Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2019 | 9 minutes (2,387 words)
“She’s got the nerve to say / She wants to fuck that boy so badly.” These are the lyrics to the titular track from Third Eye Blind’s 2003 album Out of the Vein (stay with me). They are written by Stephan Jenkins, who has admitted his three-year relationship with Charlize Theron acted as inspiration. Whether or not that particular song is about her, one thing is clear: Charlize Theron knows she wants to fuck a specific boy, even if she is uncertain who that boy is. “I’ve been single for ten years, it’s not a long shot,” she said recently in some interview, dorkily referencing the title of her new film, which is about a presidential hopeful who falls for Seth Rogen (why not?). “Somebody just needs to grow a pair and step up.”
Charlize Theron is thirsty. That surprises people. And by people, I mean me. How is it possible that Charlize Theron has to desire at all, considering she is so desired herself? (Doesn’t one negate the other?) You could sense an army of unworthy men clutching their collective pearls in response to her statement. That this statuesque blond with the kind of face you only see carved out of marble not only has to, God forbid, ask for it, but that she can speak like a sailor about it, shatters the pristine image of beauty — no wants, no desires — she otherwise projects. Theron’s words jolted us back to her humanity. The balls she asked for were the balls to approach her with desire, knowing that she has the power not to desire in return. Charlize Theron is dictating the expression of her thirst, but also the man who is worthy of it.
If the original iteration of “thirst” was a plunging desperation, this one is an uplifting affirmation. NPR traced its root, “thirst trap,” back to 2011; but Jezebel actually defined the singular “thirst” first in 2014, as lust “for sex, for fame, for approval. It’s unseemly striving for an unrealistic goal, or an unnecessary amount of praise.” This was the definition picked up in 2017 by The New York Times Magazine, imbuing thirst with negativity. But in the intervening years, women got a hold of it. These women, objects for so long within an atmosphere of men’s ambient lust, emerged to twist thirst from a cloying wish into full-bodied desire. Out of the wreckage of male toxicity, they used thirst to mark the men who remained worthy. There’s a reason Theron is still single — few men can step up. What’s more, in a world run by female desire, some are terrified of being left unwanted if they do.
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It’s hard to get a clear picture of female desire across a history mostly seen through the male gaze, afflicted as it was with the rare myopia that focuses only on the virgin and the whore. So you had virtuous, prim, usually classier orderly women who were worth marrying, and sinful, messy, gutter-dwelling hysterics who were worth a quick screw, and that’s it. If a woman expressed desire and wasn’t faking it for money, she was a deranged man-eater, like a witch or a harpy. Men’s lust was natural, women’s was the most unnatural. Eventually, fandom offered a means of escape. “While it was risky for individual women to lose control or to surrender to passion, there could be safety in numbers,” wrote Carol Dyhouse in Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire. So women swooned all over the place for Franz Liszt in the mid-19th century before having a collective orgasm over Vaslav Nijinsky, then Rudolph Valentino — the first man (the first person) for whom the word “sexy” was deemed worthy of use. What these men had in common was fluidity — of gender, of sexuality, of race. “I hate [him],” cartoonist Dick Dorgan wrote of Valentino. “The women are all dizzy over him.” Real men hated this new masculine ideal because real women wanted it and they couldn’t deliver. So they took sexy back. The Hays Code put women who wanted sex in movie jail and in their place installed women with whom men wanted to have sex.
The new “sexy” icon became Marilyn Monroe, described by Molly Haskell (From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies) as “the lie that a woman has no sexual needs, that she is there to cater to, or enhance, a man’s needs.” It is a meandering but fairly unbroken line from Monroe to reality star and one-time child bride Courtney Stodden, who has not only physically fashioned herself into her idol, but also appears as troubled. In a recent interview with BuzzFeed, the now 24-year-old pitied her boyfriend for not cashing in on his expectations. “He thought he was going to get in a relationship with this hot young celebrity who’s all sexual and fun,” she said. “He gets in there and I don’t have sex, I’m a mess, and I’m crazy.” So, not really much change from the original dichotomy, the one which limits big-busted babes like her, like Kim Kardashian-West, to conduits for sex. The latter can launch her career off a sex tape, while Jennifer Lawrence, the slapstick virginal non-bottle blonde, can almost be undone by a couple of photos. And forget being a woman who has sex with more than one man; Kristen Stewart had to apologize publicly for that, forced to do a glorified perp walk in a world where husbands have had mistresses longer than Edward Cullen has been undead.
