Written by Angela Page. Photo by Jessica Joy Miller
Recently, I have been thinking about women’s sexuality in conjunction with hetero male arousal. That’s probably because a friend of mine became very worried that, since the last two men she’d been with had erectile dysfunction, she was in some way to blame for their lack of arousal; as if it’s her body’s responsibility to inspire or be the involuntary cause of sexual arousal in men, or, in other words, a hard on. That, in turn, made me recall when I was 18 and two male partners (on separate occasions) initiated penetration (consensually), then immediately stopped, making me feel that there was something wrong with my body, inducing shame and anxiety. Truly, though, neither erectile dysfunction, nor a change of mind, has anything to do with a woman’s sexuality.
The idea that women believe their bodies have the responsibility of hetero male arousal tells me that there is a subtext to male sexuality that demands women’s bodies be the sole source of hetero male arousal, and women internalize this subtext, and then view themselves as the cause of or lack of arousal/sexual drive in their male partners. Zoya Haroon wrote that “[s]exuality does not originate from your body, but the possibility of strange men’s sexuality is constantly in your mind, policing what you wear and how you perceive yourself.” In other words, most women are aware of how their bodies are watched, viewed, and/or used for pleasure–often without their consent–by straight, cis males. While they may not have the language to describe it, women know the feeling of eyes constantly on them, judging, scrutinizing, and (sometimes) using their bodies. Most women become hyper-conscious about their appearances, either by internalizing the embrace or rejection of their body by men, and measuring themselves against it; meaning, women think as if they are objects (the passive noun, receiving action) rather than subjects (the active noun, preforming the action) through acculturation.
Objectification is a powerfully oppressive force, and when internalized, it is known as self-objectification, which “posits that girls and women are typically acculturated to internalize an observer’s perspective as a primary view of their physical selves.” This, in academic terms, is what Haroon meant in her quote. In terms of sexuality, that means women internalize the views of the subject or viewer about what is sexy, hot, etc., causing “habitual body monitoring, which, in turn, can increase women’s opportunities for shame and anxiety, reduce opportunities for peak motivational states, and diminish awareness of internal bodily states.” So, when a male partner shows sexual disinterest, perhaps even in the form of erectile dysfunction (which has less to do with hetero male arousal and more to do with internal factors), many women internalize a perceived disinterest, turning it into an opportunity for shame and anxiety about their bodies. By being placed in the role of object, women are given no opportunity to create their own sexuality, and are therefore given one by the viewer, or subject, of their sexual encounter.
By no means is it an easy feat to escape self-objectification; in fact, most women have at the very least engaged in body monitoring. Being hyperaware of anything from clothing to body positioning to views others hold about their bodies, women are often expected to fulfill the subject’s desires, meaning they must perform the subject’s version of sexiness, lest they are to be viewed as undesirable. For women of color, trans women, disabled women, and fat women, self-objectification can be one of the most harmful experiences as they internalize a beauty standard that at once fetishizes and erases their bodies. For all women, though, self-objectification leashes female sexuality to patriarchy’s interpretation of sex/sexiness.
Of all the arguments against self-objectification, the most succinct and inspiring one I have come across came from Caroline Heldman at TEDxYouth. In her talk, Heldman dismantles objectification, and dispels the myth that objectification is something to be desired. If I took anything from Heldman, it’s that self-objectification is not as easy to overcome, and that it’s important to be aware of when I am being objectified by others or when I am objectifying myself. In the case of my friend who feared she was “cursed” because she felt she could not inspire hetero male arousal, and in my own case, self-objectification played a big role in that both of us made someone else’s lack of interest or arousal the sole indication of our sexual appeal and desirability. By taking responsibility for our partner’s dysfunction or change of mind, my friend and I made ourselves into sexual objects, rationalizing that our sexuality is only as good as the hard on our (male) partners are able to achieve and/or maintain.