Sexploitation of women in sport


As published by Reprinted with permission

The pressure on sportswomen to increase levels of sponsorship and media coverage has seen many resort to taking their clothes off just to receive some publicity.

Jan Borrie, Shaping up to the image makers, Panorama, The Canberra Times, 27 May 2000

In recent years, through diverse forms of media and publications, an increased focus has been placed on the physical attributes of female athletes. This focus has, in many instances, detracted from the sporting performances and abilities of the athletes so portrayed.

It has done so by sexualising the female athlete at the expense of her sporting achievements. The athlete’s portrayal as a sportswoman becomes less than the titillating factor of a naked or scantily clad body.

The promotion of female athletes in this manner is underpinned by a certain irony, as it is only due to their sporting performances that they are able to attract the media in this way. It is obviously regrettable that in many sports the sexualised female athlete holds more value for promotion than being world champion.

There is much research, Australian and international, on the issue of media coverage and portrayal of sportswomen. All the media research and surveys since 1980 have indicated that women struggle to get consistent, long-term and supportive media attention.

Women were often photographed in inactive shots, in relationship caricatures or as models; men were more often shown in active poses, less in relationships and never as models. Similarly, the writing that described women’s and men’s sport reinforced a gender dichotomy. Women were stereotyped by their physical traits, their clothes, their emotions and their relationships; men bytheir courage, aggression and toughness … These socially constructed images lead to a genderhierarchy in which women’s sport is not taken as seriously as men’s. 

Dr Murray Phillips, An Illusory Image: A Report on the Media Coverage and Portrayal ofWomen’s Sport in Australia 1996, Canberra: Australian Sports Commission, 1997

It is important to understand that what is being considered in this paper is the collusion or partnership between the media and sport based on certain Western cultural attitudes to women.

The female body is used to sell many products in our society, from cars to washing powder. In certain forms of promotion through sport, the female athlete is also being treated as a commodity - in this case, an overtly sexualised one.

This type of promotion is held to be a form of exploitation. And, as is common with exploitation, it can have various negative effects, both on the individual athlete and the sport as a whole. It is therefore crucial that athletes and sports understand the possible ramifications of using sex to promote women’s sport. They need to ask the key questions, ‘what are we actually promoting and what are we really trying to achieve?’

This paper will outline some of the Australian Sports Commission’s concerns and issues with using sex to promote women’s sport and provide some questions and strategies for sporting organisations to consider when promoting women’s sport.

Promotion as exploitation

The question of what is really being promoted through publications such as nude calendars or certain types of uniforms is, put simply, woman as sex object or woman as athlete?

Various terms have been used to describe the sexualising of athletes, of which the most common is sexploitation. Sexploitation is not a new term and it is one that can be applied to both men and women; however, in this paper the form of promotion identified as sexploitation is primarily of concern to female athletes.

Sexploitation is used in this context to describe forms of marketing, promotion or attempts to gain media coverage which focus attention on the sexual attributes of female athletes, especially the visibility of their bodies. Sexploitation judges the value of the female athlete primarily in terms of her body type and attractiveness, rather than for the qualities that define her as an athlete.

This creates an ironic situation for elite athletes. In order to attract media and sponsor interest, many female athletes resort to marketing themselves or their sport for their ‘voyeuristic potential’.1 However, if this approach is successful, the increased interest is not on their performances and successes but on their sex appeal.

Anna Kournikova is an excellent example: she has never won a single tennis title, yet is extremely popular. However, media and public comments and interest predominantly relate to her sex appeal rather than her game. Anna deserves congratulations for being so successful in marketing herself this way, but it is unfortunate for the other female tennis players who are more successful on the tennis circuit and who play more exciting tennis. These female players do not attract the same media interest because they do not dress or promote themselves in a provocative manner.

It should also be noted that while sexploitation is most commonly associated with elite athletes, the matter cannot be completely divorced from community and amateur sport. There is undoubtedly a flow-on effect as will be described in the following sections of this paper.

