Barbara Kruger’s 1989 work ‘Your Body is a Battleground’. The debate at Sussex comes after a recent motion regarding the sale of magazines which objectify women. (Image: Barbara Kruger)

A motion against the objectification of women on campus was passed last week by union council, and has been the subject of recent debate in the Badger. We, as the women’s group, want to respond to some of the criticisms of the motion, and to explain why it is so important.

Firstly, we wanted to clarify what is meant by objectification, as there appears to be some confusion surrounding the term.

Images of unattainable feminine beauty, which lower women’s self esteem, are, whilst extremely problematic, not the focus of the motion. If they were, the effects of hyper-masculine images on men would be more relevant.

Normative imagery is indeed harmful for people of all genders, and we would be happy to support any future motions that attempt to challenge it.

So, what is objectification and do men get objectified too? The view of women as sexual objects rather than human beings has been commonplace throughout history. In a patriarchal world, images of female bodies such as those featured in lads’ magazines perpetuate this idea, and are problematic in a way that does not apply to images of male bodies.

We are not denying that the objectification of men takes place, but we would argue that the implications of female objectification are more dangerous because of the history of gender inequality and the sexist society in which we still live.

Another criticism that we have faced is that a ban on lads’ magazines is useless, as objectification is all pervasive, especially in advertising.

While no one believes that the motion will magically resolve the problem overnight, targeting lads’ magazines is still a positive step forward, as they  are one of the most troubling and blatant examples of objectification. They exist simply to sell highly sexualised images of the female body to a male reader, giving women no real choice over how they are viewed.

Choice is a word that has been widely used in criticism of the motion. It has been argued that women have a choice whether or not to look at these images, and a choice whether or not to pose for them.

Therefore, (runs the argument) objectification is no longer an issue, as what might seem like objectification to some becomes an expression of empowering sexuality for others.

If we lived in an equal society, this rhetoric would become meaningful. As we still unfortunately live in an unequal society, there will always be those who have less choice and who are more vulnerable.

For every woman who has enough privilege not to care, or who chooses to be photographed, there is a woman who is demeaned and degraded by images of women’s bodies, who believes that the only option open to her is to conform to the narrow view of sexuality portrayed in these images, and who hates being treated as a sexual object rather than respected as a human being.

The ‘choice’ that we are offered is not a real choice when it is so restricted, and is not empowering when it effectively blocks many other choices that a woman could make about her own body and her own sexuality.

We feel that the same argument applies to the production of nude calendars by sports societies. Although the women involved may not be coerced into posing nude, an ex-member of the Sussex University netball team argues, “in a team situation it’s very difficult to say no.”

Should it be obligatory to support these calendars in order to feel comfortable in the world of university sports, especially at a committee level? Playing sports should be a choice open to all women and men and we feel that the production of these calendars restricts choice rather than opens it up.

This motion is part of a specific, national campaign designed to challenge the proliferation of objectified images of women in the media and the attitudes that these images implicitly encourage. We recognise that there are other issues surrounding the representation of bodies in the media, and we would be happy to address these concerns in future campaigns.

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  • Good article, glad to see the women’s group at Sussex is acting on these issues and refusing to back down in the face of pressure. Don’t let those who seek to criticise you for your good work stop you – women (and men) need to fight against the dehumanising of women which we see day after day in our society. As a male, it’s not something I feel comfortable with – though the effect on women and girls is most important, it also patronises men as it suggests they are incapable of seeing women as anything other than sexual objects, and encourages us to only see them as such. Damaging to all concerned.