by Anya Josephs
Our society sees sexuality as something exclusively male. Women are expected to perform sexuality—to discuss sex, to look sexy, to have sex—but only and always for male pleasure. Female queerness subverts this. Women loving other women are clearly not doing it for men—there are no men involved. So our society has to find a way to lay claim to queer women’s sexuality as well.
One tactic is violence. Over 16% of lesbian women report being the victims of a violent hate crime. The real numbers–including the number who are victims of intimidation, threats, and unreported crimes–are definitely higher than that. Women who present as butch or more masculine are more likely to be the victims of these crimes, as well as a different sort of harrassment. Unlike other women, who are frequently the targets of demeaningly sexual catcalls, butch-presenting women are often the targets of violent threats and violent acts.
The other tactic is hyper-sexualization. Queer women—specifically femme-presenting queer women—are often viewed as sex objects just as (or even more than) straight women are. A huge percentage of pornography features “girl-on-girl” scenes. I was unable to find a specific number, as anytime I searched anything related to the word lesbian, I was simply barraged by dozens of links to explicit websites. A popular tactic in television series is to include a lesbian kiss during the final week of a series because it boosts viewership among men. There are dozens of TV shows and other kinds of media where women are romantically or sexually involved with each other for the pleasure of male viewers, and far fewer where genuine lesbian relationships are shown. The sexuality of queer women is drowned out by imitations of it centered at pleasing male viewers.
As we fight against the sexualization of all women, it’s important to remember the ways in which queer women are especially affected by sexualization. Queer women are often in real physical danger for practicing their authentic sexuality, but must see overtly sexual and unrealistic images of it everywhere. This diminishes relationships between women to nothing more than sexual and shallow. These ads are just a few examples of these damaging and hollow representations of same-sex relationships between women.
These images show two women together in sexual or sexualized situations. However, they have a few factors in common that reveal the ways queer female sexuality is used and appropriated for the pleasure of a male audience. Notice that all of these women are conventionally attractive and feminine—thin, white, long hair, wearing dresses and high heels. Notice that none of the women are looking at each other. Now notice that in every picture, one of the women is looking directly out at the camera and viewer—inviting the observer into the picture instead of connecting with the other woman.
This perfectly displays the way in which queer female relationships are coopted and distorted to make them more acceptable. These women are not being allowed to relate to each other, only to a viewer. They must fit the narrow mold of what society considers beautiful. They must be clearly on display for someone else to observe.
We don’t need messages like this. They serve only to show queer women that their sexuality isn’t excepted from existing for heterosexual men—in fact, it’s even more sexualized and objectified. What we do need are pictures like this one:
The two mothers in this ad are relating directly to each other. They are touching, but affectionately, not sexually. One of them is looking out to the camera, yes, but it is more to show her pride at her family than to present herself as an object. Both women are fully dressed and, most importantly, they are being shown in a context outside of sex. This ad acknowledges that queer women are partners, families, and mothers—not just objects for the desire of heterosexual men, and that is a message that is sorely lacking in today’s media and society.
Pictures like this one will promote the idea that queer women, and all women, are real, whole people who deserve to be acknowledged for things other than their sexuality. Pictures like this one are the first step to a safer world, one where queer women won’t be followed down the street, or cat-called, or asked if they need a real man to straighten them out, or correctively raped. Pictures like this show queer women as they really are, and that will free their loves and their lives from being used as sex objects.