There is a common theme that exists throughout most Western popular culture and media productions that surround us on a daily basis: the sexualisation of women. Chart-topping songs, high-grossing films, award-winning television series, and many more aspects of popular culture lean into this proclivity to depict women as only good for one thing.
Sexualisation damages those it focuses on by suggesting that they are one-dimensional and incapable of autonomy. I am sure most of us are familiar with the phrase used by Donald Trump which promotes sexual violence and reinforces the idea that women are objects rather than three-dimensional people, so I will not repeat it here. But this particular phrase is an example of the damage sexualisation of women can do.
First I would like to say that it is, of course, not only women who are subjected to this. Men are often depicted as oiled-up and shirtless, even in advertisements for something as mundane as soda or laundry detergent. Surveys and research suggest that men, too, are becoming more focused on their appearance and sexual prowess due to how they are depicted in the media. However, the sexualisation of women is wrought from an unequal power structure that systematically oppresses them, so it’s not quite the same thing.
Of course, I speak as a white woman in the UK. I cannot speak for the sexualisation of other groups of women, such as women of colour, or those in other cultures, as I have no first-hand experience of this. Sexualisation can differ in effects depending on a woman’s race or cultural background and I do not want to universalise this experience. Here, I speak through the lens of my own experience.
Sexualisation is dangerous due to its uncanny ability to reduce people’s worth to their level of conventional sexual attractiveness. Emily Witt was completely correct when, in an article for The Guardian, she posits that sexual intercourse itself can be a revolutionary, political act; particularly in a society which continues to suggest that heterosexuality is the norm.
I do not want to suggest that everybody give up sex. It is a triumph to see two men kissing in an advertisement or two women having sex in a TV episode, particularly given the way this expression of sexuality was treated in the past. The fact that LGBTQ sex is becoming more common in the media is something to be celebrated. So, too, is the increasing incidences of female characters being more assertive in sexual scenarios. We are experiencing a sexual revolution through which women are suddenly portrayed more realistically: not just for the pleasure of men, but as real people capable of their own desires.
However, for those of us who, for whatever reason, don’t have sex, it can be awfully frustrating to see it as a focal point of everyday living.
There are many explanations for why somebody does not have sex. They may be asexual; their religion or cultural background may place an importance on waiting until marriage; they may have a disability which prevents the physical act of sex; they may have a medical condition which makes sex painful (vulvodynia, for example, can make penetrative sex excruciating). The possibilities are almost endless. It could simply be that somebody has chosen not to engage in this act.
In Western media, with the likes of American Pie, the 40-year-old Virgin, and Superbad, among others, the implication is that if you don’t lose your virginity before you leave high school you become a social pariah. It is an inescapable rite of passage, if these films are to be believed. Not only does this ring untrue for many of us, it also places unrealistic expectations on young people who do not yet know any different.
I remember, as myself and my friends turned 16, the pressure to become an ‘adult’ by having sex. It was held up on a pedestal as the ultimate ritual — the only way to truly become mature. If you didn’t have sex there was something wrong with you: you were ugly, or perhaps had a terrible personality which made it impossible for people to be in the same room as you any longer than they had to.
The same message is broadcast by much of the Western media we consume. Women are seen as conventionally attractive and always sexually available. Only the most ‘repugnant’ remain without sexual partners.
For young women this sexualisation causes even more pressure at an already stressful time. Stories constantly crop up about young girls being sent home from school because — gasp — their shoulders were bare or their skirt crept above their knees. The only reason this is a problem is because some adults believe it will distract boys, who will see a bare shoulder and suddenly become so overcome with the urge to copulate that any thought of maths goes out of the window.
In schools, sex education should focus as much on the right to decide not to have sex as how to prevent pregnancy if you do have sex. Research has shown that more and more young women suffer from depression, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and more due to the sexualisation of their gender which they must suffer on a daily basis through advertising, toys, video games, and other aspects of the media, along with the unrelenting assumption that they will have sex sooner or later.
Sexualisation is the same when considering attitudes towards breastfeeding in public. The Free the Nipple campaign has been instrumental in changing people’s views of female nipples, highlighting how absurd it is to sexualise something as normal as breastfeeding a baby.
Sex itself is a constant theme in Western culture. Watch any British soap opera or teenage comedy for ten minutes and you will see abundant storylines about pregnancy, affairs, and general sexual situations. How does that make people feel if they can’t have sex, for any of the reasons mentioned above? Suddenly they’re not quite whole; they can’t do the most basic, fundamentally human act.
As I’ve stated, the last thing I want is to suggest that sex is done away with. It can be a wonderful, affirming, radical act for many communities and cultures. It is fantastic that female writers, directors, actresses, and so on are becoming more instrumental in how female sexuality is shown on screen, leading to ground-breaking shows such as Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin.
However, people should be taught that sex is not necessary. It is not compulsory, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with you if, for whatever reason, you don’t have it. In The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper shows absolutely no interest in sex for almost ten seasons of the show. Rather than being supportive of this, the other characters joke that he must be a robot and continually pressure him to become intimate with his girlfriend, because unless they have sex their relationship is not normal, and just a humorous phenomenon.
One of my favourite female characters appeared on the short-lived American comedy series Sirens, a remake of the British series of the same name. In it Brian, a male paramedic, attempts to seduce a female paramedic nicknamed Voodoo. Soon his colleagues explain that she is asexual. The word asexual was used repeatedly for the first time in any TV series I’ve ever seen. Voodoo’s sexuality isn’t there for comedic effect and there are no shallow jokes at her expense. She is a three-dimensional, wonderful woman who happens to have no interest in the act of sex. This was, for me and many others who watched the show, a revelation.
In Western society sex is still seen as the ultimate goal for many. You cannot have a fulfilling relationship if you’re not sleeping together; it is the definitive act of trust and companionship. If you are not sleeping with your partner, then you’re just friends, really, aren’t you? You’re not in a valid relationship, after all. Rachel from Friends sums it up perfectly: “They haven’t even slept together, yet. I mean, that’s not serious!”.