Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 2.12.2009


All We’re Demanding Is …
Women, desire and community
by Suzi Steffen

We work towards loving our curvy, fat, skinny, super-size, thick, disabled, black and brown fine-ass bodies every day. — Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, “The Femme Shark Manifesto”

Sometimes, “sex is a real form of resistance,” says Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. 

The activist and writer knows that different women want different things — from equal pay to an end to racism to a world where the idea of being sexy isn’t restricted to some airbrushed white woman waiting for her prince to come. 

That’s one reason she co-founded the Femme Sharks with her good friend Zuleikha Mahmood, and that’s one reason she tours her Grown Woman Show to places like the UO, where she’ll appear at the Gerlinger Lounge at 7 pm on Monday, Feb. 23.

Kate Harding
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Photo Meera Sethi
The Femme Sharks at the Walk for Life. Photo courtesy Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.

Despite years of protests, books, rallies, classes and performances, that message hasn’t quite gotten into mainstream discussions. For instance, don’t ask The New York Times about connections between activism and desire, or between women’s brains and their genitals. In a recent NYT Magazine cover story, much of the article focused on the supposed mystery of female desire, claimed that women don’t know when they’re turned on and called women’s desire “narcissistic.”


Give Us a Fucking Break

Good sex, great sex, enriching sexuality is not just about the absence of physical or emotional pain or only about emotional intimacy. It is also about desire and the full expression of that desire. — Heather Corinna, “An Immodest Proposal”

Feminist bloggers called bullshit almost immediately on much of the Jan. 25 article, including the headline that reverted to the old Freudian chestnut, “What Do Women Want?”

“Women want less condescending articles about what we want” was the title of a post at Pandagon ( The Gawker-owned site Jezebel ( and Salon’s Broadsheet ( also leapt into the discussion, and eyerolling spread across the Internet.

One objection came from photos accompanying the article, all of which were of white women. The headline seemed to suggest that all women are the same and have the same desires. And the article’s author, Daniel Bergner, described female sexuality as “a giant forest” that “seemed, so often, too complex for comprehension,” not to mention a space of darkness and many paradoxes. 

Um, said the blogosphere, not. “Perhaps, at its core, there is no universal ‘female sexuality,’” wrote Jill Filipovic of Feministe (, “and no deep, dark paradoxical ‘truth’ at the end of the tunnel.”

Perhaps that’s especially true for women who are survivors of sexual violence. Piepzna-Samarasinha, who’s also a performance artist, survivor of childhood incest and fierce advocate for queer and trans people of color, says knowing what she wants in sexual terms has formed part of her healing process. 

But “there’s no one way of surviving, no one experience,” she says. Some women want individual therapy; some want to throw bottles, hard, into the glass recycling bin; some want a lot of new sexual experiences. “If you survive violence, that doesn’t mean you’re broken forever,” she says. “You can find some ways of getting justice and getting what you need.”


Passion Beyond the Va-jay-jay

We have big mouths, and we know how to use them. Don’t fuck with us! Ask us if we want to fuck, though! — Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, “The Femme Sharks Manifesto”

Sexual self-knowledge can be one key to making active, healthy choices — but it’s not the only thing that turns women on.

At the Women’s Center on the UO campus, says director Brandy Ota, students and other women talk about wanting to be creative and surrounded by people who support them in their lives.

“Creating safe environments with other women” also opens the way for women to understand their desires, according to Ota. It’s the ASUO Women’s Center that will sponsor Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Grown Woman Show, and one of the reasons the group is bringing her to campus is “to foster coalition-building,” according to diversity coordinator Veronica Barrera.

Piepzna-Samarasinha and writer/blogger Kate Harding are two of many contributors to the new anthology Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape. Harding founded the blog Shapely Prose, one of the most prominent fat acceptance sites on the Internet. She writes for Salon’s Broadsheet, and her book Lessons From the Fat-o-Sphere, co-authored with Marianne Kirby, comes out in May.

