Being Sexual vs Looking Sexual

Is “beauty” really sex? Does a woman’s sexuality correspond to what she looks like? Does she have the right to sexual pleasure and self-esteem because she’s a person, or must she earn that right through “beauty”?

-           Naomi Wolf

A lot of women and men confuse looking sexual with being sexual. We look at an attractive woman and think, oh, she’s really sexual. Then we see a not-so-pretty woman and suppose she’s not.

But “pretty” and “sexuality” are actually two different things. Sex is all about feeling, not the surface experience of just existing, however beautifully.

But as Naomi Wolf points out in The Beauty Myth, too many women don’t enjoy sex because they think they don’t look sexy enough. And since a lot of women think they don’t look sexy because of their body type, age, or low self-esteem, a lot of women miss out on great sex.

Because a woman’s ability to enjoy sexuality can be so closely tied to how she looks, many cut their breasts to get implants just so that they can experience eroticism. Even when their partners don’t want them to. As Wolf put it, “In a diseased environment, they are doing this ‘for themselves.’”

And about one-third of women lose sensitivity in their nipples, post surgery, becoming less capable of enjoying the sensations of the breast.

And even then a lot of “hot” women spend their time thinking about how they look and not experiencing how they feel. So there you have pretty sex objects who don’t enjoy sex.

Women think they need to look a certain way because men are hardwired to be visual. Yet it’s not true. In tribal societies women walk around nearly nude, and no one cares. Those men aren’t visually attuned to the breast as erotic. In our culture men learn to be aroused by breasts through the strategic revealing and covering of them, creating the allure.

Wolf says beauty is not the same as sexuality. Instead:

Wherever we feel pleasure, all women have “good” bodies. We do not have to spend money and go hungry and struggle and study to become sensual; we always were. We need not believe we must somehow earn good erotic care; we always deserved it.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych, women's psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State University. And I have blogged for Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos.

Posted on November 18, 2011, in body image, feminism, gender, psychology, sex, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. Thank you for this simple reminder.

    It’s so easy to let our recorded sayings get in the way of thinking clearly. If I can just remind myself to quit worrying about how I look, I’d enjoy myself more.

  2. I think that sexuality is often confused with attractiveness. Most people would agree that beautiful people are attractive. We are wired us to be attracted to symmetrical features and a certain body builds that are supposedly signs for health and therefore increase the likelihood of having healthily offspring. However – with all due respect to the evolutionary perspective, sexuality is not all about transferring genes to the next generation, and being attractive does not necessarily go hand in hand with being sexual. A person can be stunningly gorgeous and a sex object for fantasies, but that doesn’t guarantee that being sexy. There are beautiful women and handsome men who exude a cold and detached attitude, which to many is quite the opposite of sexy. On the other hand, there are many people who are far from the ideal of beauty, and are very sexy.

    Sexuality is the capacity for erotic experiences and responses, and that has little to do with appearance. It’s more about peronslaity, behavior and an overall inner energy. While there are some universal norms for beauty, sexuality is much more subjective – mostly because it has a lot to do with the connection between two people: a person who is sexually irresistible to some may leave many others completely indifferent.

    As for the quest for perfection that causes men and women to go for plastic surgeries, a major part of sexuality is being able to forget everything and be one with the moment. That means letting go and allowing yourself the freedom to be who you are. This doesn’t quite go with being obsessed with one’s looks. Being overly self-aware leads to discomfort and apprehension, which might improve performance in some domains – but not when it comes to sex, where such anxiety can curb passion and kill any chance of enjoyment.

    I actually don’t think that the trap of “only the beautiful are sexy” is set for women only. Many men also fall into it, mistakenly linking their body image with their sexuality and desirability. This is yet another area in which both sexes manage to complicate life and put barriers in the way to being happy.

  3. I fully agree with the idea that beauty does not correlate or equal sexuality. A person’s looks does not have much to do with their sex drive and sexual desires, but rather the type of person who is attracted to them. A person who may be not good looking to one person, can be seen as beautiful by another. As they say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I also want to thank Sophia Grace for reminding me to be thankful about the reminder this article gives me and all women alike. I too think that it is necessary to forget about looks and remember to just experience how you feel in the moment. If I am always worried about my looks, or if I put on an outfit that is culturally considered “sexy”; most of the time I am so uncomfortable in that outfit that sexy is the last thing I feel.

