“M” Month Women We Love: Hayley MacMillen

We are delighted to continue our International Masturbation Month celebration with Hayley MacMillen, who introduces herself here:

As Refinery29’s Sex & Relationships Editor, I write a weekly sex column, The Bed Post, which explores what holds us back from the sex and love lives we want to lead, especially shame and stigma; edit essays from talented freelancers; appear on Refinery29’s Facebook Live talk show Sexcess!; and cover all things sexuality, gender, and relationships. My job also involves lots of sex-toy testing, which is one of my favorite perks. In my past life, I did communications for health nonprofits in East Africa, and the belief that guided me then guides me now: Health is a human right, and fully realized sexuality is a central part of it.

Who inspires you and why?

Right now, I’m inspired by Samantha Bee and her show Full Frontal. She doesn’t hesitate to lampoon ineptitude or ignorance wherever it appears, even if it’s on the part of someone who shares her liberalism. “Speaking truth to power” is a cliché by now, but that’s what she’s doing. And I am loving Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow’s discussions of menstruation politics (and everything else) on their podcast Call Your Girlfriend. Their conversations are nuanced, frank, and not just shame-free but proud. None of these women are apologizing for centering “women’s issues”; they’re challenging why we section off issues relevant to women with this label in the first place.

We love the way women are becoming empowered around sexual pleasure. What’s your favorite example, story, or anecdote about this?

I did an interview I will always remember for a story on women who had experienced either primary anorgasmia — they had never had an orgasm — or secondary anorgasmia — they had never experienced orgasm with their partner. When she was 26, “Sarah” had never had an orgasm either alone or with a partner, although she’d been having (and enjoying) sex for eight years. One night, she went home with an acquaintance she didn’t know well. He tried a come-hither fingering move and hit her G-spot, and she came — not once but three times. Sarah described how liberating it was to discover that the secret to her orgasm was technical, a matter of learning how her body responded to stimulation rather than an issue of “frigidity” or unmet emotional needs. Many women are held back from pleasure by psychosocial factors, it’s true, but to me, Sarah’s story was emblematic of the fact that many of us don’t know our bodies as well as we could, and that it’s not as if all women need long-term partners or emotional closeness to achieve maximum pleasure. Every woman’s sexuality is unique to her, and every woman deserves to explore it.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting to think and learn about sex?

I wish someone had told me anything about sex. That’s the short answer. Sex was never a topic of discussion in my household, nor really among my friends when I was growing up, and I felt alone in figuring out masturbation and sex as a teenager — yes, including anatomy and logistics, but more so the emotional aspects: What did sex mean to me? What role would it play in my life? How would I communicate with partners? I didn’t need someone to answer those questions for me, but I would have loved spaces in which to discuss them. My goal as a speaker and writer is to spark the shame-free, informative, uplifting conversations about sex that a younger me would have appreciated.

What do you think has changed the most since you first started working on ideas about women’s sex and pleasure?

In the past couple of years, I’ve seen stronger and stronger associations between sexual health and pleasure and a growing recognition that the two cannot be separated. At the International Conference on Family Planning this year, I spoke with a researcher who told me that earlier in her career, other researchers actually referred to sex as “exposure to the risk of a fertility event” — an absurd distillation of the act that showed the gap between how experts think about sex and how people have it. Now at these types of “professional” gatherings, I’m starting to hear people speak out about their own sexual and reproductive desires, concerns, and goals. In the U.S., many people are speaking out about the harms of abstinence-only sex ed, and I’m heartened that President Obama recently moved to cut federal funding for it. I’ve written before that when we separate how our bodies feel from the act of sex — when we treat intercourse only as an occasion for people to get STIs, get unintentionally pregnant, or get in trouble for not obtaining consent — we open the door to sexual coercion, pressure, and even violence. We’re beginning to recognize these connections, but we have a long way to go in this country.

What are the best parts or biggest challenges of your own journey as a sex-positive creator?

I love the emails I receive from readers who are grateful for, inspired by, or curious about my writing, and I try to be a resource to them or direct them to one. Especially when the comments on my stories are less than positive — comment sections can be all nine circles of hell in one place — these individual exchanges are reminders of why I do what I do. Sex negativity abounds in our culture, and people who are struggling with their own fears about sex are threatened by sex talk. That’s why we need to keep having it. Nothing combats shame like open discussion.

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