Is Lingerie Actually Sexy?

Photographed by Anna Jay.
When I was in school, I’d walk past the lingerie stores at my local shopping centre and feel a pang of dread looking at the blown-up photos of models in their underwear. This was a future I was allegedly supposed to yearn and strive for — a future filled with frilly thongs and lacy bras that I couldn’t yet fill out, all with the goal of looking and feeling sexy. But even to my preteen self, lingerie fell flat. I wasn’t immune to societal pressure; part of me wanted to look sexy. But I didn’t see wearing intricate underwear as a means to that end. Even as I grew older and had romantic partners of my own, I was wary of wearing vampy, clichéd lingerie, opting to spend my money on more sensible undergarments that I could wear every day. Complicated lingerie made me feel silly rather than seductive.
Logically, I get where lingerie’s sexiness comes from: It’s a (very vanilla) taboo. No one is supposed to see what lies beneath your clothes, after all — lingerie is like a naughty secret being revealed only to those who are given the privilege to see it. But I would argue that intentionally sexy lingerie — the stuff that was flaunted on the Victoria Secret Fashion Show runway year after year — is objectively ridiculous-looking, and uncomfortable to boot.
In our constantly evolving society, I’d assume that donning a lacy, intricate, and itchy-looking set of undergarments in the hopes of getting laid or pleasing a partner would be deemed cringe-worthy, or, for lack of a better word, cheugy. Have you seen garter belts? Don’t all of the extra fabrics and clasps and ties just… get in the way of actual sex? And while it’s true that Victoria Secret is undergoing a long-overdue rebrand, many mainstream lingerie brands still create products that exist in the fantasy world where gender is binary and no one wears above a size 12, succumbing to the stereotypes of “sexy” womanhood.

To me, lingerie feels inherently performative.

And what about the male gaze of it all? You can’t tell me that without capitalism and the patriarchy conditioning us to think we’re supposed to enjoy trapping ourselves in these lacy prisons, anyone would choose to wear the stuff on their own.
But apparently, I was wrong. When I asked friends and Instagram followers what they thought about the undergarments, their responses made it clear that lingerie hasn’t taken that route to irrelevancy quite yet. One responder called lingerie “mad empowering” while another said that lingerie is hot “because it’s for me.” Another said, “it makes me feel confident and hot, even if I’m just wearing it for myself.” My stance on salacious underwear being decidedly unsexy seems to go against the norm. By objective measures, lingerie is a booming business. According to Statista, the lingerie market is on the incline and expected to be valued at $78.66 billion (AUD $107 billion) by 2027.
I even asked Ashley Cobb, sex expert and Lovehoney's sex toy educator, about whether or not she thought lingerie was sexy in the hopes that someone would understand my distaste for the strappy sets, but alas: “I do, actually,” she told me, in answer to my question about whether she wears lingerie just for herself. “I think, for my own personal use, lingerie helps me to feel sexy — not so much with a partner, but it gives me confidence.” Her favourite set is a watercolour babydoll piece that comes with a silk robe. “I like wearing robes when I’m getting in or out of bed or right before I take a shower… It’s really cute and comfortable,” she says. “You can wear it when you’re just walking around the house and when it’s time to be sexy you can take the robe off.”
To me, however, lingerie feels inherently performative. I can’t imagine wearing the stuff for myself, the way Cobb and some of the other people I heard from claimed to. When searching for specific reasons as to why lingerie is deemed sexy, for instance, I came across numerous articles from women’s magazines bearing similar titles: “What Guys Really Think About Lingerie” and “Men Reveal Their Real Thoughts On Lingerie.” While it’s not always said so overtly, whenever I read articles or see advertisements promoting lingerie, it seems to me that the same message is there in subtext: that the point of sexy lingerie is to please others, specifically men — and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Historically, I’m not wrong. While researching and writing her book, Underneath It All: A History Of Women’s Underwear, Amber J. Keysner, PhD found that the male gaze and misogyny was, and still is, the key part in defining women’s beauty standards — and in turn, the creation of lingerie and constricting undergarments to conform to those standards. In fact, she said, "Victoria’s Secret, the guy who founded that, he absolutely intentionally created an experience focused on the male gaze." Middle school me just knew.
None of this means that Cobb’s experience — or the experiences of all the people who told me lingerie did make them feel sexy — are wrong. According to Dr. Keysner, it is possible to wear lingerie and feel sexy doing so without succumbing to our patriarchal society’s norms. She says that wearing lingerie can even be a deeply feminist act — but it’s also complicated, because society is so embedded in racism, white supremacy, sexism, and rape culture. So while many may not bat an eye at donning lacy lingerie, that choice doesn’t exist in a vacuum. “I think this idea of what we claim makes us feel sexy is complicated by the fact that we internalize our patriarchal culture, we internalise the misogyny of our culture — it’s hard not to — and that permeates every choice of our lives, including intimate choices,” she says.
In other words, sometimes what makes us feel sexy is coloured by societal systems we actively work against. But even so, wearing lingerie for oneself can be “a reclamation of something that’s always been put on you,” Dr. Keysner says. “Power is key. We as women — even now — we’re not encouraged or taught or supported in expressing our own sexuality, our own desires, our own passions. That makes it really hard to know what is sexy, if we are not given space or permission to define for ourselves what sexy is because we continue, in intimate situations, to focus on the male gaze.”
Ultimately, then, if someone is able to separate lingerie from the spectre of the male gaze and to enjoy wearing it because they choose to, not because they feel like they have to, I commend them, and I bet they look amazing. Wear your garter belts and your matching sets and your lace teddies or crotchless thongs, if they make you feel confident and sexy.
But I’ll stick to my guns on this one, at least for now. In the words of one Quora commenter, lingerie “is best worn on the floor at the foot of the bed.”
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