Toxic Culture 101: Understanding the Sexualization of Women

A year ago I decided to drive across the street from my office for lunch. I wanted to avoid the catcalls I’d endured the last time I had crossed this particular street, when a middle-aged man yelled from his red Chevy truck, “Ride my cock, baby!” I wondered what it would be like not to feel like a sexual object on display. But I also wondered whether I’d rather be the woman who gets whistled at or the one who doesn’t.

As a psychotherapist, I meet hundreds of women who struggle with their body image or sexuality. These struggles show up as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, reproductive concerns, parenting issues or relationship crises. I’ve also encountered increasing numbers of men dealing with relationship issues and loneliness.

And I know firsthand the discomfort of embodying what many people see as unattractive. As a Middle Eastern American, I don’t fit the Eurocentric model of beauty. When I was a young girl, I drew pictures only of blonde, blue-eyed princesses, perhaps in response to my blonde stepsister telling me that my “skin was the color of poop.” No matter how much I tried to dress myself up, I was still not white.

Now that I understand how common body-image struggles are, I’ve begun to wonder who is really sick—my clients or our culture?

So, I spent the last year documenting pieces of the world around me, gathering evidence of a toxic cultural milieu. On my drive to work one day, this is what I saw:

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We are bombarded with hypersexualized images of females, so much so that most of us don’t even notice them. They are all around us like the air we breathe; messages so blatant, they become invisible, encouraging the normalization of female objectification.

With the rise of electronic technology and social media, the quantity and quality of these images have intensified. The Internet pornography industry generates $13 billion per year in the United States alone ($100 billion worldwide)––bigger business than professional football, basketball and baseball combined.

Researchers reviewed over 1,000 Rolling Stone cover images published over four decades and found that 11 percent of men and 44 percent of women appeared in sexualized images in the 1960s, compared to 17 percent of men and 83 percent of women in the 2000s.

There is also the rise of the “breastaurant,” chain establishments featuring young, attractive servers in revealing uniforms. According to an article written in 2015 by journalist Jillian Berman, “Sales at the Tilted Kilt, Twin Peaks and Brick House…have grown at a double-digit pace over the last year.”

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A Tilted Kilt ad

Younger people are also increasingly exposed to sexual imagery. In a 2010 U.K. study, one third of 14 to 16 year olds reported they had first seen sexual images online when they were 10 or younger.

I came across these ads in various women’s magazines and in Business Insider, in several medical office waiting rooms, including a pediatrician’s office:

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According to social learning theory, audiences are more likely to be persuaded to buy a product if the advertising narrative is easily recognizable and frequently repeated. But if these ads represent what is easily recognizable and “normal,” what does that say about the health of our society? And how does all this really affect us?

Everyone suffers from this constant emphasis on appearance as it encourages people to separate the body from the individual as a person. All women are affected, regardless of whether they fit conventional standards of beauty, and whether images depict women as active or passive. In any case, the body becomes an object that exists for sexual pleasure, leading to self-objectification. Self-objectification, in turn, is connected to eating disorders, depression and sexual dysfunction. Researchers have found a link between male partners’ pornography use and women’s lower self esteem, higher negative affect and relationship anxiety.

Dozens of studies, such as this one, have also linked pornography use to sexual violence. Constant exposure to scenes displaying women as sex objects may encourage males to believe that they have a right to coerce women into sexual acts.

But men also suffer emotionally and physically from hypersexualized images, as they, too are portrayed as less than human. Psychology researchers Linda Muusses and colleagues showed that husbands who frequently used pornography experienced more marital adjustment problems and poorer relationship quality. Men are also experiencing erectile dysfunction as early as 20, possibly resulting from desensitization to sexual imagery.

Many men are starving for real human connection, but are only being taught to satiate their hunger in empty and unfulfilling ways.

Is there hope for our society? I believe there is.

The first step is to increase awareness. We must be brave enough to see what’s right in front of us and to question practices deemed normal and acceptable. We can see efforts in this direction, such as the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which shows realistic body types in ads and sponsors projects to improve women’s self-esteem; Dear Kate, a women’s underwear company that rejects idealized models and airbrushing; and the Always LikeaGirl campaign, promoting female empowerment. While these are still companies selling products, they have at least begun to offer more empowered—and non-sexualized—images of women.

These media pioneers are the exception to the rule, but I hope that one day in my lifetime the rule will change.

An ad by the underwear company Dear Kate

An ad by the underwear company Dear Kate

New research is promising. This recent study found that people more favorably evaluated brands that avoided sexualized ads compared to those that used them. Perhaps treating people with dignity and respect can sell products. Perhaps what we all want is a culture where we can feel safe and authentic––where we all prefer to walk, not drive, across the street.

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Shadia Duske, MA, LPC, NCC is a licensed psychotherapist in Denver with a strong interest in feminist issues. She has worked in the field of mental health since 2004 and has counseled hundreds of women and men struggling with anti-feminist messages in our society.

