One of my former students invited me to a dance performance at her university last week; she’s a member of an auditioned dance troupe that performs choreographed songs once a semester. I sat down next to her parents when I got there, excited to see them and catch up. As I looked around the auditorium, I realized there weren’t other parents or family members there – the audience was completely comprised of other students. And as the students started dancing, I understood why.
When the lights dimmed, twelve young women came out onto the stage wearing denim cutoffs and midriff-baring white tank tops and started popping and dropping to a recent K-pop hit, and the audience went wild.* My student’s mom laughed nervously next to me and gripped the arms of her chair. And I have to admit, I was a bit uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable that these students – that these young women – were moving so sexually on stage. And then I was unnerved by my own discomfort; these students were really good dancers, obviously cared a lot about what they were doing, and put a lot of effort into it. They danced with power and attitude, and they nailed it.
There is a longstanding and ongoing debate about societal expectation and oppression vs. personal empowerment and expression when it comes to women and sexuality; I have a lot of mixed feelings about expectations put on women to perform sexual roles for men and women taking control of their own bodies and lives through embracing and voicing their own desires. I just started reading Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex; she has a lot to say about the subject, and there’s a review forthcoming. For me, claiming my own desire is empowering – but it wasn’t until recently that I started being the sexual person I wanted to be and not the sexual person I thought other people wanted me to be, and most of that has to do with the ways in which women are socialized to please men and ignore their own needs and pleasure. I’ve had a lifelong struggle with loving being that woman who talks about sex all the time versus wanting to be seen as a whole human being whose entire identity – whose entire value – isn’t wrapped up in her sexuality.
Talking about sex and being sexual was a big part of becoming an adult for me. Watching my student dance, I thought about how my parents reacted (or, rather, didn’t react) to my very open candor about sexuality when I was a teenager. I distinctly remember singing along to songs like “Freak Me” and “Anytime, Anyplace” with my friends in middle school and making sexual innuendos in all of our letters to each other. Popping on the basketball court in a stepping group at thirteen. Teaching other students in my school how to use a condom as part of an HIV 101 lesson. Inviting my mom and uncle to come to Rocky Horror with me at seventeen and shouting out dozens of audience participation lines that I can only assume were horrifying for my mother to hear come out of my mouth. My folks didn’t try to suppress my overtly sexual words and world; they let me be who I was. They let me figure my shit out, and they were there to support me if and when I needed them to. And I am forever grateful for that. They also never talked to me about pleasure, desire, safety, consent, respect, or communication… and I desperately wish they had. Or that someone had.
Now that she’s an adult, I’m having conversations with this young woman about sex and relationships because she’s not having them with other adults in her life (talking about sex isn't common in Korea, even among friends). Being a part of her life means telling her things I wish someone had said to me while also letting her be who she is and supporting her. I want her to think critically about the world she lives in while also experiencing joy and beauty and yes, pleasure. If dancing brings her pleasure and fills her with joy, then I want her to dance the fuck out of those dances.
*Videos produced by the multi-billion dollar K-pop industry have become much more sexualized in the past couple of years; this video is pretty tame, and perhaps it’s just shocking because of the move from aegyo(acting cute in order to be attractive)-based videos into videos that have more sexualized choreography and clothing. There's definitely something in my reaction to this that's rooted in structural / institutionalized racism and cultural perceptions of the intersection of race and sexuality. Speaking of - I’d love to comment here on the blatant cultural appropriation / token black guy in this video, but that’s covered by a LOT of other blogs.