I Almost Became An Asexual Lingerie Model
I am asexual and when I was 18, I almost became a lingerie model. Until now, I've never shared this story or these photos publicly, but recently there was a ton of backlash when prominent ace activist and model Yasmin Benoit joined Playful Promises to create an Ace Week campaign, so I'm here to add another voice to the “Aces in Lingerie” conversation.
- Ace Week with Yasmin Benoit
- An article summerizing eye tracking performed by the Nielsen Norman Group
Courtney: Hey, everybody, and welcome back. My name is Courtney. I’m here with Royce. And together, we are The Ace Couple. If you have been listening to us over the last few weeks, then perhaps you may recall that at the end of October, we had Ace Week. It is an annual celebration and awareness campaign to discuss all things asexuality. And immediately following Ace Week, we actually did an episode sort of recapping the events of Ace Week: the good, the bad, the weird, and unfortunately, there was quite a bit of ugly to go around that week as well. But there was one quite noteworthy event, with a series of ugly reactions, that occurred, that we did not talk about on that episode, because I thought it may be better suited to being its very own episode in and of itself.
Courtney: For those of you who are already quite in tune with the ace community and some of our most prominent activists, then you have almost certainly encountered the name Yasmin Benoit. For those of you who aren’t familiar with her work, you absolutely should be. Please consider looking her up. She is a prominent UK-based asexuality activist, and she is also a Black alternative model. She does a lot of great work, both in her modeling and in her asexuality education, but she was unfortunately the center of a lot of just ugly, ugly, comments and heat during Ace Week. And perhaps this should come as no surprise to you, that she was the receiving end of a lot of hatred, considering the fact that she is a woman, she is Black, she is asexual and aromantic. And when you have intersectional minority identities, virtually anything you say or do in the public eye is bound to draw criticism. And that is exactly what happened here.
Courtney: Now as a model, you would expect her to model [laughs], but her modeling career is actually what got a lot of negative attention on Twitter during Ace Week. The gig in question was actually for a lingerie campaign. The company is called Playful Promises, and not only did they fix Yasmin up with some wonderful photos of a variety of lingerie looks that were inspired by the colors of the Ace Flag, but they interviewed her and published information about her own work about asexuality, about Ace Week, directly on their website.
Courtney: And I definitely want to talk more about why I think this is a very good thing for the community overall. And I also want to touch on some of the negative comments. But first, I have a bit of my own story to share. Because I, Courtney Lane, certified asexual woman, almost myself became a lingerie model, once upon a time, many years ago. And considering just how many people look at a woman who is asexual wearing lingerie and says, “No, you’re not asexual. That’s not what asexuality looks like,” and using that to invalidate someone’s identity, I want to share my own experience about exactly how easy it can be to fall into a line of work like this, even if you are asexual, because it’s a job. And whether you like it or not – and it seems, I don’t know Yasmin very personally, but it seems like she does enjoy her job, so power to her. It was not a job that I particularly liked, and that’s why I didn’t really get into it. But at the end of the day, it is a job, and anyone of any orientation can have it. And even though my personal experience was negative, I absolutely love seeing Yasmin out there killing it. So we’ll circle back to that soon.
Courtney: So modeling is a very complicated thing in my life because I have almost become a model on at least three major occasions, [laughs] but I’ve never really felt compelled to carry through with it. I was actually really quite young, single-digit age, when I first got… it’s been so long, it’s hard to remember. I think I kind of got talent scouted the first time and did a photo shoot when I was really quite young. And I mean, I’ve seen the photos, but it didn’t really turn into anything at the time. So it was kind of just like in the back of my head as, “Oh, you know, if I wanted to become a model, I think I really could.” And then as a very young teenager, I think I might have been 13 – I think it was the youngest I could have been for this particular pageant – I did enter a sort of Miss Teen South Dakota, where I lived at the time, kind of a pageant. And I did get put through to the greater Miss Teen USA pageant. And I did not go, so that also began and ended very quickly.
Courtney: And it really all sort of came to a head when I was 17. So I graduated at age 17, and I started working young and sort of grew up pretty quickly. So by the time I was 17 and already graduated, I already had a surprisingly long and diverse work history, [laughs] like a resume, and I still wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do for my next big thing after high school. I, at the time, already had a couple of different jobs. I was working as a nanny. I also had a job at a bridal shop. But I knew that neither of these jobs were going to get me where I really wanted to be.
Courtney: So knowing they were very temporary, not sure what the next big thing was going to be – I had all of this in mind when actually, while I was working at the bridal shop one day, a young woman who I later learned was a model came in with someone who was presumably her agent or someone else working at this talent agency. And I was helping them pick out – it was prom season at this time, so the shop was actually stocking more than just bridal dresses and bridesmaids’ dresses. Because in the spring, we also would get these prom dresses in and more sort of pageantry-style dresses. So I was helping them find a dress for a gig that she had coming up. And this agent actually pulled me aside while she was trying on other dresses and handed me his card and was like, “If you’re looking for a different job, I think I can hook you up with some modeling work.” And I was like, “Huh. Interesting.” Just, I had never become a model but I guess my entire life, I had been flirting with the idea of becoming a model. And sort of being at a crossroads in my life and my career at that point, I thought, “Yeah, maybe this is something that I should consider.”
Courtney: And so I set up a meeting with them and I came in. And they had me bring headshots. They had me walk a runway for them. They took all of my measurements. And it all seemed very professional, very legitimate. But the one thing about that initial meeting that bothered me so much was exactly how excited they got when they took my measurements. Because they were doing waist, hips, bust, height. After they took my waist and my bust sizes, they got so noticeably excited that I was like, “Yeah, I know, I’ve got an hourglass figure.” [laughing] That was something I had known about myself for a very long time, but I just remember the look on their faces so vividly, as they told me, “If you’re serious about this we can make you one of the most in-demand plus-size models in the country, if not the world.” Big words for someone whose waistline was a whopping 24 inches at that time! But you see, I had boobs, and apparently that made me plus-size in the modeling world, even though I literally wore a size 2 dress. And I did have to get the bust of my dress altered so that I could fit in it [laughs], but I could literally squeeze myself into a size 2 dress. And they were like, “We need you because you are going to be a fantastic plus size model.” And I don’t really know what I was expecting when I went, but I was neither expected to be pegged as a plus-size model, nor was I expected to be presented as such a prize and a rarity. I knew that my measurements were unusual for someone who has not had plastic surgery, but that is just how I was built. But the way that they looked at me was just very hungry and like, “we’ve really found something here,” and…
Royce: Emphasis on the some-thing, it sounds like. As in, this part of the modeling industry sounds immediately objectifying.
