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Sexualisation of Culture breeds Sexual Violence

Within recent times, there has emerged a pattern in which the focus is on the articulation and materialisation of sex throughout a vast range of cultural, social and political fields, with an emphasis on re-conceptualising and establishing sexual significance. This has followed the increasingly unrestrained principle of sexual consumption, verified by the escalating and unbridled demand for strip clubs, escort services, pornography, telephone sex, sex shops, and sex tours[1]; a considerably radical change from the way in which sex and sexuality was expressed even a quarter of a century ago. Sex in the contemporary world can take many forms, and can increasingly be represented in more ways entrenched in more things than it ever did before, and has been linked to both consumer culture and the youth[2]. Sex has become what people make it to be: the expression of ideas and discussions, and it is what is experienced by those partaking in it. It is also considered by some as ‘…a major mechanism for subjection, abuse, and violence’[3]

Sexualisation of an individual occurs “when a person’s value comes only from his/her sexual appeal or behaviour, to the exclusion of other characteristics, and when a person is portrayed purely as a sex object”[4]. This kind of sexuality is incongruously forced upon a person, and in particular a child. This occurs, for example, when adult models dress up as young girls and pose in sexy ways, which serve to blur the boundaries of distinction between adults and children and end up sexualizing girlhood.[5] Adolescents therefore grow up in a cultural environment that is embedded with sexualising messages, and this is particularly true of contemporary western society.

With the evolution of the conceptualisation of sex and sexuality, the term ‘sexualised culture’ has emerged within contemporary discourse around sex and sexuality, denoting a preoccupation with sexual principles, identities and practices[6], and in which sexually explicit material has made its way into mainstream culture. This has led to an increasing desensitization to the sexualisation of women as merchandise in people’s everyday lives, media and advertising, and to a culture of sexual objectification, in which blatant sexuality is now an essential of mainstream media. Previous regulations and rules around sex and sexual experiences have disappeared, and in their place, there is a societal shift to more willing and lenient sexual attitudes, as well as the appearance of new forms of sexual encounters in which the obscene is no longer kept at bay. There appears to be a lack of clear moral structures and concepts of sex, and with them, a lack of an ethics for sexuality[7] in which sexual disobedience has become so ‘normal’, and the graphic has become so common.[8]

Therein lies the danger, however, because where the concept of a ‘sexualisation of culture’ is being commonly used within discourse, it is not, in reality, a ‘sexualisation of culture’, but rather, a pornographically sexual[9], objectification of culture. Sexual services, products and representations are becoming more and more easily accessible to a broader range of consumers and so are the increasingly obscene texts through the expanding pornographic world. This movement has been described as part of a wider shift towards a striptease culture[10], and as the most recent stage in the commodification of sex and the expansion of a sexual consumerism.

Gill (2003) refers to this movement as the ‘deliberate re-sexualisation and re-commodification of bodies’[11], and is one in which women appear to be participating in actively. It has been described as the creation of a modern femininity, one that is organised around independence and sexual self-assurance, and one in which women are seen as desiring, active and conscious sexual subjects. There are clear depictions, especially in contemporary media, of modern, sexually independent and heterosexual young women who are forever ‘up for it’[12]. In many ways, this form of independence has been presented, not as a sexual objectification of women by men, but as the freely chosen wishes of contemporary women, who have chosen to become sex objects because it fits their new autonomy and liberation.

It has been suggested that one way of reading the contradiction between the re-sexualisation of women’s bodies as sexual objects and the celebration of women’s achievements and successes in the modern world is as part of a backlash against feminism. This suggests that the commoditisation of women’s bodies and their re-sexualisation, by men in particular, is as a guard against modern cultural transformations in women’s lives, and is formulated by trying to put women back in their place, and is also as a comfort to men who feel threatened by the ‘successes’ of the modern woman[13].

The question is, however, following the above line of argument, that if the re-sexualisation of women’s bodies is as a defence against the loss of male hegemony, is the increase in levels and forms of sexual violence against women also a defence against the loss of male domination? Are men trying to claim back their positions and their power by similarly putting women back in their place through the use of violence? The idea of reclamation of male dominance appears to be supported by research revolving around the growth of the commercial sex industry, which is seen as a reaction and reassertion of male authority in response to the achievements of feminist movements[14]. What about the growth of sexual violence against women?

