When I was 7 years old -- during that crucial, game-changing summer between second and third grade when you figure out who you are and what you want to be -- I spent nearly all my free time watching Grease. I'd profess my love for Danny Zuko and his tight T-shirts and greased up curls to my closest confidantes (read: little sisters barely old enough to speak).
But, looking back, I was clearly magnetized, almost addicted, more so to Sandy. Not as the goody-goody cheerleader, please. But in her post-makeover, sexed-up cat woman look, carefully crafted to attract the T-Bird of her affections. I'd watch transfixed as Sandy slinked on the scene, pouty and self-assured and apparently rid of her Australian accent. I'd pause and rewind to study the wildly cool way she clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, as piercing as a silent, scandalous "checkmate," and the dumbfounded Hoo boy! expression on Danny's face.
Basically, I was Jan, who appears to be touching herself in the background of this scene.
It's not quite accurate to call Sandy my first crush, because she was something far more powerful. I both idolized her and desired her, but mostly idolized the intensity with which she was desired. She was the first manifestation, for me, of that intense combination of lust, envy and inspiration that makes ladies want to please a man so badly they can't stop desiring women. I call such objects of desire sex muses, and imagine them as the contemporary feminist response to Socrates and all the young, hot pupils he inspired and banged. Sandy was my Socrates.
This morning, approximately 20 years later, I scrolled through my Instagram feed, saw a post on one of the many Rihanna fan accounts to which I am but a meager minion. I paused on one, featuring Rihanna and "dat a$$," as the caption states, moving like a maple syrup ninja to the beat of her hit song "Work." I watched it about 14 times, put on the song, danced in the mirror, considered doing more butt-toning exercises and buying purple lipstick. I eventually returned to work, ashamed yet invigorated. These are the terms of our relationship.
The special bond between a woman and her sex muse, however intimate and rapturous it may be, is in part emblematic of a patriarchal culture, one that places male desire as so paramount to a sexual encounter it can supplant, or at least skew, a woman's own. On the surface, our infatuation with sexualized celebrities stems from the urge to be desirable ourselves. I want to be Sandy to attract Danny, and yet it's Sandy I can't look away from. Adoration begins to resemble attraction, and what may appear at first glance as a dearth of women's sexual agency actually speaks to the complexity of our sexual desires.
Rihanna is but one of a sea of hot babes women fantasize about fucking, but also fantasize about fucking as. Writer Tess Barker coined the term Bey-Sexual to describe the nearly ubiquitous straight girl syndrome of lusting after the Queen B. "I sometimes refer to myself as a Bey-Sexual," she writes, "meaning that I’m such a typical straight woman I would absolutely sleep with Beyoncé. When I watch her expertly and confidently gyrate her leotard-clad rear as her perpetually fan-blown hair waves, I am really fantasizing less about having sex with Beyoncé, and more about having sex as her. What she represents is the ultimate combination of autonomy and desirability, which is so appealing to me that it’s barely distinguishable from literal attraction."
Women are encouraged to obsess over sexualized celebrities, to a degree that rivals yet remains separate from sexual attraction. Terms like "girl crush" serve as a distancing mechanism -- saying I admire her but not like that. Then why are so many women so damn infatuated? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that women don't just have sex, they see themselves having sex, and thus their own self-actualized sexualization is folded into the experience of pleasure.
"A woman must continually watch herself," John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing. "She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself ... From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman."
This holds true, of course, in sex. Women are conditioned to see themselves, and arouse themselves, through the way they look, the way they sound. "One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear," Berger summarizes. "Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight."
Although I will never have sex from the perspective of a man, I turn to the hilarious (very NSFW) adolescent fantasy in the band Is Tropical's "Dancing Anymore" as a guide. In the music video, featured below, a preteen boy masturbates during a housesitting gig, while, in his imagination, he has sex with a variety of computer generated VR partners, ranging from a hot blonde to a redheaded mermaid to a literal giant, the fantasies growing stranger as the video progresses.
Throughout the video, however, the boy remains clad in his red polo, containing his prepubescent frame. He is not folded into the fantasy, as outlandish and all-engulfing as it becomes. He has no interest in watching himself have sex.