Courtney: And so I thought, “Cool. I’m gonna sign with this… talent agency and I’m gonna become a model. Because that sounds like a thing I can do.” [laughs] Mind you, they were really excited to sign me, but they did not tell me much of what to expect. I mean, I did the headshot thing, I did the walking thing, so I very much thought, “Yeah, maybe there will be some runway work. Maybe there will also be photoshoots.” And I guess expectations were not very well set. Because I was, at this point, just a couple of months away from turning 18. And so they kind of said, “Don’t quit your job yet. We’re going to call you when we have an opportunity for you.”
Courtney: And so I actually ended up getting a job at a different bridal store that paid a little more. I had bounced around… At this time of my life, I was also playing some music in a couple of different bands, and I kind of had settled into a metal band where I was playing bass. That is relevant to the story. Stay with me. And a week before my 18th birthday. I thought, “Well, I haven’t heard anything from that modeling company. Maybe it was just a scam. Maybe they were just blowing smoke and [laughs] don’t actually have any work for me.” So I interviewed for a job at a banking call center, because I was about to turn 18 and I could work at a bank [laughs] at that age. And I got that job, so I put in my notice at the bridal store. And I was working at the bridal store on my 18th birthday. It was actually – I think it may have been my very last day working there. If not, I had just like one additional day and then I was out, and I had a couple days before my next job was going to start.
Courtney: On my lunch break on my 18th birthday, I go back into the staff area, and I realize I had gotten a missed call from the agency. And so I called them back to see what was up, and they said, “How do you feel about doing a lingerie shoot?” [laughs] And I didn’t totally know! I wasn’t prepared for that. No one ever told me that that might be something they would ask me to do. But of course they did, [emphatically] on my 18th birthday. And I was really, really taken off guard. So on the phone there, I was just sort of saying, “Yeah, I… guess I could do that?” I felt a little weird about it, but I thought, “Yeah, you know, maybe this will be fine.”
Courtney: And Royce, I don’t even remember if I told you this. Did I tell you the two horrible [laughs] out-of-the-blue messages that I got on my 18th birthday? One from the modeling agency, who asked if I would do a lingerie shoot after basically ghosting me for a couple of months. And the other was actually a series of text messages from the guy who was, I guess kind of playing the role of band manager for the band that I was in, who was kind of paying for our instruments and giving us a place to practice and trying to hook us up with gigs and stuff. A guy who I had known at this point – middle-aged guy, [laughs] definitely old by our standards – I had known this guy for probably three years at this point. And so when I saw a “happy birthday” message in my texts, on my last break of the day after my lunch break, I didn’t think much of it. So I just opened it. And he just said, “Happy birthday. Do you want me to get you a pony?” – with a dick pic.
Royce: No, I don’t remember that second story coming up.
Courtney: Yeah. I had, not two hours earlier, agreed to do a lingerie photo shoot, which I was already a little leery of, and that was the very next message I received from anybody, a man who knew damn well it was my 18th birthday. And by this point, mind you, I knew that I was asexual. I had already thought of that word to describe myself, but I hadn’t really come out. And I didn’t, at the time, think that I had a reason for not being out. I thought it was just, well, not really relevant, not really important. But I mean, in hindsight, there are just a lot of complicated social situations when you are a young woman who is about to turn 18. [laughs] And I think both of these two things are a prime example of just… the hypersexualization of teenage girls. So, I immediately felt worse about my decision to agree to trying this lingerie modeling thing, but I also was immediately quitting the band. [laughs] Didn’t ever go back. I don’t even think I told the guys in the band why I wasn’t coming back.
Royce: Did you say anything? Did you just stop showing up?
Courtney: I honestly don’t even remember. I remember fighting myself, going back and forth on whether or not I should tell this guy’s wife that he did that. But I think I was so concerned and hung up on that component of it. Because I knew both of them. Both of these people had really looked out for me for the last few years, [laughs] and I had gotten to know them pretty well and definitely… You know, I didn’t personally have a father in my life, so I definitely got to see this man as somewhat of a father figure. And his wife was always just really nice to me and really cool. So I was like, “What do you do in this situation?” [laughs] So I remember being so hung up on that decision, whether or not I was going to do that, that I don’t even think I thought [laughs] about the guys in the band like, “What am I gonna tell them? Am I just going to stop showing up and am I going to tell them I quit?” And yeah, I mean, in hindsight, there was some level of trauma there, so my memory is a little bit spotty, [laughs] just just a little bit. I also happened to be in a relationship with an allosexual guy. And that was… a horrible relationship. [laughs] He… was not great.
Courtney: So my thoughts at this point was, “Okay. Well, the band is out. Not going to do that anymore. I literally… this is the end of my work here at the bridal store. And I’m kind of being… steered in a direction for this modeling thing. And also, I got a job at a banking call center that is starting in literally like a week.” So I thought, “Okay. I’m going to keep my job at the bank. I’m gonna go, because who knows if this modeling thing’s actually going to turn into anything or not. And maybe I will just, you know, quietly pursue modeling on the side, just so I can keep my options open.” I had, for many years, at this point, been working at least two jobs at a time. So even though this job at the bank would have been enough money for me to live on, for my means at the time, I just, I didn’t feel super comfortable about not having a variety of options open.
