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How Matt Gaetz and Republican Pundits Weaponize Sex and Sexualization Against Women

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., went viral this month for all the wrong reasons in the wake of this awful tweet: “How many women who rally against Roe’s overthrow are overeducated, underloved millennials who sadly return from protests to a lonely microwave dinner with their cats, and no bumble matches?”

It was a particularly egregious example of how Republicans sexualize women to put them down. To be fair, Gaetz’s tweet might not seem like sexualization on first reading. He insults supporters of Roe v. Wade claiming they are single, asexual and undesirable. But in doing so, he reduces them to their sex life and sexuality for the express purpose of diminishing them.

Feminist writer Julia Serano’s new book, “Sexed Up: How Society Sexualizes Us and How We Can Fight Back,” argues that we need to expand our understanding of sexualization to include attacks like Gaetz’s. This, she says, can help us see how sexualization is used to harm a wide range of people and how it is in everyone’s interest to resist it.

Serano writes, “Sexualization occurs when a person is nonconsensually reduced to their real or imagined sexual attributes (body, behaviors, or desires) to the exclusion of other characteristics.” The parenthesis is important. You can sexualize people by reducing them to their bodies. But you can also sexualize them by reducing them to their supposed behaviors or desires — as Gaetz does when discussing the supposed dating habits of women who support Roe.

When I spoke to Serano, she said her thinking about sexualization was shaped by her own experiences. Serano is a trans woman who has transitioned into adulthood. “One of the hardest things for me,” she said, “was suddenly going through a lot of sexual harassment and objectification that women often face, especially young women. And I I found this extremely delegitimizing and degrading.

In his book, Serano talks about suddenly becoming the target of chat calls and comments about his appearance. His identity and value were reduced to his body. But that wasn’t the only type of sexualization she experienced. “When people were aware that I was a trans woman, rather than assuming I was a cis woman, they often sexualized me in all these other ways,” she told me. “They often saw me as hypersexual or sexually predatory or sexually deviant.”

There’s a long tradition that trans people are portrayed as sexually motivated serial killers in movies like “Psycho” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” More recently, they have been accused of sexually assaulting cis women in bathrooms – even though there is no evidence to support this accusation. These are all harmful examples of sexualization. Trans women are reduced to (imaginary) sexual acts, just as Gaetz reduces Roe supporters to (imaginary) sexual behaviors.

How Matt Gaetz and Republican Pundits Weaponize Sex and Sexualization Against Women

Being accused of being a sexual predator is different from being the target of street harassment in some ways. But for Serano, there were also similarities. And both forms of sexualization were enabled by being branded as part of a marginalized group.

White heterosexual men are assumed to be complex individuals – they are the default, the status quo. As such, they are rarely reduced to bodies, behaviors or sexual desires. That’s why people like Donald Trump and Matt Gaetz, who have been accused of sexual harassment, assault, and sex trafficking, respectively, aren’t defined by those charges.

In contrast, people from marginalized groups are more likely to be viewed as misplaced, wrong, or in need of explanations just because they exist. So when Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida decides to create a moral panic by claiming that LGBTQ people in Florida are a sexual danger to children, he knows it will resonate, because people are already tendency to mark and sexualize LGBTQ people.

Black men were similarly stereotyped as sexual predators – that is, sexualized – as an excuse for racist violence against them.

Black feminist scholars dating back to Ida B. Wells-Barnett have discussed how black men have been similarly stereotyped as sexual predators – that is, sexualized – as an excuse for racist violence at against them. Notably, Trump has called Mexican immigrants “rapists” in part to justify his discriminatory immigration policy rhetoric.

Sexualization can therefore mean objectifying people or treating them solely as sexual objects. But it can also mean stereotyping them as sexual threats based on race, sexuality, or gender. And that can even mean rejecting them or making fun of them for being supposed to be sexually unattractive or inactive, as if the only thing that matters about them is whether they have sex partners.

Understanding how sexualization works can be helpful in identifying the actions and tactics of bad actors like DeSantis and Gaetz. Both deliberately sexualize their targets, as they know this is an effective way to delegitimize enemies and build their own political power. They may not use the word “sexualization,” but they are fully aware of how sexualization works – and how it can be exploited.

Sometimes people can sexualize others without really realizing what they are doing. However, people who are aware of how sexualization works are less likely to do so. “A good place to start is to first recognize that these are unconscious thought patterns and acknowledge them when they occur so that we can, at least on an individual level, strive to overcome them,” I told she said.

Sexualization is so widespread and so harmful that fighting it creates a basis for collective action. Women, LGBTQ people, black people, people of color, Jewish people, incarcerated people, obese people, people with disabilities – there is a very diverse community of people who are all stigmatized, belittled and controlled by sexualization. “Sexed Up” not only identifies a common problem; it identifies a common ground of solidarity and resistance.

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