*** TRIGGER WARNING: This post covers potentially sensitive sexual topics– please practice self-care and read at your own discretion/comfort level. ***
” ‘Be a lady,’ they said. Your skirt is too short. Your shirt is too low. Your pants are too tight. Don’t show so much skin. Don’t show your thighs. Don’t show your breasts. Don’t show your midriff. Don’t show your cleavage. Don’t show your underwear. Don’t show your shoulders. Cover up. Leave something to the imagination. Dress modestly. Don’t be a temptress. Men can’t control themselves. Men have needs. You look frumpy. Loosen up. Show some skin. Look sexy. Look hot. Don’t be so provocative. You’re asking for it. Wear black. Wear heels. You’re too dressed up. You’re too dressed down. Don’t wear those sweatpants; you look like you’ve let yourself go.
‘Be a lady,’ they said. Save yourself. Be pure. Be virginal. Don’t talk about sex. Don’t flirt. Don’t be a skank. Don’t be a whore. Don’t sleep around. Don’t lose your dignity. Don’t have sex with too many men. Don’t give yourself away. Men don’t like sluts. Don’t be a prude. Don’t be so uptight. Have a little fun. Smile more. Pleasure men. Be experienced. Be sexual. Be innocent. Be dirty. Be virginal. Be sexy. Be the cool girl. Don’t be like the other girls.
‘Just be a lady,’ they said.”
– excerpt from ” ‘Be A Lady,’ They Said” by Camille Rainville
Hello, my dear readers. I hope you are doing well (or, at the very least, as well as can be expected during such a surreal, traumatic time as what we’re living through right now). Welcome back to my ongoing distraction of confronting the impossibly contradictory expectations forced upon me and every other woman, and obliterating them to mere specs of dust into the atmosphere. I’ll be honest with you- I’ve been struggling with the particular focus of this post for my whole life thus far, and I’ve therefore heavily procrastinated writing about it. But, the time has come to finally purge the thoughts and words swirling around my mind onto paper (or, I guess “screen” in this case, if you really want to get “technical” :p).
The aforementioned topic, as you might have guessed, is the idea of “innocence,” and how it directly relates to being the “ideal woman.”
This word, this concept has haunted me for 26 years.
How could I or any other woman possibly be defined by such a limiting adjective?
According to the dictionary, to be “innocent” is to be a “pure, guileless, or naive person.”
Name literally anyone other than a f*cking BABY who could realistically embody that definition, let alone a living, breathing, HUMAN woman.
And yet, it’s expected of us. ALL THE TIME. No matter how old we are, how much we’ve experienced, how much we’ve accomplished, how much we’ve LIVED, we are still somehow forced to strive for this ideal of being “clean,” “untouched,” “sweet,” “pleasant,” “ladylike,” or otherwise risk becoming subjected to some sort of ridicule or cruelty, which can ultimately hinder us from achieving our goals, maintaining our self-respect, and living our lives to the fullest potential.
I understand that this can be discouraging, but please bear with me if you’re able- remember, I’m here to annihilate this garbage and make you feel like Wonder Woman (don’t worry, we’ll get there).
But first, let me give you a personal example of my own struggles with my identity and how I’m perceived by others: every single man I’ve ever been even remotely romantically involved with has used the word “innocent” to describe me. “Sweet” is a close second. And let’s not be so bold as to forget “cute”- now we’ve got the “Kaleigh Trifecta” (*a round of applause for all the “good boys,” who never fail to accomplish this without a thesaurus. It truly never ceases to amaze me. Glad to know I emanate the sexual prowess of a f*cking Care Bear. Thanks for that. I appreciate it).
I know that may sound like an obnoxious “humble brag,” (“WTF Kaleigh?! They’re COMPLIMENTING YOU!!! BE GRATEFUL!!”) but stay, I pray you, for the ironic punchline of the joke that is literally all of my experiences with men- this supposed “innocence” is my main appeal, as well as my inevitable detriment. It’s what draws them in, and what scares them away. And every time this happens, I get even more confused; for how could a “sweet,” “naive,” “adorable,” “cute,” “delicate,” “INNOCENT” little “doll” of a woman such as myself be SO terrifying???
Allow me to introduce you to Persephone:
The Greek Goddess of Spring, a beautiful representation of purity and fertility…
…as well as the Greek Goddess of Death, Queen of the Underworld, a fearsome embodiment of strength and power.
