Bikini activism: When sexual objectification and 'consciousness-raising' collide

“Sex” sells… or so we’re told. Repeatedly. Contemporary advertising in the West is saturated with references to “sex” (i.e., women’s bodies) — used to sell everything from car tires to baby clothes. But more recently, the “sex sells” mantra has become a part of men’s political education – wherein the sexualization of women’s bodies is used to “raise awareness” about broader social and cultural issues.

Last month, the G20 Summit was held in Brisbane, Australia, attracting a large group of protesters and journalists from all over the world. Among the sea of photographers, bystanders and anti-Putin banners, a young woman – looking out of place holding a microphone, wearing nothing but a striped bikini and flip flops – was filmed asking protesters about their thoughts on the state of global politics. (Note: As hot as it gets in Brisbane – bikini journalism is not part of the norm.)

The woman in question, who goes by the pseudonym “Janaye,” was part of a video called “G20 Hot Exposure,” promoted by Australian website Aussie Beach TV. Her interview with bystanders, which went viral, is one of a series of clips on the Aussie Beach TV website which features various women in bikinis asking members of the public (mostly men) questions about a range of topics, including marijuana reform and the dangers of genetically-modified crops.

Lead by entertainer Jack Russell the Bogan, whose real name is Markus Forest, the “G20 Hot Exposure” video was (supposedly) intended to get Australian men “off the couch” and on to the streets, discussing politics. In an excerpt from the Courier-Mail, Forest comments on the fact that his consciousness-raising methods are not to everybody’s tastes:

There’s always going to be that 10 per cent of the population that’s going to have a bit of problem with a girl showing off her body… We stand up for those people’s rights to disagree. But the guys come over and they listen, and then all of a sudden they’re paying a bit of attention, and the girls are paying a bit of attention. If I can just make political and social issues — that kind of chit-chat — more popular, well I believe that’s a success.

Forest is not alone in his assumption that the sexualization of women can be used to “raise awareness.” He joins a long list of organizations that use women’s bodies as political mouthpieces – often to the detriment of women as a class. Animal rights groups like PETA are renowned for promoting sexualized images of women in order to draw attention to their campaigns. Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, points out that, in an attempt to protect animals, PETA dehumanizes women.

Why is it ok to objectify women but not animals? The message is both hypocritical and dangerous.

How does the denigration of an oppressed social group educate the masses about global politics or promote positive social change? Before we excitedly sign up for the “objectification revolution,” let’s take a look at how the sexualization of women has been problematized in the academic literature.

According to psychological researcher Rachel Calogero, sexual objectification is characterised by “gazing or leering at women’s bodies, making sexual comments about women, whistling or honking at women, taking unsolicited photographs of women’s bodies, presenting sexualized images of women in media or pornography, sexually harassing women, and engaging in sexual violence against women.” While men can technically be sexually objectified by women and other men, the vast majority of sexual objectification experiences involve men objectifying women.

Feminist writers over the last four decades have been instrumental in challenging sexually objectifying attitudes and practices. In Woman Hating, Andrea Dworkin says the process of turning women into sex objects is the first step towards justifying violence against them. Dworkin explains that if women are viewed as a series of parts rather than a whole person, such as a pair of breasts or buttocks, then inflicting violence upon them becomes easier to justify. Sandra Lee Bartky also describes sexual objectification as a form of dehumanization in Femininity and Domination. She explains that turning women into sex objects disciplines them into a state of submission, teaching them to monitor their appearance and behaviours in order to suit harmful cultural norms. Sexual objectification is thus a way of denigrating women as a class.

Psychological researchers also argue that sexual objectification is harmful, and that self-objectification — the process of internalizing the unwanted male gaze — contributes to psychological problems among women. A vast and growing body of psychological literature has found links between self-objectification and the development of severe psychopathology, such as eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. Rather than being confined to young, heterosexual white women, researchers suggest that sexual and self-objectification affects women of all ages, ethnicities, and sexual orientations in a detrimental way. Unsurprisingly, sexual and self-objectification practices have also been linked to women’s lack of engagement in gender-related social activism, meaning that women who self-objectify are less likely to question the patriarchal status quo that keeps them subordinated to begin with.

Despite the long list of adverse social, cultural, physical, and psychological consequences of sexual objectification on women’s lives, media platforms like Aussie Beach TV continue using women’s bodies to “educate” the public. But are their methods actually effective? Are we really supposed to believe that bikini reporting actually works? Are men starting to enthusiastically pick themselves up off the sofa and become politically engaged because of the presence of cleavage? A cursory scroll down to the comments section of the news articles reporting on the “G20 Hot Exposure” video would suggest not. Some of the “political” responses generated by the stunt include: “Boing,” “MMM hot slut,” and “I’d like to cream her pie.” Budding activists in the making, amirite?

Using women’s bodies to further a political agenda contributes to the oppression of women as a class. Not only is it not our responsibility to educate men about the dangers of global warming with our breasts, but it is offensive to suggest that members of the public are so stupid that they need to see breasts in order to care about, understand, and address global warming to begin with.

Regardless of how supposedly “happy” women are to “freely” participate in “bikini activism,” the objectification of the female body for the purposes of “consciousness-raising” is counterproductive to the feminist movement and to the goal of gender equality. If you need a woman’s bikini-clad body to draw attention to plight of animals or the dangers of genetically-modified food, then the audience you’re trying to attract doesn’t care about the substance of your argument to begin with. Besides, why should we care about what some horny bystander thinks about the state of global politics? It’s clear he has no vested interest in creating a better world and has too little blood left in his brain to figure out how to proceed on that mission even if he wanted to.

Natalie Jovanovski is a PhD Candidate and Feminist Researcher from Melbourne, Australia. Her research interests include the harms of sexual objectification, the cultural reinforcement of eating disorders, and the discursive portrayal of food in contemporary Western media. 


Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.