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 afterward. Reading the cult nonfiction book about transmisogyny — about 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 demonized by the world around us. It’s informed my feminism and my thinking ever since.
I had the same experience reading Serano’s latest book, Sexed Up: How Society Sexualizes Us & How We Can Fight Back. In it, she breaks down what "sexualization" 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. I was introduced to ways of thinking that resolved the tensions between sex-positive and sex-negative feminism and I finally came to grips with why describing certain things as a "fetish" rings false to me.
The most impactful takeaway for me was Serano's argument that the way in which men and women interact on an intimate level is inherently shaped by sexualization, which takes the form of the predator/prey mindset.
"The predator/prey mindset separates people," Serano tells me via 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 masculinized as the predators and those who are femininized as prey — but it also gets complicated by other stereotypes that affect other marginalizations.
On the one hand, this encourages nonconsensual objectification and even sexual harassment of the feminized 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. Serano 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," Serano says.
Boys and men are socialized 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 or to be queer is even more stigmatized. This alienates men from women’s experiences or perspectives. As Serano puts it: "I think people who were socialized male often develop this mystified attitude towards women. And at the same time, they don't personally experience the sexualization 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 sexualization means in itself was also a revelation.
"The definition that I settled on for the book," Serano says, is that sexualization happens "when a person is reduced nonconsensually to their sexual attributes (meaning their sexual body, behaviors, 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 hyper-sexualizing people based on derogatory stereotypes, desexualizing people who are considered "undesirable," sexualizing 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 sexualization.
"The effect of that in our culture is that it tends to delegitimize or degrade people in the eyes of others," Serano explains. The burden falls the most on the shoulders of marginalized 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 Serano’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's shaped by her personal experience, giving both her and her readers entry points into thinking about being sexualized.
"When I was read as a younger woman, I faced a lot of the forms of sexualization 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 sexualize 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 marginalized groups." Although these different forms of sexualization have been tackled on their own through different movements, Serano 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, Serano 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 sexualization can affect marginalized people. Take, for example, her exploration of fetishization.
"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 stigmatize all attraction to marginalized people.
In the book and in conversation, Serano 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 sexualized 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," Serano 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 Serano explores in the book and recognizing how they play out can help us to understand the overarching framework that stigmatizes sex, exacerbates hurtful and dangerous stereotypes of marginalized 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 recognize 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 recognizing them, you can reject them, opening the door to a view of sex and sexualization that is neither wholly positive nor negative, but joyfully complicated, consensual, personal, and ambivalent.