How are sex and sexuality represented in the media? Sexploitation describes forms of marketing and product promotion that gains media coverage by focusing on objectifying the sexual attributes of the body. But how do we distinguish between exploitative and agentic depictions of sexuality? Does the symbolic representation of sex in popular culture approximate our experiences or values? In this online lesson, we unpack some of the debates around sex, media and censorship.
Sex in the West: obsessed or repressed?
The act of sex has no history. “It is a natural fact, grounded in the functioning of the body, and, as such, it lies outside of history and culture” (Halperin, 1993, p. 416). While sex as an activity much like eating or sleeping may have no history, in his landmark text The History of Sexuality (1979), French poststructuralist Michael Foucault traces the emergence of sexuality in Western societies, and shows us that sexuality, is however, historically and culturally contingent. According to Foucault, prior to the mid-nineteenth century, a sex act was not understood as an expression of a person’s psyche and did not characterise an innate identity. Instead, sex acts were either considered to be ‘natural’ (therefore, moral and legal) or ‘unnatural’ (therefore sinful and criminal). ALL non-procreative sex acts that denied their reproductive ‘destinies’ were regarded as sinful (e.g. masturbation). And the person who committed the act was regarded as lacking in moral fortitude or succumbing to the temptations of the flesh.
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, however, sexual ‘deviance’ became a growing concern for social institutions such as law and public health. Psychiatry, in particular, became obsessed with the nature and treatment of sexual ‘deviants’ and proposed that they suffered from a congenital defect or mental illness. Accordingly, ‘unnatural’ sexual acts/desires became symptomatic an ‘illness’, and those ‘afflicted’ became an identifiable class of people e.g. the homosexual. And it might interest you to know that homosexuality retained classification as a mental disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1987.
In The History of Sexuality, Foucault describes the differences in the way sex has been perceived and discursively situated as follows: The Eastern perception of sex situates it in the domain of the art form or artistic practice, or what he calls an ars erotica (the art of pleasure). This is in distinction to the Western approach of psychiatry, medical science and other forms of laboratory and statistical analysis, which he calls a scientia sexualis.
So why is this history relevant to today? Because moral accusations of indignity, temptation, sin and sickness remain prevalent in public discourses on sex today.
Body shame and appearance anxiety have a stronghold in Western culture and certain institutions continue to exploit both sexual desire and perceived sexual dysfunctions. After all, what better way can you think of to make people buy stuff than appealing to their insecurities and promising to either fix their defect or satisfy their ‘unsavoury’ desires?
Shame, by definition, results in feelings of wanting to either hide or change the thing that doesn’t meet external or internal standards. This often leads to self-objectification where we might punish our bodies if we feel we don’t meet the ideals we think we should, or we physically, chemically or surgically change the parts of our bodies which we most dislike. Either way, if we are ashamed by our bodies then we are more likely to buy the products we need to ‘fix’ them.
It could be argued that the advertising industry has long understood our obsession with sex. But outside of goods and services that are explicitly sexual like those above, how do advertisers use sex to sell everyday products? Here are a few examples which use sex to sell the following products from left to right: moisturiser for dry knees; fruit; glassware; eggs.
Sexploitation is used in this context to describe forms of marketing and product promotion that gains media coverage by focusing on objectifying the sexual attributes of the body. Disproportionately, this type of shame is leveraged against women, although in the last decade we have seen men subjected to this as well.
Take a look at this ad from a Belgian men’s magazine, that uses sex to encourage organ donation. The text reads: “Becoming a donor is probably your only chance to get inside her.”
🤔 THINK IT THROUGH
Do you think this is exploitative? Why/why not?
Do you find this an effective or offensive means of promoting the message?
Do you find the image below comparable to the previous four images above? Or does the image below connote something more problematic?
📝 CRITICAL RESPONSE TASK
So how do we determine the difference between a sexually suggestive aesthetic and an exploitative aesthetic?
Take a look at the following four examples of media content and construct a response to this statement: where do we draw the line when it comes to using sex to sell us stuff?
As media consumers, why do we continue to accept this always already sexualised representation of females and their various successes? And how might we go about changing and/or critiquing these kinds of depictions if we find them uncomfortable or offensive? It’s easy to say, ‘but what can I do about it’, but before we move on, let’s take a look at a recent example of what we might call tactical media or creative activism.
