Sex and sensuality: the sexual objectification of women and girls and the dilemma of Western feminisms

As women and girls become both more affected by and more vocal against over sexualization, Hakimeh Saghaye-Biria argues that a reckoning must be had within Western(ised) feminisms regarding the policies and programs that often promote objectification whilst claiming to promote gender equality and liberation.

The issue of objectification of human beings has long been criticized as a problem in Western societies especially as it relates to the treatment of women.  Scholars from different disciplines have identified objectification as a dehumanizing process whereby human beings are treated as objects rather than people.  “Specifically, when a person’s body parts or functions are separated from the person, reduced to the status of instruments, or regarded as capable of representing the entire person, he or (most often) she is said to be objectified.” (Gervais et. al, 2013)

The “legs-it” incident is a perfect illustration of objectification in action.  When Theresa May, the former British prime minister, and Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland, met on March 27, 2017, to discuss the ramifications of Brexit for Scotland, the Daily Mail decided it was their legs that deserved more attention. “Never mind BREXIT, who won legs-it?” the newspaper’s headline read.  The incident which became the subject of much public scorn and criticism is yet another plain evidence of the issue of women’s sexual objectification in Western culture in an era when talk of women’s empowerment is everywhere to be heard. 

In recent years, the pervasiveness of sexual objectification of women and girls in Western culture – and through its globalization, all over the world – has received much scholarly attention and has made policymakers concerned, especially as it relates to children.  Critics of sexual objectification argue that such treatment reduces the power and activism of women in society and greatly jeopardizes their physical and psychological health (Calogera, et. al, 2010).  In essence, issues related to women’s sexualization and objectification have become the newest conceptual battleground in Western feminism.  On the one hand, scholars across social science disciplines believe the flood of mediated sexualized content has brought about a psychological health crisis for women and girls while on the other, campaigns such as Topfreedom, for example, push for society’s tolerance of even more self-sexualization. 

What is objectification?

Objectification is the process by which something that is not a thing is regarded as one (dehumanization), devoid of independent judgement and action, so that its vision, character, and behavior are controlled by external factors.  In sexual objectification, individuals, most often women and girls, become sexual objects whose existential worth is measured only by their sexual attractiveness (Frederickson & Roberts, 1992).  Using social learning theory and cultivation theory, experts have found that sexualization of girls occurs in three related and intertwined areas. 

First, it occurs through socialization, or in other words, through the norms, expectations, and cultural values that are passed on to girls in various ways, including through the media.  When sexualized representations of women and girls are institutionalized in the cultural fabric of a society, sexualization will be seen as an accepted norm.  Interpersonal relationships are the second venue for sexualization in society, when family members, peers, and others treat girls and women in sexualized ways.  Thirdly, sexualization becomes an entrenched part of a society when self-sexualization or self-objectification becomes part of women’s lived experience so that it turns into an inseparable aspect of their identity and self-image (Smolak & Murnen, 2011).   

In other words, when girls learn that not only are sexualized appearance and behavior approved or accepted by society and important people in their lives (such as their peers) but also are rewarded in important ways (such as in job success), the likelihood of the internalization (or cultivation) of such a value system increases.  This is where self-sexualization or self-objectification also occurs.

In a special report on the problem of sexualization of girls, the American Psychological Association considers the cultural factors that affect the occurrence of this problem in the United States to be very comprehensive so that women and girls are far more sexually objectified than men in all kinds of media (including television, magazines, news media and music videos).  Likewise, this is found to be a pervasive feature of commercial advertising and commodity markets, especially those of clothing, toys, and cosmetics.  For example, the report states, “Given that girls may be developing their identity in part through the clothing they choose, it is of concern when girls at increasingly younger ages are invited to try on and wear teen clothes designed to highlight female sexuality. Wearing such clothing may make it more difficult for girls to see their own worth and value in any way other than sexually.”  Similarly, the cosmetics industry is increasingly looking at children as a target group, with toy stores supplying cosmetics to younger girls. 

Sexualization of children via commodity markets is worrying because it can be considered the source of social acceptance of child sexual objectification, endangering children’s growth and development.  Based on the cultural models theory, some experts argue that marketers provide children and adolescents with schemas of life events with which they have no or little experience.  These schemas are gradually formed in the minds of children as cultural patterns (Bachen & Illouz, 1996). 

In addition to social factors such as media and commodity markets, girls’ interpersonal relationships (including with parents, teachers, and peers) also play a role in their sexualization (Brown & Gilligan, 1993).  In other words, due to the influence of the sexualized conditions of society on parents, teachers and peers, we may see the growth of the problem of sexualization in girls in two steps.  This impact occurs when these individuals, in their relationships with children and adolescents, explicitly or implicitly endorse culturally constructed sexualized norms, or in some cases, sexually harass children and adolescents.  Therefore, parents’ internalization of sexualized cultural schemas would negatively affect their parental style. 

