogged in lingerie in front of a crowd of beautiful, cheering people, while my best friend showered me with Champagne. The sheer adrenalin overpowered any nagging questions in the back of my mind about what I was doing or why. These were the thrills I’d been missing. At my second party, after doing a line of coke (my first) off the thigh of a hot girl I’d just met named *Ali, my date—far more experienced than I—made the executive decision to doggybag Ali for a threesome (my first). I was not consulted and I raised no issues. I was a “cool girl,” wasn’t I? In the cab, Ali and my date made gleeful plans, but I got quiet. Was this what I wanted? Didn’t he just use me to get her home? Twenty minutes later, lying in bed in my date’s lush Moroccan-themed bedroom, he buried himself into Ali whispering, “You feel like home,” and I choked. I slid off the bed and ran into the bathroom, where I curled up on the floor and cried until morning. In that moment, I was back at square one—the eager team player who gets taken advantage of.
Only this time, it was obvious I’d done it to myself.
When it came to sex, I had always been on the spectrum of vanilla-to-prude. I believed, first and foremost, in love. To that effect, I had an aversion to promiscuity, which I saw as a callous waste of the gift of true intimacy. I felt stronger than my peers for being able to sustain a long relationship through the hormonal early 20s. I felt more mature for having the prudence to establish love early, instead of wasting time and energy on one-night-stands, or playing first date musical chairs like some friends did. I felt righteous because, though my relationship wasn’t always easy, I was prioritizing “us” over wily, petty desires. Sure, there were times I wanted to give up, fuck around, or just disappear on an adventure, but I understood that life was about making choices and sticking with them. By that arcane logic, the purpose of sex was to service our love, and since my purpose was service, it was my job take care of my partner’s needs. My needs and my pleasure were my business, not ours.
One night at my first sex party was enough to show me the absurdity of this conditioning.
And I wasn’t alone in these beliefs.
I was just one of many women who had been hypnotized by the gaslighting of a society that is terrified of female sexual agency. Promiscuity in women is negatively labeled a symptom of low self-regard. That assumption is based on the bizarre premise that women have a limited capacity for intimacy. That if women are “overused,” we will “break,” like bicycles. Or maybe we will know too much, or expect too much, from future partners? Or … or what exactly? We will be bad mothers? Incapable of commitment? Become addicts? Peddle drugs and live on the street? Go to Burning Man, get kidnapped, and cost our fathers thousands in ransom money? Or simply never, ever find a husband?
Men are encouraged to sow their wild oats, but women have “biological clocks.” And actually, it’s better to hurry up with the babymaking because that distant cousin might just have polycystic ovary syndrome, which is apparently super common these days and awful. And what about HPV, which destroys a woman’s fertility (i.e. reason to live) without a single symptom, can’t be detected in men, and isn’t prevented by condoms? You know that sluts get raped, right? So do hos and skanks. Actually, 28 is getting up there. Have you thought about freezing your eggs? You should really think about that.
Female sex is deemed sacred. But after jumping down the rabbit-hole of sex-positivity, I realized the “sacredness” of sex—and of relationships altogether—was a golden cage. A subtle, sneaky way to keep women locked up and fearful.
That first rough night aside, the sex-positive scene taught me how to overcome this conditioning to become a sexual agent… and through that, to activate my relationship with work, and with the world.
My new friends called bullshit on the great lie that a woman’s pleasure is low priority compared to responsibility and commitment. The women expected to get off, and the women’s partners had no interested in a one-sided sexual encounter. Suddenly I had to fight for something I’d hardly paid attention to: my needs. The hardest part of joining the sex-positive scene was facing the constant question: What did I want?
Through exploration of that question, I noticed a change in my relationship to work. I started to say no more often. And it felt good. No, I didn’t want to take on an unpaid internship that “could develop into something cool.” No, I didn’t want to read a friend’s script and give notes. No, I didn’t want to work extra hours this weekend, or take on that new student. Why? No reason. Just don’t want to. It also became easier to say yes to myself. Yes, I wanted to attend that residency, and yes, I could wake up at 6am to work on the application. Yes, I do want to write a web series, and yes, I can and will produce it myself. And yes, I will use my own name.
