What usually comes to mind when you see a selfie of a woman dressed provocatively? You might have thoughts about her face, body or her choice of clothing.  But do you ever think about how, in unashamedly putting her body on display, she is demonstrating sexual freedom?

When we take ownership of our sexuality, we empower ourselves. We show the world we have full control over our choices and feel free to break away from traditional expectations of how women should dress and behave. But in order for you to own your sexuality, it can be helpful to first know what’s standing in your way, and how to go about overcoming it.

Female empowerment vs Judgement

While an empowered woman in this day and age can dress however she wants, her freedom may still have a negative impact on her.

“Women may see their sexuality as empowering, but many men still feel intimidated by sexually-confident women,” says Dr Joel Gwynne from NIE, NTU, who teaches courses on feminism and has published research on gender and popular culture.

As a result, these men make life harder for us—but it’s not anything new. Our sexuality has been a mystery to men, and their response throughout history has been to medicalise and control it. For example, there was female hysteria, a once-common “medical condition” that was believed to happen only to women. The “symptoms” included sexual desire, as if that isn’t one of the most natural things, and the “tendency to cause trouble”.

Interestingly, an orgasm was usually prescribed as a “cure”. In fact, the vibrator was invented to relieve doctors, whose fingers were frequently cramped from treating patients “suffering” from hysteria. But was never about pleasure for women—it used to be about how we can use our bodies to bring pleasure to men or bear children.

And while we’re generally no longer expected to keep our sexuality under wraps, we still have some way to go as a society.

The Madonna-Whore Complex

Many guys don’t see a FWB as girlfriend material, much less take her home to meet mum. This is the Madonna-Whore complex in action.

First identified by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, it refers to the complex where a man sees a woman as either saintly and respectable, or debased and the object of sexual desire—he can never see her as a layered human being and a combination of both.

“The Madonna-Whore complex occurs… when women are characterised as saints or sinners. Freud found that his patients desired prostitutes, but not their wives, as they believed good women should not be sexual,” explains Dr Gwynne.

The thing is, many of us women have had a hand in perpetuating this complex—we lie about the number of people they’ve slept with because they don’t want to be seen as “loose”. We’re afraid to come across as “sinners” lest guys lose interest in dating us seriously, even if we don’t fully belong in either category.

“We are all saints and sinners at different times and in different contexts, and this applies to all genders,” says Dr Gwynne.

The moral custodian

Besides being identified as either a sinner or a saint, women also have the role of “moral custodian” thrust upon us. That is, we’re supposed to be attractive, but not so attractive to the point that we cause men to lose control of their sexual urges. In short, we’re expected to be responsible for the actions of men.

“Women are expected to manage our appearance for the consumption of others, in a way that is never demanded of men,” says Jolene Tan, Head of Advocacy & Research at AWARE.

And this is usually how victim-blaming occurs, where the victim of a wrongful act is blamed for the harm that has happened to them. What’s more, some men feel that they have the authority to label us the moment they perceive us to be stepping out of line. Remember the dog filter on Snapchat? It’s literally adding layers onto your face. And yet, somehow, it was deemed the “hoe filter”.

The way forward

It’s commonly argued that we have a part to play in our own objectification, especially in living in an era of liberated sexuality. But here’s the thing: the objectification can also be a form of empowerment.

“Women are still being objectified everywhere, but more importantly, women are self-objectifying too. Women also objectify each other,” says Dr Gwynne. “For example, Instagram is predicated on the notion that we want as many people looking as possible… and women associate this self-objectification with empowerment.”

And objectification isn’t a bad thing in itself—what matters is that there’s agency and personal choice.

In 2014, Emma Watson remarked that Beyoncé’s videos can be quite sexualised. She said to journalist and actress Tavi Gevinson: “As I was watching [Beyoncé’s videos], I felt very conflicted… in the sense that on the one hand she is putting herself in a category of a feminist, but then the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her.”

She however explained that she thought that the singer was empowering her sexuality: “She was doing it for herself and the control that she has directing it and putting it out there, I agree, is making her sexuality empowering because it is her choice.”

So while some may argue that sexy selfies set the stage for the “male gaze” and encourage objectification, it’s not impossible to see that these pictures are equally a means for us to celebrate our bodies and sexuality, and “take back” what the male gaze took away: our ability to enjoy our beauty without shame. It’s exactly when we exercise that freedom that we empower ourselves.

We’re in this together

According to Dr Gwynne, men need to be part of this whole conversation too.

“Women can only be free from oppression if men understand how they’re oppressing women. So boys and men need to be educated about how they might be casually propagating unfair values,” he says.

At the end of the day, there is still room for greater empowerment. And though we’ve come a long way, we’re far from being able to make our own choices without being judged.

While we shouldn’t have to keep playing the moral custodian and tell men what’s OK and what isn’t (as adults in a developed country, they should have an idea), giving them subtle cues from time to time will probably help. We can let them know that their support makes a difference, and also remind them that when we feel empowered, it’s easier for us to empower others too.

The good news is, there’s no shame in using our sexuality to empower ourselves. And it should only get easier from here.