Get older. That’s how. Recently, I read Jessica Valenti’s book, Sex Object (2016) and, no surprise it’s about her experiences being a sex object, and the lasting impact that’s had on her—like the PTSD she suffers. For some reason Valenti seems to have been a magnet for this kind of attention: the penises hanging out of trousers on the subway, a semen smear on her pants, the cat calls and deriding comments—which were her less serious collisions.
Once upon a time I was a sex object and though, thankfully, I had few encounters with strange penises, I had my fair share of hoots, whistles, and propositions, and I’d cross the street to avoid walking past construction crews. Grimy and dribbling sweat, those guys were nasty. When I lived in Berkeley, CA, a person’s sexuality was taken for granted, and looking hot wasn’t a given for a harassment opportunity. It was vastly different from New York City, where the female body—my body—was considered public not private, where its ownership could be threatened daily. Mostly, I lived in New York during my peak sexy years, and I’d respond by covering up or acting like I didn’t give a damn, maybe flip the bird at a provocateur, almost always cursing under my breath when I was sure I couldn’t be heard. I learned to keep my eyes averted, spending a lot of time looking down at my feet. A staunch feminist, I was incensed at how I was so readily violated. A staunch feminist, I never thought about how I might feel absent the interest. I was supposed to be emotionally independent, outraged or at least unresponsive to this attention. I wasn’t supposed to want this acknowledgement. Acknowledgement of what—tits and ass. Of course this had nothing to do with my personhood. My feminist credo saw these behaviors as demeaning, disrespectful, and invasive. And they were. And yet.
I don’t know how old I was when I awoke to the reality that the hoots were less frequent and I could walk anywhere I damned please. I’d become invisible. Though I still wore tight jeans, my trademark abundance of jewelry, and my face paint, it didn’t matter. Apparently, I’d disappeared. You’d think I’d relish my new status—embrace my freedom from feedback—good or bad. Not so. All the messages I’d received over the years—the messages about the importance of being hot—they’d stuck. The social conditioning was irreparable. The initial sigh of relief gave way to dismay—looking good, being hot, mattered to me, and you don’t realize just how much until you’re met with silence. No one was looking up from their jackhammers, or trying to catch my eye on the subway. Not that I wanted to fall victim to upskirt photography—apparently an increasingly popular trend and, I think, an extreme violation of personal privacy, which is legal in more than a few states if it occurs in a public setting.
But being a bygone (sex object) doesn’t feel good. I hate to admit it. And, it’s hard not to compare myself to millennials, hard to believe that I might have looked that way once. Being called ma’am is worst. Worse even than being offered a seat on the bus or subway. The truth is, this feminist misses the acknowledgement of her sexuality—skipping the catcalls, the derisive comments, the ogling—I could go with a few more smiles, some lingering glances.
• • • • • • • •
I wrote the above three months ago. Early August. Just when the election season was beginning. Just when Donald Trump was a media spotlight, a story that many considered merely entertaining, a story that would invite viewership but nothing else. Under the glare of this election campaign what I’ve written seems inexcusable. Groping and the prerogative of male sexuality is nothing new but there is something about Trump’s misappropriation of his perceived status—maybe it’s his smirk—that has robbed me of my sense of humor about the power of sex appeal. Clearly it’s more than that. I’ll call it male authority, whether manifested in physical gestures such as finger wagging, or the usurpation of space, or the apparently benign touch. Take for example, the second debate. There was a moment in the midst of all the acrimony that he touched Hillary Clinton’s shoulder. Harmless, right? Wrong. I wanted to yell out from my living room, “Get your hands off her you pig. She didn’t ask you to touch her, did she?” Hillary couldn’t do that, or swat at his hand, not in front of the millions of Americans watching the debacle, and he knew that.
Of course Donald is only a symptom of the larger problem. The benefits which accrue from being attractive cannot be underestimated, and while real for all sexes, the impact of such an advantage is heightened for those with tits and ass. Too many of us have come to define ourselves, to calculate our self-worth and our marketplace value, through the eyes of the other, particularly the male other. There is emotional fallout from such vulnerability. We try to correct our faults, to fix ourselves and then we’ll feel better. Hillary, the candidate (not Donald), started to smile more often after being advised to do so. The same message my mother gave me all the years when I was a sullen teenager and for the same reason—to be more attractive—but with obviously different consequences. Isn’t the challenge then to be ourselves, which takes a lot of courage, particularly given the lifetime of comments suggesting that is not good enough?