The following is an excerpt from the final chapter of my latest book, Sexed Up: How Society Sexualizes Us, and How We Can Fight Back. While not explicitly discussed here, this passage grew out of my concerns with “no kink at Pride” discourses, but it’s also pertinent to recent “don’t say gay” bills and claims that LGBTQIA+ people “groom”/“sexualize” children by merely existing. Content warning for non-graphic mentions of CSA and sexual violence.
Upon considering the many work-related incidents that came to light during Me Too, one often proposed way to curb sexualization is to remove all discussions or insinuations of “sex” from the workplace. While this might seem like a reasonable solution — especially for those of us who’d prefer to keep our work lives and sex lives entirely separate — it’s important to view this reaction in a broader context. For instance, this approach is not all that dissimilar from anti-pornography feminist campaigns to prohibit objectifying depictions of women in the hope that this might reduce sexualization. I’ve come to think of this more generally as the “hiding sex” strategy for ending sexualization. And it seems to make superficial sense. After all, if we remove all signs of sex, then sexualization should go away too. Right?
Well, not necessarily. People will continue to have sexual thoughts and fancy other people even if we remove all indications or expressions of sex from those settings. If anything, “hiding sex” may make those sexual thoughts seem even more taboo, thus leading some people to develop unhealthy relationships with their own desires. In fact, the veneer of a “sex-free” environment can create a cover for sexual indiscretions to fester unabated — look no further than the child sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church or within certain Evangelical communities. In other words, “hiding sex” doesn’t make sexualization go away; it simply forces it underground.
As a crucial aside, those who favor “hiding sex” strategies will often try to justify them via “but think about the children”–type pleas. According to such arguments, we must protect children’s “innocence” by shielding them from the “corruptive” influence of “sex” — where the latter is often broadly interpreted to include sex education, non-explicit media that touches on sexual themes, and marginalized individuals who are stereotyped as “excessively sexual” (LGBTQIA+ folks and people of color in particular). But in reality, this “protecting innocence” strategy can do more harm than good, as it often prevents children who are actually sexually abused from coming forward, and denies them the language to describe and process what has happened to them. The same holds true for adults: The reason why we are even able to have discussions about sexualization and sexual violence is because of decades of past feminist work making it possible for us to speak openly about these previously suppressed topics.
There is yet another problem with the “hiding sex” strategy; namely, it fails to account for double standards in our perception and interpretations of sex and sexuality. I have already provided countless examples of how certain subpopulations are “marked by sex” and viewed as “excessively sexual” in many people’s eyes. A man who walks down the street topless is not considered “sexual,” whereas a woman who does the same is. A heterosexual couple who engages in public hand-holding or kissing is not considered “sexual,” but a same-sex couple doing the same is. If a billboard ad featured a white, cisgender, thin, able-bodied woman wearing a sexy outfit, many passersby wouldn’t even notice it, but if the model were Black, or transgender, or fat, or disabled, or some combination thereof, it might strike them as “sexually inappropriate.” In other words, the “hiding sex” strategy will inevitably police some people’s bodies and behaviors far more than others, thereby perpetuating pre-existing social and sexual inequities.
For the record, I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with having some spaces be relatively “sex-free,” provided that there’s at least some attempt to address the aforementioned discrepancies. But as a society-wide strategy, “hiding sex” will ultimately lead us down a path toward sexual dystopia.
So if a fully realized “hiding sex” strategy is dystopian, then what might a sexual utopia look like? Well, given the diversity of sexual desires and meanings, I’m pretty sure that every person would have somewhat different ideas about this. Over the years, I’ve seen various types of porn and read numerous genres of erotica, and I can tell you that I wouldn’t want to live in most of y’all’s sexual utopias! And you might feel the same way about mine!
Given this, my working premise is that a so-called sexual utopia would have to accommodate our sexual differences. And upon contemplating what that might look like, I keep returning to our previous food/taste analogy. People experience a diversity of gustatory pleasures, sometimes in our very presence, yet we usually don’t feel the need to police or suppress them. If I were out in public and saw someone eating a sandwich, I wouldn’t find it offensive, even if it was a type of sandwich that I personally find disgusting. But there are some limits to this. For instance, if the sandwich eater spit the food they were chewing onto me, then everyone would agree that I had been wronged by them. Or if they tried to force me to take a bite of their sandwich or to share a meal with them — that is, to directly involve me in their eating practices — then that would also clearly cross a line. In other words, while we are fairly open about eating food in our culture, we nevertheless recognize the importance of boundaries, bodily autonomy, and consensuality.
Since we are generally fine with public displays of food eating and enjoyment, provided that they don’t cross the aforementioned lines, then why don’t we extend this tolerance to public expressions of sexuality? I’m pretty sure that the answer here relates to sexual stigma. In our sex-negative culture, this stigma is often invoked anytime we confront anything that is deemed “sexual” in nature (whereas eating a sandwich doesn’t typically invoke stigma). And we are taught to detest stigma, to avoid it at all costs for fear of becoming “contaminated” ourselves. This explains why most of us prefer it when sex that we are not personally interested in remains out of sight and out of mind. This is yet another reason why the “hiding sex” strategy tends to resonate with us.
Some might be inclined to describe a public expression of sexuality that they accidentally come across as “offensive,” or “gross,” or “immoral,” or “despicable” — these are all words we often use in reference to stigmatized behaviors, thus supporting the idea that stigma is driving our reactions here. A few people might describe this public expression as “nonconsensual.” I’ve heard this “nonconsensual” claim made in other contexts too, including ones I find particularly disturbing, so I want to take a moment to interrogate it. For example, I’ve heard anti-trans campaigners make the case that, because trans women are “perverts” who are constantly aroused by wearing women’s clothing in their eyes, our very presence in public spaces is tantamount to a “nonconsensual” sexual act that ropes in anyone we encounter. I’ve heard similar claims that people who wear a BDSM collar or an item of fetishwear in public are “nonconsensually” involving other people in their kink or scene. I must point out that these assertions are but a small step away from me claiming that people who publicly wear wedding rings are “nonconsensually” involving me in their relationships. Or claiming that women who wear short skirts are “nonconsensually” exposing me to their “sexual” bodies. Oh, wait, people actually do say that last one, sometimes to compel the woman to cover herself up, other times to invoke the victim-blaming trope “she was asking for it.”
We all possess sexed bodies. We all wear various outfits and accessories in public, many of which are sex-coded in some way or other. And most of us, on occasion, have sexual thoughts in front of other people — we might find someone we see attractive, or be lost in one of our own sexual fantasies. None of these things are inherently harmful to anyone. As with our earlier sandwich-eating example, they do not cross into the realm of nonconsensuality unless we directly involve other people in them.
What I believe is happening in the case of coming across a public expression of sexuality, or a trans woman in a dress, or someone wearing a BDSM collar, or a woman in a short skirt is that these things will strike some people as inherently “sexual” in ways that other things (such as topless men and wedding rings) do not. And things that strike us as “sexual” may evoke sexual stigma in our minds. And this experience of sexual stigma — which can act indirectly and from a distance, as we’ve seen with all the fears of “contagiousness” — can make us feel as if we are being “nonconsensually” implicated in a “sexual” activity, even though no boundaries have actually been breached, and the supposed act may not even be sexual for the other party. Such overreaches are worrisome, not only because they further marginalize those who are already unfairly “marked by sex” in our culture, but also because they can dilute or weaken legitimate claims of nonconsent in cases where actual sexual violence has been perpetrated.
More information about the book (reviews, excerpts, interviews, readings, etc.) can be found on the Sexed Up webpage.