Making Violence Against Women Sexy

101What happens when you beat a sex object? Or hang her? Or rape her? Or hogtie and torture her?

Pop culture is filled with images of women as objects. It’s also filled with images of women as abused objects. But then, the two go hand in hand: Objects have no feelings to empathize with, no lives of their own to interrupt or worry about. They can exist just for sadistic pleasure.

Oddly, I’m not seeking to shame anyone who gets aroused by these images. People tend to unconsciously absorb their culture like a sponge – we all do. Even my women’s studies students and the feminist blogs I read register a taste for this stuff. No surprise that so many find it sexy, our society is so filled with these images.

At the same time, I’m not dismissing the issue. Whether you want to participate or fight it, at least have eyes open and look at the downside.

When I was a little girl I got a children’s book from the library. In one story a woman was punished: She was stripped, placed in a kettle-like contraption with spikes to poke her, and driven through the town in humiliation. That’s my first memory of sexualized abuse.

My second encounter was flipping TV stations as a child, and seeing a man throw a woman over his knee to spank her. Apparently, if I’d flipped through a magazine I could have seen an ad with the same image.

When I got older the Rolling Stones promoted their “Black and Blue” album with a picture of a woman bound and bruised.

At the movies women are killed – in sexy bras and panties – in popular horror flicks. In tamer fare, Scarlett started out resisting Rhett, but ended up enjoying a night of passion as “no” turned to “yes.” In the soaps, Luke raped Laura and they fell in love.

Devo’s “Whip It” showed a man whipping the clothes off a mannequin. The red hat from this video is now in the Smithsonian.

In magazines and billboards we are bombarded with ads depicting violence against women.

Romance novels and erotic tales tell stories of women who are abducted and raped and who fall in love with their captors. Mainstream movies like 9-1/2 Weeks and The Secretary depict women enjoying abuse at their lovers’ hands. Justine Timberlake slapped Janet Jackson around at the Super Bowl before ripping off her bodice. Megan Fox got beat up in a popular video that you can view over and over again. In the background Eminem mouths “I’m in flight high of a love drunk from the hate,” to which Rihanna replies, “I like the way it hurts.” And then there’s the porn world full of “no’s” turning to “yes.” Or “no” remaining “no,” but that’s sexy, too.

gorean_slave_15On a feminist website, one woman described the joys of being a sex slave avatar to a dominant man in the virtual world of “Second Life.” Another explained the appeal with the help of a poor understanding of evolutionary psychology: Through evolution, she explained, women have come to want male domination in their relationships.

That’s not really what evolutionary psych says (and I have issues with that field, anyway). How would craving your own abuse be adaptive? Pain is meant to warn us to stop doing something. Women’s genes don’t crave poor treatment. If they did, we’d find eroticized violence in every culture, but we don’t. Egalitarian societies like those of the American Indian (before contact with patriarchy) did not sexualize abused women.

Here are two big problems with eroticizing male dominance and women’s pain: First, women and men can both come to crave the abuse of women in real life. Second, when we make male dominance seem sexy, we become more accepting of male dominance.

Originally posted on January 12, 2011 by

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych, women's psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State University. And I have blogged for Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos.

Posted on April 4, 2012, in feminism, gender, objectification, pornography, psychology, sexism, violence against women, women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Interesting article. Perhaps it all comes down to the actual act of intercourse. The woman’s has a small tight opening, the man a hard, sword-shape object. Sex is painful for the woman for the first several years, the man receives only pleasure without pain immediately. BDSM only expands on what nature has already started.

    • Thanks for your comment, but:
      Sexuality is not attached to sadism or D/s or whatever you want to call it in all cultures. There was no connection between sex and pain/domination in egalitarian cultures like American Indian (East Coast) or Pacific Islanders, like Tahitians, before European contact.

      Also, while some women feel pain in the early years, most women don’t. If women are feeling pain it’s often because they aren’t sufficiently aroused (possibly due to repression which you don’t find in pro-sex and non-dominating cultures like American Indians before European contact), though there are possible medical reasons, too. Pain can also come during menopause when things start shutting down. Rather than being aroused, all the women I know who feel pain want to avoid sex.

  2. Weiyi Xia (Klark)

    I don’t think it is the violence against women that makes the pictures or movies “sexy”, it is the message that the women are sending through their expression. I found that in many of the pictures and films, the women that are being sexually abused are actually showing some kind of satisfaction on their face, which sends a message that they like what is going on. When people see that women “like” what is happening to them, of course they think it’s acceptable and attractive. To be honest, I get aroused when I see that type of expression on an attractive woman’s face. On the other hand, when I see women being tortured or beat up and showing sadness or anger, I feel the same way too. Which means it is not the violent behavior that gets me aroused, it is actually the positive message she’s sending that got me aroused; oppositely, it is not the violent behavior that gets angry or sad, it is actually the negative message she’s sending that make me feel negatively about what is happening.

