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Sex Positive and Hyper Sexualization in Sports: Is there a way to negotiate?

One of the biggest issues for women athletes these days is the extreme hyper-sexualization many sports require women to participate in while competing at a highly advanced level. For example, car racer Danica Patrick has been very straightforward (and quite successful) about embracing her more 'feminine' side while letting her racing skills speak for themselves. 08_danica-patrick_09.jpg

But even as many women are successfully and willingly embracing the sexualization of their sport, I've also sat in a classroom at an elite university with women athletes as young as 18 and 19 talking about how male sports web sites have gotten a hold of their pictures and had 'rate them' competitions where visitors to the site rated the girls according to 'fuckability.' A few girls in that classroom even mentioned coaches who encouraged them to wear makeup and 'sex it up' while playing to increase visibility and chances of funding.

To add another layer to this sexual mix, far too often the 'embracing the feminine' female athletes participate in are not-so-subtle attempts to distance themselves from the 'all women athletes are lesbo dykes' stereotype. And to be clear, these athletes don't want to distance themselves from the stereotype because they hate the stereotype--but because they hate lesbians and find it an insult to be so intimately linked to them.

And this doesn't even get into the discussion about how white sexuality is perceived as an asset to draw on for white female athletes, but a constant negative for women of color athletes. Would anybody think of calling Ms. Danica a monkey (http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=story_26-1-2003_pg2_11)? Or a nappy headed ho (http://mediamatters.org/items/200704040011)?

So, when you bring all these different layers under the 'sports' umbrella--the question has to be asked--given all the negatives of the sexualization of female atheletes/competition--is there a way to embrace this sexualization in a sex positive way? Is there a way to admit all the complications of hyper-sexualization of female athletes and still embrace that sexualization? Or challenge it, bend it, and/or otherwise reclaim it in a way that is political and centers the needs of female athletes around the world?

Or is that simply too big of a dream for something as small as the sports world to accomplish?

What do you think?

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Comments

11 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Financial pressure to sex it up

"coaches who encouraged them to wear makeup and 'sex it up' while playing to increase visibility and chances of funding."

Unfortunately that advice is probably grounded in reality. There's a strong financial incentive to conform to a particular style of feminine beauty. A few weeks ago I saw an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald ("Winners, only if they look good as well") on Layne Beachley (seven-time world surfing champion) and other women athletes. Beachley apparently felt both aesthetic and financial pressure to have cosmetic surgery, because opportunities and endorsements go to the sexiest, not the fittest or most talented.

Awesome question

As a total sporty-spice lesbo, this brings up a lot for me. I think for me it's very possible to give these things a sex-positive spin.

For instance, I was totally turned on in so many ways by the US Women's Soccer team's 1999 World Cup win over China. It was totally what sports are about to me: People really focusing on a goal together and using their bodies in such a way that mere mortals never do, plus down-to-the-wire drama and amazing personal narratives. It was already a transcendent game.

Then, when Brandi Chastain kicked the winning OT penalty kick and ripped her jersey off--an act that previously had been a celebratory option only for men--the meaning of the whole thing totally flew into the stratosphere. And that was, among many other things, just way sexy. Here's the iconic photo:

 

It just struck me how interesting it is to compare that photo to the one of the Vassar Resolutes ladies baseball team that I posted the other day. Skin and sports bra vs. neck to ankle dresses made out of what looks like heavy curtains.

Anyway, that iconic photo of Chastain is sexy to me, but here's a later one that, well...not so much:

 

But what I think you're getting at is, for someone like me, it's much more natural to put a sex-positive spin on lady athletes, but is there a way to do it with an audience that is not comprised of sporty-spice dykes? I mean, of course we're going to respond to these women in ways that are different than a lot of other people. But is there a way to turn the the more common, typical male gaze into something positive?

I actually think, yes, in some ways, but I've already written a freakin' novel, I'll let somebody else argue the point (please!). Of course, it's a little disheartening that I ganked the first Chastain photo off some dude's blog wherein he sarcastically called Chastain "he."

Also, don't even get me started on the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders...

seems you and I have similar

seems you and I have similar tastes! :-)

I agree with you so much about the Chastain fotos--I think the second one, even SHE looks kinda embarrassed and horrified.

