During conversations with her female friends, Patricia Tio found people would clam up when it came to discussing sex. So, the photographer decided to photograph women after intercourse to open up the dialogues around it
Before Covid-19, Patricia Tio constantly kept one eye on her phone – awaiting a text or call from someone saying they were ready. On receipt of a message, Tio snatched up her camera and rushed to wherever they were. Here, she photographed them immediately. The immediacy was crucial. Tio enthralled her female subjects not to change their appearance. She wanted to document them as they were. “I wanted to create an honest and untampered representation [of female sexuality],” reflects Tio. “It’s not about being sexy or about underwear, nudity or trying to represent masturbation or orgasms because those are constantly exploited for male pleasure.”
Tio’s photographs intend to provoke an openness and dialogue around female sexuality — something the photographer observed was absent in her group of female friends. In documenting women following sex, she attempts to address the subject without objectifying or hypersexualising her participants. The images are not porn. Nor are they stylised, over-sexualised shots of semi-naked women in lingerie. Instead, her photographs begin to reveal the female experience of sex for what it is: individual, everyday, and varied.
In her book The Pleasure Gap, journalist Katherine Rowland explores contemporary US culture’s troubled relationship with female sexuality, specifically an epidemic of sexual dissatisfaction. Discussions with 120 women and dozens of sexual health professionals led her deep into this crisis. And she found that one contributing factor was many women not knowing what they wanted and an inability to articulate both this and their existing desires. Indeed, experimentation, learning, and knowledge are crucial to sex. And yet, for women especially, the spaces for these are lacking, and conversations around them often stunted.
Tio hoped to make photographs that would change this, even on a very personal level. Her subjects comprise friends and family members, her age and older. And the photographs serve to open up honest and nuanced dialogues about sex and everything that comes with it. “Instead of being sexually confident and unphased by the project, many of the women I photographed were uncomfortable and frightened of what family, friends, and society might think of their participation in such images,” says Tio. “Because of this, collaborating with them felt special, and I believe it made a difference for those involved and hopefully future viewers too.”
Tio’s images anoint her subjects with an agency – an agency so often lost in depictions of female sexuality and pleasure. They are in control of the image and the experience – whatever it was like – that came before. In this way, the work challenges the objectification, voyeurism, and sexualisation of mainstream depictions of female sexuality commonly authored by men for men. The work reframes how we women perceive our sexuality; how we navigate and live it out.
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.