The past year has seen the formation of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, a powerful organization striving to combat the dehumanizing hyper-sexualization of women. As a broad-gauged association including feminists, human rights advocates, and religious and cultural conservatives, the National Center aims to uphold the dignity of every woman in a society that reduces women to objects of desire by insisting upon a sexualized ideal.
The existence of this new coalition shows that the commodification of sexual imagery is an issue on which “conservatives” and “liberals” can cross the conventional party lines. Indeed, by doing so, they have already changed the culture for the better. For instance, due to the Center’s Dirty Dozen initiative, two national apparel chains have redesigned their marketing strategies by eliminating sexualized imagery; a major hotel franchise has removed pornographic movies from its entertainment options; and the Federal Communications Commission has begun enforcing decency regulations that had fallen into abeyance.
Combating the exploitation of women and girls is critical. What has received much less attention, however, is a more recent trend in American culture: the commodification and sexualization of the male body. Mass-marketed movies by mainstream production companies as well as easily accessible print and internet media have conspired to establish the respectability of the consumption of the male form. Though widespread in popular media, this trend and its implications are not appreciated by most activists campaigning against the sexual exploitation of women. The growing social respectability of the sexual objectification of males, however, is a poisonous force spawning genuine and pressing problems.
Counter-Objectification and Other Consequences
As a small but important group of scholars has documented over the past two decades, mass marketing and the popular media increasingly purvey an idealized male physique, defined particularly by muscularity and large chest size. Harrison Pope and Roberto Olivardia of Harvard Medical School have done the groundbreaking work in this field, with other important work also conducted by Stacey Tantleff-Dunn and her colleagues. This new norm of male sexual objectification—that is, the depiction of men as sexual beings whose worth depends on the power to arouse the opposite sex—is creating serious but underappreciated consequences.
First, reports indicate that young men increasingly suffer from body-image problems. One study finds that young men are now more concerned with their physiques than with their job status. Indeed, “The TODAY/AOL Body Image Survey released in 2014 found that men worry about their appearance more than they worry about their health, their family, their relationships or their professional success.”
Eating disorders and body dysmorphia—the disorder characterized by the belief that one’s body is defective and requires fixing or concealment—are rising sharply among men. Although these conditions are usually thought to occur almost entirely among females, one estimate gauges that as many as one in four instances are now found among men.
Body-image disorders follow the pattern set by the market’s idealized forms. For women, this generally means becoming thin. Men, on the other hand, inordinately desire muscle mass and muscular tone, leading in turn to steroid abuse and the dangerous over-ingestion of unregulated muscle-building supplements. Indeed, according to the January 2014 report of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, only 15% of male body-image issues include a desire for thinness; 85% relate to muscle tone, abdominal musculature, and chest muscle size. Apparently today’s young men are more worried about chest muscle mass than are young women about breast size.
Men, though, are much less likely to seek help in addressing body-related obsessions and dysmorphia. Deborah Schooler of Gallaudet University finds that males with body image issues often do not recognize their obsession with musculature. Since males often feel ashamed of worrying about their appearance, they instead voice concerns about other body issues like sweat and body odor. These superficially ancillary complaints, as it turns out, are raised in proportion to the objectification of the male body in the media to which a man is regularly exposed.
What is more, the objectification of males in popular culture, and the growing cultural embrace of this development, lead to a phenomenon that I call counter-objectification. Specifically, the objectification of men by women feeds the objectification of women by men. How does this occur? As Professor Tantleff-Dunn shows, many boys and young men respond with anger to images that objectify males; Sarah Murnen and her colleagues conclude similarly that male objectification feeds “sexual animosity.” The sense of sexual animosity in young males in turn correlates highly with their increased consumption of media that objectifies women; this leads to negative consequences for both males and females, such as male depression and the development of aggressive male sexuality.
Thus, many young men who feel that men are the targets of a male-objectifying culture in turn objectify women to a greater degree. Counter-objectification harms both men and women.
The Importance of Coalition
All of this points toward an important imperative: The fight for human dignity against our sexualized culture must be coalitional and cooperative. Those who worry about the sexualization of women in contemporary society must ally with those concerned about the problems facing young men today.
A society that seeks to root out one sort of objectification but promotes and even celebrates another is inherently unstable. For one of the most promising—indeed, one of the most essential—ways to combat the still rampant sexual commodification of women is to draw allies among young men, for young men are especially prone to objectify women in the media they consume. It is important therefore to make inroads among young men if we wish to reduce the incidence of objectification. But so long as the objectification of men by women is disregarded or trivialized, the step of getting men to cooperate will be difficult.
