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; 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. 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’
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”. 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. 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, 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 in which sexual disobedience has become so ‘normal’, and the graphic has become so common.
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, 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, 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’, 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’. 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.
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. 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 – 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. 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, through the use of coercion and abuse. It is a ‘form of expression’ that has been condemned as becoming increasingly violent, 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, 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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, 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.”
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”
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.