Sexuality was not the only way in which I had been passive, but it was the easiest place for me to see how passivity was hurting me. Sex, unlike my career, had fewer variables. When your work is collaborative and weighted within a large industry, it’s hard to examine a single variable—your input—out of context. Your behavior could be The Problem; but problems are equally likely to be caused by co-workers, office politics, standard practices, high competition, low resources, or any one of a thousand possibilities. In sex, however, the transaction is simpler, the causality of actions to consequences is easier to trace. When you’re having lots of sex with lots of partners, it becomes obvious what patterns you are responsible for. And if you’re also witnessing a lot of sex, you start to understand new sexual paradigms. Through the scene, I came to recognize my patterns of passivity. I also witnessed other patterns that were active and joyful, and I was able to try new things with trusted partners. I did not need to remain trapped in a passive cycle of support, self-denial, and frustration. The hidden door was revealed.
Sexual activation took away my fear, and replaced it with curiosity, a thicker skin, and a habit of going after my pleasure. From there, I started to see possibilities where before had only been negative judgments. Switching on has improved my ability to make real connections. Knowing what I want means I can spot opportunities and funnel them into profitable projects. And becoming activated has led me to see myself not only as an equal partner in all relationships, but a leader. That has yielded greater respect, engagement, and support from colleagues, friends, and loved ones.
When I came up with the idea for a web series called Unicornland, I had no filmmaking experience, no filmmaking network, and no money. Moreover, everyone I reached out to for support merely reinforced the foolishness of self-producing. But this story—about a woman who explores her sexuality post-divorce—was important to me and, I suspected, to many other women. I felt a responsibility to spread this awareness.
From an activated perspective, fear and resistance are laughable obstacles. No longer looking for signs of acceptance, I was determined to see it through. I found a director, Nick Leavens, who was game to try a new form. Together, we found a producer, and I pulled together the financing. We perfected the script with table readings, rewrites, and hours of late-night phone calls. I established connections in the indie film community that yielded our crew of seasoned experts. We cast the series—after I fielded dozens of emails from actors who were understandably wary of such a sexually explicit project.
When a major backer pulled funding two weeks before filming, I scrambled for more money. When half our locations fell through, I begged friends, bribed building managers, and convinced a friend to cash out his Starwood Points on a fancy hotel penthouse. I threw a sex party shoot, and convinced 30 skittish extras to show up and bare all. I connected with an exquisite feminist lingerie brand, Thistle and Spire, who agreed to provide all the lingerie costumes. I convinced a restaurant, Dar525, to donate delicious, protein-filled lunches for the shoot. A partnership with Birch Coffee kept us bright-eyed. On longer, harder shoot days, I stayed in the kitchen baking endless trays of granola bars. The fun didn’t stop after shooting. When we lost a critical post-production grant and had no money to finish the series, I launched and managed a Kickstarter campaign for $15,000. We beat the goal, a week ahead of schedule. While the director and editor cut the episodes, I drafted contracts and solicited legal help to negotiate 10 complex music licensing deals.
All these typical obstacles failed to paralyze or intimidate me. Things that would have tripped up my former self simply made the project more interesting. Because agency—having a goal and going after it—makes life fun. Agency brings on shenanigans and mischief and machinations and daredevil deeds: all those things heroes do while princesses wait in towers brushing their hair. Too many women hang back, sheepish and apprehensive, convinced that the fear they feel is reality. It’s not.
The journey that inspired Unicornland is very likely not yours. I do not and never would advocate for a one-size-fits-all approach to sexuality, nor would I make generalized recommendations about relationship models.
But I do want you to watch Unicornland. Whether you’re straight, gay, queer, cis, trans, kinky, vanilla, single, partnered, married, or it’s complicated, it might give you some things to think about.
Lucy Gillespie is an Anglo-American screenwriter, producer, and essayist based in NYC. She is the managing editor of Frenchly. Her original series Unicornland, about a woman who explores her sexuality by dating couples, premieres on Valentine’s Day. Follow on social media at @unicornwithus. Lucy and her Fiancé have also been featured in an episode of our Podcast.