Harding says she finds the idea that women’s sexuality is some kind of hidden forest both outrageous and laughable. “Women want to stop being treated like some mysterious other creature who is not reading this New York Times article,” she says.

She adds, “Women want what every-body wants. I mean, what do human beings want?”

Piepzna-Samarasinha says it’s clear to her that “women’s desires are surprising and complicated and rooted to a passion for justice.” But she adds that desires look different over time, and that sexual desire isn’t fixed. 

“Having racial and economic and sexual justice, having clean water and jobs we like and communities we control, that helps us express our sexualities,” she says. The Femme Sharks, for instance, protest things like the recent “Walk for Life” on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. “We talked about bringing the party back to the protest,” Piepzna-Samarasinha says. “To be able to say yes, sex is dangerous, and it’s also really pleasurable for women and for trans folks, it felt really good.” 

Many of the people in the Walk for Life in the Bay Area were from youth groups bussed in for the day, she says. “They’ve been told there is one way they can live their lives, and it was nice to march by them looking pretty, being happy, loving each other, and saying ‘This is a different model.’” 

It’s powerful, Piepzna-Samarasinha says, “to talk about the complexities of female desire, in this case, queer, brown female desire.” When one woman told her, “You’re too pretty to be a slut,” she responded, “I’m beautiful because I’m a slut, and you’re beautiful. We’re all beautiful in the eyes of God.”


Loving Your Body

Imagine for a minute a world in which fat women hear that men want only thin women and laugh our asses off, because that is not remotely our experience — our experience is one of loving and fucking and navigating a big damn world in our big damn bodies with grace and optimism and power. — Kate Harding, “How Do You Fuck a Fat Woman?”

So, no surprise to anyone who thinks about it for more than a second, culture and biology blend in the rich swirl of sex and sexuality and lust and love. In the midst of a media culture that continually tells women how inadequate we are, how do women learn to care for our bodies?

Students at the UO have some ideas, Ota says. There’s dancing and exercising (“especially the look and sounds that women make when they are kicking ass on the field,” she writes in an email). Some of the students say that it helps a lot to become “proficient masturbators.”

Harding, whose blog is part of the Healthy At Every Size (HAES) movement, says that her new book specifically addresses the idea of liking your body no matter what size you are. 

“It’s everything from stop watching so much TV, where you’re constantly bombarded by images of thin women and diet ads,” she says, “to stop making fun of other women’s bodies,” whether those bodies are pencil-thin, medium-sized or fat. “The more we’re judging other people, the more we’re saying it about ourselves,” she says.

At the popular online sex-ed site Scarleteen, founder Heather Corinna (who also has a piece in Yes Means Yes) writes, “Screw magazines that tell you to focus on what to improve about your body … Your body is not a home-improvement project.”

The students at the ASUO Women’s Center would probably agree with that, according to Ota. Women loving their own bodies might mean “actively working to break down barriers and stereotypes about women,” she says.

For her part, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha finds that it helps that she works with other people — women and men, trans people and queer people and straight people — in a group called Generation Five ( Generation Five’s goal is to end childhood sexual violence in five generations, to make obsolete the social conditions that let the abuse go on. 

That’s not something one woman can do by herself. “It’s not an individual problem,” Piepzna-Samarasinha says. And, like Harding, she finds some community online. “If you look at bloggers like, for instance, there’s a whole community of women writing about what community looks like in our lives,” she says.

Anger might be part of finding a path to loving the body and to recovery and desire, Piepzna-Samarasinha says. But along with rage, she writes in her essay in Yes Means Yes, “There’s got to be something else we make together,” a community that’s made up of people “loving, fucking, healing, praying, listening to one another.”     

Find Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Sarmarasinha at and Kate Harding at The Shapely Prose blog is at and Heather Corinna’s Scarleteen is Yes Means Yes is available at the UO Bookstore.