What Happens When You Beat A Sex Object?

Sexualizing abuse

Sexualizing abuse

What 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. More recently Megan Fox gets 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.

On 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.

Second LifeThat’s not really what evolutionary psych says (and I have issues with that field, anyway). How would craving your own abuse, or even domination, 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.

Neither of these aid the fight for equality, justice or human rights.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social 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. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on January 12, 2011, in feminism, gender, men, objectification, pornography, psychology, sex and sexuality, sexism, violence against women, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. That is an interesting article. Because I often see those images on magazines, but I didn’t think about the meaning of pictures. Nowadays, those images repleted with our society, and it might make us be no wonder. However, it is a problem, and we need to raise an objection to it. Those images forced down the value of women, and those are able to give to others an impression which male can dominate women and women should follow male. If media use those images, they should use images which female dominate male because we should be equal and media has a great effect on us.

  2. I don’t understand how it could be evolutionary/”natural” for men to be aroused by harming women.
    Harming a woman makes it less likely that she will be able to successfully carry a pregnancy for your child.

  3. It makes me sad that we have such a violent portrayal of sexual domination in society. In my view, dominance and submission can be a pain-free, humiliation-free, very enjoyable part of the sexual side of the relationship. It can exist in heterosexual and same-sex relationships, and not necessarily be by the male partner upon the female partner. The way I view it, true, “good” dominance is predicated upon willing submission, i.e. you cannot force the other person to submit, they have to be glad to submit for you to be able to dominate. In that way, dominance is an acceptance of the other person’s submission, indulgence of their desire to have you take charge and take care of things. This dominance, above all, respects your partner’s comfort and dignity. It is not aggressive, and it is not oppressive, and it is very rarely seen in media portrayals.

  4. I think that you are going really crazy there on the West. Male dominance is natural and reasonable, ’cause it allows society to progress normally, when men hunt/work and women take care of home and raise children.

  5. Lizeth cuevas

    I personally think that it’s not ok for media to show these images. It lets men think that treating women violently is ok and they think that women like being treated that way. When the majority of women don’t like to be hit or choked or thrown to the floor. It makes relationships lead to bad Ideas because men assume that “if the girl in the magazine likes it then my girlfriend will like it to”. I think media should show a different side of sexuality instead showing a violent side to it.

  6. It is so interesting to me that these types of pictures go back so many years, but in our current society I don’t feel there is ever going to be a change. If anything it will probably get worse. Men feed off this type of exposure and unfortunately, even with elevated feminist civil rights, men seem to keep them in the place they want them to be. Being male, from an early age, women are represented as an object. Something as beautiful as marriage is exemplified with consummation as the prize. People say that men are the stronger sex, but I don’t think women can change that perception. Turn on any TV channel these days and you can see the woman’s form portrayed with a sexual stance. Women only recently were given the right to vote. Many people in society objectify the woman as a symbol of sex. Even just now I realized I said, “the woman”, subconsciously in my mind objectifying them as a separate entity. I wish it could be different, but I don’t think it ever will.

  7. I don’t want to be unclear here, I do think that glorifying the submission of women in unhealthy for young people to watch, and for the evolution of society as a whole. However, I disagree with a few of the points made here.

    Firstly, the author claims that it’s unreasonable to think that a submissive craving would evolve in humans, but this is not true. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that early humans engaged in a huge amount of tribal and clan warfare. Women were often captured, enslaved, traded. Acceptance of a submissive lifestyle or a life of bondage could easily manifest after a few generations of this sort of treatment. The women that were best able to cope, tolerate, even enjoy their hostage status would have been the most likely to survive chaotic tribal warfare. In fact, there’s evidence that this isn’t unique to women at all. Stockholm syndrome is a triggered survival instinct, and it occurs in both men and women. If society is sufficiently warlike, evolution would certainly favor those who cope best with a captive life.

