“If 1994 was the Year of O.J.’s White Bronco, 2013 was the Year of the Very Visible Vagina,” actress, feminist and multi-platform artist Rashida Jones quipped in an article for “Glamour” magazine. Social media is not the only culprit however, every day our lives are saturated with sexualised imagery on television, in advertisements, in magazines, through music. The fine line between art and pornography is a game of jump rope and there are always those willing to push the envelope. Peter Janetzki, counsellor and talk show host, suggested in his article, Remediating the negative impact of the Pornification of our Sex Lives, that pornography was first brought to the forefront of our western culture with the release of Playboy magazine in 1953. “It was the beginning of a revolution that transformed an understanding of male sexuality by promoting Heffner’s playboy lifestyle as the ultimate dream for the average man.” (Janetzki, 2016). Indeed, the pornographic industry has flourished in the years gone by with the estimated production of eight to fifteen thousand movies per year, compared to the rate of Hollywood of three to four hundred (Daines, 2010). It has entered our main stream culture through popular media and surely affecting us on a subconscious level, but is it a sociological problem? There are many that would agree that the pornification of our society is. There is substantial public outcry that has resulted in studies, campaigns such as the UK’s “No More Page 3” and numerous suggestions of how to curb the growing issues, but first, we need to understand the issue at hand. Why has our society become one based upon sexual freedom? Is it necessarily a bad thing? In this essay, I will discuss the phenomenon of the pornfication of our twenty-first century culture and attempt to differ between self-expression and self-objectification.
In a study conducted by Professors Erin Hatton and Mary Nell Trautner of Buffalo University, the two discovered to the extent that sexualisation of media has affected our society. They chose to study the cover of The Rolling Stone “because it is a well-established, pop-culture media outlet. It is not explicitly about sex or relationships; foremost it is about music. But it also covers politics, film, television and current events, and so offers a useful window into how women and men are portrayed generally in popular culture.” (Hatton and Trautner, 2011). Over 1,000 covers, expanding a period of forty-three years, were analysed with unsurprising results. The results concluded that, whilst both men and women had becoming increasingly sexualised over the years, women were affected more intensely with a ratio of ten to one. Perhaps the most startling discovery however, is the way in which the two genders were portrayed. “What we conclude from this is that popular media outlets such as Rolling Stone are not depicting women as sexy musicians or actors; they are depicting women musicians and actors as ready and available for sex”. (Hatton and Trautner, 2011). The issue, as I see it, is not the increased sexualisation, but how women are being sexualised, or pornified in this case. Pornography is not often for the female gaze, it is made for the male consumer with women portrayed as decorative objects, playthings, purely present for the pleasure of the male audience. This has leached into our popular culture mediums, as demonstrated by The Rolling Stone magazine study. A recent study by the human rights organisation OBJECT found that up to eighty-one percent of music videos contain sexual imagery, with women far more likely to be represented in a provocative manner than their male counterparts. (OBJECT, 2009, pp 9). It is not just hip hop and pop videos that are culprits of this though, the OBJECT report also suggested that forty percent of women in country music videos were dressed in “alluring clothing”. (OBJECT, 2009, pp 9). Television is not safe either. “In the 101 highest earning family films between 1990–2004 over 75% of characters were male, 83% of narrators were male and 72% of speaking roles were male.” (Papadopoulos, 2010, pp8). Not only are the majority of female roles sexualised, but women in general are seriously under represented. Even magazines targeted at women often depict them in sexual connotations, though with less aggression then ‘lad mags’. With articles based upon hair styles, cosmetics, diet, clothing etc; even the youngest of readers are subjected to the desires of the male viewer.
Why is this a problem though? Surely we should be celebrating the freedom women now have, the freedom to wear what they wish, to no longer be considered property. This we do, however, there are problems that have arisen with this ‘freedom’. “Instead of embracing the gains made by their foremothers and continuing the fight for empowerment, many females today are choosing to participate in their own sexual exploitation. They are offering their bodies to men in exchange for attention and acceptance,” Patrice Oppliger penned in Girls Gone Skank: The Sexualization of Girls in American Culture. This is not only prominent in social media where young girls compete with one another for the approval of their peers, but also in the representation of female performers and athletes. The Harvard Law Review announced something that many women already know, that “the American public still has not yet become comfortable with the ways in which female athletes challenge traditional notions of femininity and masculinity.” (Liang, 2011). Because of this, women often use their sexuality to emphasise their femininity and thus to appeal to traditional values and the male gaze. This garners underpaid female athletes earning capabilities through sponsorships, modelling contracts and other endorsements. Take tennis player Anna Kournikova for example, despite never winning a major tournament, her promotion of her femininity, beauty and sexuality have led to her becoming the world’s highest paid women’s tennis player.
In our social media driven age, the attractiveness of women is hotly debated. “This is the generation who have been washed by the power of the image like no generation before them.” (Gorman, 2016). The online identity is one we create, our ideal life, our ideal persona, “social media is the broadcasting tool to create and advertise the personal brand.” (Gorman, 2016). It is led by the ‘porn star criteria’ however, with emphasis on one’s own opinion based upon the ‘likes’ the images receive, and men are simple beings really, sex sells. What about the modern woman though? What about the feminist that claims she is not objectified, but empowered by her sexuality? Well she’s right, some women are empowered by their sexuality, but the difference is that they find this within themselves and not from pandering to another’s gaze. “The poles, the pasties, the gyrating: This isn’t showing female sexuality; this is showing what it looks like when women sell sex.” (Jones, 2013) This selling of sex has set women, and men, on a rocky path. When men are shown every day that a woman is simply there to fill their desires, objects to fulfil their needs, then this is way they will treat them. When women are ingrained into the belief that they are passive objects, then that is what they will become. The constant criticism of the female form has also led to the rise in body image and self-esteem issues, resulting in eating disorders and the rise of the plastic surgery holiday. It also suggested that this pornification of women has resulted in a rise in violence against women.
There have been multiple suggestions from many varied sources as how to combat this issue. These range from media regulation, sexual and media education in schools, government programs such as installing rating systems, tighter regulations of ‘lad mags’ and further investment into youth work. The feminist movement has done a great deal of good for women in this area, but I believe more emphasis needs to be placed on what men can do, instead of what women can do. The pornification of society reinforces archaic gender roles and sexist attitudes; it turns women into objects and removes blame from men, bolstering our already apparent rape culture. Ceasing women from expressing sexuality is not the answer; it is placing the blame on them and taking the responsibility of men owning their actions away. “The real problem isn’t something tangible like sexting or bullying which adults focus on in patronizing and unimaginative ways.” Yes, further education would be helpful, but “the real problem relates to conformity. Kids are compelled to act the stereotype because those who opt out commit themselves to social leprosy.”(Nelson, 2016). This is not much removed from traditional gender roles, from women as the makers of babies and worth little else. Men need to stop demanding and judging women for their appearances, to start seeing and treating women as equals. Women need to cease pandering to the male gaze and focus upon their own sexuality, not on what pornography has told them they need to be. This is a social problem, something that needs to be tackled in a way that book learning cannot express. It needs to occur at a base human level, through our interactions with each other, through our views of ourselves.
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