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How to incite a moral panic about sex

By Jennifer Wilson - posted Monday, 5 September 2011

Science Daily (Aug. 10, 2011) - Marked Rise in Intensely Sexualized Images of Women…

A study by University of Buffalo sociologists has found that the portrayal of women in the popular media over the last several decades has become increasingly sexualized, even "pornified."

The article goes on to claim "sexualized imagery [of women] has increased by 89% from the 1960s to the present." Women are portrayed as "ready and available for sex" in allegedly pornified and hyper-sexualized images found in the popular media.

The researchers have even created a "scale of sexualization" for people who need guidance:


In order to measure the intensity of sexualized representations men and women, the authors developed a "scale of sexualization." An image was given "points" for being sexualized if, for example, the subject's lips were parted or his/her tongue was showing, the subject was only partially clad or naked, or the text describing the subject used explicitly sexual language.

Based on this scale, the authors identified three categories of images: a) those that were, for the most part, not sexualized (i.e., scoring 0-4 points on the scale), b) those that were sexualized (5-10 points), and c) those that were so intensely sexualized that the authors labeled them "hypersexualized" (11-23 points).

The popular media? Really?

The term 'the popular media" is used in the first paragraph of every report on this research I've found so far on the Internet, usually followed by: University of Buffalo researchers said previous research has found sexualized images of women to have far-reaching negative consequences for both men and women.

What the media reports fail to initially mention is that this study was based on one magazine, not far more broadly as is claimed by the use of the phrase "the popular media." That magazine is Rolling Stone. I don't know if Rolling Stone can be considered to be "popular media" strictly speaking, and I'd like to know how the researchers define that category.

An example of the Rolling Stone covers can be seen on this Australian website, where the headline reads: "New study shows massive increase in intensely sexualized female images," followed by "A decisive narrowing of media representations of women."

What is the definition of sexualized?


According to the American Psychological Association's definition (I don't trust them about much, but they're helping write the book on this so they're a primary source) "sexualizing" women means denying acknowledgement of anything other than our sexuality, according us value only because of our sexual appeal to the exclusion of all our other characteristics, constructing us as "things" for sexual use rather than seeing us as people with the capacity for independent action, and inappropriately imposing sexuality upon us.

Good luck doing any or all of that to the women on the cover of Rolling Stone.

The so-called "hyper-sexualized" women used in the study, allegedly presenting themselves as "things" incapable of independent action, valuable only for someone else's sexual pleasure, are women who are world famous for their accomplishments in their chosen careers. Actor Jennifer Aniston, model Megan Fox, and singer Janet Jackson are three examples. They're highly professional and apparently very much in control of their successful lives. Quite how they are "sexualized" by appearing on the magazine covers is a mystery.

The researchers do state that they chose Rolling Stone because it's a specialized music- focused publication. This, they seem to believe, only goes to show how successful things are in the sexualization business, when even a specialized magazine exploits famous women as sexual "things."

The problem with this reasoning is that everyone who hasn't been living in a cave for the last twenty years comes to the Rolling Stone covers with knowledge of the women's achievements. It's impossible to see them as "just things," as the researchers claim we must, because we are very familiar with their professional success. What we do see is the singer, actor, and model being sexy, because that's an aspect of herself she's chosen to reveal to the public in this particular way. Nobody made her. She didn't need the money to pay the rent. She's exercising agency, and the very definition of "sexualized" excludes that possibility.

The difference between sexualized and sexy

So are the researchers confusing sexualization, which according to the APA's definition is pathological, with sexy? The definitions of which are: arousing or intended to arouse sexual desire, and being sexually aroused, neither of which are, I hope, considered pathological by anyone. There is a world of difference between the two terms. Sexualization we may well get upset about, as a particular form of dehumanization. But sexy?

Is it a case of having failed to successfully demonize the sexy, a pathological disorder is the next step in the reactionary battle to control expressions of female sexuality?

The danger is that while sexy is a description of normal human pleasure, replacing it in the vernacular with "sexualized" throws any possibility of female sexual representation out the window. Every public display of female sexuality is interpreted as sexualized, and therefore pathological.

