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date: 20 March 2018

Moral Regulation and Media Representations of the Female Body

Summary and Keywords

The literature on sexualization is replete with controversial debates surrounding the sexualization of the female body in multiple media formats and how various scholars have sought to understand the social significance of this phenomenon. These debates not only focus on the sheer extent of the sexualization of the female body compared to the male body but also on the types of sexualization in terms of the use of the female body for commercial purposes. Debates range from those with a protectionist theme focused on protecting young women and girls from the damaging effects of sexualization, to those that advocate the imposition of a stricter moral standard for female dress and behavior to feminist debates about the agency of women and girls who freely choose to sexualize their bodies.

Keywords: sexualization, moral regulation, power relations, the female body, media, social media, sexing processes

The Debates

Recently, I read a newspaper article from 19291 which depicted sketches of three women dressed in the fashions of the 1850s in colonial New South Wales, a British outpost that fondly and rigidly adhered to British fashions, conventions, and rituals. The caption underneath the fashionably dressed women of the 1850s, with their tightly corseted waists and pretty parasols read:

If these dignified ladies could have foreseen the fashions of 1929 they would probably have died of shock.

To the viewer, the dignity of these ladies was derived from the elaborate neck to feet ensembles they wore—dresses of exaggerated elegance and complexity, which produced tiny waists and huge rear bustles decorated with ribbons, lace, flounces, and pleating, topped off with highly decorated hats. But these were not just the fashions of the day, rather they represented the strict moral regulation that governed the lives of women (ladies and others) during the nineteenth century. By 1929, the elaborate complexity of nineteenth-century fashion had been replaced by dresses that exposed women’s legs from just below the knee and which emphasized a boyish, hipless, waistless, and flat-chested look, suggesting a level of social freedom not known to women in the 1800s.

The strict moralism reflected in fashions of the 1800s compared with the relative freedom reflected in the fashions of 1929 reminds us that throughout our printed history, women’s bodies and appearances have been sexualized into acceptable and unacceptable forms—dignified and moral versus undignified and immoral (see Cossins, 2015, and references therein)—although women’s lived experiences have never easily fallen into just two neat categories. In other words, the cultural values associated with the female body and the sexual availability of women and girls has been signified historically through the moral regulation of women’s clothing and their behavior. A contemporary example involves the cultural responses to the niqab, burqa, and burkini in some European countries (such as France, Belgium, and Switzerland),2 which contrasts with the historical movement within Western cultures towards women’s fashions that are not, overtly, associated with the moral traditions of a particular religion or ethnicity.

This article will discuss the contemporary debates surrounding the sexualization of women and girls in the media, a term that encompasses established forms (radio, television, and the printed press) as well as their virtual forms and social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc.). Although the media is “best thought of in multiple terms,” it represents “a key site of sexualisation” and a key site for debates about sexualization (Gill, 2012b, p. 484). These debates not only focus on the sheer extent of the sexualization of women compared to men but also on types of sexualization in terms of the use of the female body for commercial purposes.

Debates range from those with a protectionist theme focused on protecting young women and girls from the damaging effects of sexualization, to those that advocate the imposition of a stricter moral standard for female dress and behavior, to feminist debates about the agency of women and girls who freely choose to sexualize their bodies. Apart from some feminist contributions, rarely do these opposing debates focus on “the negative impact [of] the concentration of media ownership” in terms of gender equality:

media ownership concentration and the deregulation of the media in general have intensified the circulation of sexist images . . . and the sexualisation of women and girls. This is partly due to the market logic of constructing market niches that . . . rely on and cultivate a specific kind of gender roles. It is within this context that we find most violent content . . . with the result that advertisement[s], music and even fashion promotion are increasingly taking visual and verbal cues from pornographic content.

(Council of Europe, 2013, pp. 8–9; references omitted)

Because the issue of gender inequality is typically missing from debates about sexualization, this article goes beyond issues of choice and harm by considering the phenomenon of sexualization as part of the ongoing historical processes of moral regulation. As such, the aim is to relocate debates about a loss of moral standards versus women’s choice to a discussion about the role of moral regulation in constituting individual identities. Societal modes of moral regulation (individual, group, and institutional) not only have the power to construct (or sexualize) one body differently from another but produce different relations of power between differently sexed bodies. In particular, I argue that media representations of the female body are ways of morally regulating women and girls and of creating differential, gendered relations of power. From the bustle of the 1850s to the “risqué” revelation of ankle and calf in the fashions of the 1920s to the first bikini in 1946, women have made choices about their bodies within cultures governed by moral regulatory systems.

The article begins with a discussion of the theory of sexualization and the processes of creating cultures, including how different disciplines understand the terms, “sexualization,” and “objectification.” This is followed by the theory of moral regulation and its applicability to debates on sexualization, in particular, how media representations of the body constitute identity formation which is consonant with a system of moral regulation.

Creating Cultures: Sexualization of the Female Body in the Media

There is an extensive literature on the “sexualization” or “pornification” of girls and women (see, for example, Attwood, 2006, 2009; Bailey, 2011; Barker & Duschinsky, 2012; Dines, 2010; Durham, 2008; Duits & van Zoonen, 2006, 2011; Duschinsky, 2013; Gill, 2009, 2012a, 2012b; Lamb, 2010; Levy, 2005; McNair, 2002; Peterson, 2010) and the development of sexualized cultures which entail “the commodification of sex” (McNair, 2002, p. 87) and the projection of adult sexuality onto children and adolescents.

