The Language of Sexual Agency

Mannequin Girls

So I just read Tina Fey’s Bossypants.  Don’t even read this book if you’re hellbent on having a serious day, because it’s hilarious.  But I wouldn’t be writing about it if it were only funny.  In between jokes and interesting anecdotes about her life, Tina gives pithy, useful advice for working women.  And there are times when she isn’t overtly offering advice, but her anecdotes illustrate or illuminate a point from which any woman could gain insight.

One of these anecdotes gives me the perfect introduction to a topic I’ve wanted to discuss for a while.  In her chapter on puberty, “Growing Up and Liking It,” Tina recounts a workshop she participated in while writing the movie Mean Girls.  The woman running the workshop, Rosalind Wiseman (who wrote the book upon which Mean Girls was based), asked the participants to write down the moment they “first knew they were a woman.”  Most women in the class recorded their moment of “womanhood” in relation to hearing a sexual comment yelled at her on the street.  As Tina puts it, “There were pretty much zero examples like ‘I first knew I was a woman when my mother and father took me out to dinner to celebrate my success on the debate team.’  It was mostly men yelling shit from cars. Are they a patrol sent out to let girls know they’ve crossed into puberty?  If so, it’s working.”

Now that’s funny, the patrol idea.  But the serious thought behind it is this:  women are defined as women when their status as sexual beings has been confirmed, not by some process of their own bodies or experiences, but by a man.  Usually an anonymous, lustful, disrespectful man.

Our language around women—the way in which we define women sexually and culturally through the words we use—reflects this external definition of womanhood.

Thinking girl with typography

Consider:

  • Maidens:  Before she has had sex, a girl is a virgin.  Also, a maiden—not a term in vogue currently, but a term we all understand, along with why brides wear white (even when they aren’t virgins).  Boys are only virgins, and have never been expected to wear a color that corresponds to their sexual status.
  • Sorority Women:  I heard plenty of jokes about the sexual appeal and appetites of women in sororities when I was in college.  There was “Tri Delt…everyone else has.”  Or my favorite, as it was my own sorority, “Phi Moooo.”  By contrast, we have no cute sayings for the sexual appeal and habits of men in fraternities.
  • Slut, Whore:  If a woman is even suspected of promiscuity (based, for example, on the clothes she wears) these words can be slung at her like accusations.  While we do occasionally refer to a “male slut,” I’m not sure that term is so far from “stud”—a term which has no parallel in the language of womanhood.
  • Trophy Wife:  This moniker refers to the man more than the woman—the younger, beautiful wife of an older man is considered a trophy for him.  If a woman marries younger, there is no name for her husband—he’s just her husband.
  • MILF (Mother I’d Like To…):  A male friend of mine pointed out that this term is a compliment, and so it is.  But it has disturbing connotations— my husband explained to me that the term has its origin among teenage boys who find a mother of one of their friends attractive.  Well, that’s just normal pubescent fantasy.  But women are encouraged to want to be the object of any fantasy, including that of a sixteen- year-old boy (I once witnessed a scene on the show Glee in which a woman in her thirties was lapping up the attentions of a teenage boy, overjoyed that he considered her a MILF).  The other implication here—and I believe the reason MILF is a term in vogue—is a cultural idea that bearing children uses up every iota of a woman’s sex appeal, so that if you run across a woman who is a mom and attractive, woah!  You better give her an acronym fast!  As annoying (and inaccurate) as this idea is, however, the main thing that bothers me about the term MILF is that it has no parallel among men, as if fatherhood has no bearing whatsoever on a man’s attractiveness to any woman on the planet.
  • Cougar:  At first glance, this term might seem powerful.  A cougar is an older woman—and by older, I mean, like over thirty-five, for heaven’s sake—who is on the prowl for younger men.   Ok, so there is such a thing as an older woman who dates younger men—but again, why does she have a name, and an older man with a younger woman does not (unless you count “lucky bastard,” and really I don’t think we should).

This cultural habit of defining womanhood through male eyes plays out in a thousand different scenarios, both in everyday life and in our media.  On television and websites, in movies and magazines and bars, female assets are discussed and compared like stocks, cars, or melons.  The cultural implication—the implied and ingrained unconscious belief—is that female sexuality is something to be measured from the outside. That women are only the objects of desire, and never the possessors of it.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

We know that by now, of course we do.  The sexual revolution established it.  Madonna embellished upon it.  Britney Spears and Lady Gaga and Beyoncé and Rihanna make it impossible for us to NOT know that women desire men, like sex, and will define desire and sex for themselves, thank you very much. Alrighty then, the point has been well established since, say, the 1960s.  So have there been some cultural changes around women and desire since that time?  Why yes, yes there have been.  All this female desire and female will to establish sexual identity has resulted in…a blatantly open definition of women as the objects of male desire.  Hmmmm.  Something seems wrong with this picture.

