When I was a senior at Duke University, Shooters II was the place to go. A country-western themed paradise with four bars, a dance floor and an upstairs balcony, it was the primary site of debauchery on any given Saturday, Friday, Wednesday or Thursday night. It was the place where basketball players, sorority queens, frat stars, gay boys and queer girls alike congregated to bump, grind and…bump-n-grind.

I didn’t go all that often, but when I did choose to grace Shooters with my presence, it was an all-out affair. I’d wear my shortest skirt, a crop top, and, if you were lucky, my biggest heels. I’d arrive just a touch after midnight, strut in already buzzed, head straight to the bar and climb on top of it. On any given visit, I’d spend at least 50-percent of my time dancing on the bar: swaying my hips, dropping it low, tearing it up and trying not to kick off anyone’s drink.

Halfway through my year, I started to notice something. When my friends who were women or gay men danced on the bar, they’d get a lot more bang for their buck (literally) than I did. When they danced, people were watching. Upon their dismount from the bar, they’d get approached by potential partners, fielding propositions and advances left and right. Fast forward ten minutes, and half of them were grinding up on a partner, mid-DFMO (dance floor make-out). Fast forward an hour, and they’d be leaving together to hook up.

While my savvy dance moves and expert gyrations were appreciated by my classmates on a performative level, they never seemed to lead to anything. Unlike my peers, when I dismounted the bar, I rarely had the opportunity to mount anything else. Instead of attracting potential hook-ups, I only seemed to attract drunken cries of “YES QUEEN!” and “YOU BETTER WERK!”

My friends were being looked at in a different way than me. I was being appreciated as entertainment; they were being appreciated sexually. I was being watched; they were being sexually objectified.

Yet, here’s the rub: if sexual objectification is so categorically awful, then why do I want it so badly?

In my academic and feminist training, I’ve been told over and over again that sexual objectification is bad. The thinking goes like this: women around the world have been treated as sexual objects instead of people. Women who, in the course of trying to run a board meeting, have been hit on by their colleagues. Or, during a job interview, have been sexually harassed. Women who have had their brilliance diminished by solely placing value on their bodies. Women whose day-to-day experiences have been marred by unwanted sexual attention, catcalls, leering looks and once-overs. This type of sexual objectification is seriously dehumanizing; it reduces women and feminine-of-center people to objects, flattening out who we are and taking away ownership of our own bodies.

As such, my feminist training taught me that sexual objectification is categorically undesirable, categorically patriarchal. Therefore, we must fight against sexual objectification in any form and create a world where no one is sexually objectified again.

Yet, here’s the rub: if sexual objectification is so categorically awful, then why do I want it so badly?

The message that being considered as a “sex-having and desiring” individual is universally negative is mostly based in the experiences of white, cis, thin, able-bodied people who have regular, and often too much, experience with sexual objectification. As a trans person, that has never been my experience and I’m not alone in that. So how do we retool the conversation about objectification to more accurately represent the experiences of everyone?

The idea that being seen as a “sex object”–at any time, ever–is universally a bad thing is too simple, like many tenets of straightforward, non-intersectional feminism. As a gender nonconforming person, I’m sexually objectified basically, well, never. When it comes to being viewed as a purely sexual being, I don’t get any.

In a society that either desexualizes or hypersexualizes trans and gender nonconforming people, my whole existence is pretty much devoid of good sexual energy. While many of my cis women friends are trying to figure out how to drain out a swamp of unwanted male attention, I’m stuck in a desert trying to suck water from a cactus.

Jacob Tobia

Jacob Tobia

I can show literally my entire leg and get nothing. I can wear a skimpy dress to a club and people just look the other way. I can wear five inch heels and, while I might get lots of attention, it won’t be sexual attention. Instead of being a “madonna” or a “whore,” I’m simply considered a “diva” or a “freak” (and not the good kind). In the very best case scenario, when my sexual agency and desirability are recognized (about as often as a total solar eclipse, tbh), it’s almost always as “an experiment,” or as “something exotic,” a weak, token attempt to diversify someone else’s sexual portfolio.

