sex, love, and relationships for those of us who don't quite follow the rules

Archive for September, 2010

Sexuality and public image

Apologies to anyone who has me on an RSS feed of any kind… a while ago I wrote a post about objectification, posted it, and then promptly took it down when I decided that it didn’t say what I wanted it to. I spent the rest of the night trying to write what I really meant, and finally gave up, deciding that my thoughts on this matter weren’t quite coherent yet. Turns out the whole question of sexuality and public presence is a complicated, multi-faceted one… who knew?

Here’s the difficulty I found myself facing: I don’t have a problem with a person looking at another person and responding to them sexually, whether the two are strangers or friends, whether the looked-at person is at all interested in the looker or not. I am inclined, however, to be defensive of people — usually women — who choose to conceal their sexual attributes if they prefer not to be considered as a sexual being in a particular context. I thought I was on pretty solid ground here, until I started wondering if this conflicted with my general values of making the world a more beautiful place wherever possible, and wondering if society ever has a right to expect a certain kind of dress from its participants, and the answer to that in my mind was “of course it does, sometimes,” and that’s when I started to realize that this whole issue was hella complicated and I needed to think about it more.

Arguing with Shaun about it, and then reading this excellent post on Lori Douglas, a Canadian judge recently forced to step down because of a sex scandal, helped me clarify one part of my confusion. In a perfect world, a woman would be able to wear a low-cut blouse to work and not be considered any less competent, serious, or professional by her colleagues. In the real world, that’s not how it works. Society may have made great strides in accepting women as able participants in the professional and academic world, but only if they are thoroughly desexualized. Let a professional woman be seen as a sexual being — whether as an object of desire or as an enjoyer of sex — and her credibility and respect takes a huge hit. It’s the Madonna/whore dichotomy for the new millennium.

This, like most forms of sexism, causes problems for everybody. Obviously it causes problems for women, who have to choose between being professionally respected and being sexually expressive — and a sub-problem for professional women, who have to be as attractive as possible without being sexy. It causes problems for men, too, who can’t acknowledge a woman’s sexual appeal without it being assumed that he’s reducing her to only her sexuality.

Women are increasingly allowed access to the professional and academic realms. Women are increasingly allowed sexual autonomy and expressiveness. But until a woman can exist publicly as a whole person — sexual, creative, productive, intelligent, familial — sexual liberation is in its infancy.

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