As a result of constantly being subjected to the “Madonna/Whore Complex,” I believe every woman struggles with their very own unique “Persephone Complex” as well. In “failing” to meet the contradictory standards thrust upon us, we start to despise and blame ourselves for the very traits that make us special. Call me crazy (and I know some will), but I think it’s about damn time we stopped apologizing for our individuality just because it makes men/society uncomfortable.
Most men (and basically all of society) expect us to be “pure” and “virginal” and “innocent” in order to be desired, but the moment we try to express- or, God forbid, ACT on- our own human desires, we’re berated, trashed, and considered to be “tainted” and “whoreish”- not only by men, but by other women, and even sometimes ourselves.
Then, ironically enough, those same men who once worshipped us for being “immaculate” turn to women who they believe to already be “damaged” or “dirty” to entertain themselves with until they can find their next little flower to crush. Or, in some cases, men desire your “innocence” so much that even THEY don’t want to take it from you, so you get tossed out and abandoned anyway, due to your lack of experience- but remember, if you actually had the experience, they wouldn’t have desired you in the first place, because you weren’t considered to be “pure enough.”
The other side of this complex, of course, is that we as women are simultaneously expected to be “sexy” and “alluring” in order to have a decent shot at finding love, having enjoyable sex, or even just going on a relatively mediocre date. But, be careful, because if you act too much like a “slut” (a.k.a you take control of your sexuality in a healthy way and express those desires with confidence), then you’re either not treated with the same level of respect as a “pure” girl, or, you’re completely discarded into the ether because how DARE you command control over your own body and its wants/needs?!
Do you have a headache? Because I do.
I don’t know who’s specifically to blame for this twisted complex (although from the title alone it’s clear there are definitely some religious/biblical origins), but I can say with 100% certainty that it is completely ridiculous and it needs to STOP. Women shouldn’t be punished or rewarded for their level of sexual innocence or experience. All that matters is that everything is consensual (and of course as safe and healthy as possible).
It’s traumatic living in a world where so much of our perceived identity is determined by our sexual experiences (or lack thereof), when in truth, it does NOT define us at all. Yes, those experiences may help shape who we are, just like all of our other life experiences, but they’re not (and never will be) the only basis of our worth or purpose in the world.
This has been a truth that I’ve personally had some trouble accepting within myself. No matter how rarely or often you share yourself with someone (whether it be body, mind, heart, soul, or a whopping ALL OF THE ABOVE), the experiences can have a tendency to get physically/emotionally draining, especially if the people you’re sharing yourself with aren’t as appreciative or respectful as they should be.
I recently got caught up in someone’s struggle with the “Madonna/Whore Complex,” and have been punishing and blaming myself for my “Persephone Complex” ever since. Needless to say, it hasn’t been great for my mental health, and the current state of the world certainly hasn’t been helping the situation either, so, as usual, I turned to writing to try and find some clarity and catharsis.
I know my words don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. I know writing about and identifying this toxic issue won’t make it disappear. But I also know that we don’t have to be caged into the pathetic and unimaginative roles society (and some small-minded men) created for us, because I know that we are so much more than they could ever comprehend.
If you’re like me and get frustrated and heartbroken by this vicious cycle of impossible expectations, I encourage you to look within yourself, and embrace your own “Persephone Complex.” We are all living, breathing contradictions in our own way, and we should be celebrating them rather than condemning them.
To be a woman is not to only be a “Madonna” or a “Whore.”
To be a woman is to show strength in vulnerability.
To be a woman is to express sweetness with a bite.
To be a woman is to embody the softness of a rose, and the sharpness of its thorns.
To be a woman is to be yourself, even when the world constantly tries to erase you.
To be a woman is to be perfect, not in spite of your “imperfections,” but because of them.
So be a woman, I say, because there is only one of you, and you deserve to be free.
And I will be here to support you- to support ALL women- in finding and feeling that freedom, because I know how devastating it feels to be trapped inside a cage of limited ideas and impossible expectations…and how empowering it feels to set it all ablaze and rise above the ashes.
*Inspirational Songs of Choice:
“Barbie Girl (Way Too Sad)” – Melodicka Bros
“Spider in the Roses” – Sonia Leigh & Daphne Willis (feat. Rob the Man)
“The In-Between” – In This Moment