Part 2: Sexual objectification, self-objectification and silent bodies
Back in 2008, ROW took a quick survey of magazine covers in WhSmiths and
Borders. We found that the women on magazine covers were almost universally
white, long haired, slim, smiling, young and conforming to our current beauty ideal.
Whereas men were allowed to deviate from this young, sparkling model, with
wrinkles, grey hair and not universally slim, women were homogenized until we were
overwhelmed with a virtual tsunami of idealised, blank women. The only older woman
we saw was on the cover of a caravan magazine.
Women were also portrayed as being highly sexualised, but never in a way that
hinted at women's pleasure and women's own sexual desire. Instead, women's
sexuality was portrayed on our magazine covers as a performance for a male gaze
or audience. Lesbian sexuality was also overwhelmingly shown as a performance
for men, rather than as an authentic female desire. And whilst some men were
sexualised also, on the covers of gay magazines or men's health magazines, men
were never the object of the female gaze.
So, what does this mean? Well, all our research has shown us so far that whilst
women are marginalised in the creative, powerful, political or sporting sphere, women
are encouraged to appear as objects who embody a very narrow definition of what it
means to be beautiful. Women continue to be there as something to look at, rather
than as active citizens of the world. Whilst there is of course nothing wrong with
being young, slim and beautiful, there is something very wrong with the message
that women should only and always conform to a certain standard of beauty. There
is something wrong with never seeing our reality reflected back to us. And there is a
problem when women's successes are not recognised, because they do not meet the
beauty standard. Women in the public eye are all too often expected to conform to an
unattainable and often narrowly sexualised version of femininity, to look a certain way
whilst their own professional achievements, be it winning an Oscar, an Olympic gold
medal or a role in the cabinet are seen as subordinate to the ultimate achievement of
But awful as this situation is, is it violence? I believe that the impact of the
objectification of women and girls, particularly on young women and teen girls,
means that this culture is violent in itself, as well as upholding a rape culture that
excuses and allows violence against women and girls to happen.
Research from the American Psychological Association has found that:
• Pressure on women and girls to look and behave in certain ways negatively
affects their self-esteem and their mental health.
• Gender inequality is reinforced, and hopes for a level playing field are dashed,
when women are valued for their supposed sex appeal at the expense of their
other attributes and qualities.
• After being exposed to images that sexually objectify women, men are
significantly more accepting of sexual harassment, interpersonal violence,
rape myths, and sex role stereotypes.
What this means in real terms is that a culture that reduces women’s roles to that of
sex object, to be consumed by a default male audience, is allowing and encouraging
sexist attitudes, and ultimately violence against women and girls.
The widespread sexual objectification of women in the media has resulted in a
narrowing of young women’s ambition. It leads to a belief that a woman’s ultimate
achievement is to be in a permanent state of ‘hotness’ and failure to live up to the
mainstream cultural definition of hotness negatively affects women’s self-esteem and
belief in their other skills and attributes. It also creates a confusion around a woman’s
sexuality and issues around embodying her own sexuality.
Sexual objectification teaches women that sex and sexuality is something they need
to perform to a presumed male audience, rather than something to enjoy, own and
take pleasure in. This disassociation from their feelings and their bodies can cause
real trauma. Young girls are growing up with a muddled message about their bodies
and their sexuality, as illustrated by Deborah Tolman in her research on schoolgirls in
the USA8. She found that teen girls were experiencing what she called ‘silent bodies’,
as a result of:
‘how confusing it is to develop a sexual identity that leaves their sexuality out’.
Her research found that increasingly girls experience their sexuality through the
prism of being ‘wanted’ rather than ‘wanting’, and they were unable to express or
experience or embody their own sexual feelings or desire. Growing up and seeing
women only as objects to gratify male want and desire, as opposed to seeing women
as fully human with their own sexuality, is having a traumatic impact on girls who see
their bodies only in relation to being a spectacle or something that they want men o
boys to want.
Tolman’s 2004 book Dilemmas of Desire explains how silent bodies are often
accompanied by silent mouths. The inability to feel or voice or embody sexual desire,
whilst still feeling under pressure to perform a display of sexual availability, puts girls
at risk of violence. Not being able to express what you want, but seeing yourself
as a sexual object means that the word ‘no’ is hard to form, leading in some cases
to young girls feeling pressured into having sex that they don’t want to have, and
being victims of coercive sex and rape. Ariel Levy describes this in her book Female
‘Though these girls didn’t experience or had trouble recognizing sexual desire, some
of them had experienced sex – it was something that “just happened” to many of
them. Like Anne, some didn’t really want to, but told their partners they did. Others
had silent mouths to match their silent bodies and said nothing.’