Courtney: So I got back in touch with the modeling company to get the details and they were like, “Yes. Absolutely. We want to sign you. We really, really think that you will thrive in lingerie modeling.” And they were like, “Maybe we can also get some runway gigs, some other kinds of work,” but they were like, “You’ve got such a rare figure. You’ve got a very small waist, but you’ve got very large breasts. You’ve also got hips. You’ve got a butt. We need to start a portfolio for you for lingerie modeling.” And being young and naive, I was like, “Great! When do you want me to be there?” And they were like, “Oh, honey, no. You have to get your own portfolio pictures and foot the bill for it and get your portfolio together. And then we will use your portfolio to try to get you work.”
Courtney: And I was like, “Well, that sounds like a scam to me.” So I went online and I was looking up, like, “Is this a scam? Is it normal for models to pay for their own portfolio pictures?” [laughs] And at the time, I don’t know if this is still the case or not, but at the time, everything I was seeing was like, “Yeah, this is on the up-and-up, it is really common for models to have to pay for their own portfolio photos, yada yada.” So they were like, “Okay, we need a spread of lingerie photos.” And they were like, “Get back to us when you have them.” [laughs] They’re like, “You’ll be so in demand. This will be great.” So I was like, “Oh, okay.” So I was like, “Well, I’m gonna start my job at the bank… and I guess I’m gonna get some lingerie then.”
Courtney: So what did young, naive, very recently turned 18-year-old Courtney do? I went to a sex shop. [laughs] I was not super into online shopping, [laughs] doing very much online in general, at the time. So it never even occurred to me, at the time, that I could go online and shop for lingerie. So, I was like, “Where do you get lingerie?” [laughs] So, I live in the Midwest, I did and still do, and the very common thing you see across the Midwest is, as soon as you get out of city lines into, like, country road area, you start seeing signs for all of these sex shops. So, having had no interest in it, having just turned 18, I knew where to find a sex shop because of the billboard that was like, right outside of town. [laughs]
Royce: For those of you who are confused, there are some city ordinances that prevent sex stores – or really any stores with adult signage or anything like that – from being within certain areas.
Courtney: Yeah, and I guess I don’t even know what the Sioux Falls, South Dakota ordinances are, because they’re definitely… I’m pretty sure there were actually sex shops in the city bounds. But maybe there was an ordinance on advertising for it, because I can still, in my head, see the billboard for this particular [laughs] sex store that was on the outskirts of town. But it is really funny, here in Kansas City, because… I mean, we live on the Kansas side, right next to the Kansas and Missouri border. And there are definitely some places where, as soon as you cross over from Kansas into Missouri, you get hit with, like, half a dozen signs for [laughs] smoke shops and sex shops. And it’s really quite entertaining. So, if you live in the midwest, you probably know what I’m talking about.
Courtney: So I was mortified. [laughs] I was so scared and nervous and embarrassed. And, I don’t know, in hindsight, it was so silly how big of a deal this was to me. [laughs] But I went to that sex shop and I… tried my damnedest to keep my eyes down. [laughs] To just, like… I didn’t take a good look around by any means. I just saw, out of the corner of my eye, there was a wall of lingerie hanging up. And I made a beeline for that wall and absolutely did not look around whatsoever. I was like, eyes laser focused forward on the clothing. [laughs] I couldn’t even really bring myself to try anything on, of the things that I could have tried on. I was just like, “I just need to get something that looks like it fits. I need to buy it and I need to get out.” [laughs] So I grabbed the first thing that looked like, “Yeah, I think this will fit my waist, but I also think there might be enough room to, you know, cram my breasts into it.” [laughs] Because I was not an easy fit. But I was like, “Okay, I think I found something.” Grabbed it. Showed them my card proving I’m 18. Bought it. Left.
Courtney: And they had given me some names and phone numbers of photographers. And if I was a savvy model at all, I’m sure I probably should have looked at those photographers’ portfolios. But one of the photographers had a Groupon, so I went with that one. [laughs] So I met up with this [laughs] woman to take these photos with this… It was a lingerie set. It was white, it was lacy, had white sort of fishnet stockings. Really spent quite a long time figuring out how to arrange my boobs so that they didn’t fall out, [laughs] but I managed it. I, you know, did my own hair, did my own makeup. I showed up, and I mean, since I bought this Groupon, she was like, “Oh, are you taking these photos for a special someone?” I was like, “No, I just signed with a modeling agency. [laughs] I’m trying to build up my portfolio.” And she was like, “Oh, yeah. Okay, sure. [laughs] This way.”
Courtney: And I mean, she was very nice. I was… I felt so exposed, which is, again, kind of silly in hindsight, because it was a… very professional environment and it was very low pressure. But just all the complications of being asexual, not really being out to anybody, and kind of feeling, for a number of reasons, that this is what I have to do. And obviously no one was forcing me to do this, but forced sexuality is a real thing. And I think young women especially are victims of the system that demands sex appeal, that enforces, the concept that sex sells. And I wish I could say that it was a very empowering thing for me. Because when I see other women who do lingerie photo shoots – anything that’s a little bit sexy, a little pinup-y style – I can see the confidence they exude. And I always think, you know, “Good for her.” But at the place I was in, in my life, given all of the circumstances, I did not feel that at all.
Courtney: And really, at the heart of it, my biggest anxiety and concern was that other people are going to think that this is sexual in nature. That was my biggest concern. If I had internalized the idea that just because I am dressing like this or doing this job or posing in a certain way doesn’t mean that people have to take it in a sexual way, and they certainly aren’t going to impose sexuality onto me, I would have been in a much healthier place with the whole thing. But I absolutely did not have any of that. [laughs] I had no way, at that point in my life, to feel this way. So it all still felt very uncomfortable.
Courtney: And when I got my spread of photos back, honestly, the first thing I thought was, “Damn, I look pretty good! Maybe I am going to be good at this modeling thing.” But then it kind of hit me: “Oh, no, these cannot see the light of day. Nobody can see these photos.” Because it all came flooding to me, you know, people are going to see these and think of me as this sex symbol, or even worse, this sex object. And I just – I could not stomach that idea whatsoever. So I decided then and there, these are going in the vault. [laughs] No one will see this, ever.
Royce: Which is interesting, because when we moved in together, you mentioned at one point that you weren’t sure why you kept them.
