What makes a woman sexy? Is it showing as much skin as possible, her walk-in wardrobe of luxury lingerie, or maybe her superhuman ability to bend into back-breaking poses for Instagram? Or is it something more mysterious and enigmatic, like a certain look, a sultry smile, or even just a state of mind?
Under the guise of empowerment, popular culture often reduces women’s sexuality to how much skin they show or how overtly sexual they are. From Kim Kardashian’s naked selfie being praised as a “powerful act of empowerment and self-love” to Cardi B telling young girls “I want you to feel that empowerment, like you could do that,” while singing about thots, bitches, and whores in this house, these days young women are internalizing the idea that the only way to feel desirable and liberated is by hyper-sexualizing themselves.
Women are internalizing the idea that the only way to feel desirable is by hyper-sexualizing themselves.
But is this really all it comes down to? Is women’s sexuality really nothing more than thongs, twerking, and topless photos? Or have we forgotten the various shades and subtleties of female sex appeal?
The Allure of Mystery
Much of the feminine allure lies in mystery. The ancient archetype of the femme fatale, for example, which exists in the art, myths, and folklore of many cultures across the world, is “always associated with a sense of mystification, and unease." The femme fatale (“lethal woman”) is a natural and feminine woman who harnesses a darkness and destruction behind her allure. She uses her feminine irresistibility — her beauty, charm, and sexual prowess — to enchant men, leaving them hypnotized and dumbfounded in her wake. Consider the sirens in Greek mythology, who use their beauty and seductive voices to draw in and captivate weak men.
This doesn’t mean that women should be evil seductresses, but part of the power of a woman’s sexuality lies in her mysteriousness and complexity.
Instagram, OnlyFans, and Hyper-Sexualization
And yet, popular culture today seems intent on shattering all sense of mystery and intrigue around female sexuality. As a result, social media sites like Instagram are now inundated with hyper-sexualized content as young girls try to emulate what they see glorified in the media, in the film and music industry, and on the feeds of their favorite influencers.
Popular culture shatters all sense of mystery and intrigue around female sexuality.
By analyzing the Instagram content of 172 female influencers, one study describes the dominance of a “narrow and repetitive ideal of sexiness and sexual availability bounded by porn chic – a modality of sexualization. That is, body poses, gestures, and stylistic choices (e.g. clothing) highlight a fairly consistent mainstream, pornified aesthetic embodied by influencers in our study, ranging from softer to more explicit.” Sexiness today has lost all nuance and subtlety – it’s become nothing but the same empty aesthetic.
This goes further than social media, too. Websites like OnlyFans, which surged in popularity during the pandemic, are praised for empowering women by enabling them to sell their exclusive nude photos and videos to men online.
Of course, adult women can do what they want and are free to make their own choices. But the problem is: are they participating in this culture because they’ve been sold the idea that the only way to be sexy and attractive is to reveal more of themselves? Have they been convinced by society that this is empowering, when really it can be dangerous and may even be psychologically harmful? And how does all of this hyper-sexualization affect the underage girls growing up immersed in it?
Pressure on Young Girls
There’s huge pressure on young girls today to present themselves in increasingly sexualized ways. Social media is the strongest predictor of posting self-sexualized photos, with more sexualized pictures garnering more likes than less sexualized ones. And, worryingly, nearly 70% of 11 to 14 year olds are on one or more social networks.
These girls are growing up inundated by seductive online images, music videos that are becoming more and more explicit, and celebrities who present the path to “empowerment” as paved with twerking TikToks and nude selfies. What’s more, young girls constantly see influencers being rewarded for this kind of content: securing brand deals, sponsorships, likes, followers, and even money from strangers. All of this normalizes the idea that girls need to reveal more of themselves to feel desirable or liberated.
A third of Twitter users today advertising their explicit images online are under 18.
We can already see the impact of this on very young girls. Take the rise of child influencers like the 7-year-old dancer, YouTuber, and TikTok star Everleigh Soutas. Everleigh’s mother started sharing photos and videos of her at the age of 3, and she now has over 4 million subscribers. Apparently, the 7 year old’s feed “resembles those of older celebrities looking to please: subjective poses in swimming costumes, very short shorts” and “deep necklines.”
Even more disturbingly, a third of Twitter users today advertising their explicit images with hashtags like “nudes4sale” or “buymynudes” are under 18. But is this really that surprising, when everywhere young Gen Z girls look women are reduced to their bodies?
What infuriates me is the influencers and celebrities who preach about the importance of mental health, while also presenting female sexuality in such a one-sided way – as if the only way to be desirable and attractive is by posing in lacy lingerie, saving up for breast implants, and selling nude videos online. Is this really a healthy message to send to younger audiences? Have they even considered that this could be a reason why rates of mental illness among Gen Z girls are soaring?
This hyper-sexual culture perpetuates the objectification of women and corrupts the idea of authentic love.
Websites like OnlyFans are also promoted by celebrities as if they come with no dangers or concerns. But, in reality, many women report feeling traumatized by OnlyFans and pressured to reveal more and more of themselves. One woman claims that she still can’t sleep after a “fan” came to her workplace and waited outside for her. Worryingly, another woman revealed to Refinery29 that she “receives messages from other underage girls wanting advice on how to create content like hers.”
Not only can these sites harm young girls, but this hyper-sexual culture perpetuates the objectification of women and corrupts my generation’s idea of authentic love and real-life connection. While young girls feel the need to emulate these provocative images, young boys constantly exposed to them may also internalize the idea that women are objects of sex. As feminist Camille Paglia puts it: “The current surplus of exposed flesh in the public realm has led to a devaluation of women and, paradoxically, to sexual ennui.”
Women’s Sexuality Is Deeper Than This
Is this really where we wanted female empowerment to lead? Is glorifying OnlyFans and putting this much pressure on young girls to expose themselves really consistent with our plea not to be objectified?
Social media and OnlyFans exhibitionism have killed the mystique of feminine sensuality and sexuality.
Social media and OnlyFans exhibitionism have killed the mystique of feminine sensuality and sexuality. They promote only one version of “sexy”, disregarding the nuances of female sexuality. But we’re more valuable than that – and our sexual power is deeper than that. As Camille Paglia writes, “Visual illiteracy is spreading: It is sadly obvious that few young people have seen classic romantic films or studied the spectacular corpus of Hollywood publicity stills, with their gorgeous sensual allure.”
We shouldn’t tell women what to do with their bodies. But, wouldn’t it be healthier to teach young women that sexiness doesn’t have to come from revealing themselves online? That they don’t have to sexualize themselves in order to be considered attractive or worthy of attention? Shouldn’t we start celebrating the power of mystery again, and show that women can be sexy simply through the subtlest raise of an eyebrow or a seductive smile?
None of this is to shame women, but to emphasize that, by presenting hyper-sexualization as empowering, modern culture not only normalizes the objectification of women but places unbelievable pressure on young girls.
Instead, we should strive to show young women that sexuality doesn’t have to be about revealing more and more skin or being overtly sexual. In fact, the power of women's sexuality often lies in the not-shown and the not-spoken. This doesn’t mean that women have to be prudish or puritanical, but it’s important to remember that the sexiest aspect of a woman may simply be the way she talks, the magnetism of her eye contact, or even just the way she holds herself.
Ultimately, I think we need to remind young women that their sexual power isn’t determined by likes online or validation from strangers behind a screen. The power of female sexuality lies in the mysterious, the captivating, and the enigmatic. The secret to sexiness lies within you and your feminine energy – not luxury lingerie, boob jobs, or revealing selfies. What could be more empowering than that?
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