Objects don’t have sex

Image via JustJared
Image via JustJared

I didn’t watch the Superbowl, this year (or…any year) but conversations about Beyoncé’s halftime show caught my eye. On one hand, many felt that Beyoncé’s display of all-women power and sexuality was inspiring and empowering. David Henson even went so far as to call it prophetic (and I agree):

It was a dance of defiance.

For 14 minutes, women were owned by no one. Instead, for those few prophetic and powerful minutes, Beyoncé and the women onstage with her owned the night.

Last night, men, misogyny, objectification, or sexism didn’t win, even though they got most of the airtime.

Rather, last night, thanks to Beyoncé, women owned Super Bowl XLVII.

Others brought up valid criticisms, saying that they did not feel empowered by the performance and questioning what displays of power are allowed in the Super Bowl. Could a woman artist get on stage and display a less overtly sexual type of power? Probably not, and I think we do need to talk about other ways that power can be expressed.

What I can’t stand, however, are people who call themselves feminists or progressives who spent the next day shaming Beyoncé, and I saw plenty of that as I watched the Twitter response pouring in. Many said that Beyoncé objectified herself because of the way she was dressed and the way she danced.

Though I think we need to have a conversation about how few images of women are presented in the music industry, right now, I just want to talk to those progressives.

Women have bodies.

No, women (like men) are bodies.

These bodies were not made for men to conquer, steal, and objectify but for women to be.

Many, if not most women have sex from time to time using our bodies. Often we are sexual with our bodies or we use our bodies to be sexy.

This does not make us objects. Objects don’t have sex.

Men are often seen as more human, as REAL men when they are sexual, while women are accused of objectifying themselves.

But I repeat: Objects don’t have sex.

Objectification does not happen when a woman like Beyoncé decides to use her sexuality to be powerful. Objectification happens when Audi commercials show a teenaged boy kissing a teenaged girl without her permission and displaying that as bravery. Objectification happens when men doing something sexual to a woman is put on the same level as a man driving an awesome car–when women are seen as nothing more than a product to be owned as a mark of manhood (note: women often objectify men and same-sex couples objectify one another. I’m speaking about the context of the Super Bowl and patriarchy, though often the situation is more complicated).

Objectification is something one person does to another person.

Objectification is treating someone as less than human, as if their body is nothing more than a thing to be claimed or conquered or bought.

Beyoncé went on stage last night and showed the world what a talented and powerful woman she was. She sang lyrics about independence and men not being ready or able to handle her body.

Did some men ignore her songs about women’s power and independence and choose to see Beyoncé as yet another object that they could conquer in their fantasies? Undoubtedly.

But I fail to see how this was Beyoncé’s fault.

She shouldn’t have been dressed like a Victoria’s Secret model.”

Her dance moves were too sexual and just made men fantasize about her.”

Feminists and progressives, do you not realize how you sound?

I’ll tell you how you sound by quoting a conservative Christian dating book that I am reading for my research project on rape and Christianity:

“If you dress like a piece of meat, you’re going to get thrown on the barbeque.”

You sound like conservative Christian dating books promoting modesty culture and enabling rape culture.

You sound like the same culture that is telling women that dressing immodestly is like waving money around asking for people to steal it. You sound like the authors who tell teenage girls that they lose their value and dignity when they have premarital sex.

I’m done with this idea that every time a woman presents her body to the world, men get to assume “that was for us.” And you’re naive or willfully ignorant if you’re going to try to claim that objectification would not have happened had Beyoncé been more “covered up.” You’re wrong if you think a different outfit would have made a difference in carrying Beyoncé’s message.

The truth there’s nothing a woman can wear under patriarchy that will prevent patriarchal men from trying to control their bodies.

Muslim women are accused of submitting to patriarchy for covering their bodies. Beyoncé is accused of submitting to patriarchy for showing hers. Even as she’s literally singing lyrics about how men wouldn’t even be able to handle her body, men think they can claim it as an object for themselves. To say that her performance is what caused men’s objectification of her is the same talk as modesty culture which says that women must dress a certain way to keep their brothers from stumbling.

