Thursday, June 19, 2014


There was some upheaval in my community recently around the use of the word 'sexy' in a phrase that was intended to deeply compliment women for their efforts and achievements. At first I couldn't understand why people were offended, but after an apology was issued, and various men joined the conversation to reassure, I began to think about it more deeply. Why is the word 'sexy' so offensive? Should I be offended?

Oh yeah. There was that...

Eleven-something PM, 1998. Summer. I was out in a small uptown bar with my husband and brother. My husband sat swallowing beers while I danced. My brother flitted about between the dancers and the bar as his ever-so-sociable self is wont to do. And a very tall guy smiled at me. "Hey sexy", he crooned. And I hoped my husband would see the advances that still came to me, despite our marriage, and possibly because he was happier behind the bar than dancing with me. But I looked away from the guy, because actually his breath stank and I'd been in similar situations often enough to know you don't look somebody like that in the eye and give them reason to believe they can have their way with you.

I kept dancing. The guy came back around in front of me, and moved in close. I turned. He put his arm across my shoulders and I could see and smell the sweat on his shirt, my face just inches from his chest. I ducked out from under his arm to realize he had me cornered and was working me between the other dancers toward the wall. And then my brother stepped in, put his arm between us, and danced me out of that situation with a smile on his face. For the umpteenth time, I came out OK, my fate determined entirely by the men in my presence. It isn't always that way, of course. Sometimes I've beat off my attacker with my own fists or wit. But objectification? Yeah... it's pretty much always that way.

These situations happen because the way we are objectified is so intrinsic to our every day activities and thought processes (yes - women's too), that we don't even see it. And actually, whether I notice it or whether it's intended or not, when someone calls me sexy that person is implying that I am defined, at least in part, by my ability to satisfy his sexual desires, whether visually or physically.

And neither one of us notices it's happening. But the damage is done.

Joy Goh-Mah says in her Huffpost Lifestyle article,
It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that even good men, when speaking out against violence against women, tell other men to imagine her as "somebody's wife, somebody's mother, somebody's daughter, or somebody's sister," it never occurring to them that maybe, just maybe, a woman is also "somebody".

Of course, the damage goes so much further when men blind themselves to it, whether out of shame, laziness or sheer stupidity: Why Objectifying Women Isn't Your Fault

So today, for your viewing pleasure, I have the two best things that passed my way in the past few days. You'll notice that both of these are presented by men. Why? Because men have not only the perceived authority to save us on the dance-floor, but also to be heard. And this gives them the confidence to speak. Whether you're a woman or a man, no matter what your age, race, gender, sexual orientation or political stance, these two videos pertain to you. Something to think about.

Sexy isn't offensive because I can't take a compliment, or because I am too old, or too prudish. Sexy isn't offensive because the word has been corrupted by feminism or even by harassment or abuse. Sexy is offensive because it reminds me that I am, first-and-foremost, a sexual object--whether that's intentional or not. So next time you're crafting a compliment directed specifically at a woman or a group of women, ask yourself: can I say the same thing in good faith to a man or a group of men? If the answer is no, ask yourself why. And when you are called out for your mistake, read this article before responding. As Jamie Utt says,
I cannot tell you how often I’ve seen people attempt to deflect criticism about their oppressive language or actions by making the conversation about their intent. At what point does the “intent” conversation stop mattering so that we can step back and look at impact? After all, in the end, what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us?

You-- I-- We are not bad people. Few people actually intend harm. But I think we can grow so much from having this conversation with ourselves and out in the open.


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