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  • Matthew Vesely

We Need to Talk About Sexualizing vs Fetishizing

Sex is great. (To me)

Everyone can have their own opinion on sex. Whether it absolutely appalls them, or half their personality is identifying as a “slut” (whether they actually have sex or not). However, sex in of itself can be beautiful. It’s a part of the human experience—whether you participate in it or not. It’s a human thing that humans can do, and for some humans it’s an important part of their lives. The following writing comes from a person who sees sex in this way.

Because we’re going to talk about sexualizing vs. fetishizing. I’d like to define both in my way, as an author…

SEXUALIZING is depicting the sexual aspects of a character or person, emphasizing what is erotic about them, and letting them play with/in the pleasure that sex can bring.

FETISHIZING is constraining a character to only a sexual context, limiting them from the full assortment of human experiences or characteristics.

See the difference?

Me, giving the 4-1-1.
Enrolling in Clown College

The issue of confusing these two definitions comes when people throw an accusation of fetishizing at a character who is being sexualized. For the sake of this conversation, let’s pretend I am a character written by an author—let’s look at it from my new perspective.

I’m a gay man written by a gay man. I’m the protagonist of a book about moving to New York to pursue my dream of being a professional clown. There, I’m written to meet a boy at clown school. We inevitably end up in a romance. We fall in love. Sound familiar? (Okay, maybe not the clown part, but the story in general.)

Me, a clown.

Pursuing your passion is a common human experience—as is making a big move, falling for a classmate, going on dates, and falling in love. None of these would make you bat an eye. But the moment the author writes a sex scene, oh this is smut!

In this theoretical sex scene (squeaking clown noses may or may not be involved) I, as the character, am sexualized. There’s no arguing this. The author is choosing to emphasize the erotic and let me play in the pleasures. But let’s take this a step further; say the author decides to write a separate, NSFW scene for their Patreon members the explicitly details this sex scene. The author may write about sexual acts that I, as the character, am doing. And I think there’s nothing wrong with this. As a fully fleshed-out character who’s pursuing my dreams of becoming America’s next clown superstar, I’m also allowed to have sex. Why should writing be any different?

And choosing to further sexualize me, as the character, in a NSFW scene is also okay (in most cases, further discussed below) as eroticism is a human part of many lives. Especially considering the author does not shove this in the faces of an unwilling audience—holding it only for their inner community—there is nothing wrong with this.

Does The Author Matter?

I mentioned previously that I was a gay man written by a gay man. But does that matter at all? In this case, can a gay male author fetishize his gay male characters? Um, kind of? Maybe? Depends.

One should be able to choose how, where, and if they want to sexualize themselves. This also extends to own-voices characters. Own voices refers to an author writing from their own experience. And it’s this experience that gives authors a bit more freedom to tell stories that are close to them. They know all the subtle details that another, less experienced author might miss trying to write the same story. If a gay man who loves sex wants to write about a gay man who loves sex, so be it.

Me, letting my characters have sexual sides.

Sex in itself is complex. It results from (and in) a slate of different emotions—both known and unknown in the moment. There are so many layers to why and how we have sex, and for gay men it’s even more frequently a love language that’s too often considered taboo.

This to say, sure, technically a gay man can fetishize himself. But 9/10 times I’ve seen a gay man sexualize his own community in stories or art, it’s to explore these connections, and the sex is only a part of the human story that these characters are living in. Just because they’re gay and refusing to restrict sex as a taboo topic, doesn’t mean it’s fetishizing.

What if it was a cis-het woman? Great question. First, do not jump to conclusions. It’s far too common for people to assume sexuality and also assume intentions, especially from women. Instead, take a look at the work itself. Is the story building characters with a full persona and arch that also features sex? I would judge this the same way I judge a gay male author. If it’s respectful and realistic, great. If it’s not (looking at Seaside Strangers) then I’d put it down and say “this is not for me.”

My biggest yellow flag with sexualized content that makes me say “you’ve never talked to a gay man about this” is a story where they mention douching. But only when they talk about it and the other person says, “Can I watch next time?” THAT IS NOT A THING, OMG. Please. Stop. Immediately.

Separately, I do believe that people in a certain community have the most privilege when it comes to writing their own sex. When you’re making art that is a reflection of yourself, it’s more often something that’s revealing (pun intended). It’s very difficult to fetishize yourself. As I said, sex is a lot of things: rebellious, comforting, exciting, connecting, and—I’ll say it again—beautiful.

Sexualizing Fictional Characters

What’s funny is we’re talking about fictional characters. The guy who goes to clown school isn’t real, so what does it matter if he’s sexualized?

But here’s the thing. Fiction imitates life. And life imitates fiction. Both of these are true. So it matters how people are portrayed, and in what context. As a gay man who loves sex, I wouldn’t want that to be my only personality trait. When I see myself in art, I want to see all of myself, as you would want to see all of yourself.

Sometimes it means I want to see myself naked. (Not literally.)

Me, whenever I feel like it.

But what about my OWN characters? Do I have the right, as an author, to write my characters however I want to? Can I write whatever sex I want in whatever story I want and expect the world to just deal with it?

Well, technically…I guess.

But that’s not very real, is it? My authorial code compels me to treat my characters as I would any person. They are my peers in the writing process. There is always erotica, and that’s a place where the expectation is sexualization bordering on fetishizing. The genre expectation is, if you’re reading erotica, you’re looking for erotic content. In the world of more commercial fiction, where I tend to write, the expectation I hold for myself is aligned to the concept I’ve been hammering in above. Does the story depict a whole person? That being said, I can show the sexualized side of my characters. Especially if I hold shared experiences with them, I reserve the right to sexualize my characters—under the condition that I depict the whole person, too.

What SHOULD Be Damned?

There are pretty clear lines that should not be crossed (for good reason) real or fictional: underaged anything, grooming, sexual assault, etc... There is no acceptable sexualization within those realms. Those topics—being inherently sexual—can be discussed though. They should be placed out in the open as continual discussion points to make sure we continue to be on the same page here, but nothing glorifying these things. The only erotic depiction of these is in fetishizing, and that is a dangerous territory that writers and artists should avoid.

Sex is beautiful, but the boundaries are to be well respected.

Me, to any of the above.
Can You Enjoy Art BECAUSE It’s Sexual?

Some of my favorite scenes in books are sexual scenes. Some of my favorite artists are erotic artists. And I enjoy these pieces for their sexualizations.

Sex (in of itself) is good. We can enjoy good things. In our time of continued sexual liberation, we can enjoy sex, and we can enjoy depictions of sex in our art. It’s human. I think there’s still a taboo around sexualized art because there is still this societal taboo around sex itself.

But we should be so far beyond this.

We are not in an age where we can send erotic art to our homies. And this is fair. Sex is also approached differently by everyone, so we should never throw it in anyone’s face. But we shouldn’t be ashamed of reading a comic that depicts a sex scene. We should be proud that this comic depicts a queer experience and doesn’t shy away from the taboo. And for someone who doesn’t like sex, they don’t have to consume that media.

Me, enjoying sexualized art.
Sex is Good

It can be bad. It can be dangerous. It all depends on the person. But sex, in itself, should not be hidden in taboo pages that we shame for “sexualizing." Sexualizing is not bad, it’s human. Fetishizing can be problematic, and we should probably avoid it in most instances. But you can enjoy the sex, and you can enjoy the sexual side of your favorite art.

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