The images above were originally released via a Facebook post that quickly went viral in April 2014. An excellent example of critical parody, these images are by a group of artists called Bondi Hipsters who have recreated model Miranda Kerr’s British GQ Magazine shoot, and rewritten some of the models quotes about masturbation, bisexuality and sexual expression as if is he were a man.
A journalist reporting in the Huffington Post writes that “it’s weird and thought-provoking to see to see these comparisons side by side”. What do you think? Do these reimagined pictures and quotes reveal the over-sexualisation of women in the media? Read this very short article and flick thought the pics to decide for yourself.
The Rise of Raunch Culture
Porn stars are entering the world of mainstream celebrity, writing bestselling books, acting as sex advisors in lifestyle magazines and becoming the stars of lad mags. Porn has turned chic and become an object of fascination in art, film, television and the press. Porn style is also now commonplace, especially in music videos and advertising, and a scantily clad, surgically enhanced ‘porn look’ is evident, not only in the media but on the streets.
Do you agree? Or is this a sensationalised statement?
Watch at least one of the following music videos and read at least one of the brief articles to follow and draw your own conclusions on the rise of raunch in popular culture.
Classification and censorship in Australia
In Australia, classification decisions are made by the Classification Board. The principles for decision making are set out in the National Classification Code, agreed by the Australian Government and the States and Territories. However, the Classification Board is independent from government.
Films (which includes cinematograph films, slides, videos, DVDs and CDs with a visual image or any other form of recording from which a visual image can be produced) are classified into seven categories:
|G||General. All films that do not fit into one of the other six categories will be classified G.|
|PG||Parental guidance recommended.|
|M||Recommended for mature audiences.|
|MA15+||Not suitable for people under 15. Under 15s must be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.|
|R18+||Restricted to 18 and over.|
|X18+||Restricted to 18 and over. This means it contains real depictions of actual sexual activity between consenting adults. In addition to being restricted to persons aged 18 years and over it can only be sold or hired legally in the ACT and parts of the Northern Territory.|
|RC||Refused classification. This means the material is prohibited and cannot be shown, sold, hired or distributed.|
Films that are banned in Australia have been considered “gross, offensive or abhorrent” and refused for content such as bestiality, necrophilia, child sexual abuse, rape, sexual violence, child pornography, high impact violence, extreme depictions of cruelty to persons or animals, or sexual content in such a way that it offends the standards of morality, decency and propriety in most adults to the point where they should not be classified.
Films that are banned by the Australian Classification Board are labeled “Refused Classification” and the sale, distribution, public exhibition or import of “Refused Classification” films is a felony and punishable with a fine up to $275,000 and/or up to 10 years imprisonment. Personal ownership of banned films is not prohibited, nor is accessing them via the internet. Such penalties do not apply to individuals, but rather to individuals responsible for or corporations distributing or exhibiting such films to a wider audience.
The website refusedclassification.com links to a database of films, games and adult films that have been refused classification in Australia since 1971.
Does the censorship of sexual content make sense and is it equitable?
Why are we culturally obsessed with the moral implications of explicit sexual content as opposed to explicit violence?
Moreover, why do female bodies require more censoring than male bodies?
Sexualisation and moral panics – ‘What about the children’
Take a look at these re-release children’s toys below. In each pair, the image on the left shows the original version of the character while the image on the right shows the redesigned toy.
What do you notice about the images? Does a brief analysis of contemporary girl culture suggest that there may be a premature sexualisation of girls?
Do you think we are in a current state of ‘moral panic‘ about sex when it comes to children? Each of the below examples uses children and sex as an argument to support increased censorship. But each argument is vastly different and leverages the child to its advantage without critiquing the less sensational examples of sexualisation above.
Watch these videos and establish your own view on the role of censorship in the protection of children. Moreover, what do you think the ethical implications of using the ‘child subject’ (one with no agency to speak directly to these adult concerns) to frame these various arguments favouring stricter censorship?
Censoring the internet
Mandatory internet filtering has been a recurring topic of debate in Australia since first proposed by the Government in 2008. What do you think: does the internet need censorship? Check out the contributions to the conversation at debate.org
‘Hook up’ apps are also under scrutiny as potential means for sexual predators to contact teens. While this kind of reporting on cybersex cultures doesn’t explicitly call for greater censorship, it potentially feeds the moral panic sex and safety. Watch the short video available at the link below.