Since 1979, when Goffman (1979) published his book on the depictions of masculinity and femininity in advertisements, the contrast between the ways in which male and female bodies have been depicted in the media has been the subject of considerable academic debate, including the power dynamics implicit in images of muscular men with straight gazes and thin, scantily clad women with far-away looks. Indeed, based on the number of newspaper articles, commentaries, and blogs about the harms associated with the sexualization of women and girls, it is also a topic of community concern.3

While Goffman (1979) did not specifically tackle the concept of sexualization, in the last two to three decades, academics, bloggers, and journalists have argued that Western cultures, including media representations, has become “sexualized” (see reviews by American Psychology Association, 2007; Bailey, 2011; Papadopoulos, 2010) resulting in a new level of objectification of girls and women as a result of pornographic images “permeating ‘mainstream’ contemporary culture” (Gill, 2012b, pp. 483–484). With “a ‘porn chic’ aesthetic” (Gill, 2012b, pp. 484) signaling a new moral order, contemporary Western cultures have been vividly described as embodying “the rise of raunch culture” (Levy, 2005, p. 29) and the “amazing expanding pornosphere” (McNair, 2002, p. 37), resulting in not only more permissive sexual attitudes but greater toleration of the sexual exploitation of (mostly female) bodies for commercial purposes.

At the same time, men have also become increasingly sexualized in traditional and social media (Barker & Duschinsky, 2012), with some commentators believing that this particular phenomenon means that men and women are equally objectified (‘Over a Quarter of Men,’ 2016) or that men are more so (R. L., 2016). However, studies report significant differences in the meanings ascribed to the sexualized male body compared to the sexualized female body (Barker & Duschinsky, 2012; Hatton & Trautner, 2011; Rohlinger, 2002).

Before discussing these meanings in more detail, what does the term “sexualization” mean? According to Duschinsky (2013), it means different things to different disciplines and to different political groups. It has been used within psychoanalytical discourse to describe the projection of sexual desire as a defense mechanism, and also to describe the process of child sexual abuse by offenders, particularly the grooming process (Berliner & Conte, 1990).

The more common usage of sexualization derives from its deployment by journalists, academics, and concerned parents to describe the ubiquitous objectification of girls and female adolescents in contemporary media which focus “heavily on sexual appearance, physical beauty, and sexual appeal to others” (Ward, 2016, p. 560). In its examination of the psychological effects of the sexualization of girls via the media, the American Psychology Association (APA) (2007, p. 1) defined sexualization as a process that occurs when:

  • a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;

  • a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;

  • a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision-making; and/or

  • sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

This definition means that the APA (2007) framed the sexualization of girls and women “as a broad cultural phenomenon,” involving not only media content but also “interpersonal interactions” (Ward, 2016, p. 562), with “an extraordinarily wide range of material that could be understood as ‘sexual’” (Gill, 2012b, p. 491). Whether via a cultural response or personal interactions, “sexualization” is understood to be an action or process that endows a passive recipient with a sexual value (Duschinsky, 2013, p. 139) such that the sexed body’s identity is based on its use by, and pleasure for, others, with numerous psychological studies highlighting the harmful effects of long-term exposure to sexualized images (discussed below).

Objectification and sexualization are terms that have frequently been used to describe the “mal-socialization” of girls “by causing [children’s] premature entry into adult forms of sexual subjectivity” (Duschinsky, 2013, pp. 140–141). With the proliferation of child pornography on the Internet and sexualized images of children in the mainstream media, we cannot ignore the fact that even the bodies of children are sexualized and inscribed with cultural meanings of desire in literature, the media, advertisements, film, and pornography.

The APA’s (2007) definition of sexualization is, however, premised on a passive subject who suffers harm, as if all forms and types of sexualization will result in some degree of psychological harm to the person being objectified. The definition does not recognize that while a person can be sexualized by others, she can also sexualize herself by engaging in active social/sexual practices as part of developing a gender identity (West & Zimmerman, 1987; Cossins, 2000). As such, the above definition of the processes that lead to sexualization do not take account of the agency of the person being objectified and fails to recognize that many girls and women actively self-objectify by constructing a sexuality that equates sexual appeal and sexual availability with self-esteem, with some suggesting this amounts to a rational choice to offer “their bodies to men in exchange for attention and acceptance” (Opplinger, 2008, p. 205). However, individual girls’ “social and material” conditions should also be considered (Duits & van Zoonen, 2011, p. 495) in order to understand how they negotiate, challenge, or resist the power relations within a sexualized culture which may involve a rational choice to construct a particular sexuality in order to situate themselves within a set of power relations which provides limited opportunities for gender identity.

Gill (2012b, pp. 484–485) explains that academics, politicians, commentators, and journalists disagree about the social significance of sexualization and its social consequences, with at least three competing positions: (i) the public morals position; (ii) the democratizing sex position; and (iii) various feminist positions. The first argues that the sexualization of women and girls reflects a decline in moral standards. With constructions of the female body based on conservative concepts of “public decency,” a “sexualized culture is regarded as profane and debased” (Gill, 2012b, p. 485), resulting in the moral corruption of innocent girls and a return to debates about female sexuality being “either of purity or sexual availability” (Duschinsky, 2013, p. 145), arguments that have historically underpinned the moral regulation of women.

By contrast, the democratizing sex approach regards sexualization “from an optimistic, sometimes celebratory perspective,” with everyone now free to express sexual desire and free to access the “pornosphere” without negative consequences (Gill, 2012b, p. 485; citing McNair, 2002). This approach also posits that the rise of a permissive culture has resulted in a phenomenon called “girl power”:

Along with marketing executives promoting their goods, many adolescents embrace these products as a harmless and fun way to wield sexual power, defending their right to express themselves through “Porn Star” T-shirts and “Hot Buns” hot pants, and dismissing those who object as dour, repressed.

(Pollet & Hurwitz, 2004)

By contrast, some ethnographic studies reveal that female adolescents’ stories “of resistance to and negotiation of sexualisation . . . speak[ing] . . . in their own way, against the occurrence of a simple process of internalization of sexualization” (Duits & van Zoonen, 2011, p. 502).

The “sex positive” feminist position makes a similar argument that women are not victims of sexualization but “producers and consumers of ‘sexual’ material—in ways that break significantly with constructions of women as passive and asexual.” A similar but distinct feminist position “explores contemporary sexualization as a post-feminist and neoliberal phenomenon linked to consumerism and discourses of celebrity, choice, and empowerment” (Gill, 2012b, p. 486).

