The Toxic Currency of Desirability
To say that women’s sexuality is used as a proxy for their worth is stating the obvious. Whether virgin and slut or prude and sexy, the dichotomy of women who do and women who don’t do it creates the chasm over which women walk a tightrope every day. The purpose of this essay is not to explore that chasm per se. This essay will take a slightly different approach by discussing how attempts to use either of those extremes, and anything in between, to define or to claim sexual agency are only doing the former to their detriment and not doing the latter at all. The hypothesis is that any attempt to use sexual agency as a measure of self-worth or self-empowerment does nothing to engender agency and that, as a corollary, only enables rape culture by undermining and even eliminating the importance of consent. When women’s decisions about their sexuality can be boiled down to whether or not they are desirable, their judge, jury and executioner remains the male gaze. The male gaze has never, and will never, give women any actual power.
While women practicing abstinence in an effort to self-agency by “respecting” and “saving” themselves may think they are doing that, they are not. In the same way, women practice promiscuity in an effort to express self-agency via “exploring their sexuality” and being “liberated” from repressive morality are also not achieving their goals. By making a woman’s management of her sexuality a way to mete out a value judgment does not change or subvert the oppressive system that objectifies a woman. It merely makes women active participants in their own and other women’s objectification and oppression. All that either of these prototypical women is saying is that they accept their sexuality as a currency in valuing their self-worth and their identity. This does not change the fact that the people who set the value for that current remain men because the standard of valuation remains fuckability and the tool to make that valuation remains the hetero male gaze. That value setting only serve the heteronormative and belittling male “Central Bank” of value judgments
There is a .gif circulating of Jessica Valenti addressing abstinence only and Girls Gone Wild. The .gif is only a few seconds long and is being used merely as a jumping point because it inspired this essay. In the .gif, Ms. Valenti concludes that both abstinence only and Girls Gone Wild send one unified message: women’s consent does not belong to them. I want to unpack that thought and build on it.
Both abstinence only and Girls Gone Wild are, here and in the .gif, being used symbolically as each representative of particular approaches to female sexuality. But, as announced in the introduction, these two diametrically opposed extremes actually meet back up to support stripping women of their sexual autonomy and, therefore, their right to consent. The reason is that both approaches monetize women’s sexuality for the benefit of others. This monetization is not strictly a financial one (although Girls Gone Wild fits the proverbial bill). Rather, the monetization is an intangible social one that has very real consequences for women.
In the case of Girls Gone Wild, producers capture all the financial benefits of the show. The women portrayed in varying states of sexually charged drunken behavior don’t. The women in the videos’ monetization is that for an instant they become worthy of male attention. They get to be “sexy”; they get to be desirable. Whatever sense of empowerment women get from engaging in this type of uninhibited behavior is fleeting and only, in the long run, benefits the men in charge of the filming and the men viewing the videos. To be desirable is to be worthy of male sexual attention. This is a toxic paradigm and is no different from the harassing and intrusive male sexual attention that women are subjected to, against their wishes, time and time again. However, the solution is not sexual repression. Abstinence as a valuation of morality gets us no closer to our goal.
Abstinence-only teachings and the culture that such teachings emanate from value women based on their chastity. Literally, a woman is less valuable to a mate if she has sex, at all. The message, sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit, is that a woman becomes more desirable to potential straight men if she is a virgin. In other words, a woman increases her desirability if she is refusing to have sex. All she is doing, then, is claiming to be the holder of a more highly valued currency by virtue of her virtue. Unfortunately, as are so-called liberated girls in Girls Gone Wild, she is still trading in a marketplace where the male gaze lets the value of the currency, and should she choose to exercise agency over her own body by having sex, she may well find herself devalued, literally, overnight.
In both situations, women’s actions can be reduced to efforts to make themselves desirable. If women’s actions, whether to have or not to have sex, can still be boiled down to efforts in making themselves desirable to the male gaze, women remain consumables. As consumables, they have no more right to say no than an orange or an avocado has the right to object to being eaten.
