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If Women Don't Want To Be Treated as Sex Objects, Why Do They Dress Provocatively?

'If you play with fire, you get burned'

By Katie JglnPublished about a year ago 8 min read
Photo by Petro from AdobeStock

I've recently published an article about Emily Ratajkowski accusing Robin Thicke of sexually assaulting her while filming the music video for 'Blurred Lines.'

As expected, some men in the comments wrote that given Emily's 'sex-based persona' and her many pictures and videos in 'various states of undress,' no one should be surprised this happened.

Some comments even went as far as to suggest that 'women who sexualize themselves and use their sexuality for profit and gain should also be held personally responsible for the consequences of their choices.'

Because 'if you play with fire, you get burned,' right?

But can you ever blame women for being assaulted, even if they wear little to no clothing? And can we really judge women who choose to use their sexuality as a method of validation and income in society that routinely tells us our worth equates with our bodies?

For a long time, our bodies were not our own

Even though the female body wasn't always as hypersexualized and objectified as it is today, it was a topic of continual scrutiny for many centuries.

In medieval Europe, religious figures saw the female body as dangerous and a potential stumbling block to men's salvation. And so women had to cover their entire bodies - including hair - to not 'corrupt' male souls.

But at the beginning of the Renaissance, European men decided it's time to see some boobs. And impossibly tiny waists. Because why not, right? Organ squeezing corsets and low-cut dresses that exposed breasts became all the rage. And the French court even enforced a ban on 'thick waists' that lasted over three centuries.

During Victorian times, men once again concluded that women ought to cover their whole bodies in public. It was no longer appropriate for women to flaunt their bosoms or other body parts, particularly bare legs. And diagrams were released to clarify what length of the skirt was suitable for what age.

Societal morality changes over time. Some non-Western cultures never stigmatized female hair, breasts, legs, or waists. Some did to even a greater extent at times. And the above are just a few out of many examples of how changing societal attitudes dictated what women could and couldn't wear and which parts of their bodies were sexualized.

But one thing that remains constant across various periods and patriarchal societies is the assumption that the female body exists, first and foremost, for male sexual and viewing pleasure, and so it must be controlled accordingly. That assumption, in turn, stems from the fact that women themselves were considered to be men's property, passed from their fathers to husbands like a prize cow. Yay.

And let's not forget that men had the legal right to use women's bodies for sexual and reproductive purposes as they pleased pretty much up until the late 20th century, when - thanks to the efforts of the feminist movement - marital rape became illegal. And women's bodily autonomy finally started to be treated seriously.

Not everywhere and by everyone - but it was a start.

So what if we're working the rigged system to our benefit?

Today, women's bodies are practically everywhere. They are on display in billboards, movie posters, magazines, and music videos. They are used to sell everything from chocolate to cars and are often dismembered into parts - breasts, legs, butts. Sometimes a woman's body morphs into the product, becoming the bottle of beer or the shoe. Or it is portrayed as an animal to be tamed.

And our worth is, sadly, still very much attached to it since women have been socialized since childhood via millions of micro experiences to believe their looks are of paramount importance.

But the key difference between today and the past is that women - in some countries - are free to do with their bodies as they please. We're no longer as constricted by rigid social and religious norms dictated by patriarchy as we were even decades ago. We don't risk being burned at stake or thrown out in the streets for exposing our ankles or showing our breasts.

We have the choice now.

And so, some women choose to dress modestly. Some choose to walk around half-naked. Some choose to stay in-between the two. Some choose to use their bodies to gain money, fame, or climb the social ladder.

But apparently, that last choice makes some people - ahem, mostly men - mad.

So, let me get this straight. For centuries the female body was either considered dangerous and heavily demonized, or its parts were oversexualized for a man's viewing pleasure to the point of women being forced to cover themselves up or expose and accentuate specific parts while having no bodily autonomy whatsoever. But the second women use their bodies to their advantage; all hell breaks loose?

If you're angry that Emily Ratajkowski or other models, actresses, and celebrities use their bodies to get ahead in life, your anger is entirely misplaced.

