Our culture has a twisted way of dealing with female sexuality. On the upside, women are placed on pedestals as pretty objects to peer at; however on the downside, we’re threatened with violence and control. Attractive women are featured as victims in all forms of media: they’re the dead bodies or rape victims in horror movies, action thrillers, and television crime dramas; they’re the abused women in Lifetime movies; they’re in print and Internet ads as dismembered, sexual body parts, or they’re striking corpse-like, dominated, or submissive poses in Vogue. As if being victims of violence weren’t enough, those victims are usually portrayed in various stages of undress, which further communicates vulnerability.
To be fair, women are not merely portrayed as sexy victims — we’re also the sexy perpetrators. (Yay?) We use our sexuality as weapons against men, threatening them with temptation and making them vulnerable. But the femme fatale fetish is merely the other side of the same coin. It all goes back to a sexually repressed culture that still hasn’t gotten over its virgin/whore complex. Both victim and femme fatale imply that female sexuality is dangerous and must be controlled. This is also reflected in our cultural attitudes about virginity, sex education, unwed mothers, and abortion.
“Torture porn” is a recent trend in the horror film genre that features exceedingly graphic violence. The terminology itself links violent imagery with sexuality. Although the films do not necessarily involve sex, they often show nude or partially dressed women being pursued, captured, raped, tortured, and murdered — therefore making the name quite appropriate. Torture porn is meant to shock, disgust, and degrade more than to frighten and is a more extreme example of the typical forms of media violence.
And this mentality bleeds into real life. Even local news programs, while not exactly entertainment, tend to follow the same theme. They offer airtime for stories about attractive, upper-middle class, white, young, female victims of kidnapping, rape, or murder, while largely ignoring less stereotypically attractive, poor, or minority victims. Is it really true that only cute little blond girls, suburban teenagers, or pretty college coeds get victimized? Of course not, but the media treats those stories as the most compelling. They’re just more sympathetic victims, apparently.
The regular depiction of attractive women as victims conveys an undercurrent of hostility. These images create and reflect a culture in which varying degrees of sexual aggression and domination against women are normal — even socially acceptable. Violence against barely-dressed women in the media suggests the antiquated notion that “boys will be boys,” with the unspoken implication that women can “ask for it” or “deserve it” based on what we look like, what we’re wearing, or how we act. Overt female sexuality apparently can be a causal factor for violence against us.
Hell, wearing “fuck me” heels must be practically an invitation then.
I didn’t have to try hard at all to find the large collection of images displayed here (see more below). Unfortunately, I could’ve kept going. Men are definitely portrayed as victims in the media as well, but they are not depicted in the same manner. Their lives may be threatened, but their sexuality is not. Why is this?
Violent imagery plays on women’s real fear of sexual violence. Guys may invoke prison movie shower scenes or the “squeal like a pig” scene from Deliverance as humorous ways to refer to the rape of men. It can be joked about, because the threat is far from the reality of most men. There aren’t many situations in which grown men fear sexual violation. Women live in a different world. Female sexuality paired with violence is particularly threatening because it happens, and not just when we’re in prison or on a camping trip in the backwoods of Georgia with inbred hillbilly banjo players. And even if we never personally suffer sexual violence, we live with the fear that it’s a possibility. Most of us have either been assaulted or know another woman who has. We watch the news. We’ve heard the statistics. We’re aware of our vulnerability in fighting off unwanted advances – either due to lack of physical strength or because we’re socialized to please men and we fear speaking up. We nervously glance over our shoulders while walking alone at night. We feel anxious walking past a group of leering men. We feel violated when a male acquaintance get a little too touchy-feely after a few drinks. And for good reason. Women get raped by men we don’t know. We get raped by men we thought were our friends. And we get raped by men we love.
All of this imagery reflects real world dangers for women in the rate of actual violent crime against us and also in the lessons we learn from an early age in how to protect ourselves against those dangers. We learn not to talk to strange men, walk down dark alleys alone, leave our drinks unattended, wear certain outfits, go back to the guy’s place on a first date, or to engage in similar risky behavior. As women, we learn that we’re never really safe, but it’s our responsibility to avoid being attacked. And then if we fail to take the “right” precautions, the implication is that we may have even asked for it.
There’s more than one reason why these images are scary. Individually, they could be considered entertainment. But together, they seem like a warning.