Almost every article I read about female sexuality cited Freud — specifically his inability to figure out what women want. It says a lot that on this subject we are still deferring to a psychoanalyst who predates women’s liberation. It served men like Freud and those who followed him to theorize that women had a lower sex drive (unproven and kind of the opposite), were more romantic than randy (unproven and kind of the opposite), because it meant women could not use men for sex the way men used women. Yet, as Psychology Today reported back in 2013, “If women believe that they will not be harmed and that the sex will be good, their willingness to engage in casual sex equals that of men.” Relax, bros, rape culture keeps that in check. “It is anti-sex and anti-pleasure,” writes Laurie Penny. “It teaches us to deny our own desire as an adaptive strategy for surviving a sexist world.” And now you can stop relaxing; since women have begun dismantling that world, they have also begun releasing their desire — these days better known as thirst.
Some men think the objectification of women has simply turned into women’s objectification of men, but that’s not what thirst is: Where the male gaze limits women to the flesh, the female gaze fleshes men out. Famous guys provide an aspirational model, with women filling in the holes with their wants, showing real guys how to enhance themselves to satisfy women like Charlize.
We have women of color to thank for pushing men to meet us halfway. Their brand of lady thirst went mainstream in 2017, the year ELLE announced “the Golden Age of Thirst Journalism,” and BuzzFeed got celebrities to read “thirst tweets” — their fans’ horny messages — and launched the “Thirst Aid Kit” podcast. That show centered on the famous crushes of hosts Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins, from established hunks like Chris Evans to pensive actors of color like John Cho. “We are two straight black women talking about lust and desire and sexuality,” Adewunmi told Salon last year, “and all these expressions of humanity [are] not something that has traditionally been given to black women.” In their wake, black Canadian writer Kyrell Grant quietly articulated the concept of “big dick energy” (in reference to recently deceased chef Anthony Bourdain). “It’s a phrase I’d used with friends to refer to guys who aren’t that great but for whatever reason you still find attractive,” she wrote in The Guardian. But while black women are stereotyped for being game, they aren’t expected to set the rules. The Cut sought to profit off the term without crediting Grant, effectively muting her, though it was writer Hunter Harris whose desire was more directly silenced.
Vulture’s resident thirst critic — “i have something adam can drive” — was suspended by Twitter last week amid protests by fellow writers. “JUSTICE FOR HUNTER HARRIS, a thirst maestro and one of the funniest people on this hellsite,” Alanna Bennett tweeted. I DM’d Harris for the details of her suspension and she told me that a photographer had issued a copyright complaint about an image she used last summer in a tweet on the “secret romance” between Rihanna and Leonardo DiCaprio (she can’t remember the exact words and, because Twitter removed it, she can’t check). Around the same time that this happened, Quinn Hough, the editor of a tiny online film and music publication, Vague Visages, went viral (in a bad way) after pulling a strong anti-thirst stance on Twitter. The tweet in question has since been deleted, but Hough told me via email that he’d written “a poorly worded thread after seeing tweets from young critics that I thought were excessive and wouldn’t necessarily be acceptable in a professional environment.”
With women being the ones who thirst tweet most visibly, Hough’s comments were interpreted as an attempt to police women’s desire. “I just get very angry at any kind of sex-shaming because I’ve been told my whole life that if I express sexual desire, I’m a slut or dirty,” Danielle Ryan tweeted in response. “It really comes across differently to women.” While Hough’s site may be small, he still acts as a gatekeeper in the world of criticism, a conduit to larger more established outlets. His discrimination against what appeared to be young female writers, was a microcosm of a wider systemic double standard, particularly when he claimed, “Critics can say anything they want, but expressing sexual desire for subjects will minimize their chances for a staff position somewhere.”
