I was never very good at being an object.
At first, my failure was aesthetic. There is a photo of me in my parents’ old albums, aged eleven and three quarters, standing in the front garden on my first day of high school; all uneven white socks, protruding front teeth and plastic-framed glasses, my oversized school uniform keeping my baby fat at bay.
It was around the same time that I received my first cat call. Taking my dog to the park one afternoon, some older teenagers leered out the window of their car. “Look! It’s a horse with two asses!” To this day, I’m still not sure exactly what they meant, but I was wise enough even then to know it wasn’t a compliment.
The following year, sitting in Geography class one afternoon, one of the popular girls — blonde and thin with razor-sharp cheekbones — turned to face me with a sneer. “You will never be pretty,” she said, as if I had ever done anything to suggest I thought I was or ever would be.
Not that I was bothered by it, most of the time at least. I went to a girls’ school where — at my position on the social pecking order, at least — interaction with boys was few and far between. And even if it hadn’t been, it wasn’t as though I would know what to do with them anyway. I had crushes on actors and pop stars, and figured I’d end up with someone someday. But most real boys felt like alien beings to me — objects of fear and potential humiliation I didn’t understand and didn’t find any more enticing than they found me.
Eventually puberty worked its magic, and around the time of my 15th birthday the story I was told about myself began to change: first amongst the adults in my life, and later amongst my peers. No longer was I a dog to be derived, or a “horse with two asses.” Now I was, if never beautiful enough to be the pretty girl, at least attractive enough to be acknowledged as a pretty girl.
As being “pretty” became a possibility for me, it also became something I wanted, at times desperately. By the time I got to university, I was spending hundreds of dollars at the salon dying my hair blonde, and woke up forty-five minutes earlier than I needed to each morning to iron it with a hair straightener. I flinched at the prospect of being seen without make-up, and wore three-inch heels to class each day. I counted calories, and threw up most of what I ate for 18 months in the hope of reducing the circumference of my thighs.
But for all the time, energy, and money I spent on trying to transform myself into a successful beauty object, I still didn’t feel attractive on the inside. On my good days, I looked in the mirror and saw someone nice enough looking, even beautiful from the right angle. But when it came to turning my efforts to be “hot” into a dividend of desire, I was a mess of insecurities. I could never trust that men were interested in me, and on occasions that they seemed to be, I would internally rebut myself with reasons that they would never be. I wasn’t just a virgin. I had yet to have my first kiss.
Once upon a time, succeeding as a woman when it came to sex meant making yourself as attractive as possible, and then sitting back and waiting to be chosen. Cinderella might have hustled to get herself to the ball, but it was the Prince who chased her down with the glass slipper, and her beauty that made him do it. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, meanwhile, weren’t even awake when they were plucked from unconsciousness by the men they would go on to marry.
But today, the feminine ideal is different: confident, independent and empowered, built more in the mold of Lady Gaga or Madonna-circa-1990, than Madonna mother of Christ. As heavily as slut-shaming and purity culture loom in the public discourse, the chaste, docile archetype they endorse isn’t one that most of us aspire to — at least, not after we finish high school. Rather than viewing women as objects for other people’s pleasure, it is now fashionable to talk about ourselves as sexual subjects, pursuing sex with the same enthusiasm with which we go after everything else we value in life.
The appeal of the “sexual subject” is multi-layered. For one, it’s a lot more fun than the alternative. An object may be beautiful, cherished, and adored, but by definition it cannot act; it can only be acted upon by others. “Subjects,” on the other hand, are dynamic. They are the creators of their own stories, sentient beings with their own desires and motivations. Who wouldn’t rather flirt, fornicate, and treat life as an adventure of your own choosing, than to leave your fate in the hands of another person?
For another, it is an ideal that is consistent with a particular brand of middle-class (neo)liberalism, in which all of us — women, men, and everyone in between — are independent crusaders, carving out our lives from a sea of limitless choices.