As mentioned before, sexuality appears to be increasingly pornographically inspired. The use of girls’ and women’s bodies and indeed even men’s as merchandise, whether it is in the selling of holiday packages, cars, perfume, or even soft drinks, is no longer merely tantalising, but manifestly sexual, and unashamedly pornographically inspired. In fashion, in advertising, just as in pornography, women are seen as willing, ready, and available to be fanaticized about, to be looked at, and are seen wearing chains and touting whips. It is almost like the female image is one that is presented and seen entirely through the lens of a particular male sexual fantasy, as everyday pornography. Although the link between pornography and sexual violence is one that has been vigorously debated over the years, the evidence to suggest a causal link is strong. It would appear that because of their arousing properties, erotic stimuli can have aggression-facilitating effects[15] – the more arousing the stimuli, the higher the levels of aggressive behaviour.

Supporters of pornography argue that firstly, pornography belongs within the category of ‘freedom of expression’, and that secondly, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that it is actually harmful, and therefore, there is no case against it[16]. However, the reality is that pornography is a tradition of sexual abuse that not only propagates, but also teaches male dominance and aggression, in which the concept of male superiority is manifestly experienced by both genders[17], through the use of coercion and abuse. It is a ‘form of expression’ that has been condemned as becoming increasingly violent[18], portraying scenes with women dismembered, bitten, cut, and bleeding, all which are graphically depicted. Following this line of argument, the link between the objectification of women’s bodies in the highly sexualised image of the modern woman and the increasing levels of sexual violence that are perpetrated against women today is clear.

The argument for the link between pornography and sexual violence is not based on the empirical proof of harm, but rather, on the subjective experience of it, the phenomenological aspects of it. This is because pornography itself is a concept hard to describe, yet easy to recognise[19], and one whose essence can only be understood through a direct subjective experience. When a person is confronted by a snuff film, for example, they are confronted by more than just a set of facts, or a particularly obscene representation of an idea; they are participants in somebody’s lived-experience. In the context of a snuff film, the facts are meaningless without the concept being expressed, and for it to work as an expression of an idea, the underlying concept and its effects must be examined, particularly with regards to the subjective experience of the individual.

However, one is hard-pressed to ask, what exactly is being expressed? Is it really just isolated ideas? Or is it deeper underlying messages, that if one is free enough to express and spread such ideas in the form of vividly graphic video representations, and is protected by the law while doing so under the concept of freedom of expression, that it is completely acceptable? Humans have the unique ability to experiment and take ideas a step further. What happens when that idea is actually translated into a sexually violent act against another? By categorising such ideas as freedoms of expression, society is implicitly teaching that it is entirely acceptable to have and express violent and degrading ideas about the treatment of others. When that idea is then carried out into more than just a video representation and a crime is enacted, is society not punishing its members for what it taught them to begin with, whether intentionally or unintentionally?

Without taking into account the messages being taught and communicated by these ideas, the far-reaching effects of these messages will continue to be ignored or simply categorised as freedom of expression, while being unconsciously or sub-consciously saturated within society. It is about seeing the foundations and systems that such pornographic sexualisations represent, rather than as the expression of the ideas they symbolize. Unfortunately, unlike the expression of other, less harmful ideas, the biggest problem with pornography is how it expresses itself, as it actually pressures, forces, blackmails and threatens women, because when women are gang raped for film, they are gang raped, and when they are tied and gagged, undressed, and hurt, it is not merely an expression of ideas, but a re-enforcement of and an actual acting upon of ideas[20].

It stands to reason that if members of society learn that sexualised expressions of ideas, no matter how extreme, or how violent, are approved of by society, and even protected, they are likely to internalise these standards and make them their own, and continued exposure can lead to an adoption of particular perspectives about sex, in this case, that ‘anything goes’. Studies have shown connections between conventional attitudes about female sexuality and violent sexual behaviour. Numerous have shown that exposure to images from mainstream media that are sexually objectifying, as well as exposure to pornography, leads to significantly more accepting attitudes towards rape, interpersonal violence and sexual harassment[21]. It would appear, therefore, that repeated exposure to precocious sexuality has served to normalise abusive and even violent sexual practices through the cultivation of new desires and experiences. This has also helped to maintain a climate that fails to see the presentation of women as body parts and sexual objects and that the rising rates of sexual violence against women are unusual.