Courtney: That is true. [laughs] Well, I did. So, I never submitted my portfolio. I was done, then and there, with the modeling agency, because I was like, “Mm-mm.” And, you know, just also being young and sort of not… I feel like I knew how to advocate for myself in some ways, in a more traditional office environment. I feel like at the bank, I was advocating for myself very well in that setting, for example, but in this weird, new modeling world where people are taking all of my measurements and getting excited about them and then, you know, very wilfully waiting until my 18th birthday to contact me to ask if I will do lingerie… it all felt very weird. And I was very uncomfortable, just sort of tiptoeing around in this environment already, that it never even occurred to me that I could go back to the agency and say, “No to the lingerie. What else can you get me?” Because by this point, having already gone through the photo shoot and honestly being pleased with most of the pictures I got back, but also not wanting anybody who wasn’t me to see them, I just kind of thought, “Well, I guess, what did you expect? You are 18 and you have a perfect hourglass figure with a small waist but large hips and bust. Of course they were going to inevitably stick you into lingerie.” And then I felt like the idiot for not seeing that coming. So there was a lot of, you know, tumbling around in my head.
Courtney: But the story of these photos and this lingerie doesn’t even end there. Because I still had the photos. And I didn’t want to dispose of them, because even though I didn’t want anyone to see them, I also liked them. And the thing is, I mean, a lot of women will say, “There’s a power in taking photos like this. And it doesn’t have to be for the male gaze. It doesn’t have to be for someone else. You can do this for you.” And I think that was my first little glimpse of, “Yeah, this can be for me, but it will not be for anyone else. I cannot allow that.”
Courtney: And it wasn’t even that I was insecure in my asexuality, because I feel very firmly that I was not insecure about it. But I was a lot more mindful about how others would receive me and see the whole situation. Because at the time, I mean, the discourse was still like, “Asexuals don’t exist. If you’re asexual, something is wrong with you.” And… not only did we still have several years to go before people started being like, “Yeah, asexuality is valid,” but it would be many more years before it was prominent in the discourse that people were like, “Yeah, aces can still feel sexy.” And I mean, not that we’ve made all of the leaps and bounds we need to, but there’s always the horrible, like deep-seeded rape culture of like, “Oh, what was she wearing though?” And, I mean, those things are definitely things that women everywhere internalize, but there’s an added layer of complication to that when you are an asexual woman in a hypersexual world.
Courtney: But, nevertheless, I did actually show those photos to one other person. In fact, I was like, “Well, I have these things. I’m not going to use them. What to do, what to do.” [laughs] I mentioned I was in a relationship with someone who was allosexual at the time. And even though that relationship was well and truly doomed already by this point, I still just sort of felt obligated to try to keep it alive. And I thought, you know, around Valentine’s Day, quite a while after I had taken these photos, now I was like, “I’m gonna give these to him, because maybe if I’m like, ‘Hey, I made [laughs] sexy photos for you,’ then it’s like, maybe, maybe he won’t actually want to have sex with me.” [laughs] Which… very naive baby ace way of thinking.
Courtney: But anyway, I mean, life happens, things happen. Time moves forward. We broke up, honestly, probably way later than we should have. But upon breaking up, I was like, [stern] “You leave those photos. [laughs] You give me these photos now, because there is no way in hell I am going to allow even a small margin of error for anyone else to ever see these photos again.” And so then I had the photos! And even though I was like, “Well, not in a relationship now, I’m not going to pursue this modeling thing,” I still couldn’t quite bring myself to throw them out. And it did even occur to me at one point that, you know, “What if there’s a house fire or something? I don’t have a digital copy of these.” And I thought, “Maybe I should get a digital copy just, you know, for posterity.” And I guess the kind of reason in the back of my head I had was like, “Yeah, what if, when I’m a seventy-year-old lady, I want to look back at… how hot I was when I was 18?” And I was like, [laughs] “Yeah, I’m sure my older self will really enjoy these photos.” So I actually did end up kind of using my dumb phone – it was not a smartphone, had a horrible camera – to take a picture of the pictures. So they were not good pictures, but they were on my phone. And I was, like, “Never gonna send these to anyone ever, but now I will have them, because… things don’t happen to phones… right?”
Courtney: Fast forward to when I met Royce. You can listen to our episode entitled “Our Asexual Love Story” if you want all of those details. But at a certain point we were in a long distance relationship. I was driving between South Dakota and Kansas to visit Royce, and I had a very dumb phone. And I had a really horrible rollover car crash at one point, where my phone had been completely ejected from the vehicle. And it was the middle of the night. It was very dark, on a stretch of interstate that had very few lights. And I did not think I was ever going to find that phone again, but one of the state troopers who came out to the accident brought out their flashlight and managed to find it. It had somehow made its way to the opposite side of the interstate, going – with traffic in the opposite direction. So it flew really far out of the car. And since it was just this old brick of a phone, it managed to survive. Oh my goodness. All these memories are just coming back to me now. [laughs] That brick of a phone managed to survive, and I got it back. And I just remember thinking, “Wow, at least I didn’t have a smartphone with, you know, glass that was going to shatter.” It was kind of a sliding phone with a full keyboard.
Courtney: But then after getting back home, after that, I had a lot of things I needed to wrap up. I was no longer working at the banking call center. I was managing a Things Remembered store in a mall, and I was also teaching dance and theater. Two different places. I was working at a dance studio as a teacher and choreographer, and I was also working at a theater doing sort of a kids’ summer camp musical kind of a production. And since I rarely looked at my phone, I did not even realize that my very first day back at work, when I had to put in my notice – since I was the manager, I actually had to kind of like put out a “We’re looking for… Now hiring” kind of a sign and try to tie up those ends. I had to figure out how to get a new car. Doing all these things. Someone actually saw my little brick of a phone sitting out in the store where I worked. And I’ll be damned if they didn’t steal my little brick of a phone while I was working. And who steals a phone that’s worth, like, $10? It wasn’t like it was an iPhone or something. [laughs] And since it was just a little brick, I mean, it’s not like we had tracking on it or anything like that.