But not all sexual subjectivities are lauded to the same degree. The women our culture celebrates as sexually empowered are typically young, slim, able-bodied, middle-class or wealthier, straight or bi (never lesbian), and they’re usually also white. On these women, to be visibly and aggressively sexual is sexy, a reflection of her self-determination and sex appeal. But apply the same behavior to a woman with less wealth, or whose figure looks less like the shapes on a Victoria’s Secret billboard, and it is read as distasteful or even disgusting. A woman’s permission to desire still depends on her ability to evoke desire in others.
Nor does sexual subjecthood look the same for every woman. In a world in which sex — and female sexuality in particular — has historically been suppressed, it is not surprising that when most of us think about female sexual empowerment, we are usually thinking more about the right to say “yes” than to say “no.” But not all women are battling against the same stereotypes. As feminist critic Dr Brittney Cooper wrote in a 2011 blog post for The Crunk Feminist Collective, Black women were always seen as “already sexually free, insatiable, ready to go, freaky, dirty, and by consequence, unrapeable. When it comes to reclamations of sexuality, in some senses, Black women are always already fucked.”
That is to say, we need to expand our idea of what it means to be a sexual subject. A woman who has casual sex and loves it may well be in control of her sexuality, but so might a woman who puts on a purity ring at age 16 and doesn’t take it off until her wedding day. A woman who says yes to threesomes and BDSM and anal play might feel more alive than she ever has before, but so might one who decides to stop having sex with people who don’t interest her, even if that means having less than she would like.
It was only when I began to write my own book about sex, and was forced to confront my complex feelings and insecurities relating to my desirability, that I realized that the story I had been telling myself all those years had been wrong. I hadn’t actually “failed” at being an object at all — at least, not in the way that I had always thought I had.
I recalled the time that, “desperate and dateless” at the age of 18, I had signed up to a handful of proto-online dating sites in a bid to discover my market value, and found myself the recipient of messages from men telling me how the black dress I had worn to a senior year dance provided “easy access.” I remembered the guy who had sent the message insisting that I be his girlfriend. He explained that as a woman, my role was to be with someone who “deemed me pretty,” and that he did. The fact that I didn’t feel the same way meant that I was an uppity bitch.
I remembered the men who had cornered me in nightclubs, the acquaintance who had sent me three invitations to dinner in the space of two weeks, and the friend who had hovered awkwardly whenever I was near, never quite making his intentions clear and thus never quite requiring me to reject him.
And mostly importantly, I remembered how in each of those instances, I had immediately retreated; how I had made my excuses and run away.
It wasn’t that I was constantly batting off overly enthusiastic suitors — there were as many men who retreated from me as I had retreated from. It was that I refused to engage in the pop-culture worn dynamic in which a woman is spotted by a man, pursued relentlessly, and eventually acquiesces or is genuinely won over by his persistence. My reluctance wasn’t even a matter of feminist principle — although I did identify as a feminist — it just gave me the heebie-jeebies.
That is to say, I failed as an object not because “no one was ever attracted to me,” as I had so often told myself while playing the world’s saddest song on its smallest violin, but because I rejected the position of object. I wanted to be chosen, yes, but I also wanted to choose — and I wasn’t prepared to sublimate my own desires in order to enjoy the experience of being desired by someone else.
For me, being a “sexual subject” meant engaging with sex and relationships only when they were truly, deeply wanted, and with people I truly wanted to engage in them with. It meant saying “no” to men I wasn’t sure of, and turning down those whose enthusiasm for me seemed to override whatever enthusiasm (or otherwise) I felt for them. It meant doing the asking out a little more often than I would have liked to, but it also meant sitting through a lot less bad dates.
It may not be what we’re used to thinking of as empowered, but it was a situation of my own making, and a rejection of an antiquated role which, for me at least, did not fit. It reflected a clear and calm understanding of what I did and did not want, beneath the louder, surface-level insecurities. And what could be more powerful than that?
Rachel Hills’ book The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality is out August 4.
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