A Mother's Sexuality: Taking Back MILF

A Mother's Sexuality: Taking Back MILF

I've entertained the discussion of women as Marilyns or Jackies, generalizing to describe problems of misaligned expectations between partners, but it wasn't until I finished reading America's Queen, Jackie Kennedy Onassis' biography by Sarah Bradford, that I realized how wrong these assumptions are, and how damaging they are to women who fall into Marilyn versus Jackie discussions.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, by most accounts, always strove to be a good mother to her children. That much is true. What is not mentioned is that while she was not a sex icon as Marilyn Monroe was perceived, she was not a prude. In the sixties, she is said to have embraced the counterculture and had her share of one-night stands. The accounts and photos of the early years of her marriage to Aristotle Onassis in particular, describe a woman who was comfortable with her body, and who very much enjoyed pleasure. Friends she made later in life describe her as someone who not only enjoyed herself, but freely talked with them about their escapades.


Madison Young as Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe, on the other hand, while idolized as a sex symbol and desired by many men, including Jackie's husband John F. Kennedy, did not live the fantasy life most envision. In the days before her death in 1962, she made tapes for her psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Greenson, discussing the difficulty she had in achieving orgasm:

What I told you is true when I first became your patient. I had never had an orgasm.

I well remember you said an orgasm happens in the mind. You said there was an obstacle in my mind that prevented me from having an orgasm; that it was something that happened early in my life about which I felt so guilty that I did not deserve to have the greatest pleasure there is; that it had to do with something sexual that was very wrong, but my getting pleasure from it caused my guilt. That it was buried in my unconscious. Through analysis we would bring it to the conscious mind where we could get to the guilt and free me to be orgasmic.

She would eventually achieve orgasm after learning to masturbate and finding a lover who took his time, but the quest for pleasure wasn't the only thing on her mind, either. Investigations into her involvement with the Kennedys by CBS would decades later paint a picture of Monroe as a woman who was not only informed but passionate about the politics of her time.

My point is that these two women against which so many of us have measured ourselves are not points on a spectrum between virgin and whore, good and naughty, mother and home-wrecker (Marilyn may have slept with JFK, but Jackie became close to Aristotle Onassis during her sister's affair with him and never stopped competing for his attention with his lover of nine years, the soprano Maria Callas). No, these women aren't points on a two dimensional plane, they're complete beings, with their own motives, drives, goals and stories. Just like every one of us.

THE HOLY MOTHER

The most damaging aspect of the widely believed Jackie/Marilyn dichotomy is the notion that being a sexual being is incompatible with motherhood.

At BlogHer ’10 last year, where I was part of an interactive panel about sexuality, we drew a good crowd, but more women seemed able to share after the discussion than during it. Afterward, talking with different moms, they would all confess that they had wanted to voice opinions or ask questions, but felt unable to do so because they didn't know if there were readers in the room and they didn't want to give the impression that they were there for reasons that by and large went far beyond simple curiosity.

"We view mothers as a-sexual," my friend Sara, 34 and mother of two, said one afternoon when we talked about the disconnect. "We have all these magazine articles, these huge industries, telling us to reclaim our sex lives and giving us tips on how to get our pre-baby bodies back and feel sexy again, but it's all just lip service. You’re not really allowed to do it. These goals are just dangled in front of you as something you should try to achieve in the same way they dangle photographs of Beyonce for hair color. It's one more thing we’re supposed to strive for, but never get, because God forbid if we do manage -- that's a sign of moral turpitude."

She pointed me in the direction of Kendra Holliday, a sex blogger at The Beautiful Kind that we both read who had been outed at work a year ago, gotten fired over it and chosen to come out in a subsequent article about the debacle.

"You can't have enlightenment without a lot of agitation," Kendra, the 38-year-old mother of one, told me when we spoke on the phone. She sees her outing and coming out as step forward for personal freedom.

"In retrospect, that was the last time to let anyone slut-shame me," she said. "At the time, though, it was terrifying. I took my blog down to regroup and spent the summer debating what to do next. Did I want to kill the site, change my name, reinvent myself and try to find an office job and just blend in and hope to normalize? Or do I want to own it and take it to the next level? I realized that in order to be honest with myself, I had to be honest about myself. I had to own it. I decided to come out on Coming Out Day in October. I spoke with my ex-husband, my parents, my family, my daughter's school, and I let them know -- out of respect -- that there was going to be an article coming out about me and that I was going to put my face and name to this salacious website."

