Collage by Sonja

TAVI: Our theme this month is EXPLORATION, which makes me think of exploring one’s sesssssuality. I feel like I see a lot of stuff on TV, in magazines, whatever, that to me just looks like selling sex, and selling a really fantastical idea of it and of a sexy lady, but it is always explained as being positive: it’s about the lady exploring her sexuality and thusly empowering herself. Like the Pussycat Dolls, or that video from a year or so ago of really young girls, like seven? eight?, dancing to “Single Ladies.”

So what I wanna figure out is what the difference is, really, between exploitation and empowerment. First when it comes to MEDIA and CULTURE. And then when it comes to figuring out your own PERSONAL sexuality.

SADY: I mean, I don’t know! I think everybody is always surrounded with images of other people being sexy and cool and awesome in this remarkably media-friendly way. And then when it comes time for you to figure out what YOUR sexuality is all about, you look at the culture, and it’s like…“Bwu-huh? How does my own weird and uncomfortable and not-quite-defined reality actually fit with that?”

TAVI: Especially when so much of it is contradictory! LOOK sexy but don’t have sex(ual activity) because then you are a slut.

SADY: But also be rebelliously sexual! Assert, along with Miley, that you Can’t Be Tamed! Let Katy Perry convince you that Baby, You’re a Firework (that also is open to an exploratory tonguing of the other ladies in the bar because it is Not What Good Girls Do)! It is like… making people like you is encoded in girls along with “dating” and “being pretty,” and is therefore part of sex. But making people like you is also part of being a “good girl” and not-sex. So ladies need to cover both ends of the spectrum at once. And then it all just explodes into a big mess of the fact that you also have to be FUN and COOL and REBELLIOUSLY EMPOWERED, and that also means sex, so Ke$ha shows up in a rain of glitter vomit and nobody knows what the heck to do anymore.

TAVI: I think it’s good that all kinds of sexual desires are represented in that sense, like we have T. Swift and Gaga and everything, but it gets confusing when you start being told that one kind of sexual desire is WRONG, the way some songs get too preachy about Teenz and Sexz. And then you don’t really know what YOU actually want, or if you want what you think you want because you know that other people will approve of you when you fulfill this “want.” Then sex-related things happen and you don’t really know how to feel and it’s very confusing. It can’t be as simple as just deciding how something made you physically feel, because sexual activity is so tied in to your IDENTITY too, when you are a girl.

SADY: Well, not to get all Welcome to My Women’s Studies Seminar on you, but that’s something with a lot of history. I mean, since forever, having sex was pretty much the only thing we thought of women as being able to DO. It wasn’t like we got to be rocket scientists (though we did get to be maids if we weren’t high-class and couldn’t get rich husbands), so nobody really thought of women outside of any connection but “sex with guys.” That was our function. And it still is, in a lot of ways!

But now, sex is something that we talk about in public. So it’s something you can SELL to the public. So people are constantly trying to come up with the most MARKETABLE version of what sex or being sexy means, which may not have any connection to what sex is actually LIKE. And the people who have to present us with “marketable sexiness,” for the most part, are girls. Girls in the public eye.

And there are all these competing brands of sexy out there. There’s Sexy Bad Girl, there’s Sexy But Not-Sex-Having Good Girl, there’s Moody Broody Sex-Having Artistic Girl, there’s Super Fun Party Times Sexy Girl…I mean, they’re all different versions of “sexy.” In very defined, hit-the-common-denominator ways. But no one’s personal sex life is about the common denominator.

So then, you get the idea that YOU have to be sexy in order to be worthwhile as a girl. But which sexy? And are you being sexy out of your core self, or are you performing “sexy” in order to look like some vision of what a girl should be?

