Female Empowerment Requires Reconciling Sexuality and Power

Earlier this week I was in a room I am considering moving into. It has a loft. Getting into the loft requires climbing a ladder. I was wearing a short, flowy dress and no underpants. I wanted to climb the ladder to see the loft, but doing so while the man who was showing me the room stayed below me would possibly show him my buttcrack and/or labia.

No, I haven’t moved into writing erotic fiction. God, I’d be so horrible at that.

I had a few options. I could insist he go first. I could warn him about the no underwear. I could just not climb the ladder. Or I could say “Fuck it” and climb the ladder first anyway. So obviously I climbed it without thinking much more about it. But on the walk back to work I thought about what that means for feminism.

Then I read Cosmo’s Jill Filipovic disagree with Kim Kardashian on whether Kim’s naked selfie is empowering.

One huge roadblock to effective discourse is asymmetrical consideration. Most problems aren’t equally cared about by everyone. And people who agree on solutions tend to also agree on which problems are worth considering. So while most questions have a least two answers, they’re thought about by people who agree with each other on which answer is right. So you end up with long, thought-out, researched reasons why X is the answer to Y, with nothing really challenging them.

If I have a place in discourse beyond writing my feelings on my personal life, and I might not, it’s to seek truth by plugging those kinds of holes. Enough about me and holes. Back to my vagina.

In her blog post, Filipovic takes issue with what she calls “sexualization.”

“The APA found that girls experience real emotional and cognitive declines from sexualization, performing worse on math tests when they feel sexualized, and experiencing anxiety, shame, and self-disgust.”

“Sexualization” and its harms is, in my opinion, one area where the people who think sexualization is bad are talking a lot about it. But the people who think sexualization is good aren’t really talking about it. Which makes sense. Why talk about a thing that’s not a problem? Well, the reason I want to talk about it is that I think that thinking sexualization is bad is a problem.

Reading Filipovic decry “sexualization” made me think back to why I hesitated to climb the ladder. I think my main hesitations were that I didn’t want to make the man uncomfortable and I didn’t want him to judge me. I dismissed making him uncomfortable because he should know not to look up if he doesn’t want to see what’s up. I dismissed him judging me because it doesn’t matter. My lack of underwear is unlikely to impact whether he rents the room to me. Hell, it might help.

But then I started thinking about whether he might have harmed me by looking.

If he’d looked up at my bum as I climbed the ladder for the express purpose of his own titillation, would he have been “sexualizing” me? Would I go back to work suddenly less able to do math? (Unlikely, as I am pretty bad by default). Would I have experienced “anxiety, shame, and self-disgust” as a result of his having snuck a peek? I mean, clearly not since I wouldn’t have known. But what if I did know? What if I had checked to be sure he wasn’t looking as I climbed, and caught him doing just that?

In that case, still, FUCK TO THE NO.

The very idea that I’m in any way harmed by this guy looking at my butt/labia makes me angry, to be honest. As does the entire conversation around sexualization. For one, because it relies on the inherently condescending and agency-erasing false-consciousness narrative. If there are two things I hate, it’s being condescended to and having my agency denied.

It’s also kiiiinda classist in execution. I mean the whole article is white, JD-holding, editor at a major publication Jill Filipovic telling Armenian, high-school educated Kim Kardashian that she’s wrong about what empowers her. FUCK YOUUUUUUU.

Not that false-consciousness isn’t a thing! It definitely is a useful concept, especially within feminism. But it’s most useful when it goes both ways. Sure, maybe Kim overemphasizes the empowerment of dollar-dollar bills y’all and doesn’t fully appreciate the harms her “sexualized” images cause young girls. Maybe that’s because she’s managed to get rich as fuck mostly by releasing sexualized imagery of herself.

But maybe you, Jill Filipovic, overemphasize the harms “sexualized” images cause young girls and don’t fully appreciate the empowerment of dollar-dollar bills y’all. And maybe that’s because you make a tiny, tiny fraction of the money Kim makes, and you make it from bemoaning sexualization. And you are incapable of producing sexualized imagery with as much mass appeal as Kim’s.

The classism becomes more apparent as Filipovic states that “Girls who are exposed to narrow ideals of femininity and female attractiveness…” and then ticks off a list of negative outcomes. But how is Kim K’s nude selfie any more of an exposure to narrow ideals of femininity and female attractiveness than literally any other depiction of a conventionally attractive woman? Filipovic herself mostly adheres to conventional beauty standards. Do you think Cosmo would employ her otherwise? Clearly we can’t prevent those negative outcomes by banning pretty girls. But I guess we can blame the pretty girls who didn’t go to law school for being part of the problem that women have to be sexy to be powerful.

Here we get to the heart of the issue. Which is that Filipovic is “sexualizing” Kardashian by her own definition of the word.

Filipovic’s definition comes from a American Psychological Association (APA) report on how “sexualization of women in media” impacts girls. The report defines “sexualization,” as, among other things, considering a person’s “value” equivalent to their sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics.

Filipovic then goes on to diminish Kim Kardashian’s value separate from her sexual appeal.

