“Sexualization” has become a much debated issue in recent years, and a noticeable feature is the assumption that feminists who oppose sexual objectification are generating a “moral panic.” Ever since sociologist Stanley Cohen introduced the term in 1972, it has been used as a shorthand way of critiquing conservatives for inventing another “problem” in order to demonize a group that challenges traditional moral standards.
So apparently feminists are now the conservatives fomenting unnecessary panic about the proliferation of “sexualized” images, while the corporate-controlled media industry that mass produces these images is the progressive force for change being unfairly demonized. What a strange turn of events.
To suggest feminists who oppose the pornification of society are stirring up a moral panic is to confuse a politically progressive movement with right-wing attempts to police sexual behavior. Just such a conservative strand can be identified in current debates in Britain: interventions of the coalition government include calls for girls to be given lessons in how to practice abstinence and attacks on abortion rights. However, feminists who organize against pornification are not arguing that sexualized images of women cause moral decay; rather that they perpetuate myths of women’s unconditional sexual availability and object status, and thus undermine women’s rights to sexual autonomy, physical safety and economic and social equality. The harm done to women is not a moral harm, but a political one, and any analysis must be grounded in a critique of the corporate control of our visual landscape.
The left has a long history of fighting capitalist ownership of the media. From Karl Marx to Antonio Gramsci to Noam Chomsky, leftist thinkers have understood the corporate media to be the propaganda machine for capitalist ideas and values. By mainstreaming the ideologies of the elite, corporate-controlled media shapes our identities as workers and consumers, selling an image of success and happiness tied to the consumption of products that generate enormous wealth for the elite class.
The industry-engineered image of femininity has now become the dominant one in Western society, crowding out alternative ways of being female. The clothes, cosmetics, diets, gym membership, trips to the hair salon, the waxing salon and the nail salon add up to a lot of money. Even in these dark economic times, when women are experiencing the most severe financial hardship, the UK beauty business is booming.
Women’s self-loathing is big business, and it supports a global capitalist system that, ironically, depends on the exploitation of women’s labor in developing countries. Adding insult to injury, many of these underpaid women are spending a significant proportion of their wages on skin-whitening products that promise social mobility out of the sweatshops.
In the West, cosmetic surgery is increasingly normalized. Last year in the UK, almost 9,500 women underwent breast augmentation surgery, and the number of labiaplasties has almost tripled in five years. The emotional cost of conforming to hypersexualization is enormous for girls and young women forming their gender and sexual identities. We construct our identities through complex processes of interaction with the culture around us, but today images of hypersexualization dominate. Where is a girl to go if she decides Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Rihanna or Britney Spears aren’t for her?
An American Psychological Association study on girls’ sexualization found that it “has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs.” Some of these effects include risky sexual behavior, higher rates of eating disorders, depression and low self-esteem, and reduced academic performance. Of course, there are girls who resist, but there are real social penalties to be paid by those who do not conform to acceptable feminine appearance.
The feminist campaigners are hosting a conference on the pornification of culture. In the buildup, mass protests were held outside the London Playboy Club and Miss World beauty contest to highlight the relationship between corporate interests and the objectification of women. The fight against the increasingly narrow and limiting image of femininity is inextricably connected to the progressive fight for democratic ownership and control of the media. This is a political struggle. Feminists are rightly concerned, but we are not panicking. We are organizing.
Gail Dines is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts. Julia Long is an activist with the London Feminist Network and Object.
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