Having sex is not what objectifies women. Dressing in a “sexy” way is not what objectifies women. Women are allowed to have sex and perform sexually and be sexual and be sexy. That’s not objectifying. Again, objects don’t have sex.

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  • absolutely. loved this: “Men are often seen as more human, as REAL men when they are sexual, while women are accused of objectifying themselves.” objectification is externally projected to dehumanize. simply being uncomfortable around (or aroused by) another’s sexuality does mean that she was “objectifying herself.” ugh.

    write the book, lady. this junk runs deep.

  • Thanks Sarah, for the taking the time to write this down 🙂

  • This conversation has been category-clarifying for me. By default, I’d previously only thought in terms of two categories for sexual displays–male (power-assertion) and female (presented-for-consumption). But Beyonce’s performance was squarely in the power category, right there with Mick Jagger and Elvis Presley. Unlike, say, Justin Beiber, whose maleness doesn’t keep himself from presenting himself as an object for sexual fantasy.

    It’s such a rare thing to see femininity given any meaning apart from exploitation, that it’s easy to miss, and only see what we expect to see…

  • I love that you brought up the point that it does not matter what Beyonce wears. This was my first thought after hearing all the blow back from her performance. She could have worn a burqa and people would still think she was being overtly sexual. I also agree with you about the comments from some feminists and progressives. I read one particular comment on Henson’s blog that has really made me think. This commenter suggested that feminine power doesn’t need to be undressed and sexy to be effective. This commenter pointed to Hillary Clinton as a great example of physically modest female power. But here’s the rub. There is no middle/neutral ground for women and our bodies. Hillary is constantly chided in the media for being frumpy: “she has cankles,” “she needs a hair dresser,” “why isn’t she wearing any make-up,” “no wonder her husband cheated on her,” etc. On the other side you have Beyonce. “She’s too sexy,” “her outfit left nothing to the imagination,” “she just wants every man to know that she’s hot, but they can’t have her,” “she’s not promoting feminism because she’s too sexy,” etc. Women are frumps or sluts, virgins or whores. I’m just left confused and shaking my head. What are men afraid of? Are they afraid of sex? Of women? Of loosing power? What are women afraid of? Are we afraid of our own sexuality? Are we jealous? The truth is, what women are wearing is not important. What is important is how women are viewed and treated. How do we get to a place in our culture where people are not objectified? It seems such a difficult task.

    Sorry if I rambled. I guess I have a lot to say about this topic. Your blog posts always get me thinking. Thanks for that!

    • Elle

      I completely agree – it seems like there’s no hope sometimes, but maybe it is just a case of ‘well you can’t please everyone’ ?? I don’t know but one thing I know for sure is that this post has clarified and made sense out of all the head-scratching comments I have come across over the past couple of days since the Super Bowl. 1) Women have bodies, as do men. 2) We are bodies, as are men. 3) I shall just BE in my body as I please, sing along to Bey on my ipod as I strut down the street and *rude gesture* to the rest of the haters and complainers because, there is just no pleasing some people. Thank you Sarah for writing this brilliant post.

  • Yes, yes, yes. I posted a status on Facebook about how cool it was that Beyonce put on an all-female show and how she promotes confidence in women, and I had three different women (!) comment saying that she was objectifying herself by not wearing enough clothing and dancing suggestively. One said, I quote, Being so under-dressed and dancing like a mad woman makes it difficult for men. What a tease. Seriously? One even went so far as to tell me that because I was celebrating her show, I am anti-women. If Beyonce had been a man, NO ONE would have made comments about her clothing or dancing. The problem is, anything she could have worn might have been considered inappropriate by someone; women can never be non-sexual enough to please everyone out there. But Beyonce clearly didn’t do it to conform to other’s expectations, which is what makes her so awesome. And, like you said, there is nothing wrong with being sexy.
    Thanks for writing this!

