We live in a world that is obsessed with sex and there is no use pretending we don’t all enjoy it somewhat. However, we do need to be honest about increasing our awareness of the detrimental affects of this ‘sexual awakening’ as well as the beneficial. Confession time: I like sexy people. I find certain guys sexually attractive and I would hope that somebody would feel that way about me someday but there is a distinct difference between being a sexually attractive person and being an object of sexual desire. ‘Sex sells’; we have all heard that phrase before, basically sex is a tool utilised beyond any other means in the media world in order to garner attention. It is a pretty basic human desire, we live in a world that encourages owning your sexual identity and being liberal about sex. Unfortunately we are also all living with acceptance of media that is filled with sexual objectification and we have been conditioned to think this is normal or we are unable to differentiate between what is simply sexual and what is sexually objectifying. The power of mass media is so great that we are daily exposed to sexual objectification, it infiltrates our speech and thinking and we can be completely unaware of it as it often comes masked in the guise of media representation that is forward thinking and encouraging to the sexual expression of youth with the intent of advancing individual self-affirmation. The sexual objectification of today is more subtle and hidden but when we do see it we can fear speaking out against it because feminism is such a touchy subject and nobody wants to be that crazy person that must make a political statement about everything or the stereotypical Christian preaching that sex is wrong.
What is sexual objectification? It is a relational process or behavioural tendency to consciously or subconsciously treat a person like or assume them to be a sexual object, one that serves or meets the sexual pleasure of another. The purpose of an object is to fit the need of the subject. When we reduce a person down to an object to fulfil our own sexual satisfaction we devalue them as a fully developed human with their own wants, beliefs and identity. A subject, usually men, acts and an object, often women, are acted on. The object is always subordinate and under the power of the subject. As we are surrounded by rampant sexual imagery on a daily basis it is difficult to ascertain if an image is objectifying or simply sexy, in other words is what we are seeing or saying creating an inequality in how we interpret and respond to the physical presence of another or is it simply a recognition of another’s sexuality? Societal progression dictates that openness and individualised thinking will increase exponentially and sexual liberation, one of the greatest leaps forward we have made, has given rise to a hyper sexualisation of our daily lives. Television shows rarely have no nudity, music has sexually explicit lyrics and magazines frequently feature sexual nuances. Media plays the most active role in our lives, young people are continuously engaging with the online world which leaves them open to a flooding of cognitive thought processes and encouragement of behavioural change through the normalisation of sex and identity exploration.
I recently watched my first TED video. The video ‘The Sexy Lie’, discussed what it is and how we can be aware of it and tackle it. We live under a social narrative that spreads the false belief that empowerment is achieved through the cultivation of the body as a specific sexual object and utilising this to provoke a reaction within someone. How can we discern sexually objectifying media? We need to look at the intent of what we are seeing and whether there is dominance or dehumanising of a person involved. If we are presented with images that shows a particular body part of a person as representative of their entire sexual being, if the sexualised person is standing in for an object, if the purpose of the image is to encourage or agree with the violation of a person’s body without their consent or if the image suggests that the sexuality of a person is their defining identity or characteristic then it is sexually objectifying. The prevalence of women being seen as sexual items in social media, and displaying their bodies in an attempt to obtain body confidence by appealing to a man’s sexual power, is not impeding but encouraging sexism, domestic violence and sexual assault. The majority of this imagery is aimed at men, the subtext of which is selling them their role as sexual subjects and affirming their power in a barely perceptive way. Men are subconsciously told they are the judge of women, sexual appetite is a large part of who they are and they need to take command and feed it. For women, the message is of our value, of how we can find our ‘sexy’ and that our worth is wrapped up in the cultivation of a perfect physical tool to attract a man. Wrongfully sexualised culture has created extremes in how we interpret ourselves, either our physical bodies are being used to excuse behaviour on the part of others that is derogatory saying we provoke rape culture by being too tempting or we are told we have to embrace our sexuality and express total comfort with being interpreted in a sexual way that makes our physical presence eclipse our other qualities and shames us if we don’t. But we really don’t quite understand what sexy is.
Sexual objectification has seeped into our lives under the guise of sexual freedom. Influential people like Miley Cyrus tell us that we have to grab our youth and embrace our sexuality in explicit and provocative ways but she is wrong in her understanding of what that means. For example her stage performances take people and equate them to animals by masking their faces in giant animal heads and getting them to display their nearly naked bodies in a manner that is entirely built for sexual satisfaction. Her message is to emulate wild living free of the shackles of societal expectation and to stand unashamed of yourself through sexual madness and other fun crazy stuff but she is bound to this limited view of sexiness as being something purely physical that is simply an uncontrollable urge to be expressed. She means to provoke an animalistic reaction in her viewers, but she has limited herself and is conflating overt sexuality with sexual oppression. I am going to jump aboard the anti-Blurred Lines wagon here simply because it is a perfect example of how we are often too late to realise the infiltration of destructive sexualised media in our lives. Sexually aggressive lyrics aside, the music video for this song is quite obviously degrading and has gotten lost somewhere between being humorous, attractive and dangerous. It has gone past the lines of encouraging joking at traditional gender roles and into an area that says its ok to display naked women in a submissive position, giving power to men to use them as a sexual plaything in order to ‘free’ their wild side. The intent of the singers may be in fun, but the intent of the few when different to the message received by the many overrides their personal meaning because of the global implication of putting this dehumanising, sexually aggressive message into the world. Some people may think it’s only harmless, that these singers are praising women by letting them be openly naked and overtly sexual and free but they are truly not looking at the wider implications of a viral video that has twelve year olds singing about how consent is a grey area. These women are not proudly displaying their bodies and asserting authority they are being told that a man does not necessarily need verbal consent to have his way with her and women should allow this. Being exposed to images that tell us that we can tread lightly upon the sexual consent line acts upon the subconscious, it filters into our mindset and gives us a higher tolerance for sexual aggression and dominance.