Other feminists consider that contemporary sexualized cultures have introduced a “‘retro sexism’ . . . in which objectifying representations of women are wrapped up in a feisty discourse of fake empowerment” (Gill, 2012b, p. 486; citing Levy, 2005; Whelehan, 2000). This argument also recognizes that with commercial exploitation at the heart of many sexualized images, “young women are unable to exercise meaningful choice even when they experience themselves as doing so.” Duschinsky (2013, p. 142) observes that when images of female agency are presented, they are “in fact hetero-normative, [and] depoliticized.” From this perspective, “girl power” is seen as being premised on a limited range of possible social and sexual behaviors with the recognition that “a mass-marketed ideal of female sexiness [is] derived from stripper culture” (Pollet & Hurwitz, 2004).

Gill (2012b, p. 486) also calls into question the empowerment gained by “a new feminine subject who ‘is incited to be compulsorily sexy and always “up for it”.’” Indeed, the contemporary “sexy,” female subject who is ubiquitous in music videos, magazine covers, newspapers, advertisements, movies, and TV is highly morally regulated with expectations about, and limits on, socially acceptable, “sexy” behaviors.

Arguably, the social sites that constitute “girl power” are sites that young women can easily occupy since they are premised on a particular gender performance through hetero-normative, sexual display, compared to cultural sites of economic and social power which are traditionally constituted by groups of men whose power is not contingent on sexual display and performance.

So, are girls and women constructing themselves and being constructed as sexual playthings as part of the insidious commercialization of Western culture, or are they freely and autonomously choosing a sexualized form of empowerment not available to previous generations of women and girls? Indeed, are the above different positions on the social significance of sexualization necessarily inconsistent? As I argue below, within these different positions is the implicit recognition of a system of moral regulation.

Sexualization and Relations of Power

In this article, my aim is to relocate debates about a loss of moral standards versus women’s choice to a discussion about the role of moral regulation in constituting individual identities. Societal modes of moral regulation (individual, group, and institutional) not only have the power to sex (or sexualize) one body differently from another but to produce different relations of power between differently sexed bodies.

While discourses on sexualization tend to focus on innocent children and adolescents who are incapable of making rational decisions about how they express their sexualities, it is necessary to recognize that the processes of sexualization, from commercial to individual, are regulatory processes that proscribe what is and is not culturally acceptable and which can be co-opted for particular political agenda even if “girl power” appears to disrupt traditional relations of power. Duschinsky (2013, p. 152) recognizes that:

in order to move past the problems with the debate on “sexualisation,” we need to critique depictions of young women as either devoid of choice or exercising untrammelled choice, and as either innocent children or as responsible neo-liberal agents.

While Gill (2012b, p. 488) warns of the noncritical acceptance of studies that assume that people are “passive dupes who unquestioningly and uncritically absorb media messages,” and Duits and van Zoonen (2011) discuss strategies of resistance by young women, Ward (2016) argues that the cumulative effects of sexualized images must be taken into account, while people’s rational interpretations of sexualized images may not match their unconscious or emotional choices.

Rather than the “stark opposition between agency or oppression” (Duschinsky, 2013, p. 152), it is necessary to recognize that young women are agentic subjects in that they make choices to sexualize their bodies in the context of a moral regulatory framework that limits or regulates those choices of self-objectification, as well as choices to resist the ubiquitous messages of sexualization within media cultures. In other words, women and girls make choices “in the context of material and gendered inequalities” (Duschinsky, 2013, p. 152) which are premised on the cultural values associated with male and female bodies. While the term, “sexualization” may not be considered to be the same as self-objectification (Ward, 2016), arguably they are both forms of moral regulation. Indeed, sexualization might be more accurately defined as a way of morally regulating others while self-objectification involves processes of morally regulating the self. While both processes do not necessarily have the same moral foundation or social purpose, the latter is likely to be informed by the moral values associated with the former.

On the other hand, a sole focus on the sexual aspects of the body as implied by the term “sexualization” tends to:

ignor[e] differences and obscur[e] the fact that different people are “sexualized” in different ways and with different meanings. Sexualization does not operate outside of processes of gendering, racialization and classing.

(Gill, 2012a, p. 741)

What is useful about the term, “sexualization,” however, is the message of sexual availability that is implicit in it. While sexually available representations of women and girls have, historically, cluttered our cultural histories, these representations were class-based and confined to representations of working-class girls (Boniface, 1994; Cossins, 2000). Today, the sexualization of girls is a much more widespread phenomenon with traditional and social media being the “biggest source of ‘sexualized’ representations” (Gill, 2009, p. 140). Even though our so-called “sexualized culture” represents “the public shift to more permissive sexual attitudes” and a preoccupation with sexual scandals and controversies (Attwood, 2006, p. 78), scandals, controversies, and panics about sex and the female body have a long history (Cossins, 2015) so that cultures are sexualized irrespective of whether they promote permissive or strict sexual attitudes. But with today’s emphasis on “male hedonism and female exhibitionism” (Attwood, 2006, p. 83), sexual images, sexual revelations, exhibitionism, and voyeurism are permitted and encouraged “as never before” (McNair, 2002, p. ix), not only for adults but also for children.