    Secondly, I don’t see the utility in drawing a distinction between learned or natural sexuality. No amount of media bombardment could convince me that an unattractive person is attractive, nor could it alter my sexual preference for women to one for men. Absent some concrete data showing the point, I cannot be made to believe that sexual preference or desire can actually change based on the things one watches on television. It’s a popular claim to make, that sexuality, violence, or bad news on TV somehow makes these things more common in society. Even so, I’ve never seen one good study that links media to actual behavior. I’m not any more likely to kill a man in cold blood because I saw it on TV this morning, and by the same mechanism I’m not any more or less likely to think that a well-rounded breast is more or less sexy because I saw a picture of one on the cover of People.

    • In fact, to amend my second paragraph, it’s probably the other way around. Media has a big incentive to show people the things they like to see. The “sexy” images that we watch on TV aren’t likely causing us to think those things are sexy. Rather, they are on TV in the first place because we already think they are sexy.

      • First, I didn’t say anything like “it’s unreasonable to think that a submissive craving would evolve in humans.” Though if by “evolve” you mean biologically I don’t believe that. There’s no evidence that anything in the genes change, but psychology does — some people can come to change in their emotions/temperament due to social reasons. In fact, THAT IS PRECISELY THE PROBLEM.

        Yes, historically many tribes engaged in tribal and clan warfare in which women were captured, enslaved, traded. Not all tribes did this, but some did. Feminist theorists believe that this was one route to creating a sense of women as inferior as the women became subjected, submissive and “property.”

        My point is that THIS IS NOT A GOOD THING. It is not good for societies to encourage people to accept a sense of inferiority and disempowerment whether the victims are women, blacks (the Uncle Tom syndrome, so to speak), the “untouchables” of the Hindu caste system, exploited workers who submissively accept their lot, or anyone else.

        Better to have societies that empower people, not disempower them.

        Btw, “Stockholm Syndrome” refers to response to the “good cops” of the good cop/bad cop captors. Here, victims mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness. They’re liking the “nice” ones.

        Re: I don’t see the utility in drawing a distinction between learned or natural sexuality. No amount of media bombardment could convince me that an unattractive person is attractive, nor could it alter my sexual preference for women to one for men.

        First, I never said sexual preference is learned.

        Otherwise, we’re actually strongly influenced by what society tells us is beautiful, which varies from place to place. In poor areas of West Africa, obesity is thought beautiful. Here extreme thinness is thought beautiful (many models are so thin that they are unhealthy and can even stop menstruating – many women unhealthfully copy the ideal). West Samoan women were perfectly happy with their look until American television was introduced. Then they all started dieting.

        Breast implants aren’t healthy. And desiring large breasts is learned. Europeans like smaller breasts, so do men in tribal societies. 1920s women bound their breasts to appear smaller and more “attractive.”

        The utility in seeing the social construction is seeing that we needn’t be slaves to unhealthy cultural ideals. And that we don’t need to have low self-esteem because we don’t meet the ideals.

    • See my comment above. I’ll add that media both reflect and reinforce cultural ideals of “beauty.”

  8. It is sad to see these images. It allows men to think it is okay to treat women badly, and it allows women to think it is okay or normal for men to treat them in such a way. Neither of which is true. I have seen a friend of mine who got in the porn industry go through some really rough things. She thought it was normal because of the way she was treated by others and it was what she saw growing up! I just hope I can be a positive influence in my daughters life so she knows what i right and what is wrong!!

  9. Pop culture and the media play a strong role in constructing women and showing how women should be treated. The media doesn’t show women being leaders and responsible but being a sex object to men. The women in the ads do not help the gender roles because they show that’s its okay for women to be treated as if we are men’s objects. If we want to change this then the women who are looked at and admired the most need to change.

  10. smeeta maharaj

    This is cool! it definitely gives a different point of view when looking at all the images lined up next to each other. I hate how men are given so much how and how it is Sexy now a days. I have never thought hitting each other as sexy. More so playful. Because if i am able to hit a guy and him playfully hit me back it shows that we are on the same level not him stronger than me or me stronger than him.

  11. What a great post. Seeing all these images lined up makes for a pretty powerful statement …

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