The problem with this mentality of seeing the body, and people, as tools which are cultivated and exposed in order to illicit pleasure is that it sets unrealistic body standards, high expectations of sex and a desensitising to violence. Fantasy overtakes reality and the understanding of a male/female relationship in any context becomes subject to expectation and misinterpretation. It encourages us to see the body of the opposite sex in ways that carry double meaning. A woman’s body is deliberately displayed in advertising emphasising particular body parts; the legs, the back, the knees-all of these when focused as a separate part of the whole become hyper sexualised. Suddenly we become conditioned to interpret random parts of a woman’s body as something sexually exciting even when completely out of context and this leads to pressure, shame and expectation as well as confusion. We say that we are being progressive by being open about sex yet the purpose of objectification is to appeal to our most basic instinct and awaken a carnal reaction of lust within us. I think it demeans us because it says that fundamentally we are ruled by our animal needs first and our intellect second. Nobody simply exists to meet the need, sexual or otherwise, of another. We may not think it is a big deal talking about a guy in terms of how great a body they have or what kind of things can be done with that body between our friends, but if we pass this cultural narrative of other-reduction to a purely physical functionality on to future generations we will continue to be the instigators of destructive attitudes, the perpetuators of the sexy ceiling which prevents people rising above their physical presence and the bystanders to sexual violence.
While the majority of media imagery is of women, there is increasing awareness of the sexual desire of women and in targeting them through depicting the male body as an advertising tool. Nowadays women hold the platform of social justification, we are encouraged to read erotica in public, celebrities take belfies (bum selfies) and give out to men when they comment on how hot these women are, we turn on any man seen to be abusing to women yet we don’t come to their aid when the tables are turned, we openly discuss men in very physical terms and set high physical standards for the men we want as partners but shame the guys in our lives when they do the same. We are operating under a double standard culture where women are asking not to be objectified by men but demanding to objectify them. For the past week I put a very handsome photo of a shirtless male celebrity as my phone background with the intention of observing whether any person raised objection or was bothered by what I was doing but apart from the expected conversations with other girls over just how hot he was that began with “oh why can’t real guys look like that?”, no person questioned me. Yet if a guy put a similar photo of a woman, eyebrows would be raised. The idea of a perfect man being one particular body type is perpetuated so easily in the media it should come at no surprise that men are dealing with as many body issues as women, different but not less relevant. Not only is the idea of gender equality warped by saying that women should treat men as the way men have been treating women but the sexual objectification of men in media is justified and socially acceptable because the identity we expect of men as strong and hardy demands that they can take it. This so called ‘levelling of the playing field’ is aided by women rising to power on an equal status of men in the media world and attempting to grasp what they think is equality but is simply the mistreatment of another gender. I once heard myself saying “you could grate cheese off of his abs” about a certain guy in front of other men and it was like I didn’t think or care to think of the adverse affect this blatant disregard for their worth had on the people around me. Descriptive, interpersonal language and communication has a profound affect on people, it can structure the way we see ourselves and the way we respond to others and is a powerful mediator in the relationship between men and women. Society continues to see women as emotional beings and men as physical so we let ourselves say this justifies us treating them like less than we want to be treated ourselves. Sexual aggression towards men is a very present problem but hardly reaches the social platform as it is not viewed seriously because it does not fit with out conventional conditioned understanding of a man.
Let me make one thing explicitly clear, being attracted to someone and verbally or physically expressing that attraction is NOT sexual objectification. There is a difference between something being sexually objective and it being just plain sexy. When we find people sexually attractive they appeal to us in certain ways and we appreciate the qualities they possess, physical or otherwise. We are not viewing them in a minimising way, it is much like the difference between finding someone attractive or being attracted to someone. It is about the intention of our thinking to someone, how we view and respond to them and how we think about them in our inner self narrative. I find myself extremely attracted to one particular guy because, as a whole person, I admire him. The physical part of him is admittedly extremely handsome but without an understanding of who he is I would simply be responding to him in an abject and self-fulfilling way. Being sexy is having total confidence in more than just what your body can do for another person, it’s a state of being that accepts yourself wholly and allows this acceptance to be felt on a tangible level in your relationships between others. Having sexy people in today’s media is a good thing because we should not be encouraging a stifling of that part of our nature but accepting it while being educated and aware as to the impact it has on others and ourselves. I’m not conventionally sexy. I wish I was and I have tried my hardest to be a sex object and felt bad for failing, but I have learned enough now that I don’t want to be with a person who only is with me because of how I serve their desires and how I can minimise myself to be what they need. We need to be aware of our individual contributions to the double standard of rape culture and when in our lives we are idly accepting sexually objectifying media without even questioning it. Sexual objectification is in car ads that display women bending over captioning “you know you are not the first but do you really care”, it is magazines telling women the best techniques to please their men, it is calling Ryan Gosling ‘the Body’ and diet coke ads that have men randomly stripping down while women stare and wolf whistle at him. It would be revolutionary for sexuality to be truly understood and celebrated, for us not to fear addressing the growth of sexual violence and how it is linked to these seemingly arbitrary images and mindsets and for everybody to realise that you don’t have to be this sexual thing in order to have a confident identity and appeal to other men and women. Truly I cannot be sexy if I am striving to be less than what I am as a person and if I do not recognise within myself when I am lessening others.