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    Comments

    1. David Gay says:

      Thanks Shadia.!
      Dg

    2. Marcia Weeden says:

      Thank you for at least mentioning that males are affected, too, because most articles never even touch upon that subject. I need to ask – why didn’t you elaborate more? Where are the articles strictly focused on what happens to boys and males of all ages? Where are the pieces that the objectification of females are destructive to males as well?

      How are boys and young men supposed to find emotionally satisfying relationships when they are exposed to the same messages as girls and young women? What does society think is going to happen? That magically, overnight these males are going to seek out and know how to have emotionally fulfilling relationships with others? If girls don’t know anything else or better because of the messages being promoted everywhere, how will boys know? It isn’t as if they get some sort of secret manual on how to behave as a caring, loving human being.

      I become infuriated when the focus is only what is happening to the girls. As the mother of a son, I keep asking, “But what about the boys?” Where is the outrage on what is being done to them?

      Everything is about “empowering females” because why? Males are so horrible? My son is not a monster. He isn’t a rapist nor a sexist. Why is it about power?

      Why isn’t it just about what it takes to be an emotionally healthy, productive human being capable of relationships that are respectful of others?

      Where is the support and instruction for both sexes about how to be a full human being?

      This isn’t one sex against another. It’s about us as people.

      • Marcia, it’s not that boys or men are monsters, rapists or sexist. Anyone with a brain knows it’s not ALL men or boys. There’s a lot more pressure on women and girls to look and behave a certain way and boys and men seem to get away with a lot more when it comes to aging and behavior because we’ve been a male-dominated society for so long. I believe female empowerment means that women and men should learn that a woman’s worth should not be based on how she looks. We should absolutely teach our male AND female children to grow up to be good human beings, but sadly that does not address what women and girls experience in the present time by people who were perhaps not taught otherwise. Just one example, Carrie Fisher was criticized for her age, yet, no one blinked an eye about Harrison Ford’s age. All women have a story about how they were harassed or assaulted for the way they look, but I don’t hear the same from men nearly as often. Women in Hollywood in their 30’s and 40’s get passed up for roles because they are “too old” for the leading men, who tend to be in their 40’s or 50’s. The list goes on. Perhaps those men need to speak louder as well, but people get so defensive about the topic, so there’s no constructive dialogue. What is the outrage you expect to see? That boys are being fed these false ideals? I don’t quite understand your comment about that.

        Continue teaching your son to be a good person as I hope other parents are teaching their sons and daughters as well. Thank you for being someone who is aware of stuff like this on both sides, but I don’t believe this article intended to minimize your son’s struggles by addressing women’s struggles. If you feel boys need more of a voice, then be it.

        • Beautifully said Jen.
          Marcos, write an article and post the irl here, I’d be really glad to read it to better understand your perspective. I too am quite confused about what your concern is in relation to women being objectified. Males certainly gave many many pressures that need to be brought up & addressed, but female objectification isn’t one of them.

      • Marcia, I am so grateful for your comment on my article. I would love to answer some of your questions. First of all, I do believe that males are tremendously impacted by the objectification of females. I feel it important for you to know that this 1,000 word article is actually condensed from its original 9,000 word version. In the longer version, I was able to have an entire section dedicated to the impacts on males. It was very difficult to cut the paper down in order to fit in an online magazine’s blog and to try and find the main points. The objectification of women affects the genders in different ways. For women, we struggle to feel valuable in a culture that ties our value to our sexuality and the way we look. When a woman fits the narrow beauty and sexuality norms, she is being valued, but only for something superficial—for the object she is rather than the person she is. When she does not fit those norms, she is seen as invisible, which is another form of objectification. Women are certainly not the only gender greatly influenced and impacted by the phenomenon of hypersexualizing and objectifying women in our culture. There is also great impact on men. It is important to note that men are not evil perpetrators in this crisis. They, along with women, can be seen as victims of this complicated cultural epidemic. It is not men who are objectifying women. The greater system of our society is objectifying women. We, as a whole, are placing men in the position to be the sexual subjects and women to be their objects. There is a desensitization that occurs within the culture which impacts the ways men see women. As a result, there is an increase in sexual violence and harassment. In addition, men are experiencing sexual dysfunction at early ages. Men are also dealing with a sense of inadequacy, anxiety, and relationship crises. There is confusion around what it means to be a man. As women are being portrayed as less human, so are men. Men are being roped into a “caveman” role in which they are depicted as un-evolved animals unable to connect with their emotions and respect the value of humanness. Men are being taught that disconnective sex leads to satisfaction and fulfillment. They are shown that being a “real man” means wanting sex with women rather than wanting relationships with women. They are bombarded with messages that being a man means being sexually aggressive or coercive. Their identities depend on the objectification of women. Ultimately, men end up suffering. They are being starved of real human emotional connection. This popular cultural perspective of men is perpetuating an idea that men are driven by the organ between their legs. It is presenting men as un-evolved animals who are not interested in real human connection. In a sense, our culture is “dumbing down” men through the objectification of women. Men are bewildered when they struggle with connection in human relationships. It is no wonder there is a struggle there. Our society is telling them they are not capable of achieving that level of connection. It is indeed very challenging to raise a son in this society, trying to be a force greater than his cultural milieu, trying to teach him a different way to be a man.