It is acknowledged that both sexploitation and a need for sponsorship are not limited to (elite) female athletes. However, the issue is presently less contentious for men’s sport as it has far greater media coverage, greater sponsorship, and society in general still views sportsmen in a different light to sportswomen. Historically, sport has been considered a male domain and has been used by society to define masculine virtues in terms of physical attributes as well as behaviour such as competitiveness and aggression. Traditionally the male athlete has been glorified by sport and viewed by society and the media with greater credibility as athletes. Consequently, men’s sport has traditionally received the vast majority of media coverage.1 Male athletes also generally have greater access to sponsorship and other forms of financial support.

There is undoubtedly some sexual aspect to this process (for example, male AFL footballers in tight white shorts and many male runners in lycra) but it is endorsed by society as a positive reinforcement of the athlete both as an individual and, most importantly, in terms of his athletic abilities.

Regrettably, the same does not hold true for female athletes.

Why is sexploitation of concern?

This approach [sexploitation] has several flaws: it excludes many female athletes who do not fit into the appropriate body types, it glorifies certain female shapes and sends messages about what is appropriate and inappropriate for aspiring female athletes. These images fit neatly into stereotypes that have historically prevented women’s sport from being accepted on par with men’s sport.

Dr Murray Phillips, An Illusory Image: A Report on the Media Coverage and Portrayal of Women’s Sport in Australia 1996, Canberra: Australian Sports Commission, 1997

Viewing female athletes primarily in terms of their sexual attributes rather than their athletic endeavours has the potential to denigrate the individual both as an athlete and as a woman. 

Sexploitation is not simply a matter of skimpy costumes on female bodies. It is also the inappropriate portrayal of female athletes either in their sporting apparel or in alternative situations.

In athletics, track and field athletes of both sexes wear body-hugging outfits of lightweight material. These costumes are designed, and understood to be so, for technological and functional purposes: to go faster and higher with the least restriction and wind resistance.

When Emma George is competing, the focus is on her achievements not on her clothing or female physical attributes. In their reporting, the media, both print and visual, can then celebrate Emma’s success as an outstanding, highly trained athlete.

In swimming, long associated with tight and revealing costumes, the uniforms are publicly viewed as a ‘tool’ of the sport. Ironically, the new trend to fastsuits or skinsuits has led to even more revealing costumes but with less exposure of flesh. The current debate on fastsuits is not centred on the high definition they give to athletes’ bodies, male and female, but to the fairness of such technology in relation to individual athletic ability.

Women’s beach volleyball, on the other hand, has introduced uniforms intentionally to focus attention on the athletes’ bodies rather than for any technological, practical or performance enhancing reasons. Women must compete in bra-style tops and bikini bottoms that must not exceed six centimetres in width at the hip (men compete in shorts and singlets). This has led to a number of athletes expressing embarrassment at such explicit focus.

The motivation for the changes to volleyball costumes is reinforced by comments from Mr Craig Carracher, former CEO of Volleyball Australia, ‘If we can show off these bodies at the same time as presenting our sport then we are going to do that’ (Barbeliuk 1999, 34).

The Australian Touch Association introduced a bodysuit (full piece swimsuit-style) for the women’s national team to wear at the World Cup in 1991. The main reasons for the new uniform were to minimise the surface area for a touch, and to create a new image for the sport. Some national league teams also wear the bodysuit. Reaction by players to the bodysuits is mixed - some players like it and some don’t. Reasons for disliking the uniform include that it is not sun-safe, is culturally inappropriate, requires frequent adjustment while playing and makes players feel self-conscious about their bodies. The men have not moved toward bodysuits - they wear shorts and shirts.

At a recent national Indigenous Women in Sport Summit, concern was repeatedly expressed about the tight and revealing uniforms worn by female athletes, especially in team sports such as basketball, touch and volleyball. Conference participants indicated that Indigenous women and girls were choosing not to participate in these sports predominantly because of the uniforms.