  4. It’s like when people assume “well you look healthy then you must be healthy.” Just because someone may be born beautiful does not mean thay feel beautiful or sexy and beauty is variable. And I agree sexuality is about feeling and feeling can not bee seen on the outside. The way we feel about ourselves may determine how we present ourselves to the outside world, but appearance definately does not determine how sexual a person is. I have known women who like to dress very sexy and revealing yet are not very sexual people. And I have known women who dress very conservative and show almost no skin, but who are very sexual. This is yet another case of how people assume that if something looks a certain way then it must be a certain way.

  5. I love this topic, and have been able to experience both sides of this. I remember when we were talking about women focusing on how they look during sex, thus not really being able to enjoy or experience it. When we were talking about consentual s&m – I wanted to bring that up again, if you are throwing other things into the mix during sex it becomes a lot more difficult to focus just on how you look. You become overloaded with all these other sensations and not just giving in to what you are feeling becomes nearly impossible. I wanted to present this as an option for why people may enjoy it, or why it may be beneficial.

    That being said I find that for me the problem is not so much in worrying about how I look during sex, but most of the rest of the time that makes it difficult for me to enjoy being sexual or having positive experiences with men. I worry so much about how I look when I go out and know I may be seeing a man I’m interested in that I find myself distracted during conversation, and generally a nervous wreck.

    It’s good to point out the fact that just because a woman may look sexual doesn’t mean she feels or is that way. I know I do way too much in the way of judging books by their covers, and this is a nice reminder to have.

  6. Here’s a quote from a song from a rapper named Wiz Khalifa that i like. ” Girls fall in love with what they hear . Boys fall in love with what they see . That’s why girls wear make up & boys lie .” This blog reminded of this quote because i see this alot in my age group. Us girls know that guys like us to look nice so we dress to impress. Guys know some girls are sensative and some guys just tell us what we want to hear. I think its pretty true that women want to look good for their men while they have sex so they concentrate on it rather than concentrating on how they feel and how their partner feels. I also think that the media plays a small part in it because in some porn the girls are really pretty and maybe we want to feel like that too.

    • I also think that men are mainly attracted to breat because that really the only revealing part we can show on a women in television and most tv movies. So teen boys growing up see that and are stuck on big ” perfect ” perky breast. When in reality, most women dont have ” perfect ” breast. I know a few people that i went to school with that spent their financial aid money on boob jobs. So their pretty much walking around school with nice boobs and no books.

  7. I Disgree with this blog only because its only half way accurate in my opinion. The part where it said that women look good for sex but dont enjoy it confuses me, yes its obvious women try to look good when theyre having or going to have sex because they feel like it keeps the man interested, but who’s to say women cant or dont enjoy it? another part i also did agree with though was the “allure”. That makes a lot of sense. I believe men rather see women in little lingerie rather than fully naked, due to the tease.

    • Ok, but I didn’t say that no women who look sexy enjoy sex, I said “A LOT of “hot” women spend their time thinking about how they look and not about how they feel.” Which research has discovered. When researchers ask women how they enjoyed sex and may say things like, “I liked it. I looked good.” But not talk about how sex FELT great. They’re too distracted thinking about how they look. Then they’ll talk about how they felt they looked in different positions. They’re clearly enjoying themselves, and how great they look, but they’re not enjoying sex.

      And “a lot” of women is not the same as “all women.” Check out this piece for further discussion: http://broadblogs.com/2011/03/02/sex-objects-who-don%e2%80%99t-enjoy-sex/

      Thank you for your perspective.

  8. I agree with Kelley in the sense that I only partially agree to this blog. One of my friends is an attractive female, who gets “oogled” by guys all the time, and people often assume that since she’s pretty, she’s hooked up with a lot of guys, when in fact, she’s only had sex with one guy and that was like 4 years ago. Just because she could easily get a guy, she focuses more on the relationship and connection she has with that person, and doesn’t just put out for anyone. I don’t see anything wrong with men being attracted to breasts in our culture, because one, men don’t have breast, and two, us women don’t have them hanging out all the time to the public, and I think guys enjoy the fact that only they get to see the woman’s body when they’re having their moment.

