“Sexy” Can Be Empowering or Disempowering

Miley Cyrus, twerking

Miley Cyrus, twerking

“Women dress sexy to gain power over men!” Or so I’ve heard guys complain.

Yet, some men sexualize women to disempower them.

Not so long ago the conservative Breitbart News placed Democratic House Leader, Nancy Pelosi’s face atop twerking Miley Cyrus’ body. Around the same time, a conservative super PAC registered themselves as “Boats ‘N Hoes.” Hoes being sexualized women who are demeaned. It’s all in the tradition of painting a nude mural of feminist leader, Gloria Steinem, on the front of a building in an attempt to discredit and disempower her.

So which is it? Does “sexy” empower or disempower women? 

At the least, it depends on context.

Like whose choice is it? And what’s being accomplished?

Nancy, Gloria, and women-at-large (aka, “hoes”) did not choose to be sexualized, and had no part in the decision-making.

Additionally, the messages aimed at Nancy, Gloria, and the rest of us seems to be: Your ideas don’t matter. You are nothing but sex. You exist to serve my desires. And, you have no power over how I portray you.

Boats n Hoes

Boats n Hoes

On the other hand, Miley Cyrus — sans Leader Pelosi’s face — did make a career move with her controversial moves, and was subsequently dubbed a “marketing genius.”  More empowering. And since she is also known as a singer/entertainer, she is not entirely about sex.

But even when Miley makes her choice, or when a porn star chooses to play a woman who goes from “no, no, no” to “yes, yes, yes,” they risk creating a sense that women are all about sex and submission to men – which the rest of us might not wish to choose.

It’s one thing to be sexy, and to have *sexy* be a part of your persona. But if that’s all you are about — and if you’re pushing a message that that is all women are about — that’s a problem.

Related Posts on BroadBlogs
Seeing Women as Magic and Evil 
Does Porn Objectify? Experts Disagree
Anything Good About Being A Sex Object?


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 July 16, 2014, in feminism, objectification, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Shelley Greenaway

    i think being sexy is too overrated for me, i’d rather be original……………..and bad***!

  2. I do not think that “sexy” is in and of itself bad for women (or men). The problem is that in America we have made so much of what a woman’s “being” about sex only.

    As a 52 year old man who spend a lot of time around young and younger people, I see the effects of this over sexualization of women as negative. Today, too many men (including the ugly ones) evaluate women on their perceived sexual value. Personally, I love intelligent and educated women, who are kind, adventurous, and compassionate. I much much prefer women my age. But, there is a growing misogyny with young men. Again, for some weird reason many young women feel the need to BE overly sexual. Perhaps, the hope this will lead to a relationship?

    Maybe this over sexualization also has much to do with pop culture and its unbridled narcissism.

    Clearly, sexy today is quite negative for women.

    • Yes, it can be a big problem. I sort of get, yet also have a hard time imagining, why some women totally sexualize themselves. It seems to reduce yourself to a thing that exists for others, which is, at best, just annoying.

  3. The last sentence here is everything. Being sexy and embracing your sexuality isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Promoting the idea that you and all other woman are only about sex is a huge problem.

  4. I kind of think it’s separate. There are empowered women who also happen to be sexy. But I don’t think the sexuality gives them any power, rather it just becomes another aspect of how they are judged by both men and other women. This is especially true when they gain power by using sex as a means. Then it’s almost a false power and less respectable. The only connection I think exists is that perhaps if they happen to be sexy, then they exude confidence. Confidence is a true force that has the ability to empower people. It also depends upon what the purpose of the power is. Miley Cyrus for example, is now considered disgusting by many people. There’s no respect coming from that opinion. However, she clearly didn’t want respect but attention, so she likely achieved, through sex, exactly what she wanted. Great post.

  5. I like the way you break this down and point out the ways that sexualization can be forced on women as a way of shutting them up. Now that you point it out, I can see how this happens on large and small scales every day. It reminds me of how when I teach literature some of my students find it so easy to label any female character they don’t like a “bitch” or a “whore”. They use these words without any self consciousness.

  6. This may not be related but I thought I’d share it. I check yahoo sometimes and see articles and I thought this was empowering and inspiring.


    There’s a show that was Japanese ninja warrior with the top athletes and fitness people trying to compete the world’s most difficult obstacle courses to win $100,000 if winning the final I think. But these are incredibly difficult and top atheltes fail and, they brought the same concept and show to America. Mostly men are in it, but some women do. But this woman is not only the first one, but the first one to win the finals I think and though she’s a gymnast she had a disadvantage as only 5 feet tall as some obstacles are far apart and height is really needed. She not only overcome the odds but kicked ass in doing so. Check the clip. listen to everyone calling her name and rooting her on. It was definitely impressive.

  7. Sex sells, that for sure.

  8. Really a lot of nuances and I think an answer is to really tune in to one’s own intentions. Am I choosing sexy from an embodied, self-honoring, loving my lusciousness place or is it coming from some place else? While this doesn’t mean everyone will interpret our choices the way we do- I do think it allows us to take ownership of our “sexy” – then others can’t dictate our relationship to it.

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