|Visual Sexual Attractiveness, Power, Sexual Confidence, and Gender
||[Jan. 9th, 2017|04:28 am]
This post had its origin in my replies to a couple of Facebook posts about "Eww, did you see how that female performer was barely dressed? Way to be a role model for our teenage daughters!" and "I took my daughter shopping. Everything available looked like it came from Sluts R Us and I wouldn't let her have any of it and we got into a big argument".
While I agree that girls should be free to be energetic young people whose worth is not derived from how sexually attractive they are, I don't think it's a single-faceted issue.
• Starting at the mid-teen years, girls rapidly begin taking on the appearance that society around them says is the epitome of sexual attractiveness, desirability. To have that is to have POWER, not just to be found pleasing to others. The power aspect of it is well-represented in our cultural portrayals.
• Feminism in the late 70s and early 80s made us rethink a lot of that. It's all about the male gaze, the male appetite; there are limits to how much power can really come from being a commodity, no matter how fervently sought after. But it's not like feminists (let alone the rest of society) reached a clear consensus on the whole matter. Being REDUCED to being a sex object is obviously always bad, and any kind of double standard causing women to be assessed on the basis of their appearance while men are assessed for their skills and accomplishments is also obviously bad, but are there female-positive components to this sense of power stemming from being desired that aren't just patriarchal illusion?
• The movement against slut shaming begins with the perspective that blaming girls and women for provoking unwanted sexual attention is blaming the wrong party. But it has become also a recognition that a girl or woman has the right to be sexually forward without that constituting a blanket permission for any and all sexual attention.
Liberation means not only that it should be OK to be in public and not get sexually harassed regardless of what you're wearing. It also means that it should be OK to, yes, actually be seeking sexual attention. Not only does no mean no; "hey cute boy" means "hey cute boy".
What needs reexamining is NOT just the expectation & pattern that boys will be sexually aggressive to the point of invasiveness (and that that's ok because "boys will be boys", barf smiley here). What ALSO needs reexamining is the the expectation that girls will be, or should be, sexual gatekeepers, the sayers of "yes" and "no", the reactive party, reacting with "yes" or "no" in response to the boys' sexualized attentions. But unless we're going to tell girls that the only acceptable model for being sexually forward is to grab a cute guy and make an overt pass at him, many girls who wish to be sexually forward will sometimes do so by dressing provocatively.
I don't think teenage girls should be pushed into, or pushed away from, sexuality. Girls should not be pushed period. Girls should get to experiment to whatever extent they want to (respecting the boundaries of the boys or, for that matter, other girls) and also should get to refrain from doing so to whatever extent they don't wanna.
I'm leery of the way that positioning one's self as visually sexually desirable is such a specifically gendered thing — asymmetry is always worrisome when we're concerned with sexual equality. On the other hand, if 13 and 14 year old girls are being told that it is sexual power, that their deployment of their own appearance is a way of being sexually aggressive, telling them not to is telling them "you don't get to use that", and that's just as gendered a message, yes?
The whole consideration of visual sexual attraction and attractiveness is definitely gendered. Even people who don't ascribe to many other beliefs about built-in differences between the sexes are often inclined to agree that male people are more wired to have sexual feelings in response to the appearance of someone of the sex they're attracted to. I would tentatively put myself in that category, by the way. It's not something I'm going to claim certainty about, but I fit the pattern myself despite the many ways in which I'm gender-atypical.
I jump off the consensus boat quickly, though, when people start reaching additional conclusions based on that.
• I've heard people say that because of men's strong sexual response to seeing women, it is inevitable that men will approach women and be the ones to try to make sex happen. As I've said several times here, that's not the case for me and people like me. I explained it on my OKCupid profile like so: there are zillions of attractive women and I see them all the time as part of my daily life; if these attractive strangers were intermittently approaching me to make a pass at me, I would be doing the same to them, but they don't; and I long ago learned that most women find it annoying and threatening to have complete strangers approach them and express that they feel sexual attraction. They are rumored to be interested in sex mostly in the context of an ongoing relationship, which I can relate to, I have always wanted a girlfriend. The accusation of only being after sex combines with the expressions of anger and annoyance and the lack of successful outcome and quickly teaches that just because these attractive women are attractive doesn't identify them as sexual opportunities. Hmm, well, if the endeavor is to find a girlfriend, being visually sexually attractive isn't a good signifier of being a good prospect for that; zillions of women are visually attractive so that's nothing special or unusual, whereas I only connect well to a tiny minority. And in addition that means there's no reason I should be the one doing the approaching if the goal is to connect with someone for an ongoing relationship, since the visual sexual appeal and the differences in our susceptibility to it is largely irrelevant.
