Easterly On Swimsuits

Yes a swimsuit video has sexual connotations and doesn’t emphasize all aspects of the performer, but then the same can be said of many rock concerts. Why do folks complain so much more about swimsuit vids?

When I posted that Wednesday, I hadn’t noticed William Easterly’s post from Sunday:

The relentless marketing of a “swimsuit” young female body type as sex object … has been a negative trend since the 1960s, inducing more women to be treated disrespectfully or harassed.

Easterly doesn’t explain how exactly watching swimsuit models induces disrespect and harassment, and I find it hard to see the imagined causal path.

In a trivial sense calling attention to folks with exemplary abilities or features generally makes most others look worse by comparison. But if this is “disrespect,” our media is chock full of it – swimsuit models aren’t any worse than the rest.

Perhaps men get hornier viewing swimsuit models, and then try harder to gain sex from other women. But few complain about similar effects on women from watching sexy rock stars. Or from men watching ads for sexy female clothes, or live women in swimsuits at the beach or in sexy party outfits.

Yes if any unwanted sexual advances are “harassment” then hornier men would induce more of that, but if “harassment” means advances that one should know have very little chance of success (e.g., done to humiliate or assert dominance), it is hard to see why wanting sex more should induce more useless attempts. And do we really want to discourage anything that makes men horny?

Compared to most sexy clothing ads, or to real swimsuited women at the beach, swimsuit models express a more playful submissive come-hither persona. Does this give men the misleading impression that ordinary women are more eager for sex? It is hard to see why, since most real women only rarely give such come-hither looks. If anything men should learn that this is more what a woman who eagerly wants sex might look like – if your woman doesn’t act like this, maybe she isn’t that interested.

I suspect that, as so often, the real issue here is status. When the media highlights and celebrates women who are acting submissive to men, this lowers the status of women overall relative to men. It can be ok for woman to act submissive in specialty fashion magazines, since the main audience there is presumed to be other women.  And it is apparently ok to show sitcoms where husbands submit to their wives. But for those eager to raise fem status, submissive swim-suiters are a no-no.

Added: Katja also responds to Easterly here.

Added 8a: In an email, Easterly elaborates:

The causal mechanism I have in mind is that marketers have greatly expanded the supply of a consumer product — the image of woman as sex object — which is complementary to the demand for real women to be sex objects. Hence, more women get treated as sex objects, leading to more disrespectful treatment and harassment.

Added 2p: In a post, Easterly elaborates further:

I don’t think this debate hinges on an empirical claim. Nobody decides whether to use the N-word or not based on randomized controlled trials of whether its use quantitatively predicts assaults on African Americans. We have a moral sense of what is respectful, how to treat our fellow human beings with dignity, how to treat them as equals, in short, what respects their individual rights. Treating women as sex objects transgresses the moral obligation to respect the rights of women.  I believe the Swimsuit Issue does that; others may disagree.

Wow – looking at swimsuit pictures violates the “rights of woman” even if the models themselves don’t mind, and no matter what the empirical consequences, yet watching real women in swimsuits is just fine?!

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