We all know sex sells. But what type of sex is being sold, and what are the implications for women and girls?
The clamor surrounding Kim Kardashian’s full frontal nude has finally started to subside, and my news feed, haggard and tired, can take a well-needed breather. There were many tweets about choice and empowerment. The heated (and old) debates about “slut shaming” and women’s sexual freedom resurfaced. There was even another nude, though this time Kim was accompanied by another young, it-girl.
“Sex sells”, so why not flaunt it? Yes, sex certainly does sell, and Kim’s nude is a good case in point. But this nude is just one of many images that exist on a broader trajectory of exploitation, in which women are stripped bear, consumed and discarded, until another nude appears on social media grapevine. The sexual exploitation of women through visual media is not a new phenomenon. In fact it is so ubiquitous that we rarely pause to ask why these images continue to be so pervasive. By accepting the objectification of women or simply looking the other way, we not only fail to question the broader systems of power these representations speak to – we actively sustain them as well.
So who or what is the “sex” that sells so well? In answer to this question, and at the most fundamental level, it is women’s bodies that have been picked up, streamlined and packaged as “sex” for sale. Women are positioned with their backs arched and legs splayed, heads tilted, breasts out. These images are limited in their exploration of female sexuality and directly accommodate the notion that women are the sum of their body parts. Women become an extension of male sexual desire and the passive receptacles of unrealistic beauty standards. Whilst they may be “sexual”, eroticised depictions of women rely upon narrow conceptions of female sexuality. Women are presented as alluring and inviting, in contradistinction to men who are staunch, hyper masculine figures.
Some may tout that these images are ‘empowering’ and ‘liberating’, and to say otherwise puts a caveat on women’s bodily autonomy. However, the social and psychological harm associated with viewing sexualised images of women strongly suggest otherwise. According to the Journal of Sex Research (2015), a sample of 135 studies from 1995-2015 consistently indicate that in a range of cultural settings, exposure to sexualised images is directly associated with higher levels of body dissatisfaction among both adolescent and adult women. A report by the American Psychology Association (2004) also found ample evidence to suggest that sexualised images increased feelings of shame, anxiety and disgust among girls, adolescents and teenagers. The dialogue on sexualisation thus proves itself empty and insubstantial in light of the damage done to women and girls. “Sexual freedom” only touches the surface of what is a far more pervasive and complex issue.
The social and political implications of women’s cultural eroticisation are equally damaging. Despite the bourgeoning popularity of the ‘choice’ mantra, no one has stopped to ask why these images of women are so immensely powerful in the first place or why they “sell.” The reasons why go beyond “just wanting to”, or being inherently sexual. Our sexuality is constructed by culture. Women are not born wanting to take their clothes off for the camera.
It is not a coincidence that sex tapes and nudity catapult women into fame and fortune. It is not a coincidence Margot Robbie shot to stardom after a full frontal in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. Nor is it a coincidence that we saw Britney Spears as “all grown up” after her iconic 1999 Rolling Stones spread. The female body has become an integral feature of consumer culture and the insatiable desire to “see more” of celebrities. They are part of a broader culture that sees women as disposable images to be viewed, used up, and tossed aside. We expect and demand sexual access to women’s bodies. Like fries on the side of our happy meal, we want the whole package.
So, yes, sex might sell. And yes, Kim probably earned barrels of cash for that nude photo. But her decision to do so was by no means a ground-breaking feat for women. It has been done before, and it will be done again, but for reasons beyond ‘choice’ and ‘female empowerment’. Sex might sell, but what are the implications for women and girls? What is the cost of "selling sex?"
American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf
Monique Ward (2016): Media and Sexualization: State of Empirical Research, 1995–2015, The Journal of Sex Research, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2016.1142496
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