the conflation of sex and power is nothing new. We can go as far back as biblical narratives, and think of Eve’s role as temptress. The temptress or seductress, in fact, is a historical staple in visual and literary arts. She might go by other names: the femme fatale, the spider woman, even the tease, but her power always comes from her sexuality and sex appeal. And, often, that power has historically been characterized as dangerous.

This historical trend continues into the present. In contemporary mainstream media, we still see female power tied to sexuality and sex appeal, though no longer associated exclusively with danger. In fact, most often, media shows this kind of sexual power as fun and pleasurable.

The question is: Why? Why this kind of power? And why do we see more females than males in mainstream media use their sexuality in this way?

While both men and women can use their sexuality to assert dominance or gain power, we tend to see far more females wielding sexual power in the media. Sexual power ultimately is a kind of social power. This means that sex and sex appeal are merely conduits or means to achieve power or success in other spheres of life (employment, politics, celebrity). This is real power in the sense that we can see its real life impact; however, given the media prevalence of this kind of female power, we have to ask whether or not such representations also limit the kind of power women can actually possess (or even think they can possess).

Many of us have internalized the idea that sex is power because we see it so often represented in the media. We see it in advertising, movies, television, music videos, on the Internet.  It’s used to sell us product, from fast food burgers to expensive watches. It’s used to define characters, from working professionals to action heroines. It’s used to brand celebrities, from reality television stars to singers. It’s used to profile female athletes, from tennis players to track stars.

Over the course of the last century, several waves of feminist movements have advocated for greater social equality, opportunities, and power for all women. Feminists have argued that the structures and conventions of society were stacked against women, and called for changes to cultural norms and legal systems in order to promote female empowerment. In recent years, women have increasingly embraced the kind of sexual power, described above, as a form of female empowerment. They see exercising sexual power as a personal choice, as opposed to a decision shaped by other outside factors, ideologies and institutions. This perspective is often called post-feminist.

Post-feminism is a complex term that is difficult to define because it can mean many different things depending on who is using it. At a basic level, post-feminism is an ideology or way of seeing based on the assumption that feminism (a social movement and doctrine working toward female equality) is no longer necessary. A post-feminist attitude or way of thinking suggests that women have achieved equality (they “have it all”), and therefore feminism is no longer necessary.

Many assert that post-feminist views erase the real and concrete inequities that women still face in economic, social, and political arenas (the wage gap, low representation in government offices and in top executive positions etc.). Yet, if women assume and believe that these inequities have been addressed and fixed, they may also assume that they no longer need to worry about inequities or fight for change. They may become complacent. They may consider the use of sex as power to be a part of everyday life, and take it for granted. They may, in turn, willingly embrace sex as power, willingly put themselves on display and objectify themselves, without seeing or being aware of potential drawbacks and social implications.

dig in...do now

Begin by making a list of specific representations of sexual power you can think of in American media. Also, take a look at the media on this website tagged “sexual power” and/or “post-feminism.” Then, consider these questions:

  • Do you see sex being used as a source of power in the media? Give specific examples.
  • How often do you see a woman’s power defined by her sexuality and sex appeal in the media you watch?
  • What other kinds of power do women possess in the media? How often do you see those other representations?
  • Have you ever heard of or used the term “girl power”? If so, where have you heard it and what do you think it means?
  • Is sexual power represented in the media as more gratifying than political or economic power?