  • Marilyn

    Are you positive those comments were from progressives? Sounds more like the bible thumpers to me.

  • Thank you! I love the article, very insightful.

  • YES! This. I get so annoyed with the either/or mentality. She is either empowering or offensive, she owned her sexuality or was objectified. Saint or sinner. And you know what is the opposite of empowering? The notion that it is up to US to define and judge another’s “empowerment” or “ownership.” That right there is what is dis-empowering, not what she wore or how she danced.That we declare ourselves judge and jury and think we have to take to twitter with our verdict. She can be empowered and people find her offensive; she can own her sexuality and people objectify her. but that is on THEM, not her.

  • Thank you for writing this– WOW! No one ever said it so well! I agree with Suzannah if you are only thinking about writing a book you definitely BETTER be writing a book! Piercing insight, hit me right between the eyes. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!! <3

  • thebrokins

    Well said!

  • Yes. This.

  • Anonymous

    So So agree

  • Hi Sarah,

    I think people are making too much of a fuss over Beyonce’s performance. Beyonce did nothing different than most female entertainers do which is use their sexuality as part of their performance. Isn’t that the standard in the entertainment industry?

    I also think that we have to be careful when we ascribe certain thoughts or responses to ideological camps. Example, “That’s a liberal (conservative) thing to say.” This tactic is often used as a pejorative to silence a person that has a differing view that does not fit into the tidy boxes of “liberal” or “conservative”. It is divisive and denies that ‘truth’ can be found in another ideological camp. People live complex lives and thus have opinions or beliefs that can range from ‘liberal’ to ‘conservative’.

    Personally, I thought Beyonce’s performance was good. I did not like what she wore. Given the nature of her dance moves, I would have preferred something else. I honestly believe that we are either being too critical and/ or ascribing too much in terms of power and feminist ideals to Beyonce’s performance.

  • Anonymous

    I thought Beyonce gave a fantastic performance and her outfit was absolutely stunning. Maybe I’m. Just prudish because I would have preferred a less crotch-centric dance performance but I don’t find it classy when male performers thrust and grind either.

  • Best post ever!!!

  • YESSSSSSSSS!!!! Thank you for posting this. You may like this awesome Talk about manhood: http://www.ted.com/talks/colin_stokes_how_movies_teach_manhood.html?source=facebook#.UQ7DM3fmYCg.facebook

  • I didn’t watch Beyonce’s performance. But I have been following some of the discussion on it. There is one point that’s been made about how people perceive female sexuality vs. how they perceive male sexuality that I don’t agree with. It’s this idea that folks who are critical of Beyonce’s attire and dancing are not critical of male performers who sexualize their performances. I think that might be true of some people, but to make it sound like the rule is erroneous and too simplistic.

    I think it is perfectly alright to be prudish, and to have a problem with the way Beyonce dances or dresses on stage. Personally, I’m not thrilled about the fact that the American music industry seems to demand that most female performers should be half-clothed and overtly sexual in order to sell their music, even when male musicians performing the same genres are not expected to do the same. On those occasions when male performers are forced into a similar mold, I am not thrilled about it. I don’t say “It’s different when men do it.” I am critical about it. I may be prudish on this issue, but I am consistent in my prudishness. I also think that we risk losing sight of historical truths when we overemphasize the “female empowerment” aspect of Beyonce’s performance. The historical truths I am referring to here include the fact that many (perhaps most) female performers don’t have a range of options to choose from when it comes to their onstage personas.

    • I think we do need to talk about those limited options. Definitely. I don’t think it’s prudish to wish that other options for empowerment existed. I’m just saying let’s not have this discussion by slut shaming Beyonce.

  • fly

    I’d love it if you did an article on “The Sexy Lie” by Caroline Heldman. It made me a little confused and I’m trying to work out how I feel about it, so your insights would help!