Censoring public advertising
Who, in your opinion, won this debate? Which argument presented to you as stronger and more significant and why?
Here’s the ad that launched the Family First war on sex-related public advertising. Would the removal of this ad from public view do more or less harm to society?
Art or porn? Can you decide? Start by reading this article about controversial Australian photographer Bill Henson.
Olympia was six years old when she was photographed nude by her mother for fine art photography purposes, namely, recreating Lewis Carroll’s photograph of a nude Beatrice Hatch. Some years later, the photo was published on the cover of the fine arts journal Art Monthly Australia, as a form of protest against the police confiscation of artistic work by photographer Bill Henson, depicting nude children who had modeled in his studio with their mothers’ consent.
The photograph of Olympia nude caused numerous responses by the Australian government, with the then Federal Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson calling for a police investigation on the grounds that the journal’s cover photograph could be used by paedophiles. The then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stating that he “cannot stand the image”, while the then Federal Family Minister Jenny Macklin said that “children were being sexualized in ways that rob them of a childhood” and the then Federal Arts Minister Peter Garrett criticized the journal’s cover saying it was “needlessly provocative” and announced that the Australian Government would call the Australian Council to set up a set of rules over the use of children in works of art and publications that receive government funding.
Here is an example of ‘the child’, now adolescent speaking back. Does this sway your opinion?
Sex positive media
With so much controversy and negativity surrounding sexuality in the media, it’s no wonder that the topic makes people feel uncomfortable or that institutions keep trying to censor our exposure to this type of content. But sexual media content isn’t all bad and isn’t always unethical. The following examples of media content are intended to provide a counter to the more problematic examples we’re looked at thus far.
🎥 CRITICAL VIEWING TASK
Fáðu Já! (“Get a Yes!”) is an educational film from Iceland on sexual consent. The film functions on two levels: 1) it analyzes, and is a good way to initiate discussions on, sexual relationships and violence; and 2) it offers an illustration about cultural differences in the public discourse about sex education and sexual violence. First, sometimes with humour and sometimes with sobering seriousness, the film addresses a number of issues about sexual relationships and is aimed at teenagers. Topics include the dangers of learning about sex from porn or music videos; the fundamental importance of getting consent from one’s sexual partner; acknowledgment of the positive dimensions and frequent awkwardness of sexual activity; knowing sexual boundaries; the definition of rape; and the prevalence and dangers of sexual violence. Second, the film is an interesting illustration of cultural differences around public discourses of sex. You may be surprised to know that this film was shown to teenagers in all schools across Iceland on January 30th, 2013.
This video is theoretically interesting from the perspective of Foucault, who links discourses of sexuality to power. On the one hand, the video was shaped by official ministries and is tied to expert knowledge, and it clearly links positive sexual activity to relationships of love. On the other hand, and contrary to discourses that shame adolescent sexuality or characterise it as unnatural (Foucault 1979: 104), the video acknowledges its positive dimensions. The video also does not explicitly define acceptable forms of sexuality (at least not beyond consensual sex associated with love), thereby partially decentering this conversation by encouraging viewers to know and create their own boundaries. Furthermore, from a feminist perspective, the film can be seen as empowering victims of sexual assault.
📚 PRESCRIBED READING
This week’s reading is Attwood, F. (2009). The sexualisation of culture. In F. Attwood (Ed.), Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualization of Western Culture (pp.xiii-xxiv). London: I.B. Tauris. You can read it online or download it by clicking on the hyperlink.
Tutorial discussion starter
Sex and Genre
Romance, erotica and pornography are all genres of media that revolve around sexual desire. Can you establish critical boundaries between the three? How are they different and where do we draw the line in terms of explicit content? Can the power dynamic of sexual relationships in mainstream romance movies ever be more problematic than porn? To establish your point, try and identify an example of a mainstream romance where you think this might be the case and construct a rationale for why.
📌 VERY PINTERESTING
Be sure to make use of the resources on the SAE Media and Cultural Studies Pinterest board. Here you will find links to texts, images, audio, video and other media that help you make more sense of the subject.