A couple of years ago, I participated in a study on people’s experiences of sexuality. The participation involved an hour-long interview intended to map things like the timeline of when and how I has learned about sex and sexuality, when and how I had started experiencing sexual feelings, and my sort of basic sexual history as it’s generally understood, regarding sexual activity with other people.
The process was absolutely fascinating for me, because during the interview I wound up thinking about all kinds of things about my sexuality and my sexual experiences from a new perspective, and I found that I learned a hell of a lot from it.
There was one question, though, that absolutely stumped me. I had no answer. I couldn’t even begin to formulate an idea of an answer. The question? It was:
What makes you feel sexy?
I spent days after the interview mulling this over, and not really coming up with anything. And every now and then since then, it jumps back into my head. I still don’t know how to answer it. I really don’t have a clue. But I am starting to get a sense of why I feel this way.
The thing is, I don’t think I even really understand what it means to “feel sexy”. Or rather, I actually think that my experience of “feeling sexy” is completely and utterly separate from my sexuality.
Because I can definitely remember as an adolescent, getting a charge out of the idea that my body was starting to look like an adult woman’s body, which as any of us who grew up with any access to television knows, is a sexy thing. And I enjoyed playing with the idea that I might have a body that people would find attractive, and liked trying to play that up as much as I could within the (totally reasonable) dress code my parents imposed on me.
It’s really important note, though, that I was also functionally asexual during this same time period. I was a late bloomer sexually, and I didn’t start having any kinds of explicitly sexual feelings or fantasies (though I have since come to interpret some things about my childhood as sort of protosexual expressions) until my late teens, well into high school. So really, my new-found sense of being sexy had nothing to do with me at all; it was based entirely on external messaging about what was sexy (since I had no internal guide-posts for that sort of thing). I had clearly absorbed the message that being sexy was a good thing, and of course I had plenty of data on what was supposed to be sexy, and I simply worked it that data.
But (shockingly enough) I’ve never actually fit the cultural standard for sexy woman all that well. I actually probably could – I have the kind of height and body type that made people ask me if I was a model. And I’ve never had any major problems with how I look; I’m incredibly fortunate to have grown up without any glaring body issues. But I’ve never had much interest in grooming, either. I preferred to wear pants year-round rather than shave my legs (though of course as a teenager, baring my hairy legs was unthinkable). I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve worn make-up in my life. It just doesn’t interest me, and when I see myself in make-up it’s really disconcerting, actually. I don’t look like me!
Really, at my core, I had no desire to be the kind of sexy that I knew and understood, the kind I had received strong messaging about. So, what, then?
I can say with some confidence that since ‘blooming’ sexually, the closest I have come to feeling sexy is when I am having naked fun times with someone and their visceral sexual response to me is apparent enough that I can’t disregard it. Then I feel confident that I am sexy, and pretty much only then. And I don’t like that very much, because this means that my experience of sexiness still has very little to do with me; it’s not something I am in charge of, and it’s not something I get to define for myself – it’s inherently dependent on other people.
However, I was lucky enough recently to discover the Gendercast, and I’ve been madly consuming their episode archives lately, and a comment Sean made in Episode 22 helped crystallize some things for me. This may not seem directly relevant immediately but bear with me:
Is my way of dressing or my gender expression depicting a different type of identity than I see in myself…? Is my masculinity being seen as more effeminate because of something I’m doing outwardly? Do I need to tailor that in? My internal gender has remained the same, but then my outward gender has to shift, and it’s not that I’m shifting to meet everybody else’s needs but at the same time it’s my internal and desire to be seen as me. How can I convey that? How can I convey that I have this gender identity to you, if you understand French and my internal dialogue is in Italian? There’s gotta be some way to meet in the middle… How can I show you what I want you to see?… We’re always reacting and responding to others and figuring out what that looks like so we can better craft ourselves.
Among many other things, this is a really good personal account of how the performative aspect of gender plays itself out, and how fraught it can be for people who either want to portray a gender identity that deviates from the standard (i.e. an identity that most people won’t know how to read), or people who struggle to convey their internal sense of self outwardly, whatever the reason. But when I listened to it, it clicked with me on my issues around feeling sexy. Because for me, the idea of being sexy is very much a performative thing; again, it’s a thing that happens outside of myself.
And as an adolescent, I had absorbed the mainstream idea of female sexiness, which is passive. So passive, in fact, that I was able to fleetingly feel sexy without performing in any way at that age. Just being a person with hips and breasts was performance enough. But then I started actually experiencing my sexuality, and once I understood the relationship of “sexy” to “sex” (which I couldn’t understand until I had experienced sex, and made the concept concrete), feeling sexy stopped being about passively being sexy, and became about doing sexy.
And this is not a thing I have scripts for. I’m fairly certain at this point that I’m physically incapable of flirting – when people try to flirt with me, it’s terrifying. I have no idea what to do, and usually just try to escape. It’s not fun for anyone. I simply don’t understand what it means for someone to be interested in me, somehow. And I can’t even explain it better than that.
OH HAI SHANE!
I wrote in my personal journal last year that my genderqueerness actually exacerbates this issue. Because while I can at least identify all of the the ways that I fall short of the ideal of feminine sexiness, I simply have no standard for androgynous sexiness.
Actually no, as much as I’d like the answer to be that easy, that’s simply not true. Plenty of people are into androgyny, and while it’s a quality that is sometimes desexualized, you need look no further than Shane in the L Word to find an androgyny that’s portrayed not just as sexy, but as nearly universally appreciated. (Full disclosure: my first girlfriend compared me to Shane, and definitely wanted me to be more like her, but I lacked the confidence to be that awesome at the time, alas!) My point is, plenty of people are into androgyny; hell, I’m into androgyny! Of course I know that it can be super sexy.
Ultimately, what I lack is confidence. I think that the picture of myself that I carry around in my head is lagging behind my actual outward presentation, though I can’t figure out in what way. I do know that this is a real thing that can happen to me; I spent a good part of last year as a blond (where I’ve spent most of my life as a brunette), and I never failed to be surprised at how the outfit I’d picked out came together completely differently than I had imagined when my hair was factored into the picture. I never really internalized the new colour, somehow.
So, I come out of this no more informed than I began, I guess. But I’m really curious about other people’s experiences. What makes you feel sexy? How do you even define “feeling sexy”? Help me out here!
Jiz Lee. Doin’ it right.