PJ Harvey “Sheela-Na-Gig”
Few moments of adolescence are scarier than the second you decide to declare yourself as a sexual being. You stand vulnerable before a creature you’ve deemed worthy and ask them to guide you through a part of yourself you don’t yet understand. The first time you put yourself out there feels so foreign and dangerous that any modicum of rejection can feel like destruction. No matter how real a feeling might seem in a given moment, a simple “no” can shake you to your core, leading you to question your own desire. You find yourself making excuses for “this thing that came over you,” even if you’re not quite sure why you’d apologize for it in the first place. It’s especially devastating to a young girl, whose declaration of sexuality might lead her to her first experience of a phenomenon most women know all too well: slut-shaming.
My most defining experience in this realm happened after I graduated high school. My sister and I checked out one summer night to partake in another one of our friend’s house parties, which seemed to get a little more wild every time. The end of high school made me feel like I no longer had anything to lose, and I was anxious to explore everything I could. My imminent separation from almost everyone I’d known seemed like the perfect chance to say and do whatever I wanted, things I might’ve been too afraid to do before. In that night’s case, it was seduction.
I’d decided early in the summer that I was sick of being a wallflower, so I planned to make a move on a cocky boy from my inner circle. I didn’t really care for his friendship, but I was attracted to him, so I figured there’d be no harm in going for it. I was confidently drunk by the time he’d arrived, and I’d spend most of the night throwing myself at him until he gave in. Despite my eventual victory, the spoils felt unearned. My then equally-intoxicated partner incessantly questioned the legitimacy of my desire, accusing me of being too drunk to actually want him. He claimed it was out of respect, but he had a funny way of showing it, saying he wasn’t drunk enough to hook up with me and implying he would’ve preferred someone else. I got frustrated and stopped, trying for the rest of the night to act like nothing had happened.
Afterward, I found myself constantly poring over what happened, plagued by the things he’d said. When I tried to ask him about it, he said that I should’ve regretted what I’d done, that I didn’t “need to drink as an excuse to have random hook ups.” I was floored by such a response. I, an 18-year-old virgin who’d had her first kiss only months before, was being slut-shamed. How dare you question my desire, I thought. How dare you thought I chose you at random. You should be flattered.
I quelled my rage by listening to “Sheela-Na-Gig” more than ever before, stunned at how much more I understood it.
Look at these, my child-bearing hips
Look at these, my ruby-red ruby lips
Look at these, my work-strong arms and
you’ve got to see my bottle full of charm
I lay it all at your feet
you turn around and say back to me
He said “Sheela-na-gig
I didn’t completely understand the words I was singing— I just knew they were about me. I thought a lot of it was playful gibberish on PJ’s part, including the title. I learned later that a sheela na gig is a type of ancient fertility statue that looks like this:
And suddenly it all made sense. I no longer heard “Put money in your idle hole” as a strange, arbitrary insult, but one of the absolute worst things anyone could ever say to a woman. I felt like everything in the song had been said to me.
Like a devout Christian girl impregnated by her first deviation from innocence, I felt like I’d been too good for too long to receive such bile. An attempt to come out of my own shell was not only vaguely rejected, but thrown back in my face. Being treated like garbage as I attempted to develop into a sexually confident adult honestly left me a bit unsure I’d ever really be up for putting myself on the spot again. But the more I listened to “Sheela-Na-Gig,” the more I realized that I was not alone. Both fortunately and unfortunately, situations like mine happened all the time. Rejection is almost integral to sexual development, and while I don’t think this song (or album) can ever quite be separated from the complications of womanhood (“Happy and Bleeding,” anyone?), it can just as easily be connected to how deeply frightening it can be to come into your own as a sexual being. “Sheela-Na-Gig” made my sadness all the more tolerable, and somehow, the best cure for my adolescent sexual turmoil was the knowledge that my hero had been there too. As I listened to PJ tell me that my problems were also hers, I didn’t feel so afraid anymore.
Played 1,490 time(s).
Reblogged from One Week // One Band.