  • Laura

    You said it! And you said it so well. I loved Beyonce’s performance. I whooped and danced right along with her, just like I dance along on the street when she plays on my iPod. But I never knew how to counter those people who accused her of being oversexualized. Thank you for your points. I will use them well. Because Bey is powerful — an amazing kind of power.

    If you don’t mind, I might quote/link you on my own blog, on a post I’m planning about feminism soon.

  • Perfectly stated! You basically touched on everything I was feeling. I LOVED Beyonce’s performance (which I hunted down to watch because I was hearing so many critiques). I thought she was awesome, sexy, powerful, independent, talented, and just all-around an amazing woman. At the same time I still think we need to talk about how the music industry tends to limit women’s “power” expressions to sexuality. Being confident in your sexuality as a woman shouldn’t be a “power move.” It should just be a normal part of being human. And there are so many other things that women can and should be able to do to show off their talents. But just because the music industry tends to be hyper-sexualized DOESN’T mean that a woman who celebrates her sexuality during a musical performance is bad. The solution is not to cut out sexuality as an aspect of being human but to try to find a balance that manages to celebrate and acknowledge women as sexual beings as well as intelligent beings, creative beings, emotional beings, strong beings, etc. And yes, the way men choose to view women (and I emphasize choose) is never the woman’s fault. I don’t care if Beyonce was stark naked or covered from head to toe, she still wouldn’t be an object and she still wouldn’t be responsible for how men view her. Thanks for this post!

  • Anonymous

    yo… I am a guy. This may sound crazy but… I love every thing a woman wears… the word sexy… just think about it… whether or not it is used towards a girl or a guy… it still means the same thing. Whether men think one thing or another is irrelevant to you.. your arguing with the English language.. nobody can win that argument.

    • I….I have no idea what you’re saying to me right now.

      • Ashlee


  • This was fantastic and a great response to everyone who was saying that we couldn’t label her performance as feminist. It brings back to me a lot of the sentiments from the book “To Be Real” by Rebecca Walker in that feminists tend to be the ones who end up hyper-policing what feminism is and who can be a “good” feminist that we kill a movement we created! Love it. Thank you!

  • shsinger

    Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen MacRae, Sarah Vaughn and dozens of other truly gfited and talented black and white female vocalists didn’t need to parade around half naked and flaunt their sexuality to get people to listen to them sing. Beyonce for all of her real talent demeans herself and her artistry performing like this. All part of the dumming down of America to the basest human values and instincts. If I want to look at hot sexually desirable women, I can find plenty of porn on the Internet. I don’t need to see it during the half-time of a football game.

    • “basest human values and instincts?” Says who?

      • Ever see Barbara Streisand walk onto a stage dressed like Beyonce? Never happened. People with real talent aren’t pandering to a bunch of silly men having fantasies about banging them or dumb ass females that want to be them. Beyonce, Britney Spears and others obviously think that no one would listen to them sing unless they’re strutting around looking like street hookers. If that’s your idea of talent and entertainment, more power to you. Like I said, if I want to look at hot naked women, I can find a lot better than Beyonce on the Internet. If she and the others like her can’t sing with clothes on, maybe they should consider themselves Las Vegas showgirls and not serious entertainers.

  • Sarah Nickerson

    Sarah-this was a beautifully worded post, thank you! I was mesmerized by the entire performance. Her vocals, her dancing, the staging, all the technical aspects were really outstanding! What I have always loved about Beyonce is that she doesn’t “use” any one aspect of herself to entertain-she is a total package. She is is drop-dead gorgeous, yes, and the costumers were creative and pretty brilliant in showcasing that, but more than anything she is an artist. An artist with many brushes. The idea that she wants to use them all on stage should be applauded! It saddens me to hear so much un-constructive criticism. No on can possibly argue that her performance was lacking, no one! What she wore, how she moved–all forms of self-expression. Her show left me feeling more powerful and inspired than anything in recent memory.

