Viewpoint: Consuming Sexualised and Gendered Bodies

Viewpoint: Consuming Sexualised and Gendered Bodies

Sue Scott

I have been reading writing and researching on gender and sexuality since the 70s (since the early 90s much of it with Stevi Jackson), developing more specific interests in the sociology of the body, young people and anxieties about sexual risk.  More recently my interest in risk and domestic practices took me into the field of consumption. As a result of this peregrination I was asked to write a chapter on sexuality, the body and consumption for a Handbook on consumption and what follows draws on this.(1) Having been involved in feminism over the same period I find it is depressing that, while serious critique of the commodification and objectification of women’s bodies has rendered it less acceptable in more quarters, it is still just as widespread as it was 40 years ago. Indeed the liberalisation of sexual mores, which I wholeheartedly support, has simultaneously made more explicit advertising and marketing possible. While men’s bodies are also more on show now, the key equality of treatment does not mean equal effect. Here I will discuss some aspects of this gendered commodification, especially as it effects women and girls, moving on to the commodification of childhood and the tensions and antinomies around childhood and sexuality, which can produce a situation in which our attempts to ‘protect’ children and young people can put them at risk.

Sex, gender and power and consumption
It could be argued that if ‘prostitution’ is the oldest profession then sex is one of human societies oldest commodities. Certainly women’s bodies have been bought and sold for sexual purposes in most cultures across recorded time and this continues globally in the 21st century, with greater mobility, social media and the internet making the trafficking of women easier than ever (i). Wives are also bought and (also sold). This used to happen in the marketplace and now also occurs in cyberspace the underlying issue is the same – men have the power to control women’s sexuality through the control of their bodies. (See O’Neill and Jobe in this issue)

A significant aspect of consumption and sexual embodiment is the growth of goods and services for the general public in the context of the widespread shift from sex as primarily tied to reproduction and heterosexual marriage – or even to romantic love – to sex as an aspect of self expression, and a leisure activity to be engaged in by freely chosen partners. This shift can be encapsulated in the changing face of the ‘sex manual’. These texts also have a long history going back to, at least, the 3rd century BC and appearing in various guises through the centuries, a famous example being the Kama Sutra. The 20th century saw a growth in the publication of ‘how to do it’ books such as ‘The Joy of Sex’ and with increased emphasis on good sex as an essential aspect of the good life there has been a proliferation of books, and other media explaining how we can engage in the sexual aspects of the project of ourselves.(2) Thus sexual consumers are educated in a wide variety of techniques to improve their sex lives often through the consumption of other goods (from massage oils to sex toys) and services (from sex counsellors to gym membership). The major change, in more recent years, has been the increased focus on heterosexual women as fully engaged embodied actors rather than the passive recipients of male sexual attention. Thus not only are women expected to engage in a good deal of work to be ready for sex, they are supposed to be confident and active as well, thus increasing the pressure to succeed in all sexual contexts and thus the need for more advice and ‘self improvement’.

The liberalisation of legislation and attitudes in relation to gay sexuality in the global north has been accompanied by an increase in the commodification of ‘gay culture’ and ‘gay sex’. The notion of the ‘pink pound’ has become shorthand for the economics of the gay marketplace and while this concept existed from the early 20th century, the possibilities on offer have proliferated in recent years.(3) These developments, primarily aimed at gay men, but increasingly at lesbians and the gender queer community have included a proliferation of: bars and clubs, hotels and holidays, sex tourism and sex toys and more recently the paraphernalia surrounding the celebration of civil partnerships and gay marriages.

The 21st century has also seen the expansion of the sexual marketplace in the form of online dating sites aimed at heterosexuals and Apps such as Tinder and also Gaydar and Grindr aimed at the gay and bisexual communities, where services are utilized to facilitate meetings with compatible potential casual lovers and/or long-term partners. This process of commodifying the self via an intermediary is not itself recent, as there have been ‘matrimonial agencies’ since the 1700s and modern dating agencies and ‘lonely hearts’ columns in newspapers and periodicals developed apace during the 20th century. This development parallels the increase in long-term relationship breakdown and so the number of individuals seeking new long term or casual partners.

This expansion is occurring in the context of the development of the Internet, which has accelerated accessibility and availability, potentially reducing the time taken to negotiate the parameters of a relationship. More work is needed to understand in depth the ways in which these new forms and contexts of consumption practices work in the context of sexual embodiment in everyday life.

Body modification and sexual consumption
Bodily adornment with the aim of increasing sexual attractiveness is also nothing new but, as with other aspects of sexual embodiment, it is deeply gendered and also needs to be understood in local social and cultural contexts and in relation to the antinomies which some practices of body transformation produce.