Courtney: So, my phone went missing. I didn’t realize at first, but I thought, “Oh, I must have just left it at the store. I’ll just grab it when I go in later today.” And my schedule that day was… during the day, I was going to this theater camp where I was coaching, and after we wrapped up for the day, I was heading into the mall so that I could work the last few hours at the shop and close up. And it was so surreal that this all happened while I was in a room with a lot of people that I knew. Because we had the director of this theater, the executive director that we were putting this on, I had several other people there who were a combination of coaches, vocal coaches, musicians, other people that I have done theater shows with – so some people I knew quite well – as cast members, and we were all in this big auditorium. The kids were doing a dress rehearsal.
Courtney: And as if it were a scene in a movie, like five different people [laughs] that I was here with, coaching with – and we didn’t have any kids right next to us because they were all backstage sort of waiting on their cue, so it was kind of all the directors up front. Like five different people at once all had their phones buzz. And they all looked down at their phones, and then they all looked up at me, and one of them went, “Uhh, Courtney?” I was like, [nervously] “Yeah, what?” And they were like, “Why did you send this to us?” I was like, “I didn’t send anything. What are you talking about?” And I was like, “Oh, I left my phone at work yesterday. I don’t even have my phone on me.” They were like, “Well, someone has your phone.” And someone pulled me aside. And whatever asshole stole my brick of a phone that just survived a horrible rollover car crash just a couple of days earlier [laughs] found these lingerie photos in my phone, which I don’t even know why I took those pictures, and just started sending it out to people in my contact list.
Courtney: [strained] And the way my soul left my body in that moment! [laughs] Because then there were people who were like… The first guy to actually pull me aside and be like, “Hey, just so you know, this is what they’re sending,” genuinely didn’t even think it was a real picture of me. They were like, “Whoever took your phone is photoshopping your face onto these lingerie pictures.” And I was like, “N… Nope. That’s me.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man get so red so fast as when I said that. [laughs] He goes, “This… is actually a photo of you?” I was like, [matter-of-factly] “Yup. That’s me.”
Courtney: And so yeah, that was basically the most horrifying moment in my life. Because the worst part of it is the lack of consent. I could have chosen to release those photos if I wanted. I could have maybe even had a lucrative modeling career based on those photos. But instead, I decided they were never going to see the light of day. I don’t even know why I decided to take a picture of them on my phone. Because I wasn’t sending them anywhere, so that was probably not a very wise decision on my part, since I had no intention of doing anything with a digital version of them.
Courtney: But yeah, I found out that whoever stole my phone and just decided to send all this out to random people did not get to everybody, which I’m grateful for. They did try to send those photos to my grandmother, but luckily her phone was so old that she couldn’t even receive photos via text. But I definitely saw her later that day, and she was like, “Oh, did you try sending me something? It says here that there’s a photo but I can’t get into it.” I was like, “Nope. That was just a silly mistake. Just delete that.” [laughs] So yeah, the funny thing is, I mean… Royce, you had actually sent me home with a backup smartphone at a certain point, so I had to kind of scramble to get that connected with service. Super lucky that I had that. What weird, wacky coincidences my life has been. I almost wouldn’t believe [laughs] how weirdly perfect everything is that fits together if it didn’t happen to me myself, but it did, in fact, do that.
Royce: I can’t remember exactly why we did that either. I know I had just upgraded my phone. So I had the old phone that I had nothing to do with. And it may have just been… I don’t think your computer at the time had a camera. And so I think the idea was, a WiFi-only smartphone could be a way to video call, but then it very quickly became a primary phone.
Courtney: Well, my phone didn’t have any internet because I didn’t want internet on my phone. [laughs] I was pulled kicking and screaming into the smartphone realm during that period of time. But luckily, I had that phone, because otherwise I would have had to scramble to buy one altogether at that moment. But yeah, eventually, I don’t know, that person got bored or the phone died and they didn’t have a charger for it because the phone was a million years old, or what, but I got set up. I think contacting you was probably one of the first things I did, to, I don’t know, cry about everything that transpired. [laughs] And I also… I was definitely, at that point, like, “How many people got these photos?” Because there were nearly half a dozen people that were in that very room with me, and it was super coincidental that I was even with a bunch of people who are in my contact list. And I couldn’t quite tell if they were just sending to people who were currently in my inbox, like people I’d recently spoken to, because of course, I was communicating with other people from the theater, coordinating things. So that might have been what was up.
Courtney: I know they tried to send something to my grandmother, who was listed as Grandma in my phone. I was really horrified that they’d try to send it to my mother, but I don’t think they did. I think I tried hinting at asking, like, “Oh my phone… left. Have you gotten any weird messages? Because it’s not me. If you get any messages, you should probably just delete it right away.” [laughs] I don’t know if I was that sketchy about it. But I did, at that point in time, I was like, “I am not keeping anybody in my phone list with any identifiers for what their relationship is to me.” Like I changed… when I got my new phone and started adding the new contacts, I changed my grandmother’s name to her actual name. I changed my mom’s name to her real name. I think that inadvertently actually may have offended my mom at one point. Because I think she saw, over my shoulder with my phone one time, that she was listed in my phone as just her first and last name. And I remember her commenting on that. And I definitely wasn’t about to be like, “Well, you see, when someone stole my phone, they tried sending photos of me in lingerie to the person in my contact list who was listed as Grandma. [laughs] And I don’t want a repeat of that situation.” So I’m sure I skirted the question or tried to be really vague about it. But I did feel bad at that time. Come to think of it, [laughs] I don’t think my mom knows any of this. Because, quite honestly, I have told you, Royce, and probably a couple of my closer friends who… may or may not have gotten photos that day themselves. And, of course, all the people I was with who first informed me that this was happening to begin with know, but I did not tell this story to anybody who didn’t need to know.
Royce: There was at least one other close friend trying to figure this out. Because there were points in times when you were having issues communicating with us, because phone, where they were talking with me.
