Porn, Objectification, and Standards

Caitlin Logan discusses the inconsistencies between the objectification of women and concerns about excessive sexualisation

What do the Victorians, “lads’ mags” and anti-porn feminists have in common?

The short answer: all of them objectify women.

Our understanding of the term objectification has become so confused that this statement may at first seem more bizarre than it actually is. At its most basic level, to objectify simply means “to treat as an object”. When applied to human beings, this suggests a denial of the right to speak, act, or even think for oneself. It allows others to define you, while your own autonomy is refused. However, in popular usage, the word is frequently applied interchangeably with the expression of the day – “sexualisation”, which literally means ‘to make or to become sexual or sexually aware’. The two terms are typically combined to signify making or viewing someone sexually- often as a purely sexual objectagainst their wishes. Linguistic nit-picking aside, there are some serious issues to be raised from these definitions.

The process of objectifying women has perhaps always been inextricably linked to sexuality, as women’s sexual lives have traditionally been under the control of men and the (male dominated) state. However, this objectification has often looked quite different to the images of semi-nude women in tabloid newspapers and “lads’ mags” that spring to mind when we hear the word today.

When we think of women in the Victorian era, most of us would immediately think of a vastly more restrictive, repressive, and often oppressive time period, when women were denied some of their most basic rights. This was also a time marked by an intense ideological campaign to enforce very specific ideals about appropriate expressions of sexuality, “femininity” and “masculinity”. Limiting stereotypes abounded, with the iconic “Angel of the House” representing the perfect, passive and pure Victorian woman, who was contrasted with the disreputable and overtly sexual “fallen woman”.

Few would deny that the position of women in Britain has improved since then, but many feminists would argue that, in today’s culture, women are anything but sexually free. It takes no great stretch to recognise that the very same tendency to categorise women into two groups, the “good” and the “bad”, the “slutty” and the “pure”, is one which still permeates our culture. Sexist standards of how “respectable” women should or should not behave still influence both the way that victims of sexual violence are treated and how legal cases are dealt with.

In our seemingly sex-saturated culture, it seems an absurd contradiction to suggest that women are held to Victorian standards of purity. Some feminists argue that we have now gone full circle, using the word “sexualisation” to denote a form of enforced sexuality. There are clear contradictions in the messages women are given about sex, but there is a logical congruence to these when we realise that all of them are about limiting women’s sexual agency. With the so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, and the major feminist gains which took place alongside this, women’s sexual freedoms undoubtedly expanded, but we don’t need to look far to see the limiting images available to women of how they should look and act. The answer is rarely “however you want”.

So feminists are right to complain about the stereotypes of women’s sexuality which continue to limit women’s potential. I am one such feminist. However, while the intentions may be admirable, there is a problem with some of the methods and much of the rhetoric adopted by certain anti-porn activists. The notion of “sexualisation” is at the heart of this, and has been increasingly used, not only by prominent feminists but by moral conservatives and sensationalist media, as a signifier of all things wrong with our society. The unlikely marriage between a restrictive moral agenda and radical feminism harks back to the days of the “porn wars”, and is a move of which anyone advocating progress or equality should be extremely wary.

My problem with the way the word “sexualisation” is bandied about in such an ominous manner that we might expect the Dark Mark to appear above us in the sky, is that it implies that sexuality itself is something to be feared or avoided. Instead of criticising the abundance of sexuality in our media and culture, feminists should be fighting to diversify and democratise these representations. Those who truly wish for women to be liberated, sexually and otherwise, need to be very careful not to restrict women’s choices further or implicitly shame the women who do feel represented by existing images, or who partake in their production. To forget that the control of women’s bodies has often involved the insistence that they not be sexual, and that women’s rights not only to say no, but to say yes to sexual activity and sexual autonomy, have routinely been denied, would be a dangerous mistake.

This is where the distinction between “sexualisation” and “objectification” becomes useful: to truly move away from the objectification of women, we have to recognise their subjectivity. That has to include supporting their right to consent to things we may not like.

2 COMMENTS

  1. “What do the Victorians, “lads’ mags” and anti-porn feminists have in common?
    The short answer” >
    They use women’s bodies to exploit young men to buy their magazines.

    This is back to front. It is the male that is being manipulated by the female.

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