We believe that a changed consciousness will occur when the current constructions of sexuality are recognized as relatively arbitrary and derived from oppression, an oppression that has been normalized and made invisible. An important basis for a changed consciousness is to recognize the meaning and significance of patterns that are based on status and control. Thus, the first task is to name the phenomenon as costly and based on dominance. Equally important, the task is to deny that the current definitions of women’s sexuality derive inevitably from the appearance of their bodies. We hope this chapter has demystified some of the seemingly natural links of beauty and sexuality by outlining the arbitrary quality of these social arrangements and the ways in which they are maintained through everyday events. We additionally hope that a new consciousness will be liberating for women and for men.
In order to investigate sexuality and its meanings, there must be an acknowledgement of the sociopolitical structure that has shaped and sustained these meanings. The process of challenging the definition of sexuality is not simply about liberal values of more and better sex. Challenging the traditional framework of sexuality and gender is a way to challenge the system that has most benefited from that traditional framework (i. e., patriarchy). Our goal is resistance, and therefore these formulations are more political than they are dispassionate observations. However, we note along with Mary Boyle (1994) that if resistance is political, so is acquiescence. That is, accepting a system as if it were normative and benign represents adherence to politics of a certain structure, a structure that benefits some at the expense of others. In acquiescing, one contributes to the stability and pervasiveness of a harmful system. We argue that much of the current understanding of sexuality is really about the regulation of desire and the construction of a narrowed identity for women in particular. We hope to challenge definitions of women as objects and, more generally, the notion of women as Other.
The politics that control women’s bodies and sexuality also control their experience, their identity, and their political role in society. The body is a medium of culture that has powerful implications for inner experience. Changing beauty ideals reflect more than intriguing (or sometimes laughable) variations of stylized beauty. They reflect messages to the self, and they shape realms of experience where political origins are disguised as personal ones. In fact, the regulation of desire is often for the purpose of social ends (Bordo, 1992; Martin, 1988).
The mechanisms that keep the sexual objectification of women in place are ubiquitous and powerful. Popular media plays a critical role in the process. Collectively, the images of women in literature, film, and commercial media help to construct common wisdom about women. These messages not only address how women should look, but also convey judgments about who women are and what they should want. These messages become internalized as part of the feelings and experiences of individual women. In this way, the political infuses the personal. It is indeed an autonomous woman who remains unaffected.
We argue along with Wolf (1991) that the pursuit of beauty is not merely based on personal aesthetics or preferences. Beauty has become a defining element in sexuality and, ultimately, a cultural feature of identity. Physical appearance mediates how women are perceived and treated by others, and it influences their own expectations for themselves. Women manipulate their bodies in an attempt to meet narrowly defined and widely shared ideals of beauty and in order to achieve social acceptance, economic security, and status. Personal choice is abrogated because alternatives are limited and because there are penalties for not pursuing mainstream dictates.
One mechanism that helps to perpetuate the high priority accorded beauty is that physical attractiveness functions in part as an alternative form of status and power; that is, physical attractiveness holds the potential to provide women access to power that is otherwise unavailable. Alternative avenues for validation and success through educational, economic, and political arenas are not only closed to most women, but also are often considered inappropriate. It is always easier to pursue goals that are approved by the larger social system and easier to use the strategies that are deemed reasonable. Success seems more attainable if one plays the game as it already has been defined. Wolf (1991) suggests that the distraction of women’s attention to matters of appearance makes it less likely they will demand more power on interpersonal or political levels.
Physical attractiveness partly serves as a form of power because it is associated with goodness. It is well established that people respond more favorably to others who are attractive. Men tend to judge the attractiveness of women based on their general self-presentation and use of cosmetics. For example, women were rated significantly less attractive by male judges when they wore no makeup than when they wore a typical amount of makeup (Cash, Dawson, Davis, Bowen, &. Galumbeck, 1989). People usually expect to like attractive strangers, expect them to be competent, and see them as personally successful (Dion, Berscheid, & Walster, 1972). In addition, people may be more readily swayed in their opinions by an attractive communicator (Mills & Aronson, 1965). In general, more positive qualities are attributed to attractive than to unattractive people (Moore, Graziano, & Millar, 1987). Furthermore, physical attractiveness is seen as a cue of high status (Kalick, 1988) and has been related to success in the workplace (Wolf, 1991).
Society provides certain rewards and benefits for women who most closely approximate beauty ideals. For example, attractive women who are survivors of rape and testify in court are often perceived more favorably (Deitz, Littman, & Bentley, 1984), and are perceived to be less responsible for the rape (Gerdes, Dammann, & Heilig, 1988) than are unattractive plaintiffs. Additionally, the defendants of attractive plaintiffs are more likely to be found guilty (Jacobson & Popovich, 1983) than the defendants of unattractive plaintiffs. Similarly, sexual harassment cases with attractive plaintiffs and unattractive defendants are more likely to bring in a guilty verdict (Castellow, Wuensch, & Moore, 1990). Physical attractiveness also benefits defendants; attractive defendants receive less severe punishments than do unattractive defendants (Stewart, 1985).
