This was written for and originally published at Role/Reboot last month. I became the Sex + Relationships Section Editor for Role/Reboot on December 15, 2011; for more of that Sex + Relationships Section, click here.
Remember Britney Spears? Oh, that’s right, Britney Spears: one of the most famous recording artists in the world. I gotta admit I don’t think about her much, although it turns out she’s still going strong — the music video for her latest #1 single even includes a dubstep-ish interlude during which she boxes a high-heeled clone of herself. But as absurd and/or awesome as that is, it’s not the reason I’ve been thinking about her. I’ve been thinking about Britney Spears in the context of male sexuality because I just read a deeply sexist 2008 interview written by Chuck Klosterman of “Esquire”. During the interview, she was photographed wearing little besides underwear and pearl necklaces — yes indeed, pearl necklaces — which sounds like fun times to me. (Dear “Esquire”: Anytime you want to photograph a woman wearing exquisite sexual puns, call me.) On the other hand, Klosterman is kind of an asshole to her, and every word he writes about her drips with contempt. So I’m in this conflicted place where the interview is deeply sexist, yet I also found it tear-jerkingly funny … and … possibly … even … illuminating?
Although the interview makes me cry with laughter, I could give you a whole column on Klosterman’s obvious, deep-rooted resentment for Britney Spears in particular — and, probably, women in general. But let’s take the embedded misogyny as a given, and examine the main point he sought to communicate with the article. I present to you a quotation:
Over the next ninety minutes, I will sit next to a purportedly fully clothed Britney and ask her questions. She will not really answer any of them. Interviewing Britney Spears is like deposing Bill Clinton: Regardless of the evidence, she does not waver. “Why do you dress so provocatively?” I ask. She says she doesn’t dress provocatively. “But look what you’re wearing right now,” I say, while looking at three inches of her inner thigh, her entire abdomen, and enough cleavage to choke a musk ox. “This is just a skirt and a top,” she responds. It is not that Britney Spears denies that she is a sexual icon, or that she disputes that American men are fascinated with the concept of the wet-hot virgin, or that she feels her success says nothing about what our society fantasizes about. She doesn’t disagree with any of that stuff, because she swears she has never even thought about it. Not even once.
“That’s just a weird question,” she says. “I don’t even want to think about that. That’s strange, and I don’t think about things like that, and I don’t want to think about things like that. Why should I? I don’t have to deal with those people. I’m concerned with the kids out there. I’m concerned with the next generation of people. I’m not worried about some guy who’s a perv and wants to meet a freaking virgin.”
And suddenly, something becomes painfully clear: Either Britney Spears is the least self-aware person I’ve ever met, or she’s way, way savvier than any of us realize.
Or maybe both.
As one of my (male) friends observed upon reading the above passage:
The article makes me think Britney Spears is kind of awesome. Two quotes: “Either Britney Spears is the least self-aware person I’ve ever met, or she’s way, way savvier than any of us realize,” and “Interviewing Britney Spears is like deposing Bill Clinton.” I don’t think Chuck Klosterman quite realizes what high praise that is.
Chuck Klosterman came out of this encounter and described it as “deeply weird.” But is it? Look at the comparison to Bill Clinton. Say what you will about Clinton, but even his detractors recognize that he’s a political genius. Why would talking to Britney about her sexiness be like deposing Bill Clinton?
A person might argue that Britney is an unparallelled master of strategic ambiguity, which some theorize is a crucial component of flirtation. A person might also argue that if Klosterman aggressively and snidely hit on Britney even half as much when he spoke to her as he did when he wrote about her, then it would make sense if she decided to “play dumb” and ignore it. I sometimes choose to ignore men who hit on me snidely and aggressively, because often, when they realize that they can’t get a reaction, they leave me alone.
But here’s a third way of thinking about it: Bill Clinton faced enormous penalties if he didn’t say exactly the right thing during his deposition. Britney also faced enormous penalties if she said the wrong thing about her sexiness.