This is where Hunter Harris resurfaces. The simultaneous timing of her suspension with the Vague Visages pile-on acted as a trigger for women accustomed to being muted, turning a copyright notice into a symbol of the suppression of black women’s desire. Meanwhile, other Twitter users expressed their delight at Harris’s expulsion. “It’s sad that @vulture encouraged her psychosis, but will probably be looking to dump her, now that @hunteryharris got her twitter account suspended,” wrote one guy who goes by Street Poetics (“PhD in These Streets”). A man he referenced in that same tweet, Jurg Bajiour, responded, “It’s true. @hunteryharris seemed to want to show me that it was *her job* to endlessly horny-tweet about actors.” (Harris denies this).
The missives were rich considering male film critics readily maintain staff positions despite waving around their boners in their actual reviews. “I didn’t miss Lynda Carter’s buxom, apple-cheeked pinup,” New York’s David Edelstein wrote in his Wonder Woman review. You may remember him also writing of Harry Potter, “prepubescent Watson is absurdly alluring,” in a review that originally appeared in Slate in 2001 and resurfaced after his Wonder Woman hard-on. Compare this to famously thirsty film critic Pauline Kael, whose books boast titles like I Lost It at the Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: “There is a thick, raw sensuality that some adolescents have which seems almost preconscious. In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta has this rawness to such a degree that he seems naturally exaggerated.” There is a lot of sex here, but Kael is not the subject, Travolta not the object, and it layers rather than reduces. In fact, Female Film Critics’ Twitter poll on critical thirst — “What do you think of ‘thirst’ in film criticism?” — which followed the Vague Visages controversy, attracted 468 votes with a runaway 44 percent responding, “A grand tradition (Kael!)” Still, Hunter Harris admits she felt odd being erroneously credited as its icon. “i dont want to be like a martyr for the horny cause lmao,” she told me via DM, “but it is very nice that ppl are defensive of woc being openly desirous !”
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While thirst is most common in the field of Hollywood celebrity — ground zero for idolatry — it has recently moved into politics, a place where masculinity has increasingly become a bone of contention. At one time we thirsted for Justin Trudeau’s “it’s 2019” yoga moves; more recently that thirst turned toward an emo crossdressing Beto. “Ojeda and Avenatti as candidates are like the guy who thinks good sex is pumping away while you’re making a grocery list in your head wondering when he’ll be done,” political analyst Leah McElrath tweeted in November 2018. “O’Rourke is like the guy who is all sweet and nerdy but holds you down and makes you cum until your calves cramp.” While politicians have an extensive history of abusing their positions for their own sexual gratification, this explicit dispatch from the beltway still left a number of us open-mouthed. Yet this is where we are — in the context of a presidency rife with toxic masculinity oft expressed in terms of sexual harassment, good sex acts as an analogy for progressive politics.
Over the past couple of years, women have also elected Noah Centineo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeff Goldblum, and Mahershala Ali as worthy of their thirst. Like the men who have historically inflamed female desire, they represent an aspirational form of masculinity, one which counteracts the retrograde misogyny trumpeted by the president. The thirst women express for these men’s physical form is informed by the men’s insides as much as their outsides. And the strongest men do not shrink at the prospect of not measuring up, but adapt the way women always have. In this new world, on the red carpet for their shared movie, Long Shot, Charlize Theron’s Alexander McQueen gown is matched by Seth Rogen’s Prada suit. “I was highly aware I was going to be standing next to Charlize for a lot of pictures,” Rogen said at the time. “I always have that image in my head of Beyoncé next to Ed Sheeran in a T-shirt, and I don’t want that.” Finally, it’s no longer about what a guy wants.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.