JUST CAUSE MAGAZINE
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JUST CHATTING With Sheila Kelley
Sexy women turn me on. You know it when you see it, right? And it's not about the size and shape of their breasts (though I'm not blind to a nice set of breasts,) or the size and shape of their ass, (again, not blind.) To me, sexy is more of an essence. It swirls around a woman in the way she walks - confident, focused, driven. In the way she talks - insightful, assured, creative. In the way she looks you in the eye - challenging, direct, encouraging. Frankly, I find it a bit distracting, until I start to feel the energy. That "turned on" feeling of wanting to think more, talk more, do more, get more done, because I was just reminded that I CAN.
Needless to say, after spending an hour on the phone with Sheila Kelley, I had to scrape my tingly and gelatinous self off the couch, and wanted to run through the streets screaming, "we can do anything, sexy women rule!"
Yes, sexy women turn me on. And Sheila Kelley is a seriously sexy woman. She totally turned me on.
Now, before I let you believe that you're about to get a titillating tale of hot lesbian sex - such a popular fantasy, I know - you're not. You're going to get an inspirational tale of what happens when women claim their sexuality, find joy and strength in it, and then work to empower other women to do the same.
That's what Sheila does, she empowers women. Although often recognized for her work in film and TV, this brunette beauty didn't really hit her stride until she started teaching women all over the country to be strippers. She's gotten Barbara Walters on a stripper's pole. Just last week she got Martha Stewart on the pole, despite Ms. Stewart's protestations that she just wasn't up to it. If Sheila has her way, we'll all be able to channel, and show-off, our inner strippers. And it has nothing to do with sex. It has everything to do with power.
"There is such a snow-job going on globally with women and our bodies - it's like they belong to everybody but us!" Sheila explained to me. Sure, media uses women's bodies to sell everything from hamburgers to men's cologne, but we can't even show a nipple on TV. "Viagra is everywhere, but the minute you talk about a nipple, vagina, or a clitoris, everyone freaks out. It's infuriating, the double standard is ridiculous."
I would like to point out that men's nipples are all over the media. Sheila would like to point out that the first commercial to air after the nation was traumatized by confirmation that Janet Jackson has nipples was a Viagra commercial. Women's nipples should be hidden at all cost, but we should all encourage men to have harder cocks?
It's easy to see why Sheila is infuriated.
"It's a great way to control a population, you control female sexuality," she believes. "Men are encouraged to be as virile and sexy as they can be. Look at any sport - it's all virility. Watch someone like A-Rod walk to the plate. Male athletes strut. Men strut. But if a woman struts, well..." I finished her sentence for her, "She's a slut?"
Yup. If woman let's her feminine power be seen, popular culture turns that power into some sort of sex act for the benefit of men, and she is a slut. I want her to be wrong. I do. But I think she's right. And she repeats, "Our bodies belong to everybody but us."
Sheila is quite clear that she's not talking about women having sex - with anyone. For her, our sexuality is the next battleground in feminism. We've heard it before, after all: "Our Bodies Ourselves" is the defacto feminist manifesto. But this is slightly, subtly different. It's not about our bodies, but about our sexuality. And not who we have sex with, or how, but how the sexual energy that emanates from women is used, controlled, feared or accepted.
I'm not sure I can say it right, and want to make clear that this is my clumsy thinking, not hers. But it seems like we're making a shift from "this is my body and you can't have it" to "this is my body and you have to deal with it." I can be as sexy, as strong, as powerful as I want, and if you have a hard time dealing with it, that's your problem, not mine. (But you're missing out.)
Her goal, plain and simple, is to remind people that women's sexuality is normal, healthy and powerful. Not shameful, not something to be sold, and certainly not something to be used as a weapon of control over women or men. That's what The S Factor, her wildly popular, stripper-inspired, series of fitness and empowerment classes is about.
Looking at Sheila, it seems obvious that she would be supremely confident in her body, her appearance and her own sexuality. I mean, look at her. It's easy for anyone to say, "Well sure, if I looked like that, I would......."
