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Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011

Balancing Sexiness With Integrity

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As a woman, how do you balance self-respect with being sexy?

I received the question above during a workshop for college students earlier this year. It seemed especially relevant to me this past weekend; while SlutWalk Milwaukee was taking place in Bay View last Saturday and hundreds of people were rallying for their right to wear what they want without fear of violence, I was leading a training for sexuality educators in Pennsylvania where the hypersexualization of women in our society came up over and over again in our discussions.

The interesting thing about the question above, and the conversations during my training, is that we assume that "being sexy" is automatically in opposition to "having self-respect." It is true that everywhere we turn, women are presented as sex objects by mainstream media and valued primarily for how well they fit a very narrow image of sexual attractiveness. At ever younger and younger ages, women and girls are told that the most important thing about them is how "sexy" they are—witness the brouhaha earlier this year over the push-up bikini top that Abercrombie & Fitch introduced in its children's line.

When girls reach adolescence, many try to emulate the script they have been given: spending more time than their male counterparts thinking about their physical appearance, wearing clothing that emphasizes their bodies more than typical boys' clothes do, becoming consumers of the thousands of beauty products sold to women with the promise of increased sexual attractiveness, and dialing down behaviors that mark them as intelligent, assertive or independent. Those who do not engage in these behaviors are tarred with the brush of dyke, geek or outcast; those who engage in them too much are marked as sluts, regardless of whether they have actually had sex or not. Girls quickly learn that there is a "balance" that they are supposed to achieve, and begin the process of measuring themselves by this external yardstick of proper womanhood rather than their internal compass of selfhood.

While this hypersexualization is a major problem, and one that should be (and is being) addressed through such means as teaching media literacy, boycotting companies who propagate this meme, and academic, athletic and social programs for girls, we risk going too far in the other direction if we are not careful. When you see a group of women dressed up in high heels and short skirts tipsily traipsing down Water Street, what do you think? Many of us would quietly mutter, "That's a shame," or, "Those women should get some self-respect." Our assumption is that these poor, naïve women are thoughtlessly aping the sexual scripts they have been given at the expense of an authentic expression of their sexuality.

This leaves no room for enthusiastic expressions of female sexuality that happen to match up with our cultural notions of femininity. Assuming that women who "dress sexy" have no self-respect is not much better than simply calling them sluts or skanks.

My answer to the original question posed by a young female college student rests on authenticity. True "sexiness" does not just come in one form; women (and men) can be just as sexy wearing hiking boots and no makeup as they can be in heels and false eyelashes. The heels-and-falsies form of sexiness is privileged by our culture over all other forms, but this doesn't mean that some women (and men!) don't truly love the feeling they get when they strut down the street wearing a killer pair of stilettos. Women should not be shamed for refusing to conform to a narrow definition of sexual attractiveness, but they also shouldn't be shamed when they do celebrate brazen femininity.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.


Laura Anne Stuart has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side.

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