TAVI: Yeah, the performance thing is most confusing to me. When Miley came out with her “Can’t Be Tamed” video and showed more skin and danced differently in her concerts, I was really annoyed with people slut-shaming her. But I also found it very hard to believe that it was truly Miley EXPLORING her SEXUALITY, because there was a whole team behind her crafting her image. Which made it feel kind of creepy and inauthentic. I felt the same way about the Pussycat Dolls. Is that really empowerment? It’s easy to call it that because it makes the ladies performing feel powerful for a moment, but I don’t know that an ego boost is the same as actual progress. (Plus, if it’s LIBERATION, why aren’t non-conventionally-attractive people ever getting liberated?)

SADY: Ha! I remember you said you read Female Chauvinist Pigs recently. And that book! I recommend that people read it! It is really good! Because it covers this very question. (P.S. You will want to fight with it, also.) And people had some of these same problems around SlutWalk, I think. We’re in a really sticky situation right now, where sex is still considered “bad” or dirty or shameful, for a lot of people. But hot sexy ladies, especially very (sometimes creepily) young ladies—those are everywhere! And if you’re not a hot, sexy, (preferably) younger lady, you just get insulted or ignored, really. You either don’t matter, or you’re gross.

One thing that’s really powerful, for girls, is taking a look at what they’ve been told is “bad” for them, and then trying it out. Not, like, setting-fire-to-your-neighbors’-pets bad, but “speaking up in class” or “holding your ground in an argument” bad. That’s empowering. But the culture tells us that sex is bad, so that’s on the list of things to try, when you’re experimenting with power. But then the culture is like, “That rebellious act we’re actually OK with. We’ll let you try that bad shameful sex thing, to empower you. But please be conventionally hot while you do it, and please do it in this way that the majority of straight fellows will enjoy.” It’s a trap! Straight dudes run the world, either way you run!

But I think some people look at any girl who’s flirting with those very culturally popular images of sexuality, and assume that she’s stupid. Or that she doesn’t “really” want to be doing this, and we have to “save” her. And I don’t think that’s fair, either. Because the fact is, everyone’s sexuality is sort of a collage piece. You see ways of expressing yourself, in the people around you or in the media, and you try them on for size. And that is particularly true when you’re just starting out as a sexual being. You try on a lot of roles to see what works. And maybe that girl who takes pole-dancing classes to work out, or dresses in this really provocative way—maybe she’s trying something out, you know? Maybe there are parts of how she expresses herself that are pretty conventional, and parts of her that are all her. You don’t know. But looking down on women, or assuming we’re stupid, just because of how we express our sexuality is really dangerous.

TAVI: That makes sense. Maybe Miley Cyrus really DOES NOT want to be tamed!

SADY: And maybe dancing in a birdcage was the most natural and organic expression of her deepest desires. SHE IS JUST BEING MILEY, AFTER ALL.

TAVI: THAT SHE IS. I mean, I know people are doubtful of Lana Del Rey’s authenticity for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with her sexuality, but I feel like the doubt itself begins with the fact that she is hot and states her desires pretty explicitly in her songs. And then people are like, THIS YOUNG WOMAN DOESN’T KNOW WHAT SHE’S TALKING ABOUT, WITH SEX! SHE IS SO YOUNG, AND SO FEMALE, SO WHAT DOES SHE KNOW?!

SADY: I would just not want to be Lana Del Rey right now. I know that a lot of my own aggravation with her—because I do fall into that aggravated camp, I suppose—has been about the cheesiness of how her sexuality is portrayed. But then I’m sitting there, getting mad at a photo that looks exploitative or cheesy to me, and I have to think: Lana Del Rey has agency, here. Fine. But did she shoot that photo of herself, HERSELF? Did she serve as the photo editor, who chose which shots to use in the magazine? Did she pick out that outfit ALL by herself, did she do the makeup ALL by herself, did she have TOTAL control? Probably not. And at a different times in her life, Lana Del Rey was working a non-Lana Del Rey vibe—maybe less cheesy, maybe cheesy in a different direction—and it didn’t get her voice out there. She’s doing what worked. And it still didn’t stop people from ripping her apart, because she’s a girl, and because she’s an overtly sexual girl, and that’s a dangerous identity.

