How Women Are Pressured into Being Sexy, But Punished for Being Sexual

The Internet remains intact in spite of Kim Kardashian’s attempt to break it with shiny, digitally enhanced photos of her bare backside. She did, however, manage to break the ice in an ongoing conversation about the objectification of women in the public eye.

As happens when any overexposed celebrity shows skin, people have generally criticized Kim for posing nude as a mother, turned her butt into a short-lived Twitter meme, and vilified her for attempting to use sex appeal to garner attention and wealth.

The feminist response was to point out the problematic racial implications of the photo shoot, distance themselves from her, or — more rarely — praise her bravery and willingness to be sexually open.

Whether it’s Kim Kardashian, Beyoncé, Rihanna, or any other woman crafting a sexualized public image, the public’s response tends to focus on the individual actions of the women at hand.

Even among feminists, there’s a lot of discussion about whether women who use sex as a marketing tool are free agents, empowered, or feminist failures.

The problem with focusing on the choices of individual women is that they aren’t playing to the male gaze in a vacuum.

It’s only in the context of a society that caters to the male gaze, socializes women to tie their self-worth to their sex appeal, and shames women who are openly sexual that things like “Break the Internet” happen.

You will not see Kanye West’s well-oiled butt on a magazine cover near you anytime soon. But you’d better believe that if the media catered to a straight female gaze, say, he’d be just as keen to play up his sex appeal as Kim Kardashian.

But as it is, what captures the attention of straight men dictates a lot of what you see in the media, and what you see in the media affects people’s perceptions of women’s worth and desirability.

The problem with sexy, attention-grabbing photo shoots and the public response to them isn’t one of certain women making individual decisions.

The trouble is that women are disproportionately expected to bank on their sex appeal — in Hollywood and beyond — while being admonished for doing just that.

There is a feedback loop between the way our culture views women, the way women are portrayed in the media, and the way we respond to these portrayals. The result is a social climate that paradoxically pushes women into performing sexy, and then punishes them for it.

Where It All Starts

For a lot of women, the strange and contradictory tug of war between being valued and shamed for sex begins at a young age. Even as children, girls are encouraged to be body- and image-conscious to a degree that boys aren’t.

Hair. Clothes. Makeup. Barbie dolls with spindly waists. Super pretty Disney princesses who get their happy endings by marrying men they barely know.

These are the products and storylines that are often marketed to young girls. And even as more varied and multifaceted girls are making their way into children’s entertainment, there’s still a heavy focus on beauty and appearance in the resultant merchandising.

This isn’t about sex yet, but it’s the beginning of girls being sold the message that their worth as human beings is attached to how their bodies look to other people. And these same girls aren’t entirely unaware of the heavily gendered use of diet products, hair removers, makeup, control top pantyhose, bras, and shapers.

It’s also the beginning of mixed messages.

Girls are expected to perform femininity while being put down for being girly. Girls are expected to care about their looks, but girls who care too much are often labeled “fast.”

As girls become teenagers, the messages get even more mixed.

Teen girls are bombarded with the sexist notions of virginity as a prize, sex as life-changing, and promiscuity as shameful unless you’re a boy. At this age, girls get the message that it’s possible to measure their worth in relation to their sexuality.

Sex as Valuable

If you’re a woman who’s ever complained about street harassment, you’ve probably been told that you should take the attention as a “compliment.”

The fact that a lot of people view aggressive sexual attention — even if unwanted — as a compliment to women says a lot about the problematic way our society reduces women’s worth to sex.

More than men, women are fed the notion that their worth is strongly tied to their ability to be sexually attractive and available. This isn’t the same as women exploring and valuing their own sexual selves — it’s about being passively desired.

Because we live in a culture that prioritizes male desire, it’s not surprising that many women — including feminists — enjoy playing to that desire. On some level, women who appeal to the male gaze can exploit it and use it to their benefit.

But on another level, playing to a system that devalues women’s agency for personal gain isn’t empowerment. It’s not something that occurs in direct opposition to feminism either, which is why individual women can’t win unless the system is dismantled.

If every woman on Earth today stopped dressing or behaving in a way that appealed to the male gaze, women’s choices would still be limited by the desires of men. The way that women conduct themselves in a sexist society, even when problematic, is not worth critically analyzing without attention to context.

Sex as Shameful

Ironically, our society simultaneously values women for their sexual desirability and shames them for having sexual desires. Women are more likely than men to be labeled sluts for expressing themselves sexually or being promiscuous.

Case in point: The big celebrity nude leak from earlier this year exposed the photos of a number of women, some who publicly noted that these were intended for significant others. Now, sexting is a two-way street, and it’s not unheard of for men to take nude pictures of themselves.

But there will be no massive leak of male celebrity nudes or a victim-blaming public response.

What gets attention and ridicule is the invasion and consumption of women’s bodies. And the way that people responded to the nude leaks of celebrities is reflective of the way less publicly visible women are attacked through revenge porn.

Then there are the double standards that put down women for doing the same things as men. Some men will say a woman isn’t “wife material” if she has sex on the first date or has slept with a lot of people in the past. Meanwhile, these same men don’t doubt their ability to be good husbands while sleeping with women on the first date or having sex with multiple partners.

So what are autonomous women to do in a culture that often measures their worth in relation to their sexual currency?

One of three things: Do what they want and damn the consequences, change the culture, or all of the above.

Changing the Conversation

One way we can change the way our culture deals with women’s sexuality is to change the way we talk about it. When we talk about women who cultivate sexualized public images — picking at their individual merit as role models, feminists, or empowered women — we miss a lot of other important questions.

Why do so many women in the public eye play up their sex appeal in photo shoots and interviews? Why does their sexual attractiveness play a significant role in their success?

When we, the viewing public, question the photo manipulation and objectification of women’s bodies, do we acknowledge our own role in shaping the media? Do we understand that the way women’s bodies are treated by the media only reflects and reinforces deep-seated cultural attitudes?

Because really, we can’t address the oversexualization of women in the media without confronting the oversexualization of women in daily life. Along those lines, we can’t push back against the way women are shamed for sex while declaring hypersexed celebrities “anti-feminists” for what they wear or how they dance.

And it’s important that the conversation focus less on specific people and more on society as a whole. Individual women will never be free to be sexy, prudish, or indifferent in a society that claims ownership of their bodies.

In a patriarchal culture, failing to meet the male gaze, demonstrating sexual agency as a woman, and ignoring the pressure to conform to a narrow set of beauty standards are all met with sexist backlash.

Understanding and judging the actions of women in a patriarchal context shouldn’t be focused on labeling their actions feminist or disempowering, moral or immoral. It should be focused on constantly challenging the notion that a woman’s value should be judged by her sexiness to begin with.

Jarune Uwujaren is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. Jarune is a Nigerian-American recent grad who’s stumbling towards a career in writing. Jarune can currently be found drifting around the DC metro area with a phone or a laptop nearby. When not writing for fun or profit, Jarune enjoys food, fresh air, good books, drawing, poetry, and sci-fi. Read their articles.