There has been a trend in recent years for increasing degrees of depilation.(4) The 1970s saw a strong feminist critique of the pressure on women to remove body hair and this certainly had a liberating effect on many women of my generation, but the pressure has redoubled with ever more techniques available for the removal of hair from every part of the female body. Some men may encourage, or even pressurise, their female partners to remove body hair so as to render them more like women in porn movies. It seems that the Brazilian wax, which probably emerged as a response to the ‘itsy bitzy’ bikinis of Ipanema beach, has gone global with the porn industry. While the increase in depilation on the part of some men may likewise be generated by pornography, or by a wish to show off a muscular physique, it seems unlikely that they are being pressurised by female partners.

So, women are expected to remove so called ‘unsightly’ hair in order to look sexier, but ironically this returns them to a pre pubescent state and so ‘sexy’ is equated with looking childlike and all the contradictions that this entails. So, removing pubic hair creates a bodily region ripe for further commodification, for example via the vajazzling trend. Women would seem to be unattractive with pubic hair, but still not attractive enough without it.

The ‘sexual consumer’ and the ‘body modifier’ have, of course, emerged from particular historical and cultural contexts. The wide of array commercially available options for changing our bodies – to render them more desirable – need to be interrogated as to whether they disrupt or reinforce gendered, racialized and classed definitions of the body. The changes in legislation which increase the sexual freedom of those previously denied it: the criminalisation of rape in marriage; the legalisation of gay partnerships and marriages are occurring alongside the increase in the possibilities of pornography via the internet which might be seen to represent freedom of choice for some – mainly men, but mean an increase in objectification, exploitation for others – mainly women.

Childhood, sexuality and commodification
One area in which the antinomies of sex, gender and consumption are powerfulIy played out is in relation to ideas and practices around children and childhood. It can be argued that in a world which feels fraught with difficulty and confusion one of the few things areas where adults might think they have control is in relation to children, so that when this feels threatened the reaction is a strong one. Recently, too, we have seen an expansion in the ways we define the span of childhood with the extension of full-time education and also university places for a higher percentage of the age cohort than ever before. The lack of employment for young people and the fact that more are living with their families of origin for longer has raised the age at which they are seen as fully adult. The media tendency to describe all victims of sexual abuse who are/were under 20 as children, coupled with what might be termed a ‘moral panic’ (see Cree et. al. in Issue 4 of Discover Society) about access to internet porn, sexting and sexual bullying in schools, has created a climate of confusion in relation to young people and the development of their sexuality.

Over the past 30 years or so there has been much concern about the commodification of sex in relation to children and specifically the ‘sexualisation’ of girls. There are particular concerns about girls growing up too soon and displaying what are defined as age inappropriate traits while wearing ‘sexy’ clothes. It is worth noting that girls  (and boys) have long enjoyed playing at ‘grown-ups’ the difference now is that dressing up has become commodified with mini versions of adult ‘dressing-up’ clothes in the shops.  At the same time there appears to me to be a more clearly defined gender binary for children’s toys and activities than in the 70s and, despite criticism on Mumsnet and elsewhere, a widespread and seemingly increasing acceptance of gender specific toys, clothes and role models that reinforce the idea of girls as little pink princesses in search of a prince. The line between the acceptable and the anxiety-inducing is a fine one.

The Disneyfication of childhood has certainly expanded in recent years. I have memories of pink glittery Cinderella slippers linked to the first Disney Cinderella movie (they were impossible to walk in safely so I wasn’t allowed to have them), but these were as nothing compared to the movie related products now produced by the Disney empire. These outfits tend to be extremely gendered and to render little girls as romantic heroines. Although the heroine of  ‘Frozen’ is a sturdier character who is in search of her sister rather than romance, she is still described as having a ‘wide-eyed’ gaze and the clothes in the merchandise store are made of the stuff of romance and not designed for real life adventures. The latest Disney offering,‘Moana’, has an feisty anti princess, non white heroine, which may be a step in a better direction, but she still has a those wide eyes and a ridiculously small waist! All this needs to be set alongside the common tendency to render adult women pre-pubescent not just through depilation but also through fashion trends for clothes and accessories which can be understood as the infantalisation of adult women and the sexualisation of being childlike.

There has been considerable feminist engagement with the issue of sexualisation, both in critiquing mainstream interpretations of the phenomenon and in providing alternative critical perspectives. In particular attention has been drawn to the ‘limited and commodified vision of active female sexuality’ in the media,(5) the reinforcement of normative heterosexuality, the classed and racialised dimensions of the imagery and so on. This matters because the representations of sexuality available to children and young people are part of the discourses or cultural scenarios on which they draw in making sense of their own sexuality and locating themselves as competent sexual actors. If these representations are limited this potentially also limits the resources young people can access in constructing a sense of embodied sexual selfhood and in developing future sexual practices.