Courtney: That’s right. Yeah. Yeah. She was, I think, texting and calling that person, trying to get them to agree to meet somewhere and get the phone back. I had people who cared for me deeply who were trying to figure this out, but I also had two jobs to do that day, in addition to preparing to make a massive multi-state-away move. So…. it was a rough time, [laughs] really, really rough time. And so, then when we were, you know, packing up my house, just a handful of days later, getting things ready to move, I pulled the actual physical photos out of a file and I was like, “Well, Royce… Here are the photos in question.” [laughs] I seriously considered just tossing them in the dumpster, along with anything else that was just really old, broken, not coming with us, et cetera. But there was still something… I just, I felt like I needed to hang on to them, and I didn’t know why. But I do think… I never digitized them again. I definitely did not do that. And nor have I shown them to anybody else or even talked about this. So, what a way to start telling this story – very publicly, on a podcast – for the first time.
Courtney: I guess in addition to all of the just… compulsory sexuality, the sort of sexist nature of, you know, “As soon as a girl turns 18, this is the direction we’re trying to take it,” and just being asexual and not feeling ready to have the fight about educating people about what I asexuality is, but also giving them any bit of ammunition to discredit you – I was also often working with children. I taught dance lessons for many, many years. I taught acting classes, coached theater camps. There have been times where I’ve worked at a science center, giving science demonstrations to children, or as a zookeeper doing animal encounters. So, working with kids has been a tremendous part of my life. And there was also just that horrible staggering fear that someone, somewhere, is going to find out that you took photos like this and decide that you are not fit to be working with children. That was another really big concern that I had on top of everything else that there was.
Courtney: And, you know, at this time, we didn’t have someone like a Yasmin Benoit, who was an openly asexual model, who is absolutely killing it and often does lingerie looks. I think maybe, if there had been someone like that, perhaps that’s someone I could have seen and found and started to feel differently about. But that was just not my reality at the time. And there are people who still, to this day, will use that to attack Yasmin and say, like, “How does this actually help asexual people if you’re a model and if you pose in anything risque?” It’s like… there is so much complication in just… societal views of sex and sexuality that are difficult for any young person, any woman, any ace. And I think if there are any other young aces out there who maybe actually do want to pursue modeling, whether it is or is not lingerie-related, it helps to have someone else like them represented, to give you assurance that, yes, it is okay. We need real-world representation of asexual people in all manner of lines of work. We need more visibility for ace artists and scientists and teachers and models. Because I’ll tell you, putting on this lingerie, posing for these photos, yielded a couple of good photos. I think they are aesthetically nice. But I never once felt sexual for wearing them or for being on that set. No matter what you put on your body, no matter what you’re wearing or not wearing, it doesn’t change who you are. There’s no enforced dress code for your sexuality. It’s a ridiculous concept.
Courtney: Which… I do want to get back around to the actual Ace Week campaign that Yasmin did in partnership with Playful Promises this year. Because honestly, I thought it was great. There were a lot of other people in the ace community who did think it was good, but there were a lot of haters. And I did even see some people in the ace community who were also criticizing, saying, you know, “Why does this help? This just adds to more confusion.” And really, for the most part, what I saw were people who couldn’t be bothered to actually look into what the campaign was. Because, of course, to advertise it on social media, the model [laughs] who is doing a lingerie shoot is going to post those photos, as well she should. But so many people saw these photos, wearing her purple lingerie, and just… stopped right then and there and said, “You claiming to be asexual and wearing this lingerie is not representation.”
Courtney: But so many people saying, “I fail to see why this is asexual. I don’t understand,” clearly didn’t see the actual interview and published blog that is right on the Playful Promises website, where not only do they show the full spread of looks and photographs, but they have Yasmin on here talking about what asexual representation is, what it’s lacking, what we need more of. She’s talking about how lingerie can be a form of self-empowerment. And from what I’ve witnessed, the self-empowerment is only allowable if the woman is allosexual. If there’s a woman who is straight, for example, and does a sexy photo shoot and says, “I didn’t do this for a man. I did this for me,” she’s gonna get so much applause from self-proclaimed feminists. There are going to be people who are going to say, “Good for you, girl. Absolutely more power to you.” But as soon as an asexual woman does this, everyone says, “Mm, no, you can’t just be doing this for yourself. There must be an ulterior motive.” Definite double standard.
Courtney: And so not only was there a storm of negative comments on social media, but there were people going so far as to publish op-eds about how weird and wrong this is. And one of them in particular that stood out to me, I really want to touch on. Because this comes from a published author, has multiple photography books, verified blue checkmark and everything Twitter account, tens of thousands of followers, just a couple of 10 shy of 100K. So, this isn’t a random small troll account by any means. She published an article entitled, “I sympathize with the asexual community, but don’t get your knickers in a twist if I say this lingerie campaign is more about the male gaze than identity.” So before you even read another word, you know it’s gonna be quite something when you start with “I sympathize with this community of people, [emphasizes] but…”
Courtney: And she comes right out of the gate with, “Nothing says ‘asexual’ more than a provocative, sexy photograph of a gorgeous model wearing bondage-themed underwear.” The “bondage themes” really gets me too, because I saw nary a chain nor a whip. There was a corset. Do you mean the corset? [laughs] After a lot of really snide comments like, “Oh, if this is asexual-themed lingerie, what does sexual-themed look like?” Just willfully ignoring the point. But then she goes on to say, “I’m not unsympathetic. In fact, I’m actually interested in what it means to be asexual. In fact, I photographed and interviewed an asexual woman for a poignant story in my book, Bare Reality: 100 Women, Their Breasts, and Their Stories.” So I immediately had to drop everything midway through this article to look up what that is. It is very much what it sounds like. She photographed 100 women wearing nothing, exposed breasts, for a photography book, and interviewed them all about what their breasts mean to them, if they have a complicated relationship with their breasts, et cetera. And so by the same logic that she is imposing on Yasmin, isn’t that sexual? Is the asexual person she photographed bare-chested actually sexual, because how can you be naked otherwise?
