Updated: May 1, 2021
Jessica L., Palwasha A. & Mariam H.
Pop culture and social consciousness at large is flooded with messages of sexual liberation and empowerment. Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, morality surrounding sex in the West has shifted to become far more flexible and fluid in mainstream culture. Sexual empowerment has become something to be loudly celebrated in everything from television shows, movies, popular music, and literature, to the fashion industry. Empowerment itself, specifically sexual empowerment, has become synonymous with hyper-sexualisation. A TIME article published in 1964, highlighted the growing phenomena of an alternate sexual guilt, this time based on “not being sexual enough”.
Interestingly, and rather ironically, this hyper-sexualisation of mainstream culture has not resulted in a transformation to a sex-affirmative society, where the concept of sex is unencumbered by shameful associations and subtext. Instead, as highlighted by TIME writer Rachel Hills, perceptions of sex as a “sinful and corrupting force” just continue to flourish alongside these new ideas. Thus, we have sexual excess coexisting with ideas of repression and extreme regulation. Essentially, one must be 'a savage', as well as classy, bougie and ratchet. The contradictions and ideological divide created is clearly evident in the debate surrounding abortion and access to birth control, the continued stigma and lack of support faced by survivors of sexual assault, the dichotomy of consumption of the adult entertainment industry and the treatment of sex workers, along with the discourse regarding abstinence education.
Icons of sexual empowerment in pop culture
When we think of sexually empowered icons in our popular culture, we often think of the white middle-class women from Sex in the City, in particular Samantha Jones. She is a successful career woman who is in charge of all facets of her life, having autonomy over who she has sex with and actively enjoys sex without shame. She is meant to be the driving force that pushes out the dusty and archaic ideas of sex being shameful and disgusting and instead promotes the idea that it is fun and fabulous. The character is a glamorous depiction of what we think sexual empowerment should be, but the decision to adopt the Samantha Jones persona doesn’t necessarily work for all women, especially for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities.
Now, let’s zero in on the phenomena of ‘WAP’. In a green-screen illusion of a decadent mansion, Cardi B alongside Megan Thee Stallion is clad in multiple lingerie styles, from leopard prints to black leather as they both playfully spit about how much each woman enjoys physical pleasure. But many (men especially, looking at you Benny boy) have voiced immense disgust. They comment on the crudeness of the lyrics and the visuals, actively shaming the artists but also fail to really hide their own hypocritical enjoyment of the overtly sexual content. When Black women unabashedly speak about sexual empowerment they are often met with slut-shaming and insults targeting the value of their character.
However, at the same time the entertainment industry demands the bodies of Black Women to be presented in a sexual way regardless of whether the creators themselves choose to be sexual or not. When black women’s bodies are demanded by an industry to be sexualised but then are publicly shamed as a result of fulfilling the demand, the hypocrisy cannot be ignored. Specifically in the case of WAP, none of the imagery used or created is new. In fact, it has been produced over and over again for years, to the point where hearing these kinds of lyrics is neither unique nor shocking (think the majority of Grammy-award winning music by men). The difference is that this song was written and produced by a woman, about her own sexual pleasure as opposed to that of a man’s.
Sexual empowerment is presented as an aesthetic more than an actual internal belief. It’s fed to us that the opportunity to have sex is considered the hard-won freedom of sexual liberation, forgetting that the element of choice is still something that evades most women. Confidently dancing in tight-skinned clothing or having control over who you want to sleep with are only parading the aesthetics of sexual empowerment without going into the reform of thought needed to achieve true liberation.
Loving Sex and Hating Sex Workers
Let’s talk about an example many of us are familiar with. Mia Khalifa is a name that has been associated with the fetishisation of the hijab. She is an extremely hated figure throughout much of the Middle East, despite the majority of the views on her videos coming from that region. The recent light Mia has cast on her time within the adult entertainment industry caused shock waves around the world. Though she was the most searched porn star last year, her actual time within the industry spanned only 3 months and a dozen videos when she was only 21.
Mia Khalifa has said that these videos were made during a time in her life where she was most vulnerable and insecure. It is just one of many terrifying example of the extremes of how women can be exploited in a society where so much of our self-esteem and understanding of our value is sexualised by the male gaze. A few weeks ago, Mia Khalifa announced that she was starting an OnlyFans, mostly because she needs the money for her legal bills in battling the conglomerate Bang Bros for the rights to her imagery. This sparked significant outrage and a reversal of much of the support she’d garnered from telling her story. After all, how could she claim to have been exploited and regretful about the availability of her videos when she is only going to be putting content out that again falls under sex work? Its interesting how much more accepted sex work is when it’s something that is done to someone as opposed to them doing it themselves. This shows a clear lack of understanding regarding consent and agency.
Mia Khalifa’s lack of ownership and right to her own videos reflects the recent controversies around artists Taylor Swift, and the group Fifth Harmony’s lack of ownership over most of their own music. Though not comparable, the common thread in all is the exploitation of a young person uneducated about their rights, being taken advantage of by two of the biggest, most money-churning capitalist industries in the world, the entertainment industry and the adult film industry, in the name of furthering their billions.
Education Around Sexual Empowerment
The themes of insecurity in Mia’s story that led to her trauma are all too familiar to so many women. Her choice wasn’t an informed one. It wasn’t agency. It was grooming, lack of understanding, insecurity and young person turmoil all rolled into one. This is why education around sexual empowerment is so important.
The question of alleviating one’s insecurities and building self-esteem cannot be answered with pursuing sexual empowerment and believing in the glamour of sexual freedom without fully understanding the consequences and the realities of our society today. We can remember all throughout our lives and schooling, instances of friends and classmates garnering long-term deep-seated trauma from seemingly liberated decisions. Being in Year 7 and overhearing a classmate crying to her friends about being pressured into sex by her boyfriend, and how she knew she would have to do it to keep him. Or in year 11 when a close friend’s boyfriend took advantage of her when they were alone, with everyone called her a liar when she spoke up, leading to her tolerating more and more abuse from every boyfriend after, because the public response to her pain had taught her how much she was worth.
Sexual empowerment is not and should not be about excess and hyper- sexuality. It is informed consent, education, agency and understanding. Ultimately, a new sexual revolution is needed. One that acknowledges and protects the rights and realities of those most vulnerable in our society. Sexual empowerment is informed choice. The choice that covers the spectrum of everything from WAP to abstinence. We need to understand ourselves, our bodies, and our boundaries before we can truly be empowered.