“Claiming space is living your life unapologetically and bravely. And it sounds so much easier than it is.” So says Eliza VanCort, and for good reason! I loved speaking with the author, mentor and speaker about her personal journey to claiming space and practical tips, particularly for women and anyone reared as a girl, for this week’s Girl Boner Radio episode.
Stream it on Apple Podcasts/iTunes, Spotify, iHeartRadio or below! Or read on for a lightly edited transcript.
“Claiming Space in the Bedroom and Beyond with Eliza VanCort”
a lightly edited Girl Boner Radio transcript
We need to believe we have the right to claim space. Claiming space is living your life unapologetically and bravely. And it sounds so much easier than it is.
Eliza VanCort knows that from deeply personal experience. She considers claiming space with her body and voice one of the most challenging and yet transformative experiences of her life.
When I was very young, I had a mother who became paranoid schizophrenic, and she actually kidnapped me three times. There was a national APB out on me, and one time we went across the country by truck, from truck stop to truck stop to truck stop. And there was a lot of trauma involved in that.
And at that point in my life, I started conflating invisibility with safety. And women are already told to be small. So you add that extra layer on it. And I started out, I think, at a bit of a deficit in terms of claiming space. And that’s why I feel so passionately about it. Because for me the process of learning how was so transformative.
She wrote about those experiences in her new book, A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space: Stand Tall. Raise Your Voice. Be Heard. By the time she turned five, she wrote, she was a “hesitant, scared little girl who spent a lot of [her] time alone, hunched over, quietly hiding behind [her] long curtain of thick, wavy, black hair.”
She said her body image was like a neon sign that read, “I’m really scared and I’m damaged. Please pretend I’m invisible.” That bit broke my heart.
As she approached puberty and the body changes that came with it, she worked hard to hide those shifts – as many folks do. In her case, she tried to appear more flat than curvy and shorter than the boys.
I was skinny. I mean I was as skinny as a rail. And I was shooting up like a string bean, as my parents would say. And suddenly I started getting breasts and I felt like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. I just felt like, [laughs] I was like, wait a minute, these are—it happened really fast.
And I started to have, as I say in the book, I started having these fantasies. So I’d be walking down the hallway one day and the weight of my breasts would just make me fall over and all my books would go flying and all my hopes of being cool would go flying along with it.
I’ve heard from so many people who had similar insecurities around that age–feeling too “flat” or too curvy, too thick or too thin. Too tall, too short, too fill-in-the-blank. And trying to hide or change how we look through posture, Eliza said, doesn’t really help.
I mean, when we’re young, we get to this place, I think women, where we start growing these appendages, which we can’t control. We can move our arms but we can’t move our boobs, you know what I mean? [laughs] So we end up, what we end up doing, I think of many women, is thinking if we slump enough, we will then be able to hide our said breasts. And it doesn’t do anything. You just look like someone with breasts who are, who’s slumping.
So what I found is that when people stand up straight, and they present in a way where they are actually literally commanding space with their body, they are given more respect. And so I feel that a lot of times when we talk about empowerment, we don’t talk about the bedrock of it, which is how are you presenting to the world?
That made me think of Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist who did a TED Talk called Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are. She analyzed over 55 studies and found a huge link between postures and feelings of power. You might have heard about the superwoman power poses she encourages for near instant self-confidence. There was even a Grey’s Anatomy storyline about them, where character Dr. Amelia Shepherd starts putting her hands on her hips in superhero form before difficult surgeries.
I’ve actually tried that myself before a few nerve wrecking interviews, and it really does seem to make a difference. I bet it could help before butterfly-sy dates and sexual experiences as well.
Eliza’s turning point with her own posture came during an acting class.
Well, it was probably my acting class. I remember my teacher Phil Gushee, rest in peace, brilliant teacher, told the story about one of his students who is doing the Hunchback of Notre Dame. And what he did is he put a big hunch on his shoulder, a big bump, put over, put a trench coat on it and started walking around the city and making eye contact with people. And by the end of the day he was slumping more and his eyes were downcast because of how people were responding to him.
And then, that was the first beginning of this, my real sort of turning. And then I started watching this thing called physical adjustments in the Meisner Technique, which I teach, which is if you move one little part of your body, it can have the systemic effect on how everything in your body moves but it also has an effect on how people treat you.
So I would watch certain people who in real life were quite confident, do an adjustment where they would slump over and they’d go up and do an improv and people treated them differently. And so I started thinking, you know, I can use this outside of this class.
So I started. One day, I remember walking around standing up really straight and looking at, you know, looking at the way I was received. It was different. I was catcalled less. I mean, it was a radical difference. And that’s when I realized part of empowerment is how you present.
Eliza recommends working on your posture for five minutes a day as a helpful practice to start claiming space in all areas of your life. One exercise she recommends in her book involves lying down on a mat or a few towels on the floor, bending your knees and activating your core.
