Sexuality is a contested concept. It is a topic that has long been locked behind bedroom doors, only to be discussed in hushed, sterile conversations. In recent years, sexuality has shifted outside the confines of private space and slowly and carefully into mainstream conversation. While gains have been made to liberate the topic of sexuality, it remains an enigmatic and untapped field, undiscussed within wider society.
“Sexuality is very broad, and it escapes definition,” admits Veronica*, a University of Toronto women and gender studies student.
“Sexuality involves all that has to do with attraction, unattraction, self-attraction, self-knowledge, knowledge of your sex organs and how they operate, appreciation or lack thereof of said organs and their functions,” she explains, adding, “It’s really anything to do with your reproductive or non-reproductive actions with another person that you’re attracted to. There [are] thousands of definitions of sexuality.”
SEXUALITY THROUGH THE YEARS
This may be the contemporary understanding of sexuality from a student who specializes in the topic, but sexuality was not always as well understood as it is today.
Michel Foucault, an influential sexuality theorist, explored how sexuality became “rigorously repressed” at the turn of the seventeenth century because it was “incompatible with a general and intensive work imperative” — essentially, everything was being measured in terms of wealth and productivity, and sexual expression for pleasure, economically speaking, contradicted the new system of capitalism.
Since then, the topic of sexuality has found its way into every aspect of human life, including social relations, academic institutions, and political affairs.
Today, however, reactions to expressions of sexuality have taken a dissonant turn. Open expressions of sexuality continue to be condemned in many circles, while simultaneously appearing to be desirable within public discourse.
For example, recently, many celebrities nude photos leaked — referred to as “The Fappening” — resulting in excessive judgemental Internet backlash against female celebrities’, who were simply expressing their sexuality through the act of photographing their bodies. Many Internet users blamed the incident on the victims of the leak for taking the photos, rather than pointing to the hackers who stole them.
At the same time, the media has become paradoxically more sexualized as a result of targeted marketing, making the concept of overt sexuality seem desirable. A flip through most commercial magazines or a stroll down a city street postered with advertisements proves this.
In this way, sexuality is both vilified and idolized. Physical acts that express a person’s sexuality, such as sending a nude photo, are demonized, while the media continues to send sexualized messages to sell their products to their audience. The public, then, struggles to construct a healthy sexuality amidst a bombardment of contradictory messages.
When sexuality is manifested in public discourse as a mess of conflicting messages, subverting repression in pursuit of healthy sexuality becomes a challenge.
It is easier to do so today than ever before as open sexuality has finally entered the public discourse — but only within specific classes of Western society.
“For the upper echelon of society, I think you’re expected to have a few experiences with people in college, and then you… get married, have babies, reproduce heteronormativity,” Veronica says. “But when it comes to lower classes… there’s more of a push to experience more sexually… [But in] hipster culture, for example, you’re expected to have at least five sexual partners by the time you’re, like, 23 or 24,” she adds.
Some may argue that the “low” culture, which is associated with a new, youthful generation, is increasingly more accepting of diverse sexualities, and, as a result, society will eventually be fully accepting of these sexualities; however, this is not necessarily the case.
“[T]hose people, who are of high status, are reproducing other people of high status, and those people… who are within the same generation as us but are within a higher class, still operate within the same status quo as their parents,” Veronica points out, adding, “So they’re still expected to get married, to reproduce heteronormativity. Maybe politically, there will be more leeway, but that’s just more… space available for people of different sexualities… [W]hen you think of your average country club… the kids who are born into that lifestyle… are going to want to reproduce that lifestyle, because it gave them… power, right? So it’s all just about power dynamics.”
While there may be more space available within the heteronormative political system for people of diverse sexualities, violence is still experienced at the hands of people attempting to reinforce this heteronormative power dynamic.
“When I was a kid, I used to get made fun of for being gay constantly,” Curtis*, a third-year student, admits. “[T]here was always the guys’ team versus the girls’ team, and I always went to the girls’ team… I never felt like I fit in with the guys, because they were… generally more violent. They didn’t really want to talk about the emotional side of things, and I always wanted to more,” he adds.
“It was upsetting,” Curtis says, continuing, “I kept on trying to reevaluate if what I was doing was actually acceptable. I felt pretty okay with what I was doing, and I don’t think this made me less of a guy, and I don’t think this made me less of a person.”
THE FLUIDITY OF SEXUALITY
What is generally missed in the reinforcement of the heteronormative power dynamic is the fluidity of human sexuality — the fact that an individual’s sexuality cannot be measured, erased, hidden, or avoided, because it can subtly or dramatically change from day to day.
