In feminist theory, there’s a long-standing debate that women (and men) cannot seem to wrap their heads around. When we talk about sexual liberation, how do we know if someone is being sexually empowered or objectified — after all, don’t they look incredibly similar from the outside? Well the answer, according to Ronnie Ritchie, writer at Everyday Feminism, is simpler than you think.
The same old argument. You’ve heard people debating whether porn or sexually explicit photos of women are objectifying or not. Some say that these forms of media are objectifying while other people claim that the women partaking in those acts are sexually empowering themselves by claiming their bodies and doing what they want with them.
What it comes down too. When objectification and empowerment look so similar from the outside, you may be asking yourself, what’s the difference? That would be the power.
Control. Whoever is controlling a person’s presence in a sexual situation has the power. In other words if the sexualized person has the power in the situation, then they are empowered!
The power of consent. However, if the person being sexualized has little to no power, then they are being objectified. If a person is entering into a sexual situation willingly, they hold consent. When consent is present, a person can leave a sexual situation if they no longer wish to be involved. And there are no consequences.
The multiple factors of consent and power. A “sexy” selfie, taken in public or private and shared online, gives the person in question power. They chose to put themselves in those clothes and take those photos. But, when we factor social acceptability and peer pressure into the equation, things start getting messy.
Beauty standards. However, a person can be compelled to wear something “sexy” because they feel that they won’t be attractive otherwise (which is a high standard of worth for females). A person can also be compelled not to wear “sexy” clothing because they’ll be shamed if they do. The old catch-22: “men like girls who show skin, but no one likes a slut!”
Modesty can be objectified. On the other end of the spectrum, even a person who is “modestly” dressed can be objectified if someone takes their consent and power away. A non-sexual situation can become sexual by a person’s comments. Think of cat-calling on the street; many women who are cat-called are on their way to work, school, etc. People will shout indecencies like, “I’d tap that!” or “damn, baby!” at a female, which takes away her power and objectifies her simply for walking down the street.
There are people who aren’t capable of giving consent. Like children. Statutory rape laws are centered around the idea that minors aren’t developed enough to provide consent, regardless of the situation. In these instances, a child never has power and the older men/women who prey on them hold it all.
Fictional characters can’t provide consent, either. All forms of power and consent stay with the creators. The character’s desires can only be speculated. Men/women who argue that certain characters (like Wonder Woman) are empowered say they would consent if they existed. But, they do not. It is the responsibly of the creator to portray active consent, as if the character were real.
Commercial sex. Some see providing sex commercially as very empowering. As Dita Von Tease once said, “Some people say what I do isn’t very liberating. I say it’s pretty liberating getting $20,000 for 10 minutes of work.” Commercial sex workers may not feel obligated to accept every new/potential client, but not everyone is as lucky as Ms. Tease. Many sex workers do not have the option to be discriminating, thus they lose their consent.
The downside to sex work. Ultimately, many of those who enter the sex industry don’t do so because they want to. Poverty, race and assigned sex are factors that lead women into becoming sex workers. They often face discrimination and criminalization, which saps power from them.
Trans women and sex work. A lot of people believe that trans women specifically choose to engage in sex work because they don’t want “real” jobs. Sex work is work. And sometimes, it is the only viable career option.
Systematic oppression. Systematic oppression creates circumstances that push wide numbers of women to chose sex work as a means of survival. Choosing to survive is not weak. These women enter the workforce with no consent or power, and there is often little-to-no exchange between people of power vs. the oppressed.
Consider. People who think cat-calling and other forms of objectification are flattering have never been followed home at night by a man shouting at them. Since when has, “hey, beautiful! Turn around,” ever been charming? Sometimes women have to come up with excuses to lose the creep: “my boyfriend is waiting for me at home.” Why? Some men respect the fact that a woman is “spoken for” more so than the woman, herself.
The next time. So, the next time you’re wondering if a woman is being empowered or sexually oppressed, ask yourself, “who has the power?” The answer is right in front of you.