I want to be sexually objectified and it never happens. I want people to appreciate the time and effort that I put into my body and my look. I want people to look at my perfectly applied lipstick and want me because of it. I want my long legs to give people feels. I want to dance on the bar and leave boys breathless, panting, and desperate to talk to me.

As a trans person, some days it feels like this is just too much to ask of the world. Trans people never get the sexual attention that we deserve. We are so hot, so sexy, so beautiful. We are skilled, compassionate, ferocious lovers. We’ve already worked through our issues and our personal courage makes for some incredible intimacy. But given the sexual stigma that is placed on our bodies and on other people’s desire for our bodies, there is shockingly little space for us to be objectified safely and out in the open. People are often so scared of their desire for me that they avert their eyes. They can’t so much as look at me without fearing that their “deviant” desire for me will be revealed to the world.

And trans people aren’t the only ones. People of size, people of color, people with disabilities, we all experience these forms of sexual hypervisibility and invisibility. We’ve all felt sexually invisible in a bar at the same time as we’ve been told that people like us are sexual freaks. We’ve all been simultaneously fetishized and sexually erased. We’ve all been ignored or denied equivalent sexual appreciation and agency while we dance on the bar next to our skinnier, whiter, cis-er, more able-bodied counterparts.

Like most things sexual, it’s about reframing the conversation not to be about universal good or bad, but to be about consent. Like sex, objectification must be consensual. If it’s consensual, objectification can be positive, exciting, sexy, and liberating. It can serve as a brilliant affirmation of personal sexual power. Having everyone’s eyes on you as you turn, strut, and flaunt can be a beautiful rush, but only if it’s one that you want.

So how do we create spaces and social norms where we can safely consent to objectification? How do we assert our right to desire objectification while maintaining our ability to deny it if it feels like too much? How do we foster a feminism that allows those of us who enjoy objectification to get it without subjecting others to objectification who’d rather not? And how do we ensure that objectification doesn’t lead to unwanted touching, attention, or creepy people who won’t leave us alone?

It is okay to enjoy being thought about and desired. It is human.

I think it begins with each of us shifting our internal monologue. It begins with learning to admit that it is okay to desire consensual objectification. If we want it, it is okay to enjoy being looked at. It is okay to enjoy being thought about and desired. It is human.

I want to be objectified in certain circumstances and in certain places. I want to be objectified at a gala when I’ve spent five hours on my makeup and weeks picking out the perfect dress. I want to be objectified when you’re looking at my picture on Tinder. I want to be objectified at a friend’s intimate cocktail party, when I’m lounging on the couch with my legs intentionally positioned just so. I want to be objectified in a nightclub when I’m dancing on the bar, and I want you to continue to objectify me when I’m back on the dancefloor. I’m even okay being objectified in the grocery store (but only when there’s comedic value, like when I’m shopping for bananas or cucumbers or vegan sausages or something).

And just because I want to be objectified in some places, that doesn’t mean that I want to be objectified in all places. I don’t want to be objectified in the office. I don’t want to be objectified in a meeting with a producer or an editor. I don’t want to be objectified by a director on set. I don’t want to be objectified on the street or on the subway or in the parking lot when I’m trying to get through my day. And if you see me in a coffee shop working on an article for Playboy, please don’t objectify me then either because odds are I’m in the zone and just need to get this shit done.

In a feminist future, we stop saying that all objectification is categorically bad. In a feminist future, all trans people, people of size, people of color, and people with different abilities have the chance to get the types (if any) of objectification that we crave. In a feminist future, we each have the chance to own the types of objectification (if any) that we like and the types of objectification that we’d rather do without.

The sooner that we learn to claim moments when we want to be objectified, the sooner we learn to claim moments when we don’t want to be. Learning to say “look at me!” and “cut it out” are mutually reinforcing endeavors. Learning to say “I want it” and “I don’t” go hand in hand.

So boys (and girls and everyone in between), I’m consenting to being objectified. Next time I’m on top of the bar, I want you to look at me. I want you to take in every inch of my towering legs. I want you to drink in my sexual energy and charisma. And after I put on a show for you, when I get off of the bar, you should feel free to come up and say hello. I’m more than happy to meet you and consider what it might be like for us to go home together. But if I’m not into it, I also need you to listen when I tell you to leave me the fuck alone.

Any takers?