Although appearance is important to men, it is not considered to be their single, most important, and defining characteristic, as it often is with women. Men generally have more avenues through which they are able to obtain status, power, and social acceptance. Further, men benefit from a dynamic that emphasizes the importance of beauty for women. Unger (1979) has argued that men who are affiliated with attractive women are themselves seen as more likable and as holding higher occupational status than men who are affiliated with unattractive women. Unger termed the phenomena the “Aristotle Onassis-Jackie Kennedy effect” (i. e., a younger attractive woman paired with an older successful man). She further notes that men appear to be aware at some level that being associated with an attractive woman confers male status characteristics on them. This may be one reason why women’s physical attractiveness is so salient for men. Men benefit from secondary gains in their own status among other men if they are affiliated with an attractive woman. In this way, men may derive an indirect benefit by encouraging women to continue to see themselves as objects whose value depends on being attractive to men. Men also may contribute to maintaining the equation in various common, everyday behaviors. For example, many men in the company of wives or girlfriends have little compunction about making extravagant remarks about the sex appeal of other women. Such ogling and demonstrations of arousal communicate that there is an actual ideal body-beauty-style that engenders full approval, which the woman they are with does not typify.
When women deviate from the ideal, consequences are severe. Fashion in the 1990s remains geared toward women who are young and slender; fashion for women not meeting those characteristics is largely ignored. For instance, women who wear sizes larger than 14 have a much more limited choice of clothing options, as do women who are especially short, tall, or “oddly” proportioned. Being overweight has a number of social and interpersonal consequences for women. Relative to average-weight women, overweight women tend to date less often and report that their mates are less satisfied with their body size (Stake & Lauer, 1987). Additionally, women’s performance self-esteem is positively related to their perception
of attractiveness (Stake & Lauer, 1987). In other words, women must be thin in order to feel competent.
Despite the consequences women face for failing to achieve beauty expectations, women who do achieve them can suffer as well. Not surprisingly, there are often double binds for women on the issue of self-display. Kleinke and Staneski (1980) found that women with large bust sizes are considered incompetent, lazy, unintelligent, immoral, and immodest, whereas women with average or small bust sizes are considered competent, ambitious, intelligent, moral, and modest. And although cosmetic use may increase the perception of physical attractiveness, it also may increase women’s likelihood of being seen as less moral (Workman & Kim, 1991), less competent (Cox & Glick, 1986), and more likely to provoke sexual harassment (Workman & Johnson, 1991).
This destructive system remains stable due to promised benefits, limited alternatives, and very high costs associated with divergence. Resistance ensures negative sanctions and exclusion from the normative experiences (e. g., dating, marriage) that most women expect will provide fulfillment. How, then, will it be possible to interrupt the inertia of an entire social system?
New understanding and new theory can begin with honoring personal experience and connections (Brabeck & Brown, 1997). The process can begin by listening to the experiences of women and to the voices of those who have been oppressed in the current constructions of sexuality. As silent voices and meanings emerge, consciousness can be raised about the political nature of gender and sexual roles. From this perspective, individuals are participants in change and can be agents of change. However, we also recognize that the construction of sexuality is produced in a larger social system. Ultimately, both women and men need to understand their sexual arrangements as reflections of larger social frameworks, based on hierarchy and privilege, that meet the interests of some at the expense of others.
Therefore, we reject formulations that focus solely on the individual. Those who occupy more or less privileged positions often draft prescriptions for social change in terms of the individual: individual courage, individual morality, individual perseverance, individual choice. They admonish women for not being able to use these individual strengths in order to break free of beauty constraints. The systemic factors that nourish and engender views of self, other, and society remain invisible in such expostulations, and this approach to individual problems is thus inherently selfserving.
In contrast to traditional biological models, we propose that sexuality is socially agreed on, and as such, it is negotiated. The negotiations are based on shared, but often unspoken, understandings of reality (i. e., the meaning and significance of things). The negotiations build on the realities of each party and are used to construct the meaning of events and how they are to be appropriately experienced. In this sense, sexuality is emergent and highly contextual. Part of that context involves the status, resources, and alternatives available to each party; for example, the costs and risks of asserting one’s own experience and meaning system are not equal for everyone. It is important to understand that the negotiations are seldom explicit and that they may be driven by vested interests that often remain unacknowledged by those who benefit. In the end, some realities are established as normative and natural, while others may be trivialized, silenced, or pathologized.
There are no big winners in the current arrangements of sexuality. The promises of well-being and affirmation are more illusory than real. Although it is quite clear that women are disadvantaged in the traditional system of patriarchy, it also is the case that most men are disadvantaged as well. Patriarchy promises identity, status, and control to men in the abstract, but the full benefits of masculine privilege and power fall only to a select few. Most men, as well as women, would be better served by a system more respectful of individual worth, diversity, inclusiveness, and caring—in other words, a system that conceptualizes women and men as equals. One way to find the motivation for change is to recognize that the promised benefits of the current system are not forthcoming.
