Why We Need To Stop Conflating Sexual Objectification with Sexual Empowerment



Recently, I made a video – called, appropriately, “Party Girl Pop: Empowerment or Sexism?” – wherein I question Ke$ha and Katy Perry lyrics, the messages that they present to mainstream culture, and whether or not one can be sexually empowered if the sexual expression being presented is commodified.

That is, if the sexuality being sold by the media is one that subjugates women and pushes willing objectification off as sexual ownership, then when we buy into and mirror it, are we really experiencing liberation?

Or are we still caught in the clutches of patriarchal ideology, participating in the reworked script of what womanhood means?

Soon after the release of my video, I found in my e-mail inbox a link to a Cameron Diaz quote where she purports: “I think every woman does want to be objectified,” adding that it’s healthy for at least some part of you to feel that way. It’s, apparently, “empowering.”

Sigh. Thank you, pop culture, for proving my points for me, as you so aptly do, again and again.

And while I understand what she was getting at (I think – I hope – that she meant that it feels good to feel sexually desirable), it’s dangerous for people to be further exposed to this myth that being objectified and autonomous can not only coexist, but are one in the same thing.

Inherent in the very words and their respective definitions is a disparity.

Sexual empowerment is active. It’s ownership. Autonomous. Self-serving.

Objectification, on the other hand, is a passive relenting of control. It’s powerless. Self-sacrificial.

And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with power play and feeling objectified, it is another thing entirely to be actually thought of as a sexual object.

It’s the difference between the delicious hunger in my partner’s eyes when my bra comes off and the disgusted, dejected way that I feel when a construction worker tells me that he wants a piece.

The problem with the conflation of “owner” and “object” is that it perpetuates the idea that female sexuality is for everyone except the woman in question. It gives cadence to the bullsh*t social myth that powerful female sexuality equals pleasing partners, rather than knowing and pleasing oneself.

It’s why I, as a teenager, measured my being “good in bed” by having boyfriends bragging in locker rooms about my wild ways.

It’s why it never occurred to me before I was older that being a good sexual partner meant being versatile and flexible, communicative and compassionate, that it meant having agency and demanding respect.

Because all around us is this idea that we, as women, gain sexual respect by being the most innocently seductive or by giving the best blow-jobs – sexual acts that have little-to-nothing to do with our own physical pleasure and satisfaction.

This explains why recently on my sex advice blog, a young woman wrote in, describing that she’s “okay” with and has “gotten used to” the fact that her boyfriend never even touches her.

“When I asked him about it,” she went on, “he said it ‘just doesn’t occur’ to him to touch me.”

Well, why would it? If society tells him that a woman’s satisfaction is based entirely on how well she (or you know, her body) satisfies a male counterpart, it wouldn’t occur to him.

And apparently it doesn’t occur to Cameron Diaz either.

The thing is – the façades of empowerment and liberation that the media puts forth – and questioning whether or not they’re legitimate, or just sexism presented in a shiny new package – can be difficult territory to navigate.

On the one hand, we want so badly to believe, for instance, that the Spice Girls really did represent girl power and celebrate individuality.

On the other, as grown adults and self-identified feminists, though, we also have to recognize the way that they were caricatures of types of womanhood, pushing outdated stereotypes themselves – and oh-so-conveniently doing everything in short skirts and hot pants.

And therein lies the problem. Because it’s not that short skirts and hot pants (as symbols of an unbridled, honest, if-you’ve-got-it-flaunt-it brand of sexuality) can’t be feminist or empowering. Because they can!

The questions though, in regards to the Spice Girls or any pre-packaged variety of sexuality, are – who produced this? And why do they want me to consume it?

And when it comes to the popular notion that powerful female sexuality is found in wielding sexualization and reveling in objectification, I’d argue that it’s being force-fed to us to keep us in our place.

Because the only thing that’s changed in regards to culture’s rules governing how and why women should be sexual is that we’ve been convinced by the powers that be that being objects (of the male gaze, of course) is what we, women, want.

It sounds a lot like an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality to me.

Because are we really being empowered if we’re subscribing to what’s still the patriarchal ideal – a new-and-not-so-improved script for what a woman’s sexuality should be?

I think not.

This brand of faux-empowerment, the kind that Cameron Diaz is referring to when she suggests that within objectification can be found autonomy, isn’t revolutionary.

It’s commodified.

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Melissa A. Fabello, Co-Managing Editor of Everyday Feminism, is a domestic violence prevention and sexuality educator, eating disorder and body image activist, and media literacy vlogger based out of Philadelphia. She enjoys rainy days, Jurassic Park, and the occasional Taylor Swift song and can be found on YouTube and Tumblr. She holds a B.S. in English Education from Boston University and an M.Ed. in Human Sexuality from Widener University. She is currently working on her PhD. She can be reached on Twitter @fyeahmfabelloRead her articles here and book her for speaking engagements here.