I think that sports, in and of themselves, are inherently sexual--sports for me are not so much about the competition (although that does rock!) but about the movement of bodies--the intensity of bodies moving together--I love that, and it's sexual and beautiful and just hot in so many ways! :-)

There's also these really great fotos (http://dyfuse.com/files/images/serena-williams-nude-in-jane-magazine.pre...) of serena williams and she is completly naked except for a pair of high heel shoes. And I think it's interesting to juxtapose that image with almost any image of Anna Kournikova and to then look at how Anna Kournikova made a shitty career into international stardom off her her pic's and Serena got called all sorts of nasty names. what's the difference there?

But is there a way to turn the the more common, typical male gaze into something positive?

I would take this one step further and ask--should this even be a goal? Is it something female athletes *need* to do in order to rest comfortably in their sexuality and/or flaunt their sexuality as they see fit? and can it be the same answer when different groups of women are treated so differently by the male gaze? Should we centrilize the singular male gaze? And if not, what should we do?

La Macha
Editor: Vivir Latino
La Macha on Twitter: http://twitter.com/lamacha

La Macha
Editor: Vivir Latino
La Macha on Twitter: http://twitter.com/lamacha

I disagree that sports are

I disagree that sports are inherently sexual in and of themselves. I wrestled on my high school's (boys') wrestling team all four years of high school. Rather than being sexual, it was about learning to control my body (and my opponents') and pushing myself to the limits. In fact, I made a very conscious effort to keep wrestling non-sexual.

I definitely think muscley bodies are attractive, but if I was always more interested in watching matches involving skillful wrestlers rather than toned bodies - no matter the gender.

I never tried to show off or take advantage of my femininity in the context of wrestling because there's no way my teammates (or anyone else in the wrestling community) would have taken me seriously. Not to say they had anything against femininity, but because people aren't out on the mat to look good. They're out there to win. Wrestlers (male or female) are judged on our abilities - not our perceived attractiveness.

Wowee...

...that pic of Serena is amazing!

This is such an interesting topic, and also frustrating because there are are so many issues , sub-issues and side-issues, I want to address them all at once. I'll try to stay on topic :)

"I would take this one step further and ask--should this even be a goal?"

I guess one way to address this is to ask what the ultimate goal is. Is it for women's sports to be as "successful" and/or popular--which might go hand-in-hand with their being as respected--as men's sports? Or is the goal to carve out a niche for women's sports where the women who play them and the people who enjoy them can both feel comfortable and the former can at least make a living?

"and can it be the same answer when different groups of women are treated so differently by the male gaze?"

This is a really good question. In a realistic way, I don't think that it can be the same. Well, dang, maybe it can--I don't freakin' know! But in my dreamy, fantasy-land, if-we-could-live-in-a-perfect-world scenario, I feel like sports-as-equalizer would be the solution. Like, for instance, a woman's sexiness would be based on the quality of her jump shot and not the color of her skin. In that sense, the gaze would be centralized, or at least maybe nuetralized.

I guess that's not really all that different than any other pie-in-the-sky concept about how folks should be judged--it could be applied to any segment of society.And, it's also not very realistic, at least not now.

Jeez, OK, that's all totally off the top of my head ramblings, but I'm going to stop here, though I'm by no means done. I just have to take this thing in chunks. 

another question to ponder

is there a good balance between sex positive and hypersexualization in any facet of our culture/society? I have no answer. I want women athletes to have the same chances their male counterparts. I don't want them to have to give up part of their dignity just to be able to play. I think as long as men (and women) view women and their bodies over their abilities we will have this question.

Does anyone remember the movie Bend it like Beckham. there is a scene near the end when Jess's male relatives are watching her team play and they keep commenting on how one of the girls isn't wearing a sports bra. and that is the only reason why they were there. Isn't that what's happening throughout the sports world when it comes to women's sports. Until that attitude changes we're stuck. Or hopefully, someone's got a idea.

I think as long as men (and

I think as long as men (and women) view women and their bodies over their abilities we will have this question.

This is a really interesting statement to me. It really got me to think about how little attention female athletes/sports recieve on the whole from women centered groups in the u.s., unless there's something big (which can be written as 'empowering') going on, like the olympics or the 'first woman to do...."

But then you go on any sports radio talk show or ESPN boards or just plain sports message boards--and there is ALWAYS discussion about what the female athletes are doing. Granted, it doesn't receive the same priority as the men--but they are always discussed--any male sports fan is going to be able to tell you who is projected to win the WNBA title, who won the latest golf pro championship and which college softball team will act as a spoiler. You'd be hard pressed to find many women who could do the same thing.