Courtney: But she goes on to say, “I’m not a prude. In fact, I appeared in my own books. I photographed myself naked for these books. And actually, I do like this lingerie. Maybe I’ll buy some myself.” [laughs] And don’t get me wrong, I do think that there is something to be said for desexualizing the very concept of nudity. Because being nude does not mean that you are sexual or that the situation you’re in is sexual. There are naturalists or nudists out there who will agree with me 100% on this.
Courtney: But if you believe that you can desexualize nudity but you can’t desexualize lingerie, which are garments – and sure, maybe they’re a little more revealing than what you’d wear out and about in public, but, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just too asexual for this myself. I just, I cannot wrap my head around saying that any given situation or article of clothing will 100% always be sexual. You can’t separate this from sexuality whatsoever. It just does not compute to me. I have worn lingerie before. It has not been sexual. It just hasn’t been. That isn’t to say that someone wouldn’t perhaps look at these photos and feel sexually attracted to me. Sure, of course, there are many people who would. But that doesn’t make me sexual. It’s a very toxic mindset. Because you are a half a step away from that very same notion in rape culture of like, “Oh, well, what was she wearing? Was she asking for it?” And I just thought, in this feminist conversation, that we were past that point, but apparently not.
Courtney: And along the same lines as the toxic mindset, she goes on to say, “This campaign left me and hordes of other people confused. If you put very sexualized image on social media, expect comment. If it accompanies a campaign about asexuality, expect a lot of comment.” And it really shows me that she either did not read the actual article attached with this campaign, or she brushed over it or just genuinely did not care and is still just angry that an asexual woman can be confident wearing lingerie. She goes on to talk about, “I don’t see how this could possibly be asexual-themed,” where it’s on an asexual model, they are using the colors of the ace pride flag as the entire driving factor behind these looks and why they look the way they do.
Courtney: And she even says, “There may be some completely logical reason to wear a corset and thigh-high boots other than sexual attraction, but it’s beyond my reasoning.” Yasmin outright explains what lingerie means to her and why she likes it and why she wears it and finds it empowering in the article. And I think it’s very well-put and very valid. I mean, we’ll be re-sharing this on our Twitter. We’ll put it in our show notes if you want to find a link, of course, to read it all for yourself, and I recommend that you do. But she talks about growing up interested in the gothic subculture – which is something I can very much relate to as well – saying that she saw things like corsets and stockings and boots and… Yeah, have you ever been in a goth club? You see these things everywhere. I also, as an asexual woman, have incorporated things like corsets into my own everyday fashion. It’s because I think it looks cool, and I think I look good in it, not because it is sexual.
Courtney: And she even talks about other areas, like professional wrestling and video games, where there are women who are portrayed as being completely badass and wearing very skimpy clothing – sometimes literally lingerie. And again, yeah, have you ever played a Mortal Kombat game? Do you see what women do wear in professional wrestling? And she was talking about how she’s begun to associate looks like this with power and strength. And that completely makes sense to me. Now, of course, another woman might look at it and say, “These women in video games in the skimpy clothing, that’s actually objectifying, and I think it’s problematic.” That’s also a valid way to feel about it. But if you’re exposed to this and you can relate to these characters on some level, if you can feel some level of power come from that, use it and don’t look down on anyone else who uses it.
Courtney: I mean, I personally grew up playing things like Mortal Kombat. I actually, one time, won a Soulcalibur competition – I think it was Soulcalibur II I won a tournament on – playing Ivy Valentine, who was my favorite character to play, and she is basically wearing a thong and a very skimpy bra, [laughs] and has a small waist and very large breasts. And she absolutely kicked ass with her breakaway sword. I thought she was the coolest! And the only reason why I myself did not ever want to cosplay Ivy or wear something similar was because I was too afraid that people were going to impose sexuality onto me.
Courtney: So the fact that Yasmin can see the same things, appreciate the aesthetic of similar things and the power and the general badassery around it, but also still say, “Fuck it. I am who I am and you have to deal with it” – that is tremendously empowering, and we need more of that in this world. But this just egregious backlash is just so messed up. And I mean, if we’re still getting this now, I just think back to how horrible it actually would have been years ago, when I considered doing lingerie modeling as an asexual woman. It would not have been good. And at this point in my life, I think I could handle it. Back then, I don’t think I could have. I absolutely could not have.
Courtney: But yeah, there was this magnificent line that Yasmin said in this article, saying that “Lingerie is the closest thing you can get to a straight-up superhero outfit without going full Comic-Con.” And that is true. Do not even the Comic-Con superheroes wear, like, basically a leotard at best? But yeah, just to come back to this – because I can’t get over this horrible, horrible article, because she goes on to say, like, [not convincingly] “Of course, Yasmin is attractive. I don’t have any sour grapes.” But she says, “She shouldn’t be surprised that the rest of us see this ad as nothing more than about the male gaze, and more about sexuality than asexuality.” I mean, or is her book showing 100 women’s bare breasts appealing to the male gaze? I’m sure if you asked her that she would say no. I don’t know her. I don’t know her heart. But I’m sure she would say – I think she even used the word “poignant.” I think she’s like, “poignant stories and interviews.”
Courtney: What really just happened, instead of sympathizing with the asexual community and being concerned by “people are going to get the wrong message,” you just didn’t listen to the message. It was a very reactionary response. You saw a beautiful strong Black woman in lingerie saying, “I am asexual and lingerie is still empowering. Here’s why. Read my story.” And you refused to read the story. Because you stopped right then and there and said, “This does not compute. So, instead of trying to learn, I’m gonna get mad about it and write a whole ass op-ed [laughs] and publish it.” Like, what kind of person? My goodness. This same woman, by the way, didn’t stop at breasts. She also did a book – I found out because I looked up her TED Talk. This woman has a TED talk. [laughs] She also did a book of penises. Was that appealing to the female gaze? Because I don’t think I even know straight women who like the look of penises. [laughs]
Royce: That’s still the male gaze. Just probably from an insecure point of view, instead of a… oversexualized point of view.
Courtney: Oh, I thought you were going to say the gay gaze. The male gay-ze. [laughs] It’s the male gaze all the way down!
