I’ve always had a weird relationship with sex and, more directly, the concept of sexiness. Sex and me together always seemed like a slapstick comedy duo – ridiculous, embarrassing and hilarious – certainly not aspects that make me feel empowered in the bedroom. I guess growing up in a decade when you couldn’t turn on MTV without seeing a glistening woman rolling around in a pit of snakes means that was what I thought sexy meant, for so many years: legs apart, pop socks, weird breathy vocals… the in your face, explicit form of sexiness we’re all familiar with.
I hated it. I hated all of it, not just the videos but the songs too. I avoided pop music at secondary school like the plague and took to punk music instead – which actually is kind of sexy, but it wasn’t popular so seemed like the refuge of the outcast, which I loved. I did realise something, though: men can be sexy just by being present. They sit in their sexiness. Bask in it, you could say. They are simply present and girls swoon. They are usually fully clothed. So why must women performers repeatedly stretch, pout and gyrate? Why are they so often photographed in bikinis? I quickly realised that I found it annoying.
My mum was always hyper-aware of the effect these types of music videos could have on a young girl, so raised me in a bubble of Lauryn Hill (“Respect is just a minimum… Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem, baby girl…”), Aretha Franklin, Etta James (“I want a Sunday kind of love”), and Erykah Badu; women who were sexy because of their voices, not their bodies.
“It’s only recently that I’ve come to acknowledge that I want to be sexy. I want to be seen and desired for my brain and my body…”
I’m eternally grateful for being raised in that way because it helped me bypass the way popular music of the time could have moulded me to feel like I had to look a certain way, be a certain size, wear certain clothes. I was instead allowed to experiment and be myself. However, myself was always the girl who liked books, who wanted to be a writer, who was always covering her legs with tights. I liked makeup but when I wore it, my mum would make me feel guilty, saying “you don’t need to wear that!“, as though it was vain or superficial to care about. In short, I have never, ever felt sexy.
And meanwhile, somehow, I haven’t respected myself. I’ve always had low self esteem. I’ve dated men who didn’t respect me. How could that have happened?
It’s only recently that I’ve come to acknowledge that I want to be sexy. I want to be seen and desired for my brain and my body. Media and popular culture seem to spread the message that you’re either the clever girl or the sexy girl, the good girl or the slut. But neither of these (fake) ideals get the respect they deserve. The slut is advertised as male fantasy but of course never respected, whilst the clever/good girl is probably more respected but often patronised and never allowed to live out or fulfil her own sexuality, for fear of no longer being taken seriously.
Reading Audre Lord was a revelation. She clearly voiced what had been churning around in my thoughts for years. “On the one hand,” she says, in her essay ‘The Erotic as Power’ “the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence… In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change.” Sex is our power as women. We are all unbelievably sexy and sex is not something that should be a source of shame or embarrassment for ourselves.
“There’s actually a real shortage of naked women on our screens. Weirdly, it’s seen as too explicit to show naked bodies – with scars, stretch marks and vulnerability – when the truth is that only through vulnerability can we find our strength.”
Media has made women feel as though sex exists for the male gaze alone and has moulded what we view as ‘sexy’ to fit that dynamic: a dynamic where women being semi-naked and promiscuous is what is selling the records and yet they’re placed in a position where they’re only valued as an objectified subject of the male gaze, a thing to make money and then be discarded when no longer needed. As Audre Lorde wrote, “Women are maintained at a distant/inferior position to be psychically milked, much the same way ants maintain colonies of aphids to provide a life-giving substance for their masters… but the erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation.”
It’s taken a relationship that was basically just for sex to show me what I actually want for myself. It went against every one of my prior beliefs, but I pursued it because I was interested in discovering for myself how it made me feel. The conclusion was that it made me feel shitty, but only because the guy couldn’t be honest and straightforward. He continued to pretend to my face that he was emotionally invested when I could see he was only interested in sex. This was an insult to my intelligence and made me feel used but the validation I got for my body, weirdly made me feel good and I realised that I’d been wanting that validation for a while and felt like I couldn’t give it to myself as it wasn’t what was ‘important’.
I now know that a three-dimensional woman can embody intelligence, quirkiness, sensitivity AND sexiness, and that she should never be shamed for any one of these things. What aggravates me about so many music videos isn’t the fact that these women are taking their clothes off – more power to them, if that’s what they want – it’s that it’s relentless, constant, and obviously an attempt to sell more records. This, in turn, sets up a culture-wide message to young men that women are decorative, not instrumental or useful, and that they are always ‘up for it’ whether they tell you so or not.
There’s actually a real shortage of naked women on our screens. Weirdly, it’s seen as too explicit to show naked bodies – with scars, stretch marks and vulnerability – when the truth is that only through vulnerability can we find our strength. The same applies for men. It is only through encouraging men to show vulnerability that we can hope to break down this damaging image of men having to fulfil an aggressive, dominant role.
“I don’t need comments on my body to feel validation, because I feel sexy … regardless of cultural messages.”
Now, I’m not trying to make anyone who likes pop music feel guilty. I would like to make people aware of the lack of space for women to speak their truth and define their sexiness on their own terms. And I would like to open up the discussion about how capitalism has shaped the presentation of what it is to be a desirable woman and how much that has been transmitted by the music industry.
As for myself, for the first time ever, I do feel sexy. And that doesn’t mean I am any less intelligent, nerdy or outspoken.
I now see sex as a spring of empowerment, not a source of embarrassment. I also don’t need comments on my body to feel validation, because I feel sexy in myself, regardless of cultural messages. However, I’ve acknowledged that sometimes to be appreciated for my body, as part of a wider person, is actually really quite nice. I hope all women can feel the same way.