I recently had dinner with someone I had been seeing on and off for the last few months. Although our relationship had been defined by a general NSA (no-strings-attached) attitude, hints of the inevitable Talk had begun to surface. We both joked about it occasionally, and both of us were guilty of sending mixed signals to each other. In the end I figured that we were the same animal, and I was just fine with that.
But as we spoke over dinner, the conversation was growing a bit more serious, and he seemed to be getting to a point. I braced myself between gulps of beer. (I find myself in this situation a few times a year, and I'm still happily single.) He set his fork down and looked me straight in the eye. I bit my lip.
"Listen," he said, smiling a little, "I just wanted to say that you're really great."
I murmured something incoherent into my steak, smiling back. I waited for him to continue.
"I just think that..." he paused, searching for the words. I suppressed a seasoned urge to interrupt him and change the subject. He finally continued: "I just have always thought of you as a sex god, not as boyfriend material." He smiled at me bashfully, as if he'd just paid me a great compliment.
Later, I told my girl friend Caitlin about it. She instantly became infuriated. "What an awful backdoor compliment!" she exclaimed. "You're not an object!" She continued to fume about it to our mutual best friend Marissa, who grew equally indignant. I sipped on my wine as I listened. (I drink a lot, I'm noticing.)
As women, Caitlin and Marissa were repulsed by what he had said to me, because as women they are constantly being objectified in a way that is very ingrained and mainstream. And they were right -- and incredibly sweet and lovely -- to be angry on my behalf. If a man had said the same thing to them, I'd chew him out. Like they had in the past, I had been expecting a romantic proposal of some sort, and instead was assigned a dubious label.
But I'm used to it. Although this was the sort of thing that would have kept me up at night a few years ago, I decided that I'd form my own conclusions about my sexuality from a place of transcendence as opposed to a place of self-loathing.
I call these conclusions The Fetishized Object's Survival Guide... because I like to think of my sexuality in a grand and melodramatic way. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Keep your politics far, far away from your bedroom.
We're encouraged to rationalize our own sexualities:
"Think with your big head, not your small one."
"I'm such a slut."
"Let's explore the dichotomic power dynamics between you and your fuck buddy."
These are all just more ways to hate yourself.
If you are a sexually active member of the LGBTQ community, there are enough people out there who hate you for what you enjoy sexually, and you don't need to be one of them. There are literally two different places in your brain that separately control your sexual expression and your politics. As a consenting adult, the only obligation you have is to be responsible about your sexuality. And you don't ever need to apologize for it!
If you have preferences, just don't be an ignorant douche about them. If you are frisky, just practice safer sex. If you are kinky, just have a safe word that's easy to understand, even if you've been muzzled.
2. Turn your frustrations into compassion and empathy.
When it comes to identity, it's easy to feel like we've been born into a box within a box, but the fact of the matter is that when it comes to sexuality, we all fetishize each other on some level. If yours is particularly intricate, if God spent a little more time mixing your mojo, you should feel special, not marginalized by it.
Becoming bitter about the world isn't going to change it. Growing from your experiences and sharing them generously with others will.
3. "Sneak something wonderful about yourself into everyday conversation."
Jenna Maroney is my favorite character on 30 Rock because of this conversation she once had with Kenneth the page:
Jenna is onto something. She's her own biggest cheerleader, and while this is only a sub-trait of her overarching egomania, my friends and I have taken her "backdoor brags" and turned them into "self-complimenting," a more melodic phrase that is really fun to do.
It isn't just the words that you say (although my hair does look best right after gym); it's a complete mindset, because you actually need to believe it to survive and live the happiest life you deserve. If you don't root for yourself, no one else will. You might lose a game now and then, but your morale is goddamn unshakeable.
You're looking beautiful today, by the way. Don't you agree?
4. Fiercely protect your right to happy.
Americans seem so hell-bent on protecting some of their rights -- the right to have a shitload of guns, for example, or the right to occupy the uterus of every woman in America. But my favorite institution is the "pursuit of happiness." I feel as though everyone is yelling nowadays, and very few of us are happy.
To say that it is a pursuit is apt, because happiness is unique goal for each of us. Standing along the way of our path to happiness will be many people, some wonderful and some problematic. As much as attention is nice, each of these people needs to be helping you achieve happiness, not obstructing you from it.
"Am I happy with this person?" is something you need to ask yourself frequently and really honestly answer with your own goals in mind.
5. Don't take yourself too seriously.
In the end, sex is a simple act that we've turned into a complex mindfuck. If you can't laugh about yourself, if you can't throw up your hands and admit that some stereotypes are true, or that most courtships and rejections are actually clumsy and humorous affairs, then you're missing out on the best part of being a sexual spirit. You're not having fun.
I know what it's like to be fetishized and objectified. I've been compared to anime characters and NBA superstars (well, just one), and I get called a "potato queen" by "rice queens" who are actually wondering if I'm "sticky rice," and blah, blah, blah. The initial sexual attraction between two strangers is a big joke. What comes after is the serious part, which I'm not qualified to talk about.
But more so, I know what it's like to be a fetishized object because I am just as guilty of fetishizing and objectifying other people. And I don't blame myself. I laugh about it, and when I click with someone, I enjoy myself, and I don't overthink it.
And neither should you.
In case you were wondering, he did apologize for what he said. We were sitting on the front steps of my apartment, and he told me that he didn't mean to demean me. I nodded and forgave him, and it was easy to.
"Besides," I said, grinning as I pulled him indoors, "you've given me quite the title to live up to!"
This piece also appears on Justin Huang's personal site, I AM YELLOW PERIL.