What usually comes to mind when you see a selfie of a woman in a bikini? The first thing you’ll notice is probably her face and body. And then you might think about where the picture was taken. Or if you can find a similar bikini online.
But do you ever think about the fact that she’s doing as she pleases with her body? That, in unashamedly putting her body on display, she’s demonstrating sexual freedom?
When we take ownership of our sexuality, we empower ourselves. We show the world we have full control over our choices, and feel free to break away from traditional expectations of how women should dress and behave.
But in order for you to own your sexuality, it can be helpful to know what’s standing in your way (and how to overcome it).
Female empowerment vs Judgement
While an empowered woman in this day and age can, for example, dress however she wants, it can still lead to negative consequences.
“Women may see their sexuality as empowering, [but] many men still feel intimidated by sexually-confident women,” says Dr Joel Gwynne from NIE, NTU, who teaches courses on feminism and has published research on gender and popular culture.
This can make life harder for us. It’s nothing new, though. Throughout history, our sexuality has been a mystery to men, and their response has been to medicalise and control it.
There was female hysteria, a once-common “medical condition” that was believed to happen only to women. “Symptoms” included sexual desire – as if that isn’t one of the most natural things – and the “tendency to cause trouble”.
An orgasm was usually prescribed as a “cure”. In fact, the vibrator was invented to relieve doctors, whose fingers were frequently cramped from treating patients “suffering” from hysteria.
Sexual pleasure for its own sake wasn’t the point – for women, sex used to be about how we can use our bodies to bring pleasure to men or bear children. While we’re generally no longer expected to keep our sexuality under wraps, it’s clear we still have some way to go as a society. Exhibit A:
The Madonna-Whore Complex
We all know at least one guy who has said that the woman they have casual sex with isn’t the woman they would take home to meet their mum. This is the Madonna-Whore complex in action.
First identified by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, it refers to the complex where a man sees a woman as either saintly and respectable, or debased and the object of sexual desire – nothing in-between.
“The Madonna-Whore complex occurs… [when] women are characterised as saints or sinners. Freud found that his patients desired prostitutes, but not their wives, as they believed good women should not be sexual,” says Dr Gwynne.
The thing is, many of us may have a hand in perpetuating this complex. Just think about how people lie about the number of people they’ve slept with because they don’t want to be seen as “loose”. Women are afraid to come across as “sinners” lest guys lose interest in dating them seriously.
The truth, of course, is none of us fully belong in either category.
“We are all saints and sinners at different times and in different contexts, and this applies to all genders,” says Dr Gwynne.
The moral custodian
Besides being identified as either a sinner or a saint, women also have the role of “moral custodian” thrust upon us. That is, we’re supposed to be attractive, but not so attractive to the point that we cause men to lose control of their sexual urges. In short, we’re expected to be responsible for the actions of men.
“Women are expected to manage our appearance for the consumption of others, in a way that is never demanded of men,” says Jolene Tan, Head of Advocacy & Research at AWARE.
This is usually how victim-blaming occurs – when the victim of a wrongful act is blamed for the harm that has happened to them. What’s more, some men feel they have the authority to label us the moment they think we’re stepping out of line.
Remember the “hoe” filter? Also known as the dog filter on Snapchat, it’s literally adding layers onto your face, and yet it’s still been deemed “slutty”.
The male gaze
The surveillance of women’s bodies and behaviour is nothing new. Consider the “male gaze”, which describes how women are visually positioned as objects of desire, particularly in visual arts and literature. Just think about how the camera usually zooms in on a woman’s breasts, butt and legs.
In Memoirs of a Geisha, one of the lines go: “Except for her legs, which were visible from the doorway and looked like slender tree limbs wrapped in wrinkled silk.” This is clearly meant to “pleasure” the male audience.
The way forward
Lately, it has been argued that we have a part to play in our own objectification – especially in this era of liberated sexuality. But interestingly, this might actually be the key to empowering ourselves.
“Women are still being objectified everywhere, but more importantly, women are self-objectifying too. Women also objectify each other,” says Dr Gwynne. “[For example,] Instagram is predicated on the notion that we want as many people looking as possible… and women associate this self-objectification with empowerment.”
In other words, objectification isn’t a bad thing in itself – what matters is agency and personal choice. In 2014, Emma Watson remarked that Beyoncé’s videos can be quite sexualised. She said to journalist and actress Tavi Gevinson: “As I was watching [Beyoncé’s videos], I felt very conflicted… in the sense that on the one hand she is putting herself in a category of a feminist, but then the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her.”
But she followed this up by explaining how the singer was making her sexuality empowering: “She was doing it for herself and the control that she has directing it and putting it out there, I agree, is making her sexuality empowering because it is her choice.”
So while some may argue that sexy selfies set the stage for the “male gaze” and encourage objectification, others maintain that such pictures are a means for us to celebrate our bodies and sexuality, and “take back” what the male gaze took away – our ability to enjoy our beauty without shame. And it’s when we exercise that freedom that we empower ourselves.
We’re in this together
According to Dr Gwynne, men need to be part of the conversation too.
“Women can only be free from oppression if men understand how they’re oppressing women,” he says. “So boys and men need to be educated about how they might be casually propagating unfair values.”
At the end of the day, there is still room for greater empowerment. And though we’ve come a long way, we’re far from being able to make our own choices without being judged.
While we shouldn’t have to keep playing the moral custodian and tell men what’s OK and what isn’t (as adults in a first-world country, they should have an idea), giving them subtle cues from time to time will probably help. We can let them know that their support makes a difference, and also remind them that when we feel empowered, it’s easier for us to empower others too.
The good news is there’s no shame in using our sexuality to empower ourselves, and it should only get easier from here.