The bigger question is why the Kim Kardashian model of celebrity, fame primarily for being attractive and not for any particular talent or contribution to the world, is a route for women to become rich and famous in the first place. Yes, Kim has built a remarkable empire and clearly has entrepreneurial chops. But the foundation of that empire can only exist in a culture that prioritizes sexiness in women above all. That’s nothing close to “empowering.”

The claim that Kim K’s empire can only exist in a culture that prioritizes sexiness in women above all erases everything else Kim K brings to the table.

“Succeeding in sexiness isn’t real power. That’s why you don’t see the richest and most powerful men in the world naked on Instagram.” Except that you don’t see the richest and most powerful women in the world naked on Instagram either. I started the 20 Richest Women of 2015 Forbes slideshow and tbqh didn’t finish it but I didn’t see any overlap between it and naked Instagram but you all are welcome to double check me here.

Filipovic argues, rightly, that women have to be conventionally sexy to achieve any “real” power and that that sucks.

Men are more able to get power without being sexy. While women are required to be sexy first before they have the chance to get power. In fact it can be argued that men on average get sexy after getting power.

Women mostly have to be conventionally sexy to achieve any “real” power and that sucks.

Changing this does require defeating “sexualization.” As defined by the APA, sexualization is when someone can’t see sexual value and non-sexual value in the same person. It’s when recognizing sexual value precludes recognizing non-sexual value. It’s literally a brain defect. And the result of sexualization in those affected is that because they can’t see sex and power in the same person, they think that sex and power can’t co-exist.

And here we get to my main issue with people who complain about “sexualization.” Jill Filipovic clearly suffers from a mild form of sexualization syndrome. Her recognition that Kim Kardashian has sexual value keeps her from fully recognizing Kim’s worth as a whole person.

Sexualization is seeing sexual value/power and non-sexual value/power as mutually exclusive.

The antidote to sexualization, then, is reconciling sexual value/power and non-sexual value/power.

To end the sexy double standard we have to replace either/or with yes/and.

Because women aren’t going to stop being sexy. Fingers crossed, anyway. Any feminist advancement which requires me to give up being sexy (or at least attempting) can go STRAIGHT to hell. I acknowledge that my sexiness impacts my advancement more than it does men’s on average because I’m a woman and that that sucks.

I’m going to attempt to be sexy. Because refusing to try to meet a double-standard won’t make it go away. Because by being one more person who has chosen between being sexy or otherwise valuable only reinforces the idea that women can one or the other, but not both.

By merely being literally valuable (worth millions) and sexy at the same time, Kim Kardashian is doing more to solve the problem of sexualization as defined by the APA than Jill’s entire writing career.

Because Kim, unlike Jill, knows that the two are not in conflict in reality. She knows that they are only unable to coexist in the brains of people who suffer from sexualization syndrome. And that the only way to fight that brain defect is to show, in word and deed, that this conflict is only in their heads.

The way forward for women is to treat women’s sexuality like men’s sexuality. Men can be sexy and valuable outside of their sexiness. So should it be for women.


  1. Perry Willis

    Great stuff Cathy. Keep bringing it.

    An additional thought — if sexual attractiveness is sometimes an extra requirement for women, it can also be view as an extra power they have, that is more available to them than to men.

  2. Perry Willis

    One other thought. I think you were quite generous to give that guy an opportunity to look up your skirt. Likewise with Kim Kardashian. Beauty added to the world makes the world a better place. I think this should be praiseworthy, and not a topic for criticism. I think we should create a culture where women (and even men) feel safe and encouraged to add beauty to the world.

  3. Rocinante

    Is that really true that men can have power without being sexual? Everyone frowns upon the 40 year old virgin or in high school/college, the 18 year old virgin, for that matter. If you don’t score with the ladies, both men and women look down upon men. I guess it doesn’t mean they have to be attractive, but it does mean they need some way or another of getting laid.

    • While there is absolutely social pressure on men to have lots of sex, men are not required to be sexually attractive if they are to succeed in the workplace or in politics, etc. And, crucial to the dynamic Cathy discusses, as a man advances in the workplace and acquires wealth and power, he then becomes more attractive to women in ways women do not when they advance.

      Power and sexiness have a complimentary relationship for both men and women, but these relationships are different. For men, power is a sufficient condition for sexiness, whereas for women, sexiness is a necessary condition for power. The most famous celebrity “power couple” – Jay Z and Beyonce – are a prime example of this. If Jay-Z wore sunglasses and ditched his entourage to disguise himself, nobody who passed him on the street would consider him an especially attractive person. Visually, physically, he’s short and sort of ugly, or at least plain. But he attracted one of the most beautiful women in the world anyway BECAUSE he is so rich and powerful and talented. Looks don’t matter as much for men, because power is a sufficient condition for sexiness. Beyonce is the opposite. She is an immensely talented vocalist, dancer and songwriter, no doubt. But we are fooling ourselves to imagine she would be as successful as she has been if she were obese, or had an asymmetrical face with crooked teeth. For women, looks are not a guarantor of lasting fame and power, but they are almost always a necessary condition for it.

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