Conclusion

In a society that places much emphasis on the freedom of expression, it has become paramount to examine what exactly is being expressed in particular ideas, and the harm that these ideas may be causing. Contemporary society is all about empirical evidence and hard facts, and anything that falls beyond this scope is not considered real data, and not recognised. The blatant and extreme sexualisation evident in today’s society, including within it pornography, have been termed freedoms of expression, and it would appear that no matter what form this expression takes, it remains protected by the law, because of the lack of concrete evidence that suggests a causal link between pornography and sexual violence, particularly against women. Absolute, indisputable proof when studying complex systems such as society is impossible, and it is important to realise that a non-physical manifestation of a problem does not mean that such a problem does not exist, or that the harm experienced is too subjective to be considered real, but it means being willing to examine evidence other than that of an empirical nature in order to determine the extent of the harm caused. One does not need indisputable proof in order to ascertain that the rises in sexual violence are promoted by a climate in which extreme sexuality, promoted by the spread of pornography, is acceptable and even ideologically encouraged. It appears that these ideas are only going to get more convoluted, more extreme and more violent, as is evident from the recent ban in the UK of a movie whose extreme levels of sexual torture were finally considered too high for public viewing.

The problem does not only lie within arguments that polarized role playing (men as doers and women as bystanders), or that exaggerated depictions of female bodies as passive sexual objects are humiliating to women, but that these types of depictions promote and propagate attitudes of hostility, possession, and violence[22]. The case against such extreme sexualisation of culture or against pornography is the same as the one against rape, in that they are deliberate, rational, controlled acts of violence and degradation against women, and that they offer aggressive males the ideologies and the psychological encouragements to execute acts of violence, mainly without the awareness that they have enacted punishable crimes, let alone moral wrongs[23].

Note:

The observance of hijāb for the Muslim woman is as a manifestation of chastity and modesty, and a clear signal that sexual attention is not desired, due to the concealment of attractive attributes. It is a fact that the greatest attraction for men is women[24], and the command to cover in Islam serves to protect the Muslim woman from sexual attention from men, as does the command for Muslim men to lower their gazes, in order to protect, not only themselves, but also the woman, from harmful sexual attraction of both the heart and body.

The Islamic command for the woman to cover herself comes from several verses of the Qur’ān, and ahadīth (Prophetic guidance), including:

“O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks over all their bodies. That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed. And Allah is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”[25]

And:

It was narrated from Safiyya bint Shaybah that ‘Ā’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) used to say: when these words were revealed -“And to draw their veils all over Joyoobihinna (bodies, faces, neck and bosoms)”- they took their izaars (a kind of garment) and tore them from the edges and covered their faces with them”[26]

In sharp contrast to the blatant display of sexuality that is a feature of the contemporary western woman, a Muslim woman, covered from head to toe is often times mocked and called a ‘prude’, or ‘oppressed’, and yet, this very covering that is so often sneered at serves as a protection from sexual aggression. By covering herself, the Muslim woman sends out a clear signal that she does not want to be treated as a sexual object, does not want men to stare at her or fantasize about her, and she protects herself from ever being accused of ‘asking for it’, as is so often heard being directed at a victim of sexual violence. This is not, in any way, an implication that women who do not cover themselves are asking to become victims of sexual violence, as there is no excuse for rape or sexual violence of any kind, but rather that Islam is unique in its protection of women against sexualisation, and against sexual aggression from men.

 

 


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[1] Bernstein, E. (2001). The Meaning of the Purchase: Desire, Demand and the Commerce of Sex. Ethnography, Vol. 2. No. 3., pps. 389-420.
[2] Attwood, F. (2006). Sexed Up: Theorizing the Sexualisation of Culture. Sexualities, Vol. 9, pp. 77-94.
[3] Plummer, Kenneth (2003) Intimate Citizenship: Private Decisions and Public Dialogues. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.
[4] BBC News article, 20th Feb 2007. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/6376421.stm
[5] Bailey, M. (2007) ‘The Sexualisation of Girls.’ The Newsletter of the Montogomery County Chapter of the National Organisation of Women, American Psychological Association Report. Available at: http://www.mcmdnow.org/images/Sexualization%20articles.pdf.
[6] Attwood, F. (2006).
[7] ibid
[8] ibid
[9] Pornography has been defined as “the graphic, sexually explicit subordination of women, whether in pictures or in words” (MacKinnon, C. (1987). Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p.262), and can be represented by women being shown as dehumanized sexual commodities who attain sexual pleasure through humiliation, degradation, or when in pain, such as when they are mutilated, bleeding, bruised, tied up, or cut in situations that makes these conditions sexual; women being presented in postures of sexual display, submission or servility, or when presented as whores by nature
[10] Attwood, F. (2006)
[11] Gill, R. (2003) ‘From Sexual Objectification to Sexual Subjectification: The Resexualisation of Women’s Bodies in the Media’, Feminist Media Studies vol. 3(1), pps. 100–6, p.101
[12] ibid
[13] ibid
[14] Gidens, A. (1992). The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Erotocism in Modern Societies. Stanford: Stanford University Press, and O’Connell Davidson, J. (1998). Prostitution, Power, and Freedom. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
[15] Donnerstein, E. (1980). ‘Pornography and Violence Against Women: Experimental Studies.’ Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Vol. 347, pps. 277-288.
[16] Willis, C.E. (1997). ‘The Phenomenology of Pornography: A Comment on Catharine MacKinnon’s Only Words’. Law and Philosophy, Vol. 16, pps. 177-199.
[17] MacKinnon, C. (1993). Only Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
[18] Jacobs, Karen. (1984). Patterns of violence: A feminist perspective on the regulations of pornography. The Harvard Women’s Law Journal, vol. 7, pps. 5-55.
[19] Willis, C.E. (1997). ‘The Phenomenology of Pornography: A Comment on Catharine MacKinnon’s Only Words’. Law and Philosophy, Vol. 16, pps. 177-199.
[20] MacKinnon, C. (1993)
[21] Bailey, M. (2007)
[22] Brownmiller, Susan. (1975). Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. New York: Simon and Schuster
[23] ibid
[24] acknowledged also in the Qur’ān, 3:14
[25] Qur’ān 33:59
[26] Narrated by al-Bukhāri 4481

