We live in a culture where female bodies are constantly on display. However, most images of female sexuality we see are passive and two-dimensional.

For the past two weeks Miley Cyrus’s MTV VMA performance has been decried by parents’ groups and feminists alike. The response to Cyrus’s performance is more interesting than Cyrus’s performance itself. It hit on every cultural nerve about what is appropriate and inappropriate for a young woman to do with her body. Of course, this dialogue has been going on for years. Female artists from Madonna to Lady Gaga to Rihanna to Nicki Minaj all have used sexuality to express themselves.

The main reason that Cyrus’s performance stood out is twofold. Cyrus grew up in the public eye. Like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Selena Gomez and other child stars, Cyrus’s sexual display is not seen as a natural transition to adulthood. Instead, critics are concerned  to see a coveted virginal starlet transforming into just another sexual object.

We are still uncomfortable with the idea that young women have sexual agency. In general, our media depicts powerful women as direct and aggressive on the streets or on the battlefield. In the bedroom, however, they are still prizes to be won over. The trope of the strong female who needs the male lead to work extra hard to win her over is commonplace. The theme here is that strong women don’t put it out for just anybody, and sexual and romantic longing make a woman weak.  

This can be seen in any range of shows, such as Daria and 30Rock, where the smart, savvy female seems patently disinterested or not good at garnering male attention. In the film Bridesmaids, Annie Walker puts up with male bad behavior until a sweet guy she initially pushes away wins her heart. In Iron Man we root for Pepper Potts, a higher quality woman than the types Tony Stark bangs early on.

Today, strength and sexuality are perceived as mutually exclusive. This trend became even more readily apparent this past summer. Look at songs like “Blurred Lines,” for instance, or our obsession with the female submission narrative 50 Shades of Grey, which is less about a sexually secure woman exploring her own kinks (a la Secretary) than a genuinely meek young woman submitting to a man’s control.

Lena Dunham’s Girls has been lauded and reviled for its focus on young women’s unhappy sexual encounters, which are perceived as being more authentic than those of Samantha in Sex in the City. Indeed sex is different for young women in 2013 than it was in the late 90s. What is public and private space has changed and the risks associated with getting naked have increased. In this culture, a woman’s body can easily become shared public property, whether or not she wants it.

To me, what is most shocking about Miley Cyrus’s performance is that it is devoid of pleasure. Cyrus looks gawky and uncomfortable, her tongue sticks out cheekily, rather than sensually, her twerking looks like something she practiced in the mirror for a few hours. If Cyrus was offensively appropriating symbols of "blackness" in her act, she was also appropriating elements of raunch culture. When Madonna and Lady Gaga present sexual displays they own it, while Cyrus seems to be figuring out how she feels about her own sexual awakening.

Most displays of female desire are so prescriptive that it is hard to differentiate between raw want and commercialized longing. In many ways the pre-packaged version of sexuality is less threatening than the unscripted version. We question whether or not Rihanna really loves S&M, or whether Madonna’s sexually provocative videos were merely about capturing attention.

Women can rarely be seen as sexual beings without being reduced to objects or otherwise exploited. This is part of what keeps women from being viewed as whole people, capable of intellectual bravado, as well as great desire.

Of course, opening up this kind of dialogue means listening to women. Films such as Easy A and The To-Do List attempt to dismantle the stereotype that young women cannot be in control of their sexuality, but the idea that young women can be sexual agents is still not mainstream. We believe that young women cannot possibly be sexual agents, and that sexuality for young women is about display and attention, rather than desire.

Allowing women the space to be sexual, either in pop culture or in society at large, matters. When female sexuality is most commonly depicted as either incredibly dangerous or incredibly vulnerable, the narrative that coming-of-age for a girl is a time of loss needs to change. Girls and young women deserve to be offered the possibility that their sexual awakening could signal that a world is opening up.

Arielle Bernstein
is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed three times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests. She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

Serena Bramble is a film editor whose montage skills are an end result of accumulated years of movie-watching and loving. Serena is a graduate from the Teledramatic Arts and Technology department at Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.