Although the female body appears to accrue power as a sexualized subject because “[a]ctive participation in ‘sexualized’ culture is, it seems, read as an expression of agency and power for women” (Gill, 2012b, p. 491), real social power arises from access to, and participation in, economic and/or political institutions (Connell, 1995, 2002). Indeed, the relations of power inherent in modern conceptions of sex and sexualization have not always been recognized, with the power to sexualize and the choice to be sexualized being dependent upon social inequalities. For example, female sexuality can be depicted and acted out in terms of “‘low’ characteristics” as in “obscene or bawdy culture” (Attwood, 2006, p. 85) or in terms of “classy,” bourgeois sexuality, although both represent constructed positions of power, with a short step from classy to bawdy, given the prevailing social values associated with the female body (Cossins, 2003). This means that male hedonism and female exhibitionism are both morally regulated sexualities which represent different social positions of power. As well, girls’ and women’s resistance to media representations of sexualization in the form of headscarves or full body coverage (Duits & van Zoonen, 2006, 2011) constitute another type of sexualization. Whatever the apparel, from the (“modest”) effects of full coverage to the (“risqué”) revelation of different parts of the female body, all are ways of sexualizing the female body.

Moral regulation of male and female bodies has historically taken place through what many describe as “gender stereotyping,” which is defined as a “set of beliefs concerning attributes that are supposed to differentiate women and men” (Tartaglia & Rollero, 2015, p. 1103).4 I have previously theorized that the sexualization of female bodies through so-called gender stereotyping is more accurately described as the “sexing process” (Butler, 1990, 1993; Gatens, 1996; Grosz, 1994, 1995; Cossins, 2003) which involves the recognition of the cultural significance ascribed to sex by individuals, institutions and cultures. In particular, the sexed bodies approach discerns “the cultural meanings that are ascribed to the sexual characteristics of different bodies and the experiences that derive from the cultural significance ascribed to sex.” Bodies are sexed, culturally and historically, according to the particular values associated with maleness and femaleness so that “there is no conception of the body that is independent of the cultural values . . . ascribed to different sexual characteristics” (Cossins, 2015, p. 11). Similarly, Gill (2009, p. 141) has observed that many people:

discuss “sexualization” through a generalizing logic that conceals the uneven power relations at work. Thus we have the “pornographication of everyday life,” the sexualisation of children, “corporate paedophilia” . . . which mystify the real situation by occluding gender, race, class and age relations at work in “sexualized” visual culture.

Indeed, sexing the body based on the values associated with maleness and femaleness may have profound effects on adults and children’s “perceptions of themselves and other people, their confidence and ability, and their interest in certain activities over others”:

Given the fierce gender segregation of clothing, toys, advertising, stories, and television programmes from an early age, children are constantly primed regarding such stereotypes. As they learn gender labels and identities, they shift into gender-stereotyped play and begin to police their own, and each others, behaviours . . ., channelling towards conventionally gendered interests.

(Barker & Duschinsky, 2012, p. 306; references omitted)

As individuals monitor and regulate their own and others’ behaviors, they also make distinct moral judgments (a belief system described as “sexism”5) about differently sexed bodies. For example:

A large body of research suggests that when adult women are depicted in sexualised clothing, they are seen as less fully human . . . as having lesser minds (less capacity for thoughts and intentions), and are considered less worthy of moral consideration and treatment.

(Holland & Haslam, 2015; citing Graff, Murnen, & Smolak, 2012)

In their own study, Holland and Haslam (2016) found that young girls were viewed as having less mental capacity and as less worthy of moral consideration when wearing bikinis compared to a sundress. When study participants were told that the young girls had been subject to bullying at school, the bikini-clad girl was blamed more for the bullying than the girl in a sundress. We might also wonder about the moral judgments that could be made of a young girl wearing a niqab compared to a bikini and the extent to which the cultural significance of the headscarf would influence assessments of her mental capacity and blameworthiness.

But where do the sexed conceptions of the female body come from such that the vulnerability of a child can be so easily masked by particular types of clothing? History reveals that individuals and social discourses produce more than one type of sexed female subject, according to class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, and age, so that the cultural values associated with femaleness will always intersect with other bodily and cultural characteristics (Cossins, 2003).

Critical race feminism first recognized that women of color are not discriminated against because they are sexed as women (Crenshaw, 1991) but that “race, class and ethnicity overlap with and contest” the sexing processes that constitute the values associated with women’s bodies (Cossins, 2003, p. 90). An intersectional analysis recognizes that a description of the cultural values associated with the female body solely in terms of sexual characteristics obscures the cultural values that are also derived from race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability. Thus, there is no single sexed female subject but a multiplicity of sexed female subjects that are sexed, raced, classed, and “ethnicized” (Brah & Phoenix, 2004; Cho, Crenshaw, & McCall, 2013; Crenshaw, 1991; Harris, 1990; Lutz, Herrera Vivar, & Supik, 2016; McCall, 2005; Razack, 1996; Verloo, 2006; Yuval-Davis, 2006).

It is also necessary to recognize that “different inequalities are dissimilar because they are differently framed” (Verloo, 2006, p. 221) with different social impacts, historically speaking, and “some social divisions . . . [being] more important than others in constructing specific positionings” (Yuval-Davis, 2006, p. 203).

Nonetheless, intersectionality as a concept has both strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, “it reflects on ‘otherness’ and strives to avoid essentialized, fixed and homogenized assumptions of identities,” thus ceasing to marginalize “the effects of other differences on women” (Ludvig, 2006, p. 246). On the other hand, the concept embodies an “insurmountable complexity . . . because the list of differences is endless.” Thus, “[i]t is impossible to take into account all the differences that are significant at any given moment” (Ludvig, 2006, p. 246) and impossible to estimate the social disadvantages that accrue from the accumulation of multiple differences. This is something that individual women struggle with since it can be difficult to pinpoint the particular difference that has resulted in their particular experiences of discrimination (Buitelaar, 2006; Ludvig, 2006).

Since it appears to be impossible to interrogate the impact of such differences simultaneously, Ludvig (2006) discusses how the social meanings associated with the female body can be understood by considering the impact of specific historical times and places in relation to how women construct their identities but also how cultures construct structural differences between different women. Indeed, individuals choose to emphasize or de-emphasize particular cultural differences in their own attempts to construct meanings associated with their bodies with some women privileging, for example, their nationality or religion over their sex or class.