Revealing uniforms are not the only method used to sexualise women’s sport. The calendar produced by the Matildas, the national women’s soccer team, presents another example of sexploitation - albeit a voluntary one by the athletes. It was primarily motivated by the team’s need to gain more media coverage and increase their public profile. While the whole team supported the calendar, there was no pressure for everyone to participate. As a result, many of the players chose not to be included.

Perhaps the key issue here is not so much the team’s decision to market itself in this fashion, but that they felt it was the only way to gain reasonable media coverage and sponsorship.

Although the Matildas’ action has focused attention on the problems that women’s sport faces in terms of media coverage and sponsorship, it has unfortunately also reinforced the trend of sexploitation and the message that in women’s sport, sex sells. But the question remains - is the sex angle only selling sex?

When we take our clothes off we get more exposure than for actually playing the game.

Shelly Andrews, Australian Hockeyroos player, The Canberra Times, 27 May 2000

Intentionally sexualising female athletes to increase media coverage requires careful consideration to ensure that the safety and long-term credibility of the athletes involved is protected.

The Matildas’ nude calendar has had flow-on effects for other sports. In April 2000, the national women’s netball team also decided to produce a calendar to raise funds. But when the playersturned up for the photo shoot, photographers pressured them to take their clothes off. This situation was confusing and distressing for the athletes. In the end the team ruled decisively that
posing nude was not the way they wanted their family-friendly sport to be depicted in a calendar.

I think for female sports to be taken seriously, we should be recognised for our skills and achievements rather than our naked bodies.

Janine Ilitch, member Australian netball team, Taking a stand for skill over skin, The Age, 17 May 2000

Summary of possible negative effects of sexploitation

Focusing on an athlete’s physical attributes in an overtly sexual manner can create anxiety andembarrassment for the individual.

This may be compounded by a heightened body awareness already present in many female athletes. If the athlete does not feel she ‘measures up’ to an external judgment of her physique, her self-esteem may suffer.

A potential consequence of lowered self-esteem is compromised athletic performance. The athlete becomes distracted both on and off the arena of sport, and may be tempted into unhealthy eating habits. In younger athletes, where self-confidence may be less secure, the increased focus on the body because of sexploitation can lead to a poor body image. There is a wealth of research linking poor body image with increased risk of eating disorders or disordered eating behaviours.

For most of the past 100 years, women have struggled to be recognised for their achievements and contributions not for how attractive they may be or what they are wearing. Sportswomen now demand to be taken seriously as athletes and have fought hard for media coverage that doesn’t concentrate on superficial issues such as physical looks and attire. If, on the other hand, some sportswomen promote themselves in erotic or revealing outfits or even nude, it sends conflicting and confusing messages to the media, the community and to other athletes. It also undermines the efforts to achieve equal credibility for all women athletes.

Using sexploitation as a promotional strategy may limit the potential of a sport to attract a diverse range of talented girls and women. Such promotion is reason enough for some girls and women to choose another sport or even no sport at all because:

  • it may be culturally inappropriate for women from some non-English speaking backgrounds and for Indigenous girls and women
  • it is seen by many women as sexist, embarrassing or a complete ‘turn off’
  • it makes many women and girls feel more self-conscious about their bodies
  • it alienates many lesbians as it only promotes a stereotypical heterosexual image.

Sexploitation also puts athletes at greater risk of harassment, from persons within and outside their sport. The overt sexualising of female athletes undermines current efforts to ensure no athlete, of any age or level of participation, is subject to behaviour that is unwelcome, inappropriate or harmful.

This ‘sex sells’ approach to marketing female athletes shifts the focus and meaning of sports reporting, frequently to the detriment of those involved. As a result, the athlete’s status as a role model for young girls and boys can be undermined or compromised. It can also compromise the athlete’s status within the wider community and business world.

I’m also a solicitor and I couldn’t imagine going into a conference with a client and for them to have looked at me that morning on their son’s bedroom wall, nude or semi-nude.

