Whether you keep up with celebrity affairs or not, you can’t really ignore the Kardashians—and you definitely can’t avoid knowing what people think about them. When Kim Kardashian posted a nude selfie on Twitter this week, there was a smattering of “you go girl” support, but also a wave of criticism about her immodesty or her pathological need for attention. The response from the public and from other celebrities said a lot about what we think of Kim Kardashian, but even more about what we think of women’s bodies and sexuality. In a culture where we see billboard-sized images of boobs on the daily, why is it this nude picture that makes everyone clutch their pearls?
When a woman is depicted in a sexualized way, with no depth beyond her appearance in order to sell beer, cars or sandwiches, we call it advertising. We see it everywhere in public space and in media, and hardly anyone ever objects.
When overtly sexual or nude photos and videos of women are posted online or nude photos are printed in magazines, we call it porn. We don’t see it everywhere in the public space, but we’re aware of its ubiquity, and as a culture we look the other way. We say, “Boys will be boys.” Looking at porn is as all-American as sneaking a look at your father’s Playboy. Yet being a porn star is considered incredibly shameful for a young woman.
It’s OK to look at porn. It’s OK to consume images of women’s bodies. It’s not OK to offer up your body to be seen.
The women in porn are almost always presented as passive to the male gaze, unyielding, with no complication of a personality, no danger to the male ego of possibly hearing the word “no,” existing only for the pleasure of men’s eyes. The women in advertising are often cut up into body parts—just a midriff, just a pair of legs—or turned into objects. Those are the times a woman’s form and sexuality are acceptable. But if you are a woman just feeling yourself and expressing your sexuality, presenting yourself the way you feel like at any given moment, or leveraging your own power or sexual energy, you are condemned and disrespected, maybe even threatened, assaulted or killed.
When a woman is feeling good about the way she looks—empowered, beautiful or confident in her appearance—and expresses this feeling by taking a photo of herself, clothed or nude, and sharing it online, we punish her. We call her names like “slut,” “trash,” “attention-starved,” “a bad mother,” “a bad role model.” If her photos are stolen, we say she deserved it. The message is that it’s OK to commodify a woman’s body, it’s OK to co-opt female sexuality, as long as the woman in question is passive in it and it’s for someone else’s commercial gain or the express use of men’s sexual titillation and gratification.
It’s telling that when women are demeaned for expressing their sexuality they are called whores, hoes, hookers and prostitutes—words used as slurs for sex workers. The idea that sex work is not inherently immoral or shameful, and that sex workers should have the same rights and value as all women, is so radical that mainstream feminism still has a hard time accepting it. But the use of these slurs shows that our culture’s scorn of sex workers is, at heart, a basic feminist issue. We love to commodify women, but hate and fear women who commodify themselves.
Women are set up to lose. Whether it’s someone claiming a sex worker can’t be raped, calling Kim Kardashian names, or sending a middle school-aged girl home for wearing shorts said to be distracting to boys—it’s all connected, and none of it is really about sex. It’s about controlling women and girls, about eroding their rights, power, agency and autonomy. Our bodies and sexuality have been made into a catch-22: You can look at a woman’s body, but she can’t show it. You can enjoy our bodies, but we can’t.
Women are told since they are little girls to cover up, to be modest, because men have no self control and no ultimate responsibility for their own desires for sex and domination and power over women. Women are taught to take on the responsibility for men’s behavior, because women are too enticing. Boys are not taught to respect all women. Instead, girls are taught the very confusing and conflicting messages that their value is in their physical appearance, but that it can also justifiably provoke someone to hurt them.
Modesty, in this case, is presented as though it’s a form of protection, a defense against men’s impulsiveness. But anyone who’s been sexually harassed on the street while wearing a puffy winter coat—and that’s pretty much all of us—can tell you that covering up won’t protect you from the violent expression of male desire. And in fact, the whole concept of “modesty” doesn’t just fail to protect women—it’s actively harmful. It perpetuates the idea that women are not to be respected if they “show too much skin,” or because of what they wear, or how much makeup they have on. It perpetuates the idea that men have a right to sexualize women without their input or consent. Modesty doesn’t keep women safe, and it isn’t really intended to keep them safe. It’s intended to reserve for men the right to decide when a woman’s body is displayed and who gets to look at it.
Our culture treats women’s bodies as if they only have worth when they are serving someone other than themselves: men’s gaze, commercialism, the concepts of sexual innocence or “purity” that uphold religious ideas. When a woman’s choice comes into it, that’s when it’s a problem. Only then. That is when she is devalued.
THIS IS RAPE CULTURE. A culture that upholds a norm of women’s bodies being used, but demeans her self-ownership and choice. The double standard is nauseating.
A woman who chooses to post a nude photo, who clearly understands exactly what she is doing, who is expressing herself and feeling liberated, is someone who is actively rejecting rape culture. She is choosing not to attempt to conform to the standards that are presented to her, knowing there is no winning that game anyway. A woman’s body is a battleground. People are fighting for ownership of it. Nipples become a problem. Bare asses become political. When you claim your own body and decide to do the thing that you feel best doing, whether that is to cover it all up or take it all off, any of those choices need to be OK for women to make for themselves. That is true freedom and true choice. Women’s bodies are not the problem. How we respond to women’s bodies is the problem.
An empowered woman is dangerous because a woman who can say yes is also a woman who can say no.
This story first appeared at The Establishment. Read more:
Photo via Kim Kardashian’s Instagram