Because subject positions are always relational and historical, and because within races, classes, ethnicities, and religions, bodies are differentiated according to their sex, with the “virgin/whore complex permeat[ing] all cultures” (Duits & van Zoonen, 2006, p. 111), this article’s focus is on interrogating sexualization as a concept, that is, the cultural significance of the female body at specific historical times and places, in particular, present-day media representations of the heteronormative female body.

As I explain below, these complexities and the complexity of the sexualized subject can also be understood within a moral regulatory framework.

But first, some history. It was in the Victorian period that female sexuality and the female body became a critical issue for social commentators and legislators. The values associated with the female body today can be traced to the values ascribed to the female body from at least the early 1800s (Cossins, 2015). Nineteenth-century sexing processes produced representations of female sexuality that were class-specific. Out of the two predominant representations of women emerged a female body that was both a paradox and a contradiction. On the one hand, representations of women were based upon a dichotomy between the naturally passive, virginal and selfless wife and mother who had a “natural” resistance to venal passions and thus embodied the needs of men and the state (reproduction and wifehood). On the other hand, the woman who had yielded to her unnatural passions was “the sexually aggressive harlot” (Levene, Nutt, & Williams, 2005, p. 15) who was outcast because she defied the strict codes of conduct governing the female body (but paradoxically supplied other needs). When a woman breached the norms associated with the sexed female body, she was deemed irrational or wicked and accused of “forgetting her sex,” often being represented as a mythical figure of power and destruction (Knelman, 1998). In fact, the construction of the “defiled women” through these processes of moral regulation justified her sexualization and, often, her sexual exploitation.

The nineteenth-century female body and standards of female sexuality were subject to the political and economic forces that sought to set the middle classes apart from their working-class “inferiors”—the tamed sexuality of the middle-class female body became the standard for all other representations of women, providing the boundaries for the moral regulation of middle- and working-class women and the line that respectable women would cross to their eternal disgrace. In this way, both sex and class intersected to produce diametrically opposed but complementary sexed female bodies since all women’s reputations were based on the innate sexuality of the sexed female body (dormant or out of control). Moral regulation of the female body meant that rigid discipline was necessary to avoid a descent into darkness.

As discussed below, if moral regulation involves the imposition of moral standards by formal state-based and non-state-based activities, which “entail long-term processes of normalization” (Corrigan & Sayer, 1985), the above discussion shows that the nineteenth-century female body was a sexed (or sexualized) body. The essentialist qualities associated with the condition of being female determined the endemic moral regulation that governed the boundaries of women’s lives, creating complementary, oppositional bodies—the modest, obedient, and chaste mother and wife (the Victorian ideal as manifested in the fashions of the 1850s) complemented by the dissolute, shameless harlot. Today, the terminology may be somewhat different but similar cultural values associated with the female body still influence our contemporary constructions of women and girls into dichotomized categories (“sluts” and “good” girls) even if they are more likely to be challenged by young women. Such challenges include the international phenomenon of “SlutWalks,” which was initiated in 2011 after a Canadian police officer informed university students that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised” (Ringrose & Renold, 2012, p. 333).

Moral Regulation of the Female Body: General Theory6

It is possible to interrogate the meaning, norms, and premises of sexualization by considering this phenomenon within a broader context of moral regulation, a process which produces a set of complex power relations (which change over time and place) and which construct and differentiate between different bodies.

Hier (2002, p. 317) has argued that the ways people “conceptualize themselves and [how] their social positions are situated within the normative and historical parameters of a particular social and moral order” amount to a system of moral regulation. Such a system:

serves to facilitate the consolidation of state power by having certain epistemological social arrangements appear to the citizenry as both natural and inevitable.

(Hier, 2002, p. 324)

When Corrigan and Sayer (1985) introduced the term into contemporary sociological debate, they envisaged moral regulation as being “coextensive with state formation” which is always underpinned “by a particular moral ethos” (Hier, 2011, p. 525). As a way of legitimating the state, moral regulation is part and parcel of citizen formation (Corrigan & Sayer, 1985, p. 4), involving the imposition of moral standards by long-term, formal, and informal processes. These processes aim to make “changes in the conduct and ethical subjectivity of individuals” (Hunt, 1999, pp. ix, 17) by encouraging self-monitoring and governance, as well as reaffirming the identity of the regulator (Hier, 2002, pp. 328–329). As such, these processes ultimately create cultures as we know them, giving rise to “manners, customs, rituals and routines” (Hier, 2011, p. 525), including culturally accepted behaviors deemed to be masculine or feminine.

If, according to Hunt (1999, 2003, 2011), the state is a unified monolith of moral regulation and discipline, “[t]he moral code is not merely for public display and enforcement; it penetrates and helps constitute individual identity in its most intimate forms” (Critcher, 2009, p. 19). Through these individual and social processes the coercive powers of the state are asserted and legitimated, constituting us all as moral subjects within a broader system that seeks to persuade or coerce individuals to exercise certain moral customs and rituals.

In talking about moral regulation it is also necessary to turn our minds to moral panics, since a moral regulation framework reveals the everyday discourses and forms of control that enable moral panics to surface which arise from and contribute to “ongoing moral regulation processes.” Their initiation appears to depend on a (perceived) breakdown in routine regulatory processes (Hier, 2011, p. 533) which is recognisable in the rhetoric of politicians and news reports which regularly carry messages of alarm about certain people (such as asylum-seekers and terrorists) or a decline in moral standards. In a morally regulated society, where individuals make regular decisions about self-governance, moral panics represent a perceived absence of individual responsibility which legitimates further control—as if the public needs “softening up” before it will accept another level of moral regulation.

Indeed, processes of objectification are implicated in the control and moral regulation of others and may result in “profoundly negative societal change such as genocide and mass killings,” as well as “societal structures that, in less overt ways, harm groups of people and trample their civil and human rights” (Zurbriggen, 2013, p. 188). In other words, processes of objectification result in differential power relations between individuals and between groups. By contrast, self-objectification “has not been linked directly to societal change” (Zurbriggen, 2013, p. 188). While “objectification is something that dominant group members do to members of a target group, self-objectification is something that members of the target group do to themselves” (Zurbriggen, 2013, p. 189).