Girls are told that they have to emote some very specific sexy vibes in order to make anybody like them, or even recognize that they’re in the room at all. But then, when a girl listens, and fulfills that role, people start slut-shaming her, or calling her fake, or trying to explain that “her role is really male-identified, man,” and…she can’t win.

So I’m interested in that tension. How do you pay attention to your own sexuality, and try to honor it, while also acknowledging that, you know, you might not really get your sexuality yet? And that you need to try a lot of roles and attitudes until you know what works, and that your only real guidance for what works is (a) your own emotions and physical happiness, and (b) whatever else you can pick up from the culture or from your friends (who are picking it up from the culture and one another)?

TAVI: THAT is the question. All of this makes a difference on a personal level too—it’s not just for pop stars or whatever—so that’s why I think these are important questions. I, erm, don’t really have an answer. And I don’t expect YOU to have THE ANSWER. But do you have any ideas? Because I am as LOST as an American television series that originally aired on ABC from September 22, 2004, to May 23, 2010, consisting of six seasons. (Source: Wikipedia.)

SADY: Well! I mean, people have written whole books on this! (My friend Jaclyn Friedman wrote a whole book on this.) I think there are some really simple, general answers. Like: If you’re ever in a situation in which you are being pressured to do something, or told that “other girls would do it,” or you “should” like it because “other girls would like it,” you need to know that’s bs. And you need to know that, if you’re getting stereotyped or shamed because people think of your sexuality in this one way, (a) those people are jerks, and (b) nobody knows enough about your personal sexuality to cast judgment on it, not even people you’ve made out with. But that guideline really works for one-on-one, direct-pressure situations. It’s not really so applicable to the wider cultural stuff, the subtle pressures that everyone is facing every day.

I’ve found that sometimes it just helps to acknowledge that you haven’t found the answer, and are just trying to find one, and that you’re going to make a lot of mistakes along the way. Being aware of “becoming sexual” or “exploring your sexuality” as a process, or a performance, kind of takes the pressure off you to DO IT RIGHT AND BE COMPLETELY SEXY BUT ALSO NOT TOO SEXY, BUT ALSO SEXY ENOUGH, BUT ALSO NOT SEXY IN A WAY THAT ANYONE WON’T LIKE, AND ALSO BE EMPOWERED, ALSO. That’s a tall order. You’re probably going to have some version of Your Sexuality for the rest of your life, and you’re always going to be figuring out new things about Your Sexuality, so why the rush to resolve it? It will be what it will be, and it is what it is. I think. Don’t be in a rush to figure everything out. Even if you do figure it out, you’re going to have to come up with a whole new set of answers 10 years from now.

(And also, nobody else has figured their stuff out, either. Not even Lana Del Rey, clearly.)

TAVI: So at this point the best I can do is like, be easy on and honest with myself? (That is a lot less pressure than all the other stuff we talked about!)

SADY: I would say yes! I mean. Not to be creepy. But I feel like the only thing anyone has ever actually figured out about sex, in all of human existence, has been: “If it makes you happy and doesn’t hurt anyone, that’s probably fine?” And also: “Different things make different people happy?” But if they told you that, the entire relationship self-help industry would collapse overnight. So. FORBIDDEN SECRETS! HERE, AT ROOKIE MAGAZINE!

TAVI: TA-DA. Well that is helpful. Sincerely! Coming from someone who over-analyzes everything. I tried to find a Wikipedia page for a TV series that is not LOST but is also not FOUND but is not exactly IT’S COMPLICATED STARRING DENISE RICHARDS but is kind of just like IT’S COOL I CAN DO THIS I THINK, but no TV shows are called that. My point is, anyway, IT’S COOL I CAN DO THIS I THINK. Thank you, Sady!

SADY: Thank YOU! ♦