Human sexuality can be as confusing as it is wonderful – especially in the context of a culture that is reasonably screwed up with respect to sex. But for women, there is an additional layer of difficulty: it can be very hard to reconcile ourselves as sexual subjects with our “social role” as sexual objects. In a culture that rarely portrays female sexuality as having interior agency completely separate from the desires of heteromales, one can be made to feel like a stranger in one’s own sexuality.
As a result, it can become extremely difficult to express our sexuality without anxiety about what it says about us as women and as feminists. It can be especially challenging if our natural sexual desires and self expression take forms that we might associate with macroproblematic tropes. Another difficulty arises when expressing one’s sexual self through clothing or other appearance markers that are socially coded as “sexy”. Dressing in a sexy way to please yourself can become complicated because you know that you may attract unwanted attention. Misogynistic people (or, er, some anti-sex feminists) may respond as though you have invited objectification and dismissal of anything else you have to contribute, when obviously you haven’t.
It can also be difficult to deal with the reality that as a person presenting sexily out in the world, other people may get sexual gratification from seeing you, and you can’t control who does it. This can be as subtle as someone giving you a sleazy look or as obvious as someone catcalling you in the middle of the street. It can often be demoralising to realise that while you are carrying out your own self-determined sexual expression, others may objectify you, and you can’t stop them.
This group of people can include misogynists and people who support your oppression in some other way, and it can feel a lot like you’ve “given” them something by appearing in public in a socially-coded sexy manner – something you didn’t want to give. These problems may well be magnified for women who engage in consensual sex work, who are almost certainly bringing sexual satisfaction to some sexist people out there who see women as objects. But more broadly, it’s a problem that arises simply from existing while female. You definitely do not have to be conventionally attractive to have this problem. It can affect all women.
We have to find ways to immunise ourselves against these situations. We can’t let the problematic macro tropes around women’s sexuality stop us from our own sexual self expression. First, we have to develop a deep understanding that what other people do is almost always about them, and not about us. If sexist people find you attractive and/or objectify you, it doesn’t say anything about you. In fact, if you have any of their attention – positive or negative – you can use it to showcase that you are a self-possessed, fully formed human being. In this way, and only if you feel comfortable and safe, you can actually turn a situation you dislike into an opportunity to advance the cause of feminism and advocate for yourself.
Other people objectifying you is an act that is especially not about you. There are people out there who will always see you as a person first, no matter how short your skirt is and how much cleavage you are showing. We like to call them “decent human beings”. And there are people who will always see all women as sex objects even when they are wearing a hessian sack while simultaneously doing algebraic topology and open heart surgery. (I don’t mean to imply these things are not feminine and sexy, they certainly can be and I personally find algebraic topology very feminine and sexy, I mean to say they are not socially coded as sexy activities.)
You can’t control who you meet in the street but you can control who you let into your life, as friends or as lovers. Do as much as you possibly can to surround yourself with this first kind of person, and eliminate the second kind of person from your life. It’s not always possible due to work or family situations, so everyone has to make a call about where their boundaries are based on their situation and their psychological and financial needs. But it helps a lot if you can be firm on your boundaries, whatever they are.
The issue can be much more complex for people who do sex work, be it prostitution or pornography or anything else you can dream of. I don’t have experience in this area but I do want to point out that, as long as you are personally comfortable with it, there’s nothing wrong with taking a sexist douchebag’s money! Most people have to transact in markets with people they might not like to have as friends. Is it really likely that everyone involved in the production of your sandwich at lunchtime is a “good person” by your standards? No. But you buy the sandwich anyway because it benefits you and your focus has to be you, not them.
That’s not an issue facing sex workers only – this is an issue that faces us all! Don’t stop living because you might have to interact with people you profoundly disagree with, even people who might be complete assholes. Interact with them on your terms as much as humanly possible, and don’t blame yourself when you can’t make it work.
I think it is possible to slowly weed out judgmental thoughts about how our sexuality should be or who will get gratification from seeing us, if we do the mental grunt work of interrupting and rejecting these thoughts when they arise. Women are used to having heteropatriarchal social norms dictate how they ought to live every aspect of their lives, and these norms are strong around romantic and sexual connections. The ideal is to be able to ignore them as much as possible. I want to be clear that this is certainly not something you have to do to be considered a good feminist, and it should always be recognised that this is very difficult. But I think the personal rewards are immense.
It is your right to experience your sexuality exactly the way you want to (within the boundaries of ethical conduct, of course). Don’t worry about what other people will do or think in response. That’s on them. That reflects their issues. And don’t you judge yourself either. Just make sure you are living on your terms, organising your life the way you want it to the best of your ability, and doing what you feel to be the right thing for your emotional, psychosexual and mental health.