Saturday, 17 January 2009


It's a very loaded word 'sexy'. And I've been thinking about it since reading a post on Yes Means Yes, about striptease aerobics (admittedly a topic I know nothing about). Jacinda, who wrote the post, enjoys the classes, they make her feel sexy, and she's trying to unpack that.

To be seen as sexy by someone else is something that can happen regardless of gender. And any one can feel sexy as in horny. But it is women's role that means that being desired (or desireable) is something that you feel. Women's sexuality or our own desiring, is deliberately muddled with being desired.

Which isn't to say that I think it's anti-feminist to go to a pole dancing class. Because my politics are not about individual's actions, and if people enjoy pole dancing classes they enjoy pole dancing classes. But I think feminists should be extremely critical of institutions that reinforce this dynamic of women as desired rather than desiring. It underpins so much of our ideas about sex and rape.

But that's not what motivated me to post (for the second time in a week). What I wanted to respond to was her conclusion:

What I do struggle with, though, is the idea of sexiness. When we say these classes make women feel sexy how exactly are we defining that word? Does sexy simply mean men want me or does sexy mean I love my body because it’s healthy and strong and because I can have fun with it doing things like these over-the-top dances.
I find the first option much much less problematic than the second. Because in attempt to re-frame 'sexy' she's actually reinforcing really narrow views of acceptable (let alone sexy) bodies. Because not everyone's body is healthy and strong, and not everyone can do any particular dance move.

That's not a better way of understanding the meaning of 'sexy', it's a worse one. Firstly because it's dishonest, as it hides the actual dynamic of the way women are framed as sex. And secondly because society has already slammed the door on many sorts of bodies being sexy, and this idea sits with the back to the door and tries to keep it shut.

There is no shame in feeling good because you feel desired, and there's no shame in loving your body for what it can do. But the second is no more a liberatory political position than the first.


Julie said...

I guess it's a matter of why do you feel that your body is healthy and strong and it's good that you can do those dance moves - because it means your body is (closer to) conforming with the expectations of women's bodies, based on women as what some term "meat puppets".

Hugh said...

Julie, I think what Maia is trying to say is that even if you are feeling sexy because you like being healthy and strong and being able to do difficult dance moves, and it has nothing to do with the male gaze, it's still a problem.

Julie said...

You may be right Hugh, I would be interested in Maia's response to that, but the way I read it was that actually it still does have something to do with the male gaze, it's just not honest about that?

Hugh said...

Yea I think we should see whether Maia feels the urge to clarify before we start debating what she meant further

Anna said...

I interpreted it (perhaps wrongly) as meaning that, even if I like my body for its strength and/or athleticism, I'm still subscribing to a particularly view of beauty that excludes some other women - even if my view of beauty isn't based on what men think.

In reality, I think it's very hard for a woman (or anyone, probably) to disentangle her view of beauty from what men think, or what we're told men think. Every now and again, you read a magazine article that says something like 'We don't even like skinny chicks - we prefer ones with big boobs'. It's presented like it's supposed to be liberating, but ultimately it's just replacing one beauty with another, and standards by their very nature exclude some women.

Beauty standards change over time, too. The athleticism that's trendy today was really untrendy at different areas, when being Rubenesque (sp!) was a sign of a good diet, and therefore wealth, and therefore desirability.

Psycho Milt said...

Unfortunately for non-exclusion and rejecting the "male gaze," what makes you feel sexy is the feeling that someone of the opposite sex (or the same sex, or both, depending on what team you play for) would find you sexually attractive if they were to see you at that time. So, given that what people find sexually attractive is down to biology a lot more than it is to society, there's not really a whole lot you can do about it. That may be bad news for some women, but it's bad news for quite a few men as well.

In terms of the pole dancing, don't kid yourselves - no-one feels sexy because their body is healthy and strong and they enjoy dancing, they feel sexy because they think men (or etc) would want them. The thing is, sex can just be all about you and your body but we generally call that wanking - sex as we normally understand it absolutely involves somebody else taking a sexual interest in you.

Maia said...

The argument I was making (and possibly missed entirely) was that feeling sexy is an extremely problematic idea.

'Feeling sexy' as opposed to 'feeling turned on' or having other people describe you as sexy is a feminine trait. It's part of the idea that women are desired, rather than desiring. And that idea means that a lot of women's sexuality is tied up with being desired.

To try and escape this reality by renaming it, which is what I think jacinda was doing, actually just makes it worse. In this case because she created an even narrower norm of what sexy was. 'Healthy and strong' is narrower than 'desired'.

My argument is really that you can't disentangle yourself from the male gaze, and ideas that you have about your body are going to be tied up with societies ideas about what oru bodies can be. I don't think an individual can untangle all that. Generally I think living with that contradiction is a better response than trying it doesn't exist by renaming things.