 

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About Najla Islam Ali

9 comments

  1. Sexual violence is not about sexual gratification
    Overall I thought this was a really great article with good scope. However, I think it should be pointed out that sexual violence is NOT a product of sexual gratification. It is a product of a need for CONTROL and POWER. Sexual violence occurs in any culture that oppresses women because men believe it is their right to have this power over women. The hijab does not protect women from sexual violence in any way, shape, or form. The onus should be on the men to have self-discipline and control their own behaviour. After all, women have been doing this for centuries.

  2. Extreme Sexualisation does not equate to Sexual violence unless there isd a psychotic component
    Most theories on violence suggest that indiscriminate violence directed towards another be it sexual or otherwise only occurs where there is a psychotic component which causes an individual to have a distorted view of the world and reality. This can off course be caused by immersion in violent porn and the trend increasingly is one where porn is becoming harder more violent and has a greater degradation of women then the softer porn lets say 10 years ago. However this does not necessarily mean that there is a link to violence and my work is based on direct work with sex offenders and Muslims with psycho-sexual disorders; most of my clients have a psychotic episode which distorts their views further. Why I am espousing this is because this is precisely the same argument used by Quilliam and their ilk who promote the idea that it is extreme views per se that create the mood music for violent Islamic extremism; this is also false as just because a person has extreme views this does not equate to committing violent acts unless there is a psychotic component. I feel that the same argument is being used here; yes porn is morally reprehensible and distorts men’s view of women however this does not equate to committing acts of violence against women.

  3. mr
    As for those who with malicious intent seek a destruction for us, then we say to them … “And the man who believed said… and my affair I leave it to Allah. Verily, Allah is the all seer of (his) slaves. So Allah saved him from the evils that they plotted (against him.) (40:44,45)

    On the other hand we remind ourselves “… strive hard in our cause, we will surely guide them to our paths “. ( 29:69)

  4. well written and researched article mashallah

  5. As. I think bro Ahmed is making a point that men have also been made ‘sexually objectified’ but to a much lesser extent, it is evident that we now see women thinking/behaving in this manner about and towards men, I don’t say that this should be ignored but you must realise bro that the highly sexualised culture (and its consequences)that we live in today is not because of women objectifying men, but the opposite, only men have the powerful position to do that, that is their failure. ws


  6. Bro. Ahmad, are you serious? Instead of facing and accepting the situation we find women in nowadays, you counter by saying “men are objectified too!” No offense, but you sound quite young.

    Allah subhana wa ta’ala left men in charge of being the caretakers of women, and the Rasool salallahu alaihi wa salam commanded the men in his farewell speech to take care of the women. I can say the men have in large part failed. Even Muslim women are being subjected to objectification due to the immense amount of media Muslim men consume. The GREATNESS of women hardly weighs in our favor anymore.

  7. Perhaps women hav internalised those sexual images which takes them away from being ‘bashful’?

  8. Great article
    Wow, really good article, well articulated and some impressively developed arguments which we can all benefit from!

  9. Men are objectified too.. Take a look at some ads. Search “the objectification of men.” why does playgirl magazine exist? We Muslims tend to think that only men are sexual and “objectify” women while they are ” bashful” and desire only one partner.

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