Sunday 05 April 2020

Let’s talk about sex, baby

This article first appear in the Sunday edition of Malta Today 

Sex sells.

In fact, the very word probably caught your attention in the headline.

Look all around you and you will see that we are bombarded by provocative, sensual images all the time. Or maybe, you won’t even notice, as we have become so inured to it all that the sight of half-naked (mostly female) bodies in suggestive poses does not even register on our consciousness any more.

The casualness with which we have come to accept what many have dubbed a “sex-crazed world” is the result of a snowball effect. When female rap group Salt n Pepa came out with Let’s Talk about Sex in 1990 the lyrics were considered daring (Come on, how many guys you know “make love”?), but the video itself was relatively mild. Now, we take it for granted that a music video will feature a pouting, scantily clad singer who gyrates sexily and sprawls without any inhibitions in front of the camera, with former Disney channel stars such as Miley Cyrus and now even Selena Gomez eager to shed their goody-goody two shoes image and show that they have become “women”.

Even respected, established actresses, who may have previously balked at the idea, gradually started taking the decision to do films where they have to strip naked and take part in sex scenes. Predictably, as our senses have been dulled because of frequent exposure to what is considered sexy, it takes more and more to shock us. Red carpet dresses reveal as much of the female shape as possible with celebrities stopping just short of emerging from their limos literally butt naked. Just as with violence, where before someone used to be killed off camera but now the whole thing is shown more graphically, so too with nudity and sex scenes. What used to be hinted at but immediately understood by audiences (the camera pans away slowly and discretely from an embrace and we immediately know, they are going to have sex) nowadays it is quite common to see more explicit sex scenes in mainstream movies as basically nothing is left to the imagination.

So, where has this left us? In a world where there is an excess of everything, should there be a point where (much like when we have eaten too much) we should say, stop it with all this sex being thrown at us from everywhere, we’ve had enough? With gluttony you end up not even appreciating the taste and culinary delights of really good food, so it seems to me that being continuously bombarded by sexual imagery has much the same effect: we are devaluating sex, as we are devaluating the beauty of the female body by reducing a woman to mere body parts used to sell everything from cars to venues by pandering to male lust.

The problem with the adverts which appeared recently to promote a new club is precisely this. The camera acts as the male gaze: the young girls are there to be gawked at as they bend over in suggestive poses in front of the men. The girls are pretending that they are about to play tennis but the whole scenario is reminiscent of what happens at a strip club as men watch pole dancers. The men reading this will probably shrug and say (like the club owner), “so what, no big deal”; it’s just marketing and it worked because it caught people’s attention. But having found myself trying to explain to many men on Facebook why this advert is offensive and unacceptable to women made me realize that the gap between the genders regarding the objectification of women has widened into a chasm. Several of them came back at me with the argument that these days, men are objectified as well (which is hardly the point) but that is not enough of an argument to allow these type of marketing campaigns to just slide.

There is a much more sobering issue at stake than mere titillation or “suggestive fun”. The inability of some men to understand what was wrong with these ads opened my eyes to how extremely difficult it is for them to put themselves in our shoes, and comprehend what women feel when they see this kind of advert. All our lives from the time we are young girls, we are subjected to verbal harassment (no matter WHAT we are wearing) . These adverts say, sure go ahead, “rape'” her with your eyes, because that’s all a woman is good for.

As pointed out in an article on the subject in The Guardian in 2013, “Sexual images and innuendo are so widely used in advertising that such exploitation is more norm than exception. Societal values and sensitivities, and sometimes censorship, usually keep such advertising from becoming borderline pornography.“

Repeated studies have shown that by using women as a marketing tool, the way society looks at the woman’s image is tarnished and degraded. Those men who told me that “this has been happening for a long time” are correct, but does that mean we should throw in the towel and accept this very demeaning and unethical exploitation of women by corporate media gurus? Are we seriously going to say it’s OK to portray women as a disposable commodity or a slab of meat which only exists for the male’s pleasure?

Another valid point which was raised is that women themselves have fed into this image by accepting to appear in such adverts, and this is also true, which is why young girls and woman need to be better educated on this issue. An article in explains how a documentary called Killing Us Softly (scroll further down for video) by feminist scholar Jean Kilbourne presents the case that a multi-billion dollar transnational business is making its profits off the backs of women as it “uses, abuses and betrays women in its efforts to sell products, lifestyles and dominant values.”
“Dr. Kilbourne demonstrates how the process of becoming adornments for cars, liquor and men turns women into flawless, wrinkleless, odorless and ageless sex objects fragmented into body pans on display.”

What is interesting is that when she shows the video to young women, their stunned silence is followed by anger; “an anger that becomes rage at the sexual objectification of young girls at a time of epidemic child abuse, at the economic and sexual exploitation of women from all races and all ages.”

We cannot ignored the fact that there is a very real connection between the objectification of women in advertising and the increase in sexual violence and what is being termed as a widespread ‘rape culture’ (the recent Stanford sexual assault story is a case in point). If a woman is merely a sex object for you to lust after, to use and dispose of, you will find it very difficult to think of her in terms of a human being with real emotions and feelings.

And finally, a word to those men who still think this is ‘no big deal’, please remember that if you have young daughters, this increasingly sexualized world is the one they are going to have to deal with. If that was your daughter being leered at lasciviously in a commercial, with her body on full display, would you seriously still dismiss it as no big deal?

If you are still not convinced, please watch this video below:


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