The Female Gaze, Women Viewing Sexualised Women


Illustration By Charlotte Hoyle

As founder of online lingerie magazine Nineteen13, the topic of sexualisation is one that often arises in conversation. In fact it was not too long ago I was discussing this matter with someone of the opposite sex.  He was quick to inform me that a woman who presents herself in a sexual manner whether it is on a cover of a magazine or even by simply purchasing lingerie, these women are purely acting to please men. I was quick to disagree, however I believe he is not alone in this common opinion of lingerie or the topic sexualisation as it stands.  Perhaps it’s that constant view of women being objectified that is helping support his views; nonetheless the women on the cover of women’s magazines, and the women in lingerie campaigns are surely for an audience of women? So to quote my male conversationalist “why do heterosexual women like looking at sexualised women?”

Author, journalist and broadcaster Natasha Walter authored a book called “Living Dolls, The Return of Sexism” a particularly influential book on the topic of feminism. The book’s theorisation is that sexualisation is being sold to women under the ideological guise of feminism and liberation. However is the theory that women sexualise themselves through confusion and brainwashing from the sex industry and mass media slightly one sided?

July this year 2013, Daniel Bergner published a book called “What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire.” Common consensus has suggested that men are particularly sexually driven where as women seek comfort and commitment, however Bergner’s extensive research and interviews with behavioural scientists, sexologists, psychologists, psychiatrists and everyday women has resulted in a book that turns every notion of female sexuality on it’s head. Bergner’s ‘adventures’ into female arousal and desire discovers findings which evidentially suggests women’s sex drive is much stronger then it has ever thought to have been and perhaps women are not the monogamous gender.

When women were asked to write about their best sexual experience in Erica Jong’s book ‘Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex’ only one woman mentioned procreation. However perhaps we only need to look at popular culture for evidence of female arousal and desire. The ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ series has sold over 70 million copies worldwide, the ‘Sex and the City’ series ran from 1998 to 2004 with 10.6 million Americans tuning in and it is has been reported by numerous magazines that women who watch pornography is on the rise. As Western culture is shifting, we are progressing into a new arena when it comes to defining female sexuality and we have begun questioning century old thinking, so why are we still shocked women enjoy sexual imagery?

A female listener recently complained to BBC Radio 4 about a ‘provocative’ advertisement in John Lewis Kingston for their bra fitting service. The advertisement was displayed in their canteen and featured a ‘curvy’ female model with long hair, wearing only lingerie, throwing her head back and pouting her lips. Although only one person; the advert appears in 30 stores; complained about the advertisement that made her feel uncomfortable (in particular it was the look on the model’s face) and even though she described herself as ‘desensitized to sexism’ she felt it was inappropriate for John Lewis to display such an advertisement.This sparked a debate regarding sexualised imagery of women and BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour spoke to Jo Hooper the Head of Womenswear at John Lewis regarding this complaint. Both the person who complained and the presenter compared the image to ‘Page 3’; as Jo explained “…what I would challenge your listeners and our customer to do is look at this image in the appropriate context.”

The comparison of an advertisement to encourage women to use a bra fitting service to a topless image of women in a national newspaper who’s majority readership is male can begin to explain why society is still confused about sexualised imagery of women. If we believe that all sexual imagery of women is for the viewing of men, do we not create the notions that any slight sexual suggestion from a woman is a provocative act towards a man?

As an Editor of a lingerie magazine and years of experience working in the intimates industry I have created and been involved in the process of creating sexualised imagery of women. Whilst working for luxury lingerie brand Nichole de Carle London we always considered our customers as female, and I take the same approach with Nineteen13. The majority of my audience are women and we always keep this in mind when producing features and editorials.

Kate Upton an American model and actress famed for appearing on men’s magazine Sports Illustrated has become one of the most popular models amongst male fans. Kate ranked highly in AskMen’s Top 99 Women for 2013 and in Maxim’s 2012 HOT 100 list as well as featuring in numerous publications for men. This overtly sexualised model then went on to grace the covers of women’s lifestyle and fashion magazines, Cosmopolitan, ELLE, Sunday Times Style, Vogue Italia, American Vogue and British Vogue. In a majority of the editorials Kate is featured in nothing more then swimwear, and on the occasion full exposing her décolletage. Kate is not the only example of a woman appearing sexualised or sexually provocative on the cover or in these popular longstanding female publications. Perhaps it is aspirational? Perhaps members of the the female audience admire women featured in such imagery? Or is it the arousal of the mythical female desires?

Evidence suggests heterosexual women enjoy looking at ‘sexy’ images of women. Not forgetting women are also affected by the cognitive arousal; when an individual is aroused by thought or imagination of a sexual act. I am not suggesting women are instantly aroused by looking at women in a sexualised manner, however I do suggest that women are sexual and it is not implausible they enjoy some pleasure in the viewing of such imagery; for whatever reason.

I attended an all girls’ secondary school and at the tender age of 14 to 16 years old I would roll up my skirt and put on makeup every school day with no male gaze in mind. Until the taboos of female sexuality are addressed, the confusion is dealt with, and the wires are uncrossed it is difficult to see when society will begin to solve the apparent problem of sexism. However if we, like Jo Hooper suggested, consider the context and remove the constant presumption that all female sexual behaviour and imagery is for men we can begin to overcome sexism.

  • P a C

    Interesting article. This reminds me of the book by Aerial Levy: “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture” which highlights the complicity of women within sexism and the selling of female sexuality by other women- as many women work in the sex industry and market towards other women too.

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