Which brings up an interesting question--for all the sexualization of women athletes--is it being done because there is no market (except us queer sporty spice dykes!! :p) for women's sports when it comes to women? That is, if we want the hyper sexualization of women athletes to end, we need to get women as a 'market niche' more involved?

The even more interesting thing to me is that I think in order to do something like that--we would need to *really* combat queer hate/homophobia among women. I honestly think a *huge* reason so many women stay away from female sports is because of the 'lesbo dyke' slur. they don't want to be *that*.

I think it makes it extremely complicated to know that in a very strange, complicated and odd way--men are actually a step ahead of women when it comes to acceptance of female athletes.

La Macha
Editor: Vivir Latino
La Macha on Twitter: http://twitter.com/lamacha

La Macha
Editor: Vivir Latino
La Macha on Twitter: http://twitter.com/lamacha

Sex for pleasure is reductionist by nature

The problem as I see it is: People, in general, have a very difficult time separating the object of their sexual desire from who the object really is. If someone's sexually attracted to women, they will prefer to see this person in sexual situations and/or clothing, regardless of who this person actually is and what this person actually wants. Sex, by it's very nature, encourages us to get our own pleasure from another person, as the aim is to achieve orgasm. From the moment humans started having sex for pleasure instead of for just reproduction, the aim has been to get pleasure from another person.

When sex was just for reproduction alone, it had a finite end, with a finite person/s. Now that we use sex for pleasure, people are always on the look out for who they can have this pleasure with. When we meet someone we look at their body to see if it is attractive, as we are looking for someone we can have sex with (even if we are looking for a long term partner, we still want to be able to have sex with them). As most men are attracted to women, when they see a women, they look at how much potential there is for them to have sexual pleasure with her. As sex for pleasure can happen as often as one wants it (no finite reproductive boundaries) people will naturally, as a consequence of this, be more drawn to people they find sexually attractive, all the time. As long as people are always on the look out for sexual pleasure, they will rate the objects they desire as if they are objects and not whole people.

There is no way for people to be on the constant look out for the possibility of sexual pleasure and for them to treat others as whole people rather than possible sexual partners. They are mutually exclusive because sex involves how a person looks (something they don't have full control over) at least to some extent and can't be uncoupled from this. This is a problem of the way we live in society, not simply a problem of women in sports.

And as long as women continue to portray themselves as sexually pleasurable to men, men will continue to rate which ones of them are better to fuck than others. Sex, for pleasure, is reductionist by nature, and there is no way to gain sexual pleasure from someone and at the same time see them as a whole person, because, as I said above, sex involves some focus on the way a person looks, and this is something people are born with and can't control. While people are looking for a sexual partner, a person who is born with an ugly face will be disadvantaged over someone who isn't. Sex for pleasure means that people can never be treated equally, because it's based on other people's varying degrees of sexual attractedness to you.

I predict that female sports will just become another soft-core porn medium like music, movies and magazines and that looks, not talent, will become the best predictor of fame.

The solution: women must create mediums of their own which represent things they enjoy to see and other women must support it. No women can do this while they are spending all their time and effort trying to look as sexually attractive as possible to men, because, at current, this is taking up all their time.

The hypersexualization of

The hypersexualization of female athletes speaks to society’s resistance to see women utilize their bodies as subjects (not objects). Women who do experience their bodies as something powerful, strong, self-fulfilling, and pleasurable (and of course bodies are sites of pleasure, and women should explore the pleasure their bodies provide on their own terms) are labeled deviant. God forbid a woman experience her body, develop its strength, flexibility, agility, etc. and not look pretty in the process.

Thus, I understand the pressure that the Danica Patricks and Venus Williams of the world experience under the constant scrutiny of the male gaze—it can’t be easy to resist dominant ideals of femininity in such a homophobic, lesbian-hating culture that assumes that the exterior body is some kind of marker of an interior sexuality. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could reward skilled, self-realizing women for their strength? I hope more female athletes resist coerced hypersexualization, but society is going to have to make resistance slightly less daunting if we really want to see that change.

To add another layer to this

To add another layer to this sexual mix, far too often the 'embracing the feminine' female athletes participate in are not-so-subtle attempts to distance themselves from the 'all women athletes are lesbo dykes' stereotype.

Why the bias?

From a sports perspective, women are expected to downplay their feminity in order to be taken seriously and only embrace it for the sake of publicity. Speaking as a female athlete, I've taken plenty of flack from other women in my sport for being a "stereotypical hot chick".. as if the fact that I enjoy wearing make-up somehow makes me less of a athlete.