When women normalize talking about sex, the landscape of sex changes for everyone. Women have often faced double standards when it comes to sexual empowerment. As a result, the conversation about sex has been primarily centered around the male experience. Shamed for asking questions, taking ownership of pleasure, or denigrated for having limits, women were implicitly and explicitly tasked as the gatekeepers of sexual access and the gatekeepers of personal worthiness.
Breaking through the socially acceptable morays of their time, the following women took a stand against sexual oppression and changed the way women discuss and represent sexuality for everyone. We celebrate these pioneers, who, despite receiving backlash, stood up for what they believed to be universal rights of everyone to have access to have a healthy, safe, and empowered relationship with sex in the bedroom and beyond.
In addition to creating sexual health and wellness products, Joani founded a publishing company called Down There Press in 1975. She wrote and published sex-positive literature for women to provide accurate sexual health literature women deserved but didn’t have as much access to. Joani’s relentless passion for equipping women with factual, female-centered information about sexual health makes her a true trailblazer in women’s sexual health and education.
Loretta J. Ross
Writer, activist, professor, and feminist Loretta J. Ross is a staunch advocate for women’s rights and reproductive justice, especially for women of color. She started her journey fighting for women’s human rights while working at the first rape crisis center in the country, where her passion for organizing against injustice against women and dismantling white supremacy flourished.
Loretta co-founded SisterSong, a collective that aims to collect and bring awareness towards the reproductive injustices many women of color and marginalized communities face. Loretta is someone who passionately and unapologetically fights for women and marginalized folks. Whether it’s organizing on the ground level, teaching courses at universities, or testifying at hearings for women’s rights, Loretta tenaciously dedicates her life to fighting for justice and equality for women and people of color.
Loretta is well-known for challenging the culture of calling people out and instead focuses on education to call people into a movement of change. Her work fosters a path for women of all backgrounds to have access to rights equally.
Virginia E. Johnson
Virginia E. Johnson was a historic psychologist and sex therapist who established research around what is known as the human sexual response model. From 1957 through the 1990s, Virginia, and her husband, William H. Masters, spearheaded the research, diagnosis, and treatment around sexual dysfunctions.
The duo developed medical instruments that were used to measure sexual arousal in humans by testing and observing around 700 participants for their research efforts. Johnson was integral in developing the four stages of sexual response, later known as the human sexual response cycle. Virginia’s findings and accomplishments in sexual health have been monumental in helping educators, researchers, and medical, sexual, and mental health professionals understand facets of arousal and human sexuality. Virginia’s contributions to the field have aided in creating more education and context needed to understand physiological aspects of sex and arousal.
PHOTO: BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES.
Gloria Steinem is best known for her writing, activism, and organization around feminist causes. Gloria is the co-founder of New York and Ms. Magazine and has authored several books about her personal life and education about issues that disproportionally impact women. She has founded and co-founded many foundations that offer support, funding, and awareness around helping women thrive and succeed. Gloria's groundbreaking HBO documentary poignantly highlighted the stark reality of childhood sexual abuse and produced a series of documentaries about violence against women worldwide for VICELAND.
In 2013, Gloria was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama for her incredible activist work, and in 2019, she received the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum. Gloria has been and continues to be a powerhouse in the feminist and women's rights movements. She has used her power, privilege, and passion for advocating for women's rights and equality.
These women are among the few of our favorites who are publicly credited for being strong, determined, and defiant in the face of sexism and misogyny. But if you're reading this, you likely know some women who fight against oppression quietly, as they plug along to work, take care of their children and support other women around them. When women come together to support each other, the tide of humanity rises.
Abolishing shame around sexuality is a significant part of that. Women have every right to a robust, healthy shame-free relationship with sex. The woman described above knew the power and necessity of a sex-positive message and the integral part of those who have paved the way for each woman to define her sexuality for herself, without apology or deference.
"Here's to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them." – Unknown
Dr. Kate Balestrieri is a Licensed Psychologist, Certified Sex Therapist, Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, PACT Therapist, and Founder of Modern Intimacy, a group therapy practice in Los Angeles, Miami, NYC, Denver, and Chicago. Listen to her podcast, Modern Intimacy, and follow her on TikTok and Instagram @drkatebalestrieri.