On *Not* Waking Up Like This
Performing sexuality in an oversexed culture
A world that holds up independence as the ideal offers us two rival duties: to obscure our dependence and to be resentful of it. No woman can lightly assent to the illusion of autonomy. Because a baby is alien to the world of self-ownership, every woman’s citizenship in that imaginary republic is tenuous.
And my most recent (though less centrally Other Feminisms-y) piece of writing is for Deseret, on the recent revolt of college donors. I’m bullish on it being being good for higher ed in the long run—colleges can’t weather the coming enrollment crunch without making stronger choices about their identity and methods.
Now, on to this week’s reflection…
I enjoy’s culture writing, including her continuing series on Taylor Swift. In one of her recent posts, she’s talking about the external performance of “sexiness” verser the internal experience of sexuality, and how one can occlude the other.
I think of this story often partly because it seems like a good illustration of the basic difference between being sexy and being sexual. Being sexy is about presenting yourself a certain way to other people and being sexual is about something internal. These aren’t mutually exclusive categories. You can be both, and many (most?) people are both.
Still, for (straight) girls and young women, the work of “being sexy” can often be, though of course is not always, suppressive of feeling desire. It’s entirely about how you’re regarded by the other party and only to a much lesser degree about what you think, feel, and want yourself. The work of making yourself sexy—make-up, shaving, rigorous dieting, clothing that requires shapewear or tape to wear—can run counter to having an internally-driven desire for intimacy. (Though, again, it doesn’t have to.)
This reminds me a little of the funny moment in Bridget Jones Diary where Bridget is deciding between two approaches to “sexy” underwear—one skimpy and lacy, intended to be seen; one massive and elastic, which gives the impression of her body she wants, but which has to not be seen.
A lot of the work of “being sexy” not only isn’t fun or sexual feeling for the person dressing up, it’s not fun for the target. It’s intended as a broadcast signal, one-to-many; not an intimate experience, I-Thou.
Making sexuality something primarily visual, intended for a wide audience, and anti-correlated with intimacy seems like one of the hallmarks of the pornogrification of our culture. At best, it’s a very limited language for love, one that stalls out after the first stage of a relationship—attracting attention, but not deepening it.
If the desire to be the kind of person someone wants to marry causes you to try to be a better person, someone prepared for “for richer, for poorer” that’s one thing. If you’re “putting on your face” early in the morning and your husband has never seen you with false eyelashes, that’s quite another.
(It was a moment of great satisfaction for me when I returned home from doing a brief TV hit, still with a full face of makeup, and my husband saw me from across the apartment and went “Oh! You look nice.” Then he closed the difference, got the full, up-close effect, and uttered a strangled scream.)
If the role you’re playing isn’t one you really want to internalize, it winds up keeping you and your partner at an affected distance. If the cultural scripts for romance and attraction fall short, men and women may conclude that they are the ones who are wrong for desiring more.
As Phoebe Maltz Bovy, observed back in 2016, it’s easy for women to assume they don’t have an experience of sexuality if they don’t have the distorted experience of sexuality that they see advertised:
Our society understands female desire as the desire to be thought beautiful by a high-status dude. […] But the feeling of liking guys, but not doing so as a girl, in that girly way where the entire point is to snag a man; I don’t want to say it’s a universal female experience, because nothing is, but it’s not especially uncommon.
So, I’m curious: