feminism / women

Thoughts on the Difference Between Sexy and Sexual

“With young women, it’s about teaching the difference between the desire to be desired and desire itself.”

This line from The Problem With Being Sexy but Not Sexual, a wise article by Hugo Schwyzer, resonated with me the other day. In fact, he nailed it. I know the distinction all too well. And I suspect most girls and women do, too, even if they’ve yet to articulate it. In this piece, Hugo discusses how the heft of expectation put upon girls and women to be pleasers in combination with constant, cultural sexualization greatly impacts a girl’s sense of self. Give it a read. Pass it on to your daughters if you have em. And sons, too, for that matter.

For me, it rings true that I discovered the expectation to be sexy long before I became self-possessed in my own sexuality. Once discovered, I experienced sexiness as a Catch 22. While it was nice to feel desired it was also a tenuous platform for self esteem; my formative version of sexiness wasn’t based on my thoughts and feelings but on what other people thought, men in particular.

In the face of that dilemma, I chose another route than, say, Paris and spent most of my early twenties dressing to avoid sexiness altogether. I couldn’t have looked less like a young Britney or Lindsay clone. It was the late nineties and my crew sported more of a drug through the mud fashion sense. I remember, in particular, how I chopped off my long high school hair in personal defiance of sexiness. When I walked into the salon an Italian man at the café next door whistled at me and when I exited an hour later he told me, “You looked better before.”

Thanks, douchebag. Sadly, I did look a lot like Justin Bieber.

Anyways, that was the point. And yet it still stung. Everybody likes attention and I think for young women the attention that sexiness brings can be incredibly confusing. It can prop you up. And just as easily pull you down when you’re just trying to get somewhere on the sidewalk. But it can also make feeling sexy equate to the attentions of the man at the café rather than your genuine desire and the self motivated want to please and be pleased. I think at the time I unknowingly wanted to curtail (or lop off in long brown tendrils) my desire to be desired so that I could work on developing other parts of myself. Or as Hugo eloquently puts it: “The freedom to learn how to be sexual requires the freedom from sexualization.” While I can’t say that I’ve ever found that freedom entirely (it’s pretty hard to come by in our culture), I have found articulation for my desires.

I don’t have a problem per say with dressing up in a Paris-esk version of sexiness. But it’s integral to a young woman’s development to have a sense of how and why she is using sexual attention. And it’s incredibly telling that a young woman exuding sexy such as Paris can attest to being totally disinterested in sex. (See Paris quote in article’s comments section on Jezebel; I’m not sure it’s accurate but I wouldn’t be surprised).

For me being sexy and sexual have aligned more with age. For one thing, as many will affirm, the older you get the less you care what people think (especially DBs on street corners). And with time and experience I’ve become good pals with my sexual self. In many ways, these ideas resonate with the way I used to view porn—as a set of expectations and instructions rather than a catalyst for my own desire and exploration. For me, these distinctions made all the difference.

Do I still get wrapped up in the desire to be desired sometimes? Sure. The long hair is back. And I do love me some stilettos. But I know very well that real sexiness comes from somewhere else.

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