    • You didn’t seem to get what I’m saying. I agree that it’s not the violence against women that makes the pictures or movies “sexy.” Rather, violence against women isn’t just naturally sexy. You don’t find violence and sexuality tied together in every culture. Instead, we make violence against women sexy by showing sexy women being harmed. We sexualize the violence. That’s how the two come to be associated together.

  3. I’ve often thought about this subject. I never understood why or how our society seems to accept the male dominance and womens pain, yet i fall subject to this as well by music I choose to listen to. Take Rhianna for instance and her song “S&M”. Its a very catchy song that I find myself singing along to but when i acutlly listen to the lyrics being said it disturbs me. For myself personally I do feel like I am able to sperate the two from something in the media to how it would affect me in my personal life, but I wonder how those who are younger if they are able to distingish that and how it will affect them later in life.

  4. I believe that the reaction to what is portrayed varies from person to person, and depends on their genetics and upbringing. For example, some males simply enjoy having rough, intense sex. Does that mean abuse? No. But society and the media show pictures and movies like these over and over again, subconsciously making the male feel that it is okay to “step up” their intense sex to the point of abuse. When in reality, it is not okay. Sex is naturally for two people who love eachother to express their love physically, a point that society seems to miss altogether. And if a man loves a woman, the sex will sometimes be very intense, but still never actually painful or degrading. Society, in my opinion, is simply spreading the evils of sexual intercourse for fun, and taking it to the extreme. Looking at it from the opposite perspective, it is true that male dominance has been seen as a “good thing” in American Culture, and physical abuse is a tell tale sign of “dominance”. So if the man has this media- induced mindset that dominance is sexy, then abuse is simply taking it to the extreme, and he would get a kick out of it. Also, if the woman involved had a media-induced mind set then she would feel the same way about the abuse. But in my actual opinion, the male involved has power struggle issues and needs an outlet for it, and the woman simply has no respect for herself if she makes herself enjoy being bound or abused during intercourse. Sex should be a loving and enjoyable experience, not an outlet to feel power. Maybe if the male had a larger penis he wouldn’t feel the need to dominate someone weaker than him just to feel special. Just sayin’.. A real man would love his woman and treat her with respect, and the sex would be better than any taboo extremities like the things we speak of. It’s all just lust to the extreme, and it’s a horrible thing that the media portrays it as “sexy”, giving the youth a horrible outlook on sex, love, and relationships.

  5. Christina Gomez

    This article begins with a number of questions that I’m unable to answer, but forced me to think about American society, the media, and how it has negatively affected both women and men. All these erotic images that are constantly thrown at us form the way we view women and men and the gender roles we are supposed to fill. There is nothing wrong with being arroused by “rough sex” or bondage but, the fact that society imposes these ideals into our minds from a young age, takes away our ability to chose what sexually attracts us or not. Yes, we can all agree that sex is pleasurable but the media has manipulated this to sell pretty much anything. Americans see this and regard it as something positive or attractive, which can lead to men raping women, thinking that “no” means “yes” because they’re just “playing hard to get” and that they really do want it. Women dismiss this unacceptable behavior because of the society we live in and all the sexualized violence that they have been exposed to. Im not making excuses for rapists or any unjust acts but merely scratching the surface of the negative influence this patriarchal society has on its members.

  6. I don’t even want a second cup of coffee….but the ad made me think of how far we’ve come in a short time (ok, so maybe I mean 60 years isn’t that short). I’m a big fan of the classic “I Love Lucy” show and can easily recite whole episodes. There are a few episodes where Lucy, the dizzy redhead inevitably gets into trouble and disobeys her husband, and is then thrown over his knee as he slaps her behind in punishment for her deeds.

    I know that to sell the show to CBS, they toured around the country because the TV studio didn’t think America was ready for Lucy to be married to a Latino. Audiences didn’t care, and embraced the two of them wholeheartedly. So the race battle was won, but gender inequalities remained. Did I mention that I didn’t even want a second cup of coffee?

  7. From my perspective as a stereo-typical “macho man”, I dont find violence against women sexy at all. I actually find it very disgusting. I will acknowledge that there is a difference between violence and liking it “rough” though. That being said, I do have an issue with a lot of the ads in the media in our present times(treatment of women as objects). I grew up in a very traditional house hold, and was told all through out childhood that all women were to be treated with the utmost respect. Images such as the ones posted in this post do the exact opposite, they objectify and degrade women. I don’t understand why the media does this.

