I wrote this post back in 2011. It was my first time thinking through the sexualization debates in writing. You can find my more recent thoughts in The Psychology of Sex. If you’re interested in this topic, The Sexualization Report is a comprehensive overview (which I edited with colleagues).
Also appears on the Onscenity website.
I’ve been getting involved with events and projects about sexualization for some time now. I thought it was important for someone, like me, who writes about sexuality and who works with clients who are struggling with issues around sex, to be informed about what seems to be the big story about sex at the moment.
I’ve read lots of book chapters and papers, and watched many presentations, on the topic, and what is most striking to me are the complexities of the debate, and the feelings which run so high whenever we are talking about it. This is my attempt to give a simple overview of how I understand it, and to say where I’ve got to with it at this point.
The Simple Form of the Debate
The simple form of the debate, as it is played out on TV programmes, in policy documents, and in the huge number of popular books on the subject of sexualization, goes something like this:
One side says that our society has become hyper-sexualised: wherever we go we are blasted with messages about sex. Boys are watching hardcore online porn from an early age and this is warping their sexualities and turning them into sexual predators. Girls are sexualised before they are out of toddlerhood with high-heeled baby shoes, playboy style mini T-shirts, and Bratz dolls. By the time they are teenagers they have bought the message that being sexy is all-important, putting them at risk of everything from eating disorders to STIs to sexual violence.
The other side of the popular debate emphasises choice and fun and power. We live in a time of equality, it says. People get to choose who they want to be. And if women want to go pole-dancing for leisure and feel empowered by dressing up sexy that is great. Lads magazines and sexy dancing on the X-Factor aren’t bad for women – they celebrate women – and anyone who disagrees needs to lighten up and get the joke.
The More Complex Form of the Debate
When the topic is debated in more academic circles, a somewhat more sophisticated version of these two sides tends to be put forward, which it would definitely be useful to get out there more widely:
The side that is concerned about sexualization says that all this emphasis on choice, fun and power makes it really difficult for people to resist messages about sexiness. To be a lad means always being up for it, and to be an empowered woman means choosing to pamper yourself so you look gorgeous and have all eyes on you. There’s no room for all the many, many men who feel anxious about sex, or all the women who don’t fit the very rigid standards of youth and beauty. And those that do fit live in fear of losing that.
The side that is more sceptical about sexualization points out that the whole thing seems like a moral panic: the kind of thing people get worked about every decade or so. Weren’t people panicking about mini-skirts and rock & roll in the same ways back in the 1950s and 60s? Talking with young people directly suggests that their sexual behaviour hasn’t changed that radically. They’re not all constantly sexting, watching porn, or trying every sexual practice that they see online. And lots of people find easier access to porn and other sexual information to be helpful in figuring out their own sexualities. People on this side of the debate ask questions like: Why are we so worried about sex instead of all the violent imagery that is out there unchallenged? Or whether all the concern that girls and women are in danger and need protecting from men reinforces divisions of gender, leading to more problems than it solves.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Holding the tension: My main thought is that we need to move away from these either/or debates, not towards some resolution that is probably impossible, but more towards recognising the inevitable tensions and contradictions in the complex world we live in. We are massively shaped by the world around us, so current bombardment of sexual imagery is unlikely to leave any of us untouched, but we also all filter this through our own experiences and histories in unique ways so the same messages won’t have the same impact on everybody. We should be mindful of how these debates have played out in the past, and of who is included and excluded in them.
Recognising what we bring to it: Emotions run high whenever these debates occur, and yet we all pretend that we don’t have a personal stake in it in order to make our points sound reasonable. It would be useful if we could acknowledge that being someone who watches porn, or a parent, or a person who does – or doesn’t – fit the current ideals of sexiness, influences how we come to these debates. And that the person we are arguing with will have similar, deeply personal, investments in it.
Talking to people: A lot gets said on both sides of this debate based on assumptions, like looking at a music video and assuming it will make young people want to copy it, or assuming that because you feel able to resist some of these messages it will be just as easy for other people. We need to talk to people a lot more to find out how they are really being affected, and to help us remember that it is not the same for everyone.