This women’s history month, let’s get erotic.

by Nadège of Pleasure Science

Sex is a necessary, taboo topic. This is just as true today as it was a century ago, but thanks to the work of countless women, we are all in a much better position than ever before.

In honor of sex-positive activism and the beauty of feminity, here are eight women who shifted the way society views sex, gender, and sexuality.

1. Audre Lorde (1934–1992)

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

Audre Lorde’s essay Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Powerchallenged the people of 1978 to consider that eroticism is a sensation that creates feelings, and as such, its possibilities are diverse.

What food do you eat? What sex do you like? What music do you listen to? How does the sand feel between your toes?

Lorde’s perspective as a queer black woman ran circles around the mainstream feminism of the 1970s and her perspective remains relevant to this day — but many people still haven’t heard of her.

If you want to understand sexuality from a truly intersectional approach, her book Sister Outsideris a fantastic place to start.

2. Gloria Anzaldúa (1942–2004)

Gloria is another queer woman whose views on sex and sexuality were ahead of her time.

She rose to feminist fame for co-producing the anthology This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Woman of Colorwhich continues to be a best-seller taught in universities around the world — but most people don’t know her name.

Anzaldúa was a poet, activist, and scholar who helped define the Chicana studies canon. She grew up on the edge of Mexico and Texas, and this complex relationship with borders influenced much of her work.

Her essays continue to shape the way artists, activists, and academics write about sexuality, body trauma, land, and race.

Here is one of her most popular poems.

3. Emma Goldman (1869–1940)

Ever heard of an “anarcha-feminist”? These are leaders who approach feminism from an anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, and anti-oppressive philosophy. In their view, feminism is about the equality of all genders rather than an emphasis on women’s rights.

And you guessed it, Emma Goldman was an anarcha-feminist! As a white woman fighting for free love and birth control education during the turn of the 20th century, Goldman’s gender-inclusive approach to feminism was revolutionary.

One of my favorite aspects of Goldman’s activism was her radical view on marriage during her lifetime. In her opinion, matrimony makes women “absolute dependents” and undermines “love, the freest, the most powerful molder of human destiny”.

While marriage laws have evolved over the last century, it’s still vital to be critical of an institution that yielded a woman’s rights to her husband to the point where he basically owned her. Today, there are still legal loopholes that make it permissible for a husband to rape his wife in 12 states.

4. Marsha P. Johnson (1945–1992)

Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson was a black transwoman living in New York City. When the Stonewall Inn was ransacked by the police, Marsha was one of the prominent figures who fought back against the cops and participated in an uprising that would later inspire the LGBTQIA+ Pride Parade.

Johnson was a trans-activist decades before gender politics became mainstream. She co-founded S.T.A.R, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, and was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front.

Today Marsha P. Johnson is a trans and queer icon whose death is still mourned by millions of queer people. Outside of trans and rainbow culture, Johnson is relatively unknown and so is her murder.

In 1992, police ruled Johnson’s death a suicide despite the presence of a headwound. This “suicide” was heavily disputed by everyone close to her. In 2012, the police reopened Marsha’s case as a homicide thanks to the efforts of trans-activist Mariah Lopez.

Previously unreleased documents include witnesses who saw Marsha get harassed by a group of robbers using homophobic slurs near the Hudson River, where Marsha’s body was later found. Allegedly, one of these men was later heard bragging about how he killed a drag queen named Marsha.

Last year Forbes magazine reported that 375 transgender people were murdered.

“History isn’t something you look back at and say it was inevitable. It happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment, but those moments are cumulative realities.” — Marsha P. Johnson

5. Virginia Johnson (1925–2013)

Some people are familiar with Masters & Johnson, the dynamic duo who studied human sexuality in the late 1950’s, but if you were to casually drop the name Virginia Johnson most people wouldn’t know who you were talking about.

Thanks to the data Virginia Johnson collected, myths about sexual dysfunction were questioned when no one else was talking about sex.

Her work set the stage for today’s sexologists and helped normalize the field of sex therapy.

6. Sylvia Rivera (1951–2002)

“In many ways, Sylvia was the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement.” — Riki Wilchins

Sylvia Rivera identified as a drag queen and half-sister, which to her meant, “women with the minds of women trapped in male bodies.”

Riveria’s activism and consideration of gender laid the foundation for transgender and sexuality politics today. She was a fierce friend of Marsha P. Johnson, and together they co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.).

Sylvia devoted her life to low-income and homeless youth in the LGBTQ community. Using her voice to challenge systemic poverty and racism, her activism is still an example of combatting the intersections of gender, sexuality, class, and race.

Sylvia Rivera has left behind a legacy that influences queer and trans culture across the globe.

7. Midori

A BDSM icon and author, Midori was normalizing sex fetishes way before Christian Grey came to the scene. If you know anything about ethical BDSM, it is likely due to her work.

Midori is a graduate of UC Berkeley and continues to work as a sexologist, artist, and educator. Born in Kyoto, Japan one of her most popular teachings is about the history and practice of shibari, also known as Japanese rope bondage.

In 2019, Midori was inducted into the Society of Janus Hall of Fame.

She continues to write and teach classes about alternative sexual practices. If you ever have a chance to attend one of her workshops, know that you are being taught by a BDSM veteran who was taking the stigma out of fetishes before people knew what kink was.

8. Betty Dodson (1929-2020)

You’ve probably heard of Gloria Steinem, but people rarely know about Betty Dodson. As peers in the feminist movement, Betty gravitated towards sex education while Gloria chose a less erotic way to discuss female empowerment (though Steinem still endured tons of harassment for her feminism.)

Betty began her work as a sex educator in the 1960s and pioneered the pro-sex feminist movement through her Bodysex workshops. Her techniques helped hundreds of cis-gendered women heal sexual shame and connect to their bodies through sex education and guided group masturbation.

Her sex-positive modalities were even featured in Netflix’s The Goop Lab which predates the Sex, Love, & Goop series.

Dodson was 90 years old when the Netflix special aired, which features Dodson’s highly-successful “rock n roll” technique that helps vulva-owners who never orgasmed before reach climax for the first time. Betty passed away at the age of 91 in 2020.


Thanks to the women who came before us

This list of change-makers is by no means complete. Other incredible women who influenced the way we think about sex are Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, author Nancy Friday, and sexologist Beverly Whipple (to name a few).

It’s fascinating the reflect on the women whose curiosity led to activism that shifted the status quo.

Not only should we thank them for what we have today, but many of these women created the modalities we continue to use to heal sex, learn about sexuality, and fight back against homophobic and racist sexisms.

It can sometimes feel like there are too many injustices to solve, but when we reflect on the women who fought (and are still fighting) it can inspire us to create the change we wish to see in the world.

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