Rejecting The Value Of Sex Appeal Is Only Hurting You

Cut the pearl-clutching – modest isn’t always hottest.

By Andrea Mew6 min read
Pexels/Liane Cumming

#SundressGate 2024… As a publication covering feminine trends, Evie once again took it upon ourselves to remind the world what a sundress is because many aren’t aware of its intricacies. I was mildly amused by the discourse, almost ready to move on with my day, but then #SundressGate revealed just how many ideological conservatives pooh-pooh the very notion of sex appeal. Modesty came into question.

Does a woman lose her right to identify as a conservative if she shows her shoulders and perhaps a bit of cleavage and her hemline lands above her knees? Well, if you’re a “trad” on the internet, apparently policing women’s attire is a productive way to spend your time instead of, I don’t know, doing something more “trad” like not being chronically online.

In any case, as a conservative woman who doesn’t adhere to the “trad” handbook, I want to correct the narrative once and for all: Sex appeal shouldn’t get categorized as a promiscuous, bad idea, nor should it be labeled as a “liberal” quality for something or someone to have. 

Yes, having a strong moral code and a desire to be intellectually deeper than surface level is important. Who you are inside matters immensely. But who you are on the outside matters too, and there shouldn’t be any shame in wanting that outside appearance to be a sexy one.

Sex Appeal Indicates a Healthy Society

What is sexy? People say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there are general rules of thumb for what qualifies as objective, rather than subjective, beauty. I’d argue that the same rules apply to sexiness. Sex appeal is derived from a person’s confidence, the natural charm they exude, and how they present their physical form. 

Sex appeal takes the edge off life’s seemingly endless stressors. Think about it this way: If you know Myers-Briggs personality types at all, you’re probably familiar with the dichotomy of the “thinking” side of a person’s personality and their “feeling” side. When we’re neck-deep in the pragmatic components of adult life – taxes, bills, expenses, and so on – we’re dealing with our “thinking” side. But beauty (including sexiness) taps into the “feeling” side of our minds. 

Want me to get a bit more granular? You’ve probably heard of the differences between the left and right hemispheres of your brain. The left side is mainly associated with critical thinking, logic, and language, while the right side is notoriously known to allow our imagination, emotions, and creativity to thrive. While both sides actually dip into one another’s stereotyped specialties, I use this dichotomy to illustrate the point that the human body needs mental stimulation from both the left and the right. 

If we’re way too serious all the time being strict busybodies who can’t let our hair down, so to speak, and have a bit of fun with life, we’re stunting the wholeness of our humanity. As I once wrote for Evie, a sensible presence of sexiness indicates a healthy society. Reclaiming your relationship with your own personal sex appeal can actually feel quite empowering and even motivate you to accomplish more. 

Research suggests that beauty is indeed the promise of happiness. Simply put, when you look good, you’ll feel good, and when you feel good about the image you present to the world, your natural beauty will radiate even more strongly. Sexiness can come from the simplest upkeep strategies: regular exercise to keep your body toned, regular pampering to keep your body groomed, regular sleep to keep your body vibrant, and of course, regular attention to maintain a personal style that suits you best.

Overly promiscuous clothing choices detract from authentic sex appeal because they make the implicit explicit.

Interestingly enough, recent research found that you can’t really fake sex appeal. A study was designed to compare real images of individuals in underwear and artificially generated ones. Surprise, surprise, the subjects were more sexually aroused when they believed the images were real, authentic naked folk.

In any case, the nitty gritty for what each culture finds sexy varies. For instance, Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese people generally find pale skin more attractive, while Americans, Brits, and Australians generally prefer a tan. But sexiness doesn’t lack standards. Sexiness is derived from taboo and the allure of the unknown. Overly promiscuous clothing choices detract from authentic sex appeal because they make the implicit explicit. But unnecessarily puritanical clothing choices also detract from authentic sex appeal because they foster what some would consider “purity culture.”

Purity Culture Missed the Mark

Immorality, STDs, teenage pregnancy – all these “modern” crises and many more spawned a movement we know loosely as “purity culture.” This response was shortsighted. Some might even say it failed a generation. 

“Purity culture’s main problem is not that it is too conservative but that it is too worldly,” wrote author Rachel Joy Welcher in her book about the ills of purity culture. “Sex is not about self, and abstinence is anything but sexy. Dressing it up as such is not only confusing, it’s discouraging.”

Now, not all conservatives hold such strict rules relating to purity, but some of those who do aren’t shy about icing out those among us who aren’t afraid to embrace our sexuality. The Evie sundress debacle brought many of these voices out of the shadows.

People thought that the hemline was too short (what do you expect for the hemline of a mini dress?), the straps were too thin (what is this, a grade school dress code with “three finger width” rules?), and the neckline showed off too much cleavage (sorry, my turtlenecks are reserved for sub-70 degree weather!).

Is it any wonder that some people feel like they’ve been traumatized by purity culture? I can tell you from firsthand experience that my own perception of my body was negatively impacted by heavy-handed shame over what I now understand was a normal amount of skin showing. I can recall very clearly in late elementary school and middle school if I wanted to wear shorts, they had to be Bermuda length. If I wanted to wear tank tops, they couldn’t have spaghetti straps. 