But it didn't come naturally to Sheila. At all. As the youngest of nine kids, in a conservative and Christian household, Sheila says that her body was, in many ways, the last thing that was ever discussed. "My mother never even told me that I was going to have a period, much less teach me about a tampon. At 15, after I had been bleeding for 3 years she asked, ‘do you need to talk about anything?' She was a product of a different time."
Eventually, Sheila studied dance and by adulthood was a classically trained ballerina and soloist with the Westmoreland Ballet Company before majoring in Dance at NYU's Tisch School of Arts. So you wouldn't think it would be a huge leap for her to play a stripper in the film, "Dancing at the Blue Iguana", which looked at the gritty reality of life as a stripper.
"It was awful. I was such a duck out of water. I was so awkward and frustrated. I was kind of shocked. I was a dancer, but even I had never been encouraged to move my body in an overtly sexy way," she told me. "When I finally loosened my body up enough and stuck with it, it was like being struck by a lightening bolt, it was as if someone took a dark veil off from over my eyes. That veil is the veil of seeing the world from a censored point of view. That was the day that I stopped censoring my body."
She's talking about liberation here. The liberation of being able to be exactly who you are, without it being used against you, or against your will.
This, however, still makes people really uncomfortable. And though neither one of us profess to know exactly why, we both remarked that some of the greatest resistance we've each encountered has been from other women.
When I first got the idea to launch JUST CAUSE, I excitedly walked into the very male-dominated world of fundraising, tech companies and the testosterone stew that is the startup world. And I loved it. (Still do.) I got no pushback or resistance from men whatsoever. (Though I did get a very funny bit of advice from a male advisor about "pitching" to men: "Give guys 10 minutes to realize you're hot, imagine having sex with you, try to figure out if they can have sex with you, and then give up the idea of having sex with you. Then pitch. Just don't say anything important in the first 10 minutes.")
However, the first time that I did a public pitch to angel investors, it was a woman who came up to me, pulled me aside and said, as if giving me motherly advice, "You're too sexy to be taken seriously." I was devastated. It took me a long time to realize that she was wrong.
But, here's what I think. I think that women know, innately, that our sexuality is very powerful stuff. And that, whether we want to or not, we know that it is a tool that we can, and do, use to get what we want. Even if we don't consciously know it, we see it everywhere. Back to the fact that media uses sexualized images of women to sell everything from hamburgers to shaving cream. And that media tells men they should have powerful erections and be ready to have sex at a moment's notice. Forget gold, sex is the new gold-standard - and if you don't have it, you gotta get it.
Damn, that's hard. (No pun intended.) When I wash my car, I look nothing like Paris Hilton. What if I'm not sexy enough? What if I'm too sexy?
So we know that our sexuality is important, but we're also told it's bad. And wait, if my sexuality is a powerful tool to get what I want, so is some other woman's. What if she wants what I have, and she's sexier?
Help, Sheila! What if all women are sexy? Then what do we do?
"All women are sexy," she tells me. But it sounds comforting when she says it. "I believe that women tearing women apart is an unfortunate offspring of this culture. We live in a very masculine culture and therefore we perceive the world through masculine eyes, even though we're women. And it's vaguely threatening. We have signed this imaginary tacit agreement that ‘I won't show my sexiness if you won't show yours. I won't entice your man if you don't entice mine.' So we walk around censoring ourselves. It's sad."
I think I'm getting it. The way she explains it, if we, as women, accept that the power of our sexuality is multi-dimensional and in our control, then the power and sexuality of other women is not a threat at all. Theirs doesn't eclipse ours. Moreover, as women feel more valued and more secure in their own lives, the sort of snarky and predatory competition dissipates.
This explains why so many of my kick-ass girlfriends are so sexy and I feel so good around them! Hooray!
It becomes even more interesting when our partners notice other women. Sheila happens to be married to one of my all-time biggest crushes, Richard Schiff. (Yes, I like dark, geeky, brooding smart guys, not those shiny, strutty types.)
"Richard and I look at women together all the time," she laughs. "We'll be walking down the street and I'm the one who says, ‘wow, did you see her great ass?'"