For example, past and present societies have been obsessed with the moral regulation of the female body, objectifying it into idealized, dichotomized forms which focus on bodily display and performance but which neatly match the moral and economic expectations of women at specific times. The identities of both women and men are constituted through these processes since conceptions of masculinity arise from delineating the values and behaviors associated with the sexed female body. When women and men perform gender, and sex their bodies, they do so in a context of moral regulation, with particular moral codes differing across time and cultures.

The limitation of moral regulation theory is that it does not engage with the structures of power that arise as a result of relationships based on sex, race, ethnicity, religion, and class and the manipulation of concepts of morality, standards, and harm when state power is contested. It is necessary to engage with the relations of power that determine what is “moral,” why one sex is more prone to regulation on the grounds of “immorality,” and what forms of regulation will be imposed. Thus, a moral regulation framework must recognize that we are not all equal, in that moral regulatory processes do not affect all of us in the same way, with selective moral regulation of, for example, men and women, gays and straights, blacks and whites, Christians and non-Christians able to be traced historically.

Concepts of moralization and harm are contingent on the classed, raced, and sexed body that is implicated in the moralizing process, with that process both constituting the body and creating the context in which increased surveillance, objectification, and regulation may occur. This is exemplified in debates about the dangerous other (such as terrorists, murderers, “illegal” immigrants) whose “otherness” is constructed through processes of objectification. By taking this argument further, it is possible to identify the sexing (or sexualizing) processes that construct the “immoral” body and the culturally acceptable “sexy” body. While different cultural forms, such as the media, depict men and women in various sexed ways, the presentation of the female body as sexualized versus hypersexualized (as defined by Hatton & Trautner, 2011) carries particular moral meanings about the values ascribed to that body.

For example, the debates and legal interventions in some European countries about banning the clothing worn by Muslim women constitute a site of moral regulation: “public discourse construes controversial sartorial choices of girls as a locus of necessary regulation, whereas deviant clothing for boys is framed in the realm of freedom of speech and (thus) exempt from intervention” (Duits & van Zoonen, 2006, p. 104). By contrast, the particular “decency” arguments about the clothing of Western women (such a g-strings and crop tops) are not made by those opposing headscarves and full body coverage: “[w]hereas Islam’s claims about the necessity to cover hair and face involve a particular understanding of decency, adversaries frame the headscarf as a marker of other kinds of issues.” But “what holds the two seemingly separate debates about headscarves and porno-chic together is the regulation of girls’ sexuality” (Duits & van Zoonen, 2006, pp. 110–111). In other words, the differential moral regulation of Muslim and non-Muslim women and girls reveals how religion and sex intersect to produce opposing but complementary sexed female bodies, with both constructs premised on the cultural values associated with that body. While religion is important in this intersection, it is the sex of the body that invites the moral regulation, since as discussed below, the male Muslim body does not attract similar regulation.

Moral Regulation of the Female Body: Power or Powerlessness?

If contemporary “sexualized” culture risks becoming a new mode of governmentality in which a confident sexual agency is not outside power but is central to a disciplinary “technology of sexiness” (Gill, 2012b, p. 493), then that disciplinary power arises from a system of moral regulation. However, a return to stricter, Victorian-style moral regulation of the female body (to restore the so-called “decline” in moral standards) is not the answer. Rather, those who worry about the harms associated with sexualization must address the social inequalities that posit the sexualized body as a path to real social power.

In other words, the idea that the sexualized female body today represents a form of women’s and girls’ (institutional) empowerment (Peterson, 2010) is an illusion. The positions of power represented by the sexed female body (classy or bawdy, chosen or imposed) are relative in that they are constructed by reference to the cultural values associated with the sexed male body. This produces a sex asymmetry in relation to sexed bodies: “proving that you are hot, worthy of [male] lust, and . . . that you seek to provoke lust is still exclusively women’s work” (Levy, 2005, p. 33). The sexual power to attract male attention, even if through “a modernized version of . . . femininity as feisty, sassy, and sexually agentic” (Gill, 2009, p. 149) does not necessarily accrue social power. Even with constructed sexual allure, the sexed female body has limited social and economic power compared to the sexed male body, even for celebrity bodies.

The lack of recognition of the power relations inherent in a sexualized culture masks the powerlessness associated with the sexed female body in that women’s and girls’ social power is dependent on the female body’s attributes and desirability (youth, beauty, body shape) whereas men’s social power can exist independently of the male body’s age and (sexually) desirable characteristics. Thus, representations of the male body tend not to “deploy any of the bodily gestures or postures” (Gill, 2009, p. 146) that represent ritual signifiers of powerlessness or subordination. Indeed, men’s clothing choices do not excite the social debates associated with the clothing choices of Muslim women. For example, the symbolic clothing of male “right-wing extremists [has] been classified as acts of speech, belonging in the public realm and therefore exempt from regulation” (Duits & van Zoonen, 2006, p. 114). These different responses to male and female bodies exemplify the cultural effects of moral regulation: the independent, amoral male body which sets the standard against which the contingent, “immoral” female body is measured.

In fact, “‘sexualized’ representation[s] of the male body [have] not proved incommensurable with male dominance” (Gill, 2009, p. 147), whereas a proliferation of sexualized representations of the female body has not resulted in institutionalized female dominance. An unexpected outcome of today’s sexualized culture is the adult sexualization of girls’ bodies, a phenomenon that more clearly reveals the fallacy that the sexed female body represents a form of social empowerment.

