Using Your Body for Activism | A Discussion Shula Melamed
Do you ever feel as if “activism” is a dirty word? Everyone has their own ideas about what activism is, what it means, and what it looks like. Though activism is widely regarded as positive, it is safe to say that some individuals perceive activism to be negative, scary, shaming, aggressive, misguided, or all of the above.
The thing is, activism is not one thing, one concept, one type of act, or for one type of individual/community. Activism is for everyone, and it can look significantly different from person to person, case to case.
Put simply: activism is advocating for oneself or one’s community or, alternatively, advocating as an ally for groups that are not your own or individuals apart from yourself. Because activism covers such a broad, diverse spectrum of acts and individuals, it can be difficult to find one’s place with it. How does one go about engaging with activism? How does one select a cause? Where does one go for information? Though we belong the remarkably and inspiringly progressive industry of Sex Tech, we have actually found ourselves asking these questions from time to time as well.
Like we said, activism is for everybody; but the thing is, it begins with the individual. Of course, it seems intimidating when you look at activism in some of it’s largest forms, but (trust us) it’s a whole lot more accessible, relatable, and understandable when we dial it down to our very own selves.
In order to fully understand what using our bodies for activism means and entails, we spoke to Shula Melamed MA MPH, a Relationship Coach who works with individuals, couples and groups looking to identify and address challenges in their intimate lives head-on, exploring issues related to communication, sexuality, and pleasure. Her approach is informed by theories and practices of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Shula holds an M.A. in Psychology from the New School University and an M.P.H. in Sexuality and Health from Columbia University. Basically, Shula Melamed is a very smart cookie who knows her way around a “taboo” subject or two. We discussed many of the ways in which we as individuals can utilize our bodies for activism and we could not be excited to share them with you.
“Using your body in an activist kind of way is done through understanding how you taking up space, being who you are, asking for what you want, and giving what you have to offer to the world. It is a really powerful tool”
Taking it Off: Getting Naked as a Form of Activism
It is important to understand that our bodies are our own and can be used however we choose as long as it is not harming another individual. So, when it comes to activism “why not use your body to make a point! Especially with women’s bodies which have been so policed over time” says Shula. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of using your body for activism? Be honest. For us, it was literal nudity, things such as “slut walks,” promiscuity, and other such nudity-related tactics commonly understood to be taboo, particularly in public.
SlutWalks are types of protest in which women take to the streets dressed as what people would (unfortunately) call sluts. It is “women walking in the street to demonstrate that the street should be safe for them to walk and dress however they want without being assaulted, attacked, or reviled in some kind of way” as Shula explained it. As you may expect, this sort of activism does garner a fair bit of backlash. “I think that within the system that we live in that still monitors women’s bodies and social norms, it is confusing for people, it’s disturbing for people, they’re not sure whether it’s the right way to do it or not, and it’s provocative.” Is this sort of activism wrong? Or is it just that it is scaring and disorienting people, leading them to discount it as activism at all.
This leads us to ask: “why it is that women can’t do what they want with their bodies and when they are doing what they want with their bodies, we are telling them that they are somehow misguided or misunderstanding how to get what it is that they need?”
When women are exposing their bodies by choice to protest or fight for themselves and their fellow female identifying individuals, why is it that they are consistently responded to with an “oh honey” sort of reaction from people who think they aren’t going about it in the right way? Shula believes that the discourse is along the lines of “‘you’re feeding into the thing that’s oppressing you’ as opposed to ‘you’re using your body in the way that you want to and completely owning it.’”
The notion that we are using our bodies – one of our oppressing forces – to try and fight oppression is utterly tragic in so far as it puts forth the fact that people are still perceiving the woman’s body as her oppressor and as a tool for her oppression rather than something of her own and a tool for her liberation; or rather, a tool to be used in whatever way she f**king wants!
All this said, there sure is a fine and delicate line between empowerment and exploitation. Often it’s almost impossible to understand if something is one, the other, or both.
