Don’t Strip Women of Their Sexual Power
If sexiness can be considered one of women’s only weapons in a society that reduces them to their appearance and desirability, men have quickly found a way to disarm them. Sexualising women takes away the power that comes from sexual attractiveness, it prevents women from being agents of their own sexuality and makes them objects of men’s sexuality.
Being Sexual is Empowering
I love wearing miniskirts and high heels. It makes me feel confident in a world where my value has been linked to my desirability. I like it when men do double takes and I will accept a free drink if it is offered. It makes me feel powerful, the same power I felt when I used to learn pole dancing, being taught how to channel your sexual energy into a performance, of which you were in control, was a very liberating experience for me.
It was liberating because since I was a kid, that sexual energy has been something that was turned against me. I was flashed for the first time when I was 8 and groped for the first time when I was 13. I became a sexual being in a place of fear where that sexuality was something that made me a target. I never thought it was something I could enjoy for myself.
So when I started to feel the power of my sexuality, it was a good feeling, especially because women aren’t taught to find power in many places. We are taught that we are physically weak and vulnerable, that our in society we play merely a supporting role. Being desirable is often presented as our only power. Professional success is explained away by our feminine wiles. We got that promotion for giving favours, colleagues suggest, jokingly, openly.
In fact, when we try to channel that energy for ourselves, when we dress or act sexy because that is something that feels empowering for ourselves, some men will use this as an excuse to objectify us. Wear a short skirt and they presume you are doing it for them, that you welcome their “compliments” or that at least you merited it.
Of course, pretending to lack subtly is a great tool of the oppressor. It is a way of playing dumb to exonerate yourself from ignoring social cues, and of pretending like it is the oppressed person who is making arbitrary distinctions. I always think of this when I have conversations about consent and a man acts like it is impossible to read women. In reality, we all spend our entire lives navigating complicated social cues, reading body language and unspoken language is an integral part of human communication. A man who acts like he does not know the meaning of stony silence, stillness and nervous reactions isn’t really acting out of ignorance, but because he does not care.
But, in the interest of subtlety, let us look at the difference between being sexual and being sexualised.
Sexual vs. Sexualised
Being sexual, in the sense of actively embracing yourself as a sexual being is an inherently personal thing, a form of self-expression. Being sexual is about knowing that you are worthy of desire and capable of exercising a certain influence over others — not in a toxic or controlling sense, but in that you can inspire sexual attraction. It is one aspect in which you can find value for yourself within society — although it shouldn’t be the only one. Being sexual allows you to define your own narrative of what is desirable.
Being sexualised, meanwhile, is not a choice on your behalf but rather an external source attributing you with a sexual role. It is objectifying rather than empowering. When a person is being sexualised, no matter how that person is expressing themselves, they are being viewed as sexual. They may be trying to express their intelligence, their strength, or any of the other wonderful things about them. When you say “Bossy women are so sexy” or “I love smart women”, you are denying her the right to express other parts of her personality.
Men often fail to make the distinction between these two things. When a woman presents herself as overtly sexual according to the societal standards, they see it as an invitation to look at and talk about her sexuality. They see it as an excuse to sexualise her — and express confusion when they are reprimanded for it. A woman dressing in sexy attire, or having a lot of casual sex, or making dirty jokes and talking loudly about sex, are often interpreted as her seeking a reaction.
What happens when women try to use their sexual power
And while it is normalised to sexualise women, we are judged for using our sexual power. “Feminine wiles” should be considered a smart way of hacking the system, rather than a tricksy, underhanded way of obtaining fabours.
Women who make a living from their sexuality, including sex workers, face constant backlash. A friend of mine who advertises her Only Fans account on Instagram told me she receives countless messages from men calling her a slut.
These are the same men who pay good money to enjoy her content. Basically these guys go looking for a picture to touch themselves over, and then call her a slut on the way out. Charming.
She also gets random, unwanted dick pics. She gets guys asking “how are you ever gonna find a boyfriend if you’re slutting it up on the internet all the time?”
When women try to use their looks for their own gain, whether its getting a free drink, making money from selling selfies or charming a policeman out of a fine, they get shamed for it. Because this is a power men generally don’t have. As soon as there is one power the dominant group don’t have, even when they have the monopoly of all the others, they resent the oppressed group even further, because they are so used to having all the power themselves.
There is always a strict social control over how, and how much, a woman can use her beauty for. Beauty pageants, for instance, have “morality clauses” that dictate acceptable behaviour for their candidates, and ban others, like posing in the nude.
In 2002, Miss North Carolina Rebekah Revels was forced to turn in her crown after it came out that her boyfriend had taken topless pictures of her, and after being crowned Miss USA in 2006, Kentucky’s Tara Conner was involved in a scandal because she went to clubs, drank alcohol and had a few sexual escapades. Then co-owner of Miss USA, Donald Trump publicly forgave Conner and sent her to rehab. “I’ve always been a believer in second chances,” he said at the time. Later, Trump reported that he was considering giving his “permission” for Conner to pose in Playboy. Showing off your body is fine, it seems, so long as the man in charge gives you his all-clear.
We need to put the shame back where it belongs: on men sexualising women without being asked or given consent to do so, rather than on women using one of the few powers our society gives them.