    • Thanks for your comment but being a sexual human being is not the same thing as hooking up with everyone. She could be monogamous, but very sexually expressive in her monogamy. She may not be having sex at all, but would be assumed to be good in bed IF SHE WERE HAVING SEX because she looks like she would be.

      And no one said there’s anything wrong with men finding breasts attractive (check out next Wednesday’s post, which is already cued up). But a lot of women are insecure about their breasts, worried they’re too small, too flabby, don’t like the shape, or whatever. And while I focused some comments on breats, the point goes beyond that to women’s worries about any so-called imperfections they may have.

      The point is, if they’re enjoying sex, they are beautiful and have great bodies. Some day when you’re older you may appreciate this point more.

  9. From a male perspective, I’ve always differentiated between a beautiful woman, and a sexual one. To me, beauty is physical appearance (as stated in the article), while sexual is the physical side of a female. Personally, I have a few female friends who are beautiful and sexual, while at the same time, I also have friends who are beautiful and not sexual. I believe it all comes down to how highly an individual values sex with a male. Some of my female friends are able to see it as something to give them pleasure, while others see it as something they don’t want to give up so easily. They prefer having sex to a person they know will stick around and that they would be interested in, in the long run. Also, being a male, I think I lean more towards the morale side where I would have sex with a girl that is worth it.

  10. This is a great article because this is a real issue in today’s world. Women are constantly sexualized in media, through commercials, magazine ads, movies, and pornography. This sexualization of women, especially from pornography, causes women to believe that in order to turn on a man they must have large breasts and thin figures accompanied by skimpy lingerie. When in reality each woman is beautiful in her own way and each woman as her won attributes which make her sexually desirable. It is a common misconception that women need to look desirable to be desirable sexually to men and society is not doing a great job of derailing this idea through social media.

  11. I definitely think this article has some good points. I feel like if you’re entering a physical phase of a relationship, it’s normal to feel nervous about your body. However, I think after a certain point you just become comfortable with your body and with your partners, so looks no longer matters and it should be more about enjoying the experience together than thinking about how you look. I feel like women get this reputation of being insecure with their bodies, and although I do think it’s valid and some women feel this way, I think there is also a good number of women who are confident with themselves and their bodies. If you want someone else to find you attractive, it helps to believe that you are as well. I wish there was a way to reinforce that women are beautiful without surgery but as it’s been written by others commenting, society and media make it tough to get this point across.

  12. Personally, I think the most sexy and beautiful women are the one’s that save the erotic, sexy and sexual behaviors for the bedroom. A woman that hold’s herself with respect is sexy and also mysterious all at the same time. For example, there’s not much left to surprise in the bedroom when a women is always letting all she has hang out or she is constantly displaying her body but a woman who dress’s less revealing and holds herself with some respect, leaves many surprises in the bedroom and still can be considered sexy or sexual. When you hold back on how much “sexy” you want to reveal on a daily basis it leaves a lot of sexy and privacy for the bedroom and that’s EXTREMELY SEXY, if that makes sense.

  13. Another problem with the sort of standard sexualization of women by the mass media is the incredible variation in what people find erotic. If all women believe that acting, dressing, moving, talking a certain mass-marketed way is “sexy” they won’t appeal as much to anyone that *doesn’t* find that sort of thing attractive, even when they want to.

    To make matters worse, the standard that has become common over the last thirty years or so is both incredibly unhealthy and, with the advent of digital photo manipulation, often not physically possible. Not to mention, IMHO, pretty unappealing. The whole “famine victim” appearance isn’t sexy, it just prompts an almost irrational urge to try to feed the poor girl.

    • I do agree. Working closely with women as I do, when I see ribs and shoulder blades from across the room, or the dead-looking women on runways and advertisements, I find it disturbing and sad that this is considered attractive.

  14. I agree with this article. Too often looks and feelings are seen as the same. For example a girl who gets dolled up all the time may been seen as “dressing sexy” and trying to get attention from guys and looking for sex, when its really just because she likes clothes and make up, and she could very well be a virgin waiting to have sex after marriage. But because she is pretty and dressed “sexy” in some peoples eyes this means she wants to have sex.