Empowerment vs Exploration
When we think of professions such as stripping or sex work, for example, would you consider these things to be empowering for the individual or exploitative? It’s a difficult question. But, why? Likely because every circumstance is entirely different and we can one can only know one’s own circumstances to the fullest extent.
So, when speaking about empowerment and exploitation, we must first understand that it is not up to us to make the distinction between the two for anyone else, period. Though, we are most certainly allowed to discuss and ponder these topics in safe, open spaces. In which case, we’ve been wondering, when it comes to exploitation, does it come from the actor or the observer, is it about them or the gaze which falls upon them? Who owns these interactions and the power to shift it from empowering to exploitive or the reverse?
“The main element in whether or not something is exploitive is consent” Shula began “and the person’s willingness to be there and reasons for being there; maybe they like it, it’s stimulating for them, arousing to them, it interests them, there’s something about that work that makes them feel rewarded in a certain way. Though, there will always be people who will argue on grounds such as ‘you think you’re being empowered but you’re just a tool of the oppressor and the patriarchy’ – there are so many sides to this debate. The place where we can’t deny that there is exploitation is in circumstances when someone is being trafficked or forced into that kind of labor and they don’t want to do that.”
When we think further about topics such as sex work, we believe an individual’s opinion on the matter may also have something to do with their perception of the giving and having of the body. What we mean by this is, when a woman is engaging in sex work, is she giving her body to the individual who purchases her time, or is she having her body as her own and doing what she wishes with it? Food for thought, we suppose, the dichotomy between giving and having.
An example which we spoke about with Shula was the documentary Hot Girls Wanted which was created to shed light on the amateur porn industry, though we won’t delve too much into the film (you should definitely watch it if you get the chance), we will say that it is a chilling depiction of the relationship between empowerment and exploitation and just how blurring that line can be. Though these young women are seemingly entering the industry by choice, it is difficult to see it as such considering the lack of dialogue surrounding the industry to help them make informed decisions about it. “A lot of that has to do with women not being encouraged to understand or own their sexuality or understand that it’s not just at the service of another person, which is how we’re basically raised,” Shula told us.
Porn is a large part of our culture and, unfortunately, a large part of sex ed for a lot of kids because they don’t have access to other means of information about sexuality.
How can we understand if what we are doing is empowering us or working to oppress us? How can we fully understand the reasoning behind our decision making and our actions with a great many influences weighing in? It all comes down to understanding yourself, your motives, and walking yourself around your actions to ensure you are being mindful and productive for yourself, your communities, and communities apart from your own which you are an ally for/to.
Shula believes that it’s our reasoning and our orientation to our actions that draw the distinction: “The motivation is the key to all of it – knowing why you’re doing something is really important. It’s really hard to separate that 100% from our culture, but if you’re acting from a place of enjoyment, excitement, and stimulation, then that’s a good place to go, but if you’re thinking ‘I’m going to put up this topless picture of myself (for example) because I feel like shit and I want someone to tell me that I’m hot,’ that might not be the right thing to do. Alternatively, do it from a place of ‘I feel really good, I feel like I look really good in this photo, I look strong, I look interesting, whatever; but, that’s a totally different orientation.”
We know, this is a lot to digest, and it still may be hard to see in plain sight what the first step to using your body for activism may be.
We asked Shula for some tips on how to use one’s body for activism mindfully and in a way that’s productive for yourself and for those whom they are being active for and it turns out it doesn’t have to be as radical as parading the streets naked (though it totally can be)!