Young women are often deprived of space to develop an autonomous sexuality – and this is becoming increasingly problematic given the contradictions of contemporary western sexual culture. In the relatively recent past there was assumed to be a transition to a ‘passive’ sexuality for women in which they were recipients of men’s sexual activity. However, while double standards certainly persist, and young women may still be viewed as sexual gatekeepers, expectations about adequate (hetero) sexual practice have changed. Young adult women are now addressed in popular media as active desiring subjects – within certain limits. Thus the transition from asexual child to sexually competent adult woman has become more complex.

In many ways contemporary western sexual mores seem to have been liberalized, with increasing openness about sexuality, more information available, more opportunities for women’s sexual and social autonomy and greater tolerance of sexual diversity. Alongside the liberalisation of adult sexuality, and the gendering – or not – of the body, there is an increased focus on policing the boundary between childhood and adulthood. In this context, however, the category of ‘the child’ or ‘children’ held to be at risk from a sexualized culture has little to do with actual children; it is constructed in terms of an idealized notion of childhood – of children shielded from the world within idealized happy families.  The sexualisation of girls within consumer culture is being flipped over to display childhood innocence, but this very innocence feeds into the potential for certain kinds of male sexual fantasy.(6)  This has, of course, intensified in recent years with the waves of revelation about systematic sexual abuse of children and young people in a range of contexts. The response to the failures of the past has been to intensify the emphasis on the violation of childhood and the need for increased protection not only of individual children but also, of childhood itself.

Young people who have been abused are increasingly defined, by the media and in policy contexts, as children up to the age of 18 – the teenager has all but disappeared. If they are children then they must be innocent, as if being sexually knowing would mean that a young person was not so deserving of protection from sexual violence and abuse. This distinction is all too familiar in the context of rape and sexual violence against women.

 The commodification of childhood and the sexualisation of girls is of course not unproblematic, but I would suggest that we are looking at the problem through the wrong end of the telescope when we focus on the protection of innocence to the exclusion of encouraging sexual autonomy. A key point here is that adult anxieties around these issues can serve to render children and young people less safe by potentially depriving them of the knowledge they need to interpret the sexual mores of the world in which they must make the transition to adulthood.(6) This is the context in which young people’s engagement with sexting (see Setty in this issue), internet pornography, sexual bullying and abuse is shaped as they face the challenge of trying to become autonomous sexual actors in a maze of commodified representations of sexuality. The solution is not to create an imaginary wall between childhood and adulthood so that children can be protected from sex while at the same time they are surrounded by references to it, but to work towards creating a culture in which sex can be discussed openly and objectification and exploitation and abuse play no part in sexual relations. This sexual utopia may seem distant, but we could start by making a commitment to talking to young people about sex in a much more open positive way. Simon Forrest discusses the need for better sex education in his article in this issue and my own experience of research in this field made it very clear that, while knowledge is not in itself sufficient protection ignorance can be dangerous.(7) Defending innocence is not the solution in a world where young people are bombarded with sexual images of commodified bodies. What they need is an understanding of sexuality in the context of everyday/everynight life.

(1) Keller, Margit; Halkier, Bente; Wilska, Terhi-Anna; Truninger, Monica (eds) (2017), Routledge Handbook on Consumption, Abingdon: Routledge.
(2) Jackson, S. and Scott, S. (1997) Gut Reactions to matters of the Heart: Rationality, irrationality and sexuality” The Sociological Review Vol. 45, 4.
(3) Binnie, V. and Skeggs, B. (2004) Cosmopolitan Knowledge and the Production and Consumption of Sexualized Space: Manchester’s Gay Village, Sociological Review 52, 39 – 61.
(5) Scott, S. and Watson-Brown, L. (1997) The beast, the family and the innocent children, Trouble and Strife, 36, 8-11.
(6) Jackson, S. and Scott, S. (2010) Theorising Sexuality, Maidenhead: Open University Press.
(7) Buston, K., Scott, S. and Wight, D. (2001) ‘Difficulty and Diversity: The Context and Practice of Sex Education’ British Journal of Sociology of Education



Sue Scott is a sociologist. She is an Honorary Professor in the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York and Visiting Professor at the University of Helsinki. She is also one of the managing editors of Discover Society and a freelance consultant and mentor in the HE sector. Her research has focussed on: young women’s sexual relationships, Sex Education and Children and Risk Anxiety