Her family and current partner were supportive, but they were the only ones. While her daughter's school had assured Kendra that they had no problem with her site and her plan to come out, a week after the article came out, they began procedures to expel her daughter, citing ambiguous "behavioral problems" as the reason. This compounded the issues Kendra was already facing with her ex-husband, who, though he had initially been in agreement with her choice to come out and even given an interview for the article about her travails, had started to crumble under the weight of social pressure.

"When the reporter came out to do the story, my ex-husband talked about me, saying, 'this is a woman who likes sex. What's the big deal? She's a good mom.' But after the article came out, he couldn't handle the shaming," Kendra explained. "I tried to help him through it, through the fear, because I've been there, but he couldn't deal with it. He blamed the school's reaction on me and he started limiting my time with my daughter, eventually threatening that if I didn't agree with everything he said and decided, he would take me to court and sue for full custody. Two weeks later I was served with the papers. He's suing me for my sexuality, for having the website, for being sex-positive -- he believes I am unsafe to be around for my daughter."

"That's just it," Sara told me when I spoke with her later that afternoon. "We either behave ourselves and fit the role everyone expects us to have, or we're not allowed to have custody of our children. Essentially, our contact with our children is conditional on how people like our behavior. And that involves what we discuss, too. I have a friend who's a feminist film studies professor who's gone through her own awful custody battle and I was talking to her about Kendra's situation, and asked her to give me information about the custody process and she told me, 'oh, I don’t want to talk about it.' I said, 'what do you mean, I thought you said it was bullshit what was happening to Kendra?' She said, 'yes, I know, but I have kids, so I can't publicly comment about it and you shouldn't either.' Her take -- and that of most other mothers I've spoken with -- is that they can't say anything, even if they disagree with what's happening because they're so afraid people will take away their kids. They're afraid to be found guilty by association when there's nothing to feel guilty about. It's crazy that people who have committed no crime can live in fear of having their children taken away from them because of lifestyle choices that don't directly involve their kids or take place when the kids are home."

"A guy I know was ordered by a judge to not put pictures of his kids up on his refrigerator," Kendra told me. "And somewhere else a judge decided someone's child couldn't be around his new girlfriend because the judge had seen a picture of her somewhere wearing fishnets at a costume party. It gets so crazy -- this is our free country! Our free society! Everyone wants kids to be raised by caring parents, and here they have parents who want to be with their children but they can't because they are out about their sexuality and self-expression. This is happening in America all the time. This is happening to me right now: I am sane, I am drug-free, I have a beautiful little house, I'm raising my daughter in my beautiful little house, she's not on my website, she's not there when I do any of these things."

THE MOMMY WARS

The internet is rife with them. It seems everyone out there has an opinion about what's best for the children -- even your children -- and the page views-starved media is only too happy to offer platforms for the newest flame war. Even before the child is born, a woman's ability to parent is always in question.


Photo by Lucas Posseide.

"That big ole pregnant belly is like a scarlet letter," Sara said, reminiscing about her last pregnancy. "I had people say the most insane things I've ever heard when I was pregnant. A woman yelled from the back of the line at Starbucks -- I hadn't even ordered anything -- and she yelled, 'you're killing your child with caffeine!' I yelled back, 'fuck you! It's apple cider!' Why do people think that they can just attack you, that your life is their concern now that you're pregnant?"

Madison Young, a porn performer, adult film director, artist, and sex educator whp recently became a mother can relate.

"When you become pregnant, the world decides that all of a sudden they're able to throw all this advice your way," she told me when I called her to talk about motherhood. "And touching your body! I always thought it was interesting that everyone wanted to touch my fundus. It's a part of my body, like my breast -- would you walk up to somebody and touch that? When I was pregnant I felt like my fundus was an extension of my mons, a very sensual part of my body, and to have strangers wanting to put hands on me -- I thought it was very interesting that they felt they had the liberty to do that."

Like Sara, she agreed that people's concern and sense of ownership over a woman’s choices extends beyond the pregnancy.