For women, however, incorporating themselves into the fantasy can be part of the fun. If Berger is correct that women can't help but see themselves all the time, sex included, then a woman's sexual persona caters not just to her partner but to herself, as well. After a lifetime of watching music video vixens bump and grind with envy and awe, when a woman feels seductive and in control during sex, it benefits herself as much as her partner. What may have initially started as a desire to please a man -- to be sultry, confident, magnetic -- has morphed into an authentic point of pride and pleasure.
Celebrity worship can empower a woman to be her best sexual self, channeling her sex muse to please her partner and herself. Yet as more and more individuals become aware of the fluidity of sexuality, the more terms like "girl crush" seem out of date. Pop culture may not have intended for women to acknowledge their physical attraction to their sex muses, stripped of the male intermediary, but it's happening.
In a recent episode of "Broad City," resident queer queen and Rihanna believer Ilana Glazer expressed her confusion over her feelings for a badass investor visiting her place of work, played by Vanessa Williams. "I don’t know if I wanna be her or be in her," she says. Eventually, Glazer decides that, actually, she wants to have sex with Williams, tells her so, and is promptly told to go home. With the same casual ease the "Broad City" ladies often employ to subtly shift the expectations young women face today, Ilana acknowledges the ambiguity of her girl crush feelings as well as the reality that, yes, you can have your idols and fuck them, too.
Perhaps the ubiquitous cultural obsession with feminine sexuality speaks to the fact that the purely straight girl is seeming more and more like a myth, as the satirical Reductress article "Is Everyone Super Attracted to These 6 Female Celebrities or Is This Me Finding Out I’m Bisexual?" playfully suggests.
"25-year-old Australian starlet Margot Robbie has a very symmetrical face and what appears to be very soft skin and I would definitely roll around naked with her. Not sure whether or not this means that I am bisexual. I’d love for someone to rate how normal this is on a scale of 1-10. Anyone?"
The narrator grows progressively more frantic -- "Guys??? A LITTLE HELP HERE????" -- speaking to the silence that often surrounds women's sexual desires. And though celebrities may be the gateway to not so straight fantasies, the widespread adulation of women, teetering between the urge to look and to touch, extends to mere civilians as well.
A personal essay on Slutever by Misha Scott, about her first time actually sleeping with a woman after years of considering herself bisexual, expresses a similar confusion regarding woman's sexual urges and where exactly they stem from. "Was I gay enough not to be straight? What if I was just trying to fulfill a taboo manufactured by the porn industry?" Scott asked. "What if I thought I was being a sexually liberated woman but was actually participating in a historically sexist pattern of lesbian eroticism as performance for the male gaze?"
We're constantly fed images of women we're meant to worship but not want, and then left in the dark if the two start to become confused. Of course, we're confused. It's as if the patriarchal machine designed to make women hate themselves has somehow malfunctioned. Instead of minimizing female desires, it ends up awakening a more fluid understanding of sexual attraction. And now, more than ever, women are understanding that they both want to be and be in their celebrity dream girls. As explained in a recent Broadly piece, 48 percent of Gen Zs identify as exclusively heterosexual, compared to 65 percent of millennials aged 21 to 34.
I am not trying to say that a teenage girl saying "I'd tooootally do Beyonce" qualifies as coming out, or conflate the queer experience with celebrity worship. Nor do I believe that any celebrity, however sexy she may be, has the power to "turn anyone gay." As Ruby Rose said around the time everyone in the world was falling in love with Ruby Rose: "When people say to me that I turned them gay, I just laugh, because that’s not really even a possibility. It sounds like I did something against their will in the middle of the night, as if I crept into their brain and pushed the gay button."
I am interested in how fluid and complex our sexual desires always already have been. That since we were single-digit girls, flipping through magazine pages and ogling the pop stars plastered on their glossy spreads, forces of attraction, fear, desire, insecurity, aspiration, envy and lust are at play. A sexual spectrum where a relationship as intimate, deranged and totally delusional as a sex muse is commonplace for women who identify as straight in a world too convoluted for such a simplistic label.
So cheers to the sex muses of the world, the sexualized pop culture knockouts who sneak their way into our fantasies, top our celebrity would-fuck lists, and inspire hours of booty shaking in our bedrooms. May they make us more confident and adventurous in the bedroom as well as in the giant bedroom of life. And may we all be so lucky as the audience member in the video below and feel the gentle bump and grind of Rihanna in the flesh.
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Follow Priscilla Frank on Twitter: @badgirlpripri