Bought and Sold: The Exploitation of Female Sexuality in a Market-Driven Society

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Bought and Sold: The Exploitation of Female Sexuality in a Market-Driven Society


by Stephanie M. Crumpton
Special to the YWCA

Skechers Shape-Ups for young girls
Some parents wonder whether companies like Skechers have gone too far in marketing "butt-toning" shoes to young girls.

Recently I’ve watched the sexual assault case against an extremely affluent international businessman unravel due to efforts to render the victim uncredible. The case kept coming up in the back of my mind (interrupting me really) when I sat down to work on this blog about image, beauty and women’s power.  Then I turned to wonder…  What if there’s a connection between the two?  What if the beauty and image debate is part of a much larger (more significant) conversation about the use and abuse of women as currency in social and political games of power?

Let’s walk this one through…

In a market driven economy, enhancing female sex appeal has become a prime ingredient in sales campaigns targeting females from age six to sixty.  The alarming part of it all is that children are being targeted for the same products directed at grown women.

  • Abercrombie & Fitch’s 2011 spring line of swimwear targeting girls as young as seven years old featured a padded, womanly-shaped “push-up triangle,” bikini top (really?).

What’s the problem with this?  These consumer-driven marketing tactics exploit an important developmental stage of play and wonderment by over-stimulating girls with products that prematurely direct attention to their sexuality.

In a Good Morning America interview about marketing and the psychology of children, Dr. Logan Levkoff, explained the problem well.  She said, “We have a society where we sexualize little girls, almost from birth on…  The fact is all these ‘Toddlers & Tiaras’ shows, the products, whether it’s push-up bras for tween girls or shapeups for girls to firm their butts, all of this sends the message that our girls aren’t good enough.”

The net effect: Girls learn very early that in a market driven society, their power lay in their ability to buy products and sell themselves.  In essence, their bodies and sexuality are used as currency in the very adult game of market place consumerism.

When we underestimate the significance of this sexual socialization, we do so to the detriment of being able to recognize the role it plays in the ongoing social phenomenon of objectification and violence that begins early and continues through out women’s lives.

I raise this issue against the backdrop of the rape allegations against Dominique Strauss-Khan because of how in this case, too, female sexuality has become a pawn in larger social and political games of power.  Only the accuser and alleged perpetrator know exactly what happened.  But what we know for sure is that the case has gained its notoriety in some ways because of the stark contrasts in power and resources between the accused and the accuser.

It raises core issues about the collision of gender and power that occurs when a woman claims her right to pursue justice in the face of overwhelming social pressure.  At various points there have been comments alluding to the rape allegation as a ploy to disposition Strauss-Khan as a candidate for the French presidency.  The possibility of the Guinean immigrant and maid being raped has been overshadowed by the political forces that reposition her rape claim as a minor part in a larger plot to sabotage him politically.

In spite of the fact that the physical evidence collected for the investigation has not come into dispute, the main story has become the discrediting of an alleged rape victim as the now predator whose real aim is to make money and topple a presidential bid.

Here we see female sexuality, this time an alleged rape turned on its side to project the victim as the attacker, used as currency in a larger battle for social and political power.

In the case of marketing that targets little girls for products that are really meant for grown women, as well as with the Guinean housekeeper whose sexual assault allegations are being obscured by politics and violations of power, both young and old find their sexuality objectified and thus violated.

Taken together the situations represent an arc from adolescence through adulthood that points to social processes at play in culture that disempower women through their sexuality.

So, where does this leave us?

It leaves me more and more aware of how what I say and do around little girls matters.  In a society that would commodify their curiosities about womanhood, one of the most important things we can supply them with is encounters that do not encourage them to buy and sell themselves.  Our girls are watching how we walk through the world for cues on how to be.  That’s why it’s equally important to point out to them the ways that society unjustly exploits women for selfish social and political motives.

It’s never too early, and (woman to woman) it’s never too late to defy disempowering processes in society.  Remember…you’re worth it!

Stephanie M. Crumpton
Stephanie M. Crumpton

Stephanie M. Crumpton is a writer, consultant and researcher. Her work with non-profit and state agencies has focused on transformation in the lives of marginalized communities, women’s issues, mental health, and spirituality. She is currently researching women’s self recovery from intimate violence for her doctoral dissertation. Follow her online at www.stephaniemcrumpton.blogspot.com