    Thanks again for your post. Hopefully some critics will see it, and may it give them pause. Bravo.

  • “Many said that Beyoncé objectified herself because of the way she was dressed and the way she danced.”

    How can one objectify one’s self? I thought the very definition of objectification was about the viewer de-humanizing the person they’re viewing (however they might be viewing them). Or is my undergrad degree failing me here?

    Also, I have often wondered how one can be sexy and NOT be objectified? As soon as we step into the world, we are under threat of objectification by others.

  • Anonymous

    I find it hilarious that the objectification of this woman was IMMEDIATELY labeled out loud as “… what was she wearing?” – the first question anyone asks after a woman is raped. Funny how nobody asks men what THEY were wearing – ever. Beyonce is wearing what she wants to wear – no more – and men assume it is for them. That’s male-chauvinism to the max; they assume Beyonce has a message, that it is a sexual come-on, and that it is for THEM. How egocentric!

    I was told by a Muslim woman that many times, when a bride is about to be wedded to her (arranged) fiance, there will be a night-before ritual, sort of like a ‘bachelor party’ for the woman; it is only for females and already-married women will attend. At that function, one of the married women will undress somewhat, down to clothing where the shape of her body can be seen, and that woman will dance seductively in front of the bride. She will excite the woman and give her a taste of the sexuality that can be awakened in her own body. It’s meant to teach her what kind of feelings she should strive for and even a little bit of how to act, shown by implicit but obvious acts on the part of the dancer. This dance is NOT for men. This dance is women talking to other women ONLY.

    I did not see the half-time show, but from what I’ve heard and read, it seems like Beyonce was celebrating being a woman and enjoying her empowerment in her womanhood. Sounds like a big confidence feel-good fest. And if any of the men in the audience felt that she was dancing TO HIM, SPECIFICALLY, he is nuts. Beyonce does not want to go to bed with you, asshole. Her message is not for you.
    What was she wearing? Does that mean “she was asking for it?” OMG – all the men who didn’t get this need to take a class or something. Maybe from the Gender Studies part of the curriculum? If a woman dances about power, about being alive, about her love for someone else, about just the coolness of being female – it doesn’t mean she wants to screw you. If you think she was personally inviting you to meet her in the dressing room after the show, you are SICK.

  • Mae Evergreen

    After reading the article and comments, there is only one idea that no one addressed, that I was thinking. This success may be wonderful for Beyonce and she may feel good about what she’s doing. But, it doesn’t make me feel good that after people watch her, they expect me to look, dress, and behave like her. I really don’t want to, and I don’t like the comparison and expectations that begin to arise in the minds of people. Afterall, the fashion industry and what women are told they’re supposed to wear is based on music and television media in America. The reason a woman would be called “frumpy” or “unsexy” is because she’s being compared to other women that she doesn’t want to be–a standard that has arisen that tells women: “You have to look like this to be desired!” and then they point to Beyonce, Madonna, Britney Spears. I don’t want to be any of those women and I don’t want to be compared to them. Thinking that a woman won’t be expected to look and dress in certain ways and still be desirable is just too idealistic. The fashion industry couldn’t exist if women weren’t constantly following what they’re being told is the best way to look, and there wouldn’t be so many wealthy plastic surgeons, either. And, don’t forget that people like Beyonce are performers, for your entertainment. Most of the time they don’t write their own songs or choose their own clothes and make up. Beyonce likes to perform, she likes to sing, and she likes being wealthy and famous. I’m not so certain that she’s a model revolutionary for female empowerment.

    • Mae Evergreen

      And, don’t forget that at one time, the women that are being called “frumpy” were following the fashion trends of a time period that just isn’t current. I am so very tired of everything having some kind of sexual element–whether it makes people happy or angry, or geared up with some sociopolitical idea–I wish people would talk about and do something else once in a while…

  • Jay

    If you like it then you better put a ring on it? Objectification in all its non glory.
    Everyone needs to stop treating Beyonce like a saint.