As part of a semester long project, I have spent the past three months researching the sexualization of the human person. Specifically, I have been exploring the deleterious effects that sexualization has within society, and through this exploration I believe I have pinpointed a deeper underlying problem that contributes to the perpetuation of sexualization in Western culture.
Sexualization is a form of objectification that narrowly sees human beings only for their sexual characteristics and functions. It occurs whenever a five year old wears a crop top with the word “Flirt” in sequins across the front, whenever athletes are lauded for their physical appearance instead of talents and abilities, whenever advertisements pose women in sexual and suggestive positions to sell their products, or whenever porn companies exploit sexual desire by displaying a woman as a mere object for one’s own pleasure. Sexualization transpires every time a person is stripped of their nature as a subject and reduced to a sexual object, and it’s hurting our society.
The harms rests in the fact that sexualization promulgates the subliminal message that one’s worth equates to one’s desirability, that one’s value stems from their capacity to elicit desire in others. If you aren’t desired, you are nothing. In a modern society that shies away from committment to any universal consensus on the origin of human value, it’s easy to buy into this fabrication that our culture sells to us. Where spiritual, immaterial truths are avoided, the physical, material world is all that remains to use as our value currency.
We have a human identity crisis. Unsure who we are or what it means to be human, advertisers, film producers, and television executives have stepped in and fashioned a falsehood for us entirely fixated on the physical world as the measure of goodness. A culture where individuals find their worth through material means contributes to mental health crises including depression and eating disorders, as well as harming interpersonal relationships by encouraging people to view one another as objects to be enjoyed instead of subjects with their own autonomy. Mental illness has been rising continually over the few decades, paralleling the rise in systemic societal sexualization, and the correlation should be taken seriously. Suicide rates rose 24% from 1999-2014, and among young girls it rose 200% (Tavernise). Depression rates have experienced a 37% increase in their rate among adolescents, and for young women, the most common victim of sexualization, the risk is double (Schruobsdorff). Eating disorders have been showing similar increases in the rate of the development of new disorders since 1950 (Szymanski, Dawn M., Lauren B. Moffitt, and Erika R. Carr, 2011). The incidence of anorexia in young women has risen every decade since 1930, and the incidence of bulimia shows a similar steady increase, tripling between 1988 and 1993 (Szymanski, Dawn M., Lauren B. Moffitt, and Erika R. Carr, 2011). A society where one’s physical appearance embodies the height of one’s worth and which runs on the economic principle of never having or being enough predisposes women to be vulnerable to these types of disorders. Eating disorders possess the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and are one of the most difficult to recover from, and the reason why is not hard to see; how can one recover when the society you live in sells you the message the eating disorder feeds on?
Frankly I could go on and on, and I did actually in a 20 page paper you can read here if you have the time and interest.
My biggest takeaway from this project, however, has been that we as a society need to start doing some soul searching, or we will be at the whim of whatever value system society finds profitable to feed us. We need to ask ourselves where our human dignity comes from, and realize that the answers we find might bind us with ethical duties to act in a certain way towards others, who share that same dignity. We need to educate our daughters and sons to know that poreless skin is just an advertising gimmick and our desirability does not denote our goodness.
To build our conception of where our worth originates on material goods, be they our sexual prowess and physical appearance, or other utilitarian capacities such as our athletic abilities, financial successes, intellectual achievements, or relationship status, is to build our personhood on sand that’s sure to be washed away by the chaos of life’s waves.
Schruobsdorff, Susanna. “Teen Depression on the Rise Says New Pediatrics Study.” Time. Time, 15 Nov. 2016. Web. 21 Apr. 2017.
Storrs, Carina. “U.S. Suicide Rates Up, Especially for Women.” CNN. Cable News Network, 22 Apr. 2016. Web. 21 Apr. 2017.
Szymanski, Dawn M., Lauren B. Moffitt, and Erika R. Carr. “Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research.” The Counseling Psychologist 39.1 (2011): 6-38. SAGE. Web.