• On a second tier, the same type of conclusions get bandied around when discussing who does what once there have been cues and clues and signals that yes, there's mutual interest in having sexual activities take place. The woman is portrayed as the object of desire, which positions the man as the one with the appetite, the hunger, and from this it is often concluded that he will be doing things to her, that he will be the active party who is in control of sexualizing their interaction, with her control deriving from being the brake pedal, the reactive party. That hasn't been my experience. The person whose appearance provokes sexual interest on the other person's part is not required to be passive or to have participation limited to being reactive. Nor, incidentally, does the experience of being visually sexually attracted directly translate into having an inclination to do anything in particular, and in fact it can be a somewhat paralyzing experience. The most forwardly seductive people I've known conveyed a sense of awareness of their desirability and used it as an aggression: "You want; I can MAKE you want; I can make this happen".
In fact, the confidence and the projected sense of enjoyment and delight at doing so, of conveying "I have selected you and I'm going to have you", is a strong enough component that it outweighs the importance of the appearance itself. It's not what she has so much as how she uses it, in other words. The usual procedure that involves leveraging her own visual attractiveness goes something like this: she draws a specific guy's attention to her body and then to her eyes so as to express "yeah, I made you look, and we both know you want it".
• That behavior, in which the woman uses her appearance in a sexually aggressive manner, is not the only or even the most typical sexually aggressive behavior that I've seen women use. She may instead make a physical or verbal declaration of sexual interest that is focused on how the object of her attentions is attractive to her, making it all about her own appetite. Those expressions do not tend to focus on her own visual sexual appeal, so her own visual desirability isn't really a factor.
One thing the two modes have in common is confidence. Whether she's expressing "I know I'm hot and I can focus that on you and make you want me" or "I find you hot and I want you and therefore I will have you", her self-assurance makes it sexy and makes it work.
• And that brings me back to focusing on myself and my own situation. We all find confidence attractive, don't we? So where is a genderqueer girlish male-bodied person like me going to acquire sexual confidence from? This is no passing tangential subject, it's right at the dead-central core of things: how does a male-bodied person who identifies as girl exude sexual confidence and therefore a decent shot at being found sexually attractive by those he finds appealing?
Let's unpack that quickly. Yes, it has totally been a lifelong concern for me that girls and women to whom I was attracted would not be reciprocally attracted to me in the same way. I think precisely because I always thought of myself as essentially identical to them, it mattered a great deal to me that it be reciprocal. Meanwhile, as you'll recall, we started off saying that it's widely believed that female folks are less sexually driven by visual appearances. So that right there is going to make it difficult to believe that mirror-image parity is possible, so how *do* I find my way towards a sexual confidence?
I think we can posit the existence of some degree of female visual-based sexual interest. When I was in grad school in the early 90s there was a 4-day discussion on the women's studies discussion list about an event in which three women students on bicycles pedaled past a male student and one of them catcalled "Bow wow wow puppy chow!". And there was a Diet Coke ad on TV a few years ago in which several office women stare appreciatively out the window at a cute guy on a construction crew down below. When we say women are less sexually driven by visual appearance, perhaps we mean they feel it the same way that guys do but with fewer exclamation marks, or perhaps we mean they are interested and find it appealing but that it's less specifically sexual for them. And by now, having written this, I find myself backpedaling: I myself am suspicious whenever there's a formulation that says that the female version of anything observed first in males is "lesser". Well, I did say I wasn't certain.
Women often say that they dress for themselves. I think most of the time they do not mean that they have no consideration or concern for how they will be viewed by others (especially the sort of others that they may hope will find them sexually attractive), but rather that the important thing is that they themselves feel well put together, sexy and confidently at ease with their chosen appearance and presentation. For me it started in the same space. I didn't really know if there was an ideal visual presentation available for me that would provoke sexual interest in the type of women I'd like to be sexually interested in me. I could hope that there was, and I could choose the choosable aspects of my appearance (such as grooming and the way that I dress). Having done so, I stirred that in with my confidence that I was good company, a caring person, a fascinating person with a fascinating mind, someone fun to be with.
Nowadays I have the added advantage of knowing from experience that, yeah, it works, it can happen at any time, and sometimes it does.