A sense among young men that the movement against sexual exploitation is hypocritical would, therefore, deeply wound that movement. The movement should not limit itself to criticizing male consumption of sexualized images of women, for the consumption of sexualized images of men by women is deeply intertwined and, in any case, objectionable on similar moral grounds.
Indeed, my experience in the classroom—over fifteen years teaching social and political theory to undergraduates—suggests that young men are suspicious of a culture that concerns itself with the problems of one sex to the exclusion of the same problems of the other. They often “tune out” when calls are made to address the very real problems confronting women today, such as their sexual objectification in contemporary culture.
To be sure, I do not mean to exonerate any man of his own contribution to the commodification of female sexuality, or of his insensitivity to the attendant problems; what I do emphasize, however, are real social trends that people working to resolve such issues should take seriously. The reason the objectification of women should be ended—and the reason why men should not participate in it—is that objectification itself is bad. If we tolerate or even celebrate the objectification of men, it will be difficult to convince men that they ought to behave differently toward women.
An Example: Magic Mike
Someone looking for an example of male objectification in popular culture need look no further than Warner Brothers’ 2012 film Magic Mike and its sequel. Magic Mike—highly successful with young female audiences—celebrates muscular male strippers as well as the young women who pay for their services. Such movies are a real moral poison. They entrench the cultural wave of male sexual objectification and therefore deepen the problems explored above. Most opponents of sexual exploitation have little to say about Magic Mike, and thereby risk alienating men from the broader fight against sexual commodification.
Unfortunately, Magic Mike is extreme but not atypical; mainstream cinema is now replete with highly eroticized images of muscular men. This is particularly relevant because movies are a substantial force in shaping people’s behavior and sense of self, a point underscored by Ross O’Hara of the University of Missouri. His research shows that the consumption of sexual imagery in movies provides young people with sexual scripts that increase the likelihood of unhealthy behavior. The impact of movies on young people’s sense of self, he finds, is greater now than that of television. The contemporary tentpole movie has become tremendously effective at normalizing its content and thereby shaping society in its image.
O’Hara’s conclusion has a powerful intuitive purchase. Movies, after all, are viewed in the centers of our modern life—in the mall, that galleria of conspicuous consumption, or in the large movie complexes adjacent to family-oriented staples like Chili’s, Claire’s, and Kids ‘r Us. The marketing is pervasive, airing in the early evening primetime hours, and fixes the film’s cultural influence even among those who won’t watch it—including, importantly, among age-inappropriate audiences. Nationwide, promotional posters hang at theatres right next to those advertising the next Disney film. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that major movies can serve to normalize the behaviors and standards depicted in them.
Leaders in the anti-sexual exploitation movement launched a nationwide campaign against the movie Fifty Shades of Grey. The movie was found objectionable for a range of reasons, including its glamorization of violence in sexual relations, but one reason was also its salacious objectification of the leading female role. No similar protests were raised by the first Magic Mike movie or its sequel, which opened over the Fourth of July weekend.
At least one prominent member of a core element of the emerging coalition against sexual exploitation took things in the opposite direction, embarrassing the movement by her response to the Magic Mike series. Caroline Heldman, a noted feminist professor at Occidental College, has for a number of years advanced powerful and important arguments against female sexual objectification in contemporary society. Someone reading her review of Magic Mike, however, would be excused for inferring some hypocrisy on her part. She writes of being “heartened” by the movie and being disappointed only that it did not contain even more male nudity.
Is this a tactical ploy, an attempt to let men feel the sting of objectification, and thereby spur them to oppose exploitation? No, her review did not aim at making objectification as such unpalatable. Instead, in a mostly critical review, Professor Heldman finds at least one consolation: “It is wonderful to see so many women spending money for an experience that purports to cater to our sexual desires.” What’s good about the movie, in her view, is that it legitimates the objectification of men by women.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this anti-objectification advocate has fallen into hypocrisy. If we have compelling reasons to uphold female dignity from the influence of a dehumanizing popular culture—and we do—then we also have good reasons to do the same for men. Her approach therefore supplies a cautionary example for others in the anti-exploitation movement to avoid.
So, indeed, Magic Mike is a moral poison—and a bellwether of much more to come. That is, unless the coalition against sexual exploitation and its partners of good will pull together and fight a two-front war against female and male dehumanization.
Our young women and young men are well worth the fight.