    On the other hand its true that wanting to have sex or enjoying it can be affected depending on how the women sees herself. If she feels ugly she may be too consumed with that to enjoy herself.

    Looking sexy or pretty and being sexual are very different things but sometimes how a person looks can effect their sexuality. Just because you look sexy doesn’t mean you are sexual.

  15. Many years ago, I ran an agency for artists’ models and, at this point, I would like to dispel some stereotypes.

    The clients were college art classes, classes at the local art club and cultural center, and independent groups. None of the models were promiscuous or exhibitionistic. The group included struggling artists, a dancer, a body builder, a couple of moms looking for work with flexible hours, and other just plain folks. Most of them listened to the lectures, walked around looking at the work, and generally enjoyed being part of the artistic process.

    None of my models were beautiful in the usual sense – no Barbies, no Kens. One of the older males had a lovely white beard and worked as a department store Santa during the holidays.

    Three of the women stand out in my mind. One was a dancer almost 6 feet tall and maybe 100 pounds; one was a mom 5 feet tall and 200 pounds; and one was 5’5” and 140 pounds with scars on her face. Their common attribute? They were all very sexy.

    They didn’t dress seductively or behave flirtatiously. They simply loved themselves, carried themselves with pride, and knew they were sexy.

    If you’ve got it, you don’t have to flaunt it.

  16. I have worked in exotic dancing and am transitioning out of the business. One of the reasons is the stark contrast between “being sexual” and “looking sexual”. What constitutes a “sexual” look is subject to whim and change. Lately, I have had less fun in the business because my healthy, sexual body and build apparently does not conform to what customers see as “sexy”. While I am there, I no longer feel as sexual because my income is tied to how closely (or not) I conform to the current “sexual” image. While on stage, I am also conscious of being compared to other dancers and begin to do that myself. When I am at home with my partner, I don’t have to worry about being judged or the consequences thereof. Fussing over looks kills any good mood or feeling. To me, being sexual involves the needs and feelings of my partner and I, and what feels good.

  17. Men do look at hot women and think that they are very sexual. I blame this on the fact that men fantasize about sexy women and wrap their heads around them. Men don’t realize that a woman doesn’t need to be extra gorgeous to be sexual. A woman who is noticeably sexual is a woman who flirts, a woman who is most likely confident about herself and lets her sexual feelings flow. Unfortunately not all women are the same and many women out there are insecure and focus more on how they look and how guys look at them, and end up missing the fun stuff. Everyone might want to change a few things about themselves, but if they’d overcome their insecurities they would most likely become more sexual.

  18. I feel too many women in our society now-a-days put lots of effort into looking good whether it is taking hours to straighten their hair and applying loads of make-up, or going to the extremity of, like the article mentioned, having breast implants; they do all this for men, and I, from personal experience, feel like it is not appreciated. Men have no clue how long it takes for a woman to get ready. I have never gotten implants, but whenever I do get ready to go out with my boyfriend, it takes me about 2.5-3 hours to get “pretty” and I expect to get a compliment or for my boyfriend to tell me something about the way I look, but I only get that about half the time. I feel unappreciated at times, and I’m sure that’s how other women may feel at times too.

    • I appreciate what you’re saying Ruby but 2.5-3 hours? Honestly, why do you bother? If he can’t accept you without all that makeup, how much does he really appreciate you? I honestly would not mind if my girlfriend did not wear makeup at all, I generally take it or leave it.

      I think fussing too much about how you look is a total turn off…it’s not surprise the most sexual women I know aren’t exactly the head-turning types. In fact, they could easily blend into a crowd. It’s more the attitude they exude – a liberation – which I notice. They are not insecure or neurotic about sex.

      Being sexual and being seen as ‘sexy’ are two separate things, although you can be both. Funnily enough, I sometimes think that very beautiful women may be LESS sexually uninhibited because they are more concerned about their appearance – of course this too is a generalisation, but it’s just a feeling I get. I also think that if I ‘aim too high’ I might be disappointed, if you know what I mean.