What we are seeing here is how the sexual objectification of women, which teaches
girls that they are objects to be used, rather than as active agents with a voice,
desire and sexuality, is allowing and excusing violence against women and girls. The
example I have given is from an American book, but this is a universal problem.
This year in the UK we saw a horrific case where a 12 and 13 year old girls were
gang raped by a group of men, aged 18-21. It was not widely covered in the press,
except in the Daily Mail who reported that the defence called the girls ‘Lolitas’ who
tempted the men by lying about their age and offering them sex10. Although the men
were initially sentenced to two years incarceration, on appeal they were released
from jail with the judge saying that the ‘girls wanted to have sex’ and ‘were more
sexually experienced than the men’
I mention this case because I think it is a horrible example of the links between a
culture that encourages girls to see themselves as sex objects, and violence against
women and girls. That the men were guilty of gang rape is not disputed. The girls
were 12 and 13, so at least one of them was legally unable to give meaningful
consent. The case reported that one of the girls sent the men a text message and
invited them to a park to have sex. But rather than focusing on the responsibilities of
the men not to gang rape two children, this became enough evidence for the judge
to condemn the girls and blame them for the violence committed against them. The
defence called the girls ‘Lolitas’ who had tempted the men, placing the blame fully
and squarely on the girls. The older girl was reportedly reluctant and became upset
and distressed. She was then raped by one of the men. So whilst admitting that the
men had raped the girls: the judge in this appeal, the defence in their name-calling of
the girls, and the press in their sympathetic reporting towards the rapists, all colluded
to blame the victims. They all worked together to defend the men, and condemn the
children they raped.
When we see women as only and always sex objects, we take away their humanity.
We take away their voices and we take away their minds and we take away their
right to express their desires or say no. This is what happened in this case of gang
rape and the aftermath of the trial and appeal. The belief, enforced by our culture,
that women and girls are objects for men’s desire and sexuality to be acted out on,
as opposed to women acting on their own desire or even mutual desire, means that
women and girls can and will always be blamed for the violence committed against
them. Even when that girl is 12 years old.
Feminist activists call this rape culture. Rape culture is the idea that our culture
excuses and allows violence against women and girls. And with nearly 100,000 rapes
a year and a conviction rate of 6.5%, make no mistake: we do allow this violence to
happen. Rape culture is about blaming women and girls for the violence committed
against them, and telling them that the violence committed against them is something
they should feel ashamed of. But as a feminist and as an activist, I believe it is not
our shame. It is society’s shame.
The sexual objectification of women dehumanises us, and reduces us to objects.
It is far easier to commit violence against someone who has been dehumanised.
Our media landscape, and in particular the proliferation of violent pornography,
increasingly link violence with women’s bodies. A study in 2007 by Wosnitzer and
Bridges found that 89% of scenes in the most popular rented and bought porn videos
and DVDs in the USA portrayed violent acts against women and girls13. Considering
we know that internet porn is often more gonzo, we can assume that the numbers
are representative of online pornography too. Research has shown that boys first
watch porn when they are eleven years old.
This means that young men and women are growing up learning via objectification
and rape culture that sex is something that is done to women for men’s sexual
gratification, not something that women mutually engage in because they actually
want to. They are growing up learning that violence and non-consensual sex acts
are the norm. Coventry Rape Crisis Centre explained to me that more and more
often they are seeing very young women who have been raped by their partners
and their partners’ friends, but don’t have the language to call it rape. Instead, they
are learning from the images that surround them that being forced and coerced into
sex is something they have to do to have a boyfriend. As the rape crisis counsellor
put it to me, they see it as something they have to do ‘to be loved’. The result of this
education that boys and girls are receiving from the images they see every day is
that teenage girls are now the most at risk group of experiencing intimate partner
violence. 1 in 3 girls will experience inter personal violence.
I am sure that everyone in this room will agree with me that this cannot be allowed to
continue. We cannot risk the next generation having an even higher rate of domestic
violence and rape than our own.
So, what can we do? As an activist, I believe that we need to counteract the
objectification of women and girls by also ending the invisibility of women who
aren’t treated as objects. Let’s flood our media and culture with positive and exciting
images and voices of women. Let’s get more women in positions of inspiration. Let’s
end the cultural femicide of women and see our young women and men grow up
surrounded by role models that show them that women are not objects to be used,
and abused. Let’s end the silencing of women on our cultural stage, and the impact
will reach out and end the silencing of women everywhere. Rape culture is informed
and upheld by the objectification of women and the cultural femicide of women. This is how representation is violence. But we can, and we must, stop it. We owe it to
women and girls everywhere to stop it now.
Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, 2005, pg 165
R Wosnitzer and AJ Bridges, Aggression and Sexual Behaviour in Best-selling Pornography: A
Content Analysis Update’ paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication
Association, San Francisco, CA, 2007.
Bristol University Centre of Gender Based Violence Research and NSPCC