So we’ve all heard about the ‘End Page 3’ campaign about the lads’ mag masquerading as journalism, otherwise known as The Sun. It’s a worthy cause, as with all campaigns to end the media’s misogynistic portrayal of women as sexual objects and sexual objects alone. As a woman and ardent feminist, I agree with these battles. But a recent argument between two friends, one a guy and one a female stripper, about the exploitation involved in her work got me thinking. His perspective was that she was being objectified and exploited as she uses her body to make money. She argued it was empowering, and felt that she was exploiting the men who pay for her lap dances rather than the reverse.
Don’t get me wrong, exploiting women and seeing them as sexual objects is unjust. It’s the commodification of people, reducing them to physical entities with disregard to their mind and the rest of their being. Clearly the negative effects of this have impacted upon women and men worldwide – while many girls* deal with eating disorders in the UK (among many other psychological issues), young men are taught to believe that women are for them to see and touch and this creates pressures on boys and men alike to fit a ‘macho’, ‘manly’ stereotype in order to fulfil society’s expectations. You don’t need me to tell you how this continually reinforces systematic patriarchal oppression.
Patriarchy may have led to the existence of strip clubs, prostitution and countless sexist advertising campaigns, but that does not mean that it is the only reason women engage with it.
But I think it’s a mistake to think that women who use their bodies to make money are a symptomatic by-product of this. Patriarchy may have led to the existence of strip clubs, prostitution and countless sexist advertising campaigns, but that does not mean that it is the only reason women engage with it. Having such a view perpetuates the notion that women have no autonomy over their actions, and that itself is sexist. It should be an issue of choice, and society shouldn’t disseminate the idea that women have no agency in these matters. Patriarchy strips the power of self-determination from these women. Emma Holten’s powerful article and photographs were to counter the victimisation experienced because of leaked private images. It was a statement, a reaction to previous events – but her point was that in taking control of the situation she empowered herself and it was not simply for the male gaze.
This does not have to be antithetical to those who want to show their bodies for men, though. Some people (and not just celebrities who are trying to ‘break the internet’) are proud of their appearance and want to be seen as sexual objects. My question is: if this is an individual choice, is it such a bad thing? The stripper friend in question is a university graduate, an environmentalist, a spiritual and ambitious person. She does not see herself purely as a sexual object and nor should she. But if she enjoys taking her clothes off for men, why does society frown upon this choice and thus view her as nothing more than her body? Embracing one’s sexuality does not have to be seen as un-feminist. It should be seen as brave – let’s admit it, most of society looks down on people in the sex industry and other industries wherein people’s looks are commodified – and the people who exhibit themselves should be proud, not ashamed. In my opinion, using your body in this way is counteracting traditional gender roles wherein women are seen as innocent things of beauty to be protected by men, in contrast to men’s sexuality. Men’s sexual conquests are celebrated and women’s are seen as taboo. Breaking down the traditional gender paradigm – is that not what feminism is about?
If she enjoys taking her clothes off for men, why does society frown upon this choice and thus view her as nothing more than her body?
This brings us back to the issue of patriarchy, of course, as it’s mainly women who do these things. Because of the current status quo, men being objectified is a comparative rarity. Of course sometimes they pose half-naked for ads, but society does not view their masculinity or identity as being compromised for these actions, as opposed to the attitudes framing this kind of work for women. The problem is not the sexualisation of women, if they are happy with it, but the stigma attached to it – ‘slut-shaming’ as it’s come to be known. The way to smash the patriarchy? Let’s invite more men to be strippers, gigolos or models. If more men were to participate in the sexualisation of their bodies it would normalise the actions of these women and help to diminish the stigma around the issue. For the sake of gender equality let’s pave the way for them to feel comfortable to do so, and for fuck’s sake, let a woman take her clothes off and embrace the power it gives her.
*Incidences of eating disorders were seen to vary by sex and age with adolescent girls aged 15-19 years having the highest incidence of eating disorders (2 per 1,000). (Source: King’s College London. 2013. Available from: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/ioppn/news/records/2013/May/Eating-disorders-increase.aspx. Accessed 02/01/15)