I have a vivid memory of something someone said to me once that puzzled me, but didn’t particularly upset me at the time. I was in the queue for lunch at school with a few of my male friends when one of them described me as “sexually charged.”
I didn’t really understand. Sexually charged? What did that even mean? At 13 I was still at the age where I privately suspected sex was an elaborate joke made up by someone to confuse or amuse me. Unlike most of my male friends of that time, I did not watch porn (still don’t, for reasons that may become clear) because to be honest it just didn’t occur to me: my closest brush with observing The Act was probably watching Titanic, and seeing that sweaty hand up against that car window. I was not really sure what Rose and Jack were up to in there, but I knew it was fun, consensual, and an act of love. Whatever sex was, that’s what it would be like, I thought.
It is only now, as I look back at my teenage years growing up in a co-educational school where boys vastly outnumbered girls, that I see that a lot of the stuff that went on was fucking weird. In hindsight, thank goodness I didn’t really know what he meant. It would have disturbed me.
I think the tension here comes from something that is quite universal – think back to the Miley Cyrus debate. My friend looked at me, little thirteen year old beginning to grow towards the woman I am now, as all the boys saw all the girls in my year, and may have felt some kind of sexual or emotional response. He feels the response. It is new and strong and weird, and something that happens when he looks at me; is it not natural to assume that I am making him feel it?
Fair enough, at 13, the boys I knew were silly at worst and adorable at best really. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that he was projecting agency onto me for a sexual response I had (honestly) no idea he was feeling. I was being sexualised, and at this stage, I was not choosing to sexualise myself. Actually, I was just queuing for lunch and my mind was mostly occupied with the question of whether there were any muffins left.
I’m not going to pretend that I was particularly traumatised by this event. I have never had my sense of self seriously bruised by male violation, emotional or physical, and I took most of the creepy stuff boys said to me as a compliment. If anything, it was my ego that I needed to worry about; I got in trouble with my group of friends once for referring to the 14th person to ask me to “go out” with them as “Number 14.” I look back laughing but also slightly disturbed by the arrogance of my teenage self, so much crueller to these poor boys than I knew at the time – though it wasn’t so much because I didn’t like them and think they were lovely as the fact that I had no idea how to kiss and the thought of doing it wrong terrified me (I was privately convinced that mouths had to be designed purely for eating what if I’d just had loads of onion?!)
Don’t spare too many tears for unknowingly sexualised, unknowingly arrogant 13 year old Amelia. I was fine, I was exceptionally happy and fulfilled at the time. I mention this because it is part of a much wider problem.
When the Miley Cyrus video for Wrecking Ball came out I was torn. I was torn because I would secretly quite like to be having some fun on that swingy thing in her position; but in private, alone, probably. Surely Miley would really rather express her sexuality with those close to her, rather than share her nudity and her sexuality with the entire world?
In hindsight I see that it was wrong of me to ask that question, even gently. Because Miley had absolutely every right to express her sexuality in a way that felt true to her (even if she happened to be making a nice bunch of money in the same gesture.) I’m not gonna pretend I’m a Miley fan, but all those songs (I recall the lyric ‘it’s our party we can do what we want’) are about rebellion, about breaking away from the expectations placed on her by the trauma of having her childhood in the public eye.
We always overestimate the degree of agency musicians, and artists in the public eye, have. But this is disproportionately true when it comes to female musicians. If they choose to propagate a sexualised public image, it is all too easy to view them as either (a unwillingly sexualised victims of a sexist industry or (b unscrupulous temptresses selling their sexuality for money. This relates to that old virgin/whore binary that is so, so false and unhelpful for our understanding of female sexuality. I would imagine that in the vast majority of cases, from Miley to Birdy, the reality lies somewhere in between.
We need to stop being so quick either to label girls and women as either whore or virgin. Yes tossing women into one of these categories in our words and thoughts helps that classic insecurity about female sexuality and what women might do if men go to war for too long and the neighbour is sexy and cooks up an impeccable pumpkin soup for the winter. But it is a cipher, and should be recognised as such if we are going to fight the patriarchy and deconstruct the structures that oppress us.