Media Representations as a Form of Moral Regulation

Various studies have undertaken empirical analyses of the type and extent of sexualized representations of women (and sometimes men) in the media, mostly in relation to advertisements, fashion magazines, music videos, and men’s magazines (see, e.g., Kang, 1997; Krassas, Blauwkamp, & Wesselink, 2003; Lindner, 2004; Rohlinger, 2002; Zotos & Tsichla, 2014). In a review of the literature, Ward (2016, p. 562; references omitted) reports that:

[s]exually objectifying portrayals of women have been noted to appear among 45.5% of young adult female characters on prime-time television . . . and among 50% of female cast members on reality programs . . . [while] 71% of [music] videos by female artists were found to contain at least one of four indicators of sexual objectification. . . . Findings consistently indicate that in TV commercials women are shown in a state of undress, exhibit more sexiness, and are depicted as sexual objects more often than men.

While media images of male and female bodies generally represent physical ideals, those ideals carry different social meanings. For example, in the 1960s, “11% of men and 44% of women on the covers of Rolling Stone were sexualized.” Four decades later, in the 2000s, “17% of men were sexualized (an increase of 55% from the 1960s), and 83% of women were sexualized (an increase of 89%),” so that “women are sexualized at the same rate as men are not sexualized” (Hatton & Trautner, 2011, p. 273, emphasis added). Among the images that were coded as sexualized, only 2% of men compared with 61% of women were hypersexualized,7 that is, in the 2000s, “there were 10 times more hypersexualized images of women than men, and 11 times more non-sexualized images of men than of women” (Hatton & Trautner, 2011, p. 273). Men were, typically, depicted in headshots with their mouths closed and looking directly into the camera, with captions usually not suggesting any sexual innuendo. By contrast, women were, typically, depicted looking away from the camera, mouths open, nude or partially nude, in suggestive poses and with captions containing some kind of sexual innuendo:

Often women . . . were shown naked (or nearly so); they were shown with their legs spread wide open or lying down on a bed—in both cases sexually accessible; they were shown pushing up their breasts or pulling down their pants; they were described as having “dirty minds” or giving “nasty thrills”; and, in some cases, they were even shown to be simulating fellatio or other sex acts.

(Hatton & Trautner, 2011, p. 273)

Hatton & Trautner (2011, p. 274) concluded that “hypersexualized femininity” has resulted in a cultural “narrowing” of “acceptable ways to ‘do’ femininity . . . [with] fewer competing cultural scripts for ways of doing femininity.” This degree of sexualization, in the form of hypersexualization, constitutes a change in focus of the moral regulation of the female body, appearing to turn the word “moral” on its head. Arguably, nineteenth-century, dichotomized constructs of female sexuality (the virgin and the whore) are still culturally significant, although it appears that the latter has become culturally ascendant, perhaps as a result of today’s relatively permissive attitudes towards sex and sexual mores as well as the extraordinary commercial availability of pornographic imagery, which has seeped into our cultural consciousness as men and women renegotiate relations of power.

Do media images of women and girls amount to sexual objectification and, therefore, the moral regulation of women? Hatton and Trautner (2011, p. 273) argue that by comparing male and female images on the covers of Rolling Stone, that is, the relative degree of sexualization, sexual objectification is the only possible conclusion since:

[t]he accumulation of sexualized attributes in these [hypersexualized] images leaves little room . . . to interpret them in any way other than as instruments of sexual pleasure . . . . Such images do not show women as sexually agentic musicians and actors; rather, they show [them] as ready and available for sex. . . . [T]he dramatic increase in hypersexualized images of women . . . indicates a decisive narrowing or homogenization of media representations of women.

(Hatton & Trautner, 2011, pp. 273–274)

The above data about the presence of sexualized female bodies in commercialized media representations compares with the relative absence of women in news stories. One of the great paradoxes of media content is that while there is considerable evidence that reveals the increased sexualization of the female body for commercial purposes, women are virtually invisible in news reports. In 2010, the Global Media Monitoring Project survey (Gallagher, 2010, pp. viii–x) made a number of key findings including the fact that only 24% of the people heard or read about in print, radio, and television news were female, while women comprised only 23% of the news subjects in stories from the 84 news websites monitored. News reports portray a world in which men outnumber women in almost all occupational categories, while as persons interviewed or heard in the news, women appear in the “ordinary” people categories, in contrast to men who continue to predominate in the “expert” categories. In terms of news content, only 13% of all stories focus specifically on women (online media, this statistic is 11%) while 18% of female news subjects were portrayed as victims compared to 8% of male subjects in the print media. Overall, 46% of stories reinforced gender stereotypes, almost eight times more than stories that challenged such stereotypes (6%) (online data was 42% vs. 4%).

Does it matter that women appear in so few media news stories but proliferate as sexualized subjects in other media forms? Does this proliferation affect how women and girls construct their identities and values themselves? While both men’s and women’s bodies are packaged “to sell everything from chain saws to chewing gum” (Kilbourne, 1999, p. 26), advertisements, for example, convey much more than information about the products up for sale; they also represent and reinforce specific cultural values about bodies, their class, race, religion, ethnicity, and sex, although sexualized representations vary according to different cultural mores (Tartaglia & Rollero, 2015).

It is generally agreed that women in advertisements are depicted in ways that suggest their social subordination to men, as a result of images that position them as passive, dependent, child-like, nonworking, seductive, delicate, ornamental, and/or vulnerable (Davies, Spencer, Quinn, & Gerhardstein, 2002; Eisend, 2010; Goffman, 1979; Mager & Helgeson, 2011; Plakoyiannaki & Zotos, 2009; Rohlinger, 2002; Tartaglia & Rollero, 2015; Zotos & Tsichla, 2014). It is also without doubt that “women”s image and the role that women play in the media are heavily influenced by existing social and cultural norms’ since “[n]ever before in history have media played such a major role in the socialisation of human beings and become such an integral and constant part of people’s everyday lives” (Council of Europe, 2013, pp. 3, 5), with exposure to sexualized images of women and girls almost unavoidable.