What kind of a lesson is this to teach our girls about their sexuality?

Starting a moral panic

In the researchers' study and in reports by media and conservative special interest groups, we find a textbook example of how to start a moral panic. The timing is perfect, with global financial uncertainty, underlying fears of terrorism, and all the other factors that contribute to sense of personal and societal insecurity, and a fear of being unable to control the circumstances of our lives. A moral panic offers a focus, and an outlet for fears and emotions that it's otherwise difficult to articulate.

We have the technical means to produce and distribute images of female sexuality and desire to an extent that has never before been possible. Guardians of morality interpret this advance as inevitably threatening, catastrophic, and as spiraling out of (their) control.

With the support of medical, academic and psychological experts, all of whom are usually on the look out for something new they can be credited with diagnosing, deconstructing and treating, they start up a campaign to pathologize sexy images of women that make them feel uncomfortable by re-naming them "sexualized." This is a bad, scary word, implying that something cold and horrible is being done to you, unlike sexy, which is rather nice and warm, and something you can control yourself. Being told you've been sexualized can make you feel very bad about yourself and shame is an intention of those who orchestrate moral panics. Once you're shamed, you're cowed. One you're cowed, they can rescue and re-educate you.

Various media become very interested in the theory of sexualization, especially if it can be conflated with children and childhood. As a matter of fact, the term is most appropriately applied to situations of child sexual abuse, when sexualization actually does occur, and the abuser's desire is pathological. The word would be better reserved for those circumstances, and other situations of sexual abuse and assault of women, however, another of the hallmarks of moral panic is the use of words that are disproportionate.

The experts, with the media's help, sow uncertainty and fear in the general population with statements such as: "sexualized images of women have far-reaching negative consequences for both men and women".

Or: "Such images also have been shown to increase rates of body dissatisfaction and/or eating disorders among men, women and girls; and they have even been shown to decrease sexual satisfaction among both men and women".

These statements are in the reports of the Rolling Stone study. And yet, not one of the APA's definitions of "sexualized" can be applied to the magazine's covers.

The panic is underway. Anybody who speaks out against it is immediately labeled anti-feminist trash with a male organ in her head. (I speak of what I know.) Any woman who claims she likes being sexy is told she doesn't know what she's talking about because the patriarchy has her brainwashed into thinking she knows what's sexy, when in reality sexy is only what they like and what they like always involves her humiliation and sexualization.

We need more sexy images, not less.

As the moral guardians who monitor our public expressions of sexuality never, ever offer what they consider to be an acceptable image of female sexual desire, I can only conclude they don't have one. From their determination to pathologize the sexy, I understand them to be saying that female sexual desire has no business being publicly represented at all. Female, sexual, and available are not words that should be used in the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence unless you're one of the moral bourgeoisie, hand wringing about the undermining social catastrophe of what you consider to be hyper-sexualized images of good for nothing but fornicating sluts and molls.

I hope the moral campaigners don't use lipstick when they go out, because that's deliberately highlighting a significant female erogenous zone. If parting your lips is sexualized behaviour, what in god's name must painting them be?

If anything, we need more sexy images of women, not less. That is, we need a much greater variety in the public expression of female sexiness. The scene is currently dominated by a particular style that doesn't appeal to everyone. Sexiness a rich and diverse aesthetic. The answer isn't to suppress it through inciting fear and shame and moral panic, but to encourage a broadening of vision that encompasses more complex images of sexiness without pathologizing any of them.

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About the Author

Dr Jennifer Wilson worked with adult survivors of child abuse for 20 years. On leaving clinical practice she returned to academia, where she taught critical theory and creative writing, and pursued her interest in human rights, popular cultural representations of death and dying, and forgiveness. Dr Wilson has presented papers on human rights and other issues at Oxford, Barcelona, and East London Universities, as well as at several international human rights conferences. Her academic work has been published in national and international journals. Her fiction has also appeared in several anthologies. She is currently working on a secular exploration of forgiveness, and a collection of essays. She blogs at

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