Be Active for You and Your Sexuality
How do you advocate for yourself and your peers in a small-scale, more personal way? “by speaking up for what you want in bed, speaking up for your own pleasure. That experience is something that affects another person and, afterward (if you’re not with them in a monogamous relationship forever, and ever, and ever), it will make them understand that the people whom they are with have needs and they need to listen to them. I ask you for what I want, you give it to me, and there’s a positive outcome, and that is something that a person will learn a lesson from. What a person doesn’t learn a lesson from is having sex with somebody or being intimate with somebody and that person not saying what they want and thinking that they know what’s up when really, nobody is having a good time”
Shula goes on: “there’s a huge orgasm gap in heterosexual relationships and part of that is because women are not looking out for themselves/each other. The whole culture is ‘don’t bruise the ego,’ so women who will come after you (and yourself) will suffer and there will be a lot of men who are not going to be used to taking feedback about what’s good or right”
So, when it comes to not faking orgasms and asking for what you want, “that’s one of those things that’s on the ground, face to face, small-scale activism: more women speaking up for their pleasure, speaking up for what it is that they want/what feels good – that can create a revolution if that becomes a thing. If we don’t take bad sex anymore, then it won’t be accepted. If we take our pleasure seriously and know that it’s worth advocating for and talking about, maybe we can close the orgasm gap.” Boom. There you have it.
Activism is as simple as looking out for yourself, your partner, and those who will come after you in bed. See? Activism doesn’t have to be intimidating and the benefits are real, both small-scale and large. Truly, why the hell is anyone out there accepting bad sex? “If everyone is walking around with this understanding that women don’t experience pleasure every time they have sex and that’s just okay, we need to turn around and ask why that’s okay and why we just accept that.”
Talking is Activism
“Find a space of language to operate in that isn’t based upon shame, good and bad, right and wrong, or deficit”
A small yet radical form of activism is simply talking about sex; talking about sex in a de-stigmatized, non-taboo, matter of fact sort of way as we would any of the other facets of relationships – because it allows people to come forth and say things like “I don’t orgasm from sex” for example which, if they are in a safe space for conversation and learning, will allow for others to give them input and attack the situation without shame or judgment. “Being an advocate can also look like learning about your body and teaching others what you’ve learned,” Shula told us.
Additionally, not just talking about sex with your peers, but also talking about it with your partner(s)! It’s all about “creating possibilities rather than pointing fingers and blaming people – collaborating on your pleasure with the other person. It’s a collaboration, you have to create possibilities and you have to collaborate.
It’s our job to understand that we deserve, that’s a very powerful piece of the puzzle, Understand your worthiness to explore and to not be perfect at it and not be into everything.” Know you deserve pleasure, you deserve exploration, and you deserve the chance and comfort to ask for it! This brings us to our next form of activism: Self Love.
Self-love as Activism
In the realm of using one’s body for activism, we are lead to ask: how can we ensure that movements which draw upon an individual’s body can include everyone? If you don’t love your body, where is your place in using your body for activism?
Shula could not have responded more beautifully:
“Activism and sex are not just for young, hot, able bodies. The first small, radical step you can take is to accept yourself and to love yourself right here, right now. That is the first step. The second step is knowing that your body is just a vehicle for your ideas, your passions, your sexuality, everything! It’s just your vehicle. You’ve got to take good care of it, you know, if you want it to run like a good machine, you have to look under the hood and see what the f**k is going on. Start with that, and from there you can do amazing things. If we thought about ‘do I feel good’ even half as much as ‘do I look good’ even changing that can be considered a small, activist step”
Activism begins from with, it begins with loving yourself enough to advocate for YOU, for people like you, and for people unlike you, as well. We need to ask: how can we make conditions better for ourselves? We need to recognize that we are feeling oppression, we need to ask why, and then also that if you’re feeling it, other’s likely are too. We asked:
“How can you advocate for yourself and your groups as well as groups that are not your own?”
“Talk about it, take it out of the shadows.” She said, “ask ‘do you have this issue too?’ and ‘is this something you need to work on as well? If we want to do body activism on the smaller scale, this is one of the things that isn’t innately large-scale but it can turn into something radical. Use your body and your experience on this earth to lay out your groundwork as an activist and an individual.”
We must seek to understand our oppressing forces, seek to do so through a lens of self-love and care, and then seek to deconstruct them through acts both small and radical, personal and collective.
Your body is yours and yours alone, remembering that is a tiny form of activism in and of itself.
To reach Shula contact her at:
- Instagram and Twitter @shulamelamed