Last night as a favour to some final year broadcasting students I participated in a live TV show streamed on the internet discussing the subject of female sexual objectivisation both in the media and in nightclubs who admit scantily clad women for free. (I hope the students get a first, their production was as slick, professional and as well run as any big-name media group as well as being an innovative concept).
It was quite timely, following on from public ‘revelations’ about the fact I had once had a bar job requiring me to wear quite a provocative uniform, which was admittedly mild compared with the job of the presenter who was a former ‘Hill’s Angel’.
One of the points made was that women are actually choosing to wear next-to-nothing in order for commercial gain in order to build a brand or image around a single, although one has to question how ‘free’ that choice really is, if making themselves sexually provocative is allegedly the only way to sell their music. The point I made was that though women wearing their underwear is nothing new these days, they are having to go to more and more outrageous lengths to sell themselves, hence the outrage wasn’t so much over Miley Cyrus’ outfit rather her twerking. Lily Allen’s recent pastiche video featuring sexually explicit images of attractive women ironically reinforced the very sexual objectification that she was overtly rejecting to in the lyrics, although I find the word “b*tch” objectionable and offensive as a point of reference to women, regardless of who is ‘reclaiming’ it.
I also worked as cabin crew, another profession which at the time I was a member of it, was solely concerned with the image of their female crew as fantasy sex-objects as opposed to anything else. Look at the adverts for Virgin Atlantic, capitalising on the nostalgia of the uniform worn in the late eighties/early nineties, with its tight double breasted bright red jacket, matching short skirt and bright red shoes, colloquially known in the business as ‘f-me pumps’.
Whenever I got on the tube in uniform ready to go to work at 5am in the morning, I would always attract an obvious amount of attention, some of it flattering, others not so, but it always centrered around my appearance. Working in a profession that puts a high value on appearance which presents you as an object of sexual fantasy (note today’s uniforms are a massive improvement) means that unless you are exceptionally strong-minded, that is the attitude that you subconsciously adopt and absorb about yourself – i.e. that your value or stock as a human being is entirely dependent upon your appearance, even if you have done so willingly. One of the motivations for the bar work was that it was comparatively well paid, compared to say other jobs available to 18 year old cash-strapped students. In many ways it was a free choice no-one forced or compelled me to do it, but I wonder how many women in similar situations are doing it for the sheer enjoyment, or for the extra money, in which case how free are they?
In the case of cabin crew, the role was not simply about sashaying up and down the aisles or mixing a celebrity passenger their favourite cocktail, but predominantly about safety, however your appearance as an object of male desire, completely undermines the function of your job. Cabin crew are there to ensure passenger safety but it’s hard to be taken seriously when you are viewed as a vacuous dolly bird, there only to satisfy the whims of male passengers. At the time of the British Midland Kegworth disaster, it’s very telling that Cabin Crew/Flight attendants were not listed as coming under safety or within the remit of operations, but were under the control of ‘marketing’. In the event of an emergency, no-one is going to care if your lipstick matches your nails and hatband, if your hair has wispy bits, you need a spot more blusher or if you are half a pound overweight and yet these were assessed on a daily basis, pay rises being dependent upon consistently scoring well in these areas in assessments. Additionally, the tights that are a non-negotiable part of the uniform (I am racking my brains to think of an airline that lets its female crew wear trousers) are a hazard and will exacerbate terrible injury in the case of disaster. Set a pair of tights (pantyhose) or stockings on fire and see what happens. Now imagine wearing them and high heels while trying to operate a slide or in extremes of temperature, or while stepping around fuel spills.
The final straw for me was when a former colleague decided to strip off for one of the red-top Sunday magazines. Handing out sweets during boarding, I noticed a sea of men engrossed in photographs of a woman stripping down to a skimpy pair of pants, whilst discarding the identical set of clothes that I was wearing and became acutely aware of the appraising glances of men, comparing my appearance to the girl in the magazine. One didn’t need to be a mind reader to be know exactly what was on their minds.
In the long run working in professions which set a great store on sexual attractiveness was not helpful for my spirituality or psyche. As C S Lewis’ Screwtape observes “all mortals turn into the thing that they are pretending to be”; making your living out of being a sexually desirable object, even if on your own terms, will distort your own self-perception.
I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to determine whether or not one could or should identify oneself as a feminist if one works in the sex industry or in a profession which uses the female sexuality to sell sex as several self-identifying feminists do just that, however I would question whether feminism, which is about ensuring female flourishing, equality freedom and independence is best served by reinforcing the idea of women as sexual objects.
What caught my eye on the journey home last night was the dreadful story in the Evening Standard about the sexual violence and abuse of women endemic in gang culture, where women are passed from man to man and severely beaten and abused. Juxtaposed next to the story on the next page were several images of sexually provocative women at the American Music Awards ceremony, together with comments about their appearance.
While all sorts of measures were being proposed to combat gang culture (not least more sex and relationship education) how on earth are we supposed to stop women from being seen as only good for one thing, when we are ourselves subconsciously buying into this and are saturated by such images in the media, although to be fair, there is an increasing trend of the sexual objectification of men. Joey Essex being one such contemporary example who comes to mind.
It’s absolutely pointless telling girls what a consensual relationship is supposed to look or feel like (I think most inherently have a sense of this) when a wholly different message is being sent out by the culture. I am not sure that explicit sex education is going to stop men from wanting to sexually abuse women, or even relationship education, which could even enable men to be able to emotionally coerce women into abusive relationships, persuading them that sex is what they ‘want’. Most abusive relationships do not start out that way from the outset, it is a gradual process and yet no woman should assume that because a man may treat her well, be attentive and charming, it signals that he is a secret sexual psychopath who is no doubt going to abuse her later down the line. Besides gang culture is not simply about a manifestation of misogyny, but is indicative of the crisis facing working class young men in urban societies.
One has to ask where are parents in this mess. In the terrible story of the middle-class girl who spent five years being abused, the parents seem to be wholly absent, proving that it is not class that is the determining factor, but the quality of parental relationships. It is not meant as blame, but parents seem to be assumed to be taking passive roles, whereas children need good relationships, trust and respect modelled for them as opposed to being taught in a purely didactic fashion. How is a young teenager with crazy unstable hormones supposed to absorb what a healthy relationship should look and feel, simply by being told. They need to be able to intuit and most girls can intuit that something is not right, but not until it is too late.
Parents need to be empowered and enabled to keep tabs on their children and each others, either forming groups to ensure that children are kept occupied after school and reinforce each others’ house rules and curfews. Should thirteen year olds be allowed out late at night, especially on a school night? It’s not just about helping children to keep themselves safe, but teaching parents to help keep their own children safe and impose boundaries, instead of acting like they are powerless in the face of their children’s inevitable rebellion and physical responses to puberty.
Ultimately if we object to sexual objectification in the media and world around us, which contributes to the culture of abuse, self-loathing and brings nothing but long-term damage, both on an individual and societal level, then we need to take steps not only to pressurise our media, film and music industry to clean up their act, but not buy into it ourselves and for our children.
If we object to women being used as worthless sexual objects then we should not surround ourselves with music and videos or newspapers or media that refers to them as ‘b*tches’ or further entrenches the culture, whether that be in the Daily Mail or on the X-Factor.