Because of the extent to which the media morally regulate bodies through the processes of sexualization, one key research question is to consider the impact of exposure to sexualized images. Do sexualized images affect women’s and girls’ perceptions of themselves? Do these images affect men’s attitudes towards women and girls? Ward (2016) answered these questions by reviewing all English-language studies that had examined the effects of exposure to sexually objectifying media between 1995 and 2015. She concluded that:

both laboratory exposure and regular, everyday exposure to this content are directly associated with . . . higher levels of body dissatisfaction, greater self-objectification, greater support of sexist beliefs and of adversarial sexual beliefs, and greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women.

(Ward, 2016, p. 560)

In terms of their effects on men, exposure to sexually objectifying images of women and girls appears to be associated with men’s “greater objectification of their romantic partners” (Ward, 2016, p. 566). These processes of sexualization also result in self-objectification and moral regulation by women and girls through “habitual body monitoring” (Ward, 2016, p. 561) and moral regulation by others, with social interactions dependent on the values associated with the sexed female body. Zurbriggen (2013, p. 191; quoting Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) explains that the “pervasiveness” of constantly “being observed and evaluated for one’s appearance” leads:

women to internalize the perspective of an observer, which interferes with agency and autonomy. This internalized objectified perspective . . . focus[es] on appearance (how the body/self appears, and whether this appearance is pleasing to others) as opposed to a focus on action and performance (what the body can do).

Sexualized imagery in the media also has more subtle effects, including the promotion of sexist attitudes about women’s competency and intelligence, tolerance of sexual harassment and violence towards women and girls, lower perceptions of their worthiness as human beings (Ward, 2016), and higher degrees of blameworthiness if attacked or bullied (Holland & Haslam, 2016; Loughnan, Pina, Vasquez, & Puvia, 2013).

Thus, the identities of women and girls are formed within highly regulated moral cultures where body shape, age, attractiveness, dress, and performance can have significant impacts on their perceptions of not only themselves but of others towards them. Overall, the literature shows that the moral regulation of a woman or girl through the processes of sexualization which position her as a sexual object, devalues her moral worth in the eyes of others and justifies behaviors such as sexual harassment, violence, and humiliation. The instrumental nature of sexualization means that sexualized imagery encourages men to interact with women and girls in terms of “how they can be used to serve [men’s] own purposes,” to ignore their physical boundaries, their subjective experiences, their autonomy, and, thus, their humanity (Zurbriggen, 2013, p. 191; quoting Nussbaum, 1995). Indeed, the descriptions of objectification that justify mass murder or genocide are similar to the objectification that results in violence towards women.

Bringing It all Together

It is clear that the processes of sexualization that are discussed in the literature involve the creation of cultures as we know them, within which individual identities are constituted and relations of power both determine and reinforce the cultural values associated with differently sexed, raced, and classed bodies. As such, I have sought to place the research on sexualization in the context of a system of moral regulation by highlighting the role of self- and other-policing as part of state formation and legitimation.

By positioning sexualization as a manifestation of a moral regulatory framework that governs women’s and men’s lives, this enables a broader conversation to occur about the subtle, social influences on the female body, the agentic choices women and girls make in response to those influences (acceptance, endorsement, acquiescence, resistance, and/or rebellion), and options for change. Compared to other theories, such as objectification theory, which appears to view men and women as passive recipients of socialization, moral regulation recognizes the active social engagement of bodies through self-objectification and other-objectification.

The effectiveness of a system of moral regulation arises from self-policing and the policing of others, both of which are strategies that are reinforced through institutionalized representations of men and women throughout the life course. The historically limited and morally constituted definitions of femininity and masculinity that we see in media representations of sexualized male and female bodies, whether in advertising, print, film, television, pornography, or social media invite policing by peer groups in the form of conformity and bullying, and self-policing in the form of bodily scrutiny and attainment of unrealistic ideals.

More particularly, should we care if women and girls choose to self-objectify and sexualize their bodies? Is there any place for a “moral” position to be taken without returning to Victorian-style debates about whores and virgins? Arguably, performance of sexualized forms of femininity and media depictions of hypersexual images of women (as defined by Hatton & Trautner, 2011) comes at a cost to the psycho-social development of young women and girls, their autonomy, and their safety since “sexualised images may legitimize or exacerbate violence against women and girls” (Hatton & Trautner, 2011, p. 258), reinforce endemic sexist attitudes which may affect women and girls’ access to employment, as well as lead to health problems as a result of increased rates of body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders (APA, 2007). But it also comes at a cost of women obtaining institutional power in the ways that men, for centuries, have derived their social power.

Returning to the image that opened this article, there is probably not much that would make any of us die of shock in terms of women’s and girls’ fashion choices or the ways they are depicted in the media. But what if there came a time when media images of women and girls celebrated what their bodies (and minds) achieved, rather than what their bodies looked like?

Such a question takes us to another: is there such a thing as a nonsexualized body? The answer from this article appears to be no—that conceptions of the female body outside of the moral regulatory systems of Western cultures do not (presently) exist.

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(1.) C. A. Henderson, Sydney Mail, January 30, 1929, p. 11.

(4.) Gender stereotyping needs to be differentiated from the cultural values associated with bodies of different sex (sexing). Gender and sex are not the same, in that gender describes the active social practices that differentiate male and female bodies into “masculine” and “feminine,” although masculinities and femininities are also associated with class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, disability, and so on.

(5.) Sexism can be described as a set of beliefs or moral judgments based on the cultural values associated with the female body which vary historically and affect how different bodies are morally regulated.

(6.) This is an abbreviated version of the theory of moral regulation taken from my recent work: Cossins (2015).

(7.) Hatton and Trautner (2011, p. 257) defined “hypersexualization” as the combination of a number of “sexualized attributes,” including body position, extent of nudity, and textual cues, which, together, “narrow[ed] the possible interpretations of the image to just, as de Beauvoir (1949) wrote, ‘the sex.’”