Liz Ellis, vice-captain, Australian netball team, Taking a stand for skill over skin, The Age, 17 May 2000

What are the alternatives?

The Australian Sports Commission (ASC) considers that, in conjunction with the sport and recreation industry, it has a responsibility to ensure that images of female athletes are positive, are not sexualised and represent the diversity of women involved in sport. There also is a responsibility to ensure the sporting environment is free of harassment and that athletes are not made to feel uncomfortable when accessing any sport. The ASC therefore discourages the introduction and use of policies and promotional activities that lead to female athletes being exploited.

But following the financial windfall experienced by the Matildas from sales of their calendar, are there alternatives?

The ASC, along with individuals, agencies and organisations around Australia, will continue to work for greater media coverage of women’s sport. This work is being built on the continued successes of Australia’s female athletes, individuals and teams.

As a result of continued great athlete performances, programs to provide athletes with media skills and initiatives to increase the involvement of women and girls in sport, we are gradually building greater public and media interest and more widespread corporate sponsorship of women’s sport.

The onus is on Australia’s female athletes to add value to these arrangements so that partnerships are reinforced and companies realise the value added benefits they receive from such sponsorships.

Realistically, sportswomen should be encouraged to understand how to tell their story well. This includes being able to talk about more than how they pulled up after the last game!

Sports presenter, radio quoted in Dr Murray Phillips, An Illusory Image: A Report on the Media Coverage and Portrayal of Women’s Sport in Australia 1996, Canberra: Australian Sports Commission, 1997

Current athletes may rightly protest the gradual nature of this process. This puts pressure on teams and individuals to make decisions which may have a long-term impact on their career as an athlete, and on the career they pursue when they cease competing.

Sexploitation as a marketing strategy - questions to consider

It is clear that the issues raised in this paper are not without ambiguity and the choices facing individual athletes and teams may be difficult.

Before any final decision is made on marketing the athlete or team, the following should be fully considered.

1. What type of media coverage can you expect from sexploitation?

intense short-term media exposure as a result of the initial controversy but research indicates there is no long-term increase in media or TV coverage of actual sporting activities or competition.

2. How will sexploitation affect participation?

There is no evidence to suggest that changing to revealing uniforms and/or posing provocatively in calendars and other publications will increase participation. On the other hand, international, national and state research conducted over the past 10 years indicate it can have a negative effect on participation numbers.

Much of the freedom that girls and women feel when participating in sport is because it allows them to escape from the restrictions of traditional gender roles (Nelson 1994, Cahn 1994, Lenskyj 1986). However, sexploitation of female athletes reinforces gender stereotyping.

Those girls who do not fit in with the image of traditional femininity may also be discouraged from participating in a sport that practices sexploitation because that sport will no longer be relevant, fun or a safe space.

There are a number of ethnic populations in Australia for which this increased exposure is viewed as immoral and may lead to embarrassment for the athlete and their family. At the community level, where the participation rates of Indigenous girls and women and those from non-English speaking backgrounds are some of the lowest, this trend will make access into many sports even more difficult.

3. Before undertaking a marketing strategy that is likely to sexualise athletes, both the individual and sport should consider:

The potential impact on the long-term development and participation of the individual athlete and the sport in general. Will such a campaign drive away future participants?

How will the strategy affect the status of elite athletes as role models?

What has been the experience of other sporting organisations and individual athletes who have used similar strategies?

Will the strategy achieve the organisation’s goals - with minimal harm involved? And if these are short-term goals (for example, immediate financial gain), what will be the impact in the longer term?

Who is the target market through the sexploitation of female athletes? Is the target a predominantly male audience? Is the sport or agent attempting to increase marketability of an individual, of the sport as a whole; is it an attempt to increase participation, or attract a greater number of spectators, media coverage or sponsors?

Recommendations for sporting organisations

Considering the above questions, marketing based on sexploitative strategies is an inherently risky enterprise and in the end, likely to be detrimental to both the athlete and the sport. It also undermines wider efforts to increase both the quality and quantity of media coverage of women’s sport and sponsorship of female athletes.