There’s a high-profile radical feminist blog called “I Blame The Patriarchy,” with which I frequently disagree, and which has occasionally attacked sex-positive feminists somewhat like myself. (I have only once tried leaving a — very careful — comment there, and the comment never appeared, from which I infer that my slutty kinky self is Not Welcome.) However, “I Blame The Patriarchy” can still be a great source for scathing feminist critiques. That Britney Spears interview made me think of one post that ends thusly:
There’s a femininity tightrope that all public women are forced to walk …. Whenever a public woman fails to balance the following factors just right, then splat she goes. To wit:
Public women should be X amount feminine, X amount motherly, X amount hot, X amount beautiful, X amount young, X amount confident, X amount helpless, X amount exotic, X amount educated, X amount intelligent (required: the last two values < the men in the office), X amount gay (the last value almost always = 0). The ratios are fluid, shifting from day to day at the whim of public sentiment, so that a woman may think she’s got it pretty well sewed up, only to wake up one fine spring morn to discover that the parade being thrown in her honor has suddenly vanished. Later she finds out it’s because she stupidly forgot she was a member of the sex class, and had dared to imagine that she would be judged on merit rather than her ability to do femininity right. Eventually we all fall off the rope.
Britney’s been on this tightrope for a long time. She’s had a whole lot more of these conversations than Bill Clinton.
There is a kind of schizophrenia that society works mightily to induce in women about beauty, sexiness, body image. The main thread of it goes like this: women ought to be both stereotypically gorgeous, and unaware of it. If we are not beautiful enough, then we face penalties everywhere — even the workplace, where women who are “very thin” earn nearly $22,000 more than their “average weight counterparts,” and blonde women make 7% more money than women with other hair colors.
But if a woman who manages to meet these standards expresses any awareness of it whatsoever, then she risks being attacked as shallow, vain, self-centered and even manipulative. Or she risks being seen as “asking for it,” because awareness of your sexuality is “slutty,” and that’s what slutty slut sluts do: sluts “ask for it” and deserve whatever they get.
This all goes double for someone like Britney Spears, who began her music career very young and was hence in a perfect position to be both (a) seen as h-o-t-t hot, and (b) reviled if she gave even the slightest hint of having sexual feelings. Plus, I mean, dear God — even I feel a powerful tension about “performing” my sexuality; even I occasionally feel trapped in an inauthentic Sexy Dreamgirl Shell, and I’m not an international sex icon. If I were under that kind of pressure, I might prefer to never ever think about it, too.
There is another thread to this story, albeit intertwined with women’s femininity tightrope. Here’s a second quotation from Klosterman’s interview with Britney Spears:
On the day of our interview, Britney was photographed for this magazine wearing only panties and jewelry, and she pulled down the elastic of her underwear with her thumbs. If she had pulled two inches more, “Esquire” would have become “Hustler”. But that reality does not affect her reality, which is that these pictures have nothing to do with sex.
Britney: Haven’t you ever seen girls on magazine covers before? Did you see the J. Lo cover? She was wearing a bikini. Did you see the Cameron Diaz cover?
Me: Yes, I did. And why do you think those women did those photo shoots?
Britney: Because it’s the freaking cover of “Esquire” magazine! Why not? You get to look beautiful. It’s not that deep.
Me: So why do you think the magazine puts women like that on its cover?
Britney: I don’t know. Maybe because those people are pretty and appealing, and they work their asses off, and they believe in themselves.
Me: Do you honestly believe that?
Britney: Well, some people might say it’s just to make money and sell magazines. But another reason — a better reason, and the one I choose — is that they do it to inspire people.
Britney is almost like the little kid who freaks out Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix”. You say you want to bend a spoon? Well, the first thing you need to realize is that there is no spoon.
I know it’s getting difficult to ignore Klosterman’s contempt for Britney, but let’s make a mighty effort and focus instead on his assumptions about spoons. In fact, I was just chilling out with a partner the other night, and he commented on how I licked my spoon while consuming hot cocoa. The conversation went something like this:
Him: I like the way you lick your spoon. Do you do that on purpose?
Me: Haha. No, but you’re not the first partner of mine to comment on it.
Him: Really? When I’m trying to clean a beverage off my spoon, I just put it straight in and out of my mouth. You really go at it. (He provided a graphic, sloe-eyed demonstration here, which made me laugh some more.)
Me: You’re making me self-conscious. But I really don’t do it on purpose.
I have conversations like this with men occasionally — including, sometimes, with normally-careful, very respectful feminist men. Why do you lick your spoon like that? Did you mean to flash your thigh at me just then? Aren’t you intentionally teasing me right now? It’s almost like these guys think that I, being so brash and sex-aware, might be willing to give them some “honest answer” that they haven’t gotten from other women. But the truth is: sorry dudes, sometimes a spoon is just a spoon. Most of the time, in fact.
