Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book “The Scarlet Letter” made me want to blow my brains out in high school. It was slow paced and horrendously boring. I could have gone my whole life without knowing Hester was an actual name someone could have.
Despite my deep-seated hatred for this book, Hawthorne was onto something in his portrayal of Puritan culture and the condemnation that comes when women in those communities express their sexuality.
Like it or not, our country, in all of its modern hedonism and hyper-sexualization, was first colonized by a bunch of Puritans who thought hand holding out of wedlock was sinful. This culture still influences everything from abstinence-only sex education to dress codes in school.
While Puritanism absolutely has had a myriad of negative repercussions in many situations, the specific repercussion I want to focus on today is the difference between sexual objectification and autonomous sexual expression.
There is a very prominent discourse in society about the oversexualization of the female body. We’ve all seen those Tik Toks and Twitter posts about women voicing the fact that they do not want to be constantly sexualized. Subsequently, there are always men who don’t seem to understand why they can’t sexualize women in skimpy tops and short shorts.
As a woman, I have been sexualized since I encountered the strict dress code of elementary school. The skirt rule mandated an article of clothing had to touch your fingers if it was on the bottom half of the body, and straps on tops had to be two fingers wide so as to not “distract the male students,” as my teacher told me.
I distinctly remember the security guard at my high school barging into the ladies’ room to tell me to put a jacket over a conservative workout tank top I had on with a sports bra underneath. He told me it was because my shoulders were distracting.
It’s safe to say that the dress code primarily affects women and female-presenting people. The connotation is that, regardless of whether or not you are consenting to being sexualized, it will happen, and it’s the woman’s fault — not the men who can’t control themselves.
Growing up in the U.S. and probably many other countries, women are constantly told to cover up. Shoulders, ankles, legs — the entire female body has been sexualized to the nines in everything from porn to advertisements. We are told to dress differently around male family members and that we need to do everything we can to avoid coming off as anything other than pure and angelic. It’s exhausting, and the knowledge that no matter what one does or how one dresses, we are most likely still going to get catcalled or harassed in some way.
However, the flip side of this is the powerful feeling that women can experience when they express themselves in a sexual way. In my experience, when I wear a top that is flattering and maybe a little scanty or I dance or talk in a certain sultry way, I feel at one with my femininity. I feel powerful and desirable, and it’s because I am the one calling the shots and expressing myself in a way that doesn’t necessitate any kind of reaction or validation from a man.
This seems to be the place in the conversation where men — even the “nice guys” — can get confused. I have personally witnessed a man walk by a girl clad in fishnets and a crop top and say to his buddies, “Women say they don’t want to be sexualized but then they dress like that. Make it make sense.”
Of course this argument is rooted in rape culture, and that is a column for another day, but the important part of this concept is that people tend not to understand that the male gaze has been contoured to border on objectification.
A study in 2017 tested a theory about sexualization among the sexes. In this study, men and women were shown pictures of the opposite sex in normal clothes, slightly revealing clothes, and provacative clothes. Women only judged the provocatively dressed male models as less competent, while men judged all women who were wearing slightly revealing clothing as well as provocative wear as equally incompetent. The male models who were shown to be less modest were also perceived to be more feminine by both genders.
What this shows is that culturally we view sexual expression as a primarily feminine trait, and we also view women who dress less modestly as more of an object and less of an autonomous person.
Obviously this problem isn’t specific to men. Women can be perpetrators of nonconsensual sexual objectification as well, but it tends to be microaggression aimed toward women in a majority of instances.
At the end of the day, sexual expression isn’t an invite for objectification, and it certainly doesn’t prove or disprove whether a person is competent or asking for anything. This misconception is largely due to the hypersexualization seen in many aspects of media but certainly isn’t an excuse.
It is 2021, not 1721 — we aren’t Puritans, and we don’t need to view sex and sexual expression as sinful. People deserve to present and express themselves in whatever way makes them feel good, and their character and autonomy shouldn’t be threatened because of this. Hawthorne wrote a horrifyingly boring but accurate novel about the double standard of women in society, and it’s high time we progress beyond the culture that ostracized a woman for simply expressing her sexuality.