So is every female act of purported sexual agency inextricably tied to a patriarchal system of oppression? Yes, but only if the so-called act of agency is meant to create a public value judgment for the woman performing it. Female sexual agency can only exist if women are deciding whether or not to have sex on the basis of whether they do or don’t want to have sex. In other words, female sexuality is only truly empowering when it is an entirely an act of self-enjoyment. (While sex is sometimes procreative, focusing on sex as utilitarian is the more appropriate subject of an entirely other essay of its own. What can be said is that if sex is had for procreation alone it would continue to be a valuation of women, as chattel, but sex for pleasure and procreation would not. The element of self-enjoyment would still need to be present and therefore the theory presented in this piece remains valid).
Value judgments about women’s sexual choices are made on a daily basis, especially in popular culture, as well as in everyday life. Agreeing that women’s sexual choices are fair game as a form of currency on the market of desirability is critical to enabling a whole range of gender-based oppression, from catcalling to slut shaming and extending all the way to sexual harassment and rape. In other words, any use of female sexuality to assert a position of that woman’s worthiness in society opens up all women to power exchanges regarding, and consumption of, female sexuality. After all, currency is created to be exchanged for goods and services. When men catcall and harass, they are making statements about the value of this currency and are forcing an exchange that subjects women to an unwanted taking. A big rape culture enabler is that although women possess the currency of desirability, they don’t set its value and they certainly don’t control it. It is like opening a store, placing goods in it, and telling customers that they are free to take whatever they want, at whatever price they deem appropriate, as long as they think it looks good. The item in question has no choice in the matter. That is how women, worldwide, live every day.
Street harassment and catcalling are realizations of this vignette. Despite women repeatedly expressing dislike, disgust, and fear of street harassment, defenders and perpetrators trot out the same old arguments to justify its perpetuation. They argue that their actions are compliments of women’s looks and therefore should be welcomed and even appreciated. In other words, they continue to claim the right to assess and express their opinions of women’s sexuality (i.e. announce the extent of women’s desirability), regardless of women’s expressed dislike and even fear of men when they do so. Women, therefore, may be the holders of the currency of desirability but have no recognized right to remove themselves from the market or from the male gaze’s vocal assessment. The space women occupy is not theirs to occupy in piece—they must accept the collective of auctioneers’ vocal announcements of their value. Their consent to any part of this transaction becomes, then, irrelevant. This is where Jessica Valenti and I fall on the same square: whether Girls Gone Wild or abstinence, the end result is the same, women’s consent is irrelevant. All that matters is what holders of the male gaze think of women’s use of their sexuality. Rape culture is not, therefore, lurking in the background on this subject. It is right there, front and center.
Rape culture deems women’s autonomy and self-determination insignificant in the face of men’s opinions and actions about those same women’s sexuality. Currency is to be traded, consumed, and valued. Once a woman become the target of sexual attention, which as we have seen she must inescapably become if her value is based on her sexual agency, she has completed the transaction: her sexual agency (currency) determines her sexual desirability (value). Whether her desirability is the product of virginity or harlotry becomes a distinction without a difference. Her consent to being consumed, much like an avocado’s consent, is not a part of the equation. If this sounds insane, it is. But that doesn’t make it any less true. This process happens day after day, the world over. The way out of this conundrum is not simple or easy.
One way to move away from this paradigm is to teach women that their value lies in something other than their sexuality. Efforts to encourage women and men to view female mates as desirable if they are smart, strong, successful, compassionate, loyal and kind, in addition to having chemistry with their particular match, can begin to undo the damage done by millennia of valuing women like chattel based on what has or has not happened between their legs. As long as women are valued based on their desirability and this desirability is based solely on how much they have or have not made use of their sexual agency, we remain at the mercy of the male gaze and our currency, desirability, remains toxic.