Generating the emotional intensity to energize resistance will arise when women recognize the real nature of the gender contract (i. e., the trading of traditional femininity and beauty for temporary social rewards). A further step in resistance will arise when women recognize that the contract is honored in only the most shallow and fleeting way. Being beautiful will never guarantee women education, jobs, health care, child support, a home, political influence, a safe abortion, economic mobility, justice within the legal system, or personal safety. The task is to identify what will guarantee women these benefits and teach girls and women to focus their attention on opportunities and behaviors likely to bring them real security and power.
A related task is for men realize that the social contract delivers much less than is promised to them as well. It is revealing to look at the costs for men as well as for women in the current construction of sexuality. As Laura Brown points out in chapter 11, this volume, the privileges of sexual priority fall not to men in general but only to masculine men. Traditional arrangements produce an odd situation, in which men must continually seek reassurance that they are “real” men and therefore entitled to sexual expression with women. This leads to a monotonous game of one-upsman – ship, competition, risk taking, and aggression among boys and men. It can result in persistent feelings of isolation while simultaneously requiring that they always appear confident and in control. More specifically, we note that although they seem to privilege men, current definitions of sexuality based on the penis, erection, intercourse, and ejaculation leave most men over the age of 25 feeling as if they have passed their sexual peak.
Language is a first step toward women beginning to own their sexuality. Naming is a way to affirm and validate, and naming is a way of reclaiming value and power. Similarly, language may be used to challenge the connotations of beauty ideals. What if the word beauty were changed to reflect the behavior associated with such pursuits (e. g., Doll-like, made – up, fake, manipulated, painted, contorted, cut up, glued on, squeezed together, deodorized, perfumed, sprayed, darkened, lightened, bleached, pierced, chained, molded, sculpted, shaped, purged, starved).
The language of sexual relations is also revealing of a patriarchal society that has eroticized male dominance (Trigiani, 1998). Trigiani (1998) notes that the word penetrate to describe sexual intercourse is an example in which implicit dominance becomes more obvious and objectionable when it is applied to real people (e. g., “Bob penetrated Lisa”). Is this really the way we want to characterize intimacy, trust, and desire? In fact, there is a general fear, often unspoken, that gender equity would mean sexless relationships; that powerful women would brutalize men; that women with resources and alternatives equal to those of men would be without any libido at all; or that men in such relationships would be de – sexed and impotent. The phrase “vive la difference,” expressed so playfully as a rationale for categorical distinctions between the genders, is a disguised reflection of this fear. Cuckold is another enlightening term (i. e., a man whose wife has committed adultery). Here is an experience that until relatively recently in many states was a justifiable defense for homicide (e. g., paramour laws). However, there is no term to recognize or name an equivalent experience, or wrong, for women; the female experience is invisible. Language that honors women’s erotic life would surely look something like Lucille Clifton’s (1980) poem, “Homage to My Hips”:
these hips are big hips.
they need space to move around in.
they don’t fit into little pretty places
these hips are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved
they go where they want to go.
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
і have known them to put a spell on a man
and spin him like a top!
Another step toward transforming knowledge is to reexamine and challenge traditional assumptions about sexuality. Traditional assumptions include the idea that sexuality is encapsulated in the individual and that it reflects individual identity as opposed to socially agreed on definitions Traditional assumptions also promote the idea that sexuality is largely, і not entirely, a matter of biology. This leads to the conclusion that sexualit’ is innate, invariant, and fixed. It also supports the idea that sexuality as і is currently embodied is natural, and therefore is untainted by convention of power and privilege.
Alternative formulations of sexuality need to incorporate and valui the experiences of women. Much of the empirical research on beauty anc sexuality is indexed to the experiences of women who are White, middle class, and young. Phenomenological and standpoint methodologies can b usefully applied toward building a reformulation. The objective is to allov the authority of women’s experiences to construct their realities (Daniluk
1993) . Because women haven’t been allowed to create a framework fo sexuality based on their own experiences, they are left trying to reconcih patriarchal assumptions, myths, and lies about who they are and what i: important. Dismissing the binding definitions of women in a sexist society and exploring, instead, private experience has the potential of healing in dividual wounds and subverting patriarchy (Brown, 1994; Brabeck & Brown, 1997). We advocate the exploration of sexuality in ways that are relevant to the lived experiences of both women and men. We additionally advocate that there be a recognition that experience is shaped by a large: framework of reality that is socially constructed. The symbols, the mean ings, and the significance accorded these features reflect social arrange ments of power and privilege, including the privilege to define reality Thus, experience is the beginning point for a reflexive examination of the individual and also for the pursuit of social activism.