Feminine sexuality is associated with confusing and often contradicting messages. As explained by Tolman, girls often face double standards when it comes to expressing their sexuality (137). On the one hand, girls who are reserved in terms of clothing and behavior are labeled “virgins” or prudes (Tolman 138). On the other hand, girls who actively assert their sexuality and show a willingness to engage in sexual interactions are called “sluts” and other degrading terms (Tolman 137).
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While this might seem like a contradiction, there is a deeper meaning behind these double standards; a message that young women’s sexuality is not about their sexual desire and pleasure, but about eliciting desire and offering pleasure to men. As explained by Tolman, “girls continue to be sexually socialized into being sexy rather than being sexual” (138). Girls who do not conform to the sexy image, whether because they refuse to try to look sexy and attract men or because they become sexual, are punished.
Whereas the idea of female sexuality is rooted in submission to men, male sexuality is perceived in terms of power over women. As stated by Pascoe, the requirement is for boys to show evidence of their heterosexuality continuously by “getting girls” (148). Interactions with women where a man exercises his dominance – for instance, by invading women’s privacy, touching them, or engaging in sex talk – serve as the ultimate sign of male sexuality. In this way, boys learn that their sexuality depends on the degree to which they can control women and the attractiveness of the women that they ‘get’. This idea relates female and male sexuality to one another, placing both in the context of heterosexual normativity.
As evident from the discussion above, the importance of heterosexual relations underpins the construction of both male and female sexualities. Examples of female and male sexuality translated through the media show men in a dominant position and women in a submissive one. For this reason, any deviation from normative heterosexuality is considered a hit on male and female sexuality as a whole.
For instance, women’s queer sexuality often becomes a subject of sexual fantasy for men, but only if the women are “hot” (Pascoe 146). Since feminine sexuality depends on male sexual desire and pleasure, lesbian women are either viewed as an object of desire or shunned as an undesirable object. In a similar manner, men who behave differently by not translating messages of power are labeled as homosexual, ridding them of male sexuality altogether.
The power dynamics that are part of the notion of sexuality for men also mean that boys who do not show attributes of male sexuality or exhibit traits or behaviors associated with femininity are shunned and ostracized by other men as weak and inferior. This restricts the degree of self-expression permitted in men, as their clothing, use of makeup, and many other characteristics can become a cause for humiliation (Pascoe 144).
In the feminine boy study discussed by Burke, most boys only exhibited cross-dressing behaviors in the presence of mothers and hid from fathers (Burke 207). This suggests that the severity with which the traditional images of sexuality are applied to men is worse than feminine sexuality norms. Still, people of all genders suffer from the stereotyped images of sexuality, prompting efforts to address the strict binary gender system and its connection with sexuality.
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