Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., went viral this month for all the wrong reasons following this horrendous tweet: “How many of the women rallying against overturning Roe are over-educated, under-loved millennials who sadly return from protests to a lonely microwave dinner with their cats, and no bumble matches?”
It was a particularly egregious example of how Republicans sexualize women to demean them. To be fair, Gaetz’s tweet might not seem like sexualization on first read. He’s insulting supporters of Roe v. Wade by claiming they are single, sexless and undesirable. But in doing so, he’s reducing them to their sexual lives and sexuality with the express purpose of diminishing them.
Feminist writer Julia Serano’s new book, “Sexed Up: How Society Sexualizes Us and How We Can Fight Back,” argues that we need to expand our understanding of sexualization to include attacks like Gaetz’s. Doing so, she says, can help us see how sexualization is used to harm a wide range of people and how it’s in everyone’s best interest to resist it.
Serano writes: “Sexualization occurs when a person is nonconsensually reduced to their real or imagined sexual attributes (their body, behaviors, or desires) to the exclusion of other characteristics.” The parenthetical is important. You can sexualize people by reducing them to their bodies. But you can also sexualize them by reducing them to their supposed behaviors or desires — as Gaetz does when he talks about the supposed dating habits of women who support Roe.
When I spoke to Serano, she said her thinking about sexualization was shaped by her own experiences. Serano is a trans woman who transitioned as an adult. “One of the most difficult aspects of that for me,” she said, “was suddenly experiencing a lot of the sexual harassment and objectification that women often face, especially younger women. And I found it extremely delegitimizing and degrading.”
In her book Serano talks about suddenly becoming the target of catcalls and comments about her appearance. Her identity and worth were reduced to her body. But that wasn’t the only kind of sexualization she experienced. “When people were aware of the fact that I was a trans woman, rather than presuming that I was a cis woman, they would often sexualize me in all these other ways,” she told me. “They would often view me as hypersexual or as sexually predatory or sexually deviant.”
There’s a long tradition of trans people being portrayed as sexually motivated serial killers in movies like “Psycho” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” More recently they’ve been accused of sexually assaulting cis women in bathrooms — even though there’s no evidence to support this accusation. These are all harmful examples of sexualization. Trans women are reduced to (imagined) sexual acts, just as Gaetz reduces Roe supporters to (imagined) sexual behaviors.
Being accused of being a sexual predator is different from being targeted for street harassment in some ways. But for Serano, there were also similarities. And both forms of sexualization were enabled by being marked as part of a marginalized group.
White straight men are assumed to be complex individuals — they are the default, the status quo. As such, they are rarely reduced to sexual bodies, behaviors or desires. That’s why people like Donald Trump and Matt Gaetz, who have been accused of sexual harassment and assault and sex trafficking, respectively, aren’t defined by those charges.
In contrast, people in marginalized groups are more likely to be viewed as out of place, as wrong or as in need of explanation just by existing. So when Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida decides to create a moral panic by claiming that LGBTQ people in Florida are a sexual danger to children, he knows it will resonate, because people are already inclined to mark and sexualize LGBTQ people.
Black men have been similarly stereotyped as sexual predators — that is, sexualized — as an excuse for racist violence against them.
Black feminist scholars going back to Ida B. Wells-Barnett have discussed the ways Black men have been similarly stereotyped as sexual predators — that is, sexualized — as an excuse for racist violence against them. Notably, Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists” in part to justify his discriminatory immigration policy rhetoric.
Sexualization, then, can mean objectifying people or treating them solely as sexual objects. But it can also mean stereotyping them as sexual threats based on race or sexuality or gender. And it can even mean dismissing them or mocking them for being supposedly sexually unattractive or inactive, as if the only thing that matters about them is whether they have sexual partners.
Understanding how sexualization works can be helpful in identifying the actions and tactics of bad actors like DeSantis and Gaetz. Both of them sexualize their targets deliberately, because they know it is an effective way to delegitimize enemies and build their own political power. They may not use the word “sexualization,” but they are fully aware of how sexualization works — and of how it can be leveraged.
Sometimes people may sexualize others without entirely realizing what they’re doing, though. People who are aware of how sexualization works, though, are less likely to do that. “A good place to start is to first recognize that these are unconscious patterns of thinking and to recognize them when they’re occurring in order for us to, at least on an individual level, strive to overcome them,” she told me.
Sexualization is so widespread, and so harmful, that fighting it creates a basis for collective action. Women, LGBTQ people, Black people, people of color, Jewish people, incarcerated people, fat people, disabled people — there’s a very diverse community of people who are all stigmatized, demeaned and controlled through sexualization. “Sexed Up” doesn’t just identify a common problem; it identifies a common ground for solidarity and resistance.