“When did you start wearing eye makeup? You look like a streetwalker.”
I had recently discovered that I looked fabulous – sexy, even – in black eyeliner (or at least I thought so), until my mother crushed my groove by filling me with shame for wanting to look a little sexy.
I started my college career,then, with some shame around my awakening desire for someone to find me sexy. My mother’s mission was to prevent me from being doomed to an existence as a sexual being. (In my family, “sexual being” equaled “streetwalker,” and it was presumed that you’d want to look like anything but a “streetwalker.”)
Teetering on the cusp between the Baby Boomers and Generation X, as in a lot of families in the Midwest and beyond during the time that I was growing up, I learned that there was something wrong –immoral – about expressing or even acknowledging my sexuality as a woman. In my world, we didn’t say words like “vagina;” in fact, even acknowledging our vaginas by referring to them as “lady parts” or “down there” seemed a little risqué.
Our brothers were given more of a sexuality pass. The message was clear: “Girls, doing anything to draw the attention of boys will mean you’re “easy” (a slut, in other words!), but boys are free to stare at you and assess your body and your appearance all they want,” because, well, that’s just how they are.
We grow up and go out into the world, then, many of us, not wholly comfortable with anything that associates with ourselves as sexual beings, yet having learned that we’re subject to what men think of us as sexual objects.
We absorb the message that it’s men who have the keys to the sexuality kingdom; that they’re free to determine our “worth” based on objectifying criteria, like how attractive or how flirtatious we are; and how well our appearance stacks up with what they deem “ideal.”
On the other hand, when we do finally say, “Enough! You’ve been inappropriate with me! You’ve hurt me!” Or “You’ve offended me!” The responsibility for the man’s actions conveniently shifts back to us, the women. When a comment or gesture offends us, we’re expected to take ownership of understanding that “boys will be boys.” If a physical violation happens, we’re told that we should have controlled the situation and successfully fought it off, even if we were never equipped emotionally or mentally to do so.
Is it any wonder, then, that, up to this point, women have found it difficult or impossible to come forward when they experienced sexual assault and sexual harassment? Women learn quickly, too, that to respond negatively to an inappropriate comment, catcall, or advance invites, at best, ridicule, and at worst, retribution.
“Relax, I was only joking” is often the safety valve a man uses when a woman doesn’t respond to him the way he wants her to.
How can a woman have the emotional and mental tools that give her power over her sexuality, if she’s been taught that it’s subject to what men think, say, and do? And how can she be comfortable as a sexual being when doing so outwardly implies to (some) men that she’s “asking for it”?
Our society deals best in extremes; either we’re sexual (naughty), or we hide that part of ourselves (nice). We have difficulty with the comfortable middle area, where we understand that to be whole humans means to integrate, appreciate, and own all of our aspects – intellectual, emotional, physical, and sexual.
I’ve noticed, though, that millennials seem to have this down much better than we did. They seem to understand, without the need to over-analyze the difference between women as sexual beings, and women as sexual objects.
Where many of us as baby boomers and early Gen Xers took in the message, intentional or not, that our sexuality is about pleasing someone else, millennials seem to get that it has little to do with how seductive we are, or how much cleavage we choose to show. It has nothing to do with how pleasing someone else finds us, and everything to do with (forgive the cliché, but it’s true) our relationship with ourselves and with our own bodies.
Maybe they get it so well because they learned from previous generations how not to do sexuality.