The sexual exploration double standard
Ella Porteous 17 February 2021
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media
Illustration by Armaan Latif
For many people, the three to four years spent at university are key in shaping and developing your identity as you gain more independence and freedom and grow into an adult. It is also a place where many begin to explore their sexuality for the first time. Yet, even in 2021, the sexual exploration double standard is still very much prevalent within society, making coming to terms with your identity even more confusing and daunting.
When it comes to exploring same-sex attraction, men and women both face prejudice and bias in different ways. Men are often automatically assumed to be gay, while women's exploration is often dismissed as ‘harmless fun’; a ‘phase’ that will pass. Therein lies the "exploring your sexuality" double standard: predicated upon the patriarchal notion that a man's feelings and desires are more valid and serious than a woman's, it's a damaging rule that deters many from openly experimenting.
The double standard exposes the fact that women’s sexuality isn’t taken seriously. Many think that women who explore their sexuality, particularly in a public setting, are only doing it for attention, or to appeal to men. This can be seen within popular media which continues to sexualise women's sexual explorations with other women. However, WLW (meaning woman-loving-woman, the umbrella term for lesbian, bisexual and pansexual women) on-screen relationships have drastically improved over the last few years thanks to TV shows such as Feel Good (2020), Trinkets (2019), The Bold Type (2017), The L Word: Generation Q (2019), and even The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020), that normalise women exploring their sexuality in non-sexualised, and some even in non-labelled ways. Yet, these representations are in the minority, and WLW relationships are continually sexualised by the media.
Accepting a sexual identity and fetishising it are two completely different things, something that the media often forgets. This fetishisation is extremely damaging and feeds directly into the stereotype that women who are attracted to other women only engage in sex acts to please the male gaze. The mainstream porn industry can also be seen as a key instigator of this, as it continues to promote WLW sexuality purely from a male perspective by depicting unrealistic sex acts that more often than not completely omit women’s pleasure. Lesbians and WLW will be no stranger to the infuriating phrases, “I bet I can change that” or “you just haven’t found the right guy yet”, made by men at bars and clubs.
Toxic masculinity relies on the idea that men should strong, emotionless, protectors and allurers of women. This deters many men from exploring their sexuality, who in turn feel the need to hide their same-sex attraction from other men to conform to male gender expectations. Toxic masculinity is plagued by the notion that heterosexuality is the default - deeming it unacceptable for men to explore their sexuality and determining that their confusion is a sign of weakness. This is why the stereotype that men who experiment with other men are in denial of being gay prevails. Exploring your sexuality as a straight man is not permissible in a heteronormative culture: hooking up with a guy is not seen as exploration, but as definitive proof you’re gay. And who would want to be wrongly labelled as gay when ‘gay’ is still used as an insult? Thus, men’s sexual adventures are to be kept in the closet, and women’s must be broadcast for the pleasure of lesbian-fetishists.
Exploring your sexuality is normal and natural, regardless of your gender identity. Although coming to terms with your sexuality can be an incredibly confusing journey, you should be able to explore your identity away from social expectations and sexist notions dictating how you should act. Sexuality is extremely complicated and on a wide spectrum, and it doesn't need to be further complicated by harmful and alienating double standards.
There is no pressure to label yourself: you don’t have to "commit" to a sexuality, nor should you have sexual labels forced upon you. Men, women and non-binary people should feel safe to explore their sexuality at university; the perfect place to un-learn harmful prejudices that force labels upon men and invalidate women's sexuality. Women's sexual explorations are more than a spectacle for men, and men are more than their sexual explorations.