With forward progress in mind, I would like to suggest a few terms for the English language.  I do not expect these terms to be catcalled (or dogcalled?) from cars at passing men, or bandied about over glasses of wine, or turned into sports metaphors.  However, they might be the whispered companion of a female smirk.  And I wouldn’t mind seeing these words pop up on the internet, or in a sitcom or two.

Here you go America—use these and use ‘em proudly:

  • Slushpuppy:  A young, drunken suitor who, despite all evidence to the contrary, believes his attentions are making your night complete.
  • Sput:  A male slut.  But I don’t think we should judge him by his clothes.
  • Venus: A female stud, a goddess among women.  She may or may not use her powers to land any man or men she wants—her Venusness is not so much about how many people she sleeps with, as it is about her comfort in her own skin.
  • Notch Man:  Like a trophy wife, the notch man is a companion to an older partner.  This man might or might not be husband to a cougar (i.e., Ashton Kutcher), but he is certainly a “notch” in the metaphorical belt of the woman he is with.
  • Puma:  A male cougar.  Sometimes the husband of a trophy wife.
  • FILF (Father I’d Like To…):  A compliment for the goose is a compliment for the gander.

If our language begins to reflect reality a bit more—showing us that both men and women have desire, both men and women can be victims of it in one way or another, and both men and women have sexual agency—i.e., the ability to define themselves sexually and act accordingly—women might begin defining their womanhood by something other than a catcall on the street.  At the very least, we could all settle in for a nice evening of Pumaville, the new ABC hit that follows Cougar Town, while discussing our favorite MILF and FILF.

6 thoughts on “The Language of Sexual Agency

  1. Kim says:

    My husband recently finished reading Bossypants (which he too LOVED). He noted Fey’s occasional nods to her male readers, which are implicitly not her anticipated audience: “If you are a male reader … thank you for buying this book.” It’s interesting to me, given your discussion of gender categories here and makes me wonder what you think of that other elusive category: the “male feminist.” It’s a fraught term and, even today, strikes many as an oxymoron. I wonder if you can add another term to your glossary: a word that could describe this often misunderstood (though, as Fey’s remark makes plain, important) group?

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    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      Kim, you have impeccable timing with this thought…I am cooking up a blog about the term feminist. In searching for “feminist” images for my blog, I came across many that were overtly angry and demeaning toward men, and I thought, no wonder feminist is such a fraught term. With images like these to represent feminism (men all tied up in ropes, men being pulled around by neckties), we are slamming the door in the face of the people who are our partners in life and in the search for true equality between the genders. I like your idea for a new term…but I actually think I’d rather replace “feminist” altogether with something like “humanist” –it implies equal rights for everyone, and doesn’t differentiate between a man who believes in equality and a woman who believes in equality (though that term is already taken, so we’d actually need something new). I’ll keep pondering this question…and I’m open to suggestions!

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  2. Beanie says:

    Hey Liz, I’m reading Bossypants now (almost finished) and lovin’ it. I am also lovin’ “Yo Mama”! I haven’t read them all yet but each is unique and enjoyable. You writing is inciteful, intelligent and entertaining. So proud to know you! Beanie

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  3. Tom says:

    I just stumbled across this blog post and I thought that I would engage, even though the conversation is a bit old.

    Although your intentions are well-meaning, I do take issue with a couple things in this blog post. Firstly, there is its presumption of heterosexuality. And secondly, as tempting as it may feel to take a “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” approach, inverting hierarchies (or creating additional hierarchies), through the use of terms like “notch man”, etc, still leaves some problematic attitudes intact. A female smirk at a “sput” still leaves intact the notion that sexual promiscuity is smirk-worthy. A “notch man” still preserves the idea that having sex is an achievement and a marker of success. This term also preserves the norm that equates sexual desirability with youthfulness — such that an older person who has sex with a younger person gets to chalk it up as an especial accomplishment. The fact that it is an older woman having sex with a younger man just preserves the same double-standard that you rightly found problematic with the concept of the “cougar”.

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    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      Thanks for commenting, Tom–you’re absolutely right, on all counts. I began this blog in 2011, starting from my own perspective and frustrations and building from there. As I’ve read more and grown, I’ve come to the exact conclusions that you mention, and learned a great deal about feminism along the way, expanding my perspectives and listening to the needs and perspectives of others. I also intended this post to be a bit tongue-in-check all along, as I never believed the real solution to objectification is to simply objectify men from a heterosexual perspective. I hope you’ll stick around and read some of my more recent posts–and keep commenting!

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