Speaking of Richard, it comes as no surprise that he's a fan of the S Factor. "It definitely took our sex to another level, which is great," she says matter-of-factly. "But mostly, he's so proud. He knows that when I love me as much as he loves me, there's more confidence and adventure. It's more fun."
Obviously, this is great in a relationship with your lover. But Sheila and I are both mothers also, and are working on raising a generation of kids that is empowered and balanced in their approach to their own sexuality. Given that her own mother was unable to discuss the raw biology of menstrual cycles with Sheila, I had to ask how she's raising her own children.
"Oh, I have to tell you a great little story. When my son was in 5th grade, he was getting teased at school by kids who would say ‘your mom teaches stripping.' His response was, ‘my mom empowers women!' My son is going is going to be the greatest catch of the century," she says proudly. "He has watched women become happier, fuller, sexier, more beautiful."
She also has a daughter, roughly the same age as my own daughter. "She's navigating the dangerous waters of this society. Everything we see - every message is basically disempowering to her, so I am just completely truthful with her. I say to her, ‘your body is so beautiful, so delicious, and men will love your body when you're older, and they're going to want to touch it and kiss it and have sex with it. It is YOUR body, your decision, up to you! It is a choice that you have to make. It's beautiful, deep, real and YOUR choice, your power.'"
This was an interesting thing for me to hear. For one thing, that's pretty much what I tell my daughter. And I thought it was pretty normal, because that's how I was raised. But my daughter and I recently took a mommy-and-me sex education class at the Seattle Children's Hospital, and this is very different than the messaging we got. When it came time to discuss sexuality and the act of having sex, the entire lesson was based on how to say ‘no,' to boys. I, of course, was the annoying mom who raised my hand and asked, "can we teach them when, why and how to say ‘yes' also?"
My daughter rolled her eyes and said, "I knew you were going to say that." I was glad that she knew I would say that.
Sheila is enormously proud of her work. She talks about the changes she sees in the women she works with, the stories they tell her about how they are changed. There is still so much work for her to do, and she can't wait to get to it.
"There's so much damage and self-hatred in this culture because we don't look like the magazine covers," and you can hear the frustration in her voice. "We have to find our power. It's kind of like that Harriet Tubman quote, ‘I could have saved more if only they'd known they were slaves.' "
Now, before either of us feel too much self-pity, which would be grossly out of scale in a global sense, we do move on to discuss the plight of women all over the world. Needless to say, hundreds of thousands of women face fights far more serious that not feeling like Paris Hilton when they wash their cars.
Sheila is currently very passionate about an organization called Equality Now. Founded in 1992, Equality Now works to promote and protect the basic human rights of women around the world.
"I learned about them from my good friends Deborah Messing & Christine Lahti, and I think what they do really matters." Indeed, it is exactly what we've been discussing, but in a MUCH more direct and brutal way. Sheila continues, "Equality Now is a global organization that supports grassroots movements to end the abominations that some cultures and traditions force on women. The only way to stop it is grassroots empowerment so that they can begin to change for themselves".
She's talking, of course, about things like genital mutilation, sex slavery, the selling of girls as "wives" to older men from other countries. Abominable doesn't begin to cover it. The work that these people do is amazing. They deserve all of our support.
Because really, we're lucky that we have the luxury of being outraged that anyone was offended by Janet Jackson's nipple. Thanks to generations of amazing women before us, we get to worry about whether or not people understand our sensual power. There are hundreds of thousands of women who have to worry about whether or not they will have their clitoris cut off, or will be sold as a sex slave.
It's a tough note to end on, but it is also a great reminder that for centuries - across the globe and throughout countless cultural traditions - women's sexuality has been perceived as a threat and a tool to be used to control people. Our sexuality has, historically, belonged to everyone except us. It's time to find it, claim it, enjoy it, celebrate it and be all that we can be. It's not about having sex at all. It's about having power. And using that power to make other's feel powerful too.
It's about letting ourselves get turned on so that we can do and be everything we want.
And that is sexy.