Narrator: You’ve probably heard the argument before.
Person 1: (pointing at a feminine person in a stereotypically “sexy” pose) That photo is terrible! She’s being sexuality objectified!
Person 2: No it’s not! She can do what she wants with her body! It’s sexually empowering!
Narrator: It can be difficult to tell the difference between sexual empowerment and sexual objectification when the only distinguishable difference is that one is supposedly “good” and the other “bad.”
Narrator: So what is the difference? That would be power.
That is, who is controlling a person’s presence in the sexual situation? If the person being “looked at,” or sexualized, has the power in the situation, then they are sexually empowered.
(Image of a see-saw, with one end holding one person labeled “looked at,” another person labeled “looking.” This see-saw has the “looked at” person proudly holding a rock labeled “power.” The see-saw is tipping in the “looked at” person’s favor. The “looking” person is neutral. This see saw is labeled “Sexual Empowerment.”)
Narrator: However, if that person has no or little power, they are being sexually objectified (basically, made like an object instead of a person).
(Next to “Sexual Empowerment” is another see-saw labeled “Sexual Objectification.” This time, the “looking” person holds the “power” rock, and the see-saw tips in their favor. The “looked at” person is sad/scared.)
Narrator: This power is often the power of consent, which means that the person is entering into the sexual situation willingly, and if they no longer want to be in the situation, they can leave with no consequences. However, there are a lot of factors to consent and power.
(Next to this are a pile of several rocks labeled various things including “consent,” “money,” “knowledge,” and “social acceptability.”)
Narrator: Let’s start here. If someone puts on “sexy” clothing and goes out in public or takes a selfie and shares it, they have the power because they chose themselves to put on the clothes.
(Image of a person in “sexy” clothing taking a selfie. They hold the “consent” rock. Two people look at their phones, presumably at the selfie the other person took and shared.)
Narrator: However, this can be complicated by beauty standards and respectability politics, which can compel someone to wear sexy clothing because they believe that they won’t be beautiful (a standard of worth for people read as female) otherwise, or compel them not to wear sexy clothing because they are shamed if they do.
(Image of the same person in “sexy” clothing, still holding consent rock, but the two people now hold a “beauty standards” rock and “respectability politics” rock. The see-saw wobbles, no longer in the “looked at” person’s favor.)
“Looking” Person 1: Men like women who show skin!
“Looking” Person 2: No one likes a slut!
Narrator: On the flip side, even a person who is “modestly” dressed can be objectified if the “looking” person makes a non-sexual situation sexual without the “looked at” person’s consent.
(Image of the person from above in “modest” clothing now, but the two people on the other end hold the “consent” rock, shouting.)
“Looking” Person 1: What a prude!
“Looking” Person 2: I’d tap that!
Narrator: There are also people who aren’t capable of giving consent. Statutory rape laws are centered around the idea that minors aren’t yet developed enough to give informed consent, regardless of the situation.
(Image of a feminine-reading child with the classic Lolita heart-shaped glasses. The person on the other end, presumably Humbert, holds the “consent” rock.)
Narrator: It’s important to remember that fictional characters are not capable of giving consent either. Arguments that the character is empowered are hinged on the idea that they would consent if they were real. But ultimately, the power all stays with the creators, as the character’s desires can only be speculated upon. It is the responsibility of the creator to portray active consent as if the character were flesh and blood.
(Image of superheroine in revealing outfit, posing in an empowered way, but the creator on the other end of the seesaw holds the consent rock.)
Narrator: With commercial sex, things get even more complicated. For some, providing sex commercially is very empowering. Because it can be so lucrative, some commercial sex providers might not feel obligated to accept every new or potential client. But many providers don’t have the option to be so discriminating because those who experience the most benefits and earn the most money are usually the most privileged, as well.
(Image of Dita Von Teese on the see-saw. She holds money and consent rocks.)
Dita Von Teese: “Some people say what I do isn’t very liberating. I say it’s pretty liberating to get $20,000 for 10 minute’s work. —Dita Von Teese”
(Second image of Dita, but hidden behind the “consent” and “money” rocks are “race,” “class,” “thinness,” “gender conformation,” and “burlesque as art” rocks.)
Narrator: Many of those who enter the sex industry as a provider may not be entirely doing so because they want to. There are a number of factors, including poverty level, race, and assigned sex. Providers of commercial sex often face enormous discrimination and criminalization, which also puts power in the hands of others besides the providers themselves.
(An image of Janet Mock, juggling a number of rocks with the “looking” person on the other end of the see saw. The rocks are labeled “poverty,” “employment discrimination,” “fetishization,” “consent,” and “criminalization.”)
Janet Mock: “Many people believe trans women choose to engage in the sex trade rather than get a real job. That belief is misguided because sex work is work, and it’s often the only work available to marginalized women. Though we act as individuals, we can’t remove ourselves from the framework of society. Systemic oppression creates circumstances that push many women to choose sex work as a means of survival, and I was one of those women, choosing survival. —Janet Mock”
Narrator: So before you say…
Person 2: (yelling over same image as panel one) Empowerment!
Person 1: Objectification!
(Final image of empty see-saw with rocks on the ground beside it.)
Narrator: Ask yourself this question: Who has the power?