the problem with desire
The room spun around me, blurring the faces that stared out at me from all directions. I reached for the wall to steady myself and realised too late I’d missed the mark. My body fell to the floor. Ashley laughed at me and continued her drunken dance to Arrested Development’s Mr Wendal. From my new vantage point on the ground I could see it was dark outside and I wondered when that had happened. My stomach lurched as I hauled myself up and to the toilet as quickly as my drunken thirteen-year-old body would carry me. I vomited again and again. My body wracked with convulsions and waves of exhaustion. I passed out, head against the toilet bowl.
When I woke up, I was in a different room and my friend Ben had his mouth on one of my breasts and his hand on the other. I don’t remember feeling fear. I remember joining in. We got up and he led me outside into the bushes, for privacy, I guess. I scratched my leg from ankle to knee on the barbed wire fence. We didn’t have sex. When he tried, I said no. And he listened. But I had been flattered that he wanted to. For the following two weeks I was devastated that he didn’t want to date me. Years later he told me on a Facebook chat that I was the one who got away.
That same year I went back to Sydney where we’d recently moved from and I went out with a girlfriend and her older male friends. She and I were both rebellious and given too much freedom. We drank cheap wine and her friend Peter spent the evening telling me how beautiful he thought I was. At some point in the night he bent me over a BBQ at the beachfront and pretended to fuck me. Behaviour that I laughed off and, again, felt flattered by.
It’s easy to look at these scenarios and think I was a foolish young girl, which I was. And my single parent gave me too much freedom, which she did. But there is an underlying behaviour here which I think is more problematic. That is, somewhere along the way I had learnt that to be desired by men was something I should strive for.
Everywhere we look the narrative of a woman making herself desirable for the male gaze is prevalent – in advertising, films, music videos, women’s magazines. We are shown from a very young age that if we are desired, we are valued. That if we are desired, we have power. That it is our duty as women to be appealing to men. And once “caught”, we should no longer require the desire of other men because our duty is now to please our husband.
‘I always felt like it was my job to be there for the man,’ my mother tells me. ‘I would always make myself available, even when I wasn’t in the mood.’ We were talking about childbirth. And she was telling me the story of how she let my father have sex with her weeks after she received an episiotomy. So strong was her need to be desired.
I’ve made a living from being desired by men. I worked as a stripper for twelve years, and have worked in the sex industry for fourteen. I have capitalised off almost every look of desire that has been thrown my way. Before I started stripping, I quit two jobs after my male bosses behaved inappropriately towards me. Stripping was on my terms. I made the choice to walk in the door and allow my body to be desired. And it was through stripping that I learnt that a large proportion of men who believe that their desire for you is a diminishment of their power will attempt to regain what they perceive as their loss of power. They will put you down and treat you badly, make vain attempts to manipulate the situation so they feel like the ball, that you never actually wanted to catch, is back in their court.
The truth is, I like being desired. I like being perceived as attractive. I love being objectified and touched consensually, when I invite it in. But, as an adult, I look back at my thirteen-year-old self and I wonder how she learned to want it at such a young age. How could she perceive the non-consensual touch of men as flattering? I look at the many, many years it took her to unravel her own desire from the desires other people placed on her.
Women should be able to grow up knowing that their desire is on their terms. That their value is not measured by how much they’re wanted, but that their power lies in who they are.
Frankie Van Kan is a writer, queer stripper and alt-cabaret performer. She has been getting naked for an audience of one or a crowd of a thousand for over a decade. She is currently studying writing, practicing Tantra, and coming up with new ways to undress.