For example, parents may do this by “entering their 5-year-old daughter in a beauty pageant in which she and the other contestants engage in behaviors and practices that are socially associated with sexiness: wearing heavy makeup to emphasize full lips, long eyelashes, and flushed cheeks, high heels to emulate adult women, and revealing ‘evening gowns.'”  Another clear example is parents’ ‘agreement with their children’s, most often girls’, plastic surgery to increase their attractiveness.  In 2015 alone, more than 226,000 plastic surgeries were performed on adolescents 19 years of age and younger, according to the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons.

Sexualization is also seen in the behavior of children with their peers, a problem that is compounded by the growing sexual harassment of peers in Western schools (Levin & Kilbourne, 2008).  A meaningful statistically signification relationship has been found between the internalization of sexualization in girls and the reduction of their motivation, effort, and academic success in schools (McKenney & Bigler, 2016). 

Hating herself

Self-sexualization, otherwise referred to as self-objectification, is a gradual and long-term effect of living in socio-cultural conditions in which the sexualization of women and girls is abundantly present in symbols and behaviors.  Self-objectification negatively affects women’s formation of self-image and worth.  In this case, a woman or a girl looks at herself as a third person who is always watched and judged for sexualized correctness.  A woman’s lived experience becomes part and parcel with sexualization.  Scholars have found self-objectification to be prevalent among adolescent girls in Western societies (Slater & Tiggeman, 2002).  According to Fredrickson and Roberts, “objectification theory posits that girls and women are typically acculturated to internalize an observer’s perspective as a primary view of their physical selves. This perspective on self can lead to habitual body monitoring, which, in turn, can increase women’s opportunities for shame and anxiety, reduce opportunities for peak motivational states, and diminish awareness of internal bodily states.”

Concerns about the sexualization of women and girls have gone beyond the level of parents and social activists and have attracted the attention of social scientists and policymakers.  These include the following:

  • The 2010 UK Home Office report “Sexualisation of Young People Review” prepared by Dr. Linda Papadopoulos. In this report, sexualization is defined as the process through which the worth of a person in measured based on his or her sexual characteristics.
  • The 2006 report Corporate Paedophilia : Sexualisation of children in Australia, prepared by the Australia Institute.  The Australian Senate made a national inquiry in this regard in 2007.  The original report concentrates on the status of children’s sexualization in Australian media especially in the form of commercial advertising.
  • The 2010 “Let Girls Be Girls” campaign sponsored by the Mumsnet Website.  The campaign was officially supported by the UK Home Office.
  • The 2007 report of the American Psychological Association on “The Sexualization of Girls” which was prepared by a special working group with the same name.

These works mostly focus on the negative effects of sexualization on girls, although some also take such effects on boys and men into consideration as well.  They mostly discuss the destructive effects of sexualized advertising and the toxic media environment on the identities of women and girls.  “The trickle down of adult fashions into the children’s market” in forms such as inappropriate clothing and sexually explicit toys has been cited as examples of constructed sexualization.  “Media targeting young people –teen soaps, music videos, and girl’s magazines – have been accused of glamourizing casual sex and cultivating a ‘throwaway’ attitude to relationships.” (Buckingham, 2011)  “The beauty industry,” specifically, looks at teenagers as “a lucrative market, with growing amounts being spent on cosmetics, slimming products, and plastic surgery.”  For younger kids, concerns center around their being targeted for cosmetics, perfume, false nails, and the popular Bratz dolls with a sexualized appearance.

Dangerous sensuality

The issue of sexualization of women and girls became increasingly prevalent in Western capitalist societies when in the face of the women’s movement they turned many cultural taboos into norms using the framework of freedom.  Taking a historical look at the sexual revolution and feminism in the United States, Dr. Bonnie Traymore says that this process has led to the production of “a dangerously sensual” brand of women’s empowerment and “feminist sexualization.”(Traymore, 2003)  According to experts, the predominance of the sensual approach to women’s freedom is due to its utility for the capitalist system.  From this perspective, promoting women to see their participation in society in necessarily sexualized ways has served as a tool to control the women’s movement at the service of capitalist goals. 

