(Warning: this is about twice the wordcount of my usual blog entries, so brace yourselves. This took ages to write because it’s a subject I wanted to be very, very careful with. We’ll see…)
*Updated with extra links 17/04/15.
There are certain assumptions made about the way we dress, and some of them bug me. Hopefully, I’ve written enough from a psychological perspective to show that crossdressers aren’t crazy. And I’ve been fairly consistent in saying that if other people read some sort of message in what you’re wearing, that’s their problem, not yours.
I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men. – Marlene Dietrich
For example, I recently wrote about a hipster scientist’s t-shirt covered with cartoon women in tight or skimpy clothing wielding guns. Some of my friends were incredulous that I couldn’t see it as sexualised imagery, objectifying and degrading women. The design wasn’t really my taste, but I didn’t think of the characters as sexy or sexualised – merely cartoony, deliberately trashy, and (to my eye) contrived – which, on a (desperately?) fashion-conscious scientist could only be described as ‘kitsch’.
So my friends saw it as sexualised; I did not. I don’t think any one of us was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; these are only judgement calls.
Sometimes I’ll decide an image is sexualised and I don’t think there’s anything scientific about it; it’s just an impression I get, and sometimes I’ll change my mind. Even so, I’m bothered by the insistence that some things are ‘sexy’ or ‘sexualised’.
I have no problem with sexiness. The things I find sexy are nobody else’s business; but whatever I find sexy, others might not. Whatever others find sexy, I might not. I think the same holds true for sexualisation, too; sexiness and sexualisation are in the eye of the beholder.
I do wonder if there’s persistent assumption that female clothing is sexy clothing; that women dress to look good (…for the benefit of men); and that if men wear female clothing it’s because they want to look sexy (or that it says something about their sexuality).
It’s the idea of seeing things in a sexual context that bugs me – because I think we all do it, it’s done pretty much all the time, we can’t help it, and I think -somehow- it’s a problem.
I think that sexuality is only attractive when it’s natural and spontaneous. – Marilyn Monroe
Disgusted by ‘sexiness’?
A study by Vaillancourt and Sharma (2013) found women were typically hostile towards to the perceived sexiness/sexualisation of another woman, and suggested female competition for male mates as a reason. Thinking back to some of the religious, cultural influences on clothing (not mention on sexuality), I’d suggest there’s an element of ‘moral disgust’ at work.
Ever hear of short, figure hugging, or skimpy clothes on women being described as ‘slutty’, ‘tarty’, or ‘whore-ish’? I don’t think it matters if it comes from socially-conservative types complaining about women wearing whatever they want, or socially-liberal types complaining about the way female characters are presented in the media (for example). Both strike me as disapproving, censorious attitudes and I don’t care much for either of them.
Whether it’s clothing, costume or art, it’s merely a form of expression, and it shouldn’t matter that not everyone is OK with it – but that’s just my current opinion. (Mind you, if women are presented almost entirely in a particular way in certain media – as busty, pouty-lipped, super-fit, spandex-clad superheroines, for example – then yes, I can easily see how that shit gets old fast. Variety is a good thing, and I like to identify with well-written and interesting characters rather than ‘good-looking’ ones.)
If I don’t see particular imagery as ‘sexualised’ it could be because 1) not everyone will see it as such and that’s fine, or 2) people who don’t see sexualisation are blind to it because they’ve been brainwashed by the media (or for some other reason). The second of these strikes me as one of those unfalsifiable ‘heads-I-win, tails-you-lose’ arguments. This doesn’t mean the idea is wrong as such, just unfalsifiable; but one should never assume one must be right simply because one’s argument can’t be proven wrong.
Is sexy/sexualised imagery harmful?
In a 2009 review of studies into the effects of pornography, Christopher Ferguson found that the effects of pornography “appear negligible, temporary and difficult to generalize to the real world”. As McKee (2007) found, it’s not exposure to pornography that correlates with negative attitudes towards women, but more general things such as being old, or voting for a socially-conservative political party. If anything, all we can say is that there is no demonstrable link between sexualised or pornographic imagery and sex crimes or harmful attitudes towards women.
Porn and sexualised imagery aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’; they just ‘are’. You’re entitled to be attracted, disgusted, offended, or turned on by them as you wish; just don’t expect others to see things the way you do. If you want to find out what drives harmful attitudes, you’re better off looking at the effects of peer groups and social culture, rather than anything that might appear in the media.
Sexy or sexualised clothing?
Say what you want about long dresses, but they cover a multitude of shins. – Mae West
What do you think when you see someone in tight running gear? Maybe you think they look sexy. But it’s not sexualised clothing, despite the tiresome arguments over yoga pants that have flitted past my attention in recent weeks. The same is true of swimwear and underwear. Fancy dress costumes might be a grey area, but I still think it’s in the eye of the beholder – as are ‘fetish’ materials like latex, rubber, leather and the like.
Maybe, instead of thinking they’re sexy/sexualised, the wearers simply like the look and feel of these clothes? That’s not to say the wearers aren’t putting them on to look or feel sexy, but just to say that there’s a whole range of reasons for wearing what we wear. I think if someone views clothing (or art) only through a prism of how sexy/sexualised it is, and whether it delights or offends their sensibilities as a result, it’s a terribly limited perspective. Sure, they’re entitled to it, but I hope they’ll understand that not everyone has to go along with it.
So what about me?
What about my clothing choices? What motivates me to wear tight catsuits or short dresses? Simple: vanity.
It’s not because I’m slutty, tarty, or whore-ish. It’s not because I want to look sexy or feel sexy. It’s simply that I think the clothes look cool. And I feel that if I want to wear them with any degree of confidence, I have to watch my weight and keep my figure slim (easier said than done). After going to all that effort, you’d better bloody believe I want to show off.
I’ll only show off if I’m feeling confident about myself. And there’s nothing sexier than confidence. (Make of that what you will…)
The notion of seeing clothing as sexy/sexualised does nobody any favours.
While I was putting this blog entry together, my attention was drawn to comments made by Tracy King (15th April 2015):
Men must have a chart somewhere that specifies, in millimetres, the exact size of boobs that crosses from ok to not ok. It’s a sort of weird backwards fat-shaming. Bigger boobs must be hidden not because they’re unattractive, but because they’re attractive. I got street harassed three times yesterday because the weather is warm and I dress appropriately (appropriately for the weather, that is). Wear skimpy clothing, invitation to all men ever to initiate a conversation in the street that usually starts with “hey babe”. I also don’t consider the street harassment I get based on clothing/body to be “victim blaming”. I am not a victim. The men who think women should cover up, THEY are the victims, of toxic masculinity.
Just who in the hell decides what’s ‘appropriate clothing’ or not? And is there anyone out there wearing ‘inappropriate clothing’ telling them where to go? Well, that’s a question I’ll have to tackle next time…
*(NB: The title of this blog entry came from a marketing slogan I kept hearing on New Zealand television many, many years ago. Personally, I have no objections if anyone thinks of me as any of those three things; I know what I’m about, even if they don’t…)