Reading time: 6min.

by Mariah Feria

Why being a sex object is far from empowering

‘Young women today have never experienced a media environment that didn’t exaggerate the centrality of sex and ‘hotness’ to everyday life’Susan Douglas, Enlightened Sexism, 2010

Women today have it tough. We are expected to be intelligent, confident, successful, charismatic, kind, and sexy. We are expected to ‘keep up the with the men’ in the workplace, whilst also getting up hours earlier to apply makeup, make sure we’ve shaved every part of bodies, and pick out the perfect ‘smart yet sexy’ outfit. If you don’t work, think about the routine you have when getting ready for a night out.

This emphasis on looking good and being hot only increases further up the ladder. Whilst some women argue that wearing revealing clothes and being the object of the male gaze makes them feel good, being ‘sexy’ comes with a range of negative connotations that are hard to shake.

‘Reducing women to their sexuality undermines their march towards full equality.’ – Susan Douglas, Enlightened Sexism, 2010

Let’s look at what the words ‘sexy’ and ‘hot’ actually mean. Being sexy means being aroused, yet this meaning has shifted over the years. When you Google ‘sexy definition’, one of the examples is ‘very exciting or appealing: “business magazines might not seem like the sexiest career choice”’…. The same is true for hot; it actually refers to a temperature, but its meaning too has changed over the years. It now refers to something very different.

Whilst the altered meaning of words may not seem that important, the way the media uses them against their images is having a devastating effect on young men and women of today. Men are barely ever referred to as ‘sexy’ or ‘hot’ in media campaigns, choosing instead to be portrayed as ‘fit’, ‘strong’ and ‘muscular’.

There is no doubt that the male body is becoming the object of more female gaze, but the man in the images alongside this vocabulary is seen as in control. Women are portrayed as submissive, over-exposed, and displaying body language that invites sexual promiscuity. Look at the common fetish today of a man in a suit (something that covers his body entirely), whereas women are mostly seen as ‘sexy’ when wearing tight-fitted, revealing clothing, or nothing at all. Would women still be called ‘hot’ if covered entirely too?

The suit also symbolises the man’s power, something that women are taught to find appealing. The same cannot be said for women. There was a debate recently about women who were getting criticised for not wearing heels at work, something that brings no physical benefit (besides from lifting the bum and lengthening the legs). Again, you are supposed to dress for the male gaze, become the sexual being that sometimes, yes, you may want to be….but not in the workplace.

Counter that, and you’ve also got the risk of revealing too much and getting unwanted attention from that. I worked in an office over the summer, and would walk to work every day. I used to wear dresses and skirts that I thought were professional, yet would allow me to comfortably make the 40 minute commute. I can’t even count the amount of times I got heckled, beeped at, and made to feel like I was dressing too scantily (I wasn’t) on my walk to work. Oddly, I got more jeers when I would walk to work at 2pm, than when I walked back at 10pm, even when walking through the main night-club strip in my city. The men who shouted weren’t drunk, or with their friends. I didn’t feel ‘sexy’ or thankful that someone was noticing my figure, I felt ashamed and angry.

Unless it has been with my boyfriend, someone who I know loves me and knows me on a deeper level past my looks, I have never felt empowered when being considered a sexual object. Even when I think I have been, back in my single days, I actually felt pressured to keep up this appearance of being ‘sexy’ when talking to a man, refraining from coming across too intelligent, opinionated or confident. I don’t think there has ever once been a moment where I have been truly proud that my looks got me what I wanted, even if it has paid for a drink or two.

Unfortunately, being a sex object just means exactly that – being an object, of which to have sex with. To end, with the words of Chris Hedges, ‘Women are fuckable or invisible’ – “Pornography is What the End of the World Looks Like