PERSONAL: The Sexualization of Everything

Zoe Kovacs

Late on a Friday evening, I began my journey home after a night out. A friendly stranger offered me a slice of pizza on the shuttle back to my dorm and I ended up accompanying him and some friends back to his house, in which I found several fraternity brothers. Later, on my way out the door, a drunken frat boy insisted that I tell him who I hooked up with that night, since apparently that’s the only feasible reason I was in his house. I geared up for my favorite line: “I have a girlfriend.”

There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with saying that to men. It packs a punch, and it shuts down any and all related questions. It’s the ultimate rejection, saying, “Don’t bother, you don’t have what I want anyway.” In general, it tends to do the trick.

Only sometimes, it doesn’t.

Sometimes – like this night – instead of a respectful surrender and retreat, I get the other typical response, one that turns my preferred form of rejection on its heel and makes me regret having said anything in the first place. By the time I hear the beginnings of, “That’s so hot, I’m so glad she said that,” I’m already halfway down the street.

Let’s be clear: our perfectly stereotypical frat brother was not glad because he’s happy for my girlfriend and me. He’s happy because of the images that are now running through his head about what she and I do together privately. Somehow, my relationship – a relationship between two women that by definition excludes men – is still not safe from sexualization by any man that happens to hear that it exists.

When I talk about my girlfriend and a man comments on how “hot” it is that I’m gay, I’ve been forcibly sexualized. When a woman walks down the street, minding her own business – perhaps even wearing a baggy sweatshirt and jeans – and a man whistles at her, she has been forcibly sexualized. When a nun immediately stirs up thoughts of virginity, she has been forcibly sexualized. And thus is the pervasive nature of patriarchy, and the widespread tendency of the sexualization of basically any aspect of being a woman, regardless of how unprovoked or unwanted such attention might be.

Recognizing the absurdity of the matter, but it’s practically impossible to distance oneself from it. Constant sexualization is a reminder that women don’t actually own anything about themselves under patriarchy. Persistent and widespread invasions of patricharcial entitlement over women’s sexuality and their lives start to affect subconscious behaviors and desires. If I want to be a stay-at-home mom and have five babies, is that a desire of my own invention, or is that something that patriarchy has instilled in me? If I want to be dominated in bed, is that because I suffer from internalized misogyny? And if it is, are my desires legitimate? Attempting to rid myself of all of my potentially problematic desires is futile at best, so what can I do with this information?

Sexuality is not only appropriated but shaped by patriarchy. Our sexualities are products of how we have been socialized. Take, for example, an entire genre of writing known as “posh porn,” a relatively recent emergence of the 21st century, that comprises of erotic literature written by women for women. Something like that may seem inherently feminist on a superficial level, but upon further examination, the common thread in the vast majority of these works is heteronormativity. Many works of posh porn feature women who find both sexual and emotional fulfillment only through a man. Even more still feature BDSM practices in which men dominate them and physically abuse them. Many authors frame such behaviors as sexually liberating.

I do not mean to condemn women who enjoy BDSM. It is perfectly fine to enjoy being consensually dominated by one’s partner. But across an entire literary genre, it begins to normalize these kinds of behaviors, and it seems to frame sexual liberation as the acceptance of domination by a (typically male) partner—in other words, it begs the question of whether these women consider it “emancipatory” to accept oppressive and misogynistic behaviors rather than fight them. But that is not really freedom; that is just succumbing to the the ways in which the patriarchy distorts women’s sexualities.

Patriarchy works in insidious ways. It creeps in without permission, often unnoticed, and alters even our deepest desires and tendencies. It makes it impossible for a genre of literature dedicated specifically to women to escape unscathed of the fingerprints of misogyny and sexism. I can’t even sleep with my girlfriend (let alone acknowledge our relationship) without the male gaze somehow creeping in and exalting it. It’s the kind of thing that has me flopping helplessly across a professor’s desk wailing about whether a woman can actually own anything about her sexuality under the patriarchy. Short of building our own feminist utopia with a big “no boys allowed” sign painted out front, I am not so sure that it is possible.

Zoe is a sophomore studying English and classics. She loves watching foreign documentaries in her spare time.

Check out more from this month’s issue here.