You should be angry that our society persuades women to self-objectify by evaluating and controlling themselves in terms of their sexual appeal to others rather than their own health, happiness, and desires. You should be angry that women are constantly being dehumanized and compared to objects to be groped, harassed, catcalled, and evaluated. You should be angry that women are reduced to individual pieces - 'legs,' 'breasts,' and 'butts' - similar to à la carte items on a restaurant menu.

You should be angry at how utterly fucked up this world is if you happen to be a woman, not at women who work the rigged system to their benefit.

But even when women wear revealing clothing, or nothing at all, and pose in sexually explicit ways, that does not give anyone the right to treat them as sex objects and assault them.

And that shouldn't even be up for discussion.

Sexualization and objectification are two different things

There are many reasons why a woman could be wearing an outfit - regardless of how 'revealing' it is - that have nothing to do with sexual attention. If that's shocking to you, congrats - you've just discovered context.

Maybe she's wearing a low-cut top because she has spent several years being told to cover herself up - often placing the blame of other people's desires on her - and now she can express her autonomy through her outfit. Maybe she is wearing shorts because she finally has the confidence to show off her legs without feeling ashamed of her own body. Maybe she is just into the latest fashion trends. Maybe she didn't even notice that skirt was that short or that top too revealing.

Maybe she's just busy being a human living her life.

If you think someone has dressed for sexual attention - and you might be right sometimes, other times not - keep in mind that sexualization is a matter of perspective. It takes place in the eye and mind of the observer. But still, perceiving someone as sexually appealing is not the same as treating them like a sexual object. Sexually appealing people have thoughts and feelings and rights and agency. Objects do not.

We shouldn't be confusing the two - but too often, we are.

That's because practically every day, we're bombarded with images and messages we've learned to view as sexual and suggestive, and we've been conditioned to objectify women even in the most non-sexual of contexts.

Just think about it.

Women get sexualized and objectified for being petite. For having big boobs. For having big butts. For having big lips. For having tiny feet. For being skinny. For having curves. For having a certain profession - like a teacher, nurse, or lawyer. For being of a certain race or ethnicity. For being a virgin. Or a mother. Even for breastfeeding our kids.

And sure, men get sexualized, too. I don't deny that. But they are not sexualized and objectified by mass media to the extent that women are. One psychological study found that even when people are presented with pictures of men and women in sexualized poses, wearing a swimsuit or underwear, they tend to objectify women - not men.

In other words, women tend to be perceived as objects, and men…as humans.

Women are more than just bodies

Everyone's definition of 'appropriate' is different. Everyone's. We can go back and forth all day about how we personally feel women should represent themselves. But them failing to meet your standards doesn't make it acceptable for you to treat them inappropriately.

Women deserve respect and to be treated with dignity regardless of what they wear and how they portray themselves.

Yes, that also includes women who voluntarily sign up to be portrayed as objects and accept huge paychecks in return. Now, I wouldn't go as far as to claim that's the ultimate empowering act since women who choose that path are usually at the mercy of others' - usually men's - preferences, appetites, and money. It's more of a faux power than actual power, really.

But until we're living in a truly egalitarian society where women are taken seriously regardless of our looks, we shouldn't judge women for milking this messed-up system for all it's worth. It's their bodies, their lives, and their business.

And instead of focusing on a few individuals, how about we focus on social norms that perpetuate this relentless sexualization and objectification of women's bodies and acknowledge that many industries blatantly profit off it? Because girls and women suffer in very literal ways when sexualized female bodies inundate our media landscape. And that's not something that is going to go away on its own.

It is not impossible to cut objectifying media out of our visual diets and re-train our minds to see each other as more than our physical appearance.

Because women are more than just bodies. Men are more than their bodies, too. We are all thinking, feeling humans who can view ourselves and each other as such - even if those humans are showing more skin than what we deem as inappropriate.

And when we can see more than just bodies in ourselves and others, we have the opportunity to be more.

Isn't that why we're here, anyway?

This story was originally published on Medium.

gender roles

About the Creator

Katie Jgln

Sometimes serious, sometimes funny, always stirring the pot. Social sciences nerd based in London. Check out my other social media:

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