"How many movies have you seen have the joke about the really hot mom?" Sara asked, referring to pop culture's seeming obsession with the MILF (Mom I’d Like to Fuck) phenomenon. "If someone's mom is attractive, that becomes the punch line to a joke that they just can't leave alone. If money can be made out of encouraging us to be sexy, that's fine, but we can't want it too much. Only as long as it takes to go and spend a hundred dollars at Victoria's Secret and try to perk up our sex lives. But the moment we try to own it and steer it on our own terms, then all bets are off. Then we're selfish, bad mothers."

IT STARTS WITH SEX

Motherhood begins with sex. Not all the time, but a large part of the time.

"It's an awesome feat of American puritanism to convince us that sex and pregnancy do not mix," writes Susie Bright in her incredible essay Egg Sex. "It's the ultimate virgin/whore distinction. For those nine months, please don't mention how we got this way -- we're Mary now."

An author herself, Susie spent her pregnancy devouring books on the topic. Being a sex educator and activist, she was excited to get to the part about sex during pregnancy, which, unfortunately, never came. What she found instead was a lot of "romance novel notions of marriage" and vague descriptions, with the most emphasis on dealing how to accommodate a husband who is ambivalent about his wife's changing body.

None of these books was written in the sixties. All of them glow with feminist and holistic approaches to mothering, supporting working moms, refuting the sexist prejudices against breast-feeding, and offering all manner of enlightened positive self-esteem for the mother-to-be. I began to wonder if anyone knew what went on in women's sexual lives during pregnancy. The most definitive statement the books managed was: Sometimes she's hot, sometimes she's not. This wouldn't be the first time that conventional medicine had nothing to contribute to

an understanding of female sexuality.

I was unusually sensual and amorous, and yet, twenty weeks into pregnancy, I found I could not successfully masturbate the way I had been doing since I was a kid. I was stunned and a little panicky. My engorged clitoris was different under my fingers; too sensitive to touch my usual way. What other way was there? That's when it hit me. The experts all say that it is a mystery why some women get more horny when they're pregnant while others lose interest.

I'll tell you something -- no one loses interest. What happens is that your normal sexual patterns don't work the same way anymore. Unless you and your lover make the transition to new ways of getting excited and reaching orgasm, you are going to be very depressed about sex and start avoiding it all together. It's not just a technique change, either. Feeling both desirable and protected are essential to a pregnant woman, and if protection is not forthcoming from the outside, she will build a fortress that cannot be penetrated.

What Susie found during her own pregnancy was that sex isn't just the beginning of motherhood: it’s a crucial way to prepare for childbirth. During her childbirth preparation classes, her teacher handed her a pamphlet for an exercise called "perineal massage," which refers to the perineum, the bit of skin between the vaginal opening and the anus.

According to the instruction sheet, her partner was to massage and finger the vaginal opening until he could put more and more fingers into it, allowing the vaginal muscles to relax through touches and caresses until he may put his whole hand into her opening.

Susie recalls calling a retired porn star friend and mother of two and asking her if "perineal massage" was code for vaginal fisting, the sexual practice of manually stimulating the vagina with the whole hand. It was. Not only did she practice this, she went on to continue to enjoy her sex life, noting her changed preference in terms of positions and fantasies.

When Susie went into labor, she took a vibrator, the Hitachi magic wand, to her clit for relief.

"I had no thought of climaxing," she recalls in her essay. "But the pleasure of the rhythm on my clit was like sweet icing on top of the deep, thick contractions in my womb."

Susie has since taken to educating the public on sex and parenting, and the importance of pleasure during pregnancy.

"If the mother doesn't receive tenderness and passion during her nine months, the bitterness she develops lasts well beyond childbirth -- her kids will know all about it," she writes. "Perhaps I could encourage childbirth professionals to advocate good sex during pregnancy as a key to psychologically healthy children."

For her part in helping women keep in touch with their sexual selves while they're pregnant, Madison Young directed Pregnant With Desire, an erotic documentary about sex during and after pregnancy.

"I actually made it six or so months before I became pregnant myself," she told me. "It featured many of my friends and showed how couples can stay connected while they're pregnant and how sexualities change and how bodies and people's feelings about their own bodies change, how they feel like beautiful sexual beings during their pregnancy -- but without exploiting or fetishizing them."

WHAT MOMMY DOES

The pressure we put on mothers and mothers-to-be about what is and isn’t acceptable, the constant shaming, questioning, and persecution, the messages that they're not allowed full expression -- these all compound to create a very hostile environment, one in which women become isolated, not only from the world, but from themselves as well.

