Media Sexualization: What Happens Now?

I ran across an article from yesterday’s nerve.com, Study: Media representations of women have become more “pornified”, which eventually led me to the press release for the original research. The U of Buffalo researchers looked at the covers of Rolling Stone magazine from 1967 to 2009 and rated them using the “scale of sexualization” that they developed.

Each picture got points based on criteria like the subject’s lips being parted or if his/her tongue was showing, if the subject was only partially clad or naked, or if the text describing the subject used explicitly sexual language. Using this scale, they then grouped the images into three categories: a) those that were, for the most part, not sexualized (i.e., scoring 0-4 points on the scale); b) those that were sexualized (5-10 points); and c) those that were so intensely sexualized that the authors labeled them “hypersexualized” (11-23 points).

So when they looked at how images broke down by year, in the 1960’s 11% of men and 44% of women were sexualized. In the 2000’s, 17 % of men and 83 % of women were sexualized. Among those images that were sexualized, 2% of men and 61% of women were hypersexualized. According to one of the authors, “In the 2000’s, there were 10 times more hypersexualized images of women than men, and 11 times more non-sexualized images of men than of women.”

The researchers chose Rolling Stone as their sample on the grounds that it’s not specifically about sex or relationships. Since it covers popular culture, music, politics, film, television and current events, they felt that it “offers a useful window into how women and men are portrayed generally in popular culture.”

While I often think that selection bias is often a big influence, I also can’t argue with the conclusion that sexualized images of women and sexualized messages are much more prevalent than they used to be. Similarly, while I’m generally skeptical of research that’s based on scales that the authors create and that haven’t been validated by other scientists (especially when they’re used to generate pages of statistics), it’s pretty obvious that images of women usually show much more skin than images of men, especially in media that targets heterosexual men.

But there’s one part of the press release that stands out for me. It’s a quote from one of the researchers:

“We don’t necessarily think it’s problematic for women to be portrayed as ‘sexy.’ But we do think it is problematic when nearly all images of women depict them not simply as ‘sexy women’ but as passive objects for someone else’s sexual pleasure.”

What does it mean to be a “passive object for someone else’s sexual pleasure”? In what way does being presented as sexually desirable mean being passive? It’s an interesting question to me, in light of the way that gay sex used to be commonly described as active v. passive, depending on whether one was topping or bottoming, prompting one friend of mine to joke that if it’s passive, you’re doing it wrong.

When we equate sexual receptivity and passivity, we reinforce the connection between femininity and passivity. And while I don’t think that’s what the researchers meant to do, I think it’s important to distinguish between the two more explicitly. Does this photo of Megan Fox look passive to you? It’s definitely a sexy pose, and I might even consider it as signalling receptivity, but it hardly looks passive to me. Of course, there are many more photos that they looked at. But since not all women express their sexual desires through signalling receptivity, I think it’d be interesting to look at the Rolling Stone covers and try to assess them based on where they fall on that criteria. And I have to wonder why the authors didn’t make that distinction in their announcement, although I might have to wait to see what the actual study says.

It’s also worth noting that a lot of why media representations have become so sexualized is because of our culture’s sex-negativity. As a society, we’re obsessed with sex and we sure talk about it a lot, but that doesn’t mean that we have a healthy relationship to it. It often looks rather similar in this regard to the ways in which people with eating disorders often think and talk about food constantly. I believe that in a sexually-healthy society, sex wouldn’t be used to sell cars (or anything else) because it wouldn’t draw our attention in the same way. Can you imagine trying to sell a car with chocolate cake?

But as the edge gets pushed further, that means that advertisers need to go further in order to stimulate interest. A lot of people would say that things that seemed racy 50 years ago are pretty humdrum today. And there’s a way in which our deeply-rooted sex-negativity plays into that. Part of what makes these pictures so useful in selling magazines is the erotophobia that continues to influence us.

Unfortunately, when almost all of the images we see offer a fairly narrow view of what make someone sexy or attractive, it reinforces the idea that this is the only definition we can strive toward. I recently watched a BBC-produced movies and noticed (again) how few actors in other countries look like they spend all day at the gym. They have curves, or love handles, or jiggled when they walked- you know, like most people do. But in the US, if you want to succeed in Hollywood, you have to fit the physical mold that we all know.

I’d like to see a much wider range of sexy in the media. I’d like to see bodies of all different ages, sizes, genders, shapes, and skin tones celebrated. I’d really like for us to let go of the idea that sexy = looking like the photoshopped images that surround us. And I’d like to see it on the cover of Rolling Stone. After all, In the very first edition of the magazine, editor Wenner wrote that the magazine “is not just about the music, but about the things and attitudes that music embraces.” So let’s see that instead of this narrow slice, for a change.

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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