I was outed as a bisexual in high school by a friend’s older sister. To my peers in a small town in South Wales, it was a shocking revelation, even in 2008.
I was 13 at the time, and hadn’t had sex yet, but was aware and confident in my sexual leanings – which was probably a good thing, because all of a sudden, I had to be. My feelings were reinforced by a chant in the PE changing rooms of: “Gina’s a bisexual, she likes tits and fannies and testicles.” (To the tune of The Jungle Book’s “Bare Necessities”, in case you want to insert your own name and have some fun with it.)
Obviously, as with all realisations made at 13, the sexual identity I found myself with developed as I got older, got shagged and got deep into tumblr psychology. I discovered more about myself as I discovered the labels of “lipstick lesbian”, “femme” and, the one that has affected my psyche and sex life the most, “pillow princess”.
“A pillow princess is someone who exclusively wants to be the receiving partner in sexual activity,” Dr. Ruth L. Schwartz, psychologist, lesbian relationship coach and co-founder of Conscious Girlfriend, puts it bluntly.
It’s a contentious label, loaded with stereotypes. Many queer women see being a pillow princess as a “lesbian red flag”, with one interviewee in a Cosmopolitan article last year equating the title with being “pretty selfish, an immediate no for me”. Zara Barrie, a writer at Elite Daily, goes as far to imagine that being a pillow princess means a girl can’t “actually” be a lesbian.
Faye, a 20-year-old pillow princess, often finds herself discriminated against both outside and within the community. “There is a huge stigma that pillow princesses are selfish lovers, lazy, and unwilling to get to know what their partner wants, but this isn’t the case at all,” says Faye. “Instead, it’s understanding how you like your relationships to be, communicating that with your partner, and vice versa.”
“Previously, I’ve heard the term being used for straight women who just want to have an experience with a woman but don’t want to understand what the other wants, whether it be out of insecurity or laziness, whereas I’d just call that a bad experience.”
While none of the pillow princesses I spoke to felt there was a sole or previous experience that led to their sexual preference, Dr. Schwartz reminds me that sexual desires never exist within a vacuum. “Our sexual preferences get forged through a very complex mixture of experience and response to experience,” she says. “So there are probably deeper reasons behind all of our preferences. But that's not a reason to pathologise pillow princesses, or stone butches, or women who prefer more active mutuality. There are so many ways to experience sexual pleasure, and they are all beautiful.”
Dr. Schwartz also asks me to question why my negative feelings towards being a pillow princess only exist in regards to my queer feelings – a correlation that I hadn’t really considered before. “The question about whether there is something ‘wrong’ with a woman who wants only to sexually receive, rather than be active, would only come up in the lesbian or queer women’s community,” she points out. “Many straight women are pillow princesses without ever having to claim themselves as such, and many straight men prefer their partners to just receive. As LGBTQ women, we should get to embody the full diversity of human sexual expression.”
While I agree that the root of my pillow princess guilt may come from lesbophobia, I find the musings of Kasandra Brabaw for Refinery29 cut into the topic deeper, and in essence sum up that feelings of guilt associated with being a pillow princess stem from an overarching patriarchal-induced guilt of being a woman.
“I sometimes feel guilty in focusing on my own pleasure,” Brabaw writes. “I feel that I'm taking away from my partner's, as if pleasing me doesn't also please her, but it's more than that. It's the idea that being submissive puts me in the ‘feminine’ role of sex, which in turn makes me weak. It's the same reason that we hear jokes about gay men who bottom. It's easier to make fun of a bottom than a top, because the bottom is taking on a ‘woman's’ role and society equates femininity with weakness.”
Whether the shame lies in my identity as a woman, as a bisexual or, more likely, an amalgamation of both, it undoubtedly takes courage for a girl to openly admit what she wants. Or, more than that: how she wants, how she craves, how she takes but does not feel the need to give back.
There’s nothing more terrifying to a misogynistic society than a woman who takes. Combining that with the added hatred of open feminine sexuality, the dismissal of the pillow princess as a legitimate sexual expression makes the idea of being one, in my view, even more aspirational.