There’s a tweet doing the rounds at the moment about the experience of loving a book but not remembering a single thing about it. As relatable content goes, it was absolutely on the money for me. I can confidently declare that I loved reading something and have no recollection of the plot or anyone’s names. It happens with nonfiction, too – I won’t be able to recall most details or even broad strokes about something I enjoyed. But that’s with a few notable exceptions. I know how I understood the world before reading Julia Serano’s first nonfiction book, Whipping Girl, in 2014 and I distinctly remember feeling like I saw and understood it better afterwards. Reading the cult nonfiction book about transmisogyny, the ways that gender, gender expression and sex are intertwined but not bound to each other, and the scapegoating of femininity felt like scales falling from my eyes. Before Instagram-friendly slideshows and viral TikToks it showed me how the experiences of cis women and trans women intersect, how our understanding of gender is influenced and why femininity is demonised by the world around us. It’s informed my feminism and my thinking ever since.
I had the same experience reading Julia’s latest book, Sexed Up: How Society Sexualizes Us & How We Can Fight Back, which is released in the UK next week. In it she breaks down what 'sexualisation' means and why it matters. Going in I felt foggy about the definition but as I read I was shown mindsets that helped me to make sense of why certain men feel that women hold all the cards when it comes to sex, introduced to ways of thinking that resolved the tensions between sex-positive and sex-negative feminism, and finally got to grips with why describing certain things as a 'fetish' rings false to me.
The most impactful takeaway for me was Julia's argument that the way in which men and women interact on an intimate level is inherently shaped by sexualisation, which takes the form of the predator/prey mindset.
"The predator/prey mindset separates people," Julia tells me over video call, "so you're either the sexual subject [predator] whose desires are being fulfilled or you're the sexual object [prey], the object of the other person's desires. And that's bad on both sides." This divide falls loosely down gendered lines, with people who are masculinised as predator and femininised as prey, but it also gets complicated by other stereotypes that affect other marginalisations.
On the one hand, this encourages nonconsensual objectification and even sexual harassment of the feminised sexual subjects, a rampant problem that feminism has been fighting for decades. On the other, it doesn’t create room for straight cis men to feel or understand what it’s like to be the object of desire. Julia argues that this has consequences for all of us.
"Not only are straight men not allowed to feel like they're an object of desire but not understanding some of the negative consequences that can happen in our culture because of that also leads them to not fully understand our bad experiences with it."
Boys and men are socialised to fear being seen as an object of desire because that’s a feminine – and therefore degrading – role. To be the object of another man’s desire – and therefore queer – is even more stigmatised. This alienates men from women’s experiences or perspectives. As Julia puts it: "I think people who were socialised male often develop this mystified attitude towards women. And at the same time, they don't personally experience the sexualisation that women experience and so they have trouble relating to that."
With this framework you can begin to understand, for example, why certain men in the anti-feminist incel or MGTOW (men going their own way) movements believe that women hold all the cards when it comes to sex. If you’ve never experienced being the object of someone’s desire without consent, and you’ve been actively discouraged from associating with anything feminine and therefore not learning about female perspectives, the fact that women 'can have sex whenever they want' can seem like a form of power.
If you've never experienced being the object of someone's desire without consent, and you've been actively discouraged from associating with anything feminine and therefore not learning about female perspectives, the fact that women 'can have sex whenever they want' can seem like a form of power.
Understanding what sexualisation means in itself was also a revelation.
"The definition that I settled on for the book," says Julia, is that sexualisation happens "when a person is reduced nonconsensually to their sexual attributes (meaning their sexual body, behaviours and desires) to the exclusion of other characteristics. In other words, rather than seen as a whole person who's complex and has autonomy, they're reduced to a sexual being."
Examples are built into our daily lives. They include hypersexualising people based on derogatory stereotypes, desexualising people who are considered 'undesirable', sexualising people based on their appearance, or any combination of the above. Say a man hits on you and you’re uninterested and so you gently reject him. If he lashes back with "Fuck you, you’re ugly and I didn’t want you anyway", each part of that interaction is a different kind of sexualisation.
"The effect of that in our culture is that it tends to delegitimise or degrade people in the eyes of others," Julia explains. The burden falls the most on the shoulders of marginalised people, which is why it’s important for us to understand what it looks like, why it happens and, crucially, how to fight against it.
This is no small task. Even the fact that the book talks about different terminology and mindsets can feel alienating. But part of what I love about Julia’s work is how generous and accessible her writing is. She doesn’t just tell you terms and what they mean, she plots them out in such a way that they click into place in your head without you even noticing. And while this is not a memoir, it is shaped by her personal experience, giving both her and her readers entry points into thinking about being sexualised.
"When I was read as a younger woman, I faced a lot of the forms of sexualisation that women generally do in our culture, such as sexual objectification and street harassment," she explains. At the same time, there were "the experiences I had when people knew that I was a trans woman and would often sexualise me in different or additional ways. Oftentimes they would assume that I was hypersexual or that I was sexually deviant or a potential sexual predator, or they would see me as a fetish object, or they would see me as undesirable and desperate. And a lot of these latter tropes are also experienced by other marginalised groups." Although these different forms of sexualisation have been tackled on their own through different movements, Julia felt that they were deeply interconnected, and it was this connection she wanted to explore.
As a bisexual trans woman speaking publicly about those aspects of her identity, Julia is not unused to her work being derided by anti-trans voices who claim she is pushing an agenda. She pre-empts this in the book, writing that everyone’s opinion on these matters is shaped by their own experiences: "We all have varied personal experiences with sex, gender, and sexuality, so there is no purely objective 'view from nowhere'." What her position does give her, however, is an intimate understanding of how different forms of sexualisation can affect marginalised people. Take, for example, her exploration of fetishisation.
'Fetish' is the term we use to describe sexual desire where gratification is linked 'to an abnormal degree' to a particular object, item of clothing or personal attribute (such as weight, gender identity, etc.). We also use it to describe being generally attracted to people who are seen as illegitimate objects of desire because their body, sexuality or gender is abnormal or 'undesirable'. When we use 'fetish' in both of these ways, we stigmatise all attraction to marginalised people.
In the book and in conversation Julia focuses on this through the lens of transness and 'trans chasers'. She is very careful not to invalidate people who would find others' attraction to their transgender identity uncomfortable, nor those who feel perfectly comfortable dating 'trans chasers'.
Her point is that the ways in which we’re sexualised are shaped by a wider network of stigmas. In this case, it’s that to be attracted to someone who happens to be deemed undesirable by society (because of their size, ability, gender or race) means there is something wrong with you. As a result we confuse genuine desire with objectification and even sexual harassment.
"I think that's what a lot of the problem is," Julia explains. "When people critique chasers and fetishists, a lot of what they're critiquing is the objectification, the reducing you to being a sexual being that is very similar to what some cisgender men do to cisgender women. And I think it's better to view it from that perspective."
These are just two of the mindsets that Julia explores in the book and recognising how they play out can help us to understand the overarching framework that stigmatises sex, exacerbates hurtful and dangerous stereotypes of marginalised people and shapes how we understand each other on a fundamental level. Crucially, moving beyond these mindsets requires everyone, even the most privileged within the framework, to recognise them and reject them.
The moment you start to look for these patterns (from seeing abnormal but consensual sex as disgusting to assuming that only women should be desired), the more you see them everywhere. But in recognising them you can reject them, opening the door to a view of sex and sexualisation that is neither wholly positive or negative but joyfully complicated, consensual, personal and ambivalent.