Maia said...

Psycho milt I've deleted your second post.

I'm not happy with this becoming a discussion about what people find attractive and how and why they find that attractive. I can't moderate the discussion. I'm not OK with people throwing around 'grotesquely deformed' as something that clearly no one could be attracted to.

My post was about the idea of feeling attractive and where that came from for women and what it means to try and ellude that idea. If that could be considered the topic for the thread I would appreciate it.

Hugh said...

In my opinion, there's nothing intrinsically wrong in being pleased with the idea that somebody is or is likely to find you sexually attractive.

The main problem arises when we're told that the only way to get that pleasing feelings is to act in a certain way, have a certain type of body, or wear a certain type of clothing or make up, and if we don't stick within these narrow parameters, we will never be sexy.

Realistically speaking the sexual marketplace is extremely broad and whatever you have got is going to be attractive to somebody. So really, we should all be feeling sexy all the time!

Julie said...

Do men actually talk about feeling sexy or looking sexy, in reference to themselves or other men?

Psycho Milt said...

Talk about it? No - that would be, like, mentioning the existence of feelings and emotions other than anger, scorn etc in the presence of other men. Feel it, though? You bet.

Maia: oh joy. Now everyone gets to assume I posted some gratuitously offensive stuff about the disabled.

Hugh said...

I was wondering if anybody was going to be willing to step up to the plate and speak up on behalf of the entire male sex. Pyscho, could you please fill me in on how to access this vast male telephatic network which allows you to know what 'men' are thinking? It seems I'm missing out.

Psycho Milt said...

Hugh: perhaps you could point out where the above comment claims coverage of anyone other than me.

Also: you're a man presumably, if your name is Hugh; you post here a lot; Julie asked a question for men to answer. Do you have no answer, or are you simply unwilling to declare it?

Julie said...

Thanks for the answer Pyscho, I wasn't trying to make a point, I'm genuinely interested in any responses :-)

Would you ever say another man is looking hot or sexy? Out loud I mean, or maybe to a woman of your acquaintance?

Hugh said...

When you answer a comment directed at 'men', and don't explicitly qualify it as your experience only, you're claiming authority beyond your own personal experience.

And that's why I didn't answer, because I'm not comfortable speaking for men as a whole.

Julie said...

To clarify my original question:
I was looking for responses from individual men which might give a teensy bit of insight into the way some men think about the whole "sexy" thing. I won't assume anyone is speaking on behalf of all mankind.

And I am genuinely interested in the answers. Scratching my brain, I can't really think of many contexts in which men talk about feeling sexy (except as in horny), so I figured I'd ask!

Psycho Milt said...'re claiming authority beyond your own personal experience.

You're entitled to your opinion on that. Mine differs.

Would you ever say another man is looking hot or sexy? Out loud I mean, or maybe to a woman of your acquaintance?

Answering strictly from my own personal experience, this isn't a comment a heterosexual man will make unless he's extremely confident about the nature of his relationship with the person to whom he's addressing the remark. On a couple of occasions I've had friends say that about some guy who really was indisputably hot but I'd never have started that conversation myself.

Similar deal when it comes to female friends - you'd want to be pretty certain you're talking to a friend and not an acquaintenance before coming out with anything like that.

Heather said...

I do sport fighting, and the (women-only) gym at which I train is an environment completely devoid of any flavour of sexual politics.

After a fight, I'll walk home feeling like king of the world. There's something about the combination of physical exertion & resulting endorphin rush, the meditative aspect of focussing so single-mindedly on one thing, the skills I demonstrated, and even the close contact with another person that's really amazing. While it's absolutely nothing to do with sex or sexual desire, I could characterise the resulting feelings in a similar way - sensual is perhaps a better term. I'm really alert to my whole body, I'm doped up with natural braindrugs, and I feel great about what I've discovered my body is capable of. Even being aware of all the bruises & strains feels really good. All the way home I'm grinning & stretching, and jonesing for another fight.

I imagine any form of high-intensity exercise one that involves some full-on motor skills would have the same effects. Obviously I'm describing the the second suggestion Maia proposed - feeling good about my healthy body - although the diverse range of body types at my gym, not to mention the grunting, sweating and grimacing will attest that it has very little to do with how we look.

Maia, I trust you aren't suggesting that it's wrong to get a high from exercise, but are commenting on the word Jacinda has chosen to describe it. Ignoring the 'feeling desired' argument & focussing on the healthy=sexy aspect, I think the reason pole-dancing and stripping are problematic is that they are intrinsically connected to sex and sexual desire, so that's become the default way their practitioners frame their resulting athlete's high. I think 'sexy' is a word that's not completely inaccurate, but perhaps because it's a such a loaded term it needs to be qualified somehow, or changed down.