"It seems to me that what society is selling is that you have to become someone else when you have children," Sara said. "There is this idea that somehow everything we were doing before children was not serious or entirely right, so we have to make ourselves over completely. They tell us, 'oh, don't worry, you can balance it by being sassy and buying candles and lingerie.' No! You don't have to disown who you were. That's a terrible example to give your children. Be yourself! You don't have to get the minivan and only shop at the GAP. You can do whatever you like. Dissatisfaction comes we get stuck playing these roles that we don't have a script for. No one is giving us any direction or any lines. It doesn't work because it can't work."

"I've gotten rid of my guilt and shame," Kendra told me when we spoke. "In May, I was supposed to present at a local women's expo, the theme was 'be deliciously alive' -- you know, embrace yourself. They asked me to speak there and asked me to pick a topic. I told them my topic was embracing responsible hedonism and being a full person. In our society the idea is that you can either be a mom who helps out at the bake sale and your daughter's school, or you can be this 'party woman' who's having orgies and stuff. My philosophy is that as long as you take care of your responsibilities, duties, obligations, you can have as much fun as you want provided you're not hurting other people. That's what I believe and what I teach my daughter, and I believe it with all my heart. So yes, you can be a sex goddess and a mom who helps out with the bake sale. The expo uninvited me. They wanted to be deliciously alive, but I guess I was too deliciously alive for them. They instead had a jilted bride whose whole motto is 'claim your cleavage' -- that's superficial! I'm talking about owning yourself and really feeling good instead of making yourself look good for other people."

As a result of her experiences, Kendra co-founded Sex Positive St. Louis, an organization to inform people about sexuality and create a safe space in the Midwest to allow people to responsibly chase their bliss. Her blog The Beautiful Kind, which she started in 2006 with no goal or direction metamorphosed into stories of her personal sexual journey and was relaunched in June as a multi-writer sex education destination. She's raising her daughter to be open-minded and not afraid to discuss anything with her.

Madison plans to be open with her daughter, born in March, as well.


Madison Young, cuddle conductor, love artist and mom.

"I don't plan on graphically telling my daughter about what I do when she's not old enough to understand that, but I plan on being honest with her about it in a way that she can understand," Madison told me. "I really don't like the idea that sex is dirty or that sex should be hidden from children. I'm actually sketching out a book right now to help her understand that mommy is a love artist and a cuddle conductor. I do want to be honest, I don't want it to be something hidden -- where does mommy go? I think when you do hide things you enforce the idea that these things are shameful."

Unfortunately, as Madison well knows, a mother's sexuality isn't any more supported in the adult industry, which often fetishizes and exploits the mother. Even here the pressure from society to conform to a specific role is felt.

"It's illegal to shoot porn with anyone under 18 on the premises, so obviously that's not happening," Madison told me. "But mostly what people assume is that the kind of people who would engage in pornography are immoral and not fit to be parents. It could be true: the adult industry is huge. There may be unfit parents, just like there may be unfit parents who are firefighters or nurses. We're all individuals. We have different ethics and morals and the reason we do our jobs differs. When the questions of ethics and sexuality come up, people become very passionate and I think it's easier for people to just lump everyone into one category because it's easier to think of sex workers as one big blanketed stereotype than see us as individuals."

As a result of the difficulties she has experienced during her pregnancy and as a new mom, Madison started Sexy Mama’s Social Club in San Francisco, a group for mothers in the adult and sex industries that offers them a support network as well as a place to learn and connect with one another.

YOUR GENUINE SELF

"Oprah talks about this: be your own self, pursue your own happiness -- so long as it's not at the expense of other people -- reclaim your life," Sara said. "Sexuality is a part of that, yet everyone is so appalled when mothers suggest they're sexual beings. Every time Kendra posts on Twitter asking people if they can send her five dollars to help her pay her attorney fees, it makes me so angry, I can feel the steam coming out of my ears. She has to pay all this money to put out a fire someone else set for no other reason than that people decided they didn't like her behavior. It's infuriating."

"People like to have nice clean boxes to put people into," Madison told me. "It gets messy when you have a mom who is also a sexual being because you're bringing two worlds deemed to be completely different."

It came as no surprise to see -- after speaking to her -- that as part of Madison’s most recent exhibit, Becoming MILF, she featured a Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy in her photo series.

"I want my daughter to grow up in a home where she feels comfortable expressing herself," Madison said. "I want her to know sex and sexuality are not bad things, and for her to be comfortable with her body. I want to provide as much education about that as I can. If she is more educated, she is less likely to feel repressed about her sexuality or shameful or that she has to sneak around and have sex to rebel against her parents. I want her to see that is a natural way to connect with people of whatever gender when you're psychologically and emotionally ready to connect with somebody like that -- because there are many different ways for people to connect and show affection at all different ages, and I think being open can help her better understand when it's age-appropriate for her to connect with people in these different ways."

We talk a lot about accepting ourselves, loving ourselves, owning our beauty, finding ourselves, but until we can make peace with every aspect of ourselves and really accept ourselves, we won't get very far. And this includes allowing others the freedom to be themselves, whether they're free agents, parents or expecting mothers.

There is no Jackie/Marilyn dichotomy. We are multifaceted; we have the bandwidth to be as many things as we want. The least we can do is to allow others the courtesy of occupying a multi-dimensional space as well.

FURTHER READING

The Beautiful Kind, edited by Kendra Holliday:

A sex positive online community where people can get advice, share their experiences, and explore new ideas. This site strives to bring shy folks out of their shell, and offer a safe haven for those exploring their sexually creative side. Our sexuality is connected to every aspect of our lives. All genders, sexual orientations, lifestyles, and fetishes are welcome here. Open, honest, and authentic, The Beautiful Kind is sure to entertain, educate, titillate, and inspire.

MadisonBound, run by Madison Young:

The home base of the sexual revolutionary and indie pioneer Madison Young, whose work as an adult performer and porn director never shies from the nitty gritty, meaning reality. Weaving between erotic film and documentary, her films strive to present the complete picture of pleasure and desire. Real orgasms, and the rarest creature of the adult industry: connection between partners.

Pregnant With Desire, a documentary by Madison Young:

Four women celebrate their radically transforming bodies and their desires. Interviews reveal their erotic secrets of pregnancy: orgasmic birth, favorite sex positions, and the eroticism of lactation.

Eff Sex by Susie Bright:

A short essay from her book Sexual Reality, A Virtual Sex World Reader, this essay talks about Bright's first pregnancy, the fears, the changes, and how it all affected her sexuality. This is the woman who went into labor with a vibrator on her clit. She refuses to whisper or offer vague descriptions of sex with a pregnant woman, believing that sex is the best way to prepare for delivery. She has a lot of books for parents, all worth reading, which you can find on her site.

Sex Positive St. Louis, co-founded by Kendra Holliday:

Recognizing that accurate education and information about sexuality is everyone’s birthright, Sex Positive St. Louis (SEX+STL) hosts a program of events and nurtures a culture that accommodates sex positive communities in the St. Louis region, using its web presence as well as social, educational and experiential events to promote the exploration of human sexuality in its many forms and to celebrate the many valuable roles that sexuality plays in our lives.

Sexy Mamas Social Club, started by Madison Young:

A group of moms and moms-to-be in the San Francisco and Bay Area who are sex positive, are part of alternative sex communities (kink, poly-amorous, lesbian queer), adult industry professionals, sex educators, sex writers, burlesque performers, sexual artists, sexual healers, sex workers (past or present) or allies. SMSC recognizes the importance of moms having space to talk about sex, sexuality, discussing and sharing advice regarding sex and sexual dynamics during pregnancy, post-partum, and through motherhood, where you will not be judged or shamed for your work or for being a sexual being and a mother. Coming soon to other cities.

America's Queen: The Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Sarah Bradford:

Painstakingly detailed, impressively fair, the result is the most definitive account yet of a woman who captured the imagination of the American public like no First Lady before or after her. Bradford seems to have interviewed almost everyone who had ever been intimate with Onassis, including George Plimpton, Gore Vidal, Joan Kennedy, and even a few ex-lovers. Most notably of all, Jackie's sister Lee Radziwill speaks with unexpected frankness about the mixture of rivalry and affection that marked their relationship since childhood. Jackie-lovers, take note: this is no hagiography, and its subject certainly comes off as no saint. As gracious as this American icon could be, she also had moments of coldness and even greed, including a particularly shocking moment by the bedside of Ari Onassis's dying son. Yet, in the end, non-airbrushed anecdotes like these only serve to make this most private of public figures even more fascinating.

AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.

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