As you start practicing better posture, she suggests noticing and addressing harmful habits, such as staring down at your phone or sitting hunched over a computer for hours on end without breaks. She recommends trading high heels, if you wear them, for flats, too. Heels can shift our alignment in wonky ways, especially the longer we stand or walk in them.
Of course, not everyone can stand tall, stand at all or place their hands on their hips. In cultures like the U.S., we tend to give more respect and power to people who have particular height, body forms and postures—which isn’t cool. While Eliza doesn’t talk about physical disabilities in the book, I really appreciate that she wrote about creating spaces in which all folks are welcome, including people in marginalized groups, as an important part of claiming space. That should apply to our sex lives and relationships, too… Sexiness and sexuality are inherent. We don’t have to look or carry ourselves a certain way to “earn” that.
Another part of sexual empowerment and claiming space is understanding the harmful myths we absorb, such as that men are supposed to be turned on 24/7, approach sex as a conquest, and not be too emotional or caring—unless you’re gay, in which case you’re considered “overly” emotional, and incapable of committment. And as you know from past episodes the whole “lesbian bed death” stereotype is false, too, and there’s still a lot of pressure on women to be sexy and sexual in certain ways…not have “too many partners,” whatever that means, and need emotional connections to be turned on–which is can be the case if you’re demisexual, but has nothing to do with gender.
One historical problem Eliza feels is especially important to do away with is “slut”-shaming.
Slut-shaming has been around since The Scarlet Letter and beforehand. And we, it’s a really great way to control women. And I think that one of the things we can do to interrupt those moments is when you hear someone saying anything that is slut shaming, you immediately jump in, and you don’t let it stand.
In other words, let others claim space around their sexuality however they see fit. I really think that translates into permission and comfort with ourselves, too.
It’s also important to look back on early messages we received about nonsexual behavior—when we were allowed, or not allowed, to claim space in ways we’ve felt comfortable.
This is a metaphor but for me, it all goes back to Uncle Bob. And there’s that moment when you’re little, where you’re a little girl and your parents say, “Go kiss Uncle Bob.” And you go, “I don’t want to.” And they go, “No no, c’mon, c’mon. Go kiss Uncle Bob.” And you say, “I don’t want to.”
And the room gets quiet. And you look around and all the adults are looking at you and your parents are embarrassed. And they, [takes a deep breath] you know, and they say, “Do it.” And you walk over and you kiss Uncle Bob. And in that moment, you start to learn that what your gut is telling you is wrong. And then you keep getting that message over and over and over again.
So rarely do we hear from parents if a kid says, “I don’t want to,” “Oh, you know what? I’m sorry I asked you to kiss someone. That should be your decision.” You don’t hear that. What you hear is, “Go kiss Uncle Bob.”
So the first thing is, as parents, you know, don’t do that. Make sure you’re honoring your kid and making sure that they are always in control of their body.
But as we get older, those boundaries are continually broken, and often people don’t step in.
So for example, there’s a client I had, and actually, this has happened to many of us, where you walk in for an interview and the man might put his hand on the small of your back. And you look around and think, Why is no one saying anything? And then you think, I must be overreacting.
Eliza told me there are all of these moments, especially for folks reared as girls, where you don’t have agency and there’s this trickle over effect from childhood messages that so many of us learned–including that man in the boardroom who learned that it’s fine to touch women in ways he wouldn’t touch anyone else.
Then there’s another type of happening that Eliza described as even more dangerous.
I remember once I was hanging out with a boy, I was in love with him, I wanted to marry this little boy.
And he was sitting there and he said, “You’re so pretty.” And then he punched me because he felt that insecure. And I was like, What?? This is wrong. So I ran to his mom’s house. I was ready to get him grounded for life. I’m running. He’s booking after me. We get to the front porch. His mom comes out and she says, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” And I say, you know, “So and so hit me.” And she said, “Oh, Eliza. He hit you because he likes you.”
And in that moment, that’s the moment, besides Uncle Bob, where it goes to another level, where you realize it’s okay for somebody to hit me as long as they like me.
So when we start to learn these boundaries, you know, yes, we have boundaries at work and all those things, but fundamentally, the first boundary is our personhood: who is allowed to touch us and who isn’t and where and how. And from the beginning of girlhood, we are taught to stop listening to that gut in us. And so it takes a lot of time to dismantle that training.
Even when we know that’s the case, it can be hard to set and maintain boundaries and stand up for what we want and don’t want—during sex, in relationships and really in all life areas.
That’s one reason Eliza shared scripts for responding to situations that can feel uncomfortable in her book. I liked this one especially:
Person: “I know you have never, ever wanted our sex life not to involve [insert sex thing that really is your thing—you don’t have to qualify. It’s your thing.]. But that seems really slutty. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
Optional unapologetic follow-up: “I know this isn’t your thing, and of course we will never do anything we both don’t really want to do, but if you continue to shame me about my preferences around sex, I’m out.”