Royce: No. Funny story, actually. There was one time at work when I was doing some web design research, and I was finding eye-tracking studies. These are studies where you have a device behind a computer that tracks where a person’s focus is on the screen in front of them. What they found, completely unintentionally, while just trying to test where people looked at different parts of the website, was that, within their diverse sample size of men and women and different sites, if there was a man on screen and their waist was visible, an extremely high percentage of the men being studied would fixate on the crotch of the man in the picture. And I shouldn’t say “man.” It was male… creatures. Because the same thing happened if there was a dog or a horse in the image.
Courtney: No shit! That is a fantastic study!
Royce: That was an entirely unintended discovery within this eye tracking test.
Courtney: I mean, that makes it even better. [laughs] Did the men look at other men’s crotches more than women did?
Royce: Women had no… consistent visual fixation.
Courtney: Wow! So it is, in fact, this woman who is appealing to the male gaze the most. [laughs]
Royce: Through the penis study? Or book?
Courtney: The penis book. The boob book. She did have a vulva book as well. Which, she’s very quick to point out, “I appeared in my own books. My boobs are in there too. My vulva is in there too.” Which – there was one other thing where she’s like, “It’s a very empowering thing because women have a complicated relationship with their breasts,” which I agree with as an asexual woman who is very large-chested and has been from a young age. Most of my complication comes from the fact that people sexualize my breasts, and that is a whole other can of worms. But she tries to make this, you know, “These are diverse experiences. Some of these women had breast cancer. Some of these women have breastfed. They have breasts of all different shapes and sizes.” And she says, “And I even appeared in my own book, and what I found was, after doing this for myself, my breasts became –” I think she used the word “erogenous, even more erogenous.” Which, like, good for you, if that’s what it does for you. Again, more power to you. But just because you have a sexuality that is… I mean, good on you if you have a sexuality and you feel like posing without a shirt makes you feel even more empowered in that sexuality, that is absolutely fine. But I’m sure a lot of people would also argue that doing something like this would maybe desexualize nudity a little bit. It probably does different things for different women. And you can’t impose your own narrative on someone else. Just because you would feel very sexy and very risque and very sexual and sexualized if you were to pose in lingerie doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to feel exactly the same way.
Courtney: And there is very much – there’s also a very trans-exclusionary element to all of this. We’ve touched on, in a past episode, that the TERFs really dislike not only trans people, but also ace people, and, my goodness, a trans ace person. And god forbid this woman doing all these photography books – I don’t disagree with the idea behind them, I think there’s a place for it, but the books are called things like “Womanhood” and “Manhood.” And it’s the same kind of sex organs over and over. Sure, there are penises of all different shapes and sizes, but there isn’t a trans man to be found in there. And to call it “Manhood” and to reduce men to their penises: mm, not great. To say “Womanhood” and to reduce the women to their breasts: also not great. It’s very much masquerading as feminism while having an ulterior motive. And hidden within that is an added layer of people wanting you to embrace your sexuality and feel confident and empowered in it – as long as you have the sexuality. It’s very much, you know, “We want women to feel sexy and empowered, but they have to feel sexy and empowered in our way, in the sexual way, in the male gaze-y way.”
Courtney: And, you know, I really don’t know what people like this… because there are a lot of them out there. It is not this one woman in isolation. She’s just the one with the biggest platform who decided to make the biggest fuss out of it, that I saw. What do they want us to do? I mean, clearly they want us to just be sexual, which is gross, [laughs] and it’s very hard. That’s disgusting to wish upon or force upon anyone. But with all this talk of, like, “I sympathize with asexuals, [emphasizes] but…” Who are the asexuals that you’re sympathizing with? What do we have to look like in order for you to say, “Yeah, you’re fine.” Like, do we literally need to wear a potato sack? Do we need to not have boobs?
Royce: Instead of a potato sack, I think a giant garlic bread Halloween costume would be more fitting.
Courtney: Yeah. Oh, I’m sorry. Let me slip into something a little more asexual.
Royce: A slice of cake.
Courtney: And, you know, there are varying degrees of looks in this, also. I mean, there is one with a corset. There is one that’s a little more like a leotard. She’s wearing a jacket in one. There’s even one where, yeah, it does look like maybe it’s a little bit sheer, a little bit see-through, but it’s kind of like a jumpsuit. And as long as you wore a camisole underneath it and it wasn’t super see-through, you could wear this to the club. It has full legs. [laughs] And it’s a really good look. I really like it, actually. There’s kind of a little bit of a ’70s element to it. And it’s like a jumpsuit. It actually kind of reminds me of an action figure I had of Felicity when I was younger. I think that jumpsuit was actually shorts instead of long legs, but there were definitely thigh-high boots and a low-cut V, and it was definitely a purple getup. And, of course, this was a white blond woman, but it very much has the same vibes as this Felicity action figure I had.
Royce: Wait a minute. How did you end up with a Felicity Shagwell from the Austin Powers series action figure? I didn’t even know they made those.
Courtney: [laughing] Her last name is Shagwell?! Well, I either didn’t know that when I was a kid or I didn’t know what that meant and just forgot it as an innocuous detail. [laughs] I have no idea. I’ve never even seen that movie, but I had that action figure. I also had a Buffy the Vampire Slayer action figure. I don’t know, what do you want from me? [laughs] I imagine that’s what porn names are like. Is that trying to sound like a porn name? Is that the point? Is that a silly question? [laughs]
Royce: I’m not familiar enough with the James Bond series to know if that is some sort of parody of an actual James Bond character or if they were just going off of the notion that there are a lot of oversexualized women in those movies. Because the Austin Powers franchise was a parody.
Courtney: So anyway, my woeful lack of movie knowledge and surprising choice in childhood action figures aside, that is the story of how I almost became an asexual lingerie model. But here’s the real question that nobody ever asks. Everyone always asks, “How can you be asexual if you wear lingerie?” But here’s a question for you, Royce. Because everyone always asks the women, so let me ask the non-woman: “Would you still be asexual if you married a lingerie model? Doesn’t that somehow imply… that you are in fact sexual in some way?” [laughs]