    One thing i’ve noticed among many girls my age(college), is that they are begining to crave violence, posting Facebook and Twitter statuses saying things such as “I don’t know why Rihanna was complaining Chris Brown could beat me any day”. And again I am totally lost, I cannot fathom why a women would want to be beaten. All most every women i’ve talked to has told me they’d rather make love or have sex and that they prefer intimacy over quantity. And yet still i’ve seen many posts like that all over Facebook and Twitter.

    In the culture that I grew up in intimacy and genuine love were sexualized, and that, to me makes sense. Why do we as a society sexualize violence? Some body please explain that to me!

    • Women’s taste for violence against them has been increasing over the years, both because mainstream culture has more and more of these sorts of images that tie sex and violence together, and because they are being more exposed to violent internet porn.

      Many women do not like all this at all, but increasing numbers of women do.

      So why do the 2 become tied together? You find this in patriarchal societies (men as dominant), and not in non-patriarchal ones. Once you get patriarchy it starts attaching to everything, including sexuality. Now, some patriarchies preach a “benevolent” patriarchy in which women are to be protected. That won’t lead to these sorts of images. Other forms of patriarchy lead to hostile sexism. You do get these images from that sort. Truth is, most patriarchies combine the 2. So you’re likely to be exposed to both messages.

      I do worry when women learn to crave their own abuse.

  8. Pop culture often portrays women as objects through violence and sex. Many rap artists rap about the strength they have over their women with explicit lyrics. The lyrics that rappers use degrade women. Movies, songs, and advertisements all emphasize women as a sexual object that is very easily taken over my men. This idea of men having so much sexual and physical control over women is extremely prevalent within our culture, I often don’t realize how many media outlets show the control that men have over women. Articles like this one bring light to the fact that our society promotes the idea that violence against women is sexy.

  9. I think that the attraction of sexual dominance come from two urges that humans have. One the power to control everything. The second would be living on the edge or being dangerous. The question is how is this type of sex, sexy for woman. Many believe that this type of sex is putting on act and therefore it’s not real. Its stage acting and because it’s acting it can transform into music,advertisements, commercials and it accepted. It’s not real we can dominate people without actually making an impact. Except that it is making and impact. Now men and woman have the idea that we can dominate each other in the media and in sex and that we don’t look at each other differently. We take attractive men and attractive woman and show them being dominated and thats what makes the image sexy. That also transforms the image and makes it over sexualized. When you add the “acting” and the over sexualization together, you get dominance being sexy for either gender.

  10. This article reminds me of some other examples I have seen in the past. Yahoo News a while back had a piece on Glee’s Heather Morris posing for a “Bruised-up Barbie” shoot. In one of the shots from this shoot she has a black eye with her wrists bound with a cord from an iron (which was being held by an unidentified person) and yet she is still smiling. In defense to the controversy the artist said “In no way were we promoting domestic violence” and in a publicity move decided to give 30% of the proceeds (from this series only) to Glamour Magazine’s “Tell Somebody” campaign Out of curiosity I checked out other work by the same photographer. Quite a few of the photographs featured violence (a majority had women as the victims) including: guns, gang rape, murder, and wrists bound together. Although the photographer does not believe they are glamorizing violence, they are. While they are attempting to create an artistic piece of art they are encouraging abuse, violence, and women as sex objects. I am surprised that there is a market for images like these.

    I agree with what Weiyi Xia (Klark) said about expression being a major component in these pictures. It plays a major role in the mood of the picture. That being said, their every move is directed. From a complete shoot a few pictures will be chosen and from that only one will be used to advertise this product.
    I am not really these pictures anymore partially due to the sheer numbers because I am bombarded with pictures with similar themes I feel it becomes easier to ignore them. Every now and then I do find a picture that evokes a “really?” response, but I do not dwell on it or see it as a normal or desirable social behavior (despite it being portrayed as acceptable in this culture through the media).

    • As we are numbed by the constant barrage “artists” come up with more outlandish images.

      It all gets into our unconscious, making us more accepting and seeing women (and not men) more as romanticized victims, making violence against women seem sexy. And making male dominance seem sexy, too.

  11. Porn enforces and reinforces violence in many not so subtle ways. Women are thought of as objects, pieces of meat, inflatable dolls to be used a stools. That is why all forms of pornography are unacceptable.

  12. and then came 50 shades of grey

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