Suppose someone said to you, “you are sexy.” How would you respond? It obviously depends on the context, but let me offer two possibilities. On the one hand, you might experience something negative simply because you are seen as an object. The negative emotion could be anger, revulsion, shame, embarrassment, or disgust. Notice that you could say, “thanks” but still feel a negative emotion because the thought that someone would think of you as sexy is revealing: the other person considers you within some sexual realm (whatever that may mean). It isn’t that you are simply attractive or beautiful; you are someone that is sexually arousing, causing sexual desire. And, depending on the context, can make you very uncomfortable, embarrassed, or feel awkward.
On the other hand, another response is that you may experience something positive. You may be excited, thankful, happy, filled with self-confidence or self-esteem, empowered, and you may consider yourself more attractive. You may see yourself as an object, but not essentially. You may still see this sexy object and feel something positive that you are this object, and that you recognize yourself as this object.
Notice with both accounts, you are still an object. It just happens that you consider yourself in relation to this object as something positive or negative.
But what if someone goes deeper and says that they don’t see you as a sexy object, but as a sexy subject? How would you respond? I think most would consider that confusing, but maybe thankful (in that you are not considered as a mere object) or maybe deflated (in that you are not considered as an object at all). Sheila Lintott and Sherri Irvin are investigating what it means to be sexy and argue for a positive reclamation of sexiness from a feminist lens. The article tackles many meanings of what it means to be a sex object. I’ll be referencing the article in the book, Body Aesthetics.
Here is what the authors contend: In one way, being sexy is objectifying, but on the other hand, denying sexiness is also denying her subjectivity. What I’m interested in is what the authors set out to do in part III: a normative conception of sexiness that also accommodates respect for persons. What this means is to respect people, in that we see people as legitimate autonomous beings. But seeing someone as sexy is also recognizing that, as sexy subjects, people are free to desire and pursue the sorts of pleasures they find worthwhile. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with seeing someone as sexy as long as you are respecting that person’s subjectivity and not trivializing (reducing?) that person into an object. Let me bring some context and background from the authors in order to move the argument forward.
First, sexiness is not an attribute anyone has, but a way of being. It is how one engages with the world with certain mental states and attitudes, and not something anyone has.
Second, sexiness is not to be tied to bodily attractiveness, but to see their subjectivity for what it is, to appreciate it, and regard it as sexy without necessarily being sexually attracted to that person. In short, the author’s revisionist project is to change our conception of sexiness in such a way where we can say that someone is sexy without being sexually attracted to that person.
Third, expressing one’s sexuality gives a positive, and perhaps even an empowered sense of that person’s identity. To deny that is to deny an aspect of that person’s identity.
With that background, the authors thesis is striking: there is an ethical obligation to recognize people as sexy subjects. “The respectful notion of sexiness merges a concern for the subjective and embodied life of a person with an assessment of their body as a sexualized one. To find a person in this sense is to see their body as infused with an expression of self and animated by their own sexual identity.” (305). So we can see someone sexually appealing, but not sexually arousing. We ought to reevaluate how we appreciate people’s sexiness without it being connected to being sexually attracted to them. To respectfully see people as sexy is to consider their subjective life and how they are in charge of their sexual agency. They are intrinsically appealing based on their own terms instead of finding them sexy based on external standards. But what’s the ethical push here? Why do we ought to regard people as sexy?
The way I understand it is that by viewing people as sexy subjects, we not only undermine cultural norms of what ought to be sexy, which is usually objectifying, but it gives people a sense of empowerment and it recognizes people’s subjectivity. It’s not just subjectivity in a Kantian universal-rational sense, but it’s to see their particular individuality. You see the person qua person, not person qua rational being, which is to say that people are sexy not because they follow certain social standards of what is sexy (e.g. beauty standards, dressing a certain way, external fashions), but more about how people carry themselves in that the way they express themselves are sexy. It’s the way people infuse their sexuality to their body. They don’t provide any examples, so I’ll try to provide one and I hope it’s a good representation of what the authors are suggesting.
Many people in the media have had a complicated relationship with Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham’s expression of their sexuality.Both of them talk about sex and sexuality in honest ways and they are not ashamed of it. On the contrary, they seem to speak about it with such confidence and a genuine expression of what they want. On the other hand, both of them don’t follow conventional social norms of what is sexy: they are both slightly overweight, they talk about sex in detailed ways which isn’t socially acceptable for many women, they don’t follow the social standards of what is sexy, and they discuss controversial issues regarding feminine or sexuality. Yet, they are in charge of their sexuality whereby they are sexually appealing, and not necessarily sexually arousing. This isn’t to say that they could be sexually arousing, but that’s not the essential thing. More than that, maybe they can be sexually arousing because they are sexually appealing. Overall, it’s to recognize sexiness on their own terms and not societal expectations. To see their genuineness in sexuality also involves empathy. Therefore, Schumer and Dunham could be considered sexy according to the authors of this article.
(As an interesting question, would the authors suggest that part of their ethical project is to reevaluate sexiness such that seeing someone sexually arousing is an effect of seeing their sexual subjectivity?)
So far, I have only given the argument from Lintott and Irvin. But are there some concerns? What are the implications of their theory? While I find their project fascinating and positive, I have some concerns. I’ll reserve those thoughts in the next post.