What Is Sexy, Exactly? Absolutely Anything.

You'd think something that works its way into so much of our advertising, art and general conversations — "sexiness" — would be easier to nail down. But when Esquire, a men's magazine that has ostensibly printed enough "sexy" covers since 1933 to know, asked a man and a woman to answer the question "What is sexy?" as part of a "fair and balanced investigation" into the notion, the responses that came back are, to traffic in cliché, about as clear as mud.

But you don't have to read it to discover what sexy is, because I can tell you what is sexy: Everything. Anything. Everything is sexy. Anything is sexy. I really mean it. It's not all sexy to you or to me, of course, but pretty much everything is sexy to someone. Or even a lot of someones. (I know you will be able to trot out some horrible/depraved thing that is not sexy at all, and I have to say, remember the guy with the constipation fetish? Alright then.)

Perhaps this is why it's so hard to define, and so hard to talk about accurately. What is sexy is like asking what is pretty — the answer is, it depends. There are lots of things most people think of as sexy, but no one definitive thing that amounts to sexy in the eyes of everyone, or even at all times. And that's probably for a very simple reason: sexiness is in our DNA, so the sheer number of things we could find sexy are truly unfathomable. It is so subjective, so whimsical, so dependent on a particular confluence of experiences, images, and cultural conditioning, to say nothing of circumstance, that no one notion of sexiness is quite going to get it.

As a culture, we are constantly striving to define "sexy." If you just Google "what is sexy," the most recent results are roundups that place in sexy's mailbox behaviors ranging from being affectionate to laughing at a guy's jokes to being nice, to being modest.

We tell men things like, real sexiness is when you do the dishes, and we tell women things like, real sexiness is when you have bulletproof confidence. But real sexiness is both everywhere and elusive, and could be any of the following items from this extremely impartial list:

  • Sexy-insecure
  • Sexy-ugly
  • Sexy-portly
  • Sexy-scrawny
  • Sexy-androgynous
  • Sexy-dumb
  • Sexy-smart
  • Sexy-funny
  • Sexy-serious
  • Sexy-nice
  • Sexy-mean
  • Sexy-controlling
  • Sexy-generous
  • Sexy-clean
  • Sexy-dirty
  • Sexy-goofy
  • Sexy-bored

You get the point. The sheer range of what could be considered sexy is so vast, so expansive, because at our core, most of us want to have sex at some point or another, meaning, it behooves to not be limited in what turns us on, no? It would be problematic, population-wise, if the only thing we thought was sexy was, say, the smell of jasmine on Saturdays in July for a five-minute window.

And when you are a sex-having people, it would seem then that inclusivity would be a good thing. But don't go looking for that over in Esquire's thing — but should you want to read it anyhow, go for it. It involves a dude talking to a bunch of models and a woman who doesn't think men should Care about how they look. Sure, I love when investigations turn over precisely one leaf, and one leaf only. But nowhere are the following obviously sexy things covered:

  • Avocados
  • Volcanoes
  • The word desiderata
  • Reading out loud
  • Screeds
  • Drawers that open slowly
  • The explaining of scientific/sophisticated concepts in lay terms
  • Big, long, tedious, nuanced debates
  • Old books
  • Handwritten letters
  • People who are willing to talk about handwritten letters
  • Fog

I could go on. We haven't even started talking about knee socks or people who have good watch arms or elbow patches on tweed blazers or the way hair that isn't supposed to be messy looks when it gets accidentally messy?

These things are sexy. You could put all these things in a room and I might never be pulled from that room. The takeaway here is not to send me a care package of avocados and old letters, though you totally can, it's that sexy is a construct, and unfortunately, in this world, it's a very very very unimaginative, narrow, boring one that fails to address many sexy things and focuses on other, boring things that have been sexy for so long I'm willing to suggest right here they might have even lost some of their sexy. (Boring can be sexy, truth told.) Maybe it's all the hot body fatigue, but I'm really looking forward to sweaters.

Here's the thing: If you think about the first thing you thought was sexy, it might be the silliest thing in the world. I think one of the first things I thought was sexy was a guy on the cover of an old Sweet Valley High book, just some preppy guy with like, an oxford shirt? But this image had been framed for me, through the books targeted to me, through current fashion, through the way other girls I knew coveted them, to the way the very stories written about them encoded their desirability for me, ready-made, as ideal. Also, he was a cute guy?

But the point is, almost nothing happens in a vacuum, especially our notions of what's appealing. That is to say, your idea of sexy is a mash-up of images, ideas, cultural conditioning, particular preferences, and your own specific experiences in the world. We know that notions of sexy over time have changed alongside fashion — women's weight, men's facial hair — thus explaining the ability to go back and find photos of bearded Civil War soldiers super hot without even having to visit Brooklyn.

What bugs me is that when people think anything that isn't a Victoria's Secret model/George Clooney isn't sexy, they feel like they are the exception to the sexy rule, that their taste is somehow offbeat. I do it all the time, and then I catch myself: there's nothing offbeat about being drawn to regular humans with all their flaws and peccadilloes. What's weirder is that we're so conditioned toward the fake image that it is has become normalized as Definitively Sexy.

That said, there's another big contradiction in the discussion: What we say looks sexy and what actually looks and, more importantly, feels sexy are often two entirely different things. Soft, fleshy skin looks and feels lovely to me — I am one of those people who almost always prefers the look, instant-judgment style, of the before picture of the woman over the really gaunt, zero-body fat after-woman I know I'm supposed to want to be. But the general perception is there's this one version of sexy, and only one.

Then there is not what merely looks or feels sexy, but what sounds sexy and also stimulates the mind. For an easy example of what I'm talking about, see Sarah Polley's brilliant film Take This Waltz, a movie that swims in the idea of sex and sexiness without indulging in it, at least, not like you'd expect. One of the sexiest scenes in the very lushly shot movie involves no actual sex, it's Daniel (Luke Kirby) describing in sweet-yet-simultaneously-pornographic language what he would do to Margot (Michelle Williams), if he were, in fact, able to do with her what he pleased. And it all happens at 2 p.m. in a bar with martinis on the table that are never consumed. Sexy is sitting there telling someone how you want to explore them, even when you are not touching.

Of course, yeah, those are good-looking people in movies. It's going to be sexy regardless I guess. But this, to me, seems closer to real life than the majority of what is sold to me as sexy — hyper-groomed, hyper-cultivated, antiseptic images of sexy perfection that don't allow for flaws, quirks, or most of the time, even words.

Not that images aren't perfectly sexy. It's just for every person to decide, and it might be of use to consider how unexpected sexiness can be. On that note, I leave you with an essay someone sent me a while back that I still think about sometimes. I doubt it's the sort of thing most people conjure when they think about sexiness, and it would never make it into most men's mags to be heralded as such, but it's a pretty radical read on seeing a sex surrogate from the perspective of a quadriplegic that forced me to reconsider my ideas about this whole sexy business. Perhaps it will for you, too.

Image via Jim Cooke