Women and sexuality: Objectification isn’t empowerment

Lili Hakimi

“She’s too young to be showing that much skin.” “That’s a completely inappropriate outfit.” “That’s too sexy.” These are among many common phrases repeated by those who criticize women’s sexuality. 

Women are constantly condemned for what they wear and how they express their sexuality, specifically in terms of their sexual desires. Society encourages women to present themselves as attractive, but when a woman becomes too sexually promiscuous in the eye of the public, she is called a slut or a whore, bringing her reputation into question. 

Men do not have to walk this thin line; they can be as expressive of their sexualities as they like without scrutiny. Shaming women for how they choose to express themselves physically actually hypersexualizes them and reduces a woman’s power and control to her own self-expression. 

To address conversations around womanhood, it’s important to not confuse objectification for empowerment. Society often fails to recognize that sexual empowerment includes seeing a woman for how she chooses to express herself through ownership of her body, while still acknowledging physical appearance as only one of many parts of a woman’s identity.  

Director of Research and Education at the Glendon Association, Dr. Lisa Firestone, attributed society’s tendency to cast women into, what psychiatrist and author Estela Welldon described as, “Mother, Madonna [or] Whore.” 

“To put a woman into any of these categories is to deny essential aspects of who she is. Common opinions about female sexuality range from accusing women of being prudish or withholding sex, to being seductive and using their sexuality as a source of power or manipulation. These skewed views steer [society] away from seeing the reality that, just like men, women have a natural and healthy desire to be sexual,” Firestone said. 

Illustration by Carsen Goltz

While women have a biological tendency to engage in sexual behavior, just like men, research indicates a link between comfort and degree of sexual expression. A study from 1998 called “That Swimsuit Becomes You” identified the connection between self objectification and shame in young women. In the study, groups of students had to complete a math test wearing swimsuits or sweaters. Each group took the test in separate rooms; the girls wearing swimsuits performed worse than the girls in sweaters. However, among boys, there was no difference in performance depending on attire.

Obviously, swimsuits are more revealing than sweaters and this study demonstrates that when a woman doesn’t have the choice to wear something she is comfortable in, it impacts how she views herself. Thus, we need to stop telling women how to dress and allow them to express their sexualities as they desire. For some, this may mean wearing more revealing clothes, if that is what they are most comfortable in.

Commentary surrounding the outfit choice of women is also harmful, even if it intends to promote modesty. In 2021, singer Olivia Rodrigo, who was 18 at the time, was shamed for her outfit at the Academy of Museum of Motion Pictures. Her dress featured a plunging neckline and cut-outs, which many people claimed she was too young to wear and was deemed inappropriate. These comments, while aimed to force modesty on a young adult woman, actually sexualized her by implying there was something wrong with the outfit to begin with.

Some may argue that women empowering themselves through their choice of expression of sexuality sends the wrong message and that solely equating looks with empowerment reduces women to objects. This belief also teaches women to only focus on their looks rather than other parts of themselves. This argument fails to acknowledge the complexity of a woman’s identity: a woman can have power through her sexuality, personality and talents – these don’t have to be mutually exclusive. 

It’s important for society to allow women to feel comfortable and confident in their own bodies and self-defined sexuality; the key is to understand the difference between sexual empowerment and objectification. Sexual empowerment is seeing a woman as a whole person, someone who may choose to embrace their sexuality as a part of their identity and control their own body and actions. Sexual objectification is seeing a woman as an object, solely for their body and sexual traits, with no regard for the other components of their unique identity. The overlap between empowerment and objectification has to do with power and who wields it. Empowerment gives power to the individual while objectification gives power to the oppressor. 

In today’s world, women continue to receive mixed messages about their sexuality as society struggles to decide how to control women’s bodies, wanting them to be sexually desirable but not slutty, and to have ownership of their sexuality. A woman’s body and sexuality belong to no one but herself, and therefore, the power to control a woman’s body and her sexuality is hers alone.