If you’re thinking, wow, that sounds so simple—like, you could just say “no.” And at the same time, wondering why that can also feel tough in the moment, go easy on yourself. It’s not your fault. People raised as girls—as well as anyone who’s endured childhood abuse—often struggle in this area.
Gender messaging alone can make this stuff complicated:
Well, women are taught to accommodate in so many different ways. We are literally trained to be nurturers.
And they’ve done incredible studies where they put a boy baby in pink and a girl baby in blue and suddenly the girl, the one they think is a girl, is holding a doll. And the one they think is a boy is doing all these things that actually help you develop the part of your brain that is more mechanically oriented – visual, spatial things.
So we are literally trained since infancy to do that. And part of that is saying no is not nurturing. It’s about us, whereas taking care of others, right, nurturing is all other focused. And so that “no” is so powerful because we’re saying, “if you ask me to do something that I’m not okay with, I don’t need to take care of your needs. I need to take care of my needs. And my need is no.”
And the other thing is, often we are, because of that nurturing training, we feel we have to explain it. We have to say “and the reason why I don’t want to do this is bbbb-blah blah blah.”
You don’t have to explain to anyone why you don’t want to do something or why you do. You can say “I think we should do this crazy thing.” And then your partner can say “no.” And you just have to say “okay.” You don’t have t–. Never, never, never say why. It doesn’t matter. It’s all about personal choice.
If you want to claim space and feel more confident during sex, Eliza shared this advice:
Firstly, don’t have sex with people who shame you. That, that’s truly the first step. Because if you do, everything else is pretty much impossible. So that’s the baseline. Make sure you’re having sex with people who are honoring your sexuality, honoring your no, honoring your choices.
And then the second thing would be, don’t be afraid to communicate your needs. Because if you’re with somebody who doesn’t want you to do that, you shouldn’t be with them, anyway. So, say what you want. Of course, they don’t have to do it. But that’s okay, too. It’s okay for someone to say no to you, you know? So, that’s the next thing.
And then finally, I love the imagination. I spent a lot of time in my imagination as a little girl because my world wasn’t so great. And I think the imagination is what’s really important.
To me, sex is the one place where adults get to play make believe, if they’re not actors. And what I mean by that is you get to play. So use your imagination and really exploring—my mother used to say to me, “Eliza, if you’re bored, you just look out the window and daydream. If you’re bored in your class, you just look out the window and you daydream, honey.” She was a poet. She was a poet and an English teacher.
I think people should look out the window and daydream about sex and really think, what would I do if I didn’t have to worry about someone judging me?
Because the partner you want to be with is the one who says, hopefully is compatible with you and you like the same kind of thing, and that person says, “let’s give it a try,” you know? And if they don’t, maybe they’re just not the right partner. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong. That just means it’s not their thing. But hopefully you can find somebody who’s compatible with the imaginative play that you want to do.
To learn more from Eliza VanCort find her book, A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space, most anywhere books are sold. It’s divided into five areas: physicality and voice, collaborative claiming space, never ceding your space, how to protect yourself from aggressors and intersectionality. Learn more about her work as a speaker, author, mentor and “unapologetic space claimer” at elizavancort.com.
To hear bonus interview chunks, about the traumatic brain injury that led Eliza to write her book and what she decided to teach her kids about masturbation, join my Patreon community at Patreon.com/girlboner.
[a few bars of upbeat, acoustic music]
I’m sure none of you will be surprised to hear that one of my favorite ways to claim your rightful space during sex is learning about your own body and what feels good through solo play. When we feel comfortable with our own bodies and sex on our own, it’s so much easier to let go, feel free and experience big time pleasure in the bedroom.
As it so happens, May is National Masturbation Month here in the US, making it an especially great time to enjoy it. For a bit of history, the national month was coined by Good Vibrations back in 1995 after Surgeon General Dr. Joyceleyn Elders, the first Black woman to serve in that role, was fired for saying that masturbation was something “that perhaps should be taught” in the context of sexual health information.
The staff at Good Vibrations were understandably peeved by this and launched masturbate-a-thons, raising money for nonprofits. Since then, many sex-positive companies and folks have joined into celebrating the month in all sorts of ways.
To make the most of your solo play sessions, I highly recommend adding toys and lube to the mix—all of which you can find in huge supply at The Pleasure Chest. The sex-positive superstore is celebration Masturbation May with featured vibrators, Magic Wands, cock rings, masturbation sleeves, strokers, anal plugs and more “to enhance all the ways YOU do YOU!” Right now they’re featuring curated Sexy Self-Care and Mindful Masturbation collections. Learn more and start shopping at thepleasurechest.com or click the link in the show notes.
To hear Dr. Megan Fleming’s Pleasure Picks for May, including 4 awesome products she recommends and some of her top solo play tips for more fun and pleasure, stream the full episode up above or on your favorite podcast app!