As the athletes involved in the netball calendar discovered, the flow on effect can be distressing. It is therefore important that sports and athletes understand they have the right to say ‘No’ to such requests. Coercing an athlete into such promotions can be construed as harassment, and action taken against an athlete who elects not to participate would be considered discriminatory. It is also important that even if an athlete agrees to such requests, they are made fully aware of all the possible implications and effects.

If a sport still decides to undertake such an exercise then it is recommended that the following processes be put in place:

  • Ensure athletes are fully informed of the process, requirements and possible risks, and are able to give their informed consent. For example, what reactions can they expect from spectators and the media? If the product is a calendar, who do the athletes expect will purchase the calendar and for what reason?
  • The sport or athlete must truly evaluate possible reactions to the promotion and understand the consequences for the athlete/s involved.
  • Inform athletes of their legal rights both to refuse to participate and how to deal with possible harassment or unwanted attention following publication/the campaign.
  • Involve athletes at all levels of decision making. This should include all the athletes or a truly representative group. Provide athletes with the opportunity to have a voice within a confidential, supportive environment.
  • Seek advice on legal issues - for example, ownership of the product, royalties, distribution of the product, and protection of the rights of each athlete.
  • Be mindful of the consequences of involving junior athletes in any form of marketing that could be considered sexploitative. 
  • Lastly, truly weigh up the long-term consequences of such promotion against any possible immediate benefits.
  • While these recommendations relate specifically to marketing strategies (eg calendars) that may be considered sexploitation, many also apply to other areas that involve promoting female athletes (eg selecting uniforms). Women’s volleyball changed their elite costumes without consulting the athletes, and many players opposed the change. Unlike rowing, the change was not for functional and/or technical reasons. This left the athletes even more concerned.
  • If significant changes are to be made to athletes’ costumes, it is recommended that sports seek player input, and preferably endorsement.
  • The selection of, or input into, uniforms by players is a key recommendation for adolescent females in particular, at all levels of participation. At the younger age, dissatisfaction and discomfort with sports apparel clearly exacerbates the drop out rate of adolescent girls from sport (Malaxos & Wedgwood, 1998). Allowing players to have input into the design of uniforms usually results in uniforms that are fashionable, flattering and comfortable.
  • Sports and athletes should be aware that provocative or titillating poses are not the only way to promote sportswomen. There are alternative ways of showing and/ or photographing the physical form that are positive and truly celebratory, for all involved.
  • It is recommended that female athletes and sports carefully consider the possible interpretations of any poses selected for photographs and other promotional materials. Do not be talked into situations in which the athlete is uncomfortable or embarrassed, or which has not been previously discussed. Be aware that today’s photograph may be used long after the athlete has ceased competing.


This paper has considered a particular and current trend in promoting female athletes, which by its processes is deemed demeaning and negative.

Sexploitation, as the common term given for this form of promotion, is not a recommended strategy for either an athlete or team to gain greater sponsorship or media coverage.

By sexualising the female athlete at the expense of the individual’s/team’s athletic abilities and achievements, sexploitation reinforces negative gender stereotypes in sport. Sexploitation is not a celebration of the female athlete as a figure of endeavour and achievement. Rather it is an illconsidered strategy, motivated by short-term gain and a thirst for publicity of any sort.

Celebrating athletic physiques is an undeniable aspect of sport. Focusing, however, on the sexual attributes of such individuals at the expense of their achievements is demeaning and is a trend that should be eradicated from sport promotion and media coverage of athletic endeavour.

Contributors to this paper were:

Sally Hughson; Amy Kilpatrick; Mary-Anne Paton and Debbie Simms.
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1 In 1996 TV coverage of women’s sport was less than 0.2% while newspapers dedicated less than
11% of space to women’s sport (Phillips 1997).
This is an archive copy of a page that originally appeared at
xploitation.htm all copyright remains with the creator.

Further reading: Sexuality and Gender Perspectives on Sports Ethics



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