Sexual Empowerment vs. Sexual Objectification // Adriana Doerr, B.A., B.S.W.

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Generally, women’s sexuality has been stifled by most cultures throughout most of known history. Currently in the U.S. sex culture, a new wave of feminism has emerged that has been fueled by our media, of course. Many young women in pop culture have proclaimed their new found feminism and their proud feelings of sexual empowerment and liberation. They will dress how they want, when they want to, and have sexual encounters with who they want, how they want, and when they want to. They will dance however they want to in front of whoever they want to, will post sexy ‘selfies’ all over the internet because they are not ashamed of their bodies or sexuality, and if they so choose will earn their living performing sexual acts. Other women have also viewed choosing to use contraceptives and protection (condoms, spermicide, etc.), and being able to navigate their world without fearing rape or sexual assault as representative of sexual empowerment.

On the other hand, there has also been a wave of raised awareness of sexual objectification, which we all know has long been prominent and perpetuated in our media. Using terms such as ‘empowerment’ and ‘modern female sexuality’ have become means of exploitation to sell goods and services. Despite the fact that both men and women are targeted for sexual objectification, because women are targeted more than men and for the sake of brevity I will focus on the relevance of this issue for women. As a result of the aforementioned exploitation, women constantly receive and internalize messages such as, ‘you will only be sexy if you do this and you will feel sexy if you wear that.’ The problem is that sexually objectifying standards and images are masquerading around telling us all that its empowerment. That we should do what they do, pose in pictures like they do, and think like they do so that we all approve of each other’s bodies, and can be proud to be sexual beings who are sexually desired, and enjoy bringing pleasure to others. 

So then I wonder, how do we actually tell the difference between sexual objectification and sexual empowerment?  What does sexual empowerment versus sexual objectification look like? Well, let’s think about defining these terms. Sexual objectification has been defined as what occurs whenever a person’s body, body parts, or sexual functions are separated out from the person, reduced to the status of mere instruments, or regarded as if their body alone were capable of representing the individual. Basically, this means that people are treated as bodies…but still, how does that look different from sexual empowerment? According to my own investigation of images in our media, there is very little difference between sexual objectification and empowerment. A simple ‘google image’ inquiry would support my point.

Why is this important? As a review for most of us, research tell us that the impact of the sexual objectification on women includes increased chances for sexually transmitted infections, sexual assault and violence, rape, and unplanned pregnancies, male partners who care little about pleasing their female sexual partner, women neglecting their own sexual needs, and overall dissatisfaction with sex. In addition, women are overly preoccupied with their bodies, experience chronic body dissatisfaction, objectify themselves, objectify each other, criticize each other’s bodies, and let us not forget the slew of associated mental illnesses. What I find troubling and worth further consideration is that knowing the impact of objectifying women, the emergence of this faux feminism and its covert sexual objectification may perpetuate the damage, creating more pervasive problems and negative outcomes for women throughout the lifespan.

While the discussion I’ve presented here is not unfamiliar to any of us, I feel that in a world where we are bombarded by exploitive messages, I think it benefits us women to provide simple reminders to each other that at the very least sexual empowerment should not require that you abandon your own sexual needs and pleasure. Empowerment does not require that you abandon your identity just to be visually pleasing to someone else. I think as women, we should periodically ask ourselves questions such as, ‘What does sexual empowerment mean to me?’ I believe that part of sexual empowerment is having an awareness of the sexual environment, asking and answering questions such as:
What is society telling me I should do?
What is society and media telling me about how to have sex and who I should have sex with?
How do these messages make me feel about myself?
Are there laws about the sexual decisions I make? What are they?

I also believe that part of sexual empowerment that benefits developing young women is having knowledge about the potential consequences of sexual behaviors, asking and answering questions such as:
What could happen if I do this?
What couldn’t happen if I do this?
What do I want out of sex?  What pleases me?
What does my partner want out of sex? What pleases them?

In essence, sexual empowerment in a philosophical sense ought to be regarded as a personal journey, and be a topic of discussion with each other and with emerging young women, empowering each other more without letting media create and dictate the conditions by which we approve of each other’s sexuality. I encourage us to be women that that enjoy sex, not just bodies that have sex.

Erchull, M. M., & Liss, M. (2014). The object of one’s desire: How perceived sexual empowerment through objectification is related to sexual outcomes. Sexuality & Culture, 18(4), 773-788.
Frederickson, B.L., & Roberts, T.A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 2(2), 173-206. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb001108.x
Grose, R.D. (2014). Sexual Education Gender Ideology, and Youth Sexual Empowerment. Journal of Sex Research, 51(7), 742-753.
Halliwell, E. Malson, H., & Tischner, I. (2011). Are contemporary media images which seem to display women as sexually empowered actually harmful to women? Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35(1), 38-45. doi:10.1177/0361684310385217.

Written by Adriana Doerr, B.A., B.S.W.


  1. BUt I think it is a two=edged sword. Women shop in most households and cater to the advertisements that are finally catered to them and men distrustful of equitable advertisements lean toward the feminine advertisements, being led to beleive it pertains to them.

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