Sexuality is no different from every other aspect of the human experience and has been the subject of much measurement and debate. Many theorists have attempted to create tools to measure a person’s sexuality, including the controversial Kinsey scale, which attempts to gauge a person’s sexuality at a given time, using a scale from zero to six, in which zero is entirely heterosexual and six is exclusively homosexual.
Many theorists argue that the Kinsey scale is not comprehensive enough to cover all of a person’s individual sexual identities; however, it has been accepted in the public consciousness as an easy way to understand sexuality.
The notion of fluid sexuality, alternatively, is entirely individual, and thereby fundamentally unable to fit into any measurement constructed by another person. What one person defines as their sexuality may have the same label as another’s, but it will be an entirely different experience for both.
“I’m more accustomed to the idea of fluidity,” Curtis admits. “Honestly, if you talked to me in high school… I was like, ‘No, it’s necessary… Categorization is great.’ But now… [w]hat does it even mean?”
“[Labels] provide comfort in times of uncertainty,” Veronica acknowledges, “but, for me, it really hasn’t been the best thing because, whether I identify as completely heterosexual or completely homosexual or bisexual or whatever, there’s always something left out… When I went to [one] end of the spectrum, it was a total pigeon-hole, and that didn’t feel right.”
Expecting people to put a label on their sexuality is a dangerous presumption within societal discourse. While it can be a comfort to some, it can cause trauma for others.
“I think just completely cutting myself off from aspects of myself was a violence,” Veronica admits when asked about her “coming out” and subsequent movement into visible queerness, adding, “I went way far off the deep end… I plunged into this idea of what it meant to be queer and to be a queer woman, just to make myself fit into a different circle of people… I completely reconfigured my whole identity around an idea that I had about myself without doing any deep analytical work or self-care.”
Within pop culture discourse, women are visibly objectified and hypersexualized. This is no more obvious than in today’s music videos, featuring celebrity look-a-likes performing sexual acts for the pleasure of males. The centrality of female bodies in these images fosters the belief that women are always dilapidated, vulnerable, and entirely submissive to the male gaze.
FKA Twigs, a 26-year-old British artist who defies genre classification, attempts to subvert this through her intense music that explores topics such as modern sexuality, as well as healthy and unhealthy relationships, open to all genders and sexualities.
In “Two Weeks,” one of the singles off her debut album, LP1, Twigs speaks with an aggression unmatched by female artists today, singing, “Feel your body closing, I can rip it open / Suck me up, I’m healing for the shit you’re dealing / Smoke on your skin to get those pretty eyes rolling / My thighs are apart for when you’re ready to breathe in.”
The interplay within these lyrics of violence and submission is a small example of Twigs’ revolutionary approach to sexuality in music.
Further, Twigs’ use of the word “you” to detail the subject of her songs allows the listeners to fill in the pronoun with their preferred gender, defying heteronormative classifications.
Twigs’ video for “Papi Pacify” also points to her assertion of more realistic images of sexuality. The video features a man cocking back Twigs’ head, repeatedly inserting his fingers into her mouth while she attempts to keep eye contact with the camera. This may seem like an expression of sexual violence to some viewers, or, to others, a never-ending embrace of rapturous submission.
Though the image may seem completely submissive to some, it can also be interpreted as Twigs being in complete physical control of the situation — representing a new way of depicting female sexuality in music videos in portraying females as willingly aggressive instead of passive and ready to be dominated.
Even Twigs admits that she finds sexuality entirely individual and confusing, varying, morphing, and changing from one day to the next.
“… I’m 26, so I haven’t really figured it out yet,” she says in an interview with The Cut. “Sometimes I feel 15; other times I feel fully grown and mature and handling all my business. It can waver from day to day, hour to hour.”
Despite the societal tendency towards a binary approach to sexuality, it is entirely individual. While some experiences borne from social expectations of sexuality can be construed as universal, sexuality is experienced differently by different people.
“Why does everything about sexuality have to be so happy?” Veronica questions fiercely. “I don’t want to be happy. I want to drown in my misery and fuck some… dudes and chicks… Why can’t my personal depression and sadness and my anxiety go hand-in-hand with sexuality, and why can’t that work together? If I want to have the saddest fucking crying sex, why is that something to be ashamed of?”
“To me, it doesn’t really matter,” Curtis says triumphantly. “I am who I am.”
*Names changed at students’ request.