    3. Great article, thank you.

    4. For those of us in the field of assisting couples in difficult relationships, we know that the social cost of this problem is mind-numbing. Researchers are more often than not thumping volumes of research on the table with damning evidence of the effect of hypersexulaized imagery on young (and old) brain development. The link with violence is also a concern.
      Most troubling for me, when I speak with other males, is the complete lack of balance on the subject. Men are terrified to explore the subject in any kind of logical or critical context. Men are either ready to defend the status quo as AOK or they feel completely powerless around porn and the male society’s expectations around the treatment of women. The more we talk about this the better. We have to have these discussions every day, with each other, with our kids, with our neighbours. We can do much better.

    5. Personally I avoid Dove because they are really only advertising that way to sell product. It’s got nothing to do with caring about women. Their parent company is Unilever, who also sell Lynx deodorant, and their ads are so objectifying and degrading. Boo Unilever!

    6. Shadia, thank you so much for a refreshing take! I find these are often hard to come by. Thank you too for the work you do helping men and women. We need more like you.

    7. Agree with the criticism of Dove – they are manipulating the market place just as much as the next sad arse company. They don’t care. But companies go with whatever brings in the dollar so its a matter of what works – the consumer MUST speak with their wallets and sadly, the majority of those don’t care either. As for the young boys, of course they are influenced by the environment we have created for them and it is just as sad as what it is doing to our girls but the difference is in the outcome. Boys may end up socially defunct and starved for affection but girls will end up dead! I liked the author’s positive spin at the end but I am sad to say I do not share that optimism at this point. Each generation is a product of the one before – if this generation has been programmed on mass to view hyper sexuality, violent pornography and dumbed down everything as normal, how can they be expected to teach the next one any better?

    8. Marcia,
      I recommend checking out “Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory” by Judith Keegan Gardner, and other books on the subject. They will help you understand what the article discusses. While it is not the job of other women to educate men on their privilege and entitlement, it is your job as your son’s mother. It is also the job of your son’s father, if he is in the picture. In this way, the two of you can model behavior that leads to a healthier identity for him, as well as his friends. You can be healthy support to him as he confronts the teasing he will inevitably get from other boys. As an ally to women, he can reach his family members and friends with the ideas described in books like the ones I described. What feminists need is men to educate other men on toxic patriarchy, and to support each other against the men who will react negatively. I’ve known men who were kind, nurturing, and loving. My aunt’s husband is one that comes to mind. He was firm but loving. He was also very hands-on. You are so right that boys need compassion and care, too. We need both genders to embrace their “masculine” and “feminine” traits. This is what will lead to healthier, happier people. And isn’t that what we want for our kids?

    9. What is strange about the pornification of our society is that the United States is considerably more restrictive probably in due part of the Puritan influences in early American life (Ess, 2014). With that being said, I feel it has greatly influenced today because people had been so restricted sexually, now the media has pushed the envelope in the opposite direction–sexualized everything. Do you think that media and women who partake in SEM (Sexually explicit materials) “serve to help emancipate especially women from gender roles and prescribed notions of sexuality that subordinate them to the power and preferences of men, or help women explore and determine for themselves their sexual identities and preferences?” (Ess, 2014). As many have stated above in the comments, we all feel that it is hurting the youth of our society, which in turn, is hurting the adult population in bodily autonomy, relationships, and daily lives.

      What is hard for me to believe is that all of the above that you mentioned in your article is completely accepted by society, yet, for example: a breastfeeding mother is shunned for nursing her hungry child on demand? How backwards is our society that sexualization negates actual function and purpose?

      I am thankful for companies like Dear Kate that are beginning to show real women in their raw beauty. Now, if only we could get ads to portray significant respect between two lovers and their bodies and emotions. Wishful thinking, I know, but there are people out there that are contributing to the movement that cat-calling is not okay and is disrespectful, that women are not perfect–stars like Keira Knightly and Jennifer Lawrence fighting against the editing of their photos to where they are no longer themselves, and so much more. Progress is progress, even when not everybody is on board.

      Ess, C. (2014). Digital media ethics (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Polity Press.

    10. Larry Yates says:

      Violence and sex have the ability to excite us and so get our attention. Big money is invested in keeping us excited and interested in their products by emphasizing how exciting and sexy bodies are, and especially female bodies. This steady escallation is not likely to be reversed by the good intentions of special interest groups. I find it interesting that some women are rebelling against their sexualization in their insistence on public breast feeding and others believe they should be able to “free the nipple” without receiveing unwanted attention nor comment from others, particularly men. Sadly our culture is too far down the hyper money fuelled road to see how things will change or reverse anytime soon.

    11. Shelbey D says:

      Thank you for your research and thoughts! I am studying this kind of material in class, and this served as a wonderful voice into it!

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