  19. It sickens me on the culture and time I am growing up. Everywhere I go i see everything that has some sort of sexual appeal. Media outlets have basically naked girls in movies and music videos. I’m a guy, but I really don’t like the idea of women being used as a sex object. It actually turns me off more that they act that way. Our culture is teaching both men and women to take care of their looks because that what all people care about. Its completely untrue and I wish people took the time to evaluate themselves as a person instead of caring about what they look in the mirror.

  20. I found this article interesting and agree that one of the main reasons society thinks an attractive person is more sexual is because emphasis is being placed on LOOKING good which in turn means your more hot and sexual compared to someone who doesn’t focus as much time on the outer appearance but knows oneself well is going to be more sexual because they are more focused on their inner-being which is something that is close to the feeling of sexuality. Of course sexuality when you look at it in over range of ages differs greater….the younger you are the more conscious you are of the physical aspect rather than the internal one. So, you focus more on the aspect of looking attractive rather than feeling attractive. The older one gets the more comfortable they are with ones body and how their body reacts and feels. Sensuality comes from within its not something you can force or display falsely. As to the getting implants, its sad that women are so overcome by looking a certain way due to what media portrays that they’ve lost of the beauty of creation. You wouldn’t want to alter how your children look so why would you want to change the way you yourself look?? It’s just sad, really….Women should be empowered and feel good just the way they are an not have to change how they look due to distorted ideas.

  21. There is a huge difference between being sexual and looking sexual. Being sexual is more of the intimacy level, and involves more physicality than looking sexual. When you look sexual however, I think it causes people to desire you more. Looking sexual has a level of mystery and wow-factor. It leaves people wondering what she may really be like or how she may really act. It may also cause people to even question how she is in bed. Or leave them to imagine things for themselves. As saying, she would be totally amazing in bed. Being sexual is knowing a girl can be very erotic and provacative. It also may be frowned upon where others may look at the individual as a “slut” or “hoe”. This is how I feel on the differences of the two meanings. Culture itself is also encouraging the level of sexual behavior.

  22. The difference between Being Sexual and Looking Sexual is very different. Being sexual is more or less an action or a reaction based on someones action. How someone makes you feel, more on a intimate level, being able to act and be certain way around a specific person. Looking sexual, or being pretty is part of our culture as well as our mating instincts, and what we are personally attracted too. People believe they are ugly on their own terms and what they believe beauty is, and what people are attracted to. Lack of Self Confidence and Low Self – Esteem come from a belief in that negativity and falling into the pressure to look and feel a certain way, rather that accepting who you are as a person and being content with that person physically mentally and emotionally and realizing that is who you are and theres no one else like you in the world. Being sexual is something someone is willing to share with someone special, looking sexual is apart of the human mating instinct and the culture you were brought up and raised in.

  23. I agree with Naomi Wolf and her concept of the Beauty Myth. I believe that that we live in a hyper-sexual society that uses sex to sale products and ideas. Our society even encourages the use of sex to gain power. These ideas have caused great insecurities in women and even men. There are late night infomercials telling men they need to last longer in bed, and every form of media telling women how to get a man, attract a man and keep a man. Rarely are we encouraged to love who we are, to develop a bond with our romantic partners, or even asked what our sexual desires are.

    There is an overwhelming idea that being attractive means being sexual. What about young girls who develop breast sooner? They are constantly looked at and even approached by men — just because she has breasts. Does having large breasts, a round bottom, attractive smile, or curvaceous body give others permission to look at you as a lustful toy?

    I agree that these patterns do cause low self-esteem and makes it even more challenging for women to have pleasurable sexual experiences.

  24. I agree that being sexual and looking sexual are two different things. People should never judge a book by its cover because if someone looks sexual by the way they dress or act does not mean that they are. Some women may like to show off certain body parts by the way they dress but may not be interested in actually having sex or be very sexual. While other women who do not look sexual may be a very sexual and depending on that person they may only be like that in relationships or with anyone they hook up with. Also some women who do look sexual may be sexual so you can’t really judge a way a person may act by the way the dress because they are two completely different things. In addition I agree that women who are not confident or are self conscious about themselves in anyway may be missing out on great sex because they are distracted. They are thinking about whether or not the other person is judging them in any negative way instead of enjoying the time and pleasure with their partner.

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