We all know the saying ‘sex sells’, and that much is certainly true in today’s society. Over recent decades the fashion industry has become more saturated with sexual and explicit imagery. This increase in sexual symbolism comes with the changes in view towards sex and gender in the west over the past forty years. While embracing sexuality is important, where does it cross the line from liberation to objectification?
The History of Sexual Liberation
During the 1960’s the Western world saw the rise of second-wave feminism which challenged societal views of sexuality and relationships. This movement would see the increase in acceptance of sex outside of traditional heterosexual marriage as well as more laid back views towards pornography, public nudity and homosexuality. Women became more liberated in the West, as outdated and oppressive views were challenged giving women more freedom for expression.
Playboy played a large role in the popularisation of sex in mainstream media. The first issue was published in 1953, featuring Marilyn Monroe who was considered to be a rising sex symbol at the time. Hugh Hefner was a symbol of the sexual revolution, however Playboy heavily objectifies women, exploiting them for their looks and subjecting them to the male gaze. Women’s sexual liberation has led to male sexual entitlement, as women's liberation has been reframed as sexual availability for men. Now rather than female sexuality being oppressed, there is now the issue that women are now over sexualised in media, creating new issues for us to contend with.
Women in advertising
Perfume adverts are a prime example of the sexualisation of women in advertisement. Across most perfume advertisements there are similarities, many cast actors who are typically beautiful, with western feature and slender frames, who are dressed in expensive clothing and accessories. The adverts have very little to do with the perfume itself, they don't describe the scent and they give very little information about the perfume other than its name. instead these adverts depend on the objectification, and sexualisation of the actors in their adverts to entice buyers.
While many perfume adverts are trying to convey that women can feel just as sexy the actors if they buy their products, in an attempt to give them a sense of empowerment, in reality the adverts objectify the women in the adverts through the male perspective. This is problematic not just because of the ways in which women are portrayed, but also due to the fact they are centered round the cis, heterosexual male gaze.
In the 2008 advert for the perfume Shalimar by Guerlain, the viewer is presented with a woman lying naked on a bed. The only thing she is wearing is the perfume Shalimar. This sexual imagery, that many would argue is unnecessary, is what makes perfume sell. Like many adverts, perfume adverts balance on a fine line between female sexual liberation and female objectification in order to appeal to audiences.
Dolce & Gabbana faced backlash for their advertising campaign in 2015 in which many argue simulates a 'gang bang' with violent undertones as a woman is pinned to the floor my a man while three other men look on.
The Effects Hyper-sexualisation has on Women
In a Unicef USA article published in January 2021, Jaimee Swift and Hannah Gould write;
'A report by the American Psychological Association (APA) on the sexualization of girls in the media found that girls are depicted in a sexual manner more often than boys; dressed in revealing clothing, and with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness. In a study of print media, researchers at Wesleyan University found that on average, across 58 different magazines, 51.8 percent of advertisements that featured women portrayed them as sex objects. However, when women appeared in advertisements in men’s magazines, they were objectified 76 percent of the time'.
The hyper-sexualisation of women in the media has cascading effects on women's mental, physical and emotional heath. Many women will suffer with poor body image as a result of how women are portrayed, which can lead to eating disorders, anxiety and depression. Some women may also experience sexual violence due to gender stereotypes which normalise violence against women. Swift and Gould also write in their article;
'When the media reinforces power dynamics that degrade and harm women and make gender-based violence seem trivial, it reduces the likelihood that acts of violence against girls and women — especially acts of sexual violence — will be reported'.
With the rise of social media it is important that women are portrayed in a way that is both empowering and realistic in order to create positive social change surrounding gender stereotypes. By challenging the harmful ways in which women are portrayed in media, everyone benefits, regardless of their gender. By breaking down stereotypes of women, stereotypes of men are also broken down, liberating everyone from outdated gender roles.