You could argue that I’m more awkward and less aware of my appearance than a lot of women, and you might be right. Despite my current sex writer identity, I’m a nerd at heart, an ugly duckling who spent much of my youth playing computer games. And I will also add that although a number of studies have demonstrated that men tend to be more attracted to visual stimuli than women … study after study has also shown that men and women are more the same than we are different, and that unusual people of all genders abound. There probably are some women out there who have an utterly precise, instinctive understanding of typical male visual turn-ons. Or who are themselves much more visually-oriented than the men they know.
I am, however, not convinced that I’m so different from most women. After all, look at Britney: perfectly aware of what society deems “beautiful,” and yet — to all appearances — reasonably unaware of what imagery links deeply into most men’s libidos. And here’s the reason she cites for knowing what society deems “beautiful” in a woman: she learned it from magazine covers … not because she extrapolated it from her own desires.
The point I’m getting at here is that a lot of straight dudes seem to feel a more-or-less continual suspicion that women know “exactly what we are doing” in terms of visual sexual display … even when we are young and inexperienced, even when we have learned it more from magazine covers than from conversation with actual men, even when it seems clear that most women — for whatever reason — simply don’t have quite the same visual wiring that most men do.
I’m trying to write about this cautiously, because I don’t want anyone thinking that I come down on any particular side of the Great Female Turn-On Debates (a sub-battle of the Feminist Sex Wars). Are there some women with similar visual attraction patterns to most men? I’m sure there are. Do men have plenty of turn-ons that aren’t visual? They must, because I’d never date otherwise; I would always be thrown over for the closest blonde, despite my sexy social commentary. Are these differences biological, cultural, both, neither? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I’m just tired of the never-ending blaming and shaming.
I’m tired of women being expected to understand stereotypical men’s visual turn-ons on an instinctive level, even though those turn-ons can change from man to man, and even though our own psychologies rarely seem to work that way. I’m tired of expectations like the infamous Toronto cop’s assertion that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized,” a comment that led to the now-worldwide SlutWalk protests.
There’s a scene in the movie “Persepolis,” a memoir of one woman’s upbringing in Iran, in which she recounts being stopped by the police for running to a university class because — despite the loose Islamic garment that covered her whole body — they felt that the resultant jiggling of her behind was provocative. This tells us beyond the shadow of a doubt that the idea that women are capable of dressing in order to avoid judgment, victimization, or attraction is a myth. Once it is conceded that women’s bodies are an acceptable battleground on those terms, our boundaries will be invaded ever more aggressively; so we must never concede that. I’m tired of the various patriarchal dress codes that require women to cover our hair, our limbs, as much skin as possible. To take on the burden of men’s visual cues and literally wear that burden on our bodies all the time.
I’m tired of Britney being compared to a strange child that says “there is no spoon” when, from her perspective, there may actually be no spoon.
I am also, however, tired of men’s turn-ons being handled in a weirdly secretive way. Women obviously are not property; we obviously ought to command our own bodies and our own space: decent men agree with this. Once we take this as a given — once we take consent as a given — we should be able to have a straightforward and honest discussion of what turns people on.
The thing I see most hidden-in-plain-sight, in the Britney Spears interview by Chuck Klosterman, is not Britney’s motives, nor her understanding. It’s something Klosterman seems capable only of spouting stereotypes about; he considers the topic so obvious that he has not looked at it directly, and perhaps he never will. It’s the nature of male sexual desire.
There is a definite stereotype that men’s sexuality is inherently predatory and destructive. This may be one of the reasons that it seems particularly politically incorrect to talk about men’s turn-ons, including the visual ones. Maybe that’s why men’s sexuality so often gets narrowed into a gross zone of “creepitude” in which the noisiest people are guys who don’t respect boundaries, and the better guys tend to keep to themselves.
Note Britney’s statement, “I’m not worried about some guy who’s a perv”: the only context in which she’s encountered straightforward conversations about male sexuality are with people who grossed her out. That’s a problem, and it’s part of the reason why she could plausibly be somewhat unaware of the intense, gut-level sexual reaction that her appearance can inspire in some men. But there is nothing wrong with any kind of sexuality as long as it is approached in an honest, respectful, consensual way.
Thus, the questions I leave you with are these:
* How do we have conversations about visual sexual turn-ons that don’t make assumptions about people of all genders?
* How do we have those conversations in a way that makes people of all genders feel safe?
* On a personal note, how do you feel about discussions of men’s visual turn-ons?
* And how do visual turn-ons work for you? How does that fit into your gender identity? How does it make you feel about other people’s visual turn-ons?
The image at the top of this post shows Britney Spears, decked in jewels and licking her fingers. It came from a photoset on Photobucket.