We need to talk about female “empowerment”.
In response to our Collective Shout campaigns against the sexual objectification and exploitation of women, an argument we sometimes hear is that some women find these practices “empowering”.
But when people argue sexist and sexually objectifying representations of women are empowering, or that women posting pornographic images of their bodies online is empowering, that women being subjected to violent, abusive and degrading porn-sex acts can be empowering, or that men’s paid sexual access to women’s bodies empowers women, the word ‘empowering’ has become meaningless.
What does it mean to be empowered? Is empowerment nothing more than a feeling, a state of mind, a defence of misogynistic practices? Or does it involve real-world conditions, advancing the status of women as a whole – women globally having rights, education, a voice (actual power)?
In a culture that teaches women from the earliest of ages their value lies in their physical attractiveness and sexual appeal to men, being wanted sexually by men may feel validating. But individual validation for being hot is not meaningful power, nor is it advancing women’s collective rights. The ‘power’ that comes from being sexually desirable to men is temporary, conditional and entirely dependent on men’s continued approval.
If pornified portrayals of women as passive, interchangeable, sexualised props are really the means of obtaining power, why isn’t the same treatment being extended to men? And why is it that this so-called ‘empowerment’ is only found within practices of sexual objectification, and not in women’s resistance to them?
Being reduced to the status of an object, a thing for someone else’s sexual use, does not give women power. Practices that are premised on, and perpetuate, women’s inequality, and diminish women’s humanity, do not give women power – they reduce women’s power. Sexual objectification harms women as a whole, even if a few women benefit from it or say they choose it.
To learn more about the documented harms to women and girls from sexualisation and sexual objectification, and to find out what you can do about it, head to collectiveshout.org and join us in the fight for a world free of sexploitation.
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