These rules, imposed not only by school proctors but by my own parents as well, led me to feel very uncomfortable with my body. I was boy-crazy, but I had no confidence. I wanted to be like all the normal kids, but I felt as though I was failing my family if I wasn’t covered up in a hoodie. In all honesty, I can barely wear a bathing suit in public even now without feeling that lingering sense of shame.

“As someone who grow up in heavy purity culture, yes I consider it trauma because of the way it inflicted shame and manipulated my emotions, thinking, spirituality while allowing men to prey on me and my peers [sic],” wrote one social media user on a post by licensed psychologist Dr. Camden Morgante on the topic of purity culture. “Being a sexual assault survivor, I wouldn’t put purity culture on the same level of ‘survivorship’ but can understand how people would use it.”

Several other respondents echoed similar sentiments: they don’t feel like they ever really “survived” purity culture, they’ve had to work to retrain their brains, they’re still “unraveling” its harms, and it has impacted their relationship with sex for years into their marriage.

When a teenage girl is told that she’s partially responsible for a boy lusting over her, the likelihood of her experiencing vaginismus as an adult increases by 52%. 

An overly puritanical approach to sexuality is linked to lower sexual satisfaction, greater rates of sexual pain, and lower rates of orgasm and sexual desire. Yes, modesty could inflict physical effects on a person’s body. When a teenage girl is told that she’s partially responsible for a boy lusting over her, the likelihood of her experiencing vaginismus as an adult increases by 52%. That same research found that she’d be 30% more likely to have long-term emotional effects in adulthood, like below average self-esteem.

Even if a woman is able to escape shame in her adulthood, what she’s told in her most formative years can leave lasting marks. Certified sex and relationship psychotherapist Gigi Engle penned an entire article about how purity culture’s shame-based messaging can negatively impact a person’s ability to experience pleasure. “Central to our ability to experience pleasure during sex is the connection between our brains and bodies. In order to experience pleasure and orgasm to the fullest extent, we need to feel calm and safe,” Engle explained. “This relaxed state facilitates the messages between the brain and body which, in turn, allows us to experience desire and physical arousal.”

Sexual shame, however, can cause someone to experience something similar to a trauma response of fight, flight, or freeze during sexual activity. If we’re brought up to believe that sex appeal is “dirty” and that we should idolize purity, we end up with a tragically perverted idea of human relationships. Research shows that religious women experience higher levels of sexual guilt than their non-religious peers.

So, women are expected to disguise physical beauty traits out of fear that men who see their bodies will feel lust. But who gets to decide where we cross the line? When are necklines too low? Does that change based on your bust size? What’s just alluring, and what’s outright lewd? And what about male responsibility? 

Proponents of modesty get some things very right. It’s a good idea to be in a committed relationship with someone before you get in bed with them. It’s also a good idea for men to respect women and not demand sex from them before receiving outright consent or commitment. But it’s not a good idea to handicap future generations by telling them that sexiness is sinful and dirty.

Self-Worth Can’t Be Earned Through Sex Appeal Alone

When the perception of sex appeal is flattened into this black-and-white narrative, some people will feel crippled by its effects but others will become hyper-fixated on the taboo. Sexuality is a huge part of human connection, but it shouldn’t be a person’s sole source of validation. Unfortunately for some, their entire sense of self is dependent on their sex appeal.

“I learned the concept ‘sex as self harm’ which made my whole life outlook make so much sense,” wrote one Reddit user on a thread about seeking validation through sex appeal. Another chimed in to explain how their sexuality became a coping mechanism, and it took a therapist telling them that they couldn’t use sex with people to fix bad sexual experiences in the past.

Self-beautification can make a woman feel more assertive, more flirtatious, and able to experience more positive emotions.

No, validation through sex appeal alone isn’t okay. But “looking sexy” isn’t inherently disempowering either. As mentioned before, it’s a tool that, when used wisely, can make a woman feel authentically empowered. Research suggests that self-beautification can make a woman feel more assertive, more flirtatious, and able to experience more positive emotions. What’s important to keep in mind is that each person has to do their own audit on what’s sexy for them and what crosses the line into lewd.

Sex appeal isn’t just outright sex or nudity, it’s an “energetic dynamic, a charismatic tango,” and the current, transactional approach to sexiness that our digital culture has reinforced will fail us. Eroticism is actually cheapened by our “current surplus of exposed flesh in the public realm,” as Camille Paglia so eloquently put it. But we can’t react to one extreme by veering over to another extreme. The sexual revolution’s commodification of sex appeal and hedonistic approach to sexuality has done its damage, but purity culture can’t be spared from scrutiny either.

Closing Thoughts

It’s all well and good to promote good sexual health and behavior, as well as reinforce the fact that our value is not entirely derived from our physical forms. We’re not just bodies, after all, we have brains and souls too! 

But, being a total helicopter parent about a normal amount of sex appeal does women a disservice by stunting their own relationship with themselves and men too. There’s a huge difference between looking trashy and looking sexy. I won’t apologize for wearing a mini-dress, nor will I apologize for putting time into my appearance in general. I feel my best when I know I’ve got a cohesive, flattering outfit on, and if that’s a more “modest” shape, then so be it, but if it reveals a little bit more skin, I won’t sweat it. Stop taking things so seriously all of the time and learn to have fun. Humans are biologically built to have sexual instincts, not suppress them with puritanical shame.

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