A glance at the 1920s cigarette advertising campaigns targeting women in America well illustrates the capitalist instrumental use of the women’s liberation movement.  Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, first implemented the idea of using the framework of freedom to promote the smoking culture among American women in 1929.  “Bernays hired women to march while smoking their ‘torches of freedom’ in the Easter Sunday Parade of 1929, which was a significant moment for fighting social barriers for women smokers.”  Framing female smoking with equality and freedom was instrumental in breaking the taboo.  In recent decades, tobacco companies have used the same tactic to target Third World women, framing smoking as a sign of progress, freedom, and equality. 

Since 1979, Dr. Jean Kilbourne, in a series of lectures entitled “Killing Us Softly,” has criticized the Western media’s sexualized harassment and violence against women, especially in commercials.  She argues that “the advertisers are America’s real pornographers.”  Kilbourne, who was once addicted to alcohol, quit alcohol after the ups and downs of her life in 1976 and began a campaign against the destructive effects of the capitalist system on women’s identity. She also gave up smoking in 1983.  She says in this regard, “What finally led me to quit smoking wasn’t the threat of cancer or of wrinkles or even my morning cough.  What got to me was that I was giving a couple of bucks a day to an evil industry. I understood that this had nothing to do with liberation; it had to do with slavery.”(Kilbourne, 2012)  Making her own “rebellion” against the advertisers she says, “We are all encouraged to confuse addiction with liberation, enslavement with freedom.”  Kilbourne’s campaign is about freeing women of these wrong equations.

What have corrupt commercials done to people?  Kilbourne’s words speak to the question:

“… Advertising often turns people into objects.  Women’s bodies, and men’s bodies too these days, are dismembered, packaged, and used to sell everything from chain saws to chewing gum.  But many people do not fully realize that there are terrible consequences when people become things.  Self-image is deeply affected.  The self-esteem of girls plummets as they reach adolescence partly because they cannot possibly escape the message that their bodies are objects, and imperfect objects at that.  Boys learn that masculinity requires a kind of ruthlessness, even brutality.  Violence becomes inevitable.”

In service of consumerism

This process is the product of an industry that spends more than 200 billion dollars yearly.  In essence, female sexualization and consumerism are two related conundrums.

In her book, Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women, Naomi Wolf argues that in Western societies women are pressured to conform to the rituals of “a cult of female beauty and youthfulness,” which commands them for a lifetime struggle to attain an unattainable standard of a beauty myth.  In this cult salvation is reserved for “the woman who dies thinnest, with the fewest wrinkles.”  With regard to the negative effects of the beauty myth on women’s advancement, she writes:

“The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us. …

“During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing medical specialty. … Pornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined … More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers.”

The sexualization crisis has become so serious that it has been considered a serious psychological pathology.  The American Psychological Association designated a specialized Task Force in 2005 to analyze the state of the sexualization of girls in America.  The Task Force published two reports, in 2007 and 2010 respectively, and gave the following definition to delineate the different aspects of female sexualization:

Sexualization occurs when any one or more of the following features are present:

  1. A person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
  2. A person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
  3. A person is sexually objectified – that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
  4. Sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

Studies suggest that women’s continued exposure to sexualized content leads to self-objectification so that they see their worth in terms of the level of their sexualized attractiveness.  Girls self-objectify when they “internalize the sexualizing messages of culture.”  The APA report warns that in this case “sexual objectification of female bodies” becomes “the cultural milieu in which girls exist and develop.”  In short, while the media are the main venues through which sexualization is institutionalized in society, it is the overall culture that normalizes and rewards sexualized standards of beauty and pressures young people to adopt those standards.  The authors of the APA report use socialization theories, cultural studies, cognitive and psychoanalytic theories to discuss the process of sexualization in girls.

Hating / suppressing the female self / other

Studies show that girls who immerse their lives in sexualized media content are more likely to objectify women as a whole and are more apt to suffer from cognitive fragmentation, body dissatisfaction, appearance anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.  Self-objectification reduces cognitive ability so that girls often do not perform as well as they could in math and science classes for example.  In cognitive fragmentation, “chronic attention to physical appearance leaves fewer cognitive resources available for other mental and physical activities.”  As a result, self-objectified girls do poorly in school.

Interestingly, in single-sex classrooms, girls do much better cognitively.  “This may not be solely because boys would otherwise dominate the classroom (one popular explanation for the success of single-sex math classes for girls) but also because without boys, girls can literally take their minds off their own bodies and think more effectively.”

The most important danger of the sexualization of girls in society lies in the domain of attitudes and beliefs regarding femininity and female sexuality.  “The sexualization and objectification of women in the media appear to teach girls that as women, all they have to offer is their body and face, and that they should expend all their effort on physical appearance.”  Diminished cognitive ability and the belief that physical appearance is the best way to gaining power in social settings compared to academic success or good performance in extracurricular activities put girls’ future opportunities in life in danger. 

Rape culture and the depoliticizing of women

Self-objectification also has consequences for women’s social activism and political participation.  According to research, self-objectification results in less engagement in gender-based social activism.  After all, “objects don’t object,” as Calogero says.

It is important to note that because Western media are now in fact global and have a presence in homes all around the world, the problem of sexualization of women has become a global problem as well.  This is especially so in the case of societies and people who passively accept the superiority of and adopt Western lifestyles and cultural patterns.  This situation is very alarming given the fact that some critics of the current state of affairs in the West suggest that Western societies are grappling with rape culture.  Statistics on rape in the West and the collapse of the family system are indicative of the problem.

Olfman, in her book The Sexualization of Childhood says the following in this regard:

“To say we live in a rape culture means that we live in a culture in which rape is pervasive, prevalent and normalized through societal attitudes about gender, sex, and sexuality. … For example, in the United States, researchers predict that one in four women will be raped by a man in her lifetime. Leaving statistics aside though, most women understand what it means to live in a rape culture because of their lived reality of doing so.  … One way of thinking about this is to realize regardless of how many women experience a rape or attempted rape within their lifetime 100 percent of women experience the threat of rape within a rape culture.  This means that all women’s lives are impacted.”

The pornography industry makes use of sexualization of children as well.  According to Olfman, “A new pornographic video is produced every 39 minutes in the United States. Worldwide, pornography is a $97 billion industry, 10 times the size of Hollywood box office revenues. The industry is larger than the combined revenues of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, Netflix, and EarthLink. But it’s strictly an adult thing, right? Wrong.”

To wrap up the whole sexualization problem in a few words, it is the product of “unreasonable and unbridled lust” at the service of economic greed.  These are some of the features of “the modern mode of ignorance (jahiliyah),” to use the words of Ayatollah Khamenei. 

Islam in a world beyond objectification

What the present article aimed to do was to show how the sexualization of women and their objectification is criticized in Western societies.  It is important to note, however, that such concerns are limited to the material dangers of sexual objectification of women and overlook any assessment of the related spiritual problems.  The intra-discursive war within Western feminism shows the flaws of imitation of the Western approach to women’s empowerment.  The critiques overviewed here are indicative of the calls for a movement beyond a sexualized notion of women’s empowerment in the world. 

In this process, Islam has much to offer.  In Islam’s view, prevention is the best cure.  Islam offers a system of human-to-human relations in social life that is devoid of sexualization.  Prevention of sexual objectification in society, according to Islam, includes the forbidding of any lustful, sensual gaze among men and women, men and men, and women and women.  Other measures include dress code, which is known as hijab in the case of women.  Men and women are also advised to avoid casual relationships and keep all social intimacy among close relatives.  Sexual relations are strictly limited to marriage.  These commandments together offer a holistic system that ensures the health of society so that men and women can both perform their functions and have the opportunity to reach their potential. 

The role of the hijab in keeping men and women away from sexual objectification shows that it is not a hindrance to women’s empowerment.  Rather, it is a necessary aspect of such empowerment.  Historically too, practising Muslim women have played an active role in society, standing up against colonialism and later forms of foreign domination of their countries. What gave them the power and resilience to play such a role was an identity that did not self-objectify. 

Lack of sufficient attention to Islam’s approach to women and a passive stance against the Western approach to women’s issues will further fuel Muslim countries’ sexualization crisis.  The Islamic Revolution of Iran emphasized the Islamic approach to women’s issues and the fact that Islamic rulings on male-female relations in society promote their sexual health, provide a healthy atmosphere for social activity for both, and provide psychological security for all. As a result, it has provided the grounds for women’s activities in various fields.  The words of Imam Khomeini best encapsulate such a perspective:

“Islam has saved women from what was the norm during the era of ignorance; God knows that Islam has served women much more than it has served men.  In Islam’s view, women have a sensitive role to play in the building of the Islamic society, and Islam has elevated women to the point that she is able to regain her humane status in society and come out of the state of objectification.  Only with such growth can she overtake responsibility in the Islamic government.”

Hakimeh Saghaye-Biria is an assistant professor at the University of Tehran, Faculty of Islamic Knowledge and Thought.  She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Tehran, a Master’s degree in Mass Communication from Louisiana State University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication from the University of Houston.  In her research, Saghaye-Biria has explored how Orientalism, more generally, and Islamophobia, more specifically, have affected international